Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An Advertisement For Poetry

Shakespeare's sonnet 23 is an advertisement for poetry:

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharged with burden of mine own love's might.
O, let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more express'd.
O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.

When it comes to love, it's easy for us to foul it up. Meeting someone face-to-face we can say the wrong things or nothing at all; we can do the wrong things or nothing at all, overwhelmed by our own passion. Writing, though is a considered art and perhaps a surer one; and poets spend much of their art considering love. For poets, love is "not only a crucial, but an indispensable experience" (Arendt); sonnet 23, properly understood, is therefore a key to unlocking all of Shakespeare's art: even those sonnets that aren't specifically about love dwell on the living intensity of human experience, the practice of 'living in the moment'.
   In his closing couplet, the poet reminds us that eyes can 'hear'; poets also know that face-to-face eyes can do other things too:

                                                      15th March

                                          When I left that building

                                          I didn't expect to see you

                                          sitting outside on the wall.

                                          Our eyes continued the interest

                                          they've shown for some weeks now.

                                          We talked.

                                          Friends noticed us talking.

                                          We talked.

                                          Friends commented on our talking.

                                          We talked.

                                          And our eyes began to kiss.

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