Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Last Poem du Jour

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Good friends:

This will be the last entry in this blog. I've run through all 99 surviving emails (yes! this one is Old Hundredth!) and while I would be perfectly content to go on writing light prose about good poems forever, it simply wouldn't be the responsible thing to do. I have a living to make and literary immortality to earn. So I can't afford to indulge myself.

As a farewell, however, I thought I'd break with precedent and write an original letter covering something that wasn't discussed in any of the emails to Sean and his friends. Here it is, and a great poem, too. It's from William Shakespeare's The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Lovely stuff, innit? The play becomes life, the world becomes the Globe, and in a handful of words Shakespeare renders the essential tragedy of human life beautiful. It's yet another poem that I'm tempted to simply put before your eyes and then silently step back from without comment.

But the formula for this series of letters has been simple: The poem is presented in a non-threatening way. The reader is encouraged to simply read it and let the words wash over him or her, without getting too analytical about it. And then I drop in some easy tid-bit of insight into the poem which any English major would know already, but is worth hearing nonetheless. Followed, sometimes, by a light observation taken from my own life, and then something not entirely dissimilar to a moral.

Here's the tid-bit: The poem doesn't exist in the above form in the play itself. It's part of a speech which in its entirety goes:

PROSPERO.
You do look, my son, in a mov'd sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.--Sir, I am vex'd:
Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled.
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity.
If you be pleas'd, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.

Wait! Wait! you say. Do I mean to say that the first excerpt isn't really a poem? Not a bit of it. Shakespeare was a poet and so he would write poems and then place them into the speeches and dialogue of his lowbrow hackwork. (What you and I would call the immortal and divinely inspired blah blah blah. Shakespeare wrote plays because he needed to earn a living. Given an independent income, he probably would have stuck entirely to verse.)

And here's the autobiographical bit: I swiped the poem and dumped it whole into the end of my novel Bones of the Earth, to make explicit what I was doing there. Which is to say I was using the poem for my own practical purposes, exactly as Shakespeare did when he included it in The Tempest.

Finally, here's the lesson I want you to take from this: Poems are useful things. They can give you courage. They can make you look witty. They can help you punch up a monologue in your lastest play. Pick one up the way your Australopithecine ancestors might have picked up a stick or a rock. Then use it as a tool. To what purpose is entirely up to you.

Now I take my bow.

Good night,
Michael

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2 comments:

Markin said...

[applause applause]

If I hadn't read your books, I'd be tempted to suggest you drop the day-job, though, and keep the poetry exegesis going. [laughter] Nah, seriously: I am going to miss it. I am grateful to you for writing this series and putting it online, and to Sean for needing it.

As for Bones of the Earth ... it is, as I hope you are aware, sitting on the shelves of the Vertebrate Palaeontology library at the Smithsonian. Catalogued it myself, I did. :)

Michael Swanwick said...

I'm extremely glad to hear that. Particularly since it means that Ralph Chapman's old office in the Smithsonian is preserved for posterity.

Back to work with me! The novel needs to be written.