≡ Menu


In many of the pieces I’ve turned in for a Creative Writing class, they’ve been returned with red ink underlining the first line, usually with comments like “This needs to have more impact” or “How does this draw in the reader?” Plus, there’s always one class period dedicated entirely to the crafting of the first line. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if these first sentences are really the best ways to open this article.

The first lines of our poems can promise us interested audience or convince them our work is worth skipping over. From what I’ve learned from my studies so far, a good opening grabs a reader’s attention. I’ve also seen from my own reading that trying too hard to get their notice can make the lines feel forced and serve as a worse opening than something more generic.

This emphasis in my classes and the complexity of first lines I’ve experienced in my own writing led me to wonder what truly makes a great first line and what people’s favorite first lines are. I took to THEthe’s tumblr and twitter page to ask our followers.

Some of our responses were from our reader’s own poems:


Others responded with some published and famous works:


While I had read some of these poems before this gave me the opportunity to look up many of these poems. What I noticed was that many of these first lines left a strong visual image along with an emotional connection, most notably love or sadness. An image by itself in an opening can be memorable, as in one of our followers’ original poem, which compares cervical mucus to egg whites. This also gives a bit a mystery to beginning of the piece because although the bodily fluid obviously will relate somehow, the reader must read more to find out what’s going on in in the piece. It can sometimes be difficult to pull out extraordinary descriptions but simpler image may be more readily available. In this case, it may be more effective to juxtapose the image with a strong emotion that isn’t usually associated with that image. For example, one follower mentioned the opening to Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris.” While the image of a door is not all that exciting, and certainly not very memorable, when combined with the feeling of suffering the lines become a powerful combination that pulls the reader in. Sorrow isn’t typically a feeling one would think of alongside something as typical as a door, and by putting them together the poet creates interest.

Still there are other amazing poetic openings not mentioned by our followers, but still are worth examining. For instance, Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, begins with “Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” While this line doesn’t meet either of the characteristics previously mentioned, it does give the reader (or in the case was for Homer’s audience: the listener) an immediate sense of what the following story is about. We learn that our main character is smart, strong, and a veteran of the famous battle of Troy. We also know that this story will be about his journey after the battle, and that it will be a long journey. Also, Milton’s Paradise Lost opens by telling the readers what they are about to experience. The first book opens with “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe.” It is becomes obvious to the reader within these first few lines that the tale will be about Adam and Eve and their infamous story of the origin of sin. Neither of these poems open with bold imagery or obvious emotional connections, but they are still regarded as iconic and beautiful first lines. There is something in the simplicity of these lines, along with those of other epic poems, which are inviting to a reader. These lines seduce the reader with the promise of an adventure or tale, which the reader then gets to experience vicariously through the poet and the characters in the poem. There is also this hint of a narrative in the lyrical first lines. It may not be as direct as epic poems, but it is there in an unusual image, or evocative phrase. Look again at the Louise Gluck’s line. Both the suffering and the door promise a story of some sort, one of an upsetting past and the other of a hopeful future.  However, there is a lack of immediacy in epic poems that is present in lyrical poetry.

This easily explained by the difference in lengths between these exceptionally longer epic poems and the shorter lyrical pieces. Epic poetry has many chapters, in some cases books, in which to ease the reader into a scene and topic of a story. Meanwhile, lyrical poems have less space available and must get to the essential parts of the scene immediately. Shorter works from the same time periods as Homer and Milton have similar first lines to modern lyrical poetry.

There is also a sense of intimacy in the openings of lyrical poetry that is lacking in the epic poems. Homer’s work addresses the muses in the first line, seemingly talking to a third party. The epic poem begins with holding the reader at a distance, although it invites them to read the story. Lyrical poetry is more personal and usually addresses a “you” or “we”, even in the first lines of the poems. These lines give the allusion that the poet is speaking directly to the reader.  Whoever the poem is about served as a sort of “muse” to the poet and that’s who they are truly addressing, but the language gives the sense that it can be about anyone, including the reader.

Thanks to all of our followers who responded!


Cassette Sonnet [click to continue…]

The following is from a series of Pi Poems, or Cadae—the alphabetical equivalent of the first five digits of Pi (3.1415).

Pi is a transcendental number that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter approximately equal to 3.1415926535897.

In poetry, it has been used as the basis for a syllabic form that obeys the following distribution of syllables and stanza lengths, resulting (by line length) in a kind of sonnet:

xxx __________(3)
x ____________(1)___________ } 3
xxxx _________(4)

x ____________(1)___________ } 1

xxxxx ________(5)
xxxxxxxxx ____(9)
xx ___________(2)___________ } 4
xxxxxx _______(6)

xxxxx ________(5)___________ } 1

xxx __________(3)
xxxxx ________(5)
xxxxxxxx _____(8)___________ } 5
xxxxxxxxx ____(9)
xxxxxxx ______(7)


from Cadae: The Pi Poems


The music
for a moment


when we began
to savor in its absence silence—
again, maybe a bit

louder than before

or maybe
we only heard it
as such, a sudden intrusion
we had previously not noticed
and this is what disturbed us.


No matter
the city gays


confess their scene is
a sad huddle of hopeless bottoms
each one
wishing for some dream top

to plough him senseless—

an Eden
understood only
by those first barred who with an air
of almost tragic boredom insist
their loss is epidemic.


body you would


to fuck then try to
find this body somewhere in the world
and while
you look and encounter

as you are bound to

one disappointment
after another imagine
just how thin and stripped of incident
your life would be otherwise

Tony Leuzzi is a writer and teacher living in Rochester, NY. His second book of poems, Radiant Losses, won the New Sins Editors’ Prize. In November 2012, BOA Editions will release Passwords Primeval, a book of interviews with twenty American poets.


Bat & Man: A Sonnet Comic Book by Chad Parmenter and Mark Cudd (illus.)

I picked up Bat & Man amid my own recent bat-craze. The full trailer for The Dark Knight Rises had just gone viral; I was knee-deep in a run-through of Arkham City; I was even following The Batman on Twitter @God_Damn_Batman. But the Batman mythology, despite films that provide luscious arcs of his formative years and a video game that includes pretty much every character, is a minimalist one. This is the nature of a mythology, to always only provide snippets of a far vaster cosmos, regardless of the size and depth of any individual narrative and the number of tellers who take up the tale.  Batman’s, for all intents and purposes, is perhaps the distinctly American mythology. While Superman inspires with his perfection, and the Marvel heroes prance around in more and more ridiculous scenarios, Batman is, well, Bat and Man, a paragon of flawed redemption and ambitious idealism. He is the stone-faced cowboy, the gothic Ahab of the modern age, the manifestation of the American apocalyptic id, who transcends and defies a socioeconomic system that limits righteousness. He is almost completely silent, his message the persistent enactment of retributive violence cloaked as justice.

He straddles the border between genius and madness, and the Joker brings this dichotomy to bear on Batman’s consciousness time and again. His life is a nightmare, the self-preserving lie to the Joker’s horrifying truth, as Zizek so cleverly put it. Chad Parmenter picks up the mythology with a literal nightmare of Batman’s own origins, an autobiographical spin on the roots of myth in the vein of good poetic work on superheroes by Bryan Dietrich and others. The poem, indeed the sonnet, may be the perfect vehicle for such a project, given its inherent minimalism and gesture toward unseen depth.

The book’s structure is subtle and unique. The narrative proper begins with “Hey Bruce. Wake up. You’re shrieking in your sleep.” It doesn’t surprise us that the source of this easy nonchalance is Selina Kyle, a.k.a., Catwoman, who happens to be sharing Bruce’s bed at the moment. Their banter exhibits the curtness and simultaneity of comic-book speak, back and forth within single lines like panels: “We should wait./No. Tell. But it’s a nightmare. Do your worst./You’ll learn too much. I’ll live. This one will haunt/your catnaps. Spill it. I’m too curious./It started by the bay. My parents…spawned” (his ellipsis).  Thus commences Batman’s narrative of the nightmare of a counterfactual upbringing, in which he is literally fathered by bats:

What did you dream then, sobbing in a ball?
That mother knew there was no boy inside
her body. Not so much as human cells
evolved there. Doctors – jokers. Tried to tell
her what was kicking in there was a child.

She felt me – bat. With feather ears, with eyes
like night lights, I would spy. With spindle nails
for fingers, I would scratch for freedom. Sails
of budding wings I’d flutter, and she’d die

before she let me out.

This is a twisted darkness commensurate with this universe. Note the element of dialogue here. Just as the above excerpt begins with an inquiry from Selina, so does each page of the book, to which a poem is the reply. The table of contents cleverly arranges these questions into a sort of found poetry of its own.

From his mother’s insemination (which is mythological in its bestiality. Later in the book Bruce describes a party in which he is “disguised as Zeus, disguised as swan”) we proceed through Bruce’s early years shrouded in martial imagery:

The nursery I was raised in – arsenal,
where suits of armor rusted to their swords
and soldered armies swarmed before their lord,/myself.

And his parents’ murder:

He squared/his shoulders. Tom did? Yes. Then the dark cursed
and birthed a fire. Roar. Star that ate his shirt
and burst. She howled “You bastard.” Mother? Heard

her lurch. Another fire. Roar.
Star that
so bright, so long, I saw her – mask with ink
_____through its cracks. The killer? Spliced
himself into the city night. Erased
_____me. Who did? Mother. Father. Shh. Close your eyes.”

Thus ends the “Bat” section of the book. The irony here resides in the fact that while the Batman origin story typically goes from man to Batman, here the order is reversed. Bruce is always already part bat, and learns to become a man in the sections “&” and “Man.” “&” depicts his upbringing in orphanages, in which visions of his father as a bat (“vampire father”) haunt his sleepless nights (“I stayed awake. He stayed in hell”). It was here that he embraced his identity and birthed his obsession with vigilante justice. Not before he endured a period of self-medication, “A year/I spent in articles I had to scan/to fabricate the night before,” what we are led to believe is the “&” portion of Bruce Wayne’s life.

“Man” begins with the accident that shaped Bruce’s destiny, in which a Halloween party at Wayne manor is interrupted by a swarm of bats, which catch fire by torches lighting the lawn. One becomes tangled in Bruce’s date’s hair: “The more/she fought, the tighter it was caught. It lit/her scalp. You put it out?  I tried. I…poured/my drink on her. Oh god. The fire caught/and spread. She sputtered ‘Zeus,’ my dying star.” It is here that Selina reminds us (actually, we do need reminding. Bruce’s story is sordid, but not unlike a believable Batman origin tale) to “Calm down, dear. It’s just one more nightmare. Right?” Right? Bruce then describes his guilty flight into hiding, out of the public eye, at which point Selina realizes that “This really happened. I remember. You went underground.” This subtle blend of fact with dream nicely underscores the tone of the whole account: this very well may have happened, all things considered. Bruce’s telling concludes with an image of the discovery of the Bat Cave, which we may in this case call hell. In a drunken stupor around the darkened mansion

I’d found a door. It couldn’t, must/
be Father’s cellar door. Lit up. With what?
An orange glow was pulsing from inside.
I had to break it. Bad bat. “Sorry, Dad,”
I prayed, and kicked the frame. Again. It burst,

Exhaled a veil of smoke. Behind it, floor –
but no. I must have been insane. Why? Where I set my feet was just a shaft of air
descending to a monolithic pyre
how many hundred feet below. It snared

Selina comforts him, in a nice elision over two pages, with “Then I woke you back into the here/and now. Your dream is Batman’s memory.” This declaration is appropriately vague. Myths float in the zone between dream and memory, a collective vision of the origin and manifestation of our cultural anxieties. But the book ends in comic book fashion, with some more banter between lovers, on a short-lived break between stints as hero/anti-hero:

You’re just a boy. I’m more than that. You’re Bat—
I’m what? You’re bad, I said. Okay. Hey. Lie
here next to me some more, and we’ll forget
that nightmare life you’ve spun for me. I’d like
that, but I can’t. That sound, under the bed?
My phone. I have to go. Then so do I.
__________________________Goodnight. Good bat.

There is some interesting paratext here, too. “Bat” and “&” begin with epigraphs that are so serendipitously spot-on that the sections may have been inspired entirely by them. “Bat” opens with lines from Rilke:

And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through the teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.

This perfectly captures the chaos of Bruce’s conception, and Rilke’s image of the bat mirrors that of Batman, whose obsessive “zigzags” taint an otherwise pristine life as Bruce Wayne. “&” begins with lines from John Berryman: “Henry, for joining the human race, is bats,/known to be so, by few them who think,/out of the cave,” introducing a biting pun on Bruce’s underlying insanity.  Mark Cudd’s illustrations that introduce the sections not only embody a portion of the narrative, but convey the general theme. Of particular interest is the diagram that opens “Bat”:

It staunchly conveys the air of contamination and disfigurement that characterizes Bruce’s account of his conception.

The book is also bookended by a pair of sonnets from an external voice. The first, titled “Holy Sonnet for His New Movie,” is a nod toward the odd commercialization of such a dark story. “Your christ in vinyl tights” should generally cause nightmares, but “Don’t you close your eyes to weep/or let them blur with tears; no watering/the roses with your cheeks; he’s glittering/behind these sponsors.” Bat & Man reminds us, however, not to be anesthetized to the real horror. “Sonnet on Selina’s Machine,” the final poem, is literally a voicemail from Batman to Catwoman, an ominous love note:

I need
you to return my call. I swear
your alter ego’s name is safe with me.
I need it that way, need her to stay clear
and skylined on skyscrapers’ tips, to flee

from me, but not this far ahead. I’m near
now, on the fire escape. Pick up. I see
your shadow on the blinds. I hear your purr.

This is a smart delineation between identities. The series proper ends with a willful obfuscation of their true selves (“You’re Bat—I’m what?”). Here, their love is in full bloom, in their own creepily managed way.

In all, Parmenter gets the idea of the dark mythology. His use of ellipsis and punning enjambment and elision creates an air of mystery and deliberate concealment. You definitely don’t need to be a “bat-fan” to get a lot out of this. Maybe that’s the point – it’s also the nature of mythology to slowly but surely seep into the collective consciousness. This is due to a lot of things – ubiquitous exposure, divergent retellings by multiple authors, a clear socio-psychological identification, etc. – but we have here an origin story that is more Ovid than Hollywood.

Here’s a question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

Here’s one that falls in that category for me, “The Doe” by C. K. Williams, a latter-day sonnet:

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.

Now let me qualify “perfect.” I don’t ask perfection to include striking innovation or veining a mine with new nugget. Good thing, because this poem is drippingly conventional. It’s definitely not McHugh-tragicomic or Joron-machine-surreal. It’s no New Sentence or newer freedom. But it does exactly what I was raised to think a poem is supposed to do: make my mouth water discovering its words, make my mind water discovering their meaning, and hurt me. The hurt is key. As the Greeks said, learning is suffering. So here is pain’s perfect translation-as-projection-and-or-illustration, for any deciduous-woods walker process-walking through some anguish or melancholy. Who doesn’t see a deer in the right light and feel all failings come to the fore—yours, the world’s, someone’s in between—especially when something hard has happened? (Maybe hunters don’t, or maybe they do before they don’t.)

But the perfection goes deeper (gets worse) than that. Look at the craft of the thing. From the opening anaphora on, you get the sense that each word was considered on its merits in some plenary session. Each lifted like Larkin’s votive glass of water, to congregate the any-angled light, just so. The brush crackles, the afternoon-oblique sun rakes, the alarm is incipient. Brush echoes dusk’s muffle. “I in disquiet” loudly pleads. “The suffering of someone I loved” quietly rubs. Late, rake, and pain, assonant, hit the final plangent note. There’s also a smart pair of -ings: suffering and reddening, neither too close together to seem contrived, nor too far apart to seem unrelated. And the reddening begins, early in the second stanza, to give us plenty of time to redden further (past Life magazine’s, or 2001’s, baby photo), slowly toward that burgundy finish. Even the word, rest, comes just when a slight pause is needed, to dehisce pain from itself, into pain that pain releases and pain that recognition keeps.

But it’s not just the words that are choice, it’s the movements and symmetries that are seamless. “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” is reflected (in cadence) at the end of the octave by “in a photo of a child in a womb.” Meanwhile “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” zooms in; “Nothing else stirred, not a leaf, / not the air” zooms out. Back at the last two lines, if we separate “the rest” and “stayed” from the rest of the words, as syntax tempts us to, a question presents itself: Which stayed more, the rest or the unrest? Both about equally, the poem answers in its ultra-efficiency.

I feel almost cheated, hoodwinked, like a focus group conspired to write a poem I couldn’t find fault with. So let me return to the opening question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

And what if your idea of perfection makes you worry that you might be pretty boring, at bottom? I could say, well, the innovation here is to need none—to out-Frost Frost, if you like. Yet there’s always something innovative, if you look hard enough. For example, the octave doesn’t hit the sestet with any tension, as it’s usually expected to, but rather with a mild (perhaps mildly tense) stillness. The real tension happens halfway through the sestet, which is visually broken into tercets—to mirror riven pain?

But here’s the thing: I’m bored by trying to convince you, if that’s what I’m doing, that “The Doe” isn’t boring. What have I said beyond that it’s well crafted, emotionally savvy, and (to boot, in the good sense) self-aware? “Boring” isn’t much of an objective criterion, of course. (Boring’s boring apology?) The truth—as it tends to reduce—is that this poem came along when I needed a poem like it, a few years ago, having walked in the woods feeling sorry for a friend, never having thought to imagine my pain as both divided against itself and capable of self-kindness.


Beneath the black jungle palms, monkeys.
They remind me of me, my tools, my cartoon
heart that’s shaped like a heart. Other better animals
are pronounced as being heavenly, in this native island tongue.
I’m not true and I’m not free,
I know I should go somewhere official, somewhere right,
like make my way back to the mainland, get home
from my violet days of taming parrots and sunburn.

If I could slather on my own tame desires
instead of the monkey’s touch while I sleep,
I would not want but still I would burn and for
next to nothing. Some coconut milk, a better name,
this is no way to get back home. There’s time.
Turn black.


Saying the word sonar is satisfying.
During the Cuban Crisis, we smoked sugarcane and
they dropped depth charges by our family home.
I watched one soldier walk into the river and float away.
I barely had time to speak. Little paths above the wheat
pennies strewn there filled with water. Eddies. The industrialist
got on his hands and knees. Short-sighted, he gathered change in.
There was nothing on his mind. Ripples moving through.

A dream so violent I awake actually afraid of myself.
A way of decoding trees. A way to hear the night air.
Somewhere, a low beeping. A sleep-start.
Bring me back to the glory I felt that day when
we only knew the beaches as a liminal space.

Ben Estes, Ben Fama, Ben Kopel, Ben Mirov, and Ben Winkler wrote these poems as part of a collaborative heroic crown. The sonnets and a group erasure of Yeats’ “Under Ben Bulben” are forthcoming as a chapbook.

Don Paterson, the leading contemporary Scottish poet, throughout this book cites previous critical studies of the Sonnets (especially those written by Stephen Booth and Helen Vendler), but when he does it’s almost always to differ from them. Did he expect to get applause or even grudging acceptance from literary scholars? I’m not sure. To the task of exegesis and evaluation, Paterson brings neither academic credentials nor a rigorous critical method but instead a sharp mind, some serious homework, emotional engagement with the topic, a willingness to take risks, and the technical experience of a practicing poet.  Apart from having written sonnets himself, he has translated (or “imitated”) Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and is the editor of the Faber anthology 101 Sonnets. Clearly he has a partisan interest in the form itself and for that reason alone might want to comment on one of its greatest practitioners.

Still, if someone had told me a year ago that we were soon going to see a book in which a contemporary poet would read one of the central works of Shakespeare and assign grades to various parts of it, I wouldn’t have believed it.  To remark that it’s too late for our likes and dislikes to have any effect on the reception of canonical literary works like Shakespeare’s raises a more general question, one that can’t be instantly resolved.  To what extent do the classics belong to our actual, lived experience? How can we make use of them? These questions may sound shocking or naïve, but consider the following. Even if the best of Shakespeare’s sonnets were submitted to magazines today as being the work of a living poet, no editor would publish them.  As for the stage, producers wouldn’t get past the opening scene of Hamlet or King Lear before tossing these plays on the reject pile.  Renaissance or Jacobean English is not what we speak, in fact, we’re almost at the point now when Shakespeare, like Chaucer, requires a translation for new readers coming along.  We know that our response to Shakespeare isn’t and can’t be the same as his original audience’s because the weight and connotation of the words he uses has shifted (and sometimes vanished) since he wrote. Apart from that, no historical reconstruction of the staging and performance of Shakespeare could have the same effect on us as it did for Elizabethan audiences unless our minds, too, could be reconstructed in a 16th century mould. It has always struck me as too blithe when critics say, “Yes, of course we read Dante differently from the way his contemporaries did. It’s in the nature of great literature to support many kinds of responses, each valid for its time.”  But then why, if a literary work is just a Rorschach test whose meaning is nothing more than what we attribute to it, are certain figures (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton) consistently deemed worthwhile occasions for our projected meanings while others (Hesiod, Ennius, Ariosto, Jonson, Marvell) are much less often considered? Besides, if we say that we don’t mind if our way of appreciating Shakespeare differs from his audience’s, we’re implicitly dismissing as irrelevant the actual abilities and targeted efforts of an author who wanted to evoke specific responses.

In fact, it’s the aim of most literary scholarship to reconstruct the mental and verbal compass of classic authors and of their audiences, so that we can measure the success of a given work according to the author’s own aims and, in varying degrees, appreciate that work roughly as its first audience did.  This is the literary equivalent to time travel.  Without the specialist’s literary archeology, we’d have only partial access to any work dating from earlier than the 19th century. Hence Auden’s well-known finger-wagging at Yeats for his poem “The Scholars,” a satire mocking academics who, “Edit and annotate the lines/ That young men, tossing on their beds,/ Rhymed out in love’s despair…”  Auden reminded Yeats’s ghost that without scholars we’d have erroneous texts and mistaken notions about what their authors intended.  Scholars can also inform us about prevailing tastes in the era when a given work was written. For example, dealing with Shakespeare, they can tell us that punning and metaphorical conceits were highly prized during the age of the Virgin Queen. This makes a sharp contrast with our own day, when “the lowest form of humor” is always met with a groan, and audiences experience literary conceits as excruciating artifice, contrary to our demand for seriousness and for discourse that is direct and uncensored.  That same demand would put a low value on the hyperbolic tendencies of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, which, following Petrarch’s lead, hoists praise of the beloved to a level that contemporary taste would find overblown and dishonest.  (Granted, we’re not under oath when we write love poems or epitaphs, but even Shakespeare is aware of the problem, to judge by his sonnet “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” a stab at anti-Petrarchism that, despite its truth-telling aims, seems less successful than its hyperbolic counterparts.)

Once familiar with the earlier standards, do we then enjoy or at least admire Shakespeare’s double-entendres and those elaborate metaphors extended for a dozen lines, along with his promotion of the beloved to quasi-divine status?  The tutored reader can, I think, admire them at one remove, or at least acknowledge the author’s vast resourcefulness in devising effects he knew his readers would approve.  Yet it’s not easy for us to suppress habits of thinking and feeling like those that led Max Beerbohm to write Savonarola Brown, a wicked parody of a Shakespeare play.  What seems to happen when we read the Sonnets is that we remain in a kind of affective limbo, half believing, half disbelieving in them, yet consistently impressed by Shakespeare’s wordsmithery, his inventive figuration, and sonic finesse.  It doesn’t matter that present-day editors would consider them overdone and their author a show-off meriting only a printed rejection slip: the Sonnets will never go out of print or cease to be included in English Lit courses.  Nor can we rule out the possibility that a later age will place a high value on elaboration, artifice, and hyperbole: in cultural history, shifts in taste have often taken surprising turns.

Don Paterson certainly doesn’t attempt to transform himself into a contemporary of Shakespeare. Though familiar with Elizabethan literary standards, he evaluates individual sonnets according to contemporary taste or else his own.  Apparently not bothered by the fact that his strictures won’t stop them from being read, he’s quite ready to pronounce the first seventeen of the Sonnets (the so-called “procreation sonnets”) as “rubbish,” a judgment based on the artificial and implausible feelings they express. In a speculative vein, he cites and gives some credence to the narrative premise behind A Waste of Shame, William Boyd’s BBC drama of several years ago. In Boyd’s plot, the rising playwright is commissioned by the mother of the young nobleman William Herbert to write the “procreation sonnets.”  The widowed matriarch, distressed at her son’s celibacy and failure to provide continuance for the family line, pays a handsome sum for the bardic propaganda, and eventually arranges a meeting between the two men. At which point Shakespeare really does fall in love and begins writing out of emotional rather than financial motives.  Though it made for an entertaining play, I don’t find this narrative plausible. Moreover, it involves some harum-scarum speculation about the nature of Shakespeare’s sexuality, a topic on which Paterson has no doubts whatsoever:

The question ‘was Shakespeare gay?’ is so stupid as to be barely worth answering; but for the record: of course he was.  Arguably he was a bisexual, of sorts; though for all the wives, mistresses and children I’m not entirely convinced by his heterosexual side.  Mostly, his heart just wasn’t in it; when it was, his expressions of heterosexual love are full of self-disgust.

In that period, though, there were no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, these termed “sodomy” and punishable by death.  The “gay identity” hadn’t yet been formed, so the most we can say is that some people of the time were gay without knowing they should be classified as such.  A man so prominent as James I could marry and produce heirs, while still spending the lion’s share of his hours in bed with a series of young favorites, concluding with George Villiers, eventually made Duke of Buckingham.  As evidence contrary to the assertion that James had sexual relations with men, scholars cite the very harsh legal stance he took towards “sodomy.”  Yet the full account of the struggle for acceptance and civil rights for gay people includes incidents of strong opposition coming from figures who were later revealed to be gay. Opposition was simply throwing dust in the eyes of potential enemies as a clever way of avoiding arraignment and prosecution.  Any person who “protesteth too much” should be aware that those very protests to strike us as a card played in order to evade exposure or at least self-knowledge.

Paterson doesn’t do anything like this, in fact, he is more than sympathetic to the attraction that one man might feel for another. Discussing Boyd’s TV play he says:

Certainly if Herbert [William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke] looked anything like the young actor who played him on the box, I can see WS’s problem. (Although he almost certainly didn’t, if we’re to trust portraitists of the time. Wriothesley [Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, often proposed as the subject of the Sonnets], on the other hand, is clearly gorgeous. Though I admit that playing the game of ‘who’d you rather’ at 400 years distance does not, perhaps, represent the leading edge of scholarly research.)

This is funny enough to inspire in me a response just as unscholarly.  We have no proof that Shakespeare did or did not sleep with the young man described in the Sonnets, or with any man.  My speculation is that Shakespeare was no “gayer” than Paterson is, who, precisely because he isn’t threatened by any imputation of homosexuality, can be so relaxed about the topic.  On the evidence of the Sonnets, Shakespeare could recognize male beauty and form strong bonds of affection with men, bonds that could be described as love (or, nowadays, “bromance”).  But the keen bite of physical desire for men that we discover in Marlowe or Whitman is absent in his writings.  Where we do find it is in the so-called “dark lady” sonnets.  Further, if Shakespeare did in fact have sex with a man, he wouldn’t be so imprudent as to record and publish his desires, thereby risking arrest and a pre-mortem funeral pyre.  On the other hand, there was no law against one man loving another so long as that love never involved sexual expression.  A quasi-biblical text for the European Renaissance was Plato’s Symposium, which concludes by recommending a non-physical love on the part of an older man for a younger, as a means of transcending Nature and attaining knowledge of the realm of Pure Ideas.  In Dante and Petrarch, the gender of the beloved changed to female, but there was still no physical consummation, and the purported result was the same: propulsion (by sublimation, we would say) into the upper atmosphere of divine truth.  Meanwhile, if we’re going to read the sonnets as autobiography, then number 121 “’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed” can easily be understood as a repudiation of slander to the effect that Shakespeare’s feelings for the beloved were ever actualized sexually.  In Sonnet 20, he had already spoken of the physical mismatch (which further demonstrates his total lack of experience concerning male-to-male sexual relations) between himself and the young man:

Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

The pun on “pricked” was active for Shakespeare’s time as for ours.  The sense is clear: “I can’t make use of your genitalia, but we two have a non-physical, Platonic love, and that’s the most essential thing; where sex is concerned, women can handle that for you.”

Paterson represents this conclusion as tragic, but the tragic note is nowhere sounded. The speaker calmly accepts the impossibility and is, if anything, only too content to keep their love on a Platonic plane.  The poem includes a couple of instances of what Paterson describes as Shakespeare’s “knee-jerk misogyny” (found elsewhere in the Sonnets, not to mention the plays) without going so far as to say that it is proof of the poet’s gay orientation.  A good thing, because, as we know, gay men are far less misogynist than straight, indeed, the greatest percentage adore women, beginning with their own mothers. That adoration often takes the form of diva-worship, and some individuals will carry it to the point of simulating their iconic figures, cross-dressing as Judy, Barbra, or Madonna.  Dismissing women as “stupid cows” or “bitches” is more the habit of straight men because of course a woman can grant or withhold what they most desire. Frustration and anger when desire isn’t reciprocated take the form of misogyny, whereas sex with women is for a gay man “one thing to my purpose nothing.”  He’s fully satisfied with women’s company and friendship, which they are much more often willing to offer than sex.  Paterson wants to see the misogyny of the “dark lady” sonnets as the inevitable side-effect of his homosexuality; in fact, it suggests the opposite, to the extent that evidence drawn from these poems can be used to argue anything about his biography.

Putting aside Plato, in what human narrative is it psychologically plausible for a man in love with and lusting after another man to urge the beloved to marry and have children?  That is the burden of the first seventeen Sonnets. On the other hand, if we decide that Boyd (or Paterson) is right about the far-fetched commissioning theory, we have to regard Shakespeare as the most mercenary sort of hack, his palm crossed with enough silver to stimulate the drafting of sentiments passionately expressed and yet never in the least felt.  That hack (to follow the hypothesis) couldn’t automatically rule out the possibility that the young beloved would accept the faked protestations of love as genuine and possibly begin to have feelings for their author in return.  In that eventuality, how would the perpetrator of this literary imposture then behave?  It’s too damning a scenario to conjure up and amounts to a character assassination of Shakespeare.

Even when we decide that the first 126 Sonnets are dealing with a purely Platonic relationship, the sheer number of them and the variety of tacks taken suggest that a “marriage of true minds” needs as much treatment as a full-blown union would. In the real world, would it be salutary (if the author really meant to make use of them) to devise so many literary approaches to self-therapy, some of which seem like pettifogging or avoidance?  Modern readers can’t help wanting to recommend a professional counselor, at least in those moments when they forget that the poems are fictions.  To a degree that we find disturbing, it is literary convention more than autobiography that governs the production of poems in the Elizabethan era. Nothing requires us to believe the Sonnets had more than a casual basis in Shakespeare’s life; it’s even possible that they were written not to win over or reproach any existing beloved but instead simply to produce poems, poems exploring feelings more hypothetical than actual.  We certainly don’t suppose the Shakespeare underwent the experiences of the characters represented in his plays, no matter how intricately and convincingly developed their feelings may be. Many contemporary poets, though presumed to be working within an aesthetic of sincerity and authenticity, are ready to admit that they invent the subjects of their ostensibly autobiographical poems. How much more likely it is that Shakespeare did the same thing. The speculations we make about his motivations reveal more about us than about the author.

That sort of revelation, in fact, is the value-added aspect of this book. It provides us with an indirect portrait of the mind, technical preoccupations, and emotional commitments of Don Paterson.  Because of his first-rate work elsewhere, we’re interested to read this practical account of his own literary standards—well, more specifically than that, the motions of his thinking as he confronts the subjects dealt with in each sonnet and the rhetorical strategies used in their composition. Judging by the diction he uses, you can see (and this is useful information about him) that he wanted to avoid academic pomposity at all costs, the result, that the prose sounds spoken, informal, and American, with lots of slang and some Scottish diction thrown in for flavor. Sentence fragments abound, along with interjections, and the text deploys as many underlinings as Queen Victoria’s diary.  If the zingy style wasn’t sufficiently noticeable in the excerpt quoted above, here’s another example:

Yikes. SB [Stephen Booth] explores the various textual knots and cruces here at some length, and very instructively, but let’s see if we can find a more direct route through the poem, and take it line by line. OK. Suit up, scrub, and on with the gloves. This is going to get messy. At least five lines here present real interpretative problems. Scalpel….

The ensuing analysis is presented through the conceit of a surgical procedure, involving metaphoric use of artery clamps as the poem’s “blood pressure” drops, and a final stitching up.  It’s as though the Sonnets’ persistent use of conceits had overtaken their critic, this time in prose.  The effect of using diction more often heard on talk shows and Facebook is unsettling at first, but the fact is I quickly stopped minding and focused instead on the content being conveyed.  Reading pace through these pages is brisk, and they never have the sleeping-pill effect of most academic prose.  Yet, though Paterson circumvents the dead hand of scholarly style, he never entirely abandons the explicator’s task, even when says, “Sorry, it’s late, and I’ve been drinking.”  If I were teaching the Sonnets to undergraduates, I’d assign this book, knowing in advance that they would sense an ally in the author, one who understood their language and mental universe.  So primed, they would also be able to absorb content in the commentaries apart from what’s based entirely on the author’s personality.

The classroom would allow me the space (as a review doesn’t) the to single out the many brilliant insights Paterson arrives at along the way and to disagree with just as many others. Well, one of each then, beginning with a disagreement.  I don’t find all the “procreation sonnets” worthless, an assertion Paterson tries too hard to prove. Discussing Sonnet 12, for example, he says that its first line, “When I do count the clock that tells the time,” is padded out with the phrase “that tells the time,” since, as he says, all clocks tell the time.  But the etymology of the word “clock” is from “glokken,” which meant “bell.”  The first public clocks were bells, intelligible to a populace unable to decipher a clock face yet still able to count. The association with “passing-bells” rung at funerals is part of the meaning.  Beyond that, a master theme in the Sonnets is the passage (and ravages) of time, so it fits to get the word into the first line of this sonnet. Further, time takes on a numerical aspect in an art that requires counting—counting of metrical feet and lines, and, for that matter, some thought about the numbering of individual sonnets.  Paterson (and here is where I agree with him) thinks that Shakespeare did indeed arrange the Sonnets in the order given to them in the Quarto; and that in the great majority of instances the number assigned to a given poem in the sequence is connected to its meaning.  Numbers have a kabbalistic or magical dimension (think how much has been made of the Trinity); and, while we can’t say that Shakespeare was a mathematician, he was certainly an arithmetician, one whose rhythms and numbers were a key component of the spell being cast.  In Paterson’s keen analyses of the numerical aspect of the Sonnets, he demonstrates his own skills with numerology, plus an awareness of at least one poet’s opinion to the effect that, “Poetry is speech that counts.”   This book has sustained some heavy attacks in the press, so much so, that, to use a Shakespearean conceit, Paterson could be described as “down for the count.”  However, because he is a poet, he’ll be able to use the experience and soon be standing up for the next round. A review is never a permanent impediment to the marriage of true minds, in this instance, between the poet and his reader.

I don’t usually have an idea in mind when I begin to write. Today, a student looked at me and said: “you haven’t been writing lately, have you?” She was right; at least I have not written poetry. It made me angry that she was right, then oddly comforted because the jig was up and I realized that I didn’t feel much like writing. I felt like watching people catch fish on a winter pier while I wore a long camel’s hair coat and kept my hands in my pockets. I always thought that one of the few reasons I wanted to be tall was because tall people look better in camel’s hair coats. I wanted to look attractively gaunt. Seagulls hovered over head as fisherman threw their remaining bait to them. This desire to be on a fishing pier in winter first came to me as I watched a couple of herring gulls up here in Binghamton, swooping and gulling forth above the Barnes and Noble parking lot. The day was that sort of neutral gray when, if it were ten degrees colder, snow might fall. It made me lonely for the ocean. It made me want to wear a camel’s hair jacket, and dig my hands deep into my pockets, and watch gulls slash and dive for torn pieces of air born clam. How do you explain something like that. As Pessoa said, the personal is not the human. We must make a bridge.

But I don’t want to make a bridge. I don’t want a greater ontology to standing in a Barnes and Noble parking lot watching herring gulls when, if it was ten degrees colder, it might snow. I once had a camel’s hair coat, and I left it on a school visit during one of those days when the weather couldn’t make up its mind. It was cold. It was hot. In the tradition of schools, they put the heat on full blast as it warmed. I was teaching fifth graders to write poems, to play the guitar, to live large. We were making progress. I forgot my coat. I forgot my gloves. I was home getting ready for bed before I remembered that I’d left my prized coat seventy miles south on the New jersey Park way. I never went back to retrieve it. I kept thinking perhaps someone my size might find it, and start wearing it. He might take better care of it cherish it not as an idea, but as a coat. Since then, this imaginary short man haunts my consciousness. He walks out of the sea late at night, his coat perfectly dry. He has a beautiful zippo lighter and roams through the universe, lighting the cigarettes of willowy femme fatales. He speaks both French and Norwegian. He’s the complete package.

This is how my mind works. It needs to drift in order to write. It needs aimlessness, the sort of frittering away of time most people associate with sloth. Improvisation is vital to structure. Without it, structure is too “received.” Even in the purposely “received” structure of fixed forms (sonnet, sestina, that sort of thing) the thought must seem fluid, unforced. To have an “idea” for a poem is already to “receive” a structure that might make the actual poem impossible to write. So, when people tell me they have no ideas for a poem, I never believe them. They are lying. They have plenty of ideas. That’s the trouble. The idea for a poem competes with the poem. or worse, the idea of writing a poem competes with the poem. They stand frozen before the prospect of writing a poem. It stuns them into being blocked.

Sometimes better structures come to us while we are screwing around.

For example, in the fall of 2008, the stock market crashed. I was not much concerned since I have never had enough money to invest in stock. I felt terrible that venerable businesses went under. I felt worse that other firms were going to plunder what was left, get a bail out from the government, then loan the bail out money back to that same government at three percent interest. It seemed like a crime synidcate scam. I thought of a woman I once saw denied welfare because she had five dollars in a savings account. I just figured Kenneth Burke was right: in terrible times, a man ought to write decent sentences.

So I was sitting around in my bed room, looking out the window, thinking about how my mother used to take my hands and make them do patty cake. I thought of how the nun made us clap out the accents of syllables in second grade. For some reason, they were enthusiastic about the accentual qualities of English. I wrote “clap out love’s syllables. Then I wrote: Stock markets fall.” I did not know what the hell the two had to do with each other, but it was in iambic pentameter (thanks to the nuns) so I continued:

Clap out love’s syllables. Stock markets fall.
The gravity of apples and of gold
has nothing on the way our bodies sprawl
and touch the accent of what we two now hold
both tensed and tendered. Touching, we disdain
all commerce, and all wantonness seems blessed.

So I got this far, and I relaized I was going to write a love sonnet using terms from finance, old and new. “tendered” for example. I continued:

We grope and cop at leisure. We remain
stable in our instability.

To remain stable in instability seemed something devoutly to be wished for at the time, and I liked that I got nine syllables into such a short line, an acatalectic line to make up for the extra syllable of line four. It took place at the volta, the turn, so I thought things were going well. But what was I going to do next? The sentences moved against the lines, muting the rhymes somewhat. I was happy that gold and hold were a noun and verb because I heard the ghost of John Crowe Ransom telling me it is always good if one of the rhyme words is a noun and the other is a verb. I was feeling so good about it that I wrote:

And this is good, and this is good. We kiss
all nipple and thigh pleasured, we descend
to where no share, no bonding gone amiss
can cheat us of a happy dividend.

So I was having fun with the word bonding, and the word dividend. I was using banker’s language in a love poem without implying prostitution. I was being playful, but now I had to write the concluding couplet, and I always hated that part of sonnets– too much like an essay. I’m not good at sewing things up. I’d prefer for them to just scab over, but my knowledge of sonnet form told me I had to recapitulate the pertinent ideas. The main point seemed to be that things fell, but it did not interfere with the love making of the couple who, because they have “fallen” can not fall. So I went with the obvious:

Stocks fall, leaves, fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise
the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.

I should have said the “banks” of lust, but I kept changing my mind, and I’m lazy, so I left fields. I wanted lust to be a good thing. I wanted to redeem the lust for life and love from the lust that made stock markets fall. By drifting, I had stumbled upon a sonnet in which I used the words of commerce and banking to speak of love. I was happy. I later thought I chose “fields” for its relation to fall and falling– the f sounds.I looked it over and say instability at the turn did not rhyme with remain. It was accidental genius. I was in full sonnet mode and I would have rhymed, but John Donne’s ghost of oxymoron was upon me, and I said: good. It’s good that the rhyme does not pay of here.

So this is how I wrote a sonnet–by accident, but also by having read hundreds of sonnets, and by knowing the traditions of courtly word play, and by having had nuns who made us clap out syllables obsessively.

A student must learn to let his mind leap among disparate things in order to get at structure, for structure is nothing less than pattern recognition– not the grooves you pre-ordain when you have an idea, but the grooves you discover as you move through the drift of your own mind’s tendencies and trust that, if you let mind drift, then pause a bit, you’ll start to see a pattern emerge.

So I drifted at the beginning of this essay. I trusted that my loneliness for the sea, and fantasy about a camel’s hair coat would produce some sort of structure or metaphor I could hang A post on. And now I leave, pretending I am Fran Sinatra with that jacket draped over my back. A final suggestion: spend the week just jotting down random thoughts. Don’t be a control freak. All thoughts are silly, and unoriginal–including Plato’s. It’s how they are used and structured afterwards. Write them down and don’t get in their way. Then take whatever you know, and recognize patterns in the drift. Make some poems out of that.

I thought I’d share some Mayer sonnets, as Valentine’s day is almost upon us. Love nor the sonnet is standard in Mayer’s world, and she highlights the possibilities/ multiplicities of poetics and of love. After all, desire doesn’t always follow a neat and tidy pattern.


So long honey, don’t ever come around again, I’m sick of you
& of your friends, you take up all my time & I don’t write
Poems cause I spend all my time wanting to fuck you & then
You put the apple onto the grilled cheese, I tie you up

Save me from your respective beauties, keep them home
Thanks for all the rock & roll music, if such a
Thing can be said. Who are those guys? The B-52’s?
That’s what Ethie told me. Can I believe her?

You wanna get married? You tie me up with
Garter belts & less than Heidegger & Kierkegaard the fact
That as we know the poem is not the thought so a slap
Might notice that Uranus suspected a comet? Let me know

He kicks her fallen hat & they are not grownup
Any more than a vase of flowers is, painted, so what?

for Grace

Woke up from dream on
July 9 1965, dream was erotic
(can’t remember what was in it),
I think the woman was attempting
to sit on her chair while
lifting the man’s wallet
but then on the boatride my hand
got caught in the elevator door
by the firecracker tossed in
by a child who was a woman as missing
as the coffee money, anyway I
lost balance and, falling, woke up
jerking off through the chair,
another chair, was still falling
on my foot, sorry.


Even before I saw the chambered nautilus
I wanted to sail not in the us navy
Tonight I’m waiting for you, your letter
At the same time his letter, the view of you
By him and then by me in the park, no rhymes
I saw you, this is in prose, no it’s not
Sitting with the molluscs & anemones in an
Empty autumn enterprise baby you look pretty
With your long eventual hair, is love king?
What’s this? A sonnet? Love’s a babe we know that
I’m coming up, I’m coming, Shakespeare only stuck
You have to get young Americans some ice cream
In the artificial light in which she woke