The Poet’s Eye

If there is one Shakespeare play in my opinion that’s overdone and maybe I’ll be so bold as to say overrated, it would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since the word “summer” is found in its title, I suppose that gives theatre companies the justification they need to perform this play ad nauseam during their summer programming. I think I’ve seen at least three versions of this play—including one opera (never again)—and that’s enough for me. If I make it to Bard on the Beach this summer, fortunately there are other options available like Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because it’s not really comedy and not really tragedy. Not so black and white. Critics don’t know what to do with a grey play.

A Midsummer Night's DreamNevertheless, I recently listened to a lecture on a passage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite who teaches at the University of Cambridge in England. We analyzed some lines from the play where Shakespeare defines the poet’s art through the mouth of Theseus who thinks he is dismissing “these antique fables” and “fairy toys”, but in protesting so strongly against poetry, actually gives a pretty convincing defense of the art. As Dr. Guite said, “He’s sawing off the very branch he’s sitting on.” Have a look:

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman: the lover, all is frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,

That if it would apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

The poet glances from heaven to earth and earth to heaven—both axes are included, so it’s not an either/or but a both/and. The poet observes and writes everything from the mundane to the sublime, and his power lies in connecting these two axes: the earthly to the heavenly, the ordinary to the extraordinary, the prosaic to the divine, the known to the unknown, the visible to the invisible. The poet finds a form—through “the pen”—to make what is unknown known. He gives the unknown “a local habitation and a name.” (note that Shakespeare doesn’t say what is non-existent but what is unknown, meaning that just because we don’t know or understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist).

Anyway, Dr. Guite made an interesting point that all art/all imagination is essentially concerned with this task: of connecting earth to heaven and heaven to earth (or whatever adjectives that can be substituted to represent these dichotomies), and art fails when it fails to connect these two axes (and yes, art can fail—think of kitschy art or a bad story you’ve read or a terrible song on the radio.)

This lecture made me rethink why I really like certain art. I don’t want to go crazy analyzing why I resonate with certain stories or paintings or whatever it may be more than others, but it’s an interesting thought to consider: Is it because this story/painting/poem/song somehow connected these two axes for me? Did it make the unknown or the inexpressible, or what I felt but didn’t know somebody else felt, or what I wanted to say but didn’t have words for, known?

Two examples for me:

The music of Matthew Perryman Jones that I’ve written about before.

Victory Lap” by George Saunders. This was a surprising one. It’s the first short story in his book Tenth of December. The cover art is a stark contrast between black and white, but his stories inhabit that beautiful, fragile grey line between them.

I was blown away after reading “Victory Lap.” It’s exquisite, especially the ending. They both needed to save each other.

1 2 3 4 5 things I’m riding/wearing/reading/hearing

Considering it’s Friday before the long weekend, and it’s sunny and almost the end of summer (cringe), I thought I’d feature my five favourite things literature/art and urban-related as of late. This will likely be my first and last pinterest-y style post.

my sweet ride

1. My bike that I’ve been using to ride to and from work most days this summer. I don’t love so much the bike, but the basket. Look at that steel-wired frame. Not one of those flimsy wicker baskets at the front, which maybe look more cool but can’t hold much more than a purse. This baby can hold cartons of milk from the grocery store. It fits a backpack with a change of clothes and my lunchbag. Probably the best $30 I’ve spent. It’s much more enjoyable riding a bike when you don’t have to carry something on your back.

Coal Harbour on a necklace

2. This necklace. I came across Black Drop Designs at a farmer’s market in Fort Langley the other week and fell in love with this urban-inspired photo jewellery. I asked if she had any New York scenes – she didn’t. So I got Vancouver instead – Coal Harbour to be precise, even though you can’t tell what city it is by looking at it. That’s the benefit of New York’s skyline.

alphabet scarf, kind of like alphabet soup

3. My other favourite fashion accessory that represents the literary side of me – a silk alphabet scarf. Reading. Writing. Words. I love wearing letters around my neck. This should be the item I wear when I have writer’s block. Maybe it would inspire something with its random repetition and conglomeration of letters.

my friend’s debut novel

4. This book, Before We Go. My friend wrote it. We did our Master’s at UVic together. She was one of my first friends in grad school, who I saw Easy A with in theatres early in the year, feeling uncertain of this grad school thing we had gotten ourselves into, who I made sugar cookies with in her Oak Bay basement suite at Christmastime, along with the other girls in our West Coast Lit class who became a family-away-from-family. She’s starting her PhD this fall with a book already under her belt. I turned to the back cover when I bought it at Chapters and smiled. There she was. She inspires me.

You really should check out this novel, especially if you like young adult fiction. It just so happens to take place in Victoria, in only a 7-hour time span one New Year’s Eve. She balances the line between sorrow and laughter well, which is not an easy thing to do in a work of art.

The Land of the Living

5. Matthew Perryman Jones. Speaking of art, I read an interview with musician Matthew Perryman Jones the other day and it compelled me to do some research. He talked about this thing called duende that inspires his music.

Do you ever have those words or ideas you hear about and you know you will love what they mean or what they stand for even if you don’t exactly know what it is yet? I felt that way about this word. Duende. Dark sound. Mystery. The sadness that lingers on the edges of certain songs. Real love songs. The sadness that can’t be explained but you know is there. You hear it. You feel it. Impossible to describe but impossible to deny. Stumbling upon this word, I felt I had been given a tiny key into MPJ’s music. I discovered him through Noisetrade and fell immediately in love with his songs, not quite able to put my finger on what it was I loved about them. I think it’s this duende that lives in them.

Listen to this song – I think you’ll hear what I mean.