Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Donna Vorreyer reads “Sonnet 116” by the bard of Stratford.
Indeed, a surprising choice. I don’t think I’ve read Shakespeare since high school! Not sure if that’s a thing I should be admitting or not. What is it about the ol’ bard that makes him so essential? Is revisiting Shakespeare something that all contemporary writers would be wise to do?
Donna Vorreyer: When I discovered Shakespeare in sixth grade, through a teacher who brought me Romeo and Juliet, I fell in love with the sound of it. I didn’t understand it all, but it didn’t matter. At that point, I was a goner. I went to the sonnets on my own, and then my father introduced me to his favorite, Twelfth Night, (still my favorite as well) and then high school brought me the usual slate of tragedies to seal the deal.
My ragged Riverside Shakespeare from college is one of my “save it in a fire” books – I have many emotional memories tied up in that copy of the complete works, but Sonnet 116 has always been a standout. The line “O no, it is an ever-fixéd mark” cast a spell on me the first time I read it and inspired me to memorize a poem for the first time. Years later, my husband gifted me with a mobius bracelet that has Sonnet 116 engraved around its curves. I wear it nearly every day.
I would say that everyone would be wise to revisit Shakespeare, but especially writers. His stories, emotions and conflicts are so universal that they still resonate after hundreds of years. This is why theaters around the country continue to reinvent and modernize the stories without changing the language. I’ve seen Macbeth staged with modern mercenary uniforms and weapons, Romeo and Juliet as gritty Matrix-style club kids. Love, class war, secrets, the art of the deal, death, betrayal, violence, gender identity/relations, humor, sex –every writer is essentially rewriting some element of life that Shakespeare has already explored. Most importantly for me, Shakespeare epitomizes the joy of language – the wordplay and the sheer music of it – in a way that no other writer does. And the music of a poem, for me, is not an element you can “leave out,” like nuts from a cookie. It MUST be there, and in Shakespeare it is. Always.
Chris: Do you perceive, and mourn, a loss of well employed meter in contemporary poetry?
Donna Vorreyer: I would say yes to perceive, but no to mourn. Encountering mostly free verse, today’s casual reader could be lulled into thinking that attention to meter does not exist. But I think there are plenty of writers out there successfully using meter (and even – gasp! – rhyme) well in contemporary poetry. One that comes to mind immediately is Jessica Piazza who, in her book Interrobang!, works exclusively in sonnet form. Other writers like Stacey Lynn Brown and Patricia Smith, have gained recent attention for sonnet crowns. Writers like Kay Ryan work successfully in traditional meter, and the music of the poem is crucial in the work of contemporary writers like Melissa Stein and Katie Ford.
Meter provides the contemporary poet with a framework to use and then break, if desired. It is a part of our spoken language, so it cannot disappear if a poet is writing anything resembling speech. And, although exact end rhymes are out-of-fashion, they still show up subtly in some cases, and internal and slant rhymes are common in free verse. I would never mourn the “loss” of any element of poetry, as trends in publishing come and go. (For example, the ghazal has been EVERYWHERE at poetry readings I have attended over the last year.) So, meter will always be a valuable tool for any poet – no need to write it any elegies quite yet.
Chris: Shakespeare first states what love is not in the opening quatrain, and then segues into offering his own definition. What do you make of his choice to begin with negation?
Donna Vorreyer: Negation is a tool that Shakespeare uses quite a bit in the sonnets, most famously in Sonnet 130 – “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips red.” That poem negates until the last couplet, leaving the volta to the very end. Contemporary poets also use negation to highlight a persuasive position or to point out a disingenuous speaker “coming clean” and telling the real story.
In Sonnet 116, I think Shakespeare uses the negation as a tool of argument. The initial negation follows an imperative opening: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/admit impediments” – in other words, don’t give me any bullshit about true love having defects or bowing to obstacles. It is natural for a speaker to negate after that kind of pronouncement –You know that bullshit you were just talking? Hell, no, it is NOT that at all –so we get “Love is not love/ which alters when it alteration finds/or bends with the remover to remove.” And then he proceeds to lay out what love is, using the language of ships and storms and stars. He returns to the negation with “Love is not Time’s fool” and immediately rebuts by admitting that love can’t defy time, but won’t be changed by it, either, bearing “it out even to the edge of doom.” Since this is normally where the volta would come in, the negation is softer here than in the beginning, balanced with reason. Then he just drops the mic with the couplet. It’s a beautiful thing.
Chris: In addition to the interesting use of negation and masterful meter, what else made you decide that Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” is one of the most essential pieces of writing to your bookshelf?
Donna Vorreyer: For starters, it is bold without being sentimental. And, although at this point some of the images might seem like clichés (a guiding star, etc.), they weren’t in the 1600s! “Whose worth’s unknown although its height be taken” is to me the loveliest of metaphors about the value of what one carries on the inside. I don’t think there are enough love poems in contemporary poetry, and those who write them are often dismissed as sentimental or even amateurish. But what emotion is more universal than love? And the sonnets are models of all sorts of love poems: definitions, abstractions, affairs requited and unrequited, secret love, forbidden love –you name it, Will’s got it. There is much to learn from these poems. It might seem old school or formal to cite Shakespeare as an essential in my writing life, but my love for language and its music, sparked initially by my father reading aloud, was fueled by Shakespeare at a formative stage. And, being in a 35 year relationship with my husband in a world where relationships are often temporary, this particular sonnet speaks a truth to me.
Chris: Earlier you mentioned a lot of contemporary poets that write sonnets. Is the sonnet your favorite form of poetry? What do you make of quasi-form poetry—sonnets that are only sonnets because they’re called so, or are dubbed sonnets because they’re 14 lines?
Donna Vorreyer: I don’t know that I have a “favorite form” of poetry, but I do have a tendency to write and enjoy reading short poems. My early drafts often follow a sonnet-like arc, both in terms of length and where a volta comes in. (There is at least one formal sonnet in each of my books, so I am drawn to the form.) Sometimes, when I have a draft that seems clunky, I will force it into that fourteen line cage to see where the meter/language can be tighter. I don’t mind people calling their poems things like “modern sonnets” as I don’t believe in telling any writer what his/her poem is or isn’t. I’m not a purist, in that sense. But I do appreciate when I see a well-written formal sonnet that doesn’t announce itself as such, and the control and precision of diction that create a sonnet are qualities that I admire in a poem of any length.
Chris: A few months ago a theatre group here in Fairbanks put on Star Verse. I think it was supposed to be a retelling of Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, but with Shakespeare as the author so everything was put into iambic pentameter, bits of free verse, and well-timed R2D2 beeps and blaster noises. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. What’s your favorite reproduction or adaptation of Shakespeare that you’ve seen? Have you ever seen a production of Shakespeare that was just plain strange?
Donna Vorreyer: I’m a Star Wars fan, so I wonder if that play was based on the Ian Droescher book that reimagined Star Wars in Shakespearean language. I have seen productions at the RST, high school productions, and numerous plays here at Chicago Shakespeare Theater where we attend nearly every show. On film, my favorite is Trevor Nunn’s version of Twelfth Night.
Onstage, two of the most unique and special were CST productions of The Tempest. This year’s version featured magic/production effects designed by Teller (of Penn & Teller) and a Caliban performed by two actors who were gymnastically-entwined through the entire play. We were in the front row, a foot from the actors, and could not figure out the magic happening. It was a truly one-of-a-kind night.
Also, a production from a few years ago only used three human actors. Two were Prospero and Caliban- every other part of the play was performed by the third cast member using marionettes and elaborate wooden masks. Staged in their small upstairs theater, it was a disconcerting and intimate theater experience. I can honestly say I have never seen a performance of Shakespeare’s plays that didn’t move me in some way—perhaps that is why he is an essential for me.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013) as well as seven chapbooks, most recently Encantado, a collaboration with artist Matt Kish from Redbird Chapbooks. She works as a middle school teacher in the Chicago suburbs. That’s it. Brevity is, after all, the soul of wit.
Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation Press, Still: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.