By Tim Hayes
My friend Tom and I sat at his mother’s dining room table, agonizing over this accursed high school English assignment – reading Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” And as though that weren’t tortuous enough, our teacher expected us to actually think about it and offer our own personal analysis of the various characters’ motivations.
Gawwwwwd. Take me now, Lord. I’m ready. I mean, who talks like this? To a couple of teenage city punks, this play might as well have been written in Mandarin.
Tom and I ended up exercising the lone alternative the teacher offered regarding that assignment. We went to the movie version, which had been showing at a theater not far away. Olivia Hussey and some dude you never heard of playing Romeo. Just about every other male student in that class could be found there, as well. We sat through two hours of popcorn-addled pain, showed our teacher the ripped ticket stub in class the next day, and were off the hook.
Sixteen is too young to be expected to appreciate Shakespeare, or the impact of good poetry. “Romeo and Juliet” may not be a poem, per se, but with the post-high school accumulation of deeper wisdom, one can at least begin to appreciate the power, precision, and pace behind the selection and placement of each word.
Sure, it’s a lot easier to swim around the shallow end of the poetry pool with ditties like this:
Carnation Milk is the best in the land / Here I sit with a can in my hand / No udders to pull, no hay to pitch / You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch
Or how about those old roadside signs:
No lady likes / To dance or dine / Accompanied by / A porcupine – Burma Shave
If Honey shuns / Your fond embrace / Don’t shoot the milkman / Feel your face – Burma Shave
But as life slams you around like eggs in a blender a time or two, picking up a book of poetry somehow loses its intimidation factor. In just a few phrases, suddenly your troubles find their soulmates. Other people have been through the same shitstorm you’re enduring, and they made it – at least long enough to write this poem about it, anyway. And you discover the courage and hope that seemed so distant, just minutes earlier.
Waiting for some small intimate reminder / A word, a tune, a known familiar scent / An echo from the past, when innocent / We looked upon the present with delight / And doubted not the future would be kinder / And never knew the loneliness of night 1
My guess is that even poets know their product can be a tough sell at times. Check this one out:
I was going to write a poem, I made a pie instead / It took about the same amount of time / Of course the pie was a final draft / A poem would have had some distance to go / Everybody will like this pie / It will have apples and cranberries and dried apricots in it / Many friends will say why in the world did you make only one / This does not happen with poems 2
Poetry also can bring the reader beauty, peace, thoughtfulness, patience, an open heart. And these days, what better gift?
Small fact and fingers and farthest one from me / A hand’s width and two generations away / In this still present I am fifty-three / You are not yet a full day / I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept / Awhile, to tell you what I would have said / When you were who knows what and I was dead / Which is, I stood and loved you while you slept 3
Which brings me back to “Romeo and Juliet.” I’ve been to too many funerals over the years, and one passage from that play seems to find its way into most eulogies because it’s just too perfect. Robert F. Kennedy also used it at the 1964 Democratic National Convention during a speech where he offered a tribute to his late brother, the president.
When he shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night / And pay no worship to the garish sun
That’s poetry. Time to read some Shakespeare again. Or a favorite book of poetry. With a much more open mind than I had at 16.
I wonder what Olivia Hussey’s doing tonight?
Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes
1 From: “Nothing Is Lost” by Noel Coward.
2 From: “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” by Grace Paley.
3 From: “A Poem for Emily” by Miller Williams.