David Haan: To Assume a Pleasing Shape

David Haan: To Assume a Pleasing Shape

Satire is a lesson, parody is a game. — Nabokov

I have always found poetry difficult, and for that reason interesting. I’m no poet (what little talent I may have is concentrated in the epigram): what verse I’ve perpetrated has been in the service of better understanding what it is, how it’s put together, and so often falls into the category of imitation, whose sincerest form is parody. These exercises for the left-handed have helped me to get a better grasp of poetry in general by bedeviling the details. So describing the process by which one such exercise fell into place, while violating a cardinal rule against self-explication, might be excused as being in some sense instructive for others, even though explaining the joke puts the humor out of its misery.

The object under examination is a faux-Shakespearean sonnet (the modifier describing both form and content). It was sparked by the now-expunged bookchat hosted by the New York Times, which served as a prop to my burgeoning literary concerns. One forum was dedicated to Shakespeare, and proved a magnet to those who would contend that Shakespeare was merely a putative author, to the bemusement of those more inclined to reading and discussing the works. Inspired by one participant who was taking these interlopers to task in Shakespearean voice, I composted my own effort there five years ago; when the same revisionism arose at the Chronicle of Higher Education in connection with the New Historicism, I reposted my riposte (responding to Ophelia’s call; the editors asked to include it in a subsequent issue’s Letters).

But enough of surrounding circumstance, and on to annotation, or, what was I thinking?

The play within the play is not the thing
Wherein we catch the playwright’s consciousness;
The man behind the man behind the scene
We know not to call Bill, or Frank, or Chris,
Or Eddie — So detractors will declaim
With grave demeanor; poker-faced, will tell
That Stratford missed the mark — What’s in a name,
That alchemy that knows not how to spell?
Should learnéd Oxford don the mantle? Nay,
Who best to hold aloft standards of proof
Unburdened by consensus of the day
And by a mad inversion, held aloof?
But wild and whirling words like leaves must fall,
Signifying nothing, and thus, all.


L1-4: The initial quatrain preceded the rest of the composition by many years, a relic of my college days, way back when I thought I might make a go of it as a writer. I had some notion then, if little appreciation, of the “authorship controversy” (and of the headline Shakespeare works). The near rhymes seemed excused by the other niceties …


L1: ‘The play within the play’: This Hamlet reference (II,2) is the canonical mise en abyme, wherein “the play’s the thing / wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” But the impetus of embedding this in L1-2 was not so much to turn it back upon the playwright (which I later found that theories of alternate authorship also seized upon) as to connote the wordplay within the play: That was the seed.


L3: Repeating the echo above, with lots of play, including the sense that WS was fronting for someone else (in the wings, as it were).


L4: William Shakespeare (intended, anyway; didn’t know that another William, Stanley, Earl of Derby, was also in contention back then, but hey, that works better in retrospect), Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe. Wordplay into nameplay (anachronistic though the nicks may be). The (after-the-fact) ambiguity of the archaistic ‘know not to’ was a bonus forced by meter, even though that same meter leans one way rather than the other.


L5: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford more recently became the most popular contender for the title of Shakespeare, and his champions the most vociferous. ‘Eddie’ worked out both metrically and diminuatively. So it was here I picked up the thread again …


L5: So, the turn: recontextualizing the opening as words in others’ mouths. Confounding tract and claim with de- and dis-. And so into the particulars of the objections to Shakespeare having written his works:

L6: Grave demeanor was suggested not only by Delia Bacon’s exhumation effort, not to mention Digges’ ‘moniment’, but by the more general tendency to argue that legacy was more the concern of an earl than of a commoner. (Will’s will often puts in an appearance as well.)

L6-8: The rest of the quatrain fell into place by the association of this solemn phizz with ‘poker-faced’ (expanding ‘po-faced’; as with the nicks, anachronistic to Shakespeare’s time but not to that of the authorship controversialists) and with the betrayal of the poker hand by the ‘tell’, and the truly awful William Tell allusion to missing the mark and so to the signature ‘problems’ so often cited against the signer. Here I paused for breath for just a moment, before Romeo & Juliet (II,2) came to mind (another quotation often pulled in support of other contenders) with ‘knows not’ also echoing L4 in the L8 follow-on, and with a nod toward a nonstandard orthography taken for misspelling, plus a Baconian alchemy/spell element.


No, wait, that’s not quite right — ‘What’s in a name’ and what follows came to mind first, as a proper closure to the quatrain, and from poker to mark was the bridge …


L9-12: While the above pretty much jumped on to the page, this quatrain came together a bit more slowly and deliberately. Having managed to pack quite a bit into the prior quatrain, I intended to oppose de Vere (referred to as Oxford, as opposed to their designation as Stratford [L7], since he wasn’t really Shaksper you know).


L9: The cliché collision at ‘don’ was a clear starting point, but left me a syllable (or three, without ‘learnéd’) short of pentameter.


L10, L12: ‘hold aloft’ to ‘held aloof’, both suggesting out of reach, is the pivot that suggested itself in the idea of upholding standards and ‘proofs’ that Shakespeare mustn’t be the author (and thus de Vere must be); holding aloft standards also adds to the royal bearing. The hinge, ‘a mad inversion’ came to mind as an anagram to ‘animadversion’.


L11: To my mind the weakest line, if necessary. ‘Unburdened’, coming in the wake of ‘proof’, lacking weight, permitting a rising up; ‘consensus of the day’ refers to the contemporaneous evidence that Shakespeare was recognized as author of his own works, and provided an easy rhyming interjection to complete L9.


Now I’ve but a couplet left to wrap it up. Fortunately this came easily, by minimally augmenting more quotation:

L13: ‘But wild and whirling words’ are but Horatio’s words to Hamlet (I,5).

L14: ‘Signifying nothing’ is of course MacBeth (V,5); its reversal prompted in part by Jorge Luis Borges “Everyone and No One” take on Shakespeare. The rhyme then determined how the end of L13 must fall.

This may be atypical in coming together in a single draft (though one separated in time), with only the third quatrain requiring any roughing (or is it smoothing?), and in seeming all of a piece despite being constructed in chunks. Another point is that much of the cleverness wasn’t evident until after I’d written it down. But whether such experience is common to real poets, I wouldn’t know.



by David Haan



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