Sunday, December 18, 2016

From the Archives - Shakespeare Knockoff


It’s another slow news day here at albertnet, so here’s an old poem from my archives, with all-new footnotes and commentary. Enjoy please enjoy.

Judgment of true minds – ca. 1992

Let us not in the judgment of true minds
Admit impediment. A student fails                                         2
Who misinterprets books or falls behind,
Or when assigned his reading moans and wails.
Oh no! The only academic lord
Is one whose clever insights oft are quoted;                         6
Who’s always interested, never bored;
Who’s worth’s unknown, although his grades are noted.
He’s at no teacher’s mercy, though exams
Will keep him studying from dawn to dusk;                       10
For nothing can detain him from his plan
Of making fools of the rest of us.
    If this be error, proven unto me,
    I never took a test or got a “C.”                                            14

Footnotes & commentary

Date: ca. 1992

I forgot to date this one. I’m guessing it was 1992 because thematically, it had to correspond with my college years, and it was probably inspired by the Shakespeare class I took at Berkeley in ’91 or ‘92. That was a great class. Professor Richmond was a renowned Shakespeare authority who traveled to London to consult on the restoration of the Globe theater where Shakespeare’s plays were first enacted.

Line 1: true minds

This line doesn’t make much sense, but I guess I wanted to make sure the (hypothetical) reader would catch the allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, which begins, “Let us not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.” I needn’t have worried; anybody who would bother reading amateur poetry would surely catch on.

We covered Sonnet #116 in Richmond’s class. He stood at a lectern on one side of the stage while reading it to us, and then his wife, who I think was also a professor, stood at a lectern on the other side of the stage and read Sonnet #138, which begins, “When my love swears that she is made of truth/ I do believe her, though I know she lies.” This was a stark contrast, obviously, to #116 and its lofty, uncompromising claim that true love admits no impediments. This paradox kicked off a great lecture about the complexity of Shakespeare, but I know you’re already getting bored so I’ll move on.

Line 2: admit impediment

While writing this I was all too aware of the impediments of my own mind. It’s hard for me, even now, to think about Sonnet #116 without a flush of embarrassment. I was asked to read this poem at my dad’s third wedding, and my reading didn’t go so well. To be fair to myself, it’s a bit odd attending a parent’s wedding, and nothing a kid should have to go through.  But the bigger problem was hubris: I decided, being already familiar with the poem, that instead of just reading it I would go ahead and memorize it. How much more impressive that would be!

Well, things were going find until around the bit about “Love’s not Time’s fool,” when my gaze—which I had been casting about the audience, like I was taught to do in speech class—happened to meet that of my father. He was looking at me so intently, I completely froze. He seemed to be regarding me as some kind of freak, or like a space alien, and in fact my love of liberal arts was alien to him, since he was a diehard scientist and engineer. He had probably never before heard this sonnet—or indeed any sonnet—and perhaps my enthusiasm bewildered him. Whatever was behind his intense, piercing look, upon seeing it I choked, completely, and couldn’t come up with the next line of the poem. Well, my soon-to-be stepmother, who was a librarian, knew the poem well (having selected it, after all) and gave me a little stage whisper that got me back on track. Now that I think about it, she was probably delighted that I stumbled and needed help, and that she was there to give it. But the little ordeal is still embarrassing to recall.

Line 4: moans and wails

If you think this is over-the-top hyperbole, you don’t know my brother. I can still remember when he was in junior high trying to learn German, and would moan and wail, “I can’t memorize!” That said, upon being given our reading assignments, my fellow English majors and I would certainly groan. The best thing about majoring in English is that there are no labs or problem sets to do, and not all that many papers to write—but there’s a whole lot of reading required.

Line 5: only academic lord

Who is this academic lord, whose shadow seems to have fallen over me, inspiring me to write this poem? Nobody specific comes to mind, but it’s fair to say I was feeling a bit self-conscious about my academic performance. Around this time I was taking an English honors seminar which admitted only thirty students (two classes of fifteen). I got in by the skin of my teeth: after initially being denied admission based on the deficient quality of my writing sample, I audited both sessions and discovered that one girl had been admitted to both. I wrote to the professor, provided a new writing sample, and claimed the extra spot.

You’d think I’d have worked really hard to distinguish myself after that (as indeed I’d promised in my letter I’d do). The problem was, the course was all about critical literary theory, which I despised. My total lack of interest made it almost impossible for me to even stay awake in class.

There was one guy in that class, Dan, whom the label “academic lord” does kind of fit. I remember the first conversation I had with him, after the first class discussion. “What did you think of that Derrida essay?” I asked him, hoping he’d say, “Dude, that shit went right over my head,” and then we could commiserate. But instead he said, “I really liked it. It reminded me of Beckett.” I thought he was referring to Thomas Becket, some religious figure whom I vaguely remembered from history class, and I couldn’t fathom what parallel Dan had drawn between the two. Only much later did I realize he meant Samuel Beckett, who wrote famous stuff like Waiting for Godot—but by then it was much too late. Nevertheless, we did become friends, mainly because, through sheer coincidence, we were both writing about the same author.

So was Dan as competitive as the guy described in this poem? Not at all. In fact, he generously let me read all his notes, and the rough drafts of his thesis. I returned the favor. Honestly, I didn’t find myself intimidated by his writing (and in fact was tickled to see that he used the shorthand “il y a” for “there is” or “there are,” from the French, just like I did!).

Where my intellect diverged from Dan’s is that he was already applying to grad school in English, whereas—my love of my major notwithstanding—I’d had enough college and was ready to get out into the work world . I didn’t envy Dan’s mind, because I simply felt like a different species of scholar. For me to resent him would be like an ostrich resenting a hawk.

Line 6: oft are quoted

Is it realistic to assert that any student’s insights could be “oft” quoted? Nah. This is kind of a sloppy line, frankly. But since we’re on the subject, I did quote Dan in my thesis, but only once. He quoted from my thesis as well. Perhaps this was a bit of a parlor trick; I for one felt kind of sneaky in having access to unpublished literary criticism that real writers, such as our professor, did not.

Line 7: always interested

An English major friend of mine always pronounces this word “IN-ter-est-ed” (i.e., four syllables) whereas (like so many others) I pronounce it “INT-rist-ed” (three syllables). Within this line of verse my friend’s pronunciation clearly works better. It also sounds more intellectual, I think, though I can’t bring myself to adopt it in regular speech.

Line 7: never bored

I wanted to like literary theory, but I just didn’t have it in me. If you think I’m exaggerating about falling asleep in a discussion group of only fifteen students, I assure you I’m not. Fairly early in the semester, I was at a party and was checking out this girl—not because she was all that fly, but because she looked kind of familiar—when she walked over to me and said, “Okay, I’ve been trying to figure out where I know you from and then it hit me—you’re that guy who always falls asleep in my H195 seminar!”

Line 9: no teacher’s mercy

This should have been “TA’s mercy,” since it was mostly the teaching assistants who graded our papers and exams.  Nobody goes by the title “teacher” in college, of course.  What was I thinking?

Line 10: dawn to dusk

This is just more sloppiness. Think about it: what student would stop studying at dusk? At the longitude of Berkeley, dusk would fall before 9 p.m. year round, hours before most students call it a day. And as late as September, dawn would begin before 7 a.m., which is much earlier than most students wake up. It’s a good thing the sonnet I wrote for Richmond’s class was more coherent.

Line 12: making fools of the rest of us 

I gather that with certain college majors, grading is done on a curve, and grades are posted publicly so students can envy those at the top and pity the sad sacks toward the bottom. But this wasn’t the case with English, which never seemed to encourage competition. It’s not like we were all jockeying for position in class standing so we could better compete for jobs after graduation, because—being English majors—we weren’t thinking that far ahead. 

Did students try to outshine each other during class discussions? Nah. We legitimately seemed to be freely sharing ideas and trying to learn something. One time, a classmate caught up to me as I was leaving class because she actually wanted to continue the discussion! This was no pretense based on the college mating ritual, either; this was a 60-something woman who’d decided late in life to attend college just to improve her mind. I was so flattered that she’d responded to something I’d said. (I didn’t sleep through class every time.)

Line 13: error, proven unto me

My commentary here seems to point out the overall error of this poem. This pleases me, because I feel like I’ve actually wised up a bit since college. Another 25 years from now, I might look back at this blog and reflect on how lame this writing is, which would be nice (as it would show further progress). Or maybe in 25 years I’ll have come full circle, realizing that I actually peaked in college and merely slipped into delusion in the following decades.

Line 14: never … got a “C”

I did once get a C in English, in junior high. Our class spent a whole quarter reading Greek mythology, and I hated it, even more than the critical literary theory I’d get a decade or so later. I didn’t sleep in class back then—my pre-teen hormones were raging too much for that—but I didn’t put in much effort, either. We each had to write a myth, replete with a moral, and I don’t remember much about my myth other than my moral, “Don’t try for perfection,” which seemed to really annoy the teacher. She gave me the worst grade in the whole class on that assignment, and made sure I knew it.

My dad was furious about that C. He really chewed my head off. If he’d asked what went wrong, maybe I could have explained about the Greek mythology, but he didn’t. All I offered in my defense was that my other grades were fine, and I even got an A+ in French. This made him even angrier and he launched this big lecture about why English classes are important. It’s funny to look back on this because when I eventually majored in English my dad was really disappointed. It’s tempting to wonder if he saw my choice of major as some kind of payback for his angry lecture, but I really doubt he remembers any of it, least of all the C. In case he reads this (which I also doubt): Hey Dad, guess what? I once got a C in English!

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