Generous Expectations

Horror and dread! Call me Eyeore, but when a friend asks if you'd like to hear their poetry, what can you feel - apart from horror and dread? Please don't misunderstand me: I don't dislike poetry, or the sharing of it; it can be wonderful if it is good. The best present I ever received was a collection of brilliant poems for Valentine's Day, and I didn't just think they were good because I was in love. However, in cases relating to friends and their poetry, the likelihood is that the poems will be bad and the experience will be excruciating for all concerned. When a poetry night at a local bar lead to an unusual proliferation of such requests, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of impending doom.

Luckily, my mean anticipation was misplaced and I was treated to some explosively good poetry. Alongside a wash of relief, I enjoyed the different poems for different reasons. Some were funny, some were sad, some cleverly communicated thoughts, others minutely captured feelings and moments. Far from the acute awkwardness that this sort of self-revelation from friends has the potential to bring, these were joyful and rejuvenating experiences. This trend of absurdly good luck continued at the poetry night itself. Of course, there was the odd clanger (when isn't there?), but unusually (and happily) the event managed to attract an extraordinary crop of talented poets including several published poets. Although I am usually a fan of meaning, my favourite poem of the evening was one I can't say I understood. I was keen to ask to see a copy, so I could think it over, but decided against it, since I don't know the author well. Thinking aside, I enjoyed the sounds of the poem and the sensations it evoked.

This visceral rather than cerebral enjoyment took me back to my early experiences of Shakespeare. As the children of an English teacher with a love of Shakespearean greats we were accustomed to hearing lines from Hamlet, Othello and Lear from an early age. I can remember my mother (the English teacher in question) sitting with us at the kitchen table with us and reciting Othello's "Then must you speak / Of one that loved not wisely, but too well..." (5.2). She would finish and say "isn't that wonderful?" Despite having little or no understanding of the meaning, I would always agree, because I loved the sound. When I reminded my mother of this memory she said "what a silly woman I was" and now finds her youthful enchantment with this particular passage gauche and unsophisticated. If she was a silly woman, I am very grateful for it. I can remember thinking how beautiful and clever she was as she recited the St Crispian's Day speech or one of Hamlet's soliloquies. To me they were like magic spells; the meaning was largely obscure but I was enthralled by the rhythms, the shapes of the words, the flow. These sounds didn't lose their charm for me after I began to discover their various possible meanings. As I have said, I'm a big fan of meanings, but it was the poetic sounds that first caught my ear, mind, and heart.

The memory of what first attracted me to Shakespeare's plays is what now makes me suspicious of giving children modern language versions of Shakespeare.  The logic behind the idea of short, modern language Shakespeare "for kids" is that children will get to know the stories, and their interest in these will act as a gateway to the enjoyment of further study. As we all know, the stories in Shakespeare are largely unoriginal, but do they, I wonder, have any value to us on their own? Is it useful for children to learn stories that end in marriage and the realignment of social order just because they are associated with Shakespeare? For me the pleasure of Shakespeare comes in the richness of the language and the ways in which the playwright can be interpreted as critiquing the conservative resolutions of his plays. Without the language there is no critique, and the stories alone, sanctified with a bardolatrous aura, simply serve to reinforce patriarchal discourses of class, race, and gender roles. Chopping up Shakespeare's work, and removing the parts that make it Shakespeare's leave nothing that is useful for children or society. Give children top quality, ambitious Shakespeare productions not deeply conservative short stories. Let them take from it what they can, even if it is just a pleasure in the sounds, and understand whatever they understand, and trust that great art will benefit them. By refusing to show children things we believe they are not yet capable of understanding we severely limit what they can understand and enjoy or what they can aspire to understand. My fondest memories of my primary school in Market Rasen was their ambitious school plays. In year 3 I played Titania and had my picture in the Rasen Mail, and the year after I was Olivia. These plays were abridged, but retained the original language. I remember loving practising "What angel wakes me" lines, and I remember feeling dignified as Olivia, but more than this, I remember everyone being excited. We were excited about Shakespeare because we were given great chunks of the real thing. The ambitious drama club at Market Rasen Primary School, and before that, the fact that my mother was silly enough to think that I would be able to join her in wonder at Othello's tales and Desdemona's world of sighs, has to be why I am where I am today: studying for a PhD in English literature. Their generous expectations gave me the space to achieve my potential.

So, although January is over and February is marching on, I think a new NewYear's resolution may be called for: generous expectations. I will be generous in my expectations about poetry nights and the poetic efforts of friends. My expectations may even be generous enough to ask the author of my favourite poem about his work, but perhaps that's something to build up to.


  1. Totally agree, and not only Shakespeare. I get frustrated when I see a beautiful edition of a favourite classic to then find it's a 'for kids' version that omits some of the beautiful language that made the book a classic in the first place! I remember struggling with some of the sentences and words when very young but enjoying them all the same, loving the sounds and the images and reading books over and over and getting something new each time.
    Love your work :P


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