Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sonnet Talk

April is National Poetry Month. The perfect way to celebrate is, perhaps, to reflect a bit upon sonnets. Thanks to my pal, Old Dry Eyes (ODE),[1] I have two initial thoughts to share on the subject. The first is inspired by one of ODE’s comments on this blog in which he quotes a sonnet written by another blogger; that sonnet is about sonnets themselves—that is, it is a meta-sonnet. As such, it is part of a long tradition of poetic writing reflecting upon the power of writing itself—a practice of which Shakespeare himself was fond. See, e.g., Sonnet 19 (“Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,/ My love shall in my verse ever live young.”) And this blawg is itself often comprised of writing about writing.

Anyway, the contemporary sonnet to which ODE calls our attention is a lovely tribute to a form “as elegant as jasmine on the wind” that “centuries have dulled” however—probably because we lack the ability to be true to the strict form while infusing the rigid structure with sufficiently authentic feeling. Sonnets are a bit arcane because, well, they sound so Shakespearean to most modern ears and thus out of joint with the times (to use a timeless Shakespearean turn of phrase). This dullness is what happens to legal writing when law students or new lawyers try to imitate the purple legalisms that characterize many judicial opinions from ye olde days that are collected in law school casebooks or when lawyers copy old form documents that begin with empty phrases like “COMES NOW Plaintiff, by and through counsel, and hereby moves this Honorable Court to enter an Order that Defendant [do “x”] and in support thereof respectfully shows the following . . . .” Failing to breathe life into a conventional structure just gives you musty, creaky prose.

Second, ODE has commented more recently about a sonnet-related episode in a fantastic novel, Stoner by John Williams. This novel is about a farm boy who eventually becomes a professor at a modest, unadventurous Midwestern university. You really, really must read it. The hero’s modestly heroic Sisyphean struggle against one existential crisis after another is told with such restraint and elegance that reading it is like death by a thousand tiny cuts made with a shimmering diamond stylus. The novel itself fell into obscurity—a tragedy almost on par with that of the book’s hero. (It was out of print for decades and only resurrected in 2006 by the New York Review of Books – Classics.) Early in Stoner, when the hero is just awakening to the life of the mind, he is confronted in class by a professor who demands that he explain Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Now ODE wants to know what I might have to say about that ditty, which is, I must say, one of my favorites!!! It is a sonnet to which a young person (like Stoner in that scene) might have real trouble relating. The speaker in Sonnet 73 is a person in the autumn of his life reflecting on how he might look to someone in the peak of youth where the former is consumed by this youth precisely because youth is what he, the speaker, has lost; the speaker explains that falling in love with someone who is literally young is a means to defy death a bit. In other words, Sonnet 73 is an excruciatingly thoughtful tribute to the very human impulse that, in its most simplistic expression, often involves an old guy impulsively buying a red sports car, dumping his wife of many years, and chasing after a cute young creature named Brandi:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.

Shakespeare ends the sonnet with a couplet that strikes me as some serious wistful thinking; he hopes that the youth with which he, the old guy, is obsessed, will see his obsession in bigger existential terms and thus cherish all the more a love that, like life itself, is inherently ephemeral:

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Who knows how the youth felt about all this? Well, those of us who have lived through both side of this common, yet decidedly profound, phenomenon might say that the youth in love with the old guy is also chasing after something: a shortcut—not to death—but to wisdom; thus all the signs of aging—the “yellow leaves” clinging to “bare ruin’d” boughs that “shake against the cold”—the youth sees through spring-colored glasses in a delusional way that benefits both the aged and the callow. At least for a time.

I am not sure how to connect Sonnet 73’s theme with the practice of law except to say that it amazes me how many older lawyers continue to thrive within the profession—and perhaps this is, in part, a function of how the profession demands that older lawyers continuously mentor fresh crops of baby lawyers. The most successful partnerships between old and young lawyers seem to be ones where both sides contribute different traits—for instance, an older lawyer’s experience, sense of restraint, strategic savvy on one hand and an younger lawyer’s energy, drive, and optimism on the other. Yes, people at two ends of a professional spectrum can team up in a way that “makes [their work] more strong” if the relationship is fueled by mutual respect. That hopeful promise is at the heart of Sonnet 73.

[1] Could it be sheer accident that this lover-of-literature has a pseudonym that produces a literary acronym?! I think not.

1 comment:

  1. No doubt you would have impressed old professor Sloan (the one who posed the question) with this fun and lighthearted analysis. I'm so glad I made the request (I shall not hesitate to do so again whenever some writing or other overwhelms me). It was the last line that had me stumped this time: I couldn't see how it was the youth that "must leave ere long." Maybe it's clumsier, but "To love that which [must leave thee] ere long" seems more logical. Much gratitude, Andy.