top of page

Headlines - Kenneth Rosen


I’ve been thinking all day about Shakespeare’s phrase, in Sonnet 129, “a waste of shame,” especially the word ‘waste,’ fulcrum upon which his poem gets launched and lurches into its angry uneasiness. This is in connection with the writing, sharing and revising of art—

poems, in my case—which I always discover myself prematurely sharing, and thus, soon in “a waste of shame,” specifically, the hot tightening of the skin on my face, then falling into an oubliette of hopelessness, sharing to begin with tainted with nuisance, sharing a revision “a waste of shame,” for its corruption of a kindly, charitable opportunity, and for one becoming, inevitably, a pest and pestilence.

Shakespeare wrote quickly and revised constantly. Of course he was writing about “lust in action,” not about writing, revising and sharing—though he presumably had to impose his revisions on actors who'd already memorized their lines. But I’ve begun to think revision, like regret, entails the courtship and embrace of shame, in both the artistic and erotic arenas.

Without transcending the resignation implicit in accepting grimly the ruinous oubliette of shame, without gripping the Hellish end of the dialectical stick—quill, keyboard, or brush—whose other, horribly inseparable end, was Heavenly hope, the joy of dwelling in life, writing, and making art, at least among personalities like myself, life, art and hope could grind to a halt.

Some people can’t bear to revise. What you see or saw is what get or got. It is not that way with me. Here is the famous sonnet which bears the explosive phrase, “waste of shame,” that verbal grenade or pineapple which launches this lurching poem onto its path of no return.

The poet Bill Knott, who died in 2014, was said to slip into libraries and bookstores to correct revised poems on the shelf for loan or in books for sale. David Lehman, editor of the well-known, annual series, BEST AMERICAN POEMS, tells of Knott at one time withdrawing a poem elected for publication in the series, and when Knott was pressured and implored, he finally put a stop to things by writing or crying over the phone, “Why can't all of you leave me alone and let me write my crappy poems!”

I like this story, find it comforting, confident I’d let Lehman publish my crappy poem and wallow in waste and shame. Been there, after all, and done that. When Dvorak was in America, he abandoned a cello concerto he'd begun and wrote another, far more chaotic one, which expressed his anguished concern for his ailing wife, dedicating to her, his new concerto, which he also entitled, quite ambiguously, or equivocally, LEAVE ME ALONE. Alone in “a waste of shame?” Or was he quoting her.

The spirit animating all this is apologetic, hopefully exculpating the potential annoyance of my appending, at the bottom of this, the latest version of my “Sleeping Beauty.” I hope, Knott-headedly, I don't go through all this again, but who knows. Isn’t revision the scarring of islands with paths?

KR, 6.19.2022


William Shakespeare

Sonnet 129: Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,

Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had

Past reason hated as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so,

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.



All islands are sleeping beauties,

And may have placid coves

Of sloped, amnesiac, golden sand:

Sleep’s memories erased