SLEEPING BEAUTY AND A WASTE OF SHAME
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?
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
By patiently rolling tides—Gloop!
Night veils halo the moon’s
Mute howls. It’s a death-chained mute,
And all skulls howl. Clouds lend
The poor thing’s blind, scar-pocked face
A caul, and the moon,
Which drowns in daylight, can now
Swim in the squid-inks
Of an evening’s oceans. Or else clouds
Dissolve and unveil luminous
Phases of the moon’s impudent nudity,
Crescent, gibbous, or whole.
But the stars’ blazing zodiacs of chaos,
Distant and brilliant,
Or planetary and stained intense pastels,
Mars red, Venus green
Or chartreuse, are heavens’ compounding
Of comprehension’s foul
Comedy. We can’t see very clearly,
Deep or far, so we gaze
In gloom and construe astral advice
And warning from faith’s
Tales of heroic pathos for paradoxical
Truth. Indeed, every
Sleeping beauty is an island awakened
By a dinghy, canoe, or skiff’s
Rude kiss, a prow grinding briny sand,
And paths or rights-of-way
Are scars or omens endorsing a misled
Life’s racehorse blinders.
Kenneth Rosen lives and writes in Portland, Maine. He swims daily in Portland's public pools and before that ran marathons, one 50-mile ultra, a race up Mt. Washington’s auto road, one up Sugarloaf Mountain, and many other distance races throughout New England. He's published poetry and reviews in hundreds of journals, and ten poetry collections. His latest, Gomorrah, is a collaboration with Portland artist, Richard Wilson, on love’s illuminated life. Rosen taught at The University of Southern Maine, and was Fulbright Scholar with commissions in Cyprus, Egypt, and Bulgaria. He founded and directed USM’s Stonecoast Writers’ Conference for many years, where he was awarded the annual Distinguished Faculty Award and held its Russell Chair.