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Hamlet's shield

In the book of Saxo Grammaticus, where the story of Hamlet (née Amlethus) is first told, Hamlet survives the act of his revenge. First he pins his false uncle’s men drunken beneath their festival tent and burns the palace around them; then he finds his uncle’s bed and there, with a needless fillip of cunning, first warns Claudius (née Feng) that Hamlet is come for his revenge, then kills him as he rises with his own sword – while his uncle fumbles to draw Hamlet’s, previously riveted through for the seeming-mad Hamlet’s own protection.

This bloody-minded Hamlet’s first act as king is to command his story – from the murder of his father through the accomplishment of his splendidly premeditated revenge – all to be painted on a great shield for him to carry.

Remember that a knight’s shield was as good as his name – the means by which he would be known in battle and in travel, known both to friend and foe. Having become king, Hamlet desires that his story shall protect him and that he shall be known by his story. Both terms of this resolution come to pass in an unexpected way. Soon Hamlet falls into the hands of Hermutrude, Queen of Scotland – wise, clever, beautiful, proud, unwed. So impressed is she with his story – with the more than human cunning of his revenge – that she decides first to spare his life, and second to wed him – he the only accepted and the only surviving of her many suitors.

The shield itself is of course invisible in Shakespeare, though I cannot call it absent. By his story Hamlet enters the company of kings – so Fortinbras hails him; by his story Hamlet is known, when Horatio tells it before the confused witnesses of Hamlet’s end in a Hamlet ending; and by his story Hamlet is saved – saved from England and returned to Denmark that he may end – in the Spartan phrase – with his shield or on it – but not without a shield.


Bourgeois is a curse word. When I read the word bourgeois, I generally stop reading. When it slips out, I forgive it. But when the author persists in repeating it, as if they have just made a discovery, I leave.

Yet I am not sure that I disbelieve in the bourgeois. At times I almost see a class of people – a very large class of people – who have in common a quality that only bourgeois names: they contrive to live in their time as its living posterity. They are free in their judgments and free in their indifference because for them anything that really happens, happens in the past. Then the feeling passes, and once again I see people whose characters are separately conditioned by their particular situation and occupation – not by some class oversoul.

Of course I accept the existence of the strict-sense bourgeois, the medieval burghers – I accept that the world I live in is descended from the one they created. But trying to understand the world in terms of class makes me uneasy (and not only because if there were a bourgeois, they would not be the masters but the helots of our capitalism, pressed between the entitled poor and the empowered rich). No, there is a brink ahead; its name is Marx. I feel the same way when I try to understand the world in terms of markets – there is a brink ahead; its name is Mises. But the Marxist case is more uncomfortable than the libertarian, because libertarian ideas pass on libertarian credit. Marx is the philosopher we agree with under other names. When You-Know-Who is mentioned we throw salt over our shoulders and intone: “He was wrong in his conclusions but right in his basic approach,” or “He was wrong about everything, but at least he cleared away old ideas that were even more wrong.” But folk magic will not protect you if you look into the forbidden books. To read Marxists, to follow principles familiar to you and found among all educated people of good will – to follow these principles step by step plausibly to inhumane conclusions, is to realize how untenable the compromise is. You cannot chain up the devil indoors; you must serve him or put him out. Either social class is a valid principle and deserves to be applied far beyond its present polite limits; or social class is an invalid principle, and any current idea which depends on it should be recalled and melted down. But what else is there? Whenever I ask the question I feel a tense quiet like the party when the parents’ car pulls up early – because if Marx was just wrong then somewhere all the old grave solemn words are waiting to return.

(If you substitute psychology for economics, Freud for Marx, cognitive psychology for libertarianism and neurosis for class, the above essay contains another essay.)


I write poetry but I will not call myself a poet. My experiments in poetry are as much tinkering as writing. The way meter, phrase, caesura, and alliteration combine into poems fascinates me like an exhibition watch, or a dissection. I try to follow the articulations and disarticulations; to test my understanding, I try to build or animate for myself. But prose has never failed me; I turn thoughts into poems not because I must, but because I can. And for the most difficult thoughts, I turn to prose first.

In writing about poetry it seems obligatory either to defend or diagnose Modern Poetry. But there is too much to generalize about, and I do not want to generalize or judge. I only want to ask a question. “If poetry did not exist, would anyone invent it?” It seems to me that all poems now must answer this question; and that most of them answer “no.”

(Admittedly, I dislike hermeticism in poetry. I am indifferent to whether poetry is accessible – inaccessibility no more vitiates good poetry than accessibility excuses bad poetry – but I resent hermeticism, not because it is elite, but because it is the ape of elitism. A secret society imitates how an elite looks from the outside, substituting loyalty for merit and ritual for sympathy. [That is, an elite is the only true secret society.] When poetry has a hermetic seal, I am content to leave it shut.)

How could poetry be invented in a world that reveres songwriting? It has the flavor of a brainstorm: “You know how there’s that piano piece, right – ‘Song Without Words’? Well how about a song without music?” Remember how uncertain the boundaries of poetry and song have always been. Much that is read as poetry was written as song or chant. And modern singers are adept at setting poetry to music.

It is not even cheaper anymore to be a poet than to be a songwriter. If you add up the cost of your Moleskines you will have saved little over the cost of a laminate guitar, an electronic tuner, a digital recorder, and a copy of Guitar for Feckless Morons. Three chords will get you far; if you can type, you can fret. If your poem cannot be set to music, why not call it prose? What give a special name to prose with whitespace? Why elevate a typographic distinction into a literary one? And if your poem can be set to music, why should anyone pay attention if you cannot be bothered to take the extra step?

Music only vitiates the form of poetry; photography displaces the need for poetry. The impulse to preserve, embody, and share an experience, the impulse poetry satisfies, photography satisfies just as well and much more easily. Poetry is intensely osmotic. Doggerel is not inept poetry, but dry poetry – poetry squeezed from a mind already drained of what poetry should absorb. Photography is another valve on the same vessel. If you would be a poet, leave your camera behind.

Poetry will go on losing: losing to music, losing to photography. It has already lost; yet I will not give up on it. Poetry has been cornered before and survived. Writing relieved poetry of its responsibility for history; printing relieved poetry of its role in education. Textbooks of math and grammar were once written in verse, to aid memorization; that is a revival nobody wants. Now recording and photography are relieving poetry of its responsibility for contemplation and confession. What is left for it, I do not know.

Poetry does not need a savior. The question has been answered, many times. But each poet who has found an answer has found their own answer. No one has established a general answer that imitators can build on. And simply being original cannot be the answer. Imitation, both imitating and being imitated, is indispensable. An art where every achievement is unique, where nothing can be built on, is unsustainable. And an art where only genius is adequate is not worthwhile for anyone, genius included.

“If poetry did not exist, would anyone invent it?” Because I cannot answer this question, I am not a poet. I will call you poet if you can.