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National Poetry Month, 2014 William Shakespeare's Birthday

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Today, April 23, is the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon. A playwright, poet, and artistic innovator, Shakespeare's life and works have had a profound impact on the English language, and on our concepts about life, love, and the everyday.We are familiar with his words even if we may not know it.

From his tragic play, Hamlet, Act III Scene 1, as he lays dying, Polonius says to Ophelia, “ This above all. To thine own self be true. And it must follow as the night, the day, thou canst not be false to any man.”

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
― William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
― William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

“All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.”
― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

“Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

In honor of his birthday and in honor of National Poetry Month, 2014, I share this story with you.

One of my favorite moments with poetry happened when I was teaching middle school at St. Andrew School in Pasadena. The lovely and lively group of 7th and 8th graders in my classes, approached the weekly assignment to memorize one poem with some doubt and concern. The bookshelves were filled with books of poetry, and the only two limitations I put on the assignment were these. The poetry had to be published and recognized as having been written by a poet. No greeting card ditties. Additionally, the poems could not include their own, yet. I wanted the students to explore and discover all types of poetry. We would write our own poetry later in the term. At first everyone came in with short pieces, 3-4 lines, and that was fine. The assignment was to commit something to memory and find something that they really liked. There was no minimum or maximum on the length of each poem.

After the first couple of weeks, everyone understood that they could have fun with the assignment, so poems got longer and their choices got more and more interesting. One day, an adorable young man who was one of the class leaders, though a shy and quiet person, stood up and began reciting one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He began,

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,"

A hush falls over the room as he goes on.

"That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;"

Imagine if you will, a group of 13-14 year old young men and women hearing one of their own reciting, from memory, in a voice that spoke each word eloquently, clearly, and with meaning, a beautiful love sonnet, of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116

"Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom."

By now, we are all completely transfixed on each word and the flow of images that he is bringing to life for us, heads down on folded arm, our hearts welling up with such sweet joy and love for him...

"If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved."

As he completes the last words, and hesitates, we sit mesmerized by the experience of his recitation, some of us near tears, others laughing with joy. We then burst into applause and I nearly collapsed on my desk. No recitation of any words of Shakespeare will ever hold more meaning nor stay longer in my mind than the words by this beautiful young man that day. We all fell in love with him, and he opened a door for everyone in the room to explore, and take greater and greater risks as we then had every young man in the room who witnessed this feat, stand before us each week and recite all of Shakespeare’s sonnets for the whole class to enjoy.

It wasn’t just the door to Shakespeare that opened that day; it was the door to daring and discovery of the beauty of words recited aloud in poetry. We recited Langston Hughes’ Hold Fast to Dreams together that year in front of the school, and read Gwendolyn Brooks, Christinna Rossetti, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, Henry Vaughan, Alexander Pope, Keats, Shelley, Joyce, and Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and all the New England poets and authors (as I had just returned from living in Connecticut and Massachusetts). Wilfred Owen, t.s.eliot, Stephen Vincent Binay, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W.H. Auden. The list went on and on, and later, we wrote our own poetry, and that was exciting and fun as well.

Last year I invited friends over for a night of poetry reading. I had no idea what to expect; neither did anyone else. We had an uproariously good time. People read or recited their favorite poems and talked about their favorite poets. They read their own poetry, and we laughed, we cried, and we thoroughly enjoyed poetry, even those who had no idea how much fun, how touching, and how true poetry can be. Rumi said, “The very center of your heart is where life begins. The most beautiful place on earth.” Find life and love in your heart, and share it through poetry.

To learn more about Shakespeare, and to read more of his poetry, visit Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poetry Foundation.

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