Department of English

Spring 2012 Edition

Storytellers

Amanda Mills
Expressive 2010 2nd Place
Professor: Dr. Jessica Tvordi

I tap my fingers relentlessly on the desk. The sound is uneven, the accent on every other beat. It sounds like a bad audio track of a horse clip-clopping its way down a country lane, but it helps me think. I love the challenge of the sonnet form. The rhyme scheme is simple enough, but the iambic pentameter can be difficult. That is why I enjoy it so much.

There is something completely engrossing in being lost in a repeating rhythm. That horse is going to be trotting for quite a while as I continue to write phrases and erase them when they sound unnatural. After all, iambic pentameter is meant to sound like human speech, though perhaps somewhat lofty and noble.

Shakespeare was brilliant when it came to rendering poetry as speech. His one hundred fifty-four sonnets and thirty-seven plays testify to that fact. I wonder how much he had at home, unpublished, deemed unworthy for other eyes. I glance sideways, to the growing pile I have placed into that category. I turn again to my example poem, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, refocusing on the task at hand. "When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, / I all alone beweep my outcast state." How would it feel to be completely alone? Outcast.

I throw away my old paper, marred by gray smears where lines have been erased too many times. I carve dark ribbons of words into a field of snowy white. Outcast. I add notes as I think of them: cast out, thrown out, force. A list forms beneath my title. Each word has a story to tell, and I pour over them, giving each one its chance. Robin Hood has potential, but he was an outlaw, not an outcast. He had comrades fighting by his side. I cross out “forgotten,” writing “force” next to it. By its very definition, forgetting is unintentional. "Criminal" and “thief” are both possible subjects. I ponder over them for a moment before I continue down the list.

"Traitor" seems to jump off the page. I let my imagination begin to play with details. He is a relatively young man, of noble birth. His betrayal is large. It changes the entire course of a nation. I stop for a moment. Perhaps my man was framed. Perhaps he was the tragic hero, portrayed as the worst of criminals when he was truly a good man.

I cross that out. Regret would isolate him far more powerfully than a false accusation. I wanted him to loathe himself, not the system that placed him there. I did not want him looking for allies. I hesitated for only a moment before giving him this most piteous of stories. Writers in general are cruel to their characters. It makes those characters far more interesting.

I seem to be following Shakespeare’s example well. In the example poem, the speaker has someone he loves to ease his melancholy, but his tragedies have no such provisions. Ophelia has no one to comfort her in her suicide. Othello has no way to repent of his crime. Macbeth loses both his honor and his wife before he is finally slain.

Should my traitor be killed? Should he be left to wander the earth for all his days, cursing the day he betrayed the country of his birth? That would certainly give him a longer time to feel the consequences of his betrayal. However, my story is just a snapshot of my traitor’s life. He could be an old man, weeping for his mistake as he tells an impressionable youth his sorry tale. He could be a young man, just entering court and not yet knowing that he will be the instrument of destruction for his country. He could be standing before a judge, waiting for his sentence to be spoken. Or, even better, he could be on his way to the executioner.

This seems to speak the most possibilities for my poem. I flip the paper over, sharpen my pencil, and let slow strokes form a string of reason. I begin tapping again, and somehow, the words align to my meter. I write another line, tap, and alter a few words.

The story emerges in its entirety. The sonnet is not from the man’s perspective. It is from the crowd, and these peasants are looking for vengeance. They see no regret, nor would they forgive him if they did. My character has evolved beyond my outline, as all good characters should do, and he does not shy away from his fate. He refuses to exhibit the anguish and misery I had planned for him.

Now, this brings up even more questions. What kind of man would not feel sorrow for a crime that ended up being the deaths of people he knew? What kind of man would face an executioner with pride in his eyes? Whatever I have created, he is far more interesting than an old man bemoaning his fate to the empty desert.

It is possible, too, that he does feel regret, and the speaker is too emotionally involved in the events of the poem to be a reliable narrator. I have not yet decided. In fact, I will probably leave it vague and allow the readers to debate it. My sonnet has become a story that neither begins nor ends with me.

When I look at Shakespeare, I see the same circumstances. I see characters rounded enough to stand on their own, with real motives and pasts that change the course of the story. They act because it is in their personality, rather than because Shakespeare told them to act. They are people beyond the lines that Shakespeare gave them, beyond the scenes in which they appear.

He grounds these characters in innate human truths. His tragedies speak to me because I have seen those failings in myself or my acquaintances. His comedies are some of the few that have lasted through time, because they are based not on references of his age, but on traits and personalities that I see every day. Great tales are not based on outlines, but on life.

In all my writing, my goal is that sense of reality. Even fantasy, even magic, should have relevance to the reader. Shakespeare’s world, whether it be Rome, Padua, or Bavaria, is like fantasy to me. I have not seen these worlds, but I know them, just as I know his characters. They are real to me because I have read Shakespeare’s works.

I look again at Shakespeare’s outcast. He, too, is a man, brought to life by fourteen lines that subsist on the rhythm of a trotting horse. He lives and breathes through the rhythm of language, a rhythm that elevates his story to something beyond mere communication. It has become a work of art.

I turn to my traitor and observer. They may not be Shakespeare, but they live. I can feel their breath in the lines I have given them. I smile down at them like a proud parent, and set the poem in the pile deemed fit for human eyes. I sit back and take out a fresh sheet of paper. They have given me an idea.

Called forth, this lowly cur, to meet his fate,
The sureness of his footsteps hides his fear.
And facing the assembly at the gate,
The ghosts of dead men quietly appear.
These men were killed by avarice and spite,
A crime for which this man shows no regret.
Now, after they were murdered in the night,
They march with him to payment of his debt.
He stands before the unforgiving crowd.
He turns to face the bloody western sky.
His face is white, but too, his eyes are proud,
And proudly, too, does he go on to die.
He closes eyes to those he has betrayed
And takes the righteous fury of the blade.