Act II of Hamlet is where the protagonist begins to exhibit the “antic disposition” he alludes to early in the play, during a private conversation with his best pal, Horatio. He means he will soon be “playing crazy,” allowing him to test and try his uncle and others at court for information about his father’s death. He then becomes the focus of everyone’s concern, particularly when he is seen meandering about and reading a book. “What is it you read, my lord?” Polonius asks, prompting Hamlet’s well-known reply: “Words, words, words.”
How is the actor to say such a line? Flippantly, as if the words mean nothing? Down-heartedly, as if mere words cannot describe much? Or in frustration, implying that words alone — without deeds — are hollow? If I were directing the scene, I’d have Hamlet use all three interpretations, one after the other. For he does mean all three.
Words, words, words. They are all we have sometimes, and they are often entirely limiting. Certainly artists of all kinds feel this way about the tools of their arts: colors, textures, musical notes, bodily movements. Is this really all there is?? Can’t we create more?? In reality, artists do this all the time, stretching their palettes in ever more unusual ways. Shakespeare himself coined dozens of new words, hundreds if you include his creative insults. Anything is fair game for the subject of artistic expression. Painters move to abstraction, musicians into atonality, poets to fragmentation.
But — ironically — there’s the rub. How does an artist, once he or she has had a spark of an idea, know how to begin to express it? Sometimes we can be overwhelmed with choices and struggle to get started.
For wordsmiths, a thesaurus is an essential tool. Finding just the right word in just the right spot can make or break a line in a poem or story. The sound and feel and tone of the word, including its many possible connotations, must be weighed. Do we feel frightened, scared, or horrified? Is the sky endless, vast, or expansive? When I write a poem, this is often the hardest part — committing to a word or phrase when none seems exactly right. If I work with a piece long enough, over time, I’ll often have that glorious “eureka!” moment when the final piece falls into place.
Such was the case with the poem below, which I finished recently. The thing was a much longer and sprawling mess in its first draft. Little by little, I condensed it into its 3 square stanzas, which (I hope) work to enhance the poem’s content and meaning. The metaphor in the last stanza came to me like a gift after some free-floating visualization. I love when that happens.
This poem is about another helpful tool for a wordsmith: crossword puzzles (particularly those in the New York Times, which are hands-down incomparable). I confess, I’m a crossword junkie and have been most of my life. Some might think that partaking in such a regimented, analytical pursuit would be the antithesis to writing a poem, and in some ways I suppose this is true. But it also feeds my love of words. And on some days when my creativity and energy are at a low, it’s comforting to settle in with an empty grid and fill in the little squares, one at a time. If I’m too overwhelmed or preoccupied to read a book, or if I’m in a depressive state, a crossword offers a pleasant distraction. With a New York Times puzzle, you also get the delight of puns, pop culture references, and cleverness in the cluing. (Thank you, genius editor Will Shortz.)
I have no doubt that had crosswords been around in Shakespeare’s time, he would have loved them and possibly written them. (The first one appeared in print in 1924.) After all, those pesky things called sonnets are square-shaped, too!
Again, the limits of this Word Press site prevent me from single-spacing this poem. Each stanza should look like a little SQUARE…. though he middle stanza dwindles a bit (purposefully).
to focus on one word
S U C C I N C T
each letter in its
black on white
so unlike murky life
where drawn shades
keep us clueless
in maudlin mists
mere gravity our
and right angles
lead me to the light
like Jacob’s ladder
these tiny windows
precise and absolute
my daily revelation