My life in London began in the mind,
and it remains an imagined city:
no matter how long I live here, London
will only endure as my own creation,
more a memory out of my own head,
a stage that has been waiting since before
the Romans for me to step upon it.
This is the curse of my trade, that the world
passes into poetry while I watch,
and with such constant, untiring force.
Only Stratford is less unreal to me,
the place of my first, original forms,
and London is merely that village lifted
to a deeper, more populous, music,
a speech that still shakes my spirit,
drumming me bodiless into the night,
longing for touch but long since satisfied
to be smoke in the air, caught in the rafters.
Henley Street is still hidden within me,
the butter and honey put in my mouth
only moments after emerging from
my mother. And that large house in Stratford –
the one with many rooms but no secrets
and where nothing was ever hidden –
became the butter and honey of my plays:
announcements of love and its denial,
a place of suddenness, reunion, and crime,
the setting and stage for family life and self-inquiry,
or the undoing of mind and country.
What child doesn’t feel that his first home is
the scene of all human interaction –
but what child never tires of that impulse?
The house on Henley Street had its pictures
and tapestries, the first invented faces
and scenes for me to study – costume and pose –
and my father’s workshop opened onto
the street as a place for daily performance,
to barter and brag, to gossip and speak.
The first stage I knew was that morning road,
while the second world – an entire world –
was Ovid, Ovid and his books of changes,
a complete population sprung from one mind,
none of it new but all of it remade,
imitation a more complete invention.
Even as a boy Ovid’s joy was obvious to me,
the delight he took in simply telling,
the pleasure and music of creation
inseparable from story, character, and action.
I was lucky to have him so early,
an invoked spirit and first specimen.
My memories begin with the river,
the running Avon I heard everywhere
just as the bells commemorated the dead
or told us it was time for school, water
and the bells and the thrush’s song, the lark’s,
the same bell and water and birdsong heard
for centuries by everyone who lived
from February down to November,
the round from sowing to reaping, and spring
to summer, the rhythm of heat and chill,
and the pig-killing preceding winter,
the great long year rhyming and coming round
again as if it were a play put on
as a way for me to comprehend
how repetition dances with variation
and how improvisation and sudden change
have no better teacher than time, the year,
and nature. Even history is nothing
next to the earth’s broad moods and sympathies.
So when the Queen’s Men arrived in Stratford
and took the parts of acrobat and actor,
clown and king and courtier – and their plays
a porridge of farce and piety,
high seriousness and necessary
comedy, all cooking in the same scene –
this wasn’t news to me, that performance
is the rapid exchange of different parts,
that acting is our central occupation,
adapting ourselves to every hour,
a face and a mask for each encounter.
There is nothing that is not of interest,
every word and situation and trade,
every expert term or shout in the street.
And if you find a life to interrogate,
and then a hundred, and then a thousand,
the threads of each can be pulled apart and
rearranged into how many stories,
how many imagined lives. The constant
accumulation of human details
is all there is, and the sympathetic ear
fueling the pen to provoke them again,
anecdote and memory made revenant
and moving the world to familiarity,
to weep at a story or laugh at a life
they no longer remember was theirs first.
I sat one afternoon in a large field
and watched the crowd swarm the theater there,
a great unruly gathering pressing me,
and I saw them vanish into that space,
the story and the building swallowing
them for the hours of pageant and play.
I slept in that same field so that later
I could see them in the early evening,
emerging as if from the underworld
and enlivened by what they had witnessed –
and their homeward bodies again pressed me.
I thought, what a thing to give my life to,
the stage sometimes a large room or spare yard,
sometimes boards placed over beer barrels,
or a farmhouse, just a wall and a stairwell,
all of it made real by convincing speech,
by the pact made with a turbulent crowd
moved by the majesty of my illusions,
the drink and energy of huge stories,
the mutual joy rising from poetry.
And then there she was, or always had been:
Anne Hathaway some name in my ears,
Anne Hathaway from a friend’s family,
older than me and the eldest daughter,
brown hair and a farmer’s body brewing ale
and getting at the butter and the bread,
always busy, and then busy with me.
If she couldn’t read or write, she could talk,
her words the most natural performance,
and she could listen and watch, witnessing
my earliest speeches and poetry.
I was never so comfortable again,
and so unafraid, than when I discovered
ways to love her, to please another mind,
to uncover another’s heart and flesh,
two young bodies already old with talk.
But my love was less than my wit, my inventiveness.
There’s nothing to match that energy,
my mind and then my body full of words
like a child’s top spun just to watch it spin,
like water that cannot keep from boiling.
I saw that Anne and my words weren’t two songs
that I could learn to share myself among,
but that only one could truly own me,
woo me, seduce me, win me – and that Anne
wasn’t that one, that nobody could be,
that, compared to my plays, no human being
could renew themselves so constantly,
and that if Anne had a similar impulse
I too would wilt in her eyes and become
some plaything. And while I’ve paused to ask why –
why the filling of some overflowing world,
why my mind and heart should be so profuse,
and lavish such care on mere scenery,
but pause and become staid in the presence
of someone more alive and various
than any name called out upon the stage –
my only answer is always longing.
Only longing burns my flesh properly,
and sometimes I can only keep from despising
all that my body has needed and done
by putting that disgust into a speech.
Sometimes the waste of infatuation
is only justified by the scenery,
a page the better replacement for the bed,
or indeed the act outdone by an act
on the stage, and with all the world looking.
What a relief, thousands instead of two.
I would see you and touch you with my eyes,
I would wrap you inside my feigning words
and hide you behind a pose or a plot,
I would save you from the day or the time
when I saw you in your marvelous flesh
as you passed with a gesture and a joke,
hurried by appointment and appetite
and unable to pause or see my eyes
and how they preserve you, a single breath
I love and set living on the stage.
The Dark Lady of my sonnets is ink
and the Fair Youth there is an unmarked page:
they are dark and fair because they are slight –
they lack the scenery and surprise of
the stage, they are empty of timbre
and tone and the high gathered reaction
of actor and crowd, the player and played.
But I love them bodiless, dark, and fair,
because before they are seen I hear them,
before Burbage goes at them they are mine,
before they’re quoted by enthusiasts
or pirated into sloppy quartos
they stand in my room, naked and begging
for speech, and their pleasure is my pleasure,
they let me watch and I watch while they act,
when what they say is still my own secret.
But then the days when it’s impossible
and the celibate body rebels from
the promiscuous mind, and memory
asks for more than the table of restraint
and the food that is only looked upon,
when only the writing hand has any
pleasure. But why can’t the whole body
approach that woman there – why just the eyes?
It’s never led me anywhere but down.
Love is a plot that I love to write but
love is nothing I can pretend to live.
There are no good marriages in my plays,
no happy ones, no partnerships – unless
maybe Macbeth and his wife, one vicious
mind shared out over two terrible bodies.
I’m good at that, I’m satisfied and pleased
where the ghost of the nursery hovers,
I’m good at impossible betrothals,
I’m good at jealousy early or late,
and the lightning of meeting, and the dregs
of regret or old age, and the sewer of bad children.
What I can’t do – what nobody can do –
is turn a good marriage into drama:
the jealousy that such scenes would provoke,
the bitterness over beauty and time and steadfastness –
it’s not a feeling that will fill the seats.
It isn’t enough to be beautiful,
to shine in mind, in body or habit.
Beauty must be possessed, relished, enjoyed:
the mind given to expansion and depth,
the day and year to rounds of renewal –
the beauty of time, and time the teacher
of rhythm, change and accumulation –
and the body should be used, should be seen,
should be longed for and savored – the body
should amuse and make us smile, make us laugh,
the body should be free to act or to rest,
the body fearless when touched or touching,
one body and another devoted
to calm adoration, to calm or to fire.
The sadness is that I’ve had ideas
that lived longer than my son’s eleven years
and that those ideas – the sound of words,
the company of unwritten characters –
continue to put on shape and substance
while my child’s vitality is detained underground.
I’m ashamed of this garden where my wit
still catches the sun and swallow the rain,
still takes pleasure in the overflowing
of rhetoric and story and staging,
but that Stratford, which nursed me and my mind,
should take my son back, and never send him out.
What are words, to his form fully dressed?
What are my words, to him repeating them?
If grief will keep me close to him, Hamnet,
I’ll make a friend of grief, be fond of it,
and we three will go walking together.
Mr. Christopher Marlowe, he haunts me:
his nonsense about tobacco and boys,
his secret work for or against Catholics,
his familiars in the Privy Council
who kept him safe but also got him killed,
his atheism, lust, and alchemy,
his beginnings not so different than mine
that led him to university and
distraction, to the dilution and spread
of the focus, power, and exuberance
that I’ve only given to my words.
His poetry pummeled me, his love for
threat’ning the world with high astounding terms –
but I soon learned his tricks, and overleapt them.
So when he died, the way was clear for me,
the road crowded with no equals or rivals,
a knife to the eye over an unpaid bill
like a burst dam in my mind, and permission
to play to the end, but live with restraint.
Let the poets tired out with all this
destroy themselves with drink and jealousy,
the ones bored with life and the writer’s silence,
or in love with blasphemy or mere fame –
let them burn their university wit
and go down in their instability,
their intensity and rages, and the hungers
they’ll never wield longer than a few years,
confusing themselves with their characters
and their instability with godliness,
as if creation were a thunderstorm
of the senses, rather than the slow sound
of discipline and accumulation,
of sometimes listening more than living,
of there never being rest or release –
let them waste, deflate, and bury themselves,
and let them blame youth, age or the wide world
for what they were simply afraid to do,
loving taste rather than the thought of it,
and the held bodies of men and women
instead of how they stood or smelled or felt
when poured through the fine screen of poetry,
words that shape life and obliterate it.
It is puzzling to think of my brother –
born of the same mother, dead before me,
never seized by marriage or by children,
never it seems besotted or consumed,
even by mistake – no rash decisions,
no impulse towards lust or procreation
or the irrational desire to see
a drop of his own life in a child’s face,
a child’s moods or inclinations, the rest
mysteriously new and separate.
What imagination was in his head,
what words, what worlds, what possible happiness,
having never left Henley Street or Stratford?
Perhaps I judge him out of jealousy,
perhaps the love I claim for the clamor
of my mind – where ideas burst and hatch
with endless, unbalanced inspiration –
perhaps I envy the quiet I assume to give him,
the peace that never has to be put down,
a morning, afternoon and evening
overrun by no desire to invent.
And now he is in the ground, gratefully.
What peace he and the dead must know, what peace
The stage shows me the wisdom of longing:
to look, to gaze, but to only fulfill
through acting the part or writing the words.
I have never known another answer
to life than the intimacy of speech:
the silent speech of watching, the held back
words turned into a story on the stage.
The love I know is a conversation
and ambition but a soliloquy,
and all of it is talking to myself.
I have no desire to be a lover,
or a king, young or old or a traveler,
when I can write them all and be satisfied.
Thought alone consumes me so totally
that I’ve never longed for experience,
and excitement or sadness only come
when I think of the beauty of a man
or a woman and imagine myself
with them, and give them a soul and a sound
I will never hear from their mouths, or feel
from their bodies as they pass on the street.
I watch and touch with my heart, and create
the quiet I couldn’t bear in person.
My room and my window are history,
and they save me the high struggle of speech
by giving the whole world the words to say
while I listen and am left alone.
How I love the mystery of engagement,
how I steal an old story and improve
the poetry, how I surround my people
with dynamism, rhythm and cadence –
but somehow they can also back away,
the central particle of the drama
but also its detached shadow, removed
and severed as I am, their creator,
but with no final care in their outcome.
I am to here to transcribe vitality.
Where’s the error of living in the mind,
or the mistake of living through others?
A child learns to live by imitation,
the pious are refined by the divine
model, lovers become one another
and our kings disappear behind titles
and the generations that bend their backs.
We are images more than anything,
and we imagine nearly everything
more than we ever experience them –
yet somehow I’m the one eluding life,
as if everyone isn’t equally
elusive and comparatively fugitive.
I’ve no more escaped from the terror
of life than anyone who wears their clothes
just to hide their body and heart, or who
locates in old words or the newest thoughts
the only way they can attempt to speak.
But you argue in the street while I write a play,
and this flood from my fingers,
this love of movement and vitality –
it terrifies me, astounds me, and it won’t stop.
Like a baited bear my mind lashes out
and nothing it confers is ever finished.
I will continue as I always have,
willing myself forward regardless,
a thousand bodies playing in my bones,
the will of millions inside my veins,
the beauty of men and woman – all bodies –
and the glory of ambiguity,
and the only God I know, the only
God I’ve learned from, willingly brimming
with every form. To will is what I am,
to watch these things appear from my pencil
and shake the spirit of my silent room.
What is lust and bawdry compared to this,
a rut with our clothes on or a bad joke,
what are titles, names, and categories,
but the scared comforts of singular lives
that have never known a quadrillion,
my body barely some smoke that they shake
their experience into, pure rhetoric,
pure joy, the sound of overflowing life.
The story must partly be spectacle,
pure spectacle. A tale told without
high pageant, or a show put on
which ignores the demand for narrative –
they’re both blank, either too high or too low.
Mix plain speech with poetry, piety
with comedy, the murder of a king
with a porter who needs to take a piss,
or the prick jokes, the scut jokes, the buggery,
the joy of turning a rut into words,
or making the game into high song.
God made the world with no demarcations,
and weeping is never ruined by humor,
or a good joke or a bad word poisoned
by their proximity to tragedy.
Laughter and lamentation only exist
because of this mix, this miscellany.
Why shouldn’t I double myself and play
both the ghost of the dead king and his usurper?
These aren’t sermons or dumb lessons I write,
but displays of life in all its mixture.
If life is my aim, how can I take sides,
and if I want it to convince and move,
how can my plays betray anything
but a universal sympathy?
Those men and women I see on the stage
are not living collections of motives
or husks of emotional mathematics,
and my pen is no dissector’s scalpel.
I am interested in energy,
not politics or my own opinions.
My job is not to convert or convince
but to show life alive in the sea of
the moment – and where does mere motive survive
in some simple classification
of violence, laughter, or history?
To express my own anger or affection –
this is what the weak do, and their words die
after their moment of power has passed.
Go to the preacher for the child’s moral
and come to me for the experience.
I am most present when I am absent,
I am a hand and a pen and a desk,
I am fingertips an inch away, but
invisible, never touching, not there.
I am eyes in the crowd, ears in the room,
I am what I am, mute in most company,
and with no form or body to be seen.
No one would hear the unwritten real me,
so I dress it in drugs (in Greece or in Rome),
and the thousands who pack the Globe to watch
are the ones I need but cannot understand.
I am bound to the mast of my opposites
who would rather watch than make for themselves.
Maybe my mistake with Hamlet was to
give Ophelia the madness and love
that the young prince could fear from a distance,
or put on and off himself as was convenient.
But he suffered from deliberation
and doubt – two diseases I also own:
I fear the life of titles and action
just as much as the unhinged mind and heart.
True madness and real love are beyond my pen
because there is no iambic for them,
no rhymes to describe such loss of control.
So, give the madness to another, and then,
hidden behind the scaffold of another plot,
or the pattern of youth or comedy,
put the kind of love I’ve only longed for.
The stage is no place for reality,
not bitter reality, not brutal reality,
but for boundaries and expected traffic,
for two hours of entertaining time.
Because who would sit through such hours of
Ophelia, or the brain wrack of love
between two people who know nothing else,
who are their own stage, their own audience,
or whose moods, depressions, dolour or madness
are so slight, private and unplayable
that we should be ashamed to watch and listen?
You and I, we want the safety of what
seems, after all: we want to hear the stage
creak, not our own deafening house. We want
the crowd of players and those in their seats,
not the naked intimacy of two.
Hamlet will make them smile for centuries,
and Ophelia become a pretty picture.
There will be no poems about my end, or
about my daughter, witty as I am –
poetry and plays cannot touch that calm,
the calm of death, or the calm that kin can bring.
I have authored myself and my daughter – that is all,
and between us we are spread over my plays.
From Anne came my jealousy and longing,
my lengthened youth of pretend and costume,
and my hidden, monastic middle age,
a nearly celibate eye in London,
my imagination some purgatory
that my plays dipped me into, and pulled me out of.
Give me a late fever or a hard drink
shared too fully with old friends, put this balding
universe and its body into the ground,
and it will still burn in Susannah’s head,
The weight of life and imagination –
of action, reflection, and memory –
will rest more sweetly in her, as it should.
How long have we been dancing together,
how much laughter, how many jigs and jokes,
how many identities late-revealed,
how much doubling of man and woman,
how much devotion to energy and change
and the enjoyment of impossibility –
how much affection from the pit and the seats,
their eyes and ears bodiless as they live
another life and can forget their own,
while the players become part and costume,
and I neglect my own high loneliness
and silence, my reservation and withdrawal,
to imagine the entire spectacle,
perhaps the oldest of our human joys –
forgetting our own lives through imitation
of another, through music and dance,
through uttering what we would never say,
or of going where our courage fails us
but needing it so completely that we are convinced
by the show? What is this vitality,
this need for imagination that makes
life bearable and beautiful at all?
There’s no end to the debate over just how much of the physical freedom expressed in Walt Whitman’s poetry came from experience, but I’ve become quite attached to the image of him living mostly through longing, through desires that were only ever fulfilled in words. In the same way, the apparently great poet of sociability was often seen, sitting lonely and quiet, in a New York city tavern. That has also been a very moving image to me. I was so struck by all of this a few years ago that I wanted to write a poem about it. But almost immediately the thought came: “It can’t be directly about Whitman.” And then: “It should be about Shakespeare.” That, anyway, is the germ of the following poem, which sent me into his biography. And with Shakespeare as well, the evidence of his life (scant though it is) and poetry can point to disgust with sex, eventual celibacy, or a sprawling sexual life; and as with Whitman, there’s no reason for there to be any one answer. Wrestling with these aspects in the lives of two great poets opened the door to imagining the creative joy and supreme isolation that they must have experienced, as well as occasional celebrity. I’m sure my own versions of the first two have snuck in, as well. Finally, knowing that I could never match up to either poet was also, in its own way, the most freeing thing.
Introduction by Tim Miller
Tim Miller’s most recent book is the essay collection Notes from the Grid. His other books include the poetry collection Bone Antler Stone, and the long narrative poem, To the House of the Sun. He is online at wordandsilence.com, and he talks poetry, mythology, and creativity on the podcast Human Voices Wake Us.
Listen to Tim Miller read and discuss his poem on his podcast