Something from Tutoring

I haven’t made a secret of stepping up my freelance work, which has for some years included a fair bit of tutoring. Although I am outside formal teaching structures–for good, this time, I’m pretty sure–I do still very much enjoy working with people who want to learn things as they work through ideas and come to have fuller, better understandings of the world and what people have said about it.

William Shakespeare, associated with John Taylor - NPG 1
Yes, it’s him, shown in the Chandos Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery and used under a Creative Commons license for commentary.

One such tutorial recently saw me working with a high school student in New York City whose teacher had asked for responses in verse to verse. The poem in question when I worked with the student was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, the one beginning “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” It’s a fairly standard piece for high schoolers to treat, in my experience, and it’s not exactly uncommon in college classrooms, either; I’ve taught it, and more than once, as well as reading it more times than that. So it wasn’t really a hard thing for me to walk the student through a closer reading of the text than they‘d yet done, and it wasn’t much harder to help the student get their work in line with the sonnet, itself, mimicking its form closely to make the response more targeted and emphatic.

It occurred to me that the exercise is a good one–not that I’d ever done such a thing with my students; my pedagogy was…not innovative so much as solid and predictable, but structure’s far from a bad thing in the classroom–and that it might be useful for me to do something like it. I can use the practice, always, and it’s not a bad thing to show what all I can do.

Another fairly common reading in high school and college classrooms is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:

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
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring 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;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

As is typical of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poem is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhyming in three quatrains and a couplet, with a (somewhat shaded) turn into the couplet. There are any number of readings of the poem, of course, ranging from the romantic to the lewd, and I’m happy to get into them–another time. For now, what matters is how to address a response to the poem. The assignment on which my client was working asked for a personal response; as we conferred, the student and I arrived at the idea of answering the poem with another, something like the Marlowe / Raleigh / Donne sequence that receives classroom attention. (It occurs to me that responding to the Donne piece, “The Bait,” would also be a good exercise.) If I follow that model here, I find that I am given three options:

  1. Agree with the poet,
  2. Disagree with the poet, or
  3. Go off in a completely different direction.

Of the three, the first seems…boring. The third is likely not to be productive; I go off on tangents already without doing so on purpose. This leaves the second option, disagreeing with the poet. And that obliges me to have an idea of what the poem is saying. Fortunately, again, there are any number of readings out there, among which are surface-level interpretations–love is only real if it stays in place as it is. It’s an easy enough interpretation to contest; nothing that lives fails to change, and things cannot improve if they remain as they are. If love is a living thing, then, and something that can deepen and be enriched over time–and there are many who argue as much–then “the message of the poem” is wrong; disagreeing is easy enough to do.

Foregrounding that disagreement is also easy enough to do. The poem’s own lines can–and probably should, in the circumstance–be used against it, such that the response opens more or less as the original closes. To wit: “You never writ, nor no man ever loved.” The line makes clear both what it responds to and the thrust of the response, good things to do for such an assignment.

That much set, and knowing that the form of the poem should be mimicked, it stands to reason that the points the poet raises should be taken in order for the succeeding lines of the poem. One result of such taking might well follow:

You never writ, nor no man ever loved,
If love is never love that, finding change,
Stays as it is when it first ever moved
Or strives not living patterns to arrange
In hopes of bringing its love to the mark
That looks on tempests and is not shaken.
No, use will change the shape of every bark
That plies the waves, whatever standard’s taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, oh no, but is its flow’r
And fruit that ripens not all in one go,
But in its season and appointed hour
If tended well, made better, and let grow.
No thing that is made better stays the same,
And stasis gives the lie to goodness’s claim.

It is a rough cut, of course, a first draft of something usefully reworked. I am apt to blot my lines, after all, knowing well that matters can always be made better. But it’s also a good start, and no journey proceeds but that it has a beginning.

I’d be happy to put my talents to work for you; let me know what all you need written or taught, and we’ll talk! Or send me a spot of help here, investing in my future!

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