Archive for the ‘Controversy!’ Category

Thence to a Lightness: the Madness of English 201

Friday, February 15th, 2013

I teach at a community college in Lower Manhattan. Whatever, it’s fine. Really. This isn’t going to be a post about grade inflation, or political correctness, or how the kids come out of high school not knowing anything. For the most part, the only disadvantage to teaching at a school full of inner-city kids when compared with the schools I’ve taught at full of suburban kids is that I can’t explain everything with Simpsons references. Admittedly, that took a lot of getting used to, but it’s my problem, not theirs.

Mostly, I teach English 201—the required intro lit class. The one where everyone has to write research papers about literature. I love teaching that class. My only complaint about it is the fact that it shouldn’t exist.

Seriously. Why should a bunch of people who want to be nurses or mechanics or EMTs have to write 15-page research papers on Shakespeare or Joyce? And I’m not stereotyping them when I say those are the jobs they want to have. I know because I asked them, and they told me. And then I busted them all for plagiarism, because my job revolves around forcing them to do something they are not capable of doing and then acting surprised when they can’t.

Hang on. I’m not saying Great Literature is useless, or elitist, or whatever. I agree that they should have to read these books, and I’m the first one to say that they’re all capable of understanding and liking them. No-one should graduate from college without being able to name at least one poem that they love, or being able to exit a party in embarrassment and then make themselves laugh by saying “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity, and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Reading literature really does enrich everyone’s life, no matter what the person in question wants to do for the rest of that life. Writing about literature, however, is not the same thing as reading it. Not everyone needs to know how to do that. In fact, almost no-one does. We don’t make people who want to be professors learn how to take apart and rebuild an engine, so why do we make people who want to be mechanics learn how to review a body of scholarship, pick out relevant quotations, and format them properly as citations and sources in support of an argumentative thesis?

Yes, I know that everyone has opinions, and that it is a duty of education to train people to make sure their opinions are well-supported and develop a sense of where those opinions fit in along a continuum of the opinions of experts on the subject. But there is already a class where we teach people to do that—it’s called English 101 (at most schools). We already make freshman take a class where they write research papers about sociopolitical issues (abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, etc.) and have to incorporate and format quotations from authorities in support of their opinion. That’s fine. But then—for some reason—there’s almost always another required course right after that one where we make them do the exact same thing all over again, but this time with literature.

And that, in my opinion, is pointless for everyone who doesn’t want to be an academic.

The reason we’ve never stopped to consider this is that, deep down, we think that everybody secretly wants to be an academic. But they don’t, and for perfectly good reasons. All things considered, we’re the crazy ones, not them. And we need to let go of the egotistical idea that what we are trying to do here is “rescue” people from having to have jobs where they get their hands dirty. Lots of people want to have those jobs, the same way we wanted to be English professors. We’ve been acting on the assumption that everyone really wants to have our job, and that anyone who doesn’t end up with it has been screwed over by society. But that’s simply not the case. The vast majority of people, working-class or otherwise, would rather have a poke in the eye with a sharp stick than our job. It’s like the old joke where the reason the Boy Scout took so long to help the little old lady across the street is because she didn’t want to go.

Let’s take a step back here, and examine how we got into this mess.

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.

The first idea is good, but by the time you get up to step four, what’s going on isn’t good anymore. We need to go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to accomplish Step 1 without ending up at the lunacy of Step 4.

When I say this is a tragedy, I mean that literally. That’s what a tragedy is: the beginning is normal, the end is horrible, and you got from the beginning to the end by a series of small steps that all seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time.

I keeping telling my students that literature isn’t a secret code that they have to figure out—that the only point is to enjoy it, the same way you do with a movie or a song that you like. The problem with that is, the way I have to grade their papers makes a liar out of me, because a paper that says “I really enjoyed this story by Raymond Carver or Isabel Allende” inevitably gets a lower grade than one that says “I figured out all the hidden references in this story by James Joyce or all the philosophical stuff in this one by Jorge Luis Borges.” So while you may not have to regard the study of literature as an exercise in code-breaking to have a favorite book, the students who do gravitate towards seeing it that way usually end up getting the best grades. I know, because that’s what I did as a student, and now I’m an English professor. But not everyone is like me. If everyone were like me, the world would be an utterly insufferable place in which to live, no matter how many great books there were.

And our attempts at inclusiveness have just made matters worse. Somewhere ’round about the 90s, we decided that required intro courses should reward directions-following instead of (or at least, more so than) rewarding talent. So instead of handing out good grades based on brilliant theses or eloquent prose, we started handing out good grades based on thorough research and correct formatting. That may be a fairer shake for people who weren’t born with big fat literature centers in their brains, but the problem is, it’s also utter madness. Because at this point, what you’ve got on your hands is a required course where the majority of a student’s final grade is based on their adherence to a set of skills that absolutely no-one besides an academic would never need—and the double irony is, anyone who is actually going to become an academic probably placed out of the course to begin with.

So all this accomplished was to significantly augment the craziness of the first series of steps, because now it looks like this:

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.
5. If we grade the papers based on talent, it’s not fair.
6. So instead, we grade them based on adherence to a template that is useless to everyone but academics, which these students are never going to be.

I once taught at a college where, instead of a paper, the final for the required intro lit-based comp course was an exam—standardized across the sections, and required by the department—that obligated the students to memorize citation format. That’s right—memorize it. A sample question would look something like “Below is all the publication/copyright information for a piece of microfilm. How would you format an in-text citation to this piece of microfilm in MLA standards? How would you do it by APA standards?” No-one who isn’t an academic would ever need to know how to do this, and besides, anyone who is an academic could just look up how to do it in about ten seconds. There’s absolutely no need for anyone, including academics, to memorize it. But anyone who failed this exam failed the course, which they then had to take over and over again until they passed in order to graduate. Oh, and did I mention that this college was a hospitality trade school for people who want to be chefs and hotel managers?

How in the world did we get from “it is good for people to read books” to this?

Oh, well—we have no choice, right? Like hell we don’t. You know what I think we should do instead? Keep having a required intro lit course where we make people read books, but don’t make them write any papers. Base the entire grade on participation in class discussion. If some students want to write papers for extra credit, they can, but they don’t have to be research papers. That’s it. We read great short stories and poems, plus a play or a novel, and we all show up and talk about them, and no-one has to write a god damned thing. If you think that sounds too easy, and like a “joke” class, just remember why we’re in this business. We became English professors in the first place because we think it’s vitally important for everyone to read literature, right? Well, if that’s really what we believe, then why should we feel like a class where that’s all we make anybody do would be a joke?

Everyone would still be reading great works, they’d still have to prove they read them by talking in class, they’d get to read more of them because every day would be a discussion on a text with no days lost to technical lessons about how to write papers, and they could still be graded based on participation. The only difference would be that the students would actually have a chance of enjoying the texts, because they’d be reading them for pleasure instead of in terror over what grade they’re going to get on the writings they’d eventually have to do about them.

Oh, and we wouldn’t have to grade papers. Ever.

The Conversation

Friday, November 25th, 2011

I just had the conversation again. I know, I know, it happens to all of us, and it’s not my fault. But still, I’m sitting here feeling like I did something wrong. Something cruel, even. It’s happened to me a thousand times, and probably you too, and it’s going to happen to us many more thousands of times, because as far as we can tell there’s just no other logical thing to say. I’m talking, of course, about those four seemingly innocent words that we all keep saying, and almost always end up feeling bad about ourselves for saying.

Someone told me they like poetry, and I asked “Who do you read?”

Obviously, I don’t need to tell you what happened next. The person’s face drained of color, her jaw dropped, and she started frantically making eye contact with the other people in the room, who were all staring at me as if I’d just asked her which religion she thinks is the most evil or what shape she shaves her pubes into. She looked at the floor and mumbled something that did not involve stating the actual names of any specific poets, and then I got embarrassed and changed the subject.

Since I’ve said that this happens to me over and over, you’d think I would have learned by now to just never ask someone what poets they read, no matter how much they say they like poetry. But I don’t stop, simply because I can’t believe I keep meeting so many people who say they like poetry—who bring it up themselves first—and then act totally blindsided and put out when I ask them who their favorite poets are. I don’t meet musicians who freak out when I ask who their favorite band is. I don’t meet aspiring actors or directors who crap themselves upon being asked to list a few of their favorite movies. Hell, it’s not even a quiz—this is the most obvious way that you would make conversation with someone who has just stated an affinity for a particular art form. Why is it only ever a problem when the art form being discussed is poetry?

I concede that maybe “Who are your favorite poets?” is a weird question to ask an eight-year old. But this person wasn’t an eight-year old. Like most of the people I end up inadvertently freaking out with this question, she was a college graduate who had studied writing and started a conversation about poetry with me. Was it not totally sensible of me to expect her to have an answer to this question? Fine, I realize she didn’t go to graduate school for poetry, but I wasn’t asking something so complicated that advanced study would be a prerequisite to having an opinion. I didn’t hand her a blue book and ask her to write an essay about how contemporary female poets under 40 are using the plain-speech surrealism of Ashbery as a springboard to inject the trappings of feminist literary theory with humor while recentering their discourse around a renewed belief in the power of a flesh-and-blood selfhood borrowed from the Confessionals, linking all this to the supposed “death of irony” effected by the September 11th attacks. I just asked her who she likes. That is a pretty open-ended question, and I wasn’t going to judge her on whether her answer was sufficiently outré. My favorite poet is Lord Byron, for pete’s sake; that’s not exactly obscure.

You don’t even necessarily have to respond with a ranked list. Any comment having to do with poetry is a perfectly acceptable response. “I think early Eliot is charming but late Eliot is a chore.” “I don’t understand why Edna St. Vincent Millay isn’t as popular with teens as Sylvia Plath.” “In my heart I know Ginsberg was bullshitting 90% of the time but I still love him.” “I really dug that book Louise Glück put out a few years ago with all the poems about Persephone in it.” All of these responses are fine. Like with any other conversation, all you really have to do at this point is say something next, which can take pretty much any form at all other than looking at the floor and implying that I am a dick for asking you this question.

If “who are your favorite poets” isn’t what you expect to be asked next when you tell a poet that you like poetry, then what do you expect to be asked next? I honestly can’t think of another way to move the conversation forward from that point. Seriously, if you say “I like poetry,” but you can’t name any actual poets, then what do you even mean when you say that? That you like the idea of the existence of poetry, as a concept? I guess it’s fine if that’s what you meant. I suppose I’m glad that you are in favor of the fact that poetry is a thing that exists. After all, it’s better than being against it. But Jesus Christ, at the end of the day, what the hell, just what the hell?

Why I Didn’t Go to Occupy Wall Street

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Since so many poets have been involved that it is basically a poetry issue, many readers of this blog might have expected me to write something about the Occupy movement. I did, but it’s over on my political site instead of here.

Here’s a link to it.

Dating While Poet

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

About six weeks ago, I had a first date that I was really excited about, with a cute young actress. Unlike most things I get really excited about, it went great. I picked the perfect spot, I didn’t get too drunk and, being something of an animation buff herself, she seemed to understand my lifelong desire to get married at the foot of a firefly-infested waterfall so as to perfectly recreate the love scene from Disney’s Robin Hood, if not necessarily to be totally on board with it right away. As I walked her to the train afterwards, we passed a little theater that she’d always loved, and I said I’d buy it for her if I won on Jeopardy!, conveniently forgetting that even if I won as many games as Ken Jennings, this would still take more than half the money. I kissed her, but didn’t try for more than that, and headed home feeling for once like I had spectacularly aced a first date.

When I got home, I sent her a goodnight text. No response. That’s cool, I thought. She’s probably still on the train. Or furiously masturbating. Or furiously masturbating on the train. Or she lost or broke her phone somehow, probably while furiously masturbating. I thought nothing of it, furiously masturbated, and went to sleep.

The next morning I texted again to wish her good luck at an audition she had in the morning—an audition, I might add, that was definitely totally real and that she had in no way made up as an excuse not to go home with me. Would a girl give an excuse like that to a man who had started crying eight minutes into the date while telling a story about the time he put out a mousetrap to catch a mouse but instead of being killed the mouse was only paralyzed and when he came into the kitchen after hearing the mousetrap noise the paralyzed mouse was being tearfully comforted by a little mouse friend (or possibly spouse) and saying in mouse language “No, go on, leave me, and don’t look back, I don’t want you to remember me this way?” Of course not.

This time, there was a response. She texted back “Thank you.” I’d have preferred to see “Thank you from the bottom of my sodden pink panties,” but at least it was a response. I texted back something that I’m sure was too long, too soon, and not badass enough, because that’s how I roll.

Then I heard nothing back for a week. The pattern of “three texts from me equals nothing for three days and then one short, noncommittal text back” continued for a while. Eventually, I asked her point blank if she wanted to go out again. She said yes, but then reverted right back to the “I don’t text you back until you’re halfway home from the noose store, and even then it is three words if you’re lucky” M.O., so I naturally figured that the “yes” was just politeness and I was supposed to “take the hint” here, so as not to become that guy who keeps texting a girl who doesn’t want to see him again that you occasionally hear about every single time you talk to a girl, ever.

So, all things considered, I emerged with dignity intact. I never did anything dishonorable, and I knew when it was time to cut my losses and give up before making a fool of myself. Well played.

Then five weeks later, she texts to tell me I’m a fucking asshole for “disappearing.”

This confused me. I mean, I did pick up the valuable piece of information that when a woman ends a text message with “That’s all I wanted to say,” it means there are seven more texts coming in the next five minutes, but other than that I was confused. I mean, I was supposed to stop contacting this girl because she clearly didn’t like me.

…Right?

I asked a couple of my female friends about it. They told me she was crazy, and unanimously voted down my plan to write back to her and offer to ritually scar myself in some way. This made me feel 100% better right away. Or it would have, if “she’s crazy” were not the only answer anyone ever gets when they ask a woman about another woman. So it actually didn’t help at all, but hey, my fault for asking. If you don’t want to get told that the answer is in the Bible, don’t ask the Pope, and if you don’t want to just get told “she’s crazy,” then don’t ask a woman about another woman (who is thin).

Speaking of the Pope, although I am a nonbeliever, I have nonetheless had a longstanding agreement with the Catholic Church that absolutely everything is my fault, so I decided that this was too. Since girls tend not to text guys they weren’t the slightest bit interested in after half the summer has passed to curse them out for breaking contact, it must have been the case that this girl actually did like me at least a little bit. And that’s when I got really worried, on account of the fact that “dropping out of contact because the girl obviously didn’t like me” is something I’ve ended up doing approximately… always.

I quickly fired off a message to a girl I’d been out with a few times since I gave up on the other girl, but hadn’t contacted in over a week because… well, you know. But I was sure that this girl didn’t like me, and so I phrased my message accordingly: “It’s obvious you’re not interested in seeing me again, and that’s cool, but just for the sake of self-improvement, I was wondering what I did wrong,” etc.

Imagine my chagrin when she wrote back befuddledly wondering what I was talking about, asking whether she’d missed a message from me or something, and clarifying that she would love to see me again.

It probably sounds at this point like I just give up all the time because I don’t know anything about women. But that isn’t it. I mean, it can’t be it. Somehow, I’d always had a girlfriend—and a hot one, at that—virtually every second from late college until my early 30s. So how could it be the case that I suddenly didn’t know anything about women?

And that’s when it hit me. The problem isn’t that the women I’ve been seeing recently are crazy. On the contrary—the problem is that they aren’t crazy enough.

Until recently, virtually every girlfriend I’ve ever had, I met in school, be it in college, in grad school, or as a teacher. A few of them were other poets that I met through, you know, poetry stuff, but like everything to do with poetry, that still basically counts as school. So even though I’ve always had girlfriends, I’ve also met them all in a bubble that ensured all of them would be other writers. It’s only in the last year that I’ve tried dating women I met in normal grown-up ways—bars, dating websites—that have nothing to do with studying or teaching writing.

In other words, I’ve never dated a normal person before.

Sure, like anyone else, while growing up I’d heard references made to things like “playing hard to get,” “occasionally not being drunk,” and “having a first date where neither person proposes stealing a car and driving all night to get married in Vegas,” but I just figured those customs were relics of a bygone era. After all, they never came up in my undergraduate poetry concentration, or my graduate school for poets, or my subsequent jobs where I only met other poets.

If you’ve ever known any poets, then you already know we’re bad at two things: quitting smoking, and not randomly marrying each other. I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for Christ’s sake—every time I snuck out of the bar to go home and take a dump, when I came back someone was married. Then by the time someone inevitably punched the bartender for refusing to sell us a take-home after closing, they were divorced. More of us got married than got fired from teaching positions for sleeping with students or showing up drunk, and that happened to all of us, so the first thing shouldn’t even be mathematically possible. Once a week we all got together to praise Ross from Friends for how infrequently he got married.

So by the time I entered my last relationship of any duration, with a girl who said “I love you” on our first date and then sang me Regina Spektor songs at the top of her voice in a crowded sushi restaurant, the problem wasn’t so much that this seemed normal to me—it was that anything less than this made it seem like the girl would be happy to see me step in front of a bus.

And you know who does less than that on a first date, even if she really likes you? Every woman who is not ovaries-to-the-wall out of her skull, that’s who.

But I’ve never dated any of those women. And at this rate, I never will, not as long as I keep expecting every encounter with a woman who feels the slightest bit of human emotion for me to end with the two of us strewn with garlands of psychoactive mushrooms, rutting in an abandoned field by the light of a church we just set on fire, while seventeen of our closest friends sing Anglo-Saxon translations of Gilbert & Sullivan songs, spattered with uncooperative bartender blood.

It’s not just that I’ve never been around women who pretend not to like you. I’ve never even been around people who are remotely psychologically capable of pretending not to like anything that they like, regardless of the consequences. When a poet likes you, you know it. How? Because you’re either not also a poet, in which case you’ve already called the police, or you are, in which case you’re already married.

But that’s just not what normal women do. Normal women pretend not to like you, and then flip out on you when you believe them. Apparently.

Fuck that. I’m reapplying in fiction. Who wants to get married?

Much a-Doob About Nothing? My Take on the Whole ‘Shakespeare Smoked Weed’ Thing

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

ShakespeareI realize I’m not jumping into a hot new fray by tackling the question of whether William Shakespeare smoked marijuana.  The idea that he may have was hot stuff in 2001, when a South African archaeological team rooting around the Bard’s Stratford home uncovered some pipes that—apparently indisputably—contained residue not only of marijuana, but cocaine as well.  Obviously, Shakespeare was not the only person who ever lived in that house, but carbon dating has, to the satisfaction of people with more expertise than I in such things, established that the pipes belonged either to Shakespeare or to one of the two people who lived there immediately before and after him.  The reason I’m bothering with a blog about this is not because it’s news, but rather because, despite the fact that this has been out there for nearly a decade, every article about it is stupid (there are way too many to link to, but just Google the words “Shakespeare” and “marijuana”).  Since this is something that new generations of Shakespeare fans, lit students, aspiring writers, and overconfident stoners are never going to stop Googling, it seems to me that they deserve a decent article about it.  I can only hope that they manage to find this one.

Obviously, I’m not saying I know anything for a fact or am in a better position to prove my personal theories than anyone else.  But I do feel as if, at least, I know the right questions to ask.  Every source on this business I’ve been able to locate is far more sensational than scholarly, pitting old-guard educators who are sure that Shakespeare never touched the stuff against “High Times” types who are equally sure that he wrote every word of the plays baked off his ass.  As a well-trained poet, an English professor, a devoted Shakespeare fan who has read the man’s every surviving word, and yes, as someone who has been known to enjoy a bit of marijuana from time to time, I think I can do better.  Maybe, by the standards of the internet, “better” isn’t saying much, but here we are just the same.

I feel I should begin by pointing out that “The Whole ‘Shakespeare Smoked Weed’ Thing” is actually four questions:

1.  Did Shakespeare ever smoke weed at all, even once?
2.  If so, then how often, or for how long, or at what point in his life?
3.  What, if anything, did this have to do with the work he produced?
4.  Are there, as some have suggested, references to smoking weed in said work?

The first question is the easiest, and my answer to that one is Yes, and would still be Yes even if no-one had ever found those pipes.  We know that pot smoking was a thing people knew about and did in England in Shakespeare’s time.  As stoners are so fond of pointing out, lots of stuff used to be made out of hemp and it was a major cash crop.  We know from assorted references that Europeans of the 16th Century were well aware that you could get high from smoking it (the Catholic Church, for example, went to the trouble of making a rule against it about 80 years before Shakespeare’s birth).  And even if we didn’t have those references, history indicates it a safe bet that when people live someplace where something grows that can make you high, it doesn’t take long for someone to figure this out: even way back in the day, the people who lived where coca grew did cocaine, the people who lived where poppies grew did opium, the people who lived where peyote grew tripped on peyote, etc.  There seems to be no historical instance of people living someplace where something grew that could get you high and having no clue about it, and all of those other drugs are way less intuitive when it comes to figuring out how to get high off them than marijuana is (no drying, no melting, no grinding, you just pick the damn thing and smoke it).

Now, obviously, just because someone in a certain place at a certain time did a particular drug, that doesn’t mean everyone did.  But it’s not like Shakespeare was some square: he followed his dream to the Big City while still in his 20s, hung with artists, tapsters, pimps and hos, and seems to have gotten along with them just fine.  Partly, this was a professional necessity: historians have long since conjectured that, at least while he was still young and poor, Shakespeare would have done a lot of his writing in taverns, since candles were expensive and a bar was just about the only public place one could sit where it was light enough to write (furthermore, the quality and freshness of a commoner’s food was so poor that people were obliged to drink steadily all day simply to avoid being doubled over with digestive pain).  Certainly, enough of Shakespeare’s work celebrates the brassy bonhomie of one’s beloved local—most magically in the two parts of Henry IV—that it’s inconceivable he was a stranger to such haunts.  And if marijuana wasn’t present in the London dives where the artists hung out, then where was it present?

If anyone in 1590s England knew about smoking pot, then the young William Shakespeare would have been among those in the know.  The only way he wouldn’t have ever even tried it would be if he had some sort of principled objection, and there is no reason to believe he would have harbored any such reservations.  We know he enjoyed drinking, and was even proud of the fact: almost uniformly throughout Shakespeare’s work, jolly merrymakers are celebrated, and abstemious teetotalers ridiculed: the lovable Feste and Sir Toby make sport of the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the earthy passion of Antony and Cleopatra is exalted above the cold nature of Octavian Caesar, and Love’s Labours Lost pokes fun at the impossibility of forsaking the desires of the body for a life of stoic philosophizing (in fairness, I should acknowledge that a notable reversal of this trend can be found in Hamlet, wherein the melancholy prince speaks nothing but daggers for both his mother’s passions and his uncle’s drunken “rouse”—but since Hamlet condemns just about everything that makes life worth living at one moment or another, a condemnation by Hamlet cannot automatically constitute a condemnation by Shakespeare).  And this wasn’t like the present day, where we’ve got this thick black “legal vs. illegal” line distinguishing alcohol from “drugs.”  There was no such thing as an “illegal drug” back then, and therefore no reason to expect that Shakespeare or anyone else would have regarded getting high on marijuana as somehow morally or materially different from getting drunk.  If anything, tobacco would have been the “weird new” substance on the block, since it had only just been discovered in the New World, but apparently everyone just said Whatever and started smoking that immediately.

It is a big leap, however, from acknowledgement that Shakespeare almost certainly tried marijuana once or twice to an assertion that he smoked it regularly and that it informed his work to the same extent that, say, LSD informed Sgt. Pepper’s.  And this is the point at which I must disappoint somewhat the pot enthusiasts who must have been so heartened by the last few paragraphs.  Whatever marijuana’s virtues, even its champions grudgingly admit that it is not exactly conducive to getting a massive amount of work done, day-in day-out, over extended periods of time.  But Shakespeare did just that: he wrote 38 plays, most of which are artistically and intellectually superior to everything else ever written by anyone, in just over twenty years, which works out to a rate of just under two masterpieces every year for his entire adult life.  And these were plays, remember, not novels or lyric poems, and writing a play is hardly all the work of putting on a play: Shakespeare ran and oversaw his own troupe and eventually his own theatre, and so had to deal with hiring and firing actors, coaching them and putting up with their crap, finding new set builders outside Home Depot at the last minute when the guys from yesterday showed up drunk, and all the other stuff people who produce theatre have always had to deal with, and oh by the way he also acted in his own and other people’s plays just for giggles and so had to turn up for rehearsal with everyone else.  In short, most of William Shakespeare’s day-to-day life for his entire career was taken up with bullshit that distracted him from writing, and he still managed to write… well, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  If one thing is absolutely certain, it’s that this was not the life of a man in the habit of deciding that shit could wait until Monday.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say this sword cuts both ways, and that the above paragraph can be turned around on me—i.e., that if anyone who ever lived was such a genius that he could have done all that even though he was high, it was Shakespeare.  Fair enough.  But why would he have?  Have you ever gotten stoned right before you had to do something laborious all day—like going to your shitty job at Dairy Queen or something—expecting that being high would make it better, only to discover that, instead of making something tedious and boring magically fun, being high actually makes it even more of a pain in the ass?  Well, I would imagine that people who have jobs and know what pot is have been discovering the same thing for centuries.

Okay, so maybe it’s too easy to argue against the idea that Shakespeare was a daily smoker.  No serious people were arguing that anyway.  So what about the idea that, after Shakespeare had met with enough success to have underlings who dealt with bullshit and be able to spend more time writing in peace with his very own candles and everything, he judiciously incorporated marijuana into his process to some extent?  I find this argument more compelling.  After all, the pipes that started the debate were found at his home in Stratford, which he didn’t buy until 1597, around the time that he was wrapping up the Histories and getting underway on the greatest of the Comedies and on Hamlet.

However, I find nothing in the plays of this period aesthetically evocative of marijuana use (with the possible exception of the songs from As You Like It).  Remember, pot doesn’t make you funnier; it makes other people seem funnier to you.  The pastoral settings of the Great Comedies may seem “pot-ish” to us, but this is very much a modern association we foist onto the plays: the connection between marijuana and “back-to-nature” ideals is a largely a product of the 1960s, and Shakespeare was not only writing long before the ’60s, but 200 years before the Romantic Era that the ’60s cannibalized.  Most importantly, the elements that make the Great Comedies so Great are all antithetical to what someone writing stoned would come up with: there are more characters, more interwoven plotlines, more incisive battles of wits between fully developed personalities with far less broad caricature and physical buffoonery, and—most significantly—far fewer instances of a single character stopping the play to meditate on an isolated concept.  (Hamlet does this constantly of course but, paradoxically, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s only abstemious good guy, and his play is relentlessly sober; despite the similar sensations of being stuck inside one’s own throbbing head, there is a clear difference between being depressed and being stoned.)

As valuable as marijuana can be for composing outside the box on a word-to-word level, it does not lend itself to back-and-forths between two (or more) characters with distinct voices: it locks you in one mindset, albeit more deeply.  If there were a period where marijuana had something notable to do with Shakespeare’s process—and I’m not saying there definitely was one, but if someone told me for a fact that there were and asked me to guess when—it would have begun in around 1605, after the composition of Hamlet and Othello, but before King Lear and Macbeth.  The latter two tragedies are roomier, playing out in more of a psychological echo chamber.  There are fewer central characters, and those characters are more isolated from one another: in Lear, Lear goes off and does Lear things while Edgar goes off and does Edgar things and Edmund goes off and does Edmund things, and Macbeth might all just as well be a nightmare trip that Macbeth himself is having.  The verse itself is more anarchic too: speeches began incorporating tetrameter and trimeter lines, and rhyming internally and sporadically rather than either regularly or not at all.

Furthermore, Shakespeare’s track record from this point to the end of his career conforms to that of many other artists suddenly acquainted with chemical inspiration: a couple of new-style masterpieces right out of the gate (Lear and Macbeth), followed by uneven pieces containing isolated flashes of brilliance (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale), and the inevitable utter shitstorm (Pericles), which prompts a back-to-basics reboot (Coriolanus), before getting it together for one last home run that feels like a more personal, laid-back version of the initial new-style masterpieces (The Tempest).  This would explain why Shakespeare began producing more slowly during this period—but then, this could just as easily be explained by the fact that he was already quite successful and could afford to take his time.  (Even with recent artists on whom we have infinitely more documentation, such questions are not easy: starting in 1966, the Beatles put out one album a year instead of two or three, and were both wealthy and on drugs, so was the decreased output because of the wealth, the drugs, both, or neither?)

But even if we accept on this admittedly slight evidence that Shakespeare smoked marijuana at all in the last phase of his career, this still certainly does not mean that he composed even one play entirely while stoned.  My estimation is that—if pot had anything at all to do with the composition, which I am not sure it did—the process was most likely to write plays sober and then fine-tune certain speeches while high.  As mentioned earlier, pot is good for going deeper into one voice, but not so good for switching back and forth among several.

There may also have been a “notebook writing” element to his process during this period.  Why assume, for example, that the Fool’s most riddling quips or the nightmarish litanies of the disguised Edgar’s mad speeches in King Lear were composed specifically to be spoken by those characters at those times?  Shakespeare may well have had a special “crazy shit” notebook that he worked in pre-contextually and then dipped into whenever he needed some crazy shit (the Fool’s “great confusion” prophecy, for example, is both totally awesome and doesn’t really have jack to do with what is going on in the play at that moment, and this goes double for the songs from the Comedies), and he may have only used drugs when writing in that.

Of course, this sounds good but proves nothing.  Arguments about which artistic works were “obviously” the result of experimentation with drugs can seem very compelling, but at the end of the day the only way we know that the Beatles smoked pot and took acid is because they came right out and told us they did (and as it turns out, the elements of the records that most aggressively evoke drug use were largely the work of producer George Martin, who didn’t take any).  There is also the phenomenon of the genius who uses drugs when he is not working: contrary to popular belief, Sherlock Holmes did not use his seven-percent solution to aid in solving mysteries, but rather to replicate the natural high of sleuthing when no game was afoot: so even if we found a secret compartment full of paraphernalia with Shakespeare’s name written on all of it in his own handwriting, it might still be the case that he only used when he wasn’t writing.

Speaking of the white stuff, although every article highlights the marijuana theory and virtually all the discussion has been limited to this—perhaps because people who want to believe that every famous historical figure smoked weed are simply a bigger market—you may remember that the press releases mentioned cocaine residue on the pipes as well.  Funnily enough, cocaine makes more sense aesthetically (in my opinion), but less sense historically.  The rapid-fire, pun-laden battles of wits that pop up in virtually all of Shakespeare’s best plays are much more evocative of cocaine use than of marijuana.  And the hand-in-glove relationship between Shakespeare’s obsessions and those of Sigmund Freud (who we know for a fact used cocaine) would seem to lend further credence to the notion that coke, rather than pot, was the Man from Stratford’s chemical assistant of choice.

The problem is, there is no historical evidence that cocaine (or, more accurately, the chewing or smoking of coca leaves, since the process for isolating cocaine as we know it wasn’t developed until the late 19th century) was in vogue in Shakespeare’s England.  The parts of South America where coca grew were under Spanish control and, though the Conquistadores knew about and used coca, they wouldn’t have been sharing with the English (Shakespeare’s career precisely spans the 25 years immediately following the Armada).  A few isolated stashes were doubtless appropriated en route by English privateers, but they would have become the property of the Crown, and anyone who wanted a fix would have needed friends in very high places.  The natures of drugs and money being what they are, it can safely be assumed that there were Spanish smugglers bringing coca places besides Spain, but this must have been rare, as coca doesn’t seem to have been big business in Europe: unlike with pot, the Church never said a word about coca, and if the Catholic Church was ignorant of something going down in 16th-century Spain, then said thing must have been going down very secretly and very rarely—and rare in Spain would have meant virtually non-existent in England.  Coke residue got on those pipes somehow, but it may have been a once-in-a-lifetime find, or the pipes may have been Spanish to begin with.

Finally, there is the fourth question: did, as so many of the articles about the finding of the pipes suggest, Shakespeare ever insert coded references to drugs in his work?  My answer to this one is Absolutely not.  Remember, we have to be careful of ascribing to Shakespeare modern motivations that would have made no sense to him: even if he did smoke pot, why would he have bothered to put hidden messages about this in his work?  So teenagers would think he was cool?  He was Shakespeare, not the Steve Miller Band.  It was 400 goddamn years ago.  If there are hidden messages in Shakespeare’s work, they are more likely to be about his sexuality or religious beliefs than about what he smoked—simply because he had no reason to think that people would ever care any more about what he smoked than about what hairstyle he had or where he bought his shoes.

There is also, not inconsiderably, the fact that all of the supposed pot references are obvious bullshit to anyone with even a cursory comprehension of the poems in which they appear.  It is, I suppose, to be expected that all the most famous “references” are in the Sonnets, the go-to source for everything “secret” about Shakespeare.  I am hardly the first to explain that this notion of the Sonnets as Shakespeare’s Diary is not supported by anything except our desire for there to be such a thing as Shakespeare’s Diary, but onward.

Nearly all the articles—and even the Wikipedia page about marijuana—make much of the reference to a “noted weed” in Sonnet 76, which also mentions “compounds strange.”  Such terms may be suspicious out of context but, unfortunately for everyone else who has ever written about this, I am actually capable of following this poem.

Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quick change?
Why, with the time, do I not glance aside
To new-found methods or to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
….For as the sun is daily new and old,
….So is my love, still telling what is told.

Whatever the compounds strange are in line 4, the speaker is not only saying he doesn’t use them, but that every other writer does.  So this would only make sense as a drug reference if we accept that every poet in 1590s England was on drugs except Shakespeare, and that his intended audience was aware of this, which seems unlikely, and in any case the line would be about not doing drugs, rather than about doing them.  As for noted weed in line 6, that is more complicated…  Just kidding, it’s not complicated at all: it means “clothes.”  The argument of the poem, as you probably already know if you have gotten this far into a 4,000-word blog post about Shakespeare, is “Why do I keep writing about the same thing in the same style, instead of writing about fashionable new subjects in fashionable new styles?  Because I love you and realize that you are the only thing worth writing about, and so writing about you never gets old.”  The phrase keep invention in a noted weed means “continue to dress my creative output in the same clothes” (cf. Twelfth Night V.i.266 “And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds,” i.e., feminine clothing).  Seriously, did the half-dozen reporters who cited this phrase bother to ask a Renaissance Lit professor about it first?  Or even, say, a high-school student who scored a 4 or better on the English AP?

The second-most commonly cited “hidden pot reference” is Sonnet 38, addressed to a mysterious Tenth Muse who dost give invention light.  Now, I guess I can’t prove that Shakespeare is not addressing pot here.  But I also can’t prove that he’s not addressing autoerotic asphyxiation.  The poem is addressed to someone or something that inspires the speaker.  Ostensibly, if every single other one of the sonnets is any indication, it is a someone.  (The early sonnets were commissioned by patrons, and what patron would have been paying Shakespeare to write poems addressed to marijuana—Duke Woody of Harrelson?)  If this is a fake-out and it is a something, then there are a million other things it could just as likely be as marijuana.  Why, for example, is it any more likely to be about marijuana than alcohol or tobacco?  The fact that there are no even halfway-credible references to pot anywhere else in the works makes this even more dubious: why randomly compose one sonnet entirely about how amazing marijuana is, and then never mention it anywhere else even once?  If popular music is any indication, artists who talk about pot at all tend to talk about pot often.  And why even keep it a secret when it wasn’t illegal?  I guess Shakespeare was just trying to hide how heartbroken he was when marijuana left him for a Rival Poet in Sonnets 78-86.  Oh, wait, marijuana can’t leave you for someone else.  I guess these are about a person after all.

In summation, I would be very surprised if William Shakespeare never smoked marijuana even once, but am also convinced that he didn’t find this as big a deal or as defining a personal attribute as modern pot enthusiasts seem to, and certainly didn’t bother dropping hints about it in his work.  Whether he smoked pot with any regularity is anyone’s guess, but it seems incontrovertible that if Shakespeare did smoke regularly, he did so either extremely judiciously as one aspect of a carefully regulated creative regimen, or only very occasionally for recreation purposes in the brief and infrequent windows during which he was not working.  It is certainly possible that marijuana had some influence on his work, but there is no indication that it was any more responsible for his style or worldview than alcohol was, and indeed a good deal of evidence that Shakespeare simply preferred drinking.  The unmatched psychological insights in his work point to an author who was not only a “people person,” but a peerless observer of the habits and linguistic animi of every personality type imaginable.  This is inconsistent with the habitual stoner’s propensity to live inside his own head: if Shakespeare did make use of weed creatively, he almost certainly came to it late enough in life that it represented a final twist on an already fully formed observational and compositional ethic.  Had marijuana been important to Shakespeare’s artistic development from an early stage, he would have composed a greater number of meditative lyrics, as opposed to being apparently uninterested in them (even the Sonnets work far more like philological proofs rendered in verse, rather than “explorations” of “sensation” like, say, Keats’s Odes).

But I am completely sure of one thing, and it is the thing I consider most important to say on this subject: the question of whether mind-altering substances were a part of Shakespeare’s process is a valid one, important not only to literary scholars or historians but a form that falls across every human being’s sense of the relationship between his or her mind and the world it attempts to perceive.  If Shakespeare did use drugs, would he have been less good without them, or only different, and different how?  Or might he have been better without them and, when talking about Shakespeare, what could “better” conceivably even mean?  If Shakespeare smoked pot, does that prove that everyone should?  As with musings upon whether the phenomenon of existence itself was unavoidable or accidental, these are matters about which we can construct very beautiful arguments that reveal a great deal about ourselves the arguers, but next to nothing about their supposed objects.  They must be approached at once with infinite faith and infinite doubt.  Grade-school jailers who would subjugate Shakespeare to ideals of social propriety and counterculture dilettantes who would subjugate him to ideals of quick-fix rebellion equally do damage, not merely to Shakespeare but to the human experiment that is his lengthening shadow.