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The Truth, Mainly - 11/15/1999

Big Red poetry found: Shakespeare a suspect

"Hah!" I yell to my wife.

"Now what?" she asks, not even looking up from her crossword puzzle.

"Only this," I say, pointing to a story in the Omaha World-Herald. "Only the biggest poetry news since e.e. cummings broke his shift key. That's all."

It's a story about Bob Devaney memorabilia being auctioned off to raise money for a student aid fund. It lists some of the items. With prices.

Right there between the red 1992 Sedan DeVille ($18,500) and a "well-worn red cardigan sweater with monogram RSD" ($300) is the bombshell: "A Go Big Red Poetry Extravaganza 1972" ($35).

"So?" my wife says.

"You're not part of the English professoriate, m'love," I tell her, "so you fail to grasp the import here."

"Tell me about the import," she sighs, "and I'll try to grasp it."

"This book," I say, "this 'Go Big Red Poetry Extravaganza,' has hitherto been, for most, only a rumor shrouded in the mists of legend and ambiguity. To have a copy actually show up makes English teachers quiver."

"English teachers," she says, "quiver easily. Who wrote it?"

"That's just it," I say. "Nobody knows. Some say Shakespeare. Others say Marlowe or Bacon. It could have been a collaboration of all three."

"Wouldn't the 1972 date argue against those folks?" she asks innocently.

"Great writers," I intone, "are prescient. Great writers anticipate futurity. Great writers are the canaries in the coal mine. Any English major knows that."

"I don't suppose," she says, "there's any internal evidence within the poems that give a clue to authorship."

"Indeed there is," I say. "Listen to this."

And I recite lines to her.

"Sing a song of Sanger,/Sweetest toe around;/After every touchdown/The sweet toe starts its sound./Beginning with a cadence,/Then rising to a Humm,/With downright upright harmony/The extra point is sung!"

"Yes?" she says. It's a question, a cry for help.

"Nobody writes poetry like that today," I say. "Nobody's written poetry like that since the 17th century. Bill Kloefkorn, Nebraska State Poetry Czar, says it's, like, you know, a message from a more mellifluous milieu. Sort of."

"Well," she says, "it does sound weird. But strangely familiar."

"Or listen to this," I say. "O, Johnny R. O, Johnny R./You sparkle when you run./Your twisting paths are marked by stars;/A stutter-stepping, twinkling Mars,/The toast of all the Big Red bars,/You lovely son of a gun!"

"You've memorized this stuff?" she says. "No wonder you don't have room in your head for birthdays and zip codes and your children's names."

"Well," I say, pulling a red and white book from beneath my shirt, "I do have a first edition here. I read it now and then when the world is too much with me. When I pass on, you'll find it in the strongbox. God only knows what it'll be worth."

The Truth, Mainly


"Oh, good," she says. "I won't have to keep the phone number of that county poorhouse you're always threatening to call for reservations."

"Mock on," I say, "but if the auction copy brought $35 unread, think how much more you can get once people read 'A Prayer for Saturday.'"

"Haven't I heard this before?" she says.

"It's a sonnet," I say. "It's got 14 lines. That alone will goose the price."

Then I read it aloud: "I wish I had the words to ask…For mercy/for the foe…I wish I had humility…/Like most folks here below…I only wish/I had the strength…of character and/grace…To ask a snatch of tenderness…/For all the teams we face…O had I but/the charity…To pray with tender fury…/And ask Almighty God to spare…The Wildcats/and Missouri…But I am mortal, after all…/A Big Red from Nebraska…Whose sympathy for/Buffaloes…Is colder than Alaska…Thus/must I pray an honest prayer…The sweetest/prayer I know…that Saturday at kickoff/time…The GO BIG HUSKERS GO!"

I dab my eyes with my hankie and blow my nose.

"Why," she asks, "do I associate that with the smell of spilled beer and the sound of loud guffaws coming from the basement? And look, on the back, it says 'Permanent Press, Box 4613, University Place Station, Lincoln, Nebraska.'"

"And note the prosodic irony," I say. "With the rhyme coming in mid-line rather than at the end, it's a brilliant deconstruction of the conventional Shakespearean sonnet. It's clearly the Bard at the top of his game, so confident that he violates his own parameters."

"You know what I think?" she says. "I think it doesn't sound like Shakespeare at all. I think it sounds like a bunch of English teachers and English majors at a small liberal arts college with a bad football team. And if I remember right, they had too much to drink."

"Hush now," I tell her. "Just hush."


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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