Wednesday, 9 June 2010


As a storyteller I am comfortable with the idea of recycling stories. To tell a story well you have to really make it your own.

There was a time when poets did the same, before the advent of printing gave poems a definitive wording. Take for e.g. Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. We all know the poem says “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, and anyone who cites “Cloudy and alone I go” is just plain wrong. But back in say Homer’s time the poems were owned by the tellers not the printers, and the words could, and doubtless did, vary.

As a spoken word artist I suggest we rethink the idea of recycling poems. Maybe it’s time to do what storytellers and musicians have been doing all along, borrowing, lending and sharing in the animation of the artform!

(Interestingly, it is worth noting that written scores, say Mozart or Beethoven, have not been considered suitable for recycling in quite the same way as jazz standards have. For jazz has more of the improvisational about it. But my guess is Mozart or Beethoven would have been happy to see people improvising around their written compositions, and changing the notes, because they were renowned improvisers themselves.)

Putting my money where my mouth is, here’s a recycling of Shakespeare’s most famous bit: Hamlet’s big speech. I’ve shortened it, but hopefully the depth and gravitas of his tone and metre is retained, along with the condensed meaning. I like to think that Willy would have liked it, especially some of the extra references that he failed to allude to in his original. (e.g. to the original, pre-Shakespearian, Hamlet’s all important mill.)

Anyway, read and see what you reckon. I have done similar with Blake’s ‘Tyger’ (relating it to the experience of African American slavery), and if you like this one I may post that one too. Some kids are scared of poems, especially old-wordy ones. Letting pupils pull them apart and put them back together like this might be one way to beat that fear and loathing, and to give today’s young people a hook into ownership of some of the greatest ideas ever spoken in English.

To be or not to be – or to pretend:
what questions suffer noble minds defend
to sling outrageous arrows to the sea
in arms against opposing troubles’
mill and fortune’s end
to rend a thousand shocks of flesh and sleep
to keep enduring – singing - sighing
sweeten dreams that mortal coil but soft demure
in dying whip and scorn defying time
to rhyme the name of action with great moment
by sins’ devout horizon
fair Ophelia
… remember.

And a quick reminder of Shakespeare’s version:

To be or not to be– that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

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