Iambic pentameter revolutionized English poetry. But what if, instead of importing an Italian verse form, Shakespeare had instead looked to the next island to the west?
Occasionally, the Poetry Crisis Line counselors need retraining. Below is the transcript of a meeting with counselors from the Main Desk, the Deus ex Machina department, and the Unrequited Love Desk.
SUPERVISOR: Do you know why I called this meeting?
UNREQUITED LOVE: Screening errors?
MAIN: Mixed metaphors?
SUPERVISOR: Do you remember this caller?
[plays back recording of HAMLET call]
HAMLET [recorded]: To be or not to be…
MAIN: Oh yeah. I transferred him to the Deus Ex Machina Desk.
DEUS EX MACHINA: And I sent him to Unrequited Love.
UNREQUITED: And he wadered off in the middle of the call. How is he?
MAIN: Oh no.
UNREQUITED: Did he kill himself?
SUP [nods]: And his girlfriend.
UNREQ: Oh no.
SUP: And her brother.
MAIN: That’s terrible.
SUP: And their father.
SUP: And his mother.
MAIN: Are you sure? All of these people?
SUP: And his uncle and stepfather.
MAIN: His uncle and his stepfather. On top of all the rest?
SUP: No, his uncle and stepfather. One person.
UNREQ: That’s kind of creepy.
SUP: Apparently he was the target. The rest were collateral damage.
DEUS: Dude must have lousy aim.
SUP: So when you had this caller on the phone, did he seem depressed.
MAIN: Oh yeah.
SUP: Did he talk about death?
UNREQ: Oh yeah
DEUS: Whatever he said, it always came back to death.
SUP: And you didnn’t think to call me?
UNREQ? Not really.
MAIN: Why would we?
SUP: Because he was depressed, and talking about death.
MAIN: This is the Poetry Crisis Line, you know.
UNREQ: Everyone’s depressed.
DEUS: And death obsessed.
UNREQ: And lonely.
SUP: [long sigh] OK, we’re going to do some training to recognize when a caller is in danger. But if something like this happens again, please get a supervisor on right away. Or…at least somewhere along the line.
COUNSELOR: Poetry Crisis Line, what is your emergency?
CALLER: I am dying,
COUNSELOR: Can I send an ambulance? Where are you calling from?
COUNSELOR: Egypt? What are you doing there?
COUNSELOR: Right. Is there something I can do for you?
CALLER: Give me some wine,
COUNSELOR: I thought you were in Egypt?
COUNSELOR: You’re somewhere else as well?
CALLER: let me speak a little.
COUNSELOR: Right, you’re the dying guy. I’ll shut up now.
by David Sklar
Originally published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
If meeting three strange ladies in the swamp
Seems ample cause for murthering the king
To take his crown, turn to page 86.
If this seems kind of sketchy, turn to 12.
If thou slay’st Claudius while he is praying—
A villain kills your father, and, for that,
You, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven, turn the page to 93.
If thou postpon’st the act until such time
As he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed,
So that his soul may be as damned and black
As hell, whereto it goes, turn to page 5.
If cowards die a thousand times, but thou
Prefer’st to die but once, turn to page 9.
If dying does not bother thee, so long
As thou surviv’st it, turn to 42.
If, rather than stand prisoner in Rome,
Thou press the venom’d asp against thy breast
Then shalt thou turn the page to 17.
If thou prefer’st to hug a fluffy cat
Then turn instead to page 108.
If, after being shipwrack’d thou proceed’st
To take thy brother’s name, and don his clothes,
And swagger like a man, turn to page 4.
If trousers please thee not, turn to 16.
If, having found fair Juliet in her tomb,
Thou dost set up thy everlasting rest,
And take th’apothecary’s lethal draught
To shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From thy world-wearied flesh, turn to page 9.
If thou prefer’st to wait ten minutes, turn
To page 117 instead.
COUNSELOR: Poetry Crisis Line, what is your emergency?
CALLER: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
COUNSELOR: In what way are they not like the sun? I mean, uh–
CALLER: Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
COUNSELOR: I thought coral was more pinkish. Or if it dries out, then it turns white.
CALLER: If snow be white,
COUNSELOR: No, I was still talking about coral.
COUNSELOR: You brought it up, sir.
CALLER: then her breasts are dun;
COUNSELOR: Done with what? Did she just wean a kid? Or are you–
CALLER: If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
COUNSELOR: Now she sounds like a cyborg. Did you just call me to complain about your girlfriend’s looks?
CALLER: I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
COUNSELOR: Did she hear you complaining? Flowers might be a good start, but it sounds like you need to work on communication skills–and on reasonable expectations. You may want to talk to a couples counselor.
CALLER: But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
COUNSELOR: Or a face painter. I mean, if that’s what she’s into–
CALLER: And in some perfumes is there more delight
COUNSELOR: Have you asked her what she likes? Perfumes, or flowers, or face painting? What would she want to see or hear from you?
CALLER: Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
COUNSELOR: No, I don’t think that’s something any woman would want to hear.
CALLER: I love to hear her speak,
COUNSELOR: That’s much better. And in the long run, it may be more important than how she looks.
CALLER: yet well I know / That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
COUNSELOR: And we’re back to expectations. You can’t expect your girlfriend to be some goddess.
CALLER: I grant I never saw a goddess
COUNSELOR: Of course not. May I say something about expectations?
COUNSELOR: See, society sets up these lofty expectations that no one can really meet.
CALLER: My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
CALLER: And yet, by heaven,
COUNSELOR: So on heaven and earth at once? That’s not very common.
CALLER: I think my love as rare
COUNSELOR: See, now you’re getting somewhere. You complain about the things you don’t like, but deep down you know she’s special. Like…uh, like…
CALLER: As any she belied with false compare
COUNSELOR: So she does it too, huh? I’ve seen that happen. It’s sad when women feel the need to compare themselves to others.
Find part 1 here
and part 2 here
COUNSELOR #3: Poetry Crisis Line, Unrequited Love Division. Do you want Boy-Girl, Boy-Boy, Girl-Girl, May-December, Rich-Poor, Families Each Alike in Dignity…
CALLER: That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
COUNSELOR #3: Ex is seeing a freeloader. Got it. Transferring you now.
COUNSELOR #4: Poetry Crisis Line, Unrequited Love Division. Moocher Desk. How may I help you?
CALLER: When he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin?
COUNSELOR #4: Isn’t that how most people make it? Unless they’re in a hurry.
CALLER: who would fardels bear,
COUNSELOR #4 [frantically paging through dictionary]: Uh….that’s a good question. Who would fardels bear?
CALLER: To grunt and sweat under—
COUNSELOR #4: Hang on–were you watching them do it?
CALLER: a weary life,
COUNSELOR #4: Now wait. Whatever you’re feeling now, it’s not worth dying–
CALLER: But that the dread of something after death,
COUNSELOR #4: What, like a bad epitaph?
CALLER: The undiscover’d country
COUNSELOR #4: A bad Star Trek movie?
CALLER: from whose bourn
COUNSELOR #4: I haven’t seen the Bourne movies yet, but–
CALLER: No traveller returns,
COUNSELOR#4: Wait, don’t give away the ending.
CALLER: puzzles the will
COUNSELOR #4: So it’s one of those movies where he has to solve a puzzle before he can inherit? Wait, why are we talking about movies?
CALLER: And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?
COUNSELOR #4: So if you frame it in movies, you don’t have to face your issues directly?
CALLER: Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
COUNSELOR #4: You’re right. Everyone does it sometimes.
CALLER: And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
COUNSELOR #4: But then if everyone does, it, maybe it isn’t so cowardly as you say.
CALLER: And enterprises of great pith and moment / With this regard their currents turn awry,
COUNSELOR #4: Well, it’s better to face things obliquely than not at all.
CALLER: And lose the name of action.
COUNSELOR #4: I understand. You don’t want to call it “action” if you’re not facing it directly. But even Perseus used a mirror when he slew Medusa.
CALLER: –Soft you now!
COUNSELOR #4: What? Did you just shush me?
CALLER: The fair Ophelia! [CALLER sets down phone and wanders off]
COUNSELOR #4: Hello?
CALLER: Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remember’d.
COUNSELOR #4: Hello? Are you still there?