A “Sonnet” for Christmas
Shea thinks that “poems” neatly rhymes with “groans.”
He also thinks that “shaved” can rhyme with “slaves.”
Oh, if precision’s what the reader craves,
He will not relish Shea’s affected tones!
Yet from Shea’s editors, who must have bones
In place of brains, he wins unending raves.
Neanderthals exchanging grunts in caves
Had better sense than our day’s anglophones.
The Little Drummer Boy, so goes the tale,
Lacked proper gifts and therefore banged his drum.
The gesture that he offered didn’t fail:
Up went the young Messiah’s infant thumb!
In contrast, ruddy Shea should now turn pale.
God’s not a liar, and he isn’t dumb.
A Note on the Text
Long before this post, of course, I have found delight in mocking Mark Shea’s poetic pretensions – most enjoyably in “Sweet Sonneteer,” which I addressed to Shea’s wife in an attempt to get the Devourer of Donuts to challenge me to a duel. Nothin’ doin’! That little piece mocked the wretched excuse for a sonnet that Shea took a whole afternoon to write. Considering the result, the expense of time struck me as incredible, and an indication that Shea is not only addle-pated but markedly slow-witted. As Bugs Bunny would say, what an ultra-maroon!
I’ll take time here to confess that every piece of verse I produce in which Shea’s drooling leftism, bogus Christianity, suety physique, or vicious hatred of dogs serves as subject matter – every bit of it, no matter how remote the focus may appear – is actually about Shea’s incompetence as a writer, and especially as a versifier. These pieces are mostly light verse, not serious poems, and the point behind the arras they present is that I can write verse and Shea can’t. Ha! To the sufficiently literate, the contrast offered in itself communicates that point.
However, when I saw Shea’s “Sonnet for Christmas” — published on Dec. 22nd, 2018, but only discovered by your humble servant on the very last day before Ordinary Time, Sunday, Jan. 13th, 2019 – it occurred to me that the editors of Australia’s Catholic Weekly must not be sufficiently literate. If they were, they’d never publish such embarrassing drivel, however committed they were to Shea’s fraudulent religious and political views. That’s why my response points out, as if to a child, that “poems” doesn’t rhyme with “groans,” and that “shaved” doesn’t rhyme with “slaves.” Of course, these observations only scratch the foul surface of what’s wrong with Shea’s ill-wrought insult to the Christ Child.
I need to resort to prose to attempt an exhaustive treatment.
The first objection is to Shea’s scansion – which is practically non-existent. Sonnets in English are traditionally written in iambic pentameter. Well, Shea’s line 2 scans as pentameter without substitutions. It’s actually not a bad line. Line 7 also scans. It’s impossible to get the rest of the undisciplined mess to scan at all, however liberal the charitable reader may become in his interpretation of metrical substitution. The two lines that should be the smoothest – the alpha and omega lines, the first and the last – are among the sloppiest. Line 1 contains only four metrical feet: an anapest, two trochees, and an iamb with feminine ending to accommodate the rhyme. How’s that supposed to establish the meter for the rest of the so-called poem? Line 14 is similarly a twisted jumble of syllables containing only four stresses. It really does excruciating, irrecoverable violence to the rhythm Shea has claimed by calling his abominable exercise a sonnet in the first place.
There’s a reason for expecting a sensible meter of the sort of poem that Shea is pretending to write. Once the meter is established, the poet can use all sorts of techniques to control the pace and emphasis of his lines. As long as the meter is maintained, polysyllabic words speed up the line. As long as the meter is maintained, monosyllables and spondaic substitutions slow it down. And so on. And so on. For many centuries – from Chaucer to the nineteenth century and beyond – these sorts of subtleties constituted a major part of the art of the poet. None of it is possible if the meter is not maintained. And Shea cannot maintain the meter.
You can just see our globular third-rate humanities undergraduate squirming here, trying to justify his semi-literacy and inattention to the tradition he has invoked. He’s going to pretend that he’s John Donne, writing the “strong line,” stuffed with spondees and significance. Donne did stuff his line with stresses – but they always scanned nevertheless. Why? Because spondees always retain their stress in the same position as iambs, and therefore never truly upend the iambic pattern.
Then Shea the Sham is going to pretend he’s Gerard Manley Hopkins, boldly promoting a “sprung rhythm” rooted in the ancient Anglo-Saxon accentual meter. In reality, there’s no comparison. Shea can’t even maintain the number of stresses per line, or be consistent about the alliteration – and these two features are essential to the prosody that Hopkins pioneered. The real reason Shea screws up the meter is that he has a tin ear and absolutely zero control over his own language. He is a bumbling, stumbling compositional klutz, visibly inferior to the most sing-song of Hallmark greeting card artistes. The reality of the English metrical tradition spurns him with its heel as the fraud he has always been.
Hold still, though. Shea’s mangling of the meter is as nothing next to his felonious abuse of the art of rhyme.
An exact rhyme between two words commences at the accented vowel and continues to the end of the word. All those sounds have to be the same if an exact rhyme is to be achieved. Moreover, the sounds immediately prior to the accented vowel in each word have to be different. Otherwise, you’re stuck with an identical – and that’s not a valid rhyme. It’s not fair to rhyme “bored” with “board.” Essentially, you’re rhyming the word with itself.
Just look at Shea’s miserable performance as a rhymester! We’ve already observed that “shaved” doesn’t rhyme with “slaves,” and that “poems” doesn’t rhyme with “groans.” “Poems” is in reality a two-syllable word with the accent on the first syllable. You have to mispronounce it as “pomes” even to get an assonance out of it. Sheesh, Shea! What a blunder!
“Molten” and “golden” don’t rhyme, either. One has a voiceless T where the other has a voiced D. Different sounds, Shea: different sounds. Start with the alphabet and work your way forward!
It is true that, in ordinary speech, many T’s become D’s. Many people pronounce “later,” for example, to rhyme with “Darth Vader.” It’d be perfectly valid to rhyme these two in a sonnet featuring the Star Wars villain. But nobody pronounces “molten” as “molden” – not even Shea, who is a pretty perverse specimen. Shea’s is not a valid rhyme.
Why is it that Shea has to resort to such false rhymes? Is he just trying to be avant garde, as he pretended to be with his incompetent meter? No, Gentle Reader, Shea can’t offer this excuse. He can’t say that he’s using slant rhymes, half rhymes, or even mere assonances according to his super-strategic judgment, as some poets have done since the beginning of the Modernist movement. He can’t legitimately claim any such thing – because, in the few cases where he can manage, he uses exact rhymes. “Liturgies” and “energies” constitute an identical. But “made” and “blade” rhyme. “Lead” and “dead” rhyme. Shea is trying with all his oversized ass to rhyme for real. He just can’t do it with any consistency. He doesn’t have the skill, and he doesn’t have the brains. So, more often than not, he cheats.
Shea abuses rhyme in another way, too. When he rhymed “blade” with “made,” he must have reached around with one of his oily anterior flippers and given himself a pat on the back. Hey! That was a real rhyme! Shea must have felt like a regular Edgar Allan Poe.
But what’s all this about the “blade” of Achilles? Achilles’ sword is not the object celebrated in Homer’s Iliad. The special equipment bestowed on Achilles by Hephaestus is his armor and especially his shield, which is described at great length. The real poet W. H. Auden wrote a fine poem entitled “The Shield of Achilles.” But the sword of Achilles was just a sword. So why does Shea tell us that The Iliad is about the “blade” of Achilles?
The answer is once again rooted in Shea’s utter incompetence. He has to talk about Achilles’ “blade” rather than his “wrath” or his “shield,” because he desperately needs a rhyme for “made.” The requirement to rhyme in a sonnet is just too much of a challenge for Shea’s cerebral cortex – if he wants to do it with grace and with respect for the truth. He has to falsify one of the great texts in the Western canon in order to scrape by according to the standards he has himself set. Homer is said to have nodded, but Shea has never even succeeded in lifting his furry head.
This point leads us to the final major problem with Shea’s putative “sonnet.” Not only does the prosody exert copious suction, but also the content, in terms of images and ideas, is an execrable failure. Shea rips off his initial governing image – the world created by music – from Tolkien’s Silmarillion. It’s a glorious image as Tolkien develops it. Alas, Shea’s appropriation only cheapens Tolkien’s idea!
Shea’s assumption is that poetry is more “molten” – that is, more fluid – than prose. But he’s wrong. Oral-formulaic poetry may shift its details to a greater or lesser degree, but literary poetry is as hard as diamond. Indeed, that’s part of the object of writing it. Oh – and the Jews of Christ’s time were not “a race of slaves” any more than all mankind has been enslaved since Eden. Greco-Roman society had a very precise definition of slavery, and the Jewish race did not, in the main, conform to it. St. Paul, some may recall, was a Roman citizen.
I could go on here, but what would be the point? The question is: about what is the “savant” Mark Shea ignorant? And the answer is: everything.
The real problem here is not Shea at all – not his effective idiocy, not his fraudulent self-importance. The real problem is the salivating gullibility exhibited by the editors of Australia’s Catholic Weekly. They allow themselves to take Shea’s crap seriously! What a dismal message they convey concerning Catholic culture! Shea’s blatant stupidity doesn’t matter. His incompetence doesn’t matter. His risible imitation of the poetic art is embraced – and even recommended – all because he throws in some religious language and ersatz piety. The editors are hoodwinked – and rush to hoodwink others – because they refuse to exercise any critical judgment whatsoever. Duh! Catholic good! Critical standards bad!
As a Catholic, with all my soul, I strive to evade the ghetto these people have constructed for me.