I think it’s sad how great literature deteriorates in reputation as it gains fame. What I mean is, I’ve never heard anyone seriously speak of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The words “To be, or not to be? That is the question,” have become a sort of a joke. We say, duh, that isn’t even a question. Who asks whether they want to be or not? Then, if the words ever appear in conversation, we apply them to trivialities and slogans: “To ski, or not to ski? That is the question.”
And yet, the question Hamlet asks is a question. Not everyone wants to take his or her own life, but we’ve all wondered why we’re here and if it’s worth it. We wonder what it means to be and what it means to be here and what it means that we age and get tumors and die, that there are tyrants who mistreat others for no reason beyond a love of cruelty, that there are rich white kids who throw disgusting jives at the less-privileged, that there are men who beat the women who love them, that governments are corrupt institutions made of corrupt people and won’t bring justice where justice is deserved. “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…” We ask the same questions Shakespeare was asking five hundred years ago, because the world hasn’t changed, and it goes on and on in the same cycles of horror and misery and death that it has always known.
If you don’t believe in a God, there are no answers to this question. If you do believe in a God, the answers are not easy ones. But I don’t think Hamlet’s words should be taken lightly whether you believe there is life after death or not. It is the same question as we’ve been asking all our lives.
I think one of the primary reasons for art is this exact thing: it reminds us that there are others who have walked where we walk now. It allows us to ask whether being here is worth it, as Shakespeare asked so many years ago. The ancient Sumerians asked it too, showing in the Epic of Gilgamesh that even a glorious, heroic life must end futilely, in death. Art allows us to cry out with the poets of the Psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
My poetry is not going to survive for four thousand years as the Sumerians’ did, or five hundred as Shakespeare’s. Likely it will be long forgotten in the year after my own death. But I hope, for the brief time it lasts, that it will give others a chance to cry out, to ask questions. You are not alone in this world. I, too, am grieving, and asking, and begging God for answers I don’t always have. I can’t explain why the people of Yemen are dealing with famine, war, and a cholera epidemic all at once. I don’t know why a boy in my year in college and another in my brother’s year in high school had freak accidents within two months of each other, and I don’t know why they both died. I don’t know why, even for me who for all intents and purposes is a rich white kid, nothing I do on this earth is quite enough to make it worth it; and I don’t know why it’s so much easier to mourn those two people who were so similar to me than the thousands who have cholera in a country far away. But you’ve felt the same things I have. You, like Shakespeare, like the Sumerians, are human.
That’s why I think it’s sad that we don’t give any weight to the questions Hamlet raises in his soliloquy. Those questions are there to help us, to mourn with us. We feel alone in this world, but there are billions who have gone before us. There are billions walking alongside us even now. So, please,
sip poetry with lemonade,
drink it in and feel it slipping coolly
down your throat
into your chest to calm
your heartbeat and lull it
into the rhythm of the universe.
sip poetry with spiced herbal tea
and stir it with a spoon to
make the sugar dissolve
and slake your thirst with sweetness
and everything you needed,
sip poetry or gulp it
quench your image-hungry thirst
taste the variance of flavors and colors
and let them wash for a moment through your chest:
translucent concoctions of
squeezed lemons or crushed leaves:
is extracted from experience
and must be drunk.