At the Michigan Renaissance Festival, you can time-travel. You can watch jousts, drink ale from a wooden mug and don your very best jester apparel, all while speaking in a fake British accent. Call it nostalgic; call it escapist; call it just plain weird. Whatever you call it, the Renaissance’s influence has endured, if you know where to look.
But to renowned poet and Shakespearean professor Linda Gregerson, you don’t need to look far.
“What was remarkable about Shakespeare (was his) real genius for the small moment, for the eccentric detail, that told you a world of things that summoned up a very rich background, what we call depths,” she said.
These small details have had “an incalculable influence on every medium, every sort of storytelling and representational medium.”
Gregerson has felt the influence of the Bard and his contemporaries in her own writing.
“(There are) some things (that) I consider breakthroughs in mode. It’s about syntax; it’s about the way they wrote poetic line,” she said. “Those are broader lessons, or in some instances, technical lessons that I feel have influenced my own writing.”
As a poet, what Gregerson values most from Shakespeare’s era is “open voicing,” her own term. It’s a technique used often in Shakespeare’s sonnets that began with the poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, she said. Open voicing cultivates a “quasi-dramatic voice in the lyric poem” with a persona entirely its own. The key characteristic includes a colloquial tone, “subject to lapses and interruption.”
This is perhaps what made Gregerson’s collection of poems, “Magnetic North,” a 2007 finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry. Kathryn Crim of the Boston Review praised it as “an effort to achieve an even greater intellectual and spiritual depth, to refresh us to the poet’s vision of a difficult world.”
“Gregerson’s meticulous attention to syntax and rhythm and shape expose her anxieties and attend to them, straining the lines to chart the way she has been listening, watching, pondering,” Crim wrote.
While Gregerson said she’s been influenced by the Renaissance writers, her poems often thrive off of her own inspiration. Take “Make-Falcon” — written entirely in free-verse; not a style for which Shakespeare was known.
Yet even after numerous awards and accolades including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Gregerson still finds joy in teaching what she calls “the most interesting literary and cultural period.” As a Renaissance scholar, she expects her students to not only read the texts of this period, but also to understand the context from when the works were written.
“I want it to be palpable and real and exciting and vivid for my students,” she said.
Citing the epic poem “The Faerie Queene,” Gregerson explained that, while jousting is a central theme to the poem, this Renaissance phenomenon was actually a medieval practice.
“That was a fashion in the Renaissance,” she said. “They were reaching back into the past partly out of nostalgia. It was a form of nationalist celebration and forms of self-promotion.”
So after teaching Renaissance literature at the University since 1987, is she ever surprised by any student’s interpretations of the “Soul of the Age?”
“Always. Always,” she insisted. “And that’s why it’s enormous fun to teach Shakespeare. They are such bountiful texts and I’m always surprised by something. I always learn something new from my students.”
But not everyone feels the same way. For some, Shakespeare is the ultimate test of literacy and humanity; for others — patience. Leo Tolstoy famously said after reading Shakespeare, “Not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium.” Resistant to naysayers, Gregerson is encouraging of skeptic, new and well-read students alike.
“I hope they find things that delight them and enlarge their world,” she said. “What I hope is that the college classroom would be a site for discovering again the pleasures of this literature, the pleasures of thinking about something that is not right in front of you on the page.”
Whenever possible, she pushes her students to “try their hand at performance.” And if a Shakespeare company is in the area, she takes classes to performances, and even invites members from the company to visit class.
“One of the best presentations in class was done by a stage manager who showed others what stage managers do and how they approach the script … It was wonderful,” she said.
Though it’s doubtful that most who attend an event like the Renaissance Festival are thinking of Shakespearean syntax while watching jousts, Gregerson still believes festival-goers are “very much in the spirit of popular entertainment in Shakespeare’s own period.”
“There simply were not the hard lines drawn between ‘audience’ and ‘performers’ that we have seen so often in more formal entertainments of subsequent eras,” she said.
She considers the participatory quality of the Renaissance theater to be its great genius. Their stage — whether it was the Globe Theater or the streets of London — extended performers’ “festive hospitality” to the audience, she said.
Maybe this is what festival-goers seek and what Gregerson hopes her students to attain: a kind of time travel, total immersion in another period — if only until the final blue-book exam.