STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The finest basketball plays can look like poetry in motion, which means the most gorgeous arc of a basketball pass might resemble this…
Unidentified Man #1: When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries and look upon myself and curse my fate.
INSKEEP: Lines from Shakespeare, one of many sonnets first published 400 years ago today. The sonnets have inspired many debates, including this question: Did Shakespeare want them published? Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.
LYNN NEARY: What does this…
(Soundbite of song, "Tiny Montgomery")
Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer): (Singing) Well, you can tell everybody down in ol' Frisco, tell 'em Tiny Montgomery says hello.
NEARY: …have in common with this…
Unidentified Man #2: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May and summer's lease hath all too short a date.
NEARY: Well, Clinton Heylin thinks quite a lot. When Heylin was researching a book on bootleggers in the music industry during the 1970s, he discovered that a lot of Shakespeare's plays had been bootlegged as well. And that got him curious about the sonnets. The result is his new book, "So Long As Men Can Breathe," the story of how the sonnets came to be published and what happened to them over the years.
To begin with, Heylin says, Bob Dylan's basement tapes and Shakespeare's sonnets were never intended for a wide audience.
Mr. CLINTON HEYLIN (Author): Essentially, in both cases they were killing time and at the same time dealing with huge personal issues in a private way, which they never conceived of coming out publicly.
NEARY: So how did the sonnets come to be published 400 years ago? As Heylin tells it, Elizabethan publishing was a murky, anarchic business. It wasn't hard for an enterprising publisher to get his hands on a manuscript without the author's approval. Heylin believes Thomas Thorpe, the man who published the sonnets, did just that.
Mr. HEYLIN: This was a man who lived on the very periphery of the London publishing world, who struggled to make ends meet, who was constantly in trouble with the Stationer's Company for publishing books that flagrantly breached the copyright of other publishers. You know, this is somebody who, if he got his hands on Shakespeare's sonnets, must have done so in some kind of underhanded, slightly questionable way.
NEARY: But why was Shakespeare so intent on keeping the sonnets private? That gets to some of the most controversial questions about the sonnets. Most of the poems are addressed to a fair youth. And his identity has been the source of endless academic debate. Heylin believes it was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.
Mr. CLINTON HEYLIN (Author): He had a fairly wild youth. He was known to play both sides of the field. He was a poet in his own right. He was certainly a lusty young lord. So a lot of the details that are in the sonnets imply that that type of personality is the fair youth.
NEARY: And here's the tricky part, the part that those of us who have not been following the academic debates over the years may not have known. Many scholars believe the sonnets are autobiographical, which means the sonnets addressed to the fair youth are Shakespeare's expressions of love for him. They point to poems like Sonnet 20 as an example. Here's an excerpt.
Unidentified Man #3: And for a woman wert thou first created, till nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting, And by addition me of thee defeated, by adding one thing to my purpose nothing. But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure, mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
NEARY: It is for this reason, says Heylin, that Shakespeare never wanted the sonnets published and may even have sought to have the Thorpe edition suppressed.
Mr. HEYLIN: If the sonnets are interpreted in what I think these days will be considered a fairly normal way, which is they are about a homosexual affair with a peer, he was committing several criminal offences. I mean it would have been extremely socially sensitive for him to be - to have any kind of scandal that involved him and a male peer.
NEARY: The highly personal nature of the poem, says Heylin was a radical departure for an Elizabethan writer. In the sonnets, Shakespeare revealed himself far more than he ever did in the plays.
Mr. HEYLIN: Wordsworth talked about these sonnets as the key that unlocked his heart. And that might be a slight over-statement, but it's only a slight one. I mean they are an insight into who the man was. And it's likely to be the closest we're ever going to get to the mind of William Shakespeare.
NEARY: The Thorpe edition of the sonnets disappeared and did not resurface for almost 200 years. There are only 13 copies of the original publication left, but nothing could diminish the emotional power and popularity of some of the greatest love poems ever written.
Lynn Neary, NPR News. Washington.
MONTAGNE: So Shakespeare's sonnets have stayed with us for 400 years.
INSKEEP: Which makes us wonder if anything from our time could last that long, especially now when words can vanish as quickly as they are tweeted.
MONTAGNE: Which is why we put this question to you. We want to hear your ideas for words of love that might stay with us for centuries as long as a Shakespeare's sonnet.
INSKEEP: You can pick a poem, a passage from a novel, scene from a movie, a snippet from a song, even a slogan off a T-shirt, but it has to have been produced in your lifetime.
MONTAGNE: And depending on your age, you could choose a passage from "Gone with the Wind."
INSKEEP: But not from "Pride and Prejudice." Too old.
MONTAGNE: Though a scene from the movie "Pride and Prejudice" would be okay.
INSKEEP: Submit your suggestions at npr.org, just click on the words Summer of Love.
MONTAGNE: Be picky, be specific, and remember, it has to be something people might still perform or pontificate about for hundreds of years from now.
INSKEEP: Something like, say, this love song by Bruce Springsteen which has lasted in spite of or may be because of this line: You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright.
(Soundbite of song, "Thunder Road")
Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer): (Singing) The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves, Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays, Roy Orbison singing for the lonely…
INSKEEP: It's NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.