Week 15 – Of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat

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That time of year thou mayest in class behold

When students play with metered poetry!

Hee hee!

Right before break it was Shakespeare time, and that means one thing: reading a play and learning metered verse.  (Oops, that’s two things. I’m just so excited!)  I love this time.  I love listening to students wrestle with something so normal and boring as syllables and stress.  That light-bulb moment when they hear, they actually hear, the accented syllable and aren’t just posturing.  One student said to me, “I didn’t realize syllables could be so complicated!”

I have to come clean here and admit that poetry in general has never been my bag.  I find it obtuse and tricky and often a great way for some know-it-all to get punched in the snout.  (I know, I know, I’m a pacifist.  But, I want to punch pontificating blowhards in the snout. No? Oh well.)  Anyway, after my first year teaching As You Like It, and watching the writhings of students in pain, I realized that if I was going to make a go of this, I would need to put in some serious legwork.  So, I read a lot about the old man, watched Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare, and found many, many dictionaries of Shakespeare’s words.  And still, something wasn’t quite right.

And then I figured it out.  Most of what Shakespeare and company wrote is poetry. (Remember children, he was a “jobbing playwright” which means we still aren’t sure which parts of the plays are his.  There are some clues, and we are pretty damn certain that that “Bubble, bubble” crap wasn’t his).  In fact, it could be argued that his plays should be in the poetry section.  I would say that about 80% of Midsummer is in metered verse.  I know this because I just read it with my yahoots.  (I spent a splendid hour in Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, arguing just that with a clerk.  Good times, good times.)

So, I needed to teach Iambic Pentameter.  As a refresher course, iambic is when you have a weakly stressed syllable, and then a strongly stressed syllable.  As in “ti-tum“.  Five of those “ti-tum“s is the penta (five)meter.  (See the lines above for a really bad example of a couplet.) And the hero award goes not to Michael Wood, but to another great British geezer, Stephen Fry.  At about this time, he published his The Ode Less Traveled.  On a whim, I picked it up and read it.  It changed my mind about poetry in general, let alone metered.  For the first time, someone had scaffolded for me the how-to-it-ive-ness of that great beast known as poetry.  I fell in love.

But then I ran into a problem.  Stephen Fry, whom clearly I adore, is a proudly homosexual man (fine), but because much of his writing is not really PG, I couldn’t just photocopy his text for my kidlettes.  I ended up re-writing much of his work so that I could present it to my students without getting fired.  And it worked.  I have two PowerPoint presentations that move students through the basics of Iambic Pentameter with as little fuss as you are going to get with what is essentially all jargon.  Thank you, Stephen!! (Note two exclamation marks.  I really mean it.)

All students start by having to take Stephen’s Pledge.  They do this very solemnly, with hands over hearts: I promise to take my time.  I promise not to force meaning.  I promise to practice writing, even when it’s bad.  And then I ask them to find their pulse on their wrist or neck.  Once they have found it, I ask them to make a quiet “bump” noise when feel their heart pump.  After a few seconds of goofing around, all students are quietly sounding out their heart’s rhythm.  It sounds like a forest full of little frogs.  Then, as if by magic, they start to get into sync.  There comes a moment when the whole class, including me, have their heart pumping in beat with each other.  Bump, bump…bump, bump…bump, bump.  And before they get out of sync again, as they will, I tell them that when they are reading the iambic pentameter that Shakespeare wrote, they are essentially listening to his heartbeat.

By that point, I couldn’t tear them away from him if I tried.

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