Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Iambic Pentameter

“False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” - Macbeth

The students are assembled in a line of ten, shoulder to shoulder, facing the chalkboard and stretching across the room in a human chain. They know an “Iamb” is the joining of two syllables: one unstressed, one stressed. They are to collectively read the passage before them and bow down for unstressed and stand up on tippy-toes for stressed. We begin.

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
- / - / - / - / - /
It is the east, and Juliet’s the sun.
- / - / - / - / - /

The students look like bleacher bums doing the wave. Somebody makes a joke about Rick Rolling, and we continue through the passage. All the while my students are getting deeper and deeper into the language of physical poetry. I am dragging them forward, kicking and screaming, pulling and prodding, whether they like it or not.
The day had started with a reciting of Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, (Iambic Tetrameter), and then a whispered version of Ode to a Grecian Urn (Iambic Pentameter). These are my favorite moments as an educator. There’s no money value set to this. I would do it for free. Reading poetry aloud, the rhythm of the words, the beat of sounds, and nothing sounds so good in the English language as Iambic Pentameter.
Jefferson knew this. I like to joke with classes that he penned in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” as a personal slap in the face to King George. As if to say, we are not only a new and thriving country who doesn’t need you anymore, we have already mastered the best you have to offer.
I like how it also shows secret motives. Lear naked and wailing in bestial moans atop the heath in the pouring rain, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanes…” How if he were truly insane, why was he still able to speak in perfect poetic form? No, instead the old man is atoning. This is Shakespeare’s way of showing us the fallen king is not deranged but depressed. His symptoms show a logic, an order, he is crying out to his daughter to forgive him, to see his sorrow. Thus, his disorder is treatable because it is based in a pathology that can be healed.
Romeo lines are similar. How we know his love is pure because, although he varies from convention and falls for the daughter of his enemy, he does not stray from the basic truth of love, that no one can control who they are destined for, that soul mate who stirs in them passions they otherwise would never have known. I mean, just listen to the Iambs, they are the sounds of the beating cardiovascular as if the very marrow of our veins: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. Romeo’s words to Juliet are the echo of his very heart.
But what I love most about Iambic Pentameter is the shape of the stresses, the in and out, the stressed and unstressed syllables, the – and the /. It is an ebb and flow, like literary tides that wash over us, a soothing ocean call, and since our bodies our mostly made of water, Shakespeare’s lines so easily sync with our own natural rhythms. It becomes our psyche. We breathe in and out, in and out, in and out, and this is how we know we are alive.
We practice this today before we turn to Macbeth. Five days to curtain. We are no where near ready, and some days are better than others. I remind the students, everything is okay, we are moving forward, we are getting closer. Day by day. daDUM. daDUM.

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