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Archive for January, 2013

Konichiwa bloggits!

Close-reading poetry is about tearing language apart. You have to barbarically cut up a poem and inspect its tiny pieces. Then, when satisfied, you slot them all together and kick back.

You can do this with ANYTHING.

If you don’t believe me, read this.

This blog, Verbatimlooks for poetry in places you wouldn’t expect it. It catches the poetry of the everyday, in signs, or phone conversations, or comments on an internet forum. Repetition, patterns, and words that sound strange in a certain context are often the features that transform ordinary language into the poetic. There’s no obvious line between what counts as poetry and what doesn’t. It’s up to YOU to decide!

This is my favourite from the blog:

I mean I actually have to
physically 
send him a link 
to the thing I want.

I mean I would almost
rather him not buy anything for me…
because he just goes
and buys me something

really SHIT. And he’s started being
really funny about it, like now
he buys me something
and says I probably won’t like it

even before I unwrap it. And I
just said to him that it’s better for me
to SAY I don’t like it and take it back,
than to pretend. And

I must have mentioned like
twice a day that I want
some stacking rings. But he
sees that as like an engagement ring,

like I’d MARRY him
for Christ’s sake. I mean if I want
to find out what HE wants
I would ask his friends.

Why doesn’t he do that? Oh, and then
he goes online to Sophie
to ask what I want
and she tells him that I want

some black jeans and this poster
I linked to on Facebook, and he
just didn’t pay ANY ATTENTION to her…
Yes but I shouldn’t have to say

what I want.

Taken from a phone conversation overheard on the train from London to Pewsey, 4.36pm, December 19th. 

Extempore poetry. Excellent.

 

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from poetrybyheart.org

poetrybyheart.org

The government is backing a poetry-reciting competition for young people. Although Bad to Verse knows few people that welcome the Department for Educations’s initiatives with open arms, and recognises that for others this is a nice, romantic throwback shuffled in among Michael Gove’s buttoned-up, antediluvian, Britannia-rules-the-waves educational philosophy, it whole-heartedly celebrates this effort to get people reciting poetry. And let me tell you for why, sirs!

  • So much poetry was meant to be read aloud, whether among peers, or families, or poetry-loving coteries. Speaking poetry gives it the human voice that put the words there in the first place.
  • Speaking a poem over and over again is a great way to lead the brain to think about it – to approach it in different ways as you say it in different ways. This is a great way to appreciate the myriad of layers one poem can have.
  • Lines you learn will stay with you forever. Until you really do forget them. Listening to poetry recited well by somebody else might stay with you even longer.

The competition, called ‘Poetry By Heart’, has invited 14-18 year olds to learn poems from its online anthology of 130 poems. Browse all of them on the competition’s website. Its recent announcement has kicked other forums into thoughtfully discussing the ‘point’ of it all.

The British press has excitedly lapped it up. News editors seem both intrigued and bemused by the idea of reciting poetry.

The Guardian opened up a twitter discussion about the best poems to commit to memory, and Christopher Howse, writing in the Telegraph, recalled some of the greatest poetry anthologies of our time.

Radio 4’s The World Tonight spoke about the competition in a discussion framed with scepticism. Won’t children come to resent poetry if forced to learn it by heart? UK Canal Poet Laureate Jo Bell wasn’t convinced that this kind of rote learning would help young people understand poetry. Michael Schmidt, writer in residence at St John’s College Cambridge, took a different approach. Listen to it here!

The BBC even got Sir Andrew Motion on to talk about it! Nice one, Beebz!

I want to know your thoughts! And possibly steal all the opinions that are better than my own! What do you think?

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If you haven’t already come across it, the Interesting Literature blog has some great posts, all laden with myth-busting facts about literature. The Shakespeare post is particularly good!

Here are my favourite Shakespeare gems, pilfered from many peers and academics over the years, and now lovingly handed over to you.

This information really changed the way I read and watch Shakespeare. Go forth and be wise.

1. Shakespeare is writing parts for specific people. In early modern plays, actors were typecast; they would play the same role in each play, particularly if they were the clown. Shakespeare wrote for two specific clowns in his career. His first was a man called William Kempe, an actor famous for his physical, slapstick and buffoonish style of comedy. Shakespeare’s earlier plays revel in just this kind of rambunctious, silly clowning. But after a disagreement (about what, we don’t know) Kempe quit the company. The clown that replaced him was a man with a very different theory of comedy: Robert Armin. As a result, we see a new ‘clown’  generating the comedy in Shakespeare’s later works. Fools like Touchstone in As You Like It are given verbally complex speeches, bursting with riddle, word-play, and always overlaid with satirical seriousness. The fool in King Lear sings the same song that the fool sings in Twelfth Night. It’s likely to have been Armin’s special set-piece, especially because we know Armin was a singer and Kempe was not.

William Kempe, from biography.com

William Kempe, from biography.com

Robert Armin, from findagrave.com

Robert Armin, from findagrave.com

2. Actors learnt their lines from cues. They were given ‘parts’ to practice, which only consisted of their lines, and then a three word cue of the last line before they were due to begin speaking. Always pressed for time, rehearsing was limited, and often actors would have no idea what was going on in the rest of the play until a final rehearsal, or in some cases, until the actual performance.

3. Actors wouldn’t stay in character. Learning from ‘parts’ meant that actors were part focused, not play focused. Unlike today, where we consider the best acting to be ‘realistic’, Shakespearean actors would not have had the same sense of keeping a character consistent throughout the play. In fact, they would often flop out of character on stage when not speaking.

4. Shakespeare didn’t always write in ‘acts’. From 1608 onwards, Shakespeare’s company performed in the indoor theatre Blackfriars during the winter, and the outdoor Globe in the summer. It’s at this point that Shakespeare first starts writing in acts. On a practical level, this was because Blackfriars was lit by candle chandeliers and 4 act breaks were needed to allow the candle wicks of these candle chandeliers to be trimmed. Pretty neat, huh! Of course, you could argue that Shakespeare’s new structure was simply borne out of a new interest in classicism and a corresponding desire to formalise his plays. But that is in no way as cool a fact.

blackfriars playhouse

Blackfriars, from orwhatyouwill.wordpress.com

5. Loads of people walked around semi-blind. It might seem like an obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of the groundlings would not have worn glasses. But as somebody that spends my whole life forgetting my glasses, not being able to see well enough to find where I put my glasses, and as a result seeing everything through a blurry haze, I sympathise with the groundlings all the way at the back of the pit, with poor eyesight, only laughing when everyone else laughed. It wasn’t assumed that everybody could clearly see the acting; as a result, a lot of gestures on the stage were huge and over-blown in order to communicate the drama explicitly enough.

6. The play would not have been viewed as exclusively ‘Shakespeare’s’. Actors would frequently change the lines written by the playwright. The best example of this is Hamlet’s final line: “The rest is silence. (Hamlet dies)”. In the 1623 folio edition of the play, however, we have “The rest is silence, o, o, o, o.”  The prolonged wailing of Hamlet as he dies (and an obvious contradiction of Shakespeare’s ‘the rest is silence’) is thought to be an addition by the actor likely to have played him: Richard Burbage, the most experienced actor in the company. Having played many tragic heroes, Hamlet’s swift death was perhaps not quite dramatic enough for him.

The Folio, from peterharrington.co.uk

The Folio, from peterharrington.co.uk

7. Similarly, two or more playwrights would often collaborate to write one play. A famous example of this is the play Sir Thomas More. Scholars think Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare all joined forces here. Interestingly, the sole surviving manuscript for this play is the only place scholars think they can detect Shakespeare’s handwriting.

8. If Shakespeare is mixing tragedy and comedy, he’s likely to be mixing other things too. He wrote a number of ‘mixed genre’ plays: plays that can’t be neatly defined as either ‘tragic’ or ‘comic’. Othello, as a tragedy underpinned with comedy, is a perfect example of this. In this play we also have a mixed marriage. And a title that ostensibly brings together two incompatible things; a ‘Moor Of Venice’, where a Moor (North African) can presumably be in Venice, but not of, as in from, Venice. Shakespeare is reconciling opposites: black/white, soldier/husband. More brilliantly, this play has more compound words, (i.e. a word formed by joining two or more words) than any other Shakespeare play!

9. Shakespeare is always referencing the physical space in which his plays are being performed. For example, the insignia on the flag of the Globe theatre was either Hercules or Atlas holding the globe on his back. So any references to Hercules or Atlas in the plays are always meta-theatrical – a nod to the raised flag above them.

Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare

To marvel at Shakespeare some more, watch the Michael Wood documentary In Search of Shakespeare. Here’s the first episode:

Finally, if you like history and enjoy amassing as much information as possible, go and read historian Dr Lucy Worsley’s blog. SHE’S GREAT.

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I set up this blog with the intention of showing you how easy it is to close read language. It’s when you take the time to look at words, phrases and sounds in serious detail that you come up with original thoughts about a poem. And when you’re talking about poems or books that have been discussed over and over again, an original thought is GOLDEN.

To try and hammer home to you just how easy it is, I have a chosen to analyse Carly Rae Jepsen’s seminal piece ‘Call me Maybe’. You may know her from works such as… no wait, just that one.

hey i just met you

In case you are unfamiliar with her work, here it is in all its resplendent glory:

I’ll just look at the first four verses. It’s long and stuff pretty much just gets repeated. Over and over.

I threw a wish in the well,
Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell
I looked to you as it fell,
And now you’re in my way

I’d trade my soul for a wish,
Pennies and dimes for a kiss
I wasn’t looking for this,
But now you’re in my way

Your stare was holdin’,
Ripped jeans, skin was showin’
Hot night, wind was blowin’
Where do you think you’re going, baby?

Hey, I just met you
And this is crazy
But here’s my number
So call me, maybe?

Let’s start with Jepsen’s clever play with rhythm. The first three lines each contain 7 syllables, and for the first four syllables of each line, there is a hint of iambic rhythm: unstressed followed by stressed syllable. (See my post on meter for more explanation of this!) We have “I THREW a WISH”. But then we end with “in the WELL” – a three syllable anapaestic foot (unstressed, unstressed, stressed) that allows Jepsen to end with emphasis on the main rhyming sound of this stanza: ‘ell’. It gets repeated three times.

We see the same thing in the next stanza: “I’d trade my soul for a wish.” Note here how the ‘iss’ sound seems to gets passed through the stanza. But Jepsen, fiendish lyrical mastermind, is a fan of ­half-rhymes. “Wish” does not fully rhyme with kiss. Is this a product of laziness – of the senseless, manufactured, hit-hammering, plastic pop-paganda music industry?!? NO! We are of course overlooking the bigger picture! Jepsen is simply rejecting the frequently delimiting nature of a strict rhyming pattern, instead allowing her meaning to transcend what began life as a self-imposed pattern. The sound ‘iss/ish’ washes comfortably through the passage. It remains distinctive enough to feel part of a definite rhyming schema.

carly rae quote

Even more inspirational writing from Jepsen. 60 unfilled diaries’ worth. Celebquote.com

The refrain line “But now you’re in my way” is perhaps the cleverest part of the whole song. Notice how the 7 syllable pattern, the iambic/anapaestic hybrid line, gets broken here. We now have SIX syllables, and the rhyming word we have grown to know vanishes. Instead, Jepsen laments that a young man is obstructing her way, just as she obstructs the rhyming pattern. Oh you couldn’t write this stuff!* Genius! I beat my fists upon the ground in delirious awe of you, ye silver-tongued songstress!

*(She probably didn’t)

Now the tension is buildin’. We’re at the bridge. We powerfully hear Jepsen’s Canadian twang, helpfully represented by the elision of the g that creates the word endin’ of the participle ‘holding’. It also feels colloquial. “Your stare was holdin’” – now that’s not a real sentence. Holding what? Is it grammatically incorrect in order to imitate the informal speech of young, hip, grammatically incorrect Jepsen? Or is it purposefully unfinished – an enigmatic introduction to a male figure that proves equally enigmatic? Or does it rush past its own conclusion, caught up in the verse’s spine-tingling acceleration towards the explosive climax of ‘HEY I JUST MET YOU’.

We’re at the chorus. Overcome with a kind of babbling, euphoric hysteria as she speaks to the young man, Jepsen – and oh my, oh boy is this crazy, no seriously, it really is unhinged – Jepsen HANDS OVER HER TELEPHONE NUMBER. We’re hurried through the chorus in breathless, unpunctuated excitement; the conjunctions that begin lines 2, 3, 4, “and” “but” and “so” respectively, give the semblance of logical progression – as if Jepsen is constructing an argument that has reached its conclusion, something suggested by the summarising ‘so’ of the last line. But do not be fooled! We know that handing over your phone number to a stranger is almost unacceptably kooky. Jepsen structures the verse to give the impression of rational thought but in reality, this is a woman too adrenalized by her erotic encounter to do anything calmly. Asking him to call! Well, I never.

It is not uncommon to chance upon a blogger analysing cheesy pop. Rebecca Black’s unforgettable ‘Friday’ is a must-have set-piece. Here’s one analysis.  Here’s another.

Steph Hicks has written a more serious post about the poetry of modern pop. A lot of people agree with her! What do you think?

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Happy New Year!

Chaucer, in the style of Bill Bailey. See, it isn’t that hard to understand!

What are the most typically Chaucerian features Bill Bailey picks up on and exaggerates?

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