Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Babe Ruth of Poetry

Dear Everyone:

Today, echoing the line in yesterday’s poem that Robert Hass was so taken by, we have a poem by the all-time heavyweight champion of English literature, Big Will himself!

Let’s set the scene: Macbeth, after an inglorious reign that begins with a regicide and goes rapidly downhill from there, is on the castle walls, under siege by his enemies. He’s outnumbered, outclassed, and he knows he’s not going to survive this one. Things can hardly get worse. Then they do. A cry is heard from within the castle, and Macbeth learns that his wife has just killed herself. In a bleak way, it’s almost a Zen moment: He becomes fully enlightened as to the futility of human life.

Here it is, from Macbeth, act five, scene five:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
by William Shakespeare

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Great speech! And a great poem, too. It’s written in blank verse (technically speaking, unrhymed iambic pentameter) which is a form that the second-greatest playwright of Elizabethan times, Christopher Marlowe (but his buddies get to call him Kit Marlowe) adapted to playwriting. Then Shakespeare took what Ben Jonson, himself no slouch as a playwright, called “Marlowe’s mighty line” and ran with it.

Blank verse is a very natural form for the English language. In the hands of a great poet, speech becomes poetry. Note how natural that speech sounds when read aloud. Note how poetic it looks on the page.

This is a terrific piece to memorize. When a friend is feeling down, you can recite it and annoy the hell out of him. But my favorite use of it was in a Hoppity Hooper cartoon. Hoppity Hooper was a naive young frog in a traveling medicine show made up of his uncle Waldo Wigglesworth, who was a fox, and Filmore, the Strongest Bear in Captivity, Wisconsin. Waldo Wigglesworth was obviously a former Shakespearean actor and at the beginning of one episode something Hoppity says causes Waldo to launch into the above soliloquy, at the end of which a solitary tear falls from his eye to the ground with a sharp clink. Which had absolutely nothing to do with the cartoon, of course. That’s what made it so funny.

Sean and his mother are absolutely convinced that I invented The Hoppity Hooper Show, simply because almost nobody else has ever seen it. Absolutely untrue. It was the creation of Jay Ward, who was also responsible for Crusader Rabbit and (more famously) Rocky and Bullwinkle. I had nothing to do with it at all.

Would I lie?

All best,


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