Poetry and prose

LIKE EVERY OTHER SCHOOLBOY and girl in the country, I was taught that poetry should be pronounced ploddingly, with a pause at the end of each line, making sure you hammer home the metre:

Di dum di dum di dum di daaaah,
Di dum di dum di doo;
Di dum di dum di dum di daaaah,
Di dum di diddly dooooooo.

But of course that makes poetry sound like doggerel. It certainly isn’t the way to make it sound like it means anything.

I recently saw a production of Le Misanthrope in a new English language version by Martin Crimp, with a fine cast headed by Damian Lewis, Tara Fitzgerald and Keira Knightley. It was written in verse, as befits the original. But the entire cast – save one – performed the text as if it were prose. Here’s how Lewis, as Alceste, performed his lines:

Upset? That’s the best understatement yet. To do that to a man with no coercion is a form of social perversion. You’re suddenly kissing this man on both cheeks: ‘Darling – haven’t seen you for weeks – if there’s anything you need at all don’t hesitate (or was it on his mouth) to call.

By performing the poetry as prose, Lewis let the rhyme and metre do all the work, without ramming home the fact that it’s written in verse. As, indeed, did the rest of the cast.

But Knightley, less used to stage performance (and indeed to poetry), paused at the end of each line. Because that’s how we were taught to do it at school. Where most of the play was performed with subtlety, her lines were ploddingly poetic. And how it jarred.

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