Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Quality of Meter

(Splash photo by Paul Hoksenar)

One of my most prized possessions is a complete collection of Shakespeare that was given to my mother as her high school valedictorian present by her book-loving father, the year before he died. It was printed as World War II raged, and hence it demonstrates the paper and ink rationing of the times: The pages are tisue-thin, the print reduced, the margins scant. But it is still elegant and compleat, and Mama found room to underline or make comments in her copperplate handwriting, using peacock-blue fountain pen ink in delicate lines.

I began reading from it every night when I turned 12 and we moved to Brasil, with no TV and either the volumes on our shelves or a few English-language murder mysteries in the bibliotecas all we had as print material. Long after my parents were asleep, I'd lie in the tropical swelter of my room, watching the geckoes in each corner who kept mosquitoes at bay, flipping between lines of iambic pentameter to footnotes and glossary, trying to suck out all the meaning he packed into each phrase. A good way to cope with hormones hitting my bloodstream like galloping mares.

I once heard that the average English sentence produced in everyday conversation by a native speaker tends to run ten syllables in alternating beats. In other words, iambic pentameter sounds like "ordinary talk" to us -- overlay metaphor and epic ideas, and you've got poetry no one can forget because it settles into the grooves of our brains.

I wonder if that's still true any more.

The ratio of allowable Twitter characters to allowable Facebook characters is 1:3. There is no poetry in that decision. The only way around mathematically brutal elision is to cheat by adding a picture or link -- fodder for the ADD crowd who will actually go to prominent writers' blogs and complain about having to read "paragraphs."

So Mama's generation understood how to retain the entirety of a thing while avoiding waste. How would we now reduce the following to a FB friendly discrete chunk -- and what feverish possibilities would be thus lost for a future pubescent looking for doorways to the world?

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.