Everyone here has done it: it’s the natural thing to do when you read poetry – or anything sufficiently like poetry. You come to the end of the line, and you pause.
In a lot of poetry, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Limericks would never have the impact they do (or be as memorable) if the basic rhythm of the form didn’t practically enforce a pause at the end of each line. Of course, the pause also works rather well to highlight what’s usually a punch line in the final line (and with the limericks I know, usually a double entendre or something worse).
With other poetry, especially the likes of Shakespeare, it doesn’t work so well.
The example that comes to mind for me is the opening of Richard III – I saw Antony Sher’s iconic performance (Anyone who is interested in acting, building a character, and how he built that role and made it his should search out Year of the King by Antony Sher – it’s well worth the read). He talks about the famous opening line: “Now is the winter of our discontent” and how nobody understands it – because we read it and pause.
“Now is the winter of our discontent,” Pause, take breath. “Made glorious summer by this son of York”. Even though spoken by the same character, it comes across as two separate thoughts, neither of which stands alone.
On the other claw, if you remove that line break and the pause that goes with it because it’s a deliberate line break (part of the mostly iambic pentameter with variations that Shakespeare used so often and well – not least because when well-written it simply flows), you get a full sentence that actually makes sense.
“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.”
Sher spends a fair amount of time on this because it’s one of the iconic openings – not least because (as I recall from the book) the movie of the play with Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III was so bloody iconic – and because it’s the kind of thing that can make or break a performance. Do it well, and the rest will flow. Muff it, and you’ve got something that’s at best mediocre.
Not helped by theatrical folks being possibly even more superstitious than some writers can get (incidentally – high stakes plus low control over the outcome will always generate superstition. When you can give the best performance of your life and the rest of the thing is a complete shit show, or you can produce a gem that gets sunk by screwed up anti-marketing, you’re going to get a whole lot of superstitious folks in that field). A lot of the lore about Macbeth falls under that, although I’ve got to say Sher’s cursed run of “the Scottish play” gives plenty of reason to wonder if the actors have it right.
So, he wrote a lot about different ways to handle the opening, to differentiate his performance from a “normal” performance, and how he tried a variety of different ways to speak it, varying the emphasis and the pacing of the words.
In the end, he went for a conversational tone, as though what he said was simple common knowledge that everyone who heard him would completely agree with – and it worked. Brilliantly.
The use of the crutches was by then well known – Sher’s performance in the play had been half way around the world in something like six months by the time it ran in Brisbane – but the impact of seeing it in the theater was… phenomenal.
The lights came up with Richard sitting on a low wall or bench. He started speaking as though he was in the middle of a conversation with someone off-stage, just chatting… And then he moved. And the way he used those crutches it really was reminiscent of a spider. They’d become extensions of his own arms, and completely shifted the frame of reference. I’d swear everyone in the audience held their breath at that moment.
That was a masterful performance. It cost me a week’s income and happened the night before an exam – but it was worth everything. With simple but well-thought out props and acting, Antony Sher became the clever, conniving last king of the Wars of the Roses. And a lot of the way he did it came down to looking at the spaces between common assumptions and how he could twist them into the image he wanted.
We can do that too – although I freely admit I’m nowhere near good enough at my craft to do anything like that with the written word. Yet.
(Today’s cat photo is Buttercup on her scratching thingy – which is going to be replaced soon because she’s so enthusiastic about using it and needs a new one)