Poetry, poetry. Oh, great poetry.
This is the mantra of many who love the form, and I have my predilections, of course, for the greatness of poetic words.
Still, I like to remind myself that, in and of itself, there is no purity to poetry. The bad actor can use it, as well as the good.
No one knew this better than Shakespeare, who gave his actors the chance to play Macbeth and his Lady. This famous fictional couple continues to offer us proof positive that poetic language can be used for base purposes. On this point, Macbeth is a story worth going back to, even today. For even today, poetry is employed in simple, sometimes damaging ways, that are not necessarily recognized as poetry in service of something unexpected. Just scan the leadership Twittersphere and you might notice, for instance:
- the use of alliteration
- the use of repetition
- the use of rhyme
To which I say, watch out: poetry can hijack the heart.
Long, long ago, I first read Macbeth without having much of a background in Shakespeare’s poems and plays, but it was immediately obvious to me that in Macbeth I was encountering Beauty turned to bad aims, poetic language co-opted by two who would turn their hand against the state of the kingdom, first verbally and later by putting themselves above even the laws of Nature by killing the king in cold blood.
For her part, Lady Macbeth’s image-heavy poetic language was recognizably crude right from the start. When she’s heard from Macbeth that he’s thinking to seize the kingdom by nefarious means, and he is having a moment of doubt, she charges him:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”
When Macbeth responds by asking “If we should fail?” she responds crudely again,
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail…”
In what later feels like a literal retreat to the absolute foundation of poetry—its reliance on repetition—Lady Macbeth will devolve into washing her hands, washing her hands, washing her hands. You might call it poetic justice, or you might call it a regression, on the physical level, to the prison of her initial means. Either way, she is stuck in the madness of repetition until she takes her own life.
Macbeth’s use of poetic language, which sprawls throughout the play in many arresting ways, can be best summed up in how he channels the witches from the start. They chant, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair…” And upon Macbeth’s first entry he observes, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” This is a man whose words will be engaging in a serious sleight-of-hand, thus playing with his head and the hearts and minds of those around him. Those who stick with him until the end become “constrainèd things/Whose hearts are absent too.”
Barnet’s introduction to Macbeth sums up our attraction to the man-gone-malevolent:
The speech Macbeth makes before he dies…remind[s] us that he holds our interest partly by his language…one of the things that makes us interested in Macbeth…is memorable speech.”
If poetry has power, it is largely in this: poetry is memorable. It is also powerful by virtue of its rhythmic parallels to song. When it comes to the base use of the form, it might be helpful to remember that the violence of the sticking-place is not just something we reach by will; it can be reached by the highjacking of our hearts through the stickiness and rhythms of language that urge us onward to places we’d been thinking it would be best not to go.
On this point, C. S. Lewis is one of the most masterful storytellers who delves into the effects of both language and its sub-level, the rhythm of song. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is Mr. Tumnus’s straw-flute song that lulls Lucy until that moment when she shakes herself awake. Likewise, in The Silver Chair, the witch depends on rhythm to put the mind “to sleep”:
Secondly, she took out a musical instrument rather like a mandolin. She began to play it with her fingers—a steady, monotonous thrumming that you didn’t notice after a few minutes. But the less you noticed it, the more it got into your brain and blood. This also made it hard to think. After she had thrummed for a time… she began speaking…”
It is completely worth reading all of Chapter 12, where this scene is laid out, but the deepest point is that when she finally has the whole diverse group of people around her saying, “There never was any world but yours,” it is the courage of one character, Puddleglum, who steps into the fire to startle himself back to rational, even visionary, thought—and, by so doing, he reawakens the others from their enchantment. Go, Puddleglum! Someone had to do it, or all would have been lost. Thank heavens for the frog-man who remembered, even when he was fully enchanted, something that William Stafford has put this way:
For it is important that awake people be awake…”
How we stay awake is a subject that interests me intensely. Ironically, perhaps, I do believe that the answer can be the focus on wise poetry, in the mouths (and hearts) of good actors. And it might be important for all of us to remember that the actor is not the person. We all of us have a continual choice of what role to play, what words to tuck into our hearts and then bring forth—where all the world’s a stage.
Photo by Dave McKeague, Creative Commons, via Flickr.