“My Verse Distills Your Truth”

I’m an amateur at technology – one of those stand at the front and yell at them, one of those “put-two-marks on the board to describe all of – well everything” teachers. “Potted lectures,” tests over the readings – that’s me. (My favorite pattern – that of the autobiographical or first person narrator taking us to the past, showing us the trail and trials to become the person speaking had a certain simplicity. But laughter began as I started, one semester, to put it up for the fifth or sixth time. Ah, I said, but doesn’t this make sense? Well, maybe, they said. It also looks like a rather flaccid penis. Perhaps simplicity leaves too much to the imagination.)

But, in an on-line American lit class, I want them to follow passages closely; the lectures use powerpoints – not bulleted points but sections of works we look at together. So I learned a beginner’s technology. For the freshman, well, plays need to be seen to be felt. Whole versions take up a lot of class time, so, this semester, I put up speeches and dissected them. This worked with Oedipus – the production I’d long used has been cut up in parts (10 and 11 are reversed). Pennington, Gielgud, Bloom make a speech live as I cannot. The magisterial pace demonstrates Aristotle. Evoking their sympathy, they understand dramatic irony and the mythic, the tragic and purgation.

Okay, long preamble.

So combing Youtubes for Othello’s speeches, I was frustrated by the lack of system. And quantity: beside Fishburne and Branagh, Olivier, Hopkins and Hoskins, clips from high schools and passionate amateurs, from Liverpool to California to . . . well, everywhere appear. Some are satiric and some playful, and some just love the words. A thought crossed my mind – what if Shakespeare could materialize beside me, looking at these interpretations – their breadth of quality and intensity, but always his words. He would be pleased, perhaps, but not surprised. His sonnet sequence so often, as in 54 and 81 describes the immortality of verse: it distills the essence of love and the beloved in words that last as monuments don’t. The thought has taken pleasant life in my mind this weekend. It made me smile – as I hope it does you.

In the great scheme of things the 2500 years that separate us from Sophocles or 400 from Shakespeare may not be big. Still, it teaches humility – makes us wary of using rather than appreciating them. It reinforces our sense of the universality, the nature of the human. And, well, we may have technology, but do we have a Sophocles or a Shakespeare among us?

I’d like to say that that opening of our minds and hearts is why more literature courses should be required. I’m not sure. But reading the old stuff – that, that would help this generation as it did ours and many before.

3 thoughts on ““My Verse Distills Your Truth””

  1. I was an English Literature major (to get a student loan) while I took premed classes as electives. I had some great teachers. We read about 20 plays and were expected for the exams to remember lines and explain them. I flunked a midterm because I hadn’t read Wordsworth’s the Lucy Poems. I fear that no such intellectual rigor survives. (I still got an A in that class). At the end of the years, I was invited to apply for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. I had to tell them I had been accepted to medical school.

    My middle daughter is now at USC on a five year fellowship in history. She had never taken a history course.

  2. “And, well, we may have technology, but do we have a Sophocles or a Shakespeare among us?

    I’d like to say that that opening of our minds and hearts is why more literature courses should be required. I’m not sure. But reading the old stuff – that, that would help this generation as it did ours and many before.”

    I must agree but you managed to get from Sophocles to Shakespeare without including Chaucer. He really is fundamental to English literature. My honors history course required a lot of English literature.

  3. Well, yes – but it wasn’t World lit nor was it Brit lit – it is 2nd semester freshmen composition and genres class. A third on poetry, fiction, and drama. I just choose the old guys, but the departmental test is over terms and the big grade is a research paper. (That must use 5 peer-reviewed articles – which means modern literary criticism – don’t get me started on why that’s insane. I have no problems with my institution – we do what needs to be done to meet the requiremenrs of the 4-year schools.) Besides, why would a Brit lit class be reading Sophocles?

    Well Michael my daughter taught German (1st year of course) at UT, having only had one undergrad semester of German herself. Her husband was working on his grad degree in it and she was ABD in linguistics at the time. I doubt she was incompetent, but a combination of the cheapness of t.a.’s, nepotism because they respected her husband, etc. landed her at the front of the classroom. At our 2-year school, no one can teach without at least 18 grad hours in the course they will be teaching and without at least a master’s.

    Of course, my daughter is a worker – a year ago she defended her dissertation, held the family Thanksgiving dinner, took her tot to Germany for Christmas, graduated, and gave birth to her second child (the first was still in diapers) within five months, meanwhile bringing in half the family income by rating non-native speaker’s English. And she warmed our hearts by writing a dissertation that was at least in part on metrics – though she had only taken a course or two in English in college – and applying them to Hank Williams and Snoop Dog. That her two young sons might be exposed to Snoop Dog has never seemed to me all that good. And that her constant rating of non-native speakers may mean the two boys end up tri-lingual – German, English, and English with a very strong Korean accent – may also have its drawbacks.

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