“Chaucer’s piece contains writing, which also gives meter to the piece.”

Um, what?

This comes from a final exam, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too picky.

Still… He was referring to one of the Canterbury Tales. Perhaps he meant to say that it “contains” rhyme. That would be true, although rhyme does not affect rhythm, let alone meter. Could he have heard me say in class “The Canterbury Tales is characterized both by rhyming adjacent lines and by the use of meter, specifically iambic pentameter,” misheard “rhyming” as “writing,” and written in his notes “Chaucer=writing and meter”? I’ll never know, of course; but that’s the only way I can imagine such nonsense logically winding up on an exam.

I don’t know why, but many of my students think that rhyme has some necessary connection to meter. Addressing these two concepts carefully (AND with blackboard stuff!), even addressing them on different days, may help some students; but I notice only the errors, and errors abound to an extent that justifies despair. As for confusing rhythm and meter…I actually find myself shying away from the term “rhythm” of late, because distinguishing between rhythm and meter is no easy task and I’d rather have students say “no, there isn’t any meter there” (and be right) than say “no, there isn’t any rhythm there” when speaking about blank verse, or “Shakespeare’s sonnets have a kind of rhythm” after I’ve spent a chunk of class time talking about iambic pentameter. Besides, “rhyme” and “rhythm” sort of look alike, and I hate to see them used interchangeably.

It occurs to me in this context that rhyme, rhythm, and meter are all matters of sound. They all appeal to the ear, or to the mind’s ear. And I’m not sure that most of my students aren’t tone-deaf in this area. Certainly very few who wind up voluntarily or under compulsion reading poems aloud in class show any pleasure in the sounds, the phrasing, the rhythms of what they’re reading. They often have trouble with mere pronunciation. I wonder if they do much reading aloud on their own. I remember one glorious summer when my roommate Susan and I both got crushes on the novels of Peter De Vries and spent hours, I on the couch in the living room and she in the bedroom adjoining, lolling and reading and swapping passages (“God, listen to this!” she’d say from her room, and then read a paragraph or two, enthusiastically, boisterously, trying not to break up in response to the passage or my laughter. Brief silence as we both returned to our books. Then, “Wow, listen!” from me, and then I’d read…How ever did we keep the separate plots straight?). Now do students just hit “forward” or “share”?

When the class assignment is one of my favorite poems or short stories, I’m afraid I hog the reading-aloud for myself, even on those pieces where I know I’m going to get teary before I’m done (Try George Herbert’s “Prayer I,” for instance). Almost every time I do that, some student lingers after class to say something like “That poem didn’t make any sense to me when I read it, but when you read it out loud I fell in love with it!” Student evaluations sometimes elicit the comment “My favorite thing was when she read out loud.” So if they can find the pleasure in it, why don’t they do it themselves? Can they really not hear what they read well enough to speak it?

At one of my schools we’re supposed to include the “performative dimension” of literature as part of the work. I’m a theater director in my other life. How should I interpret “performative”? Should I just encourage students to read out loud, as I have always tried to do, or should I give them actual direction? Should I expect “performative” to really entail performing? If so, may I devote class time to coaching, or oral-interpretation instruction?

Well, anyway. I remember a dear, alas departed, colleague, Russell Griffin, whose appreciation of literature went into both the “performative” and the representational dimensions. Among the many wonderful things that proceeded from his hands were dioramas, lovely and precise. One of those was “Chaucer Reading Aloud at the Court of…” someone. I can’t recall the lord whose court it was, or the piece Chaucer was reading. But Russ’s little Chaucer stood there, radiating pleasure, and his listeners were rapt. I wish I could look at it now.

Instead, I offer the Chaucer of the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. He’s pointing to his text, which has  both rhyme and meter. And, since it’s a manuscript, he’s not saying “forward this”; he’s clearly saying “Read This Aloud to Somebody!”

"This piece contains writing."

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““Chaucer’s piece contains writing, which also gives meter to the piece.”

  • yearstricken

    Reading aloud is an art as you well know. I think it would be a great gift to your students to teach them how.They may not read as well as you, but at least they would learn to pay attention to the words. The power that your students feel when you read aloud comes from your love of the words you are reading. I know that’s what you are trying to impart to them, if they would just stop texting for a minute and listen.

    When my children were young, I read aloud The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They loved and I loved the stories and listened patiently through the passages written in the elven language. What a delight it was to read, and what sadness I felt when we finally came to the end of the stories. Maybe we hear a story best when we hear it through the human voice.

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