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Eric: No, I'm not going to write a sonnet for you.

Ozy and Millie

(From Ozy and Millie! Click on the thumbnail for full sized scansion!)

I actually don't have a lot to talk about in regards to today's Ozy and Millie. At least, in terms of the execution of the strip itself. D.C. Simpson remains a good artist with a good sense of humor who can balance a sense of whimsy which comes out nicely in a strip like today's. Okay? Cool.

No, I want to talk about insulting people in iambic pentameter, because I used to do this for a living.

The first time I ever had to think on my feet in Iambic Pentameter was in a play called The Lady's Not For Burning. Now, the theater company I was with had a reputation of producing high quality work, especially for Northern Maine, and a number of people who I'd acted with many times before were in this play. My friend Kevin Pelletier, who these days performs everything from Renaissance street theater and music straight through Action Victorian Father Christmas, was one of them. My friend Eric Clements (no relation), who was one of the funniest actors I've ever worked with, was another. It was a good cast.

And, to be frighteningly frank, going into Tech Week the play was an unmitigated disaster. Lines being dropped left, right and center. People confused at best. Christopher Fry's delightfully savage comedy about witches and people attempting to get themselves hung in the dulcet tones of blank verse was a staple of Broadway for many years, back in an age when Broadway would dare to put plays written in blank verse up, was in danger of being the single most humiliating moment for anyone on that stage.

It was bad enough, in fact, that after the full dress rehearsal -- by definition the night before the play opened -- the director called everyone on stage after we were done. This director was Chuck Closser -- an ebullient man I learned many, many things from. I must have worked with him in different capacities in at least a dozen plays over the years, maybe more. And one thing I know for certain -- on the night before a play, regardless of what he thought of it, he was unremittingly optimistic.

This time? He remitted. He laid out for us just how much of a disaster the play was. And he laid out just exactly how humiliated we would all be if we put this play up the following day. And he said, point blank, that he would close the play before it opened, unless we wanted to go through with it. And if we did, it would be on our own heads.

We unanimously said we wanted to put the play up.

There was no chance we'd say no. This is what you did. The play must go on. And to be blunt, the moment you go out for theater, you are saying in no uncertain terms "I am willing to be humiliated in front of many people, some of whom will never let me forget it." It's a part of the contract.

That day, we met in cliques. We drilled the play. We ran lines. We practiced cadences. We did scenework. We did improv tests. And we put the play up.

The audience was half-full that night. And if Christopher Fry had been in our audience, he would have wept at the butchery we had inflicted upon his work.

The next night we were sold out.

Oh, it was a disaster. But we managed to con the audience into liking it. And part of that con was a cheerful cascade of ad libbing. Eric Clements and I improved entire scenes. Only The Lady's Not For Burning is written in blank verse, which meant we were ad libbing in iambic pentameter the entire time. Failing to do that would have broken the rhythm of the play, and the audience would have caught on that we were putting out a two alarm fire with seltzer bottles.

To this day, when I see Kevin Pelletier -- the only member of that troupe I still have contact with -- we trade war stories about The Lady's Not for Burning.

But that wasn't so bad. After all, the great thing about blank verse is it doesn't have to rhyme.

Some years later, I had to improvise sonnets.

See, at this stage I was acting in the Sterling Renaissance Festival. The vast majority of Sterling's acting is done "on the field," which is to say in improv, in character, one-on-one with the public. I played an educated man. And one aspect of Elizabethan education was poetry.

And it became known to the cast -- and a not-insubstantial number of regular patrons -- that I could recite extemporaneous poetry. And when you have a trick... a schtick... you can perform, you get called on to perform it.

Which meant I got the joy of doing a full on Shakespearian sonnet, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme, on random topics during the day.

I couldn't do it today. I'm old now and not as quick, and besides I'm not spending the week desperately rehearsing the skills necessary. But I did it once upon a time.

And more than once, it had to be a saucy little ditty -- this was a Renn Fest crowd. If you didn't throw sex and death into it, they weren't interested -- that generally made fun of someone.

So yeah. Nice little strip today. Funny little premise. "Let's insult each other in Iambic Pentameter."

But I've been there. And it's fun to be reminded.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at February 13, 2006 9:55 AM

Comments

Comment from: AlexanderD posted at February 13, 2006 12:30 PM

That's fantastic! I've often found that you get some of your best performances just after something has gone ever so slightly wrong. It's something small enough that the audience probably didn't even notice, but just big enough to put the actor on edge. Riding that edge just this side of complete failure often results in some memorably powerful acting.

But, man, improving sonnets -- that's just crazy.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at February 13, 2006 12:31 PM

I once gave an ode to the baked potato with cheese.

Comment from: okaynowa posted at February 13, 2006 12:43 PM

Actually, it'd be, "improvising" sonnets, wouldn't it? "Improving" suggests that existing sonnets were made better. Though it's neat to consider the evolutionary process of a word altered to describe a specific activity and then re-verbed (as Calvin might say).

Comment from: Christian posted at February 13, 2006 12:44 PM

"...think on my feet in Iambic Pentameter..."

*rimshot*

Does this mean that your right foot is bigger than your left? Or did you walk about the stage with a limp, favoring your right leg?

Comment from: Ray Radlein posted at February 13, 2006 12:48 PM

I would assume that, after a while, you simply developed a nice little grab-bag of sonnet tricks — "go to" lines and rhymes which you could easily plug in to a tough spot, or use as a scaffolding to support the unique bits of any given sonnet, allowing you to "merely" improvise six or eight new lines and do a little on-the-fly re-arranging.

Mind you, as the scare quotes around "merely" indicate, I still think it's pretty damned impressive.

Comment from: Ray Radlein posted at February 13, 2006 12:50 PM

Or did you walk about the stage with a limp, favoring your right leg?

Hexameter is the key insight.

Comment from: quiller posted at February 13, 2006 1:46 PM

Hmm, given time to practice I suppose I might be able to improvise sonnets, but they certainly wouldn't be good ones. It is nice to have some composition time. I'm frequently amused at how difficult I thought sonnets must be when I was a kid, and now they are my default poetry, when I don't care to challenge myself. And I've done enough Shakespeare to understand how you can just get blank verse on the brain and could improvise in Iambic Pentameter.

Good to see an Ozy and Millie link, though. It is one of my favorite comic strips and I think David Craig Simpson is one of the unsung talents of the webcomic world.

Comment from: AlexanderD posted at February 13, 2006 1:52 PM

okaynowa: Sorry, typo! I meant "improvising."

Comment from: Ford Dent posted at February 13, 2006 2:38 PM

I'd almost fallen away from Ozy and Millie, but I'm certainly glad I still kept up with reading. I don't know why, but the phrase "Let's insult each other in iambic pentameter" is delightful.

Comment from: Meagen Image posted at February 13, 2006 3:17 PM

*sigh* Verse... my greaters weakness.

Given twenty minutes and a lot of syllable-counting on my fingers, I can put together a semi-decent haiku. That's about the extent of my abilities.

I love poetry, especially clever and rhyming poetry. I collect and memorise lymericks in the hopes an occasion will arise to tell one. But I am completely, utterly incapable of coming up with poetry on my own.

I have enough other writing skills that this goes largely unnoticed, but it sometimes it makes me restless.

Comment from: Nentuaby posted at February 13, 2006 3:50 PM

Aaaah, Ozy and Millie... My favorite strip once upon a time, but I'm afraid it's Had Me and Lost Me. It's been the same great strip for too long.

Still... Poetic insults are awesome. As are Shakespearean ones. Making an insulting sonnet in the style of the Bard would be 2*awesome.

Comment from: miyaa posted at February 13, 2006 4:48 PM

With the recent blizzard in the Northeast, I'd bet Eric is probably measuring the amount of snow in Iambic Pentameter. It's probably 3 Iambic Pentameters deep.

Imagine what Shakespeare could have done with the "Your Momma is so..." insults.

Comment from: miyaa posted at February 13, 2006 4:48 PM

With the recent blizzard in the Northeast, I'd bet Eric is probably measuring the amount of snow in Iambic Pentameter. It's probably 3 Iambic Pentameters deep.

Imagine what Shakespeare could have done with the "Your Momma is so..." insults.

Comment from: Canuck-Errant posted at February 13, 2006 5:17 PM

Free verse? Free verse is easy, but to compose, offhand, a rhyme

Is diff'rent, not to mention straining, and if you've not the time

To think what you are saying you may quite soon find yourself

Merely writing rhyming couplets - which is impressive in itself,

But hardly matches th'iambic improv, of which Eric told us much

Of his prowess on the theatre stage - dammit, what word rhymes with much? -

And the coupled rhyming lines which you'll agree, I'm sure, are swell

But I'm a snarky commentator, writing poems - what the hell,

It's fun and often tells you more about the person's mind

Than a thousand LJ postings - which you might read if you're the kind

to.

Making alternating rhymes out of that morass seems to me

Much unneccessary effort; and I personally feel

That posting the lot as it is will definitely be

Something int'resting and novel, with a greater mass appeal.

(And if Chaucer used the same word to rhyme with itself, why can't I?)

Comment from: AlexanderD posted at February 13, 2006 5:48 PM

I'm tempted to link to the very long, very painful comic I wrote for Whispered Apologies, entirely in the form of dirty limericks. I probably shouldn't, but what the hell: http://www.qwantz.com/apologies/index.pl?comic=89. I would stress, though, that this should not in any way be construed as typical of my writing. It's just what came to mind in response to the art.

Comment from: Robert Hutchinson posted at February 13, 2006 6:13 PM

C-E:

The rhyme of "such"

Occurred first to this Hutch.

However, it almost demands a

Break in the stanza.

(Ah, clerihew, my old friend. Easy as hell to write, and almost always sounds snarky by default.)

Comment from: miyaa posted at February 14, 2006 8:46 AM

Apparently, writing poetry in websnark is a bitch and a half.

Comment from: TasteMyHouse posted at February 14, 2006 9:50 AM

AlexanderD:

That is my favorite whispered apologies. It was a complete lollocaust in my dorm room when I saw it.


Many bothans died...

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at February 14, 2006 1:08 PM

That wonderful wordsmithing sauropod
Today by its webhosting's sorrow-pawed.
I refresh in vain
But the 403's plain.
My hookup might 'swell just be zero baud.

Comment from: KennyCelican posted at February 14, 2006 2:40 PM

This really reminds me of a time when, while running a role-playing game, I made the mistake of creating an NPC who spoke in nothing but poetry. At the time the idea struck me, the character was meant to be a recurring bit part, allowing me plenty of time between appearances to come up with lines.

Of course, the players picked THAT character to latch onto like glue, so I was stuck speaking in limericks and haiku.

Improvising sonnets? My hat is off to you, sir!

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at February 14, 2006 3:14 PM

Once upon a time... once upon a time.

Comment from: Wistful Dreamer posted at February 14, 2006 4:15 PM

At least you didn't have to improvise thomasian form sonnets: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. That would have drove you spare.

Ah, O&M, if only I loved you as much these days as I did before DCS decided to divide his attention between two comics and a music career.

Not that it is bad, mind you, but the update frequency has gone down and so has the continuity. Most storylines aren't long enough (anyone hijack any truckloads of thermometers lately?), and don't delve any deeper than reinforcing the primary archtype each character already has.

even stories of youth get old eventually.

Comment from: quiller posted at February 14, 2006 5:34 PM

It is interesting to note that it was reading through the book that rekindled my love of O&M. The spread out update schedule seems to lessen the comic. It was by immersing myself in it that I started to get that feel for the whole. Hmm, this is hard to describe without sounding like Ozy spouting Zen. It might have also just been a good period, too. (This included the Millie kissing Ozy episode, the spelling bee, the reality TV show, the trip to the beach, Millie becoming popular and the dragon christmas among others) It may have just been a golden age for exploring characters that he hasn't gotten back to in a while.

Comment from: quiller posted at February 14, 2006 5:40 PM

It is interesting to note that it was reading through the book that rekindled my love of O&M. The spread out update schedule seems to lessen the comic. It was by immersing myself in it that I started to get that feel for the whole. Hmm, this is hard to describe without sounding like Ozy spouting Zen. It might have also just been a good period, too. (This included the Millie kissing Ozy episode, the spelling bee, the reality TV show, the trip to the beach, Millie becoming popular and the dragon christmas among others) It may have just been a golden age for exploring characters that he hasn't gotten back to in a while.

Comment from: miyaa posted at February 14, 2006 10:52 PM

Paul: That limerick is funny. Should be on all 404 messages we might get here on websnark.

I think the hardest type of poetry to write is the haiku because I could never quite figure out if the phrases has that 3-5-3 syllable feng shuiness that haikus require. Yet another reason why I love Japanese culture. (Well, that and the pocky. Who doesn't love pocky?)

Comment from: Darth Paradox posted at February 16, 2006 8:57 PM

miyaa, it's 5-7-5. That's probably the start of your problems.

Of course, even so you're still just writing senryu. The true haiku form is practically meaningless without being written in Japanese - other languages just aren't built for it.

(All the same, I suspect a sestina is harder than a haiku or senryu, feng shui or no.)

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