Patriotic Oracy and Economic Survival — A Four-Beat Option for Tongue-Tied Young Americans

School Days,, Robert Oliphant

With GM now selling more cars in China than in the USA (LA Times, Jan. 25), our Common Core educators deserve upscale kudos for their prescience in giving “oracy” (speaking and listening) equal status with literacy in their recent report.

With thousands of offshore tele-salespeople using Standard Worldwide American Dictionary English (cf. Expo 2010), can anyone deny the importance of mainstream speaking skills, especially pronunciation and articulation, for American youngsters today?

Today, though, we lack national expertise in rhetoric, long since gobbled up by “English.”  So we must rely upon American classroom teachers from middle school on.  Ideally they will focus upon world class dictionary-based pronunciation help and memorized recitation-performances echoing the recent success of Poetry Out Loud, a national program (up from 40,000 to over 200,000) jointly sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In making the jump from poetry to prose, e.g., from “Stopping by Woods” to the Gettysburg Address, our best learning tool is the recognition that artful American spoken discourse has always used a 4-beat-line framework as a memory-friendly tool, e.g.,  “who OWNS these WOODS i THINK i KNOW/ his HOUSE is IN the VILL-age THOUGH.”

As pointed out by William McNeill in “Keeping Together in Time,” it is this left-right systolic-diastole marching pattern that brought us down from the trees (apes have been taught to march), and put us on the social-bonding route to group morale and effectiveness (who can forget the bumpy chanting of basic training?).  Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare — they all sing well in a 4-beat frame, e.g.,  “WHEN in disGRACE with FORT-une and MEN’S eyes/ i ALL a-lone beWEEP my OUTcast STATE.”

As indicated by our Shakespeare example, translating 5–beat lines into a 4-beat form takes a little juggling.  But it works very, very well with artfully composed public speeches and other prose documents.  By way of illustration, here is the first 6-line stanza of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the full version of which (8 stanzas) can be downloaded from

Four SCORE and SEVen YEARS aGO/ our FATHers BROUGHT__ FORTH/ on this CONti-NENT a new NA-TION/ conCEIVED in LIBer-TY and DEDiCA-ted TO the PROpoSItion THAT/ all MEN are creAted E-qual. [REST]/.

As far as “singing” our prose translations, it’s worth noting that William Tyndale (1482-1536) wrote that he wanted his translation of the Bible to be “be sung by both the plowman at his plough and the scholar at his desk.”  Just as compelling, in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor,” is Mistress Quickly’s announcement that “this will be just as hard as fitting the Lord’s Prayer to the tune of Greensleeves”  (the match actually works very well!).

By way of a preliminary classroom or family target, here is a practical

sequence: The Star-Spangled Banner (all 4 verses, as recommended not long ago by President George W. Bush), the Gettysburg Address, the Bill of Rights.  After this, patriotic song lyrics (full versions) deserve attention, along with group performances following the “verse choir” approach recommended by the great children’s librarian, Maud Hill Arbuthnot.

Actual unison singing should not be ruled out.  Certainly the Gettysburg Address fits the tune to Battle Hymn of the Republic just as the Bill of Rights, amendment by amendment, fits the tune to “Alley Cat” very neatly (CONgress shall MAKE no Law re-SPECTING/ an ESTABlish-MENT of re-LIGion).  Mnemonic accuracy, acceptable pronunciation, consciously forceful articulation, energy, and audience contact — surely these will serve our economic warriors of the future better than what Orwell called the “smelly little orthodoxies of the left and right.”


The film version of Robert Oliphant’s best known book, A Piano for Mrs. Cimino, won a Monte Carlo award for Bette Davis.  A Stanford PhD (1962) and a WWII Air

Corps vet, he is a Professor of English Emeritus at CSUN.

Used with the permission of

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