Anyone who took an English class in high school or college has probably learned about iambic pentameter – you know, the fancy term for duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH – at least once. Even if the name doesn’t sound familiar anymore you can probably remember the other words that accompanied it: “Stresses…unstressed syllables…five feet…Shakespeare…sonnets, etc.”
There’s probably another thing your teacher or book might have told you about iambic pentameter: namely, that “normal speech” or everyday speech follows that duh DUH pattern. It’s obviously very difficult and impractical to think about regular conversation in terms of meter
without banging your head against the metaphorical fourth wall (and yes that was a deliberate literary pun; sue me don’t sue me). On the other hand, it’s a bit curious (to me, anyway) that poetry written in perfect or near-perfect iambic pentameter rarely, if ever, sounds like normal speech; instead, as in a typical sonnet, there’s always some kind of verbal gymnastics taking place, and even if poets choose to do so for aesthetic reasons, I want to take it to the other extreme. What does a sonnet in “plain English” look like?
So I dove right in and wrote one myself. Click the jump to find out…
I asked him how his son had been. “He’s fine,”
He said – “just resting with his mother though
We have to wake up every night from time
To time.” “Oh good,” I said, “and do you know
How long his mom will stay at home to care
For him?” “Eight weeks,” he said (I thought he did),
“But I’m just here to help the team. She’ll bear
The days, and I will watch the nights.” The kid
He showed me on his phone was looking good,
The bundle wrapped in soft white clothes and eyes
So blue like shiny beads. And if I could,
I’d want a child – a child to love and prize
For years to come. But love has yet to strike
This heart. Perhaps I’ll wait for one to like.
So that was painful. Not the story, mind you (the baby really was adorable), but the awkward twisting and turning of phrase to fit that story into a fairly rigid form: fourteen lines in iambic pentameter with an English rhyme scheme to boot. And there’s no small amount of irony in realizing how difficult it really is to write conventional conversation in strict sonnet form, whereas more capable and illustrious poets have done the same with much more ornate language for centuries.
But in a way, the “pain” of writing a sonnet as bad as that one also showed me something I haven’t always thought about poetry. It’s as much an exercise in discipline and diligence as it is an excursion into aesthetics – people who write in particular poetic forms like the sonnet automatically bear the burden of convention and “tradition” established over centuries of practice and (most importantly) failure. It could also be why many poets keep trying to break new ground by experimenting with more open or radical forms; the desire to be innovative and free oneself from whimsical formal constraints is obvious, but perhaps another reason is that these same poets cannot maintain that high level of linguistic diligence. I don’t mean that to be a slight against free verse or any other ‘open’ poetic style, but rather an admission of the pain that all this tradition brings to writers and artists across all generations.
“Yes, there’s love if you want it / Don’t sound like a sonnet,” bellows Richard Ashcroft. Maybe he’s right after all.