How do two-minute songs resemble sonnets and how are they different? Let me count the ways.
The main similarity is how short both are. Brevity and compression, that’s what you notice about both a short song and a sonnet. They can still tell a story, but it had better be a fairly short narrative, without a lot of extraneous details.
A traditional English or Shakespearean sonnet consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Typically that works out to around 115 words, give or take, something that can be recited in less than a minute. There’s only so much you can say in that number of words. Similarly, in a very short song, there’s only so many verses you can sing in two minutes.
An English sonnet is divided into three four-line sections or quatrains and a final two-line couplet. Each section is rhymed. Perhaps you can think of the three quatrains as three verses in a song.
One of the most famous sonnets in English is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Here’s the opening quatrain:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Note how lines 1 and 3 are rhymed and lines 2 and 4 are rhymed (or rather, they were; we no longer pronounce “temperate” and “date” as Shakespeare did more than four centuries ago).
Here’s the first verse of Bob Dylan’s version of the old English folk song, “Pretty Saro”:
Down in some lone valley
In a sad lonesome place
Where the wild birds do all
Their notes to increase
Note how short these lines are compared to the sonnet lines, with no more than six syllables per line versus the sonnet’s ten. That allows the song’s six verses to be sung in just over two minutes.
Here’s Bob Dylan singing “Pretty Saro”:
The distinctive feature of a sonnet that sets it apart from other poetic and song forms is its turn. This is the place where the poem changes direction or takes a different line of thought. Often this occurs at line 9, but the turn can also be delayed until the final couplet. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the turn usually comes at the couplet, but in Sonnet 18 it seems to me that something is changing already in line 9:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
The introductory “But” tells us that there’s more to the poem than just praise for the beloved who’s being addressed. And of course in the couplet we find out what that more is:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
(If you find Shakespeare intimidating, a fun exercise is to summarize one of his sonnets in a single sentence as a way of coming to grips with it. Here’s my take on Sonnet 18: Your summer hotness won’t last, but this poem will. Quite a boast, eh?)
It’s certainly possible for any poem or song to have a turn, but that isn’t the norm. If the poem or song has a narrative, things generally move in a linear fashion from beginning to end. Or else the poem or song establishes a tone at the start that’s reinforced through repetition or example.
In “Pretty Saro,” “lone,” “sad” and “lonesome” in the first two lines hint at the song’s theme and nothing much disturbs this first impression, that the song will be kind of a lament. The last two lines of the song confirm that the singer and his love are separated by distance:
But I dream of pretty Saro
Wherever I go
Another example is “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Three verses and four choruses in barely two minutes. Each verse poetically describes how some people are more fortunate than others. But there’s no “Yes, but” moment in the song; its point is established in the first verse. That doesn’t make the rest of the song any less enjoyable, but it does illustrate how different a sonnet is from most poems and songs:
Sonnets don’t include refrains or really any kind of repetition. The shift required at the turn would make this difficult, plus there’s not much room for those things. But even a short song will usually have a chorus. In “Fortunate Son” the chorus is the most memorable thing about the song and you hear a variation of these lines four times:
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no
Short songs even find room for brief instrumental stretches. “Fortunate Son” has a little guitar interlude after the second verse. And Dylan’s three-verse “All Along the Watchtower” features four short harmonica solos, yet still comes in at only two and half minutes (although without a chorus):
You could argue that Dylan’s song is short only because it stops just as it gets going. But that might be what many like about it: a thumbnail sketch of the world of an imaginary epic.
When Jimi Hendrix famously did this song, he added a long guitar solo, lengthening it to four minutes:
Perhaps we can think of guitar solos as equivalent to Whitmanesque poetry: open-ended, seemingly unstructured and improvised. Walt Whitman also wrote some great short poems, but when he turned his back on traditional meter and rhyme, he left the sonnet behind as well. For someone inclined to windiness, the sonnet must have seemed too constricting a form. The same with great guitarists: maybe they have more to say than two minutes would allow.
© 10 Franks 2022