I teach high school Language Arts classes, and as far as getting buy-in on canonical literature, let’s just say the students prefer their own modern language to Old or Middle English. You may have some idea of how hard it is to get a 15-year-old interested in Shakespeare; never mind trying to ensure the kids understand the plot and eventually the message in what they are reading. For the sake of comparison, it happens to be precisely the same level of difficulty that I encounter when trying to instill in my grandfather any appreciation, let alone comprehension, of Jay Z.
Fortunately, Erik Didriksen has solved both these problems with Pop Sonnets.
The collection is comprised of about 110 sonnets, each constructed using a different song as the frame of reference. The title would seem to point toward the idea that all of the songs are of the pop genre, but it’s fair simply to say that all the songs have been popular. Even a quick glance at the index yields everything from Gloria Gaynor to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Beyoncé to Bon Jovi. Whatever your age or musical tastes, there are at least a half dozen sonnets that will tickle your fancy. This cornucopia of a collection ends with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, naturally.
The book is also divided by theme into five parts: Sonnets of Love, Sonnets of Despair, Songs of Time and Mortality, Rogues, Rascals, and Wanton Women, and Ballads of Heroes. As with all good literature, these distinctions of category often prove arbitrary, but seldom prove useless. Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” falls into the Heroes category, instead of Despair or Time, for example. Many of the love poems necessarily begin or end with despair. Many of the sonnets about women are often heroic. The section on Heroes mainly includes spectacularly well-known hits, like “Hotel California”, even though the content of the lyrics really doesn’t lend itself to any idea of the heroic.
So the table of contents provides only a slight guiding thread throughout each group of poems, but it beats simply dumping all the sonnets in there at random or attempting to organize them in some more obviously arbitrary way, like by genres of song or chronological order of songs. Didriksen clearly made an effort to curate the order, and the resultant flow of the sonnets is strong, if not especially enlightening.
So who is going to be reading this book? English teachers such as myself are easily the prime market and I absolutely cannot wait to see the look on my kids’ faces when I give them my usual two pages of annotated lyrics for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Didriksen’s clean 14 lines alongside it. Their bored little collective hive mind will be blown. And obviously, after we look at those together, at some point later in our poetry unit they will be picking a song of their choice upon which to imitate the good work modeled by this smartly executed book.
Reading closely as an English teacher does, I was on high alert for errors of form. The Shakespearean sonnet is a highly specific form. It must have 14 lines and a rhyme scheme of ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG. It must be written in iambic pentameter, with a consistent beat structure of stressed and unstressed syllables. My students can focus on constructing a sonnet for two or three hours and still end up with several errors in form, even if they’re not driven by a foundational text with its own constraints of content as Didriksen does.
Thus, I combed his work carefully for an extra syllable snuck in, a rhyme too slanted to really count, any failure to convey the main idea of the song, or a missing trademark hook in the volta. I have to say, this book is clearly a long labor of love, as I was not able to find even a single instance of Didriksen fudging any part of the form to save a song’s content, or ditching any key part of a song in sacrifice to the constraints of the form.
To put it mildly, this is a terrific feat of will and intellect. You can treat it like a coffee table book or a party trick, to pull out a random page and amuse your erudite friends, but that is a grave disservice to the true artfulness of Didriksen’s project. As I read this book cover to cover in one sitting, it occurred to me that some of the songs I felt were stupid had just been elevated to a higher level for me, while songs I had long revered were boiled down to the barest essence of their messages. As such, both sonnet and song became easy—and also both became hard.
Pop Sonnets is not a one trick pony; it’s an evolutionary leap for both Vanilla Ice and Shakespeare.
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