In the technological age, poetry has, in many respects, fallen by the wayside as a respected form of literature. With the advent of rock music, song lyrics replaced poetry as the dominant form of brief, lyrical art. Where once young lovers would compose poems for one another, they now compose or exchange songs. Where once eccentric, sensitive personalities would follow the path of the poet, they now become songwriters and rock stars. However, the art of poetry retains some significant features that songs can never replace.
Although, to a certain extent, song lyrics are often written according to loose rhyme schemes and meter, songs allow for a high degree of linguistic flexibility. Melody, in the English language especially, can be used to extend the length of syllables or to change the emphasis of words and phrases. Not so with many forms of poetry, where strict metric requirements force poets to use language creatively in order to express themselves within predefined structures.
The Shakespearean Sonnet
Take, for example, the sonnet. Developed in Europe around the 13th century, the sonnet was a popular poetic form for hundreds of years. Most typically, a sonnet contains fourteen lines arranged according to rules for rhyming, meter (or the rhythm of the words in succession), and sometimes content. Masters of this form were able to impart imagery and evoke emotion while staying within the sonnet's parameters. In English, the best-known composer of sonnets is William Shakespeare, whose sonnets were so well-crafted and numerous that the English sonnet is also known as a Shakespearean sonnet.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
The Shakespearean sonnet consists of three groups of four lines, followed by a final couplet, or a group of two lines. The groups of lines rhyme according to the following scheme:
a / b / a / b // c / d / c / d // e / f / e / f // g / g
In this notation, common in discussions of poetic form, lines indicated by the same letter end with rhyming syllables. For example, the first four lines of one of Shakespeare's most famous sonnets, are as follows:
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.
Here, "day" is rhymed with "May" and "temperate" with "date," fulfilling the a / b / a / b requirement.
In addition to the rhyme scheme, the Shakespearean sonnet has a metrical requirement referred to as iambic pentameter. This means that each line must be composed of ten syllables in five groups of two. The groups of two syllables are called iambs. An iamb is a group of two syllables wherein the second syllable is emphasized. Poetic meter is often the most difficult thing for students of poetry to master, and it is in elegant use of meter that poetic mastery consists. The second line quoted above is an excellent example. Broken into iambs, the line reads as follows: "Thou art / more love- / -ly and / more tem- / perate." Here, Shakespeare has followed the required metric scheme perfectly, although certain words span syllabic groupings. Rather than searching for one- or two-syllable words that fill the meter independently, Shakespeare places the exact words he needs in the appropriate places, not compromising the idea he wants to express.
The Flexibility of Modern Songwriting
Although modern songwriters often craft lyrics that rhyme and have a similar number of syllables, employing devices like repetition and melody to create emotional landscapes, the art of crafting songs will never approach the art of writing sonnets for the inspiration required to express oneself without compromise. Songwriters are not required to compromise because they have flexibility at their disposal. Poets like Shakespeare chose to conform to the strict rules of poetic form, sacrificing flexibility because it allowed them to construct beautiful statements that flow in ways that ordinary language does not.
Poetry: Accept No Substitutes
Perhaps the greater ease and flexibility with which artists can express themselves in song lyrics is partially responsible for the decline of poetry as a popular form of literature. Even in the discipline of poetry itself, the use of rigid forms like the sonnet has all but disappeared. Many contemporary poets refrain from metric forms in favor of free verse, a form of poetry that has no formal requirements. Although many wonderful poems have been written this way, the relaxing of rules will never be an adequate substitute for the beauty and elegance of the traditional sonnet.