William Shakespeare is alive and well and living in America’s Finest City. The San Diego Shakespeare Society, on whose board I serve, will soon be presenting its 14th annual evening of Celebrity Sonnets. On Monday, Oct. 12, starting at 7:30 p.m., local celebrities and performers will dramatize sonnets to a vast audience. Through dance, music, song and different languages, the event has featured a number of imaginative interpretations. Onstage I’ll be joined by the likes of actors Jonathan McMurtry and Ron Choularton, organist Carol Williams, radio host Ross Porter and three dance groups.
The venue is the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at the Old Globe Theatre, our city’s oldest cultural institution. For details, go to sandiegoshakespearesociety.org.
The Elizabethan age was the age of the sonnet. It was during that period that this compact, highly structured poetic form landed in England and flourished, with William Shakespeare becoming its most luminous practitioner.
Robert Frost once said that writing poetry without rhyme or meter is “like playing tennis without a net.” Writers have long been fascinated by fixed poetic forms that impose a rigorous discipline, whose rhythmical patterns, regular rhyme schemes and limited number of lines force meticulous shaping of material. The Japanese, for example, love to write ultrabrief haikus, cobbled from only 17 carefully chosen syllables. In English, the sonnet has been the most popular and durable short poetic form.
The English, or Shakespearean, sonnet consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter (five “feet” of unstressedthen- stressed syllables) broken into three quatrains (four-line units) and a couplet and cast in a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. The three quatrains develop an idea or theme, and the final couplet puts forth a conclusion, a summary, an application, a narrowing of focus or even a surprise reversal.
The sonnet has endured and prevailed because it exerts tremendous pressure per square syllable and accomplishes a great deal in a small space. The compactness of the form radiates pleasure not for itself but for what it can do to shape and share the hum and buzz of life. Here’s a poem I have composed for the evening of Celebrity Sonnets:
A Sonnet about Sonnets
Our Bard did not invent the stately sonnet.
The hundred fifty-four in his collection
Remade the vessel, thus improved upon it
And lit its form and function with perfection.
He pours his thoughts on life and death and time
Into three quatrains and a couplet brief.
To a youth fair and lady dark, in rhyme,
He sings of lust and love and joy and grief.
To think that God once made a man like him.
In such a miracle we all rejoice.
His words fly up and reach a spatial rim.
His sonnet trove proclaims his timeless voice.
Across four centuries he calls us still —
Our Bard, our Shakespeare, our own living Will.
On Sunday, Oct. 11, 1-4 p.m., Richard Lederer will be appearing at the Grossmont Center Barnes & Noble, 500 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa. He’ll be featuring his newest books for children and grown-ups. For information, call (619) 667-2870.