Monday, September 6, 2010

Review of “On the Other Hand” by Randy Travis

I was flipping through a poetry anthology and came upon this definition for a sonnet: “a form every poet will try.” While the definition may not help a beginning poet understand how to write a sonnet, it felt like an inside joke from lexicographer to reader—similar to Samuel Johnson’s hidden gems in A Dictionary of the English Language such as his definition of Monsieur: “a term of reproach for a Frenchman.” What I enjoy about the sonnet being defined as a form every poet will try is how it is correct even while it errs. A sonnet is, of course, a lot more than a form every poet will try—but every poet will try it. And every poet will also tell us how “sonnet” means little song (or little sound), implying some marriage between the two genres.

While sonnet does literally mean “little song,” there is no evidence that the first sonnets were ever accompanied to music. Giacomo da Lentino did adapt the eight-line strambotto, a type of thirteenth-century Sicilian peasant song to provide the sonnet’s base, but otherwise the sonnet represents a shift in poetry away from music. While this break occurred, a few songs I hear on the radio today still have the ghost of the sonnet in them. So, I’ve lately been working on an essay about that. Forgive the un-blog-like length with this post, but I thought it would be interesting to excerpt a part of my essay on songs and sonnets.

Randy Travis’s song “On the Other Hand” reveals how a Shakespearean sonnet form can function within a song. Considering that the rhetorical mode is most critical to the sonnet’s success, I’ll begin analyzing in terms of this feature. The sonnet’s rhetorical mode demands progression of thought and resolution within its three quatrains, turn, and concluding couplet. The first quatrain introduces the issue, the next two quatrains add complications, and the final couplet reaches a hard-fought conclusion. “On the Other Hand” by Randy Travis organizes itself rhetorically the same way a sonnet does.

This song is written in second form (verse, chorus, verse, chorus). In the first verse (composed of four lines), the issue is introduced when the speaker tells a woman who is present that he would like to spend the night with her: “On one hand I count the reasons, I could stay with you / And hold you close to me, all night long.” As this verse ends, the speaker reiterates that he wants to play “lover’s games” and that “there’s no reason why it’s wrong.” But the speaker is married, as revealed in the next four lines which is the chorus: “But on the other hand, is a golden band / To remind me of someone who wouldn’t understand.” Here we have the complication: he is married. We also have a further complication: his wife would not understand nor forgive this act. The second verse, lines nine through twelve, provide more complication as it explains why the speaker would cheat—which is a difficult position to defend and a risky stance for a first-person song. The speaker explains that he has felt dead before this other woman came into his life, and suddenly the adulterer is presented in a more complicated way: “In your arms I feel the passion, I thought had died. / When I looked into your eyes, I found myself” (lines 9-10). Part of the attraction then, and another element to the complication, is that the speaker needs the affair. “I found myself” is not a throw-away line, but a line that emphasizes why this is not simply cheating out of a loss of self-control; this is cheating due to a sense of self-realization. The rhetorical mode of introduction of issue, followed by complication, another contradiction, then resolution is clear. “On the Other Hand” echoes other features of the sonnet as well.

The proportion of argument to conclusion is similar in both Travis’s song and the Shakespearean sonnet. For example, typically twelve out of fourteen lines in a sonnet will lead to the conclusion. In Travis’s song, eleven of the twelve lines debate what to do until the decision is stated in the last line of the chorus. As Paul Fussell wrote in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, “A poet who understands the sonnet form is the one who has developed an instinct for exploiting the principle of imbalance.” Why this “principle of imbalance” is so important relates to the origin of the sonnet; Giacomo da Lentino shaped the sonnet form to aid in the analysis of personal problems. For a sonnet to present a true conundrum, a number of complications need to be present. Therefore, most of the poem will analyze the problem rather than emphasize the conclusion.

This song also features a turn, which helps one to reach the conclusion. The turn in the sonnet is often considered to be the moment where a shift of thinking, a change in perspective, or a movement toward a new direction occurs. Sometimes the turn is implicit in the white space on the page around line twelve in a sonnet or sometimes it is more explicit. (Granted, the sonnet may feature two turns and the turn does not necessarily have to come between lines twelve and thirteen, but it will come near the end of the sonnet.) To understand how the turn works in the Travis song, we have to first look at the conclusion because the turn often leads to the conclusion. The conclusion to Travis’s song is: “But the reason I must go is on the other hand” (line 8). Here the speaker concludes that he must leave this other woman because of his wedding vows. This conclusion, however, is partly determined by the lines that occur right before it: the turn of the song which is between lines four and five. Line four tells the listener that the speaker sees no reason why the affair is wrong. But the next lines says otherwise: “But on the other hand, there’s a golden band/ to remind of someone who would not understand” (5-6). The speaker knew all along that the affair was wrong, but the turn is that he determines to privilege the spouse’s perspective above his own.

Another distinction between a country song and a Shakespearean sonnet is that country lyricists do not wait until the song’s end to conclude. Often, the conclusion occurs at the end of the chorus. But the song will continue on after that chorus, presenting another complication in a new verse or bridge so that when the listener hears the chorus a second (or third) time, the chorus takes on another layer of development. The placement of the conclusion within the chorus reflects the songwriting tradition, but the added development after the conclusion nods toward the sonnet tradition that insists on continual complications.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent explication and revealing connection between sonnet and song.