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Why, Asks a Friend, Attempt Tetrameter? (Golden Gate 5.4) -- Vikram Seth

Guest poem sent in by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous:
(Poem #1453) Why, Asks a Friend, Attempt Tetrameter? (Golden Gate 5.4)
 Why, asks a friend, attempt tetrameter?
 Because it once was noble, yet
 Capers before the proud pentameter,
 Tyrant of English. I regret
 To see this marvelous swift meter
 Deamean its heritage, and peter
 Into mere Hudibrastic tricks,
 Unapostolic knacks and knicks.
 But why take all this quite so badly?
 I would not, had I world and time
 To wait for reason, rhythm, rhyme,
 To reassert themselves, but sadly,
 The time is not remote when I
 Will not be here to wait. That's why.
-- Vikram Seth
Seth's 'The Golden Gate'- labelled "The Great Californian Novel" by Gore
Vidal, was inspired by Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and like Pushkin's work, is
constructed with sonnets set end to end. Within 690 rhyming tetrameter
sonnets, Seth weaves a satirical romance describing the stories of young
professionals in San Francisco throughout their quests and questions to
find, then deal with, love in their own lives as well as each others'.

I still recall how, years ago, when I'd first got hold of The Golden Gate,
I'd put in an all-nighter as I read what was my first exposure to modern
verse. Alternating between spartan and rich, wicked and funny, this racy
novel made me realize how beautifully verse can lend itself to describing
even the most mundane and monotonous travails of everyday life in the most
delightful fashion.

[Martin adds]

This is a delightful defense of the tetrameter, a verse form that, as Seth
notes, has lost out to the pentameter in the arena of 'nobility'. As Derek
Attridge points out[1], iambic pentameter is practically the only metre that
isn't expressible as a variant of the "natural" 4x4 metre (four lines of
four beats), and thus distinguishes itself as more "intellectual". To this
has been added the weight of tradition and association, so that today a
pentametric poem by its mere form biases the reader towards taking it more
seriously - indeed the "tyrant of English".

Besides "Eugene Onegin", Seth's book reminds me of Byron's "Don Juan".
There is the same effect of brilliant, polished verse that nonetheless can
give the impression of being dashed off in an odd moment - an ever-present
vein of authorial joie de vivre and sheer fun that leavens the unusual weight
of a novel written entirely in metrical verse.

[1] In "The Rhythms of English Poetry", one of the best nonfiction books I've
ever read. It's been a while, so any mistakes in summarising his argument
are entirely mine.



 For more on the ever-popular tetrameter:

 Eugene Onegin:

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