I finished writing a sonnet today. In French. I make no claim that it was a good sonnet. In fact, when explaining it, I labeled it ”A sonnet that wasn’t a real sonnet,” since the patterns of rhymes and syllables were correct but I changed the rhythm of the accents somewhat. But still—a sonnet. Unless you count silly song lyrics, I’m pretty sure the last time I wrote poetry in any language was in high school. Oh my. I’m feeling pretty amazed.
I’m still attempting online French classes. I’ve written before about the nearly 50-year gap between my high school French and my foray into local recreational language classes. Since then, I’ve taken some short adult classes at an online French school in Windsor, Ontario. There’s a good variety of classes available, but I’ve chosen to spend the last year in classes that probably are above my real instructional level—at best, stretching the far reaches of my ZPD for French conversation. But the classes are low risk and are a good immersion experience. They also force me to understand what it feels like to struggle in learning—something every teacher should experience, I think.
Which brings me back to the sonnet. Writing a second language is infinitely easier than conversing in it, particularly now. Given enough time, and thanks to the good graces of online dictionaries and a blessed online French rhyming dictionary, I could find the words I needed. Beyond the usual lessons of coping with my limitations, the experience taught me two things: one a new insight, the other a reminder.
My insight is undoubtedly old hat to English teachers but was a major “Aha” to me. Once we had written our sonnets, we were to analyze them for literary devices. I’d planned for an overall metaphor, but beyond that I was astonished at the things I discovered had crept unintended into my poem. Who knew I’d incorporated alliteration, assonance, or anaphora? My moment of insight came when I realized those were some of the lines I liked the best, things I’d reworked until they sounded right to my not-very-literary-but-reasonably-musical ears. I’d spent my (albeit long-ago and limited) poetry studies envisioning poets struggling through the drudgery of including a list of components necessary to make their poems “good.” One cup of alliteration and a dash of metaphor might be essential to complete the recipe. Instead, I find that literary devices might just be the labels we put on things that make a poem lovely. It is like needing to know the name of a particular shade of blue in order to describe the Caribbean. I wish I’d learned about poetry that way. Somehow looking at a poem to find things that are interesting or striking or beautiful and then learning they have names is very different from memorizing a long list of strategies. At least for me.
Second, I was reminded of the role of constraints in creativity. The idea that creativity flourishes best without boundaries is an illusion. Telling students that they can write whatever they want, however they want, can be overwhelming. It helps to have some limitations. Bumping up against the constraints of rhymes and syllables forced me to consider new vocabulary, which led me to new ideas. While the boundaries were sometimes frustrating, they helped me look in less-obvious directions. The same thing happens in other kinds of innovation. If you’d like to learn more, here’s an explanation from a NASA education specialist. And if you are interested in a new adventure, perhaps it is time to try an invention. Or even a sonnet.