14 October 2016

poetry friday: notes on sonnet-making.

The Spanish proverb informs me, that he is a fool which cannot make one sonnet, and he is mad which makes two.
—John Donne


At the beginning of this school year, I decided to write a sonnet every week. This is the last day of midterms, and I'm pleased to announce I've only missed one week since records began. When I tell people about all this they're usually impressed, and because I've got a congenital malformation of my compliment-acceptance gland this makes me panic. My genuine knee-jerk reaction, which I usually manage not to say out loud, is "But Ezra Pound wrote a sonnet every day!"

Which, okay. A of all, no one is comparing me to Ezra Pound, literally no one would ever do that; second of b, Ezra Pound was literally a fascist. This is not role model material! Being like Ezra Pound is not anyone's standard for me—including, if I think about it sensibly, my own. Depressive realism is not all it's cracked up to be, kids.

Another friend I told about it said, with very flattering enthusiasm, "Are you blogging it?" I'm not, for several reasons. Some of my sonnets are part of longer sequences that I want to finish before I do anything with any of the component parts. Some of the best ones I'm keeping under my hat because I've got pretentions to publication. (The college lit journal has one of those under consideration at the moment!) Some of the others I keep to myself because they're not all that good. However, even if I'm not sharing (m)any of the sonnets themselves, it occurs to me that the project itself might interest people.


Why sonnets? Several reasons.

They're easy. Or, rather, they're in a sweet spot of difficulty: hard enough to be a challenge, easy enough to be a realistic challenge. They're not limericks; they're also not sestinas. (If you're writing a sestina every week I pity you—I do earnestly pity you.) They aren't all that long. And they're flexible. There are lots of variations on the sonnet form, really too many if I'm honest, and you can write them about really truly anything at all.

One of the most important things, though, is that I know what a good sonnet looks like. Many of my favorite poems are sonnets. I have lots of them memorized; most if not all of my favorite poets wrote or have written them. This is a container I can put my thoughts into. They fit.


So. The facts are these. My sonnets go in my planner. It's a pocket-sized Moleskine (other artsy notebooks are available), and every spread is laid out with the days of the week on the verso and a blank lined page on the recto. Every week, I draw a line fourteen lines up from the bottom of the recto: that's the sonnet block. It's a rule of mine that only final drafts go there; rough drafts get written on my phone/laptop/class notes/dining hall napkins, and then the poem is transferred into my planner once I'm reasonably happy with it. I provide a diagram below.

Midterms! (I took this photo about a week ago.)
The nice thing about this, besides meaning that I have all the sonnets in one place, is that it provides me with a space that I feel obliged to fill. I'm literally making space for poetry in my week. I don't sit down at a given time and say, right, got to do my poem now—but every week I go out into the world with the intention of thinking in a sonnet way, and having a blank space marked out helps with that. Making space in my planner leads me to make space in my mind.

That's what a lot of my poetic practices (the most pretentious phrase I've ever written, I'm genuinely sorry) are fundamentally about: making space. Another example is that I've almost entirely stopped using my earbuds out of doors. I use them so I can listen to music in the library while I work, or watch Flying Circus in bed without bothering my roommate, but I've stopped using them to listen to things while I'm walking around campus or around town. This means that I've fallen behind on my podcasts—except for The Hidden Almanac, which is the podcast of my heart and soul—but it's worth it. I'm making a point of paying attention to what I see and hear around me when I go walking, and of making time to be bored and think about nothing. This really is how poems happen. It's a way of organizing your mind. What am I seeing? What does it remind me of? What do I think about when I'm not thinking about anything? What happens when I let myself be bored?

Another thing I do to nurture poetic thought is read. Not just my academic reading, although obviously I keep up with my academic reading, but some of everything—feminist science fiction and weird comic books and my mother's favorite novels. I was talking to someone recently who said how much she respects people who manage to keep up with their non-academic reading during the school year, and as I talked about it with her what I realized is that I simply can't not. I think what I said then is that I don't feel in balance if I'm not in the middle of at least one book. It's one of those things I check if I'm feeling particularly rotten: am I hydrated? am I eating sensibly? have I called home recently? does my room need cleaning? and when was the last time I spent a decent chunk of time with a book?

Books are a vital ingredient to my mental health in a way that very few other things are, and they're also a vital ingredient to my health as a writer. You learn to write, or any way I have, by reading something and saying, I want to do that. I want to make someone else feel like this book makes me feel. And then you copy it, and then you keep copying it until your copies start turning into something that sounds like you. You never need to stop learning that way. I still want to be Diana Wynne Jones when I grow up.


What of the sonnets themselves?

They're all in iambic pentameter. I adore iambic pentameter. There's nothing in the world that's quite so fun. Sure, a ballad meter is nice, for a while, you can sing it and that's charming, and I have nothing against an anapest or a trochee now and again (dactyls are obviously right out), but fundamentally I was exposed to Shakespeare at too early an age and when my thoughts turn towards poetry they hum along in iambs. My meter sometimes stumbles, of course—even Homer nods, and part of my goal with this project was to develop my ear. I'm not as tin-eared as I might be, but I've got a long way to go. The sonnet writing has really helped, and I get into that frame of mind to the point where even my free verse sometimes comes out metrically.

As for rhyme scheme: sometimes it's Petrarchan, but usually it's Shakespearean. I think my Shakespearean sonnets are better, but I'm prouder of my Petrarchan sonnets. They really are bigger accomplishments; doing Italian rhyme schemes in English is hard. This week I wrote a blank verse sonnet, but that's only because of too much Wallace Stevens in my diet.


Several Sundays ago I took a train into Chicago and spent the afternoon in the Art Institute. I love the Art Institute, and I've written several poems about things I've seen there. That time they were displaying lots of satyr statuary, and so I wrote a poem about that. I wrote the octet in my head walking around the exhibits, and then I went to the café and bought some tea and wrote it all down, and while I finished my tea—did you know that the Art Institute sells really good tea?—I wrote the sestet. Here it is, both halves. I don't think it's that bad.

pic ganked from Sotheby's.

Lines on a Statue of Pan at the Art Institute of Chicago
A woodland deity often worshiped in caves, Pan had dominion over flocks and herds and is associated with nature’s bounty. Here the brutish creature slings a pitcher of wine over his shoulder. The hole drilled into the vessel indicates that this sculpture was once part of a fountain in its owner’s garden.
“Was once part of a fountain,” says the sign.
Naff garden art, the neighbors must have thought.
A statue of a satyr pouring wine?
There goes the neighborhood. What bloody rot.
First century kitsch, a piece of Roman junk—
I see no reason it should have survived.
If anything its value should have sunk,
but here it stands, a miracle, revived.
We rescue the detritus of the past,
the flotsam of a world that used to be.
These are the things they never thought would last,
stuck on a plinth and labeled history.
Pan holds his jug, though there’s no water now.
Two thousand-odd years on, his chance to wow.

This week's poetry roundup is here.


  1. Bravo! I enjoyed this a lot. A couple of thoughts:
    - Are you finding that you are naturally starting to compose in a sonnet-like pattern? This summer when I was busy with other things, I determined to write regular haiga to photos that spoke to me. Now, the poem-making part of my brain wants to default to three 5-7-5 lines!

    About your walking earbud-less, I'm having a similar experience, only my walking is husbandless. Hubby's leg is sore so he can't walk with me. My walk has become pretty rich with poem ideas, phrases and lines.

    All the best with your sonnet practice.

  2. "...a congenital malformation of my compliment-acceptance gland" - I think I have this condition as well....but well done on the writing! Sadly I'm still trying to undo the sonnet-hatred that my high school English teacher inspired in all her poor unfortunate students...:'(

    1. I have this, too! I loved the way you described that gland! LOL

      I like your ear-bud-less embracing of boredom and use of it as a font of creativity. I find that I am at my most joyfully creative when I am in motion and my mind is open. Even if the motion is just a drifting toward sleep.

      I also like your self-care: "I don't feel in balance if I'm not in the middle of at least one book. It's one of those things I check if I'm feeling particularly rotten: am I hydrated? am I eating sensibly? have I called home recently? does my room need cleaning? and when was the last time I spent a decent chunk of time with a book?"

      Keep up the good work with the sonnets. I find it a process that forces you to think about pacing. Idea, revelation, unfolding and resolution. To me, that is the form -- a mini-journey. Shakespeare used it to great effect to highlight obsessive love. But you can use it to celebrate the ordinary as Neruda did in his Odes.

      I worked hard on this one, using Shakespeare as a mentor:


      Great post.

  3. Loved the poem and the explanation of its birth! Thanks very much for sharing your creative process. Kudos! Great Stuff!

  4. Wow! A sonnet a week!! That's awesome. I love that you consider them a sweet spot of difficulty. (They are not MY sweet spot!). Keep going with them, please... the world needs your unique voice!

  5. I love your blog! And your sonnet :-)

  6. Love this post, this poem, your wit, and the insight into your sonnet-writing process.