January 29, 2006

A poem form based on the sonnet


Don't let the word "form" distract or scare you away from trying this month's prompt. Any time we ask on the site for a poem in form, the number of submissions drops. I understand that. I never liked formal poetry as a writing "assignment" - still prefer to read free verse - but I recognize that writing in a form with rules can be an excellent exercise. I use form as a way to begin a poem when I feel blocked.

I based this prompt form on the sonnet. You use quatrains (4 line stanzas) and you must use end rhyme. That rhyme may follow the typical English sonnet ( A B A B) or any variation (A A B B or A B C A or whatever)

Let's look at a sonnet by Shakespeare to start - I have spaced the quatrains (though William would not) and marked the rhyme.

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,

wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

[the sonnet SHIFTS here]

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee--and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate;

[and here it turns again]

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The English (AKA the Shakespearean) Sonnet contains three quatrains (4 lines), each with an independent pair of alternating rhymes. Both a shift and a turn occur respectively before and after the third quatrain. There is a basic meter (the syllable beat of the line) which is usually iambic and usually pentameter (five stressed syllables) - but, unless you are very English, Shakespeare, formal or suffer from OCD, you may ignore that aspect. In fact, you may have 1, 2 or 3 quatrains, but must have the couplet at the end. So your poem can end up being 6, 10 or 14 lines.


  1. I too shy away from writing in forms, though I am not adverse to starting with a form and then abusing it to my own delight.
    Looks like this suggestion is along those lines.

  2. I think that writing in form is an excellent way to approach a difficult subject. I know that when I tried to write a poem last summer about the death of a dear friend, what finally allowed me to enter the subject was when I tried to write it as a sestina.
    I'm not sure why this is - but I'm sure I'm not alone in this. Perhaps, form adds some distance & objectivity? In the final poem, I departed from the strict form in favor of the meaning I wanted.

  3. I was a bit disappointed to see that you offered the challenge of a sonnet, but later reduced it to the option of even so little as a single quatrain and a couplet. It makes me wonder if you thought perhaps too few poets would respond if the prompt was to write in classic sonnet form. I feel that the modern sonnet allows a lot of freedom, but a sonnet should be still be a sonnet.

    I'm not "very English, Shakespeare, formal or suffer from OCD," but I think the discipline of trying a poetic form should be a challenge.

    Sonnets have form for a reason and by reducing it to as little as one quatrain and a couplet takes out the beauty of the 'turn' that occurs between the octave and the sestet. Have more faith in us, please.

  4. MK
    I agree. Still, I will n ormally get about 50 submissions for an "average" prompt, form always brings less - for this prompt, 14 submissions.

    And that's with a pretty popular theme - death.

    I know that any general prompt (love, seasonal etc.) will bring more poems. I know that a good number of them were not written specifically for the prompt or even for Poets Online. They get pulled out of notebooks and binders. This I do have faith in... and I'm OK with that, can't control that, would prefer readers trying something new. Poets sharing poems is ultimately what happen with an online site.

    Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned "sonnet" at all. I could have invented a 6 line form. There could be a "turn" after line four. There's a turn in a haiku. Tanka does a lot in a few lines.

    Almost every prompt is open to be interpreted formally. If that's how you feel it, use it. I was hoping that some readers might see form (from the apparently frightening sonnet to my reductionist form) as a way to enter a difficult topic. Updike didn't write a sonnet but he did use form to contain feeling.

    Thanks for your comment.

  5. Thanks for sharing this with us. I've often wondered how many poems are submitted for various prompts. Each of us finds some prompts more natural to work with than others, but it's clear (from what you've said) that a classic form seems to result in far fewer poems. While I happen to love sonnets and all those beautiful sonnet sequences, I'd probably not respond if you asked for a villanelle or even a sestina. I've found my many attempts in both those forms to sound too forced--as if the form takes over my thoughts and I lose sight of what I want to say. It would be great if people would share (in this blog) whether they attempted this prompt and just felt the result wasn't what they felt ready to submit.

    As for the tanka idea--now that would make a good prompt! What I love about Poets Online is the wide variety of model poems and prompts you've given over the years. It's great to stroll through the Archives and read the really excellent poems so many poets have contributed to the site. Thanks for keeping this site both interesting and challenging!

  6. By the way, we did a tanka prompt already - it's in the archive at http://poetsonline.org/archive/arch_tanka.html


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