Tag Archives: sonnets

On Writing Sonnets

by Thomas Davis

The writer who wants to write a sonnet must set out to write a sonnet. A free verse poem can conceivably come completely out of the subconscious. The poet might not even set out to write a poem, but a poem forms itself on the page as the writer is writing, or they select passages from a journal that can be turned into a poem.

Traditional verse poems like the sonnet demand that the poet set out to write in this or that form when they begin the poem. Creativity itself comes from blending sensations from the environment, thoughts, emotions, sight, sound, smells, touch, conversations, events, philosophies, and other elements of what affects human beings into a new whole whether that comes to be a poem, a painting, or a new scientific finding. Therefore the sonneteer draws upon innate creativity and sets out to pour it into a specific language and form.

This intentionality is also present as the sonnet flows from the poet’s pen. Tools like a rhyming dictionary or thesaurus can be helpful. English is not as natural language for rhyming as Italian. There are fewer rhymes available. That’s one of the reasons near rhymes can be useful at times. To avoid a trite singsong quality to the verse the sonneteer also needs to avoid always using a single syllable male rhyme at the end of every line. Multiple syllable, and even alternate feminine/male rhymes, can be useful in creating a more complex music. Enjambment between quatrains, octaves, sestets, or even couplets, as well as alliteration and assonance, can also help in pursuit of a music that breathes and engages the reader.

Iambic pentameter, as has often been pointed out, is the most natural rhythm for language in English. This is not nearly as true in other languages. The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel, an epic masterpiece by Nikos Kazantzakis, written in Greek, has seventeen syllable lines. In Greek it sounds magnificent, although I cannot speak Greek. In English it looks and sounds impressive, but mostly because the lines seem wildly long and filled with a rich, “O sun, great Oriental, my proud mind’s golden cap,” overblown profusion of metaphor, personification, and other figures of speech. Iambic pentameter, with its simple patterns of un-accent, accent, comes much closer to everyday speech.

From the first line on, the sonneteer needs to write lines using Iambic pentameter. I often think in meter on my morning walks with my wife just so that I can use meter without straining when I sit down to write. I also try to listen to the rhythms of speech is people’s voices and listen to the meter I hear. This is not necessary, but one of the most vital rules for writing a good contemporary sonnet is to not use tortured syntax in order to get either the meter or rhyme to work. Practice can help achieve this end whether the practice is in your head or on paper.

Also important, as in all other writing, whether it is an essay, a poem, or a novel, is to mix sentence styles as the sonnet comes into existence. A sonnet can be written using a single sentence, or course, but this can be extremely difficult, especially if the volta is to bring life to what is being written. Sentences, properly constructed, but also varied, are important. They become part of the overall music.

There are exceptions to the mixed sentences rule. Repetition can be a powerful device for building both music and emphasis. One of the great examples is from the King James Bible, Samuel 2, 18:33: “And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Repetition, either words or sentence types, repeating, say, a declarative sentence, if used rarely, can be a powerful literary device.

A sonnet is, in the final analysis, a poem. It involves the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the logical and intuitive spheres. It is derived from a long poetical history that stretches from narrative poetry like Beowulf or the work of Homer to the white goddess incantations of Celtic poets to the innovative work of Hopkins to the genius of William Shakespeare to the contemporary anguish of John Berryman in Berryman’s Sonnets. In some ways the sonneteer is drawing from this history each time they sit down to write. Its form is incidental to that long history. By writing a sonnet the poet is become part of the long flow of poetic history.

Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey wrote the first sonnets in English, using primarily the Italian, Petrarchan, form. Wyatt’s use of iambic pentameter was not as sophisticated as later poets. Henry Howard was smoother and created the English sonnet that later became known as the Shakespearean sonnet. Most early sonnets written in English were lyrics, but the river of poets that followed these pioneers have written narratives, lyrics, and descriptive and didactic poetry. Giacomo da Lentini, a Sicilian, who wrote close to 250 Italian sonnets, was the first person to write a sonnet. Most early sonnets were love poems. Lending itself to compressed intensity, it was, at least at first, considered the perfect medium for the expression of love and passion.

The sonneteer writes a sonnet by sitting down, either at computer or table, and writing one. They write in iambic pentameter, choosing a traditional rhyme scheme or experimenting. They draw upon the nature of their creativity, drawing inspiration from nature or their humanity or their philosophy, becoming a part of the river of sonnet writers that have flowed through literature’s history.

May your sonnet dance like a song, sing the fragrances of lilacs in spring, touch like a lover’s touch under the oval silver of a full moon.

being to timelessness as it’s to time, by e. e. cummings

being to timelessness as it’s to time,
love did no more begin than love will end;
where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
love is the air the ocean and the land
(do lovers suffer?all divinities
proudly descending put on deathful flesh:
are lovers glad?only their smallest joy’s
a universe emerging from a wish)
love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear;
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
the truth more first than sun more last than star
-do lovers love?why then to heaven with hell.
Whatever sages say and fools, all’s well

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Two Sonnets: Washington Island’s Black Community

by Thomas Davis

Like Moses in the Wilderness

Like Moses fleeing from the Pharaoh’s wrath
Before the miracle of waters parting,
The Preacher blazed a trail on freedom’s path
As fear possessed their endless fleeing.
 
What was that man or woman really seeing
That passed them while they tried to run and hide?
What accident of fate would send them running
When slavers found them tired and terrified?
 
The Preacher prayed away grim miles and tried
To make their spirits testify that dreams
Are greater than the fear that crucified
Their faith that they could get across the streams
 
And past the towns that blocked their way and threatened
To let the slavers pounce and leave them bludgeoned.
 
The Bridge that was a Wall

The bridge, inside the night, was like a wall,
Small, wooden, unassuming, houses dark
Beside a path that seemed to be a call
To all who needed passage to embark
Upon a journey to the river’s other side.
They hid in brush, mouths dry, dread strong enough
To make them sick, and, silently, wide-eyed,
Saw spectres armed with whips and iron cuffs
Stand shining where they’d have to cross the bridge
Without disturbing dogs or waking up
The people in the houses as the ridge
Beyond the river beckoned past the interrupt
That stood between their anxious dreams and where
Their breaths would feel God’s freedom in the air.

Note:
These two sonnets continue the long series that tells the fictional story of the people of a black community that actually lived on Washington Island in the 1850s before unexpectedly disappearing. Two sonnets from this series were posted earlier.

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Sonnet 36

by Thomas Davis

What does it mean deep down, beneath all feelings,
all thought, the regularity of breath,
to have a son? Blood from your blood, the singing
as steady as your heartbeat, the length and breadth
of who you are as father, husband, man,
the meaning borne from father, mother, son
passed through to son and daughters, all the hands
humanity has known on days with blazing suns.
We ought to celebrate and really know
each moment when our voices weave a song
as powerful as any oratorio
that makes the love we feel forever strong.

I think about my son, his spirit’s gentleness,
his signature of passionate intelligence.

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Sonnets 27 and 28

by Thomas Davis

27

His photograph was of a running boy,
the sunset red and orange, the spray of waves
afire with light, the boy suspended, brave
from being young, his crazy leap of joy
upon the lake-soaked dock a song to buoy
the spirit, calm a troubled heartbeat, stave
off nightmares, swear to dare to misbehave
in ways that shows that life’s a game, a toy.

He sat outside his cabin in the sun
and shyly let his mother see his art.
She looked amazed, as if the photo stunned
her sense of who her son was in his heart.

He listened to her praise, but looked chagrined,
as if her lavish praise was not for him.

28

Mosquitoes swarmed in visible gray clouds.
Inside the dusty parking lot he laughed
to see my face as I exclaimed out loud,
“Where is the spray? They’re making me half daft!”

“Ignore them, or your final epitaph
will read, here lies my Dad, whose mind unhinged
because mosquitoes worked their bloody craft
upon his face and made him wail and cringe.
Mosquitoes buzzed him to a lunatic’s mad fringe!
Forget they’re there,” he said. “The welps on welps
will scar your skin and let you go and binge
on campfire food or find a scout to help.”

He paused, “mosquitoes, once ignored,” he said.
“Sting skin, but let you keep your mind and head.”

Note: Sonnet 28 is a description of an experience at a boy scout camp near Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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Sonnets 4, 8, and 24

by Thomas Davis

4

Three children, daughters and a son, each one
so precious that they sang alive our days,
extending who we were into a sun-
filled destiny where joy and love and praise
would always spin out like a spool of string
into the future where we’d live in glory.

So many memories: The girls on swings,
our son enraptured by a funny story,
the kind of living fashioned from the touch
of life on life, from parents into child,
the common daily motions that are such
a part of who we humans are, selves tiled

into a kaleidoscope of moment histories
defining love, our deepest human mystery.

8

To Mary

As tiny, delicate as butterflies,
she sleeps inside the tent they’ve put her in.
Too young for whooping cough, her breathing, cries,
are fluttering, her living stretching thin
across the fact that she’s too young, too new
to face what is a harsh reality.
A second daughter, miracle so true
she opens up a universe to be.
Her mother spends a night, two nights, tense hours
of waiting, waiting for her breath to clear.

When those you love are threatened, all the towers
of hope constructed when you’re free of fear

are held suspended, waiting for the charm
of holding one small baby in your arms.

24

To Sonja

As beautiful as autumn maple leaves,
Vesuvius fires locked deep inside her bones,
she finds the strength to face her trials and weave
a rising from the place where she’s been thrown.
Sometimes her fires stir up a sweeping wind
that uproots trees and changes what has been,
but through the storms of life she keeps her friends
and throws her stress into a rubbish bin.
First born, her independence drove us wild
when hormones had her stretch her fledgling wings.
We wanted family, but in this shining child
we had a bird who wanted songs she made to sing.

And now she has a husband, two young sons,
A woman walking proudly in the sun.

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Sonnets 14 and 15

by Thomas Davis

14

On Friday nights I’d work all day, then walk
home from the office where two teenaged girls
were streaming past their mother with their talk
about this boy, this girl, their endless whirl
of friend, near-friend relationships that bloomed
and changed like clothing changed from day to day.

The minute that I touched the door excitement spumed
as I gulped down a meal before Green Bay—
and then we drove for forty country miles
to where two girls could dance and laugh to songs
and show that small town girls had mastered styles
that big town girls would envy all night long.

I sat inside a dinghy Burger King
and read while daughters spread their teen club wings.

1Green Bay, Wisconsin

15

An eagle hovered in the air above
our heads, wings trembling as it looked at us.
He’d been depressed for days, rejecting love
we’d tried to say, to show, to mean, discuss,
but driving Lake Superior’s rocky shore
he’d stared at forests we were driving past
and mumbled when he spoke, the sore
he felt so deep it kept him mute, downcast.

But when the eagle hovered in the air,
then dipped its wings and soared into the sky,
he smiled, his inward-looking eyes aware
of being, for a moment, in an eagle’s eyes.

From then on, though he struggled with black nights,
he found an eagle’s eyes and launched in flight.

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Sonnets 9 and 10

by Thomas Davis

9

I listen to the patterns of his talk,
not words, but how intelligence melds tight
into the rhythm, substance, breathing, walk
of who he is, our precious son, the light
we want to hold so awfully hard and tight
his brightness will survive for years and years.
But now his voice is weak. We face a plight
no parent wants, but every parent fears.
We sit beside his bed and hold back tears
and wonder why intelligence is not
enough, acknowledgement by all his peers,
his friendships, days of happiness are not

enough, not while I listen for his thoughts
expressed as rhythms in his too-soft talk.

10

Our girls, when young, while we were driving, clapped
their hands and sang a rhythm song, their voices
so beautiful we felt as if they’d wrapped
the two of us into a world where choices
flowed like a shining river to the sea,
our lives a rhythm graced by daughters’ song.
We had our cares, but we were really free
of troubles that can make life seem so wrong.
Now here, today, I hear my daughters clapping,
hands flying from their sides up to their palms,
and listen to our heartbeats snapping, snapping
across the years to help our hearts stay calm.

Inside this turbulence I’d love to see
our daughters like they are inside my memory.

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