Apr 152011


by David B. Axelrod

While the sonnet may be the best known example of formal poetry, dating back to at least the 13th Century and, of course, most known for the average literature student from study of Shakespeare, the contemporary poet who attempts the form is advised to “not try to write like Shakespeare.” That is, a contemporary sonnet does not use “fancy” or out-dated words (poetic or archaic diction); does not invert sentence structure to make a rhyme (see “Telling Good Rhyme from Bad”); does not necessarily treat abstract ideas or heightened emotions as the subject matter. Rather, the test of a contemporary sonnet is to follow the form precisely, but make it sound like normal, conversational speech.

As for following the form–precisely–I would say that is the only way to learn. Roll up your sleeves and sweat with the muse. Do not go for easy rhymes, but rather just those rhymes/words that express what you mean. Do not quit until the meter is perfect iambic pentameter. There may be such a thing as “poetic license,” wherewith one feels exempt from the rules–able to break form. (Poetic license is a bit like learning to drive properly, then rolling an occasional stop sign.) But a poet who wishes to learn any form, truly ought to learn and follow the rules completely. Any less than an exact adherance to the rules would be, simply, a cop out! You would not have mastered the form.

That said, below I offer you some of my own attempts.


 (a sonnet for Aaron Kramer)

“Do not go gentle?” Dylan missed the mark;

as if we all must think of death as dark.

I think that death’s more gentle than a birth.

I’ve seen a light that glows beyond the earth;

but not a heaven, not Elysian Fields.

One needn’t find salvation; rather, yield

to that same light that little children miss

in nurseries where doting parents kiss

their fears away indulgently.  But why?

Suppose it isn’t fear that makes kids cry

but yearning for the pre-birth light they left.

Then go, good journeyman, gently cleft.

Greet death as quietly as candles burn.

From light you came. To light you shall return.


The promise of an endless summer brought

me here. Daytona Beach, its hard, flat sand,

green surf, an amphitheatre where a band

performs for free each summer weekend. I thought

the warmth of Florida would compensate

for all the ice and snow I had to clear—

an end to winter doldrums and the fear

I’d never leave that endless, frozen state.

I hadn’t calculated how far north

I picked, or how one summer thins the blood

so nights in forties, days just sixty would

need a jacket when I venture forth.

It isn’t freezing. Sure, I’m glad for that.

I wear a bathing suit and woolen hat.


If I had said, “Please stay,” if I had said,

“I’ll go with you,” would you have then been pleased

or quickly run away?  Each time in bed,

I said, “I want to care,” you only teased,

as now you sign your letters cryptically,

“X K,” so I am left to guess it means

you send your love.  Or are you scripting me

in lines so hard to read the words are dreams

and I, fool, wanting love, fill in the lines

with longings long held in a breathless creams?

We thought our brief romance beneath Key pines

would never last.  We fooled ourselves it seems.

You say my leaving you has left a space.

For me, you are a love time can’t erase.



Awakened simultaneously at one,

we argue who’s to blame, whose cough resounds

percussive, whether health foods help prolong

one’s life; count careful people still struck down.

We quote the facts, make odds and place our bets:

In WW I, one out of four was killed.

Now one if four will die a cancer death.

An hour–no sleep.  The bottle rattles, pills

half gone; we drink a glass of tepid juice.

Our terrors slow their ticking, numbed by drugs

that stop diurnal clocks.  At noon, transfused

with sugared tea, we slump behind our mugs,

ignore the nitrates bursting in our guts,

the table strewn with bacon rinds and butts. 


Crises, you never let me comfort you,

would rather sit alone in dark and cry,

as is we hadn’t been together through

ten years of births or watched our close friends die.

To show your rage at life you call the cops,

phone threats of self-annihilation, 9-

1-1.  I wake when the receiver drops.

Dazed, I find you flushed with fear and blind

with tears.  You only asked them for protection–

a guard with gun to keep the cancer out.

“Don’t call again,” I beg.  “The cops will come

and get you.”  Then who would drive me crazy,

shout my fears away, or with her madness, fight

to wear me out enough to sleep at night?

(Two little notes about the second sonnet in fear of cancer. Notice that it breaks a rule at the opening by starting with “Crises.” That is the opposite accent of syllables form an iabic foot–a troche. But I wanted to start with a “cry” so I broke the rule for a reason! Also, I believe I am still the only person to use 9-1-1 correctly as part of a sonnet!)

Among those friends and poets whose sonnets I have admired, I also recommend: Aaron Kramer; Peter Meinke; Dana Gioia; X. J. Kennedy; Lewis Turco. I’m not giving you their links. Sometimes it is more fun to just type in a name and see who and what you discover!