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!

Apr 132011



by David B. Axelrod

Many poets write using rhyme. Many more are masters of set forms. At a time when the majority of America’s recognized poets are writing in a plain style–blank verse and free verse–going back to learn the “forms” might seem unfashionable. However, there are some good arguments to encourage a diligent student of poetry to the study of formal poetry.

There are those who say “if you don’t count the beats, it isn’t poetry.” After nearly a century of free verse, such a pronouncement seems a bit extreme! What can be said, however, is that the predominant history of poetry is one of regular meter and rhyme. A poet should spend some time with forms if for no other reason than to honor the past, to pay a little back to tradition!

Then, if you think about it, writing poems with “no rules, ” can breed a certain laxity. If there is no rhyme, no regular meter, no rule for length of the line or the poem itself, what measure does a poet apply to judge a poem a success? One thing following a form can do is send a poet back to work and rework the lines until they are the best example of the form. Thinking, working that hard could produce a better poem than the amorphous notion that anything goes in poem!

Perhaps one of the best explanations for what a poet can learn from a turn with forms, came from one of America’s foremost sonneteers, Aaron Kramer. Asked by students why anyone would want to write a sonnet, he pulled a chair into the center of the room.

“First, ” he said, pressing his wrists together, “you are handcuffed by having to write fourteen lines.

“Then, ” he said, sitting down to press his ankles together, “you are shackled by having to write with a set meter.”

Leaning forward to crouch into a ball, he declared, “They put you into a sack called rhyme.”

Rising suddenly from the chair to spread his arms, he declared, “But think what a magic act it is if you can set you meaning free!”

Writing a form, mastering a form, truly saying what you want while doing what they say, is a bit of a Houdini act! Why not try a sonnet and see if you can rise to the challenge. Perform the necessary word magic and you will have bragging rights for life!

Some reference material:  links you to a group devoted to sonnets and provides items like a rhyming dictionary. addresses the structure or logic of the sonnet, also sometimes referred to as the “Volta.”

Here’s a definition of a sonnet by Michael Jarrett, Associate Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, which provides the basics:

A lyric poem almost invariably of fourteen lines and following one of several set rhyme-schemes. Critics of the sonnet have recognized various forms, but only two types need be discussed if the reader will understand that each of them has undergone various modifications. The two basic sonnet types are the Italian or Petrarchan and the English or Shakespearean. The Italian form is distinguished by its division into the octave and the sestet: the octave consisting of eight lines rhyming abbaabba, and the sestet consisting of six lines rhyming cdecde, cdccdc, or cdedce. The octave presents a narrative, states a proposition or raises a question; the sestet drives home the narrative by making an abstract comment, applies the proposition, or solves the problem. English poets have varied these requirements greatly. The octave and sestet division is not always kept; the thyme-scheme is often varied, but within the limitation that no Italian sonnet properly allows more than five rhymes. Iambic pentameter is usually the meter, but certain poets have experimented with hexameter and other meters.

 To summarize, a sonnet has:

14 lines

Iambic pentameter

A set rhyme scheme

Regarding the meter: English, it is said, is spoken very comfortably in iambic pentameter. That said, most people need to relax into writing with a regular meter. Start by writing out your full name, presumably all three parts (or more): first name, middle name, last name and even Junior if that applies. You certainly know where to put the accents, the stresses when pronouncing your own name. Mark over the accented syllables with a /. Mark over the unaccented syllables with a simple –. Guess what! You just “scanned” your name. Scansion is the notation of the meter in poetry.

Set beats, or patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables are given names. Sonnets are written in measured units, “feet, ” which are called “iambs.” Sonnets are “iambic.” Each line of a sonnet contains five regular iambic units or feet. (Quick math therefore, tells you that a line has ten regularly patterned syllables, five iambic feet, and the entire sonnet, therefore, will have 140 such iambically arranged syllables or seventy iambic feet before it’s done.)

Try marking the correct stressed and unstressed syllables:

“Destroy, create, deceive, ” are all iambic words, as is “believable”–four syllables, _ / _ / .

In fact, the whole preceding sentence scans iambically as does this one!

Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables when you read the following line:

“Perhaps it’s time to scan a line of verse.” It’s five regular feet, iambic pentameter! _ / _ / _ / _ / _ /

Ah, but how could that be when the only two syllable word is “perhaps?” Well, it takes a little practice but if you just listen to the way words are spoken, and occasionally check the dictionary, you will grow accustomed to finding the beat. The trick is to not force the words into unnatural places. Don’t go putting the ACcent on the wrong SYLlable! Multi-syllabic words are pronounced in an agreed upon manner. You aren’t allowed to fracture the language and call it “sonnet.”

Another pitfall in writing the sonnet is “padding” the lines to make the meter come out correctly iambic. You may catch yourself adding unneeded words–syllables introduced into a line not because you need them but because you want to keep the beat.

Oops! Padding your lines, like padding your expense account, isn’t an honest path. A good poet holds him or herself to account. Every word, every syllable should be there to further your meaning, not just to fill out the form.

There is room in any poem for some poetic license, but as a student mastering the form, try to be as correct, as formal as you can this first time through. Similarly, you should try not to fracture normal sentence structure, syntax, to make the beats come out regular.

Try to write “naturally, ” smoothly, so that the lines scan regularly but you are still writing modern English and more so, saying what you mean.

Regarding rhyme: As noted above in the definition, sonnets commit themselves to one or another regular rhyme scheme. “Scheme” refers to the pattern of rhymed line endings. While there are a substantial variety of schemes, it’s suggested you pick one or another of the regular patterns:

A B B A C D D C E F F E GG or A B A B C D C D E F E F GG

Having established the rhyme scheme you will follow, read “How to tell a good rhyme from a bad” so that you don’t wind up writing a nursery rhyme. Rather, the challenge, the Houdini trick which Aaron Kramer so cleverly enacted, is to say what you mean, not succumb to making rhymes.

The logic of sonnets: From the rhyme scheme above, you may have noticed that your sonnet will be divided into three quatrains (three stanzas of four lines each) and a couplet (your last two rhymed lines). For some, that suggests that sonnet, like an Aristotelian plot, has a beginning, middle and end. Indeed, if sonnets don’t proceed as stories, they may act like a syllogism in logic with a major premise, minor premise and conclusion.

There is, in a sonnet, as often what is called “the volta, ” or “turn.” You may wish to organize your sonnet as a story or follow a certain logic, you will be writing a substantial poem. By that it’s meant that you have lots of room to let your subject matter grow. The lines are long enough and fourteen of them are ample length to do a good job.

Most of all, have a good time. Folks do crossword puzzle, play word games. They rise to the challenge with cleverness and a love of language. So, the sonnet should make a worthy pastime, a good game. With luck you’ll trigger something wonderful. Poets who avoid form, sometimes drift into a habit of thinking “anything goes.” If the sonnet requires more thought, more effort, that extra work could bring out the best in you. Enjoy! 

YOU SAY YOU’RE NOT SATISFIED. YOU WANT MORE FOR YOU R MONEY? Click here for two sonnets I have written as samples for you: Sample Sonnets