Follow-Up on Teaching Sonnets

I wrote both of these sonnets using the methods I advocated in this post, namely,

  1. Choose the rhyming words first,
  2. then count syllables to fit, and
  3. wait for the iambic pentameter to emerge on future efforts.

My kids today wanted more practice, so they gave me these words:


And here’s the resulting 15-minute sonnet:

I had a dream once where I was a Fly
with six small legs and wings angled just So
and in this dream I landed on a Guy.
he worked in kitchens all covered in Dough
He hit me. I survived. Was this dream Real
I bit him when I landed on his Cheek
I tast of his flesh had such sweet Appeal
but the blow from his hand made me feel Weak
I buzzed around his head and off he Ran
This dream I had was crazy and Bumpy
He tried to catch me in a small tin Can
the old man’s cheek was hairy and Lumpy
I bit him again and then I got Fat
Suddenly I was eaten by a Cat.

And if you read this poem out loud, it will become immediately obvious which lines are definitely NOT in iambic pentameter.  It’s also clear that there’s a story that sort of emerges, but that story is compromised (I think) by the fact that the words were chosen first, before the subject of the poem was chosen.

Here’s the second set of rhyming words I was given:  doors, walls, floors, calls, pencil, two, smencil (a kind of scented pencil, apparently), blue, horses, monk, forces, funk, cheese, please.

And here’s the 15-minute poem that resulted:

I dreamed that I could walk through maple doors,
dark portals piercing through sweating stone walls.
My feet do not echo on pale pine floors.
But off in the distance I hear the calls
of laughing students writing in pencil,
counting syllables out loud, two by tow.
Strawberry scent — someone has a smencil,
and new colors also, yellow and blue.
From through a window, grass-smell and horses;
from up the stairs, the chanting of a monk,
and all these symbols represent forces
of my mind alone. Students in a funk
expect great sonnets; but first write the cheese—
for the form must be learned, ere it can please.

And this is one of the core concepts of the form, really — one must start with the rules of the form, and work backwards to a completed poem a few times, even if the poem doesn’t make ANY SENSE AT ALL , before the capacities of one’s brain readjusts to writing poetry that makes sense.  It takes time.  It did for me, and it did for anyone else that’s ever learned to write a sonnet — the first few are terrible, and then suddenly the brain adjusts.  It says, “Oh, is this what you were trying to do?”  And then it does it.

It’s magic.

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  1. You know…. I think Mrs. Emeron is correct. I have developed some kind of “shoulder-chip” mentality as regards education. I think I truly have gone overboard with it. I feel apologies are in order. So these are them…. Truly. It has been a trying couple of months but this is no excuse.

    • It’s hard to believe that education has slipped so much, but it has. It’s slipped for a lot of reasons, some of them generations old, and some of them quite recent. And part of the reason that homeschooling is taking off is that there are ways of moving forward on the curve of education without putting up with all the nonsense.

  2. One thing at a time. 🙂

    It’s been my experience that students can count syllables, and get 10 syllables into a line, far easier than they can match the iambic pentameter. The iambic pentameter only came for me after about thirty sonnets — so I think it’s less of a priority. We want students to get over three hurdles first: writing fourteen lines, writing a rhyme scheme, and writing ten syllables in a line. The iamb can come later, because it’s a “sounds like this” issue, which gets solved by kids who care about writing more than one or two.

    I could have sworn that it was Dershowitz, but it’s now been at least a decade since I read the report, and the name of the lawyer has long since escaped me. It was about the time of the O.J. Simpson trial, as I recall, or before, so it may not be on the Web — given that it was 1994. It was a profile of a prominent lawyer of the era, might have been Harper’s magazine or The Atlantic…

    As for your sonnet sequence, I like it. It conveys feelings of doubt and uncertainty, and solitude; but it’s very much rooted in internal feeling and abstract language, rather than in the macrocosmic world of objects and things and processes. I tend to lean more into the world of objects than you, but it may be an advantage in the poetry world these days.

    • Thank you for reviewing my sequence. Re the subject matter, such as it was, perhaps I was in a bad mood that day : ) Still, I am not quite sure what you mean from “macroscopic” onward.

      But… on a more concrete topic, I fear I may have painted myself into a corner having used a set of words for two sonnets each. In each pair, I picked a known–or devised–form. And used the same words reversed (as reversed as possible) to write a reversed form as well (as reversed as possible as the form would allow.) These are:

      1 and 2, Italian and reverse
      3 and 4, Spenserian and reverse
      5 and 6, an original form, and reverse (I dare say someone else must have written in this form, as I cannot imagine anything sonnet-wise not having been explored already–therefore I only humorously refer to it as “Emeronian!”)

      In retrospect, I seem to have written each pair as a two-sides-of-the-same-coin, style of thing. I did not set out to do this, but clearly it has happened of its own accord. In any case, unless I break with the pattern, I will be limited to how many such pairs I may include.

      • Hi David,

        I wouldn’t worry about whether you’ve over-used words or not. Sequences of sonnets are ok, sometimes wonderful. But we’re running a marathon here, making sonnets at every water station or orange slice. It’s a way to pass the time, and to create beauty. I wouldn’t make it harder than it has to be.

        • Oh it is not that so much. It is just that I tend to act in the reverse of my intentions.

          I once made a comment that I needed to “lighten things up,” so to speak–write a few sonnets or a sequence with less dredging from the depths of my soul… take a bit of a rest… use my tricks to write a few entries that sounded nice, maybe but did not act as some kind of catharsis….

          So what I did then is write a four sonnet sequence of interlocking sonnets which are a sequel to Rudyard Kipling’s “Gods of the Copybook Headings.” See what i mean? Perverse, my mother always said! : )

      • Haha…. MacroCOSMIC not macroSCOPIC – damn my old eyes. Still, as I am not what is termed “A humanities person” It sheds little light. I just do not have it in my blood. In fact it would not surprise me if some relation of mine had smothered Pablo Derrida in his sleep.

        But while we are on the subject of age, my dear young fellow. I am quite old enough to remember plenty of what is now called “dumbing down” in the decades prior to the Vietnam war. Though it is no surprise to me that history has been rewritten. Remember I spoke of a 10 year disparity. That’s 120 months. That’s an inflation rate of 1 month per year. In monetary terms we would call it 8% in simple interest. The compounded rate, given very significant second and third order effects is difficult to gauge given essentially 10 years of a very finite lifespan squandered.

        I have actually been instrumental in starting a program to teach families how to skip high school completely.. We actually helped our granddaughter accomplish just that. (she is not a genius, just normally bright) This also is a result of pattern recognition by me and another (rather neuro-atypical) colleague of mine.

        The essence of this rests on three points:

        First, in the knowledge that it is very difficult to MAKE a young child “dumb,” try as you might. You may mal-educate and mis-educate to your heart’s content, but the real damage is done in high shool and/or after the child well and truly reaches puberty.

        Second, that Universities are used to dealing with the products of a failed high school system and therefore the gap of four years is easily bridged by anyone who cares to try. Even in the case of technical pursuits there is now rather a full menu of remedial or “0” level courses designed to help the student catch up or to assist someone in changing fields or majors.

        Third, That anyone may attend practically any university as an un-admitted student and may usually attend at three quarter time, for example taking 9 credit hours instead of the usual 12 (if the school is on the quarter system.) If one can scrape up the tuition (at state school, for a resident it is not too outrageous) it gives one something to do in that year while one is waiting for ones financial aid to be processed. By the time the next year arrives, one is considered to have enough credit hours to qualify as a “transfer student” even though one is transferring into the very same school. At this point, there is no High school diploma required for admission.

        It is only 4 years recovered from 10 that were stolen by the same people who revised your history books. But at least it is a start for those that wish one. Even more so, do I encourage autodidacticism, And to paraphrase Good Will Hunting it only costs $1.50 in late charges at a public library..

  3. I am at a loss to explain why you eschew iambic pentameter in your form exercise, as you say, “even if the poem makes no sense.” Although “One thing at a time” might be a guess at your answer–which certainly would make a degree of sense. Still the iambic rhythm is most definitely a thing to get ones head around.

    I have done a similar thing more times than I can count–though not as an exercise so much as a method. The only difference is that I have my subject matter chosen either before I revisit the rhyming words I chose, or long before I choose them. In this way, I forget for the most part what subject I have chosen when I choose the words. Although, as you might guess, sometimes any foreknowledge will affect my word choice somewhat. Still it is very enjoyable to have already decided what your sonnet is all about and what point you ultimately wish to make and weave the random words into it. It is not so difficult as one might think.

    Still, I was recently inspired to write a new sequence of sorts, which at the time of this comment currently sits at six. This is more along the lines of what you describe. I let the story develop out of my subconscious on its own simply letting phrases of iambs and lines of pentameter just pop into existence practically of their own accord. In any event, the result of this you may find here, if you find you have an interest (and/or wish to report it to any theoretical evil overlords with which you may, or may not, have congress ; )

    By the way, I have had an inquiry or two regarding Mr. Dershowitz’s sonnets. As such, I have made a number of inquiries into this. And there is nothing I can find. Nothing from google or Wikipedia. Nothing from the portal within Amazon to look for something published. I found nothing on Mr. Dershowitz’s own website. The only hit I found was via Bing which is on your previous sonnet post wherein I commented and we had a bit of a discussion. Perhaps it was a different attorney? I can imagine Mr. Bailey writing a couple of sonnets in a day; and of course Mr. Cochran’s penchant for rhyme is well known, so perhaps he is a possibility as well?

    I have written a bit of a post touching on this among other things, although the subject of Mr. Dershowitz was only a minor element. In it I quip that I was unable to find any evidence of Mr. Dershowitz’s Sonnets, and that If I were, for example, a marxist operative who wanted a particular poet to stop writing, I might concoct something of the like in the hope that it might demoralise the fellow : ) I also add that I find it hard to fathom that anyone, marxist or otherwise, would have any concern whatsoever about my four hits per day! At the very least, I should think that any such person on a payroll or stipend would attempt to align himself with someone much more well known. Someone in Hollywood, or a well published author, for example.

    But in all seriousness, do you, in fact, have a clue to the actual man in question if in fact it was not Mr. Dershowitz?

    • I missed this long written reply! I am sorry. Somehow magically you have written your reply in the bit to which I have already replied, thus confounding wordpress’s already dodgy mechanisms.

      I sometimes wonder, on a previous subject, that we expect so little of students. Not you so much, nor I. But…. more or less all of us together. I make this comment because I happened a few decades ago to come into possession of a reading text aimed at nine/ten-year-olds which at this writing, makes it roughly a century and a half old–or would do, if I still had it in my possession. I’m afraid it has disappeared along with a sock or two in all the moves we’ve made over the years, and/or is stuck in an unpacked box somewhere.

      At the same time, I had a modern reading text designed for writing students in first or second year of college–nineteen/twenty-year-olds; this would have been used in a standard “college comp” course. I was shocked (and dare say, a bit delighted) that the reading selections as well as the discussion questions and essay prompts were of a virtually identical level.

      My state of delight was due to the fact that my penchant for pattern recognition had predicted cold, hard, fact–yet again. I recall I had looked around for something like this to either prove or disprove my, at the time, unsupported notion that education has been on a downward spiral since the mid-late 1800s. To this end, I had a gentleman’s wager of sorts with a professor of mine. (At the time, I was engaged in one of my forays into the humanities–these that happen periodically whenever I despair at the woeful state of my own education) The above volume won me my bet, gave me my proof–beyond all my expectations, and more to the point, the resultant essay earned me an ‘A.’ Among these three vindications, I cannot now say which was the more gratifying, but perhaps that latter, because of my delight that the learned and gentle lady did not see fit to downgrade me–or at least did not yield to any such temptation.

      • I’d say that we expect so little of students because of the self-reinforcing cycle; and because of the Vietnam War.

        Before Vietnam, there was relatively little grade inflation in the US — as I understand it, I wasn’t alive then myself — but as people who flunked classes or grades were then prime fodder for the infantry, raising kids’ grades was a way of both protesting the war and shielding students from battle. Two benefits for the price of one!

        But of course, once some students get higher grades, it’s harder to justify lower grades for others… and it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. If I imposed 19th century ideas about school on 21st century kids, I suspect I’d be fired. I wouldn’t last long. I suspect we’re about two generations, maybe three, from a major realignment of schools. A lot depends, though, on whether the college tuition bubble pops — if (no, when) the existing college debt bubble (over $1 trillion!) pops, then we’ll see a major realignment with how colleges and universities in the US work, and how they charge students for their services. Real estate prices in several places in the US are declining by 17% for several years — can you imagine that happening at colleges?? Not yet, but it’s coming.

        When it does, the colleges will demand that the high schools report more accurate grades, and the high schools will demand that middle schools demand more accurate grades, and so on down the chain. We may wind up in the same place that Germany was when Horace Mann went to study their education system: give one kid an A+, one an A, one an A-, one a B+, and so on down the line to the kid who gets a D. Everyone else fails — and they lose the right to go to school at all.

        But 1) we’re not there yet, and 2) someone may stop the slide before we get all the way there. At least, I hope they do. I’m kinda hoping to be dead or out of teaching by the time in happens — it’ll be a pretty cruel world at that point.

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