May 14, 2017

On the History of the Sonnet

To supplement this month's sonnet writing prompt, here is poet Linda Gregerson discussing the history of the sonnet at Poets Forum in New York City in 2015.

May 10, 2017

Prompt: Petrarch, Laura and the Sonnets

On an April day in 1327, Italian poet Francesco Petrarch first saw “Laura,” She would become his muse for more than 300 sonnets.

It was Good Friday and he saw her at St. Clare Church in Avignon. There is some controversy about the identity of Laura, but it is generaly thought that she was a real woman. Many sources identify her as Laura de Noves, a married woman and mother. Whether she knew that she was his muse, and whether or not Petrarch ever contacted her is not known. Laura de Noves died during the Black Death plague of 1348.

The first 263 poems Petrarch wrote for her while she was alive and he called them Rime in Vita Laura. After she died, the poems he wrote were known as Rime in Morte Laura.

His love for Laura was unconsummated. Petrarch wrote about this love:
“In my younger days, I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair — my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did.”
Lord Byron wrote this sarcastic couplet about Petrarch's love-at-a-distance for Laura:

Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch's wife
He would have written sonnets all his life?

Petrarch's poems popularized the Italian sonnet form and influenced the English sonnets that came in the Elizabethan era. Petrarch did not invent the sonnet. It had been a popular classical form long before him. "Sonnet" comes from the Italian sonetto, which means “a little sound or song."

Traditionally, the sonnet is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter, which uses a particular rhyme scheme and has a structured thematic organization.

The sonnet form popularized by Petrarch and which now carries his name uses two stanzas. One is an octave (8 lines) with the rhyme scheme abbaabba and the second a sestet (6 lines) with either a cdecde or cdcdcd rhyme scheme.

Some of Petrarch's sonnets were translated by Chaucer and other poets, but their Middle English is still difficult for modern readers. But you can find a Petrarchan sonnet that was written in 1903 and is engraved on a plaque found on the lower level of the Statue of Liberty. That sonnet is 'The New Colossus' by Emma Lazarus.

'Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
'Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she
With silent lips. 'Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'

A variation of that form is known as the Shakespearean, or English sonnet, This sonnet form uses iambic pentameter and has three quatrains (4 lines) and a couplet follow this rhyme scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg.

Traditionally, the first stanza of a sonnet is the question and the break is seen as a "turn" with the second stanza being an answer or response. In the English sonnet the concluding couplet is a conclusion, amplification, or even refutation of the previous three stanzas,

And there are many variations on these two formal definitions.

John Milton’s sonnets blended the two variations and didn't follow all the rules. (See his "When I Consider How My Light is Spent")

The Spenserian sonnet, named for the sixteenth century English poet Edmund Spenser, uses the Shakespearean three quatrains and a couplet but uses “couplet links” between quatrains (rhyme scheme: abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee).

"Hades' Pitch" by Rita Dove imagines a pitch, a seduction, by that Greek god of the underworld and uses a single 14-line sonnet with rhyme.  "Anne Hathaway" by Carol Ann Duffy (from The World's Wife) takes the form of a sonnet written by the wife of Mr. Shakespearean sonnet himself.

Modern poets have taken the variations much further. For this month's prompt we will do the same, writing sonnets that follow these three "rules":
1) Fourteen lines in one or more stanzas
2) Some rhyme (whether using a traditional rhyme scheme, couplets or something of your own design)
3) The structure of question and response or problem and resolution and the "turn" of the sonnet

Billy Collins - not a formalist poet - wrote a "Sonnet" that pokes fun at poets' loose variations on the form.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
and pokes fun at Petrarch, and even allows Francesco to consummate his Laura-love (or perhaps explains why all that sonnet writing prevented it!)
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blowout the lights, and come at last to bed.

Submission deadline for this prompt: June 4, 2017. Please follow our submission guidelines.

April 28, 2017

The Quiet Passion of Emily

The new film, A Quiet Passion, is a story about Emily Dickinson. I had brunch with two friends last weekend and they had seen the film. One, an English major but not particularly a poetry reader, loved the movie. The other, not a poetry reader, didn't like it at all. And that seems to be the split between critics and audiences generally.

It is difficult to portray writers writing on screen because it is a solitary and not very interesting act. You need to show a life. I have always thought that Edgar Allen's life story is more interesting than his poetry, and that tale would be more appealing to contemporary audiences than his fiction. Emily Dickinson's life, as far as most people know it, does not seem to be movie material.

If you view Emily as a reclusive spinster who sat in her sepia room and wrote poems that she would hide away, then you're correct. Not movie magic. But it seems that this film has other ideas.

A Quiet Passion opens with Emily getting booted out of Mount Holyoke College. This Christian women's university was not happy with her unorthodox religious views. Emily the rebel.

My English major friend said that Emily in the film is witty and sassy. She takes digs at suitors, family and editors. She doesn't hide in her room all day, and is someone who would be good for lunch conversation.

I doubt that many of us would want to live her Amherst home life. She did escape from midnight to 3 am (when her father "allowed" her to write) to poetry, and there she put down, if somewhat cryptically, her real thoughts that probably didn't get expressed at the family dinner table.

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 and died in 1886. The film covers her schooling to her death. She ages in the film through multiple actresses: Emma Bell as young Emily, becomes the older Emily through Cynthia Nixon in a family portrait session. One of my brunch reviewers liked this and one though they just should have aged Bell with makeup.

I read Richard B. Sewall's bio of Emily in college and that book changed my mind about her life. It lightened those dark photos of her and blew off some of the dust that has covered Emily since her poems were published.

Have you seen the film?  Give us a review in the comments here or on our Facebook pages.

And, of course, read some of her poems. Here's a free sampler to begin at

This video was done when an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York also took a brighter view of Emily's life.

April 21, 2017

Extending This Month of Poetry

The Dodge Poetry program has offered since 1992 a "Spring and Fountain" series for teachers in New Jersey that meet for several weeks in locations around the state. This year, they added a one-week online version (registration closes 4/21/17) that is open nationwide to teachers, administrators, counselors, librarians and staff at accredited institutions.

Although this was a part of the National Poetry Month celebration, the end of April does not mean the end of poetry.

The Dodge folks sent out a packet of poems for online participants without attribution. You don't know who wrote the poems until they send a list of attributions at the end of the program. (Sure, some people probably couldn't wait and did some online searching.) Why the anonymity? So that you read "as free of judgment and preconceived notions as possible."

Below are a dozen poems that you can try out online that were in the packets used. These are not anonymous.

Dodge suggested that you take some time to slow down and read each poem silently to yourself, then out loud once or a few times. Then, "write a note to the poet who wrote the poem or to the speaker of the poem. It could be a quick thank you note, a series of questions you would like to ask the poet, or a response to questions raised by the poem. This note is not meant to be analysis of the poem, but rather a reflection of your personal response to what you’ve read, the feelings or questions that have bubbled up from a deeper place inside you."

Maybe the exercise will prompt a poem of your own.
  1. What Kind of Times Are These
  2. The New Religion
  3. sorrow song
  4. Psalm for Kingston
  5. A Partial History of My Stupidity
  6. Attitude
  7. Zen of Tipping
  8. The New Religion
  9. The Blue Dress in Mother's Closet
  10. Part of Eve's Discussion
  11. The Universe as Primal Scream  
  12. After Making Love We Hear Footsteps