Poets Garden


by Joanna Weston – winner of the FBCW Fall Sonnet Classic

spill  crash  storm  gun
dandelion thoughts disorder
swing on ravelled spider-web
from city-hall to broken shoe
out over tangled lines
where rails up-heave
under responders run tame
splinting    stretching
back    forth with theories
lifting sky-scrapers up
toppling cyclists ditch-down
before I shake roots back
below beleaguered city
into earthbound security

Place It On YouTube

An excellent example of mating poetry with pictures and music has been placed on YouTube by Vancouver’s own Dennis Bolen.

Check it out:



Want to Profess Your Love? Use a SonnetFeatherSeeds_1

The sonnet, the poetic vehicle of choice for love. Petrarch worked it extensively as he professed his love to the apple of his eye, Laura. Yes, even Dante that old rogue who took us to the Inferno was known to write a few to Beatrice, a woman of his affections. The form moved across Europe like a love-crazed teen until it came into the hands of William Shakespeare and the rest, star-crossed lovers, is history.

What is the sonnet? Translated “little song”, it’s a 13th century form that was invented by those crazy Italians. Even Michelangelo dabbled with the form as he wrote to the loves of his life. The sonnet is a fourteen line poem with a meter, a rhyme sequence, and Volta. Volta you say. What a great term. Sounds very poetic. But hate to burst your bubble, it means ‘turn’. A little surprising for such a beautiful word. Traditionally, it appears at line 9 of the Petrarchan sonnet and acts to amplify, reconsider, or counter that which came before in the first eight lines.

The sonnet has challenged the great poets for centuries: John Donne, John Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edna St. Vincent Millay to name a few.

Because he was such a master of the form, we’ve named one variation of the sonnet for Petrarch; The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. It has a rhyme scheme of abba abba cde cde. Here’s an example by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:


I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness
In souls as countries lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death—
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.

I guess not all sonnets are about love. At this point, you might be saying “Well, I don’t rhyme very well.” Neither do most of us. That’s why you buy yourself that wonderful invention called the rhyming dictionary: a dictionary based on specific sounds of the word you seek to find a rhyme. They’re relatively inexpensive. Add it to your must books right behind an excellent dictionary and an even better thesaurus. Or, check out our Resources page http://www.bcwriters.ca/resources/

The English took to the sonnet because they realized that more words rhymed in English than Italian. Old Willy was so adept at the sonnet and its variations that we’ve named one after him as well: the Shakespearean or English sonnet. Its rhyme is different: abab cdcd efef gg. Shakespeare loved that iambic pentameter: An iamb is a foot in double meter with the stress on the second syllable (da –DUM). An example would be the word ‘forgot’. Pentameter means that there are five feet per line or ten syllables. The good news is that a lot of this meter stuff has begun to go by the wayside. And then again, that was Shakespeare’s way. What about using a trochee (DA-dum) meter instead just to mix things up if you want to go quasi-traditional? Here’s Sonnet 24 by William Shakespeare:

My love toke skorne my servise to retaine
Wherin methought she usid crueltie :
Sins with good will I lost my libretye
To followe her wich causith all my payne.
Might never care cause me for to refrayne :
But onlye this wich is extremytie :
Gyving me nought, alas, nor to agre
That as I was her man I might remayne.
But sins that thus ye list to ordre me,
That wolde have bene your servaunt true and faste,
Displese the not, my doting dayes bee paste :
And with my losse to leve I must agre.
For as there is a certeyne tyme to rage.
So is ther tyme suche madnes to aswage.That’s the Olde English version. Here’s the translation for those who are not fluent Olde English:My love took scorn my service to retain
Wherein methought she usèd cruelty,
Since with good will I lost my liberty
To follow her which causeth all my pain.
Might never care cause me for to refrain,
But only this which is extremity,
Giving me nought, alas, nor to agree
That as I was, her man I might remain.
But since that thus ye list to order me,
That would have been your servant true and fast,
Displease thee not my doting days be past,
And with my loss to leave I must agree.
For as there is a certain time to rage,
So is there time such madness to assuage.

Traditional sonnets are usually set-up as an octave and a sestet (8 lines – 6 lines) or as three parallel quatrains (three four line stanzas) followed by a couplet (two lines which would normally be the Volta with this format). But that’s traditional. How can you make this form your own? What if you create a rhyme scheme that is internal or change the order of the rhyme? How about taking the English sonnet and reordering the rhyme scheme to ababcd gg cdefef? Does the poem remain a sonnet? How about a rhyme scheme that employs consonance (echoes of the consonants in a word) or assonance (echoes of the vowel sounds)? Does there have to be any rhyme scheme?

Here’s an example of the sonnet today from poet, teacher, editor and FBCW member, Heidi Greco. By her own admission, Heidi prefers free verse but will work with the restrictions of form from time to time. This is one of her efforts in making the sonnet her own. It’s a double sonnet (yes, there’s a variation on form we’ve been talking about) that appeared in A Verse Map of Vancouver (ed. George McWhirter, 2009). Read it. Study it. Is there a discernible rhyme scheme or shift in thought? What makes this poem a sonnet?

Gravity of the Situation:

Stuck in the Elevator of the Lee Building

(Vancouver, Main at Broadway)

nothing we can do but wait
inside this dangling box, stuck
between these floors that mutter
stories that no longer matter
the billboard on the roof continues
showing its jaded face
selling something nobody needs
to another Friday night
worn as any hooker
standing outside by the bus
hoping to meet a trick who will break
the beat of the evening’s rain
……….(all of us wish we’d thought to bring wine
……….a bag of fat snacks to help pass the time)
hanging by these dusty cables
closer to heaven than any of us wish,
holding on by breath of angels or worse,
I picture the rooftop billboard turning
some key for an antique wind-up toy
imagine it cranking us downward so slow
a cradle as soft as the crumbled clay
that lines the walls of this building. I wait
for the wakening rumble, beating heart of the ancient beast:
the tired machine that will grind its gears, manouevre
old pulleys, shift leaden weights. think of how it will groan
as it places us where we belong. the way we will step out
……….onto the light-slicked surface of rained-on streets
……….how we will walk away as if nothing has happened.

Here’s an exercise for you. Write a sonnet in the Petrarchan or Shakespearean form. Once done, rewrite it breaking as many of the traditional rules as you want: change your rhyme scheme, move the turn to line 9 or some other point in the poem, put your rhyme on the fifth beat of each line, or alter the rhythm. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination. When you’re done send your efforts to vp1@bcwriters.ca.  You might find yourself on our webpage as an example of a thoroughly modern Willy.

Have any questions about this form, email us and we’ll try to get an answer for you from one of our resident experts.

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