Books for Poets | Mailing List | Copyrights | About Us



May 2017

Sonnets have come a long way from their origins.  "Hades' Pitch" by Rita Dove imagines a pitch, a seduction, by that Greek god of the underworld and uses a single stanza of 14 lines with rhyme. Let us look at some history before considering our own 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 generally 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).

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 Collins 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.

For this issue, we asked for sonnets that used one of the sonnet forms.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


I juggle facing coins jousting Camelot
Reigning in the chariots harnesses
Extinguish fires lowering Fahrenheit
Toward pacifistic heightened excuses
Emerging from out of the rural pastures
From that which is bestowed in gratis
Abiding lawful gratitude honouring catharsis
Allegories lancing the hub of communities
Petitioned welfare branching intertwined lattice
Related to a familiar shore that brokers the tidal horses
The chains of command that shackle the soul of martyrs
Spin head or tails of the companions emotional vice versus
As benefits for pensive amendments are subsidized necessity
Administer the quality of life by compassion for all of humanity.

Robert Kohlhammer


No allergy, just springtime hitch of breath –
and now the doctor has prescribed a pill.
The four-page warning sheet sends me a chill
of premonition, a slight taste of meth-
ane on the palate. As the drug-spiel saith:
nausea, blurred vision may occur; and still
the list goes on: beware sun rays that spill
abracadabra over winter’s death.
Must I stay housebound, miss the tonic spring-
of-step on growing grass – the leafing trees
so full of birdsong – sweet loam in my hand?
The side-effects are not a trifling thing:
my lungs in mourning for the fresh-air breeze
that sweeps the doorsill clean; the healing land.

Taylor Graham


If I could spare a dozen years or so
I'd send him off now - westward - on his own;
I'd cut the guy ropes even though winds blow
until he knows he's safe - though all alone -
to live with baggage lighter than his wits
to watch awhile as some great waterfall
chisels smooth an image 'til it fits -
or 'til he lilting hums as nightbirds call -
life minus guilt - that putrid puffed-up bully
he'd trade that whip along the way, I know
for skills in how to face each moment fully
learning solitude's a cowards way to go -
so smug, where only moon & stars can see
not naked on the bridge from thee to me

Timea Deinhard


Lives coming undone yours and mine; seeking salve for the sorrow, I went back in time
From vows we read, words once meant, to cruelty unleashed and kindnesses unspent
A friendship un-nurtured, a love we didn’t tend, kisses unkissed and flowers unsent
With pen in hand, the pain I'd unwind but nothing rang out, like a bell with no chime
And then it all began to align; if only I could mend love as easily as rhyme
I thought back to Venice, a chance to mend – to stop the beginning of what seemed like the end
We packed our bags, off we went; La Dolce Vita – and we yearned for what it meant
Lovers enchanted, hands entwined, under the spell of the moon and the vine

But what we started we could not postpone; hearts torn open could not be re-sewn
I was no longer your bella, your cara, your amor; there was nothing left of who we were before
The charm wore off, we returned home; all tenderness was gone, the old bitterness shone
There was no grand exit, no goodbye at the door; passion rekindled cannot a dying love restore
No happily ever after – we were flesh and bone; our story no fairytale, our reprieve on loan
Our time was up, my pen down on the floor; the great floating city lived on but we were no more

Terri J. Guttilla


It did not seem like a possible problem
In a time of birth control pills or creams
I thought it was very pleasurable
With her erect nipples as from dreams
Of an adolescent looking at Playboy
There fullness an imaginary toy.
Or an insatiable baby sucking
The Victorian word would be cloy.
She explained how with time’s passage
She had missed her period, how sage
And things had to be done quickly
Making me feel, very queasy and sickly.
The situation very plain and for me odd;.
For both the resolution is with God.

Edward Halperin


I'd never heard of class growing up
(dragged up some might say now)
but back then everyone was the same as me -
dirt poor and not particularly happy.
There were the "rough" kids and the good
kids who went to church but still lived
in hand-me-downs and played on the street
where a trip to McDonald's was the biggest treat.

But as I grew and flew the nest
for places new, I soon found
I was different from the rest
around me. No commonality.
Different lives, world collide
oh so painfully.

Jemima Jarman


Erich Fromm's Art of Loving is the book
I didn't read in teenage years before
I fell in love after a single look
and so often after I can't be sure
why I placed trust in lust in the first place -
it made me feel ashamed and mistaken,
diving head first, landing flat on my face,
far away from Frost's "The Road Not Taken,"
the less traveled path that I didn't see
until pain taught me I'd been short-sighted,
self-loathing, desperate, unhappily
driven by lust, my love unrequited -
and here Shakespeare has described my plight well;
heaven's attraction had kept me in hell.

Paul Waring


Your large round stone rounds another
much bigger body, that orbital journey too
unlike long marches, a bird’s migration, or even
a trip to the store. How then can I know you?
Nor is it easy imagining that once tiny chance,
now a certainty, of abundant life living on
and on here, a round and brutal dance,
a heaviness held in stillness, all motion gone.
Yesterday my hand a desk globe spun,
it passed so brightly — colored lands and blue sea.
yet I didn’t feel you move or hear a sign that you were done
as I myself might, when receiving a taste or turning a key.
So things here mate and move on mate and cry:
a dark stone body, brighter with land and sky.

Richard Crease


Trying to resurrect a sonnet, the
worst of verse still in it, or starting
one from scratch without a prompt
or proper vignette.

As hours pass, the time escapes
my dilemma growing larger, trite
little rhymes and answers defined
by the questions and answers within it.

I doubt the day will ever come when
I'm inspired to sonnet. Truth it be told
I've long sold my soul to the melody
that doesn't quite fit in.

So, come fly with me to a place so free,
Catch the wind with your wings, rise up to it.

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


With every breath she takes love enters in
And penetrates her heart; it turns to dust
All thought that might suggest her sin,
The growing life, the bulging womb his lust
Reveal; cloaked in ardent words and deeds
As they together stand against the tide
Of parents’ ire and plant the plighted seeds
That soon will grow into a shrine as wide
As any ever built, and furnished so
That all will envy what love itself unveils
To these two paragons who together go
Through life’s great peaks and sad travails.
If this be false, how shall the world abide?
To build and work as one, and together thrive.


He wonders how they came to tell such lies,
The truth in tatters, the alarms, the evening cold,
As each a separate space defends and holds.
She storms and tosses back the words he tries,
And turns each trope and metaphor to spies
That twist his days and rigid nights, to fold
And wrench his gut, obstruct his work, his soul.
As care and life within him slowly dies
She spends her days bemoaning all she lost,
A life forgone, the household chores that leach
The marrow from the bond her child had made
Before it slipped away and left her tossed
And gasping like an angler’s catch on beach
Whose sands retreat to leave the bones to fade.


She left and jumped into a world bereft of rhyme,
sang at bars and pubs for pay, got high, had sex
with men met in parks, anything to pass the day,
stumbling like a blind bird, searching for the next
event to take away the cloud that followed her,
that bruised and flattened all the morning light,
crushed stone, squeezed the air, and made her slur
her words against the phone, made every day a fight,
and all her nights but shadows, tightening like a noose.
He spent his days with dusty books, his nights in trysts
in hotel rooms and stoned resorts with wives whose
passions had been stripped away, lost in alcoholic mists.
Old and gray, he drinks, and writes, and tries to cope.
They’d found her in her tub, bereft of hope.

Robert Miller