Writing 201: Future

Day 10 has arrived: let’s end the course with a bang. Sonnets, chiasmus, the future — en garde!

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Your prompt: future

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Could it be our last prompt word of Writing 201: Poetry? Already?! Let’s keep our spirits up by focusing on whatever it is that’s coming next. Whether it’s about tomorrow, next October, or the year 2345, let today’s poem be inspired by your vision of the future. (Fears, hopes, and plans are equally acceptable, of course. So are robots and hoverboards.)


Today’s form: sonnet

The sonnet at a glance:

  • A sonnet is normally composed of 14 lines of verse.
  • There are several ways you can split your sonnet into stanzas (if you wish to), though the most common ones are 8-6 and 4-4-3-3.
  • Likewise, if you decide to use rhyme in your sonnet, you can choose between various rhyming schemes, like ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, or ABBA ABBA CDC DCD, among others.

You didn’t think we’d end a poetry course without a single word on (arguably) the most iconic form of them all — the sonnet? From Petrarch to Shakespeare to Lorca to Heaney, it’s a form that’s has endured dozens of vogues, backlashes, and comebacks — it will bury us all. It will outlive the cockroaches.

In some ways, the sonnet is easy: you get 14 lines of verse, usually grouped into four stanzas of 4-4-3-3 lines each (alternatively: two groupings of eight and six lines, respectively). Sonnets used to be written in metered verse (like alexandrines in French and iambic pentameter in English, for example), but many modern poets forego the meter altogether, or at least don’t use it consistently. Sonnets also tended to be written using any number of established rhyming schemes (for example, Shakespeare’s abab cdcd efef gg), but that, too, is no longer a formal requirement. (If you’re a sonnet purist, or the ghost of Shakespeare, please forgive me!)

Still, even with this progressive loosening of rules, sonnets are hard: they’re too short to say that much, but already long enough that they require some overall strategy. At their best, something happens between the first and last verse, and especially between the first eight and final six lines. You want your reader to have experienced something more than just a brief sonic pleasure. You want to present a fully-formed thought.

If you happen to be one of those who find sonnets easy, have no fear — you can still challenge yourself further. How about going for a crown of sonnets? Or branching out to the sestina, another structurally difficult form?

Go ahead — have fun with sonnets. It might take some time, it might take some shuffling around of words and verses, but there’s something pleasing about the challenge. It’s also a consolation to know that poets have been struggling with the form for centuries — enough to write meta-sonnets (like this one, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti):

A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,–
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fulness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:–
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue
It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

Today’s device: chiasmus

The last device we’ll explore together in this course is one of my favorites — the chiasmus (key-AHS-mus). At its simplest, a chiasmus is essentially a reversal, an inverted crossing (it got its name from the greek letter chi – X). How can we use it? Let Snoop Dogg show us the way:

Laid back, with my mind on my money and my money on my mind

Or how about this one, from Dr. Samuel Johnson:

The two most engaging powers of an author, are, to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.

If you’re into rhymed poetry, one of the most common ways of introducing chiasmus is in the rhyming scheme — ABBA is a straightforward one. You can go all out, though: ABBA CDDC CDDC ABBA, for example.

From a fairly straightforward reordering of words — where A and B are repeated as B and A — a chiasmus can develop into more complex structures: instead of words, phrases. Instead of phrases, ideas or concepts. Chiasmus is effective in poems because it’s a form of repetition — and by now we all now how crucial repetition is for poetry. But the reversal injects the repeated words with freshness, and allows us to play with (and radically change) the meaning of a line.

So: for your last poem of the course, shake things up. Literally and figuratively, figuratively and literally.

Photo by William (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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