Category Archives: sonnets

Sonnet: “The Quincentenarian Looks Back”

“Twentieth century”! – hard to think it through,
remember details in that distant view…
At her tenth birthday party, why’d I throw
her in the pool, all dressed up? Still don’t know.
Later we lived together overseas;
I had no clue of female hygiene needs,
never bought tampons, she used toilet paper.
Later she had a child. Mine? I wonder.
I’d left, we lived with others, better fit…
or did we marry, and have kids, then split?
I married once or twice, had kids, I’m sure.
Sent her too rude a joke, and heard no more.
We knew so little in those small young lives…
I miss you, though, my girl, or wife, or wives.

This science fiction sonnet, maybe a little flippant, was published recently in the Rat’s Ass Review edited by Roderick Bates. But what will happen when people live longer and ever longer? At what point will be stop bothering to remember things that were once essential to our lives? And the photo is a little flippant, too – if we start living to 500, it can only be because we can reverse aging. There may be a few eccentrics who choose to maintain their bodies as “old”, like in the photo, but I think most people would opt for something in the biological 20s.

And, really, it’s not so much a sonnet as 14 lines rhymed in pairs. And even the rhymes are pretty iffy. Oh well. But so long as you amuse or otherwise engage Rick Bates, you have a good chance of being published in RAR. His basic advice for anyone who has something they are dithering about sending out is: “Go ahead and submit.”

 

Poetry Resource: “SF&F Poetry Association”; Sonnet: “On a Dead Spaceship”

Spaceship

(“Golconda Uranium (2012)” by Alexey Kashpersky)

On a dead spaceship drifting round a star
The trapped inhabitants are born and die.
The engineers’ broad privileges lie
In engine room and solar panel power.
The fruit and vegetables and protein coops
Are run by farmers with genetics skills:
The products of their dirt and careful kills
Help service trade between the several groups.
Others – musicians, architects – can skip
Along the paths of interlinking webs.
Beyond these gated pods that the rich carve
For their own selves (but still within the ship),
In useless parts, are born the lackluck plebs.
Heard but ignored, they just hunt rats or starve.

This sonnet was published in Star*Line, the official journal of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, a quarterly edited by poet and English prof Vince Gotera. Each issue contains a vast diversity of sf&f poetry. Not much of it is formal, but that is all part of the diversity which is appropriate to its genre.

So a sonnet is fine. And this one, like so much sf, is a metaphor for Earth today: circling the Sun, carrying highly unequal societies.

Technically, it is a sonnet to be sneered at by purists: it rhymes ABBA CDDC EFGEFG, the second quartet failing to rhyme with the first, making it a flawed Petrarchan sonnet. In addition, rhyming “star” with “power” is a bit of a stretch, one syllable against two, and none of them sharing quite the same vowel… Oh well, it’s only Science Fiction…

Sonnet: “Unanswered”

The Afterlife – some Happy Hunting Ground?
Or Jesus, virgins, merging flesh and breath?
Or god of your own world, white-robed and crowned?
Or ghost? Rebirth? Just, please, no final death!

The sparrow through the Saxon hall at night –
Brief light and warmth, then cold obscurity.
Is this our life? But yet the bird in flight
lived in the dark, both pre and post. Do we?

Frogs, living in a buried water tank,
spend all their time in darkness. Then the lid
is lifted and sun shines into the dank –
lid down, light gone… but they live on, though hid.

We work and play throughout our brief day’s sun –
Day raises many questions – night, just one.

This sonnet was published in Snakeskin No. 265, edited by George Simmers. I write both religious and irreligious poetry as the muse suggests, but my own personal views are Fundamentalist Agnostic: “Nescio et tu quoque”, “I don’t know and neither do you.” The sparrow reference is to a passage in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which usually seems to resonate well.

Technically the sonnet is Shakespearean: iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CECD EFEF GG. The three quatrains are each self-contained, but leading to the resolution (or lack of resolution) in the couplet. The last line is the strongest, which is always satisfying.

Sonnet Contest: Cash prizes, no entry fee!

poetry magazine, Better than Starbucks logo

Better Than Starbucks has just opened its annual sonnet contest, an opportunity for all lovers of formal poetry to practice their skills and show off their best work.

Open through October and November (closes December 1), the contest has no entry fee but awards prizes of $100, $50 and $25 for the top three sonnets, which will be published in the magazine along with seven runners-up.

Expect the competition to be fierce! Better Than Starbucks already has a solid following among formal poets. Last year’s competition drew 560 sonnets, this year’s will undoubtedly see more. And you can only send two sonnets. Make sure they are good!

What “good” means can be gleaned from looking at last year’s results in the January 2019 issue, and more sonnets on the Formal Poetry page in March 2019. There are explanatory notes on the contest page, showing some leniency in the definition, and clarifying that previously-published work is acceptable:

This contest is for a metrical sonnet.
Your sonnet can be shakespearean, petrarchan, spenserian, rhymed, or slant-rhymed.
Blank verse is fine, as long as the sonnet form is clearly identifiable.
We’ll consider tetrameter, hexameter, etc. as well as pentameter.
Some metrical variation is fine, but don’t forget the volta!
As always, we do accept previously published work.

Good luck!

Sonnet: “Beat This Level”

Forget that crap about some God or Devil –
you’re on your own against the Universe;
but till you’re free of our Stage One’s perverse
orientation, you won’t beat this level.
The Heaven idea is fraudulent, and worse:
Father McKenzie wields a deadly shovel.
Stage Two’s extended life – hard, but don’t snivel.
Stage Three: genetic change, youthful reverse.

You must want Life – must fight Death all the way,
ignoring social norms, pressure from peers;
such life will need a gamer’s vigilance.
Your other futures are: ashes, or clay.
And if help’s late, as you slide down the years,
cryonics is your waiting ambulance.

This sonnet, written over 20 years after the previous “Death Will Be Harder Now”, was first published as a pair to it in Ambit No. 190, October 2007. (Also like the earlier sonnet, it was reprinted in Bewildering Stories, edited by Don Webb.)

The theme is our age-long human dream of avoiding death, including that celebrated by Father McKenzie, “wiping the dirt from his hands as he steps from the grave.” (No one was saved.) For the first time in history we can see the realistic prospect of indefinite lifespans coming closer, if we can just live long enough for genetic modification to give us not only better hair and wrinkle-free skin, but actual rejuvenation. If you die before that happens, cryonic suspension is your ambulance to the future… you may not survive the ride, but you’ll have a better chance of a fresh lease of life than if you let them cremate you or pass you through the bodies of worms.

Technically the sonnet is unconventional, reversing the rhymes in the second quartet rather than echoing them, so that the poem reads ABBABAAB CDECDE. I don’t think that’s a problem; probably the bigger sin was splitting noun from adjective in lines 3 and 4, breaking the rhythm of the pentameters, which the other lines hold comfortably.

 

Sonnet: “Death Will Be Harder Now”

“trying to sneek a peek” by lastbeats 

Death will be harder now, as, year by year,
We solve the clues of immortality:
Emotions sink to animality
As false hopes tighten screws of desperate fear.
Hormone control will make age disappear—
After false starts, most horrible to see—
But those already old must beg to be
Frozen for the genetic engineer.
While war, starvation, pipe Earth’s gruesome jigs,
Successful businessmen will fight to gain
Some dead teen’s body, to transplant their brain,
The already-old beg to be guinea-pigs.
Children, look back, hear our despairing cry:
We bred immortals, but we had to die!

This sonnet was originally published in the British quarterly Ambit in 2007, back when the amazing pediatrician and novelist Martin Bax was editing it and accepting formal verse. Perhaps the best-known piece Martin published was J.G. Ballard’s “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”…

But although the poem’s subject-matter seems current, it dates from 1982 when I was first becoming aware of cryonics and the speculative thinking around genetics and nanotechnology. I believe if a person is truly aware of their surroundings, they are going to be aware of both their historical context and their possible science fiction futures. Otherwise, to repeat, they aren’t truly aware of their surroundings.

As Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” He couldn’t have imagined our present world. The rate of change is accelerating. I doubt anyone today can imagine the world a hundred years hence.

Sonnet: “Out Island Town in the Early Morning”

Harbour reflection

Harbour reflection

Before the sun is up, the people are.
Fishermen have gone out, for noon’s fierce light
Will punish them, and their desires are slight:
To sell their catch, drink cold beer by a bar.
The workers hitch rides with some early car
That will go fairly near their building site.
Women prep kids’ meals, feeling it’s not right
To have to leave to clean some tourist spa.

Only the unemployed and office staff
Still sleep while roosters crow and seagulls laugh,
And the light rising in its eastern glow
Shows Harbour houses in a double row,
One on the Cay, the other upside down
Painted on windless glass, a mirror town.

This sonnet was first published in The Hypertexts, the massive poetry collection assembled by Michael R. Burch. There’s not much to say about the poem… it’s a love poem to Governor’s Harbour, my home town.

But sonnets in general have a charm for many people. They seem just the right size both to hold a description or a complex thought that has tendrils in various directions, and to be small enough to be memorised. They are a good tool for high school classrooms, containing a richness of thought for analysis and an opportunity to develop memory skills. They allow a learner to absorb and express the power of the language’s potential for rhythm and rhyme. A good education will have made you familiar with dozens of sonnets, and they and their organising principles remain deeply embedded somewhere within you all your life.

Sonnet: “Driving Rain”

We drive through West Virginia’s driving rain
And even I turn down the cruise control
And stay below the limit. At the toll
We count coins, ask how many tolls remain.
One sleeps, one drives, to get back home tonight.
Wendy’s is closed “because of rain”? That sucks.
The waterfalls look lovely on the rocks.
A bridge has lots of people, flashing lights.
We’ll reach home 1 a.m. if Google’s right.
The wipers go full speed; fog-free a/c.
You have to watch for mud – what’s that, a tree?
Oblivious to all but road, all night.
We make it home and fall into our bed.
And next day hear about the dozens dead.

This sonnet was originally published in Better Than Starbucks in the formal poetry section that Vera Ignatowitsch edits. I wrote it after Eliza and I drove from Toronto to Chapel Hill, NC, on 23 June 2016. It’s a 12-hour haul, a little under 800 miles, but doable in a day. The weather wasn’t great when we started out, and got worse as we came down the I-79 past Pittsburgh. By early evening in West Virginia it was really pouring, but we made it home that night. How dangerous and disastrous the night had been, we didn’t know at the time.

Technically, the sonnet is passable but not perfect. It rhymes abba cddc effe gg, which is neither Petrarchan nor Shakespearean but a hybrid. This structure is referred to as a Bowlesian or Australian sonnet, but giving it a name doesn’t elevate it to the level of the other two. However, as after the intro each line is a separate thought and a separate sentence (mimicking the bitty thought process when having to concentrate in difficult driving conditions), the structures of octet and sestet, or of three quatrains and a closing couplet, are irrelevant and the rhyming is sufficient. Even if one of the rhyme pairs is poor.

Sonnet: “And Then You Die”

And then you die. So what have you achieved?
Your house, your place of work, both turn to dust.
You’re honoured? But who’s on a marble bust
none knows or cares, or if the honour’s thieved.
You cheated? Centuries later, none’s aggrieved.
You fought for Freedom? But in history’s dust
no war is seen as necessary or just.
You were a saint? None cares what you believed.
Why all this striving, more than to survive?
Millennia hence a random rubbish heap
will be more studied than your claimed success.
So find a sunny sea, be calm, alive,
swim, then float on your back and fall asleep.
Life can be no more perfect; death no less.

This sonnet was published in Snakeskin a couple of weeks ago. I was very happy with its formal Petrarchan rhyme scheme, until I suddenly noticed, reading it for the umpteenth time, that I had used the word “dust” twice in the rhymes. Given the enormous number of alternatives I could have chosen from, I’m a little embarrassed. All I can say is, the word just seemed so natural, in both places…

But, in the spirit of the poem, so what? The swimming is lovely today!

Poem: “Carefree Youths”

Carefree Youths

Like fishing boats sailing a landless sea,
an edgeless game-board for an endless game,
hauling their random catch from wide-spread nets,
hunting without the hunter’s hunt and aim,
but sailing, drifting, without cares or frets,
so carefree youths under the bowl of sky
will chance their drifting lives on random lips.
And then the Kraken rises, sinking ships.

“Carefree Youths” was published a couple of days ago in Bewildering Stories. It is in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme. After the meandering start to the poem (about the youths’ meandering lifestyle), the last line is a hard punchline (reflecting the brutal ending of that lifestyle). There are no sequential rhymes until the last two lines, which thereby become the clear ending of the poem. The form of the poem accentuates the poem’s meaning. That is what form should do.

Final rhyming couplets were used extensively by Shakespeare in various ways. In his sonnets they provide a very strong ending after four quatrains, and is a reason for preferring the Shakespearean sonnet’s ABAB CDCD EFEF GG over the Petrarchan sonnet’s more mannered but less forceful ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Many of his final couplets are well known – such as:

If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Shakespeare did the same sort of thing throughout his plays, in which a scene or a soliloquy will be in blank verse but often terminate in a rhyme. Some of the best-known examples being:

the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Hamlet)

Fair is foul and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (Macbeth)

Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow. (Romeo and Juliet)

The rhymed sentence helps sum up the scene, and signals that the scene is ending and that a new scene is about to begin – particularly useful since in Shakespeare’s time there were no stage curtains and no real sets to speak of.

Ah, formal verse! So many uses!