Category Archives: Sonnets

September 11, a sonnet

This was written on Bonfire Night, 2006. I watched the fireworks with the children, then came inside to warm up and read some of the history of Guy Fawkes and his plot.

History can be as comforting as it is unsettling.

In time, September the eleventh night,
The kids will watch the rockets fill the air.
They’ll OOH and AAH in multicoloured light
With bioluminescents in their hair.
Our tragedies will be reduced to rhyme:
Some half-remembered, mistranslated song
And jumping dance, its meaning lost to time,
Details missing, names and places wrong.
Though self-renewing terror haunts our lives,
Our children, staring upward at the sky,
Remind us that their innocence survives
While we, and they, and generations die.
Resist with decency when terror stalks
It’s stronger than Bin Laden, Marx or Fawkes.

In technical terms, this is an okay sonnet. There is very little “turn” in this one, between the octave and the sestet. The only real transition is from the scene at the start to the message in the conclusion. The couplet does sum things up nicely. But the language is never clever, or particularly powerful.

In terms of content, this is a sonnet I believe in very deeply indeed. I think we exist in a historical context, and that it is important for us to remember that in the choices we make. I think (looking backward) civilisation has faced worse challenges than we face now, and (looking forward) that we owe it to the future not to overreact, or sell out our principles.

Sonnets – Why and How (Long Post)

As noted previously, I have been writing rather a lot of sonnets lately. I can name 27 that I’ve written since I started in October, though if I shake my archives out I may find another one or two lurking.

Why did you start? Why are you doing this?

On September 25, 2006, science fiction and fantasy author John “Mike” Ford was found dead in his house. Although I didn’t know him personally, he was a frequent commenter on a website that I read. He was particularly prone to extemporaneous sonnets, a trait which amused and amazed us all.

I used to write sonnets, years ago, but I stopped sometime after university. I certainly wasn’t of a calibre to match John Ford’s work. But when he died, I realised that I would like to become good at them, and that the only way to do so was to start writing them.

I look at it this way: one day, the inspiration and motivation to write the perfect sonnet may strike. But if I haven’t the skills and experience, the thing won’t get written.

So now I write sonnets. Since they’re for practice, I write them on whatever topics come to mind. I’ve even written one on my organisation’s new system for the recording of project risks. I’ve been described as an “occasional” poet, in the sense that I write for a given occasion rather than writing in the abstract. I often think of my occasional sonnets as “speed sonnets”, because, since I’m writing them for discussions that move on while I compose, I have to write fast. My record is 13 minutes, but most of mine take over half an hour.

I am doing some non-occasional work, however. I’m sending three narrative sonnets off to a science fiction magazine to see if they’re saleable. Each of them is essentially a 14-line short story, and took some 3 or 4 hours to work through.

So what, in your terms, is a sonnet?

Definitions of the sonnet vary more than I originally thought. For me, a sonnet has fourteen lines, divided into an eight-line octave and a six-line sestet. The octave, made up of two quatrains, tends to pose a problem or set up a situation, which the sestet then resolves. The sestet generally uses the first four lines to walk thorough the resolution, followed by a two-line couplet that sums the entire situation up.

(The problem/solution or situation/twist division between the octave and the sestet is not something I follow all the time. But it’s a useful way to structure the poem.)

I use very traditional rhyming patterns, either:

ababcdcd efefgg, or
abbacddc effegg

I know sonnetrists who use efgefg for their sestets, but I do enjoy finishing a sonnet off in a couplet, so I don’t tend to.

My favourite sonnet is by Shakespeare, but it’s not one of his stand-alone verses. It’s actually embedded in Romeo and Juliet – the couple’s first words to one another. It ends with a kiss.

[R]If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
[J]Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
[R]Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
[J]Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
[R]O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
[J]Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
[R]Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

How hard is the rhyming?

Not as difficult as one would think. The important thing is not to sound surprised when you find yourself at the end of the second line in a rhymed pair, suddenly reaching for some bizarre word to match your sounds up. (This can be funny, used correctly, but after a while it just sounds amateurish). This means planning ahead, and having some idea of the areas you’re going to cover. It also means having some alternative phrasings up your sleeve, if you simply can’t wind up at the right sound at the right time.

The important thing is that it has to sound natural. The writer must be the master of the language. A reader that senses that the language is pushing the writer around, dictating the content of the poem will lose trust in the narrative voice.

I’m averse to false rhymes and near rhymes, but I do cheat a bit on accents. There are words that rhyme neatly in one of my dialects, or in extreme cases, my idiolect, and I’ll happily pair them up. Like the following sonnet, which manages to rhyme “on” and “shone” (I sometimes pronounce it to rhyme with “Shawn”).

The day the Scotland processor came on,
The land itself was darkened from the drain
Till, windmills spinning, taking up the strain,
The nation-chip began. Control lights shone.
The code we’d woven deep into the land
The bits and bytes in heather, pine and stone,
In cities, towns and crofts, then spread, unknown,
Delivering the Web into our hand.
At Mercat Cross they read the proclamation:
We hold the world. It’s time to take control.
We argued then, for Scotland isn’t whole.
Whit? Rule the world? We cannae run the nation!
The wisest knew the row would never halt,
And sitting back, enjoyed their single malt.

(Context note: this came out of a conversation about how Scotland could take over the world, combined with my memory of a line from a James Crawford poem about Scotland as a “boundless chip of a nation”. I’m rather fond of it, though it’s one of the ones where I used feminine endings – see below – on the ninth and twelfth lines.)

What about meter?

I write almost exclusively in iambic pentameter (the link is a very good article, but if you want to skip it, just remember that an iamb goes daDUM and that pentameter means you use five of them in a line). I’m very fussy about this. I’ll occasionally use a “feminine” ending, with an additional unstressed syllable at the end of a line, but only in rhymed pairs.

Most good sonnet writers are less timid about varying their meter, cheerfully swapping spondees trochees (DAdum) for iambs and using unmatched feminine endings. But, just as I used to train with a men’s shot put to make it easier when I competed with the lighter women’s one, I’m taking a strict approach to meter just now. The meter is the engine that moves a sonnet; its pace walks the reader through the meaning. Too loose an approach to meter leaves the reader stumbling, rushing here and lost there.

A few small rules, while talking meter:

  • Iambic pentameter is really just a habit of thought, and of speech. Once you get the “ear” for it, you can write it with surprisingly little effort.
  • When we all wrote sonnets in high school, my best friend pointed out that you can’t start a line with a gerund (“building”), because they’re pretty much all spondees trochees. This was a great rule of thumb, but it falls down with two-syllable verbs (“constructing”).
  • You can use a dactyl (DAdumdum) by sticking an unstressed syllable after it; most dactylic words have a secondary stress on the final syllable. You cannot use a double dactyl in strict iambic pentameter, as I found out when trying to get “paleontologist” into one poem. It just sounds wrong.
  • Try saying your lines aloud, without tapping out the meter. You’d be amazed where the natural stresses fall in groups of one syllable words, and at how bad a poem that tries to ignore that can sound.

The thing about meter is that it matters to spoken language as well. We have words that differ only in their stresses, which can really make a sonnet work – but only if the reader trusts the meter. This one, about paid shills on blogs, uses that in the last line, drawing a distinction between “conTENT” (happy) and “CONtent” (what’s inside).

Oh, what a tangled Internet they weave
Who want to pay for shills to viral-post.
Thus do they practice, seeking to decieve,
Dilution of the thing they value most.
I mean our trust, because if this thing spreads
We’ll read with extra care — and question more —
Their zombie-filled and advert-bloated threads
Until we learn which posters to ignore.
Whoever dreamt this folly clearly knows
The cost of every word, the worth of none.
They pay a listed price for posting prose,
But not for verse, and no one’s paid to pun.
I challenge you: illumine what we see.
Be not content to simply content be.

Speaking of content…

Content in verse is a lot like content in prose. Sometimes I have something to say, and sometimes I just want to burble. I’ve done both in fourteen line stretches, and I don’t know which I enjoy more. I’ve rewritten prose comments on threads to turn them into sonnets, I’ve written over the top laudatory verse, I’ve written cautionary poetry about war and drawn analogies between September 11 and Guy Fawkes. I’ll post more of them over the next few days, if anyone is interested (or, frankly, even if they’re not).

What content I have, I tend to organise before I start writing. I don’t so much outline my sonnets as budget them, deciding I’ll spend a line on this bit and two on that. I may not stick to the budget, but it keeps me moving through the things I want to say.

The thing with content is this: I am never certain that I have anything, in the abstract, worth proclaiming to the world. This is why I like to write to suit the occasion, in a context that I don’t frame. Even so, I am increasingly conscious that my words have more weight because of the rhyme and meter. I try not to think about that too much.

And what is left to work on?

Apart, of course, from mastering all of the above, there are a number of areas I’d like to improve.

First off, there’s a lot more in the sound of language than simple rhyme. I tend to be slightly dead to the ways that I can use the sounds of words to set the tone of a line, or of the poem as a whole.

I am also conscious of the number of sonnet traditions I haven’t touched on – Spenserian, Oneidin, etc, etc. I need a wider grounding in them so that I can consciously reference different antecedents.

I enjoy referencing other forms of verse in my sonnets – I’ve echoed (and rewritten) both Eliot and Frost in sonnets, but there are some skills in that that I should like to master. Rewrites that change the rhyme structure, I find, sound wrong, while those that merely muck with the meter still work. There’s more subtlety in there.

Speaking of subtlety, I find that there’s a hierarchy within the stresses in connected English prose – not all stressed syllables are created equal. I’d like to work with that consciously, sometime, maybe by creating a pattern in the secondary stresses.

I have some funky structural ideas I want to play with, such as a linked sonnet, where the sestet of the first sonnet is most of the octave of a second, which then has its own sestet, etc. I think that would be fun. I’d also love to do a backward sonnet, preferably about time travel.

So, to sum up?

I’m enjoying writing these things, but for goodness’ sake, don’t take them too seriously. I am but an apprentice.

PNH birthday sonnet

Today the Fluorosphere will mark his birth
Whose gravity, when he has cause to write,
Can draw us all together, while his mirth
And musicality yet make us light.
His passion and his politics infuse
Discussions with his sense of what is right:
When someone challenges his deep-held views
He argues with uncompromising might.
And yet that passion is the lesser part
Of what I find that I admire the most.
I’ve seen, in quiet moments, a great heart,
And looking, find it somewhere in each post.
So happy birthday, Patrick. All the best.
Eat well, drink lots, and well, you know the rest.

Originally posted on Making Light, in honor of Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s birthday.

Baking light

The Flourosphere, a mix of wheat and white,
Is supplemented by a pinch of rye.
Though sifting helps – a bit – to make it light,
Its moral fibre level is still high.
The yeast of us can always raise the tone,
Absorbing any random trolls as salt.
We oil the dough with puns to keep it growin’,
And egg each other on (it’s no one’s fault!).
The loaf, then warmed by passionate debate
Fermenting through the proof and then reproof,
Is raised by all our kneading to create
A better world in one great floury poof.
And thus it is that we have Making Bread.
(That’s quite enough of that, now, abi – ed)

Originally posted on Making Light.

A kink in the tail

Tyrannosaurus Rex comes thumping in,
At least an acre’s worth of latex on.
His dom, a Microraptor with a grin,
Is eyeing up that cute Iguanadon.
Triceratops is green with envy for
Velociraptor’s corsetry and tights,
While cosplay Stegasaurus at the door
Keeps riff-raff out. Our Mesozoic nights
Begin like this, but often end in pairs
Among the club-ferns, just two dino guys,
The costumes off, no longer after stares,
Embracing till the sun begins to rise.
You mammals look surprised? You know there’s none
So strange as love, or new beneath the sun.

Originally posted on Making Light.

Ironic perihelion

Since, I live in the Northern Hemisphere,
The planet, in its orbit round the sun
Is at ironic perihelion:
I have no comfort, though the sun is near.
Instead, half-starved for any natural light,
I take what refuge in the sunlit days
I can, before the angled and anemic rays
Are smothered by another heavy night.
Rejoice! Rejoice! The turning of the year
That heralds a return to warmth and cheer –
And most of all, the light – the day is here!.
Rejoice, they say, for better times are near!
I know the light will come, and do me good.
But I’m too tired to care. I wish I could.

Originally posted on Making Light.


For a number of reasons, I’ve been writing a lot of sonnets lately. Most of them are heavily context-dependent, and I’m not going to get into the context here. But there was one, just dashed off, that I thought would be good to post.


It’s hard to pry the schoolboy from the Wii
Or his admiring sister from the couch
(She likes to watch him play). For me,
To make them move means being Mama Grouch.
But up the stairs and out of clothes they go
Then run and hide, one giggler per bed,
Until the bath is full. It’s then, they know,
I’ll come and pull the duvet off each head.
The bath is soothing, time to settle down,
Then brushing teeth and choosing one book each.
He fidgets, but she listens with a frown
And wants the book left close within her reach.
A kiss, two kisses, and two hugs goodnight
A last shared smile, and I turn out the light.

Soppy, I know, but that’s what I get to do half the evenings of the week.

Sonnet from platitude spam

A preaching fox, as Wymond lets us see,
Distracts us from our geeseHieronimus
Says forced kindness must then thankless be
When kindness is advice, and forced on us,
Distracting from the pleasure we find here,
I take their platitudinous links ill.
But blocking comments would, I greatly fear,
Be burning down the house, the mouse to kill….
(And thank you, Dorothy, I won’t forget.)
The best fish swim, George tells us, bottomward
But Laura warns us that the gifts we get
From enemies have dangers
… So I’ve heard.
I wrote this verse from Lawrence‘s kind thought :
That nothing is so bad it’s good for naught

Originally posted on Making Light, following a flood of spam disguised as platitude posts.

Wordspinning, or the sixteen minute sonnet

A comment on Making Light, at 5:41pm:

All I have ever spun is merino and silk, so my spinning instincts are not finely developed.

The closest comparable silk to merino was my rovings. I found them about the same level of stickiness (with, of course, completely different hands). They were certainly about the same difficulty to spin to an absolute beginner.

The tussah was much slicker, but I actually found that easier to draft than a stickier fibre.

In the end, you’re just going to have to try it. Have you got a good source for rovings nearby? If not, do you want me to send you some, just to get a feel for it? Since I’m thread spinning, and since I use less than a meter to headband a single book, I can certainly spare a few grams here and there…

Email me at abi at my domain name if you’d like some and I’ll pop it in the post over the next week or two. It’ll get caught in the Christmas flurry, no doubt, but then you’ll have something to do when the presents are unwrapped.

– o0o –

And at 5:57 pm:

Although I mainly spin in roving silk
(And rove it did, the time the spindle dropped!)
I tried merino and its woolly ilk
A little bit, before my wool phase stopped.
I found them much the same, at least in stick
(Each fibre has its own distinctive hand.)
The reasons I chose silk when I could pick
Were not from ease of use, you understand.
But words cannot convey the turn of thread
Nor writing substitute for spinning wood.
You’ll have to try, not reading what I’ve said
But learning for yourself what feels good.
So if you haven’t got the silk to try
Then email me. I’ll send it by and by.

Recording risks (Sonnet in a test completion report)

Recording risks is done in PlanView now.
The forms have changed from what we used in PRIME.
This briefing tells you what to say and how,
The basics, anyway, for when you’re short of time.
Use wording as sugested by this sheet
And in your action plan record details
Of what you’ll do, and when, and whom you’ll meet,
With fallbacks if your first intention fails.
Remember as you write that those who read
Your text may not be technical or see  
Details of your project. They will need
Plain terms, not TLAs. Be jargon-free.
In time these practices will be the norm.
Till then, this sheet will help you with the form.

Originally written for my office at the time.  Posted on Making Light.