Sonnet Hack - Half Time Report


We’ve reached the halfway mark! Thanks to all that have posted links to the project and tweeted about it. It’s been one hell of an experience thus far. My published work tends to get looked over a fair bit, by myself and a trusted few, before they join the public sphere. Last year’s poems from Wimbledon changed that, but I still had the filter of a journalistic sub desk to point out any howlers. But this project hasn’t allowed me such luxuries. The funny thing is that the poems that look better at the moment are those that I struggled with, perhaps because the struggle engenders a more critical eye.

It has also been fantastic to know that the project has inspired others to write more, be they beginners or blocked poetry veterans. I’ve also had some really valuable feedback from some experienced sonneteers, especially the critique from Roddy Lumsdenreproduced below. I have to agree with everything he says here, there are many bad habits that one can fall into when using a form and Roddy has me bang to rights on a quite a few pointers. I’m happy to say that Roddy has given his permission for me to reproduce the message below. It’s not an essay, just a few informal words of advice, but I think there’s a few pearls of wisdom that deserve to reach a wider audience than a one-to-one message. Many thanks to Roddy for the feedback and allowing me to reproduce it here. The poem he refers to is from Day Seven.

Bit of advice from an old sonnet lag… your sonnets so far have a lot going for them, but you’re counting on your fingers too much, and sometimes you’re writing not sonnets but poems in syllabics with ten syllables per line. Better to think of five stresses rather than ten syllables. And stresses should be more comfortable to you anyway as a poet who is good with rhythm.
Let’s take this one – one of the best so far:

You don’t know London until you’ve walked it,

This line has a strong caesura, as per how you read it, after London. It has ten syllables, but the last of them is an overhang, with the caesura taking up the sixth syllable. I would indicate this with a comma after London, even a dash.

half-pissed, heart-broken, during the strange hours,

Now we are moving to the next line – are we going to carry over the overhanging syllable of ‘it’ from line one? At this point, forget the lines, think only of how it sounds. It’s possible to employ the ‘it’ as a ghost syllable at the start of line two, or pause and pretend it didn’t happen – these modulations are what make sonnets work.

You don’t know London until you’ve walked it,
half-pissed, heart-broken, during the strange hours,

Now, taking the second line purely in imabic sense, that ‘the’ is over stressed:

half-pissed, heart-broken, during THE strange hours,

but consider this scansion:

You DON’T know LONdon, (CAESURA) unTIL you’ve WALKED (it),
HALF-pissed, HEART-broken, DURing the STRANGE hours,

Broken is acting as one soft syllable. The five iambic stresses here might fall like this:
(it), HALF-
pissed, HEART-
broken, DUR(ing)
hours, (where the strong word STRANGE falls over the line almost as if it was STRAN / GE hours)

The ‘it’ is carrying over here to be the first unstressed syllable of the second line. Now, much better to drop the ‘the’ there and have the three other stresses falling on DUR, STRANGE and HOURS, with a small caesura between strange and hours.

OR – if you don’t carry the ‘it’ and pause slightly and begin again in iambics:

half-PISSED, heart-BROken, DUring STRANGE hours,

where the word STRANGE is stretched over two syllables, as if it was STRANG-e

You don’t know the river until you’ve trudged

This line works best as an acephalic pentameter, ie it’s not:

You DON’T know THE riVER unTIL you’ve TRUDGED


(CAESURA) YOU don’t KNOW the RIver unTIL you’ve TRUDGED

where the ‘er’ of river is voiced but negligible within the meter.

its banks in the pissing rain, sans brolly,

That sounds better without the ‘the’ and a caesura before sans.

your body’s atoms remember the flood

this would sound better with remember as remembering, and the ‘oms’ of ‘atoms’ as above is voiced but nor stressed.

There’s no Beatrice down in those tunnels

This is the weakest line – just doesn’t scan comfortably at all.

Part of the problem is, are you saying Beatrice or BEE-a-TREE-chee – either is okay but the latter is more correct – that’s not my point though. You’ve set up your problem by having two unstressed syllables first (plus you were counting to ten again!) It could be say, with your pronunciation as is it…

No Beatrice will be found in those tunnels

No Beatrice to find down in those tunnels .. etc

The rest is just right! R
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