The Prose Sonnet; see step-by-step how I constructed my first one

Of late, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about prose poetry. The jury is not in completely on whether there is such a beast, but I now lean toward a yes on that.  I have gained a bit of insight via an online open source course I took this summer from University of Iowa, but there is more to be done for me in terms of figuring out how this “thing” can exist in my own work on a somewhat regular basis. To that end, I have been reading prose poems and essays on prose poems.

While reading a collection of poems by Sherman Alexie (What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned), simultaneously with The Rose Metal Press’ Field Guide to Prose Poetry, I hit upon the idea of melding prose with traditional form. In particular, I thought I might be able to do a sonnet in prose, keeping some of the elements of traditional sonnet while formatting and thinking out loud in prose. Alexie does this in his collection by “prosing” a few sonnets. I admit this lit a fire in me. I did notice, however, that the sonnet part had mostly to do with the numbers (14 numbered sections in paragraph form), not with the utility of traditional sonnet style. In one sonnet, he breaks apart the prose too in order to create 14 separated sections. I will have to think on that one a bit more and come up with how I might adapt that to perhaps some kind of Kimiko Hahn style poem. Maybe the numbers are not ordered, for example. At any rate, I may have had a breakthrough of sorts vis a vis actually coming up with an adaptation (thinks to Alexie) that gives me new territory to explore.

So, what to do with this idea of a prose sonnet? (Of course the WHAT is always connected to the DO.) So onward.

First I had to decide (poem construction is a series of decisions) which elements of sonnet I might keep/use. Then I had to come up with a way to access my prose-thinking mind to get to a kind of “place” where a narrative might begin. On its face, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. It seems like the way any narrative or narrative poem might logically begin. Hmmm. Not so fast there lady! (I said aloud to myself) Maybe the whole thing has to begin with images, with nouns. Should they be random nouns that appealed to me at that moment? Then again, maybe I needed to have more structure than that. Yes! Part of the sonnet is structure, certainty of structure. Even though I do love to explode sonnet form, to open it up on the page, I am a formalist at heart (and soul), and need some kind of solidity of framework on which to hang the art I make. So, in this venue of invention, I chose to have as part of my basic framework a comprehensive list of nouns that are “loosely rigid” in terms of theme.  One should remember that the list you make is going to at least PARTIALLY set theme or tone. Choose wisely, feel free to scrap the list and start over if the poem seems thuddy or boring or too convoluted —OR reject the list if the poem seems to resist its own creation. Here is the list I created for my very first prose sonnet. I chose 14 words, thinking that 14 of something, in this case 14 words, would be one nod to the sonnet.

barrier, blockade, closure, road block, checkpoint, sterile area, security zone, border, seam-line, killing ground, separation fence, elastic geography, ditch(es), sovereign state.

Below you will find the “handout” I made for my poetry group, outlining the process.

Writing the Prose Sonnet

Over time, the sonnet form has bent and twisted into something we can adapt for our own usage in a contemporary setting. We can open it up and break it into parts, shapes, and any manner of contemporary poetic gestures. Why not combine prose and the sonnet, one of poetry’s most lasting forms?

For our purposes here, we will look at a melding of prose and the sonnet form and see how the quirky nature of free association can serve both. Remember as you wade out into the deeper waters of form deconstruction, that you are the inventor. You can adapt this exercise to fit your topic, your impulse of diction, and your need to tell a story. The suggested process is but a guideline for your own adaptation.

  1. Select 14 words (NOUNS!!!) that are somewhat thematically connected. Jot them down so you have them as you construct the poem. The words I chose are all words of restriction and stoppage and alienation. My theme (loose) is that of being held back or cordoned off from love. You will see my words in bold in the example below.
  1. Set off in a direction. (head toward your theme or idea)
  1. Begin formation of your prose piece with the number 1 and include your “best” word from your list of words. Create your first line or series of sentence fragments.
  1. At the place in that first bit of thought where your mind feels a bit like jumping, put a period or other end-stoppy punctuation and write the number 2. Go onward by letting yourself leap (free association is the thing here!) and use another word from your list. I found it helpful to cross off each word used to make sure I used all fourteen.
  1. Repeat this process, paying no attention at all to WHERE your numbers land. Just write the whole poem as a paragraph with numbered parts. Remember that any numbered portion may contain more than one sentence or fragment. It may be a bit self-contained with one major leap or it may slide into a transition as you near its end, making the next leap smoother. Each numbered section will have only ONE of your listed words however.

~~~~~~~~~ OR ~~~~~~~~~

figure out another way to decide how to use your 14 words (a negative then a positive then another negative, for example)

~~~~~~~~~ OR ~~~~~~~~~

keep going after number 14 and run the poem onward a bit, i.e. the American Sonnet.

You might decide to end with a rhymed couplet, giving another nod to the traditional sonnet form.


Love is Monstrous(ly) Wonderful(ly) Bordered, a prose sonnet

1. Natural barriers could be the colors of love, red lips shine, bruise-blue or some psychedelic bursts of argument hues at the edge of love’s known world. 2. Sterile areas pop up like rabbits. You want to go there to be safe, to be gravid with love. 3. Ditches burrow themselves into sidewalks where lovers pace, submerge to begin their travel along wrist-like veins recently scissored open in desperation. 4. You can achieve closure that way. Real closure. The slamming of the garden gate on too-rusted hinges made furious by rain. The door-bang of a car, locking itself with the keys still in the ignition. You learn how to leave and how to stay. 5. Love opens and closes on everyone eventually, even if no one hears it happening. Love maintains its elastic geography this way. 6. You cannot escape into a security zone to avoid it. 7. Even though you don’t recognize it, your heart is a sovereign state. 8. It has a seam-line of tissue paper tears. Rain will open up in it, open you eventually. 9. You’ll soon be seen at the checkpoint, tourist visa in your breast pocket, flashlight between your teeth. 10. You will head back to the colors of love and sketches you made of it at the blockade. It’s a secret. It is invincible ink. 11. Cruelty is the killing ground. 12. Vault over its borders. Ping between love and its doppelganger. 13. Roadblock ahead! Drive. Run. 14. Decide to burn down the separation fence. 15. This is what to know about love and disaster, about a heart full of tacks. 16. Once you fill your suitcase, you get the monster off your back.

Let’s review what has happened here that makes this a sonnet (indeed, an American sonnet)

1. 14 lines

2. volta at or near line 9/10:  key words/phrases include checkpoint, head back

3. rhymed couplet at the end (though not metrical, it is musical)

4. a total of 16 lines with the rhymed couplet

You ask “What makes this prose?”  Well, it’s all too obvious to mention, isn’t it? The result of this experiment is (for me) a comfort with prose adaptations of form. Seems to be a place where I can work on narrative and form can uphold the prose. I will write more of these and think now that I might try a repeating form like the pantoum or villanelle. And what would happen if my list of words were all verbs? Now I’ve gone and done it — more to think about and try. It’s great to be a poet!


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