Saturday, November 2, 2013

Prompt #170 – Sonnet Variations by Guest Prompter Cat Doty


It’s time again for a guest prompter, and this week my special guest is poet Catherine Doty. The author of Momentum (Cavankerry, 2004, a volume of poetry), and Just Kidding (Avocet Press, 1999, a collection of cartoons that take a humorous look at childhood through the eyes of a poet), Cat received her MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, Good Poems for Hard Times, and many other magazines and anthologies. Her awards include an NEA Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Marjorie J. Wilson Award, and fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has taught for 30 years as a poet-in-the-schools, as well as for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Frost Place, and other writing programs and conferences.


The sonnet is a sweet form: always good and engaging company, and as happy to be relieved of all but a few of its skeletal features as to be larded with new and increasingly baroque ones. Count those syllables! Rebut that argument! Include the name of a condiment in every line! Sonnets are not-too-big and not-too-small. Like all forms, the sonnet provides what the poet Marie Ponsot calls “white noise,” that bit of distraction that can leaven the task at hand. They are good for keeping narrative lean, and they make elegant containers for all wonderful manner of weirdness. Some of the various sonnet experiments that follow are borrowed with thanks from Bernadette Meyer and Layne Browne, some are mine. Check a book on poetic forms for the requirements of a traditional sonnet, then see how many you can or wish to retain in following any of the experiments below. For Sonnet Info, Click Here

1. Create a sonnet through the erasure of another text.

2. Write a sonnet by lineating found text or prose or a prose poem.

3. Write a sonnet using a poem in progress of your own that has not yet found its shape.

4. Open a dictionary. Write a poem using only the text on the page in front of you.

5. Write a sonnet inspired by or answering another sonnet.

6. Write a homophonic translation of a sonnet (feel free to experiment with online translation dictionaries).

7. Write in someone else’s voice, in character, or in a professional language. Be someone else for fourteen lines of your life.

8. Write a sonnet while listening to a concert, watching a movie, doing dishes, cooking, or any other activity demanding your attention. Let the outside leak into your work.

9. Write a sonnet composed of a series of guesses to an implied, stated or mysterious question/riddle.

10. Write a sonnet that is also a list poem.

11. Take off your glasses. With any text just out of your visual range so that you cannot quite make out the letters, begin guessing and speaking aloud what you can half-see (it helps to have a scribe write down your words for you). Use this material to enter a sonnet.

12. Write, in sonnet form, what you understand to be the way to write a sonnet.

13. Write a sonnet about an activity you know well, keeping both the rhythm of that familiar activity and the rhyme demands of the form.

14. Write a sonnet in which Shakespeare despairs of the Petrarchan sonnet and recreates the form to fit the poverty of English rhyme (first person optional).

15. Write a narrative sonnet, slaving to make it as near as possible to perfect. Print it out, cut it into fourteen strips, then shuffle them to see what else is going on. At this point, don't feel compelled to keep any imposed form at all.



A Great Poem About Writing A Sonnet

By Billy Collins

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Three Famous Sonnets

Sonnet 79
by Edmund Spencer

Men call you fair, and you do credit it,
For that yourself you daily such do see:
But the true fair, that is the gentle wit
And virtuous mind, is much more praised of me.
For all the rest, however fair it be,
Shall turn to naught and lose that glorious hue:
But only that is permanent and free
From frail corruption that doth flesh ensue,
That is true beauty; that doth argue you
To be divine and born of heavenly seed;
Derived from that fair spirit, from whom all true
And perfect beauty did at first proceed:
He only fair, and what he fair hath made:
All other fair, like flowers, untimely fade.

Sonnet 43
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sigh
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints--I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!- — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Sonnet 29
By William Shakespeare

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
 For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
 That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Thanks, Cat, for sharing with us!



  1. This is great! Love the idea of taking liberties with sonnet form.

    I just ordered Momentum, found it on eBay UK.

    Thank you Cat Doty and Adele for another brilliant prompt.

    1. Thanks, Jamie! So glad you like the idea.

      You're going to LOVE Momentum -- the title poem is amazing.

  2. I took a workshop led by Cat Doty many years ago and she was fantastic. What a sense of humor and fun combined with serious poetry strategies.

    The Billy Collins sonnet is great (and I'm not much of a Collins fan).

    1. I know Cat's workshops are great, and I agree that her intelligence and wit go hand in hand. Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. Cat Doty is great and this is a wonderful prompt. My thanks to both of you.

    1. You're very welcome, Rich! So glad you enjoyed the prompt.

  4. Cat,
    loved your reading in the Chase Room at NJPAC tonight