Saturday, January 27, 2018

A One-Sentence Spin on Shakespeare by Guest Prompter Joe Weil

Last week, we worked with one-sentence poems. This week, we continue the one-sentence “theme” through an even more specific idea that involves writing one-sentence sonnets.

The word sonnet derives from the Italian sonetto. Typically, a sonnet is comprised of 14 lines, often presented in iambic pentameter and often with each line containing ten syllables. There is usually a specific rhyme scheme. 

This prompt will free you from many of the traditional rules while extending last week’s prompt in a challenging but, hopefully, enjoyable way devised by our guest prompter—poet, musician, performer, publisher, and professor Joe Weil. (Some of you have “met” Joe here on the blog in past posts.) 

On the Sentence Sonnet by Joe Weil

I developed my own form of a sentence sonnet (and I am sure 100 poets will rise up to tell me they invented the same or some big shot did) to teach my students how to counterpoint sentences against the line. This teaches enjambment, but also how poetry can isolate subsidiary clauses, even individual words and give them an emphasis or spin in meaning that prose cannot always give.  Many poems, including “By the Road to The Contagious Hospital” by William Carlos Williams suspend the pay off of a sentence over many lines. My sentence sonnet rules are simple:

1. The sonnet must be one single simple, compound or compound/complex sentence moving over 14 lines.

2. Like a traditional sonnet, a sentence sonnet must have a volta (a turn) somewhere between the seventh and tenth lines (that’s a little more leeway). (In a traditional sonnet, a turn is called a volta. A vital part of virtually all sonnets, the volta is most frequently encountered at the end of the octave (first eight lines in Petrarchan or Spenserian sonnets), or the end of the twelfth line in Shakespearean sonnets, but can occur anywhere in the sonnet.)

3. There should never be less than three words per line (unless you want to be cheeky and make each line a single word—like “The Locust Tree in Flower” by William Carlos Williams). 

If nothing else, sentence sonnets teach my students the parts of the sentence, and what a sentence can be (not always well known to poets) in relation to lines. For experienced writers, the test is to try this spin on a form that Shakespeare mastered.

Here’s an example:

Mercy (A Sentence Sonnet)

The world is full of high quality coffee beans,
but mercy is as rare as A Siberian tiger,
though I often imagine her stalking the taiga
of our infamy—stealthy, moving
strobe-like through the thin birch saplings,
becoming the striped ghost that haunts
our deepest sorrows until, brought halt and lame
before the covenant, we are devoured 
by such loving recompense, by that grace, that mighty
stillness that says to each” sanctuary, “to each 
“reprieve,” until the loneliness of being
unforgiven and of not forgiving is consumed
and we stand as ourselves again, not singular
but joined, tethered to the full meaning of amen.

The volta comes in this example at line ten’s “until.” You could do one of these in iambic pentameter if you wanted to wrestle with it, and I have. I used both end stopped and enjambed lines in this sentence sonnet because the unit of meaning is not the unit of the sentence. So in this sense, the poet has to think in counterpoint: unit of meaning against sentence against line, how each impacts and mitigates, and informs the other. As I said, it’s a teaching tool and a challenge.

Here’s one written by a student of mine Emily Faso:

     by Emily Faso

Your gentle hands
showed me how
to lift the needle,
onto the record
then draw away
as scratchy sound began
to take the shape
of a melody
flooding the room,
and held mine
as we swirled
across the basement
on days when rain fell
across the roof in turrets.  

Many thanks to Joe Weil for this wonderful prompt
and to Emily Faso for letting us post her fantastic sentence sonnet!


  1. Big thanks to Joe Weil! What a great idea. I really like Emily Faso's sentence sonnet—a wonderful example.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Sandy! So glad you enjoyed this prompt and Emily's example poem!

  2. We Brits love our Shakespeare, and this is a lovely spin on the Great Bard's sonnet form. Thank you, Joe Weil!

  3. I read online that Joe Weil is a professor at Binghamton U. I'm an undergrad student (senior) at Rutgers and sure wish you and Joe Weil were my teachers!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Carolyn! And thank you for the lovely compliment!

  4. This one will be a real challenge for my students. I look forward to working with it. Great to see a student poem as an example. Brava Emily Faso - I hope my students do as well.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Rich! I hope the prompt worked well for your students!

  5. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)January 29, 2018 at 10:07 AM

    Thank you for this post, Adele Kenny and Joe Weil! What an interesting idea. I have read more of Mr. Weil's poems online — they are superb!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Amita! I'm glad that you found some of Joe Weil's poems online and that you enjoyed them!

  6. Hi Adele! I first "discovered" Joe Weil's poetry via your blog, and I'm a total fan! I recently got his Duluth book and love it. Thanks so much for this prompt, and thank you to Joe Weil!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Carole! I'll be sure to mention all the comments to Joe Weil!

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    1. Thank you for sharing your poem with us, Lewis! I'm glad you enjoyed the prompt.