The Cheater’s Sonnet: A Guest Post by John Morgan

This month’s 49 Writers featured author John Morgan admits to being “seduced by iambics” while exploring the “cheater sonnet.” Maybe we should coin a phrase: Alaskan sonnet?

Last month around the equinox, Anchorage poet Tom Sexton drove up to Fairbanks for a reading. His latest book For the Sake of the Light: New and Selected Poems was recently published by the University of Alaska Press. He spoke informally to students in the afternoon and gave a terrific reading in the evening.

Between these two events, at dinner, we remembered that the last time we’d met was 15 years ago at a party in NYC — typical of how distances in Alaska enforce separation. The party was given by the Paris Review and took place at George Plimpton’s apartment, but George just said hello and waved goodbye – on his way to some more pressing event in Pittsburgh.

In his talk to students, Tom said he’d recently written a collection of 48 eight-line poems, formal poems that actually rhyme. He noted that form and rhyme were not the way we were taught to write poetry back in the Sixties, when the big influences were William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. This struck a chord because I’ve recently been working in form myself. Eight lines is a bit too minimalist for me so I’ve been writing sonnets. I just shipped off four of them to an annual contest given by a journal called The Formalist, but I have to say that mine probably don’t measure up to their rigorous standards. I call the form I use “the cheater’s sonnet.”

What most people know about sonnets is that they have 14 lines and a strict rhyme scheme, either Shakespearean or Petrarchan, the rules for which you can look up if you want. For me, a sonnet has 14 lines, and rhymes whenever I can manage it. This is a big help in letting me say what I want to say, rather than being dictated to by the form. Also, most sonnets are in iambic pentameter—da-dah, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah. This can get pretty monotonous. (If you check out past contest winners at The Formalist website, you’ll see what I mean.)

So in addition to cheating on rhyme, I cheat on meter. Instead of using iambic pentameter, I use syllabics. A normal i-p line has 10 or 11 syllables (allowing for feminine endings), but I even fudge on that. Nine syllables are fine with me. And occasionally I’ll throw in a line with 8 or 12. And as for rhyming, I use slant rhyme freely. As William Stafford used to say, sound connections can happen in many different ways. All words sound more like other words than they do like silence and sometimes a word that doesn’t actually rhyme can sound just right in context —s ee Emily Dickinson for numerous examples.

What I most want to avoid is messing up the natural order of the sentence to work in a rhyme — e.g., writing “the sky blue” when I need a rhyme for “true.” Nothing sounds more stilted in a contemporary poem than this kind of forced rhyming.

Once you get clued into the cheater’s sonnet, you start to notice that this sort of slacker behavior has its own tradition. Lots of past poets mixed their forms, using a Shakespearean octave with a Petrarchan sestet, for example, or going even further afield, as Keats does in his rebellious poem “On the Sonnet,” which attacks the traditional forms ast oo restrictive and acts up by rhyming in a very haphazard fashion. It was, not surprisingly, the last sonnet that Keats ever wrote.

So what does a cheater’s sonnet look like? I have to admit that, unless I’m paying close attention, it looks very much like a conventional sonnet. Here’s a recent example:

for the artist, Kes Woodward

[Note: Climate change models show interior Alaska
becoming dryer while coastal areas flood worldwide]

Kibitzing over your shoulder as you
sketch those billowing clouds above the
staved-in houseboat in its dried up slough,
I sense the berrying bear that ambled by a
day or two ago leaving this gritty substance,
fear, like a pheromone, hanging there
and there—and because we codgers share
a wish to buck the laws of change and chance

you cache the present scene while I flash on
distant glittering Venice seen back when
the band played gaudy Liszt and Beethoven
and Sputnik shimmered over St Mark’s Square
where now high waters climb the palace stair
as ice-sheets thaw and toxic tides roll in.

Reading it over, I see that this poem, loose and prosy to start with, becomes more formal as it progresses, as if the cheater in me is being seduced by iambics in the process of writing the poem. I feel a little guilty about this, but not too guilty. In a cheater’s sonnet, anything goes, even traditional meter.

Over the past year I’ve written about a dozen such sonnets — which the folks in my writers’ group tell me is probably enough. But I reserve the right to keep on trying. Maybe one day I’ll get it right.

1 thought on “The Cheater’s Sonnet: A Guest Post by John Morgan”

  1. Very nice to read a poet's words on poetic form, sonnets and the "cheater sonnet." Brings back fond memories of my college years with Phil Legler, not getting too serious about strict structure.

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