Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Teaching Sonnets To High School & College Students

I was introducing my creative writing students to sonnets. As I explained the form, a student asked, “How many syllables should each have again?” So I figured I’d try to write on the board a sentence that means what it says:

“Every line needs to have ten syllables”

I counted it out on my fingers, and I could tell it helped. Then another student asked me to refresh them on the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet. On the spur of the moment, it occurred to me I could show the ABBA, CDDC, EFFE, GG rhyme scheme better through words rather than letters, and make the process more collaboratively interactive. So I asked the students to come up with 14 end words for the sonnet. We already had the first word, “Syllables,” though I knew that word ran the risk of making their sonnets too meta, so I gave them other options (as long as it rhymes with “syllables”) for their first line (some chose “cable” and others choose “table”). Someone mentioned “Pizza” for line two. Line 3 needed to rhyme; someone brilliantly suggested “Nietzsche!” (eat your heart out Ogden Nash!). He had been talking about Nietzsche in explaining something about an earlier poem he wrote. We went from there. Once we had the end-words, I asked students to write a spontaneous in-class sonnet based on these end-words; this would lend some commonality to the exercise.

Ultimately, I was very pleased with the results. I believe, for some students, this exercise helped liberate their work from the demands of unfettered subjectivity, of the fallback convention of self-expression, and allowed them to see poetry as a formal art as much as they understood their dramatic dialogue pieces. I feel it resulted in some work that, despite the silly end word rhymes (or even because of them), resulted in some genuine wisdom and insights worth sharing to the more "sophisticate" published poet-folk. It made me wish Kenneth Koch were still alive, because I think he’d be kinda proud of what we did (which was after all influenced by him). Anyway, I include five (5) of them here (though one of them only has 13 lines! That doesn’t bug me, and I hope it doesn’t bug you). I wrote one too, and may share that at another time (though I don't presume it's as good as my students' pieces).

What would you do if there was no cable
If the only thing you had was pizza
You’d probably turn into a Nietzsche
And realize that life is terrible
You should let your mind become fugitive
And it would probably start its own blog
About how its life is like that of a dogg
However you would become lucrative
And live in a place with more than one wall
Were you ever afraid to show your face
Fear no more, just put your money in chase
Now there will be no reason to feel small
Remember that nobody is stupid
Or you can just get a job as cupid.
                                      ----Julia Alarcon


On one mellow afternoon, the table
Was still yet devoid of any pizza.
“As you stare at the table,” said Nietzsche,
“nothingness stares back,” in a terrible
mood. He mused if the pizza, fugitive
of food standards according to some blogs
he read, was captured by the dogs
of the regime. They knew how lucrative
the market is for pizza. No such wall
was too great for the food regime to face.
Everyone his this food, for they would chase
To the ends of the earth for it. No small
Matter thought Nietzsche, it was a stupid
Thing anyways, like that fairy cupid.
                         ---Chaarlie Chawalit

Words swirl through my mind in neat syllables,
They’re tasty and plentiful like pizza,
Simple and yet so crass-y like Nietzcshce,
They wipe away all that is terrible,
Lazy thoughts escape like some fugitive,
Running away from the fray described on some blog,
Confidence and swagger much like Snoop Dogg,
Would turn these basic words more lucrative,
Phrases are blocked as though stopped by a wall,
Shock and awe are now so plain on my face,
I need to find my voice, I need to chase,
Pride that was once so grand is now so small,
Trying to sound cool I was so stupid,
I lost it all trying to play cupid.
                                      ------Marku Reynolds

 I want to hang out and use syllables
Also, order ginger beer and pizza
While we wait, let us talk of ol’ Nietzsche
Honestly, that topic is terrible
Give me a good tale of a fugitive
Harriet Tubman, righteous before blogs
Oh my god, did you see that adorbs dog?!
Soo so cute, definitely lucrative
I like how you catch me against the wall
When I try to look away from your face
Then fear passes because you don’t give chase
Accepting that, you see where I am small
These moments, my brain warns “Don’t be stupid!
This is really a prank; don’t trust Cupid.”
                                              -------Vanessa Mielesko
Love so distinct with two strange syllables
Nice walk made my hunger grow for pizza
Not a Romeo therefore a Nietsche
The heart can be cold and even terrible
You got me chained like a fugitive
Words have no meaning on a social blog
Simply loving and caring like a dog
Tried to take jealousy out on the wall
Vision of your angelic face
Love is a game but you won’t ever chase
Large world we have yet some say it’s so small
Don’t fall for the game be smart not stupid
Trust me darling don’t be fooled by cupid
                                            ------------Yesenia Briseno

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