The sonnet for high school (part 1)

The power of repetition in Terrance Hayes’ “Sonnet”

If you’ve ever worked with students and sonnets, you know how difficult writing a sonnet can be. In a word, it’s complicated. In fact, these little box-shaped poems offer all kinds of challenges for young writers (and their teachers–ha!).

For example, when my British Literature students study sonnets in January of every year, we try our hands at using the “rules” below. Traditional sonnets should exhibit:

  • A single theme on love, companionship, or friendship
  • A rhyme scheme, based on which style you choose
  • Fourteen lines (And if we really get specific, we’ll go even deeper. Petrarchan sonnets, a.k.a. Italian sonnets, will contain one octave plus one sestet; Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnets will contain three quatrains plus one rhyming couplet… see what I mean by complicated?)
  • Iambic pentameter
  • A volta and/or closure (a question or “turn” at  lines 8-9 or in the couplet)
  • Summon Your Inner Sonneteer with this traditional sonnet assignment sheet.

As you know, all those requirements can make the sonnet a real turn-off for students. I mean, we all know that a sonnet is one of the most widely-known poetic forms; however, when it comes to writing one, all the requirements suck the fun right out of what could be a satisfying endeavor.

Even so, my poetry class heartily took on the challenge of the sonnet recently. And while they grappled with the form, they performed well with it. Many of them wrote skilled sonnets that ticked all the boxes. However, just so you know, I did relax some of the requirements. For instance, I made the rhyme scheme optional. On the other hand, I did ask that they adhere to iambic pentameter. I figured it was more important to attempt the meter over struggling to force the rhyme.

The result? In short, I was impressed (as usual) with the sonnets my students wrote. Of course, they seemed surprised that the sonnet presented such a challenge. And a few found the form too cumbersome to complete to their liking.

Despite their relative success, though, most were ready to leave the sonnet behind and venture toward more free verse poetic waters.

But then I read an article about poet Terrance Hayes.

Terrance Hayes | Photo Credit: Georgia Popplewell

The article, titled “Voluntary Imprisonment” and written by Stephanie Burt for Slate.com, highlights Terrance Hayes’ work with the sonnet form as revealed in his 2018 collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

If you’re unfamiliar with Hayes (as I was), he is a 2014 recipient of a MacArthur Fellow and is currently a Professor of English at New York University.

This video from the MacArthur Foundation offers a quick introduction to the poet:

With his recent works, Hayes has transformed the notion of what constitutes a sonnet. I thought that was an interesting idea.

In her article, Burt clarifies this:

“If you know what a sonnet is—14 lines, usually, 10 syllables each; rhymed, usually; divided into two parts, or else four, with a couplet—you probably also know that they’re centuries old. But you may not know how thoroughly modern poets have reinvented the form. And no living American poet has done so more assiduously than Terrance Hayes, whose 2018 book American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin amounts to a primer on how to reshape an old form.”

Stephanie Burt in Voluntary imprisonment on slate.com

Burt discussed more points about Hayes’ work, including something I found really intriguing: his poem “Sonnet” from his 2008 collection called “Hip Logic.” What was so intriguing about “Sonnet”?

Get this: it’s fourteen identical lines.

PITTSBURGH-September 8: Poet Terrance Hayes at his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 8, 2014, shortly after being named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow for 2014.

Yes, that seems a little odd… to take repetition to such an extreme degree. But then, I wondered, After their initial experiences writing traditional sonnets, what would happen if my students wrote their own versions of Hayes’ repetition-heavy sonnet? Wouldn’t that possibly spark new understandings about poetry in general, and repetition in particular?

Here’s what Hayes’ poem looks like on the page:

Sonnet by Terrance Hayes

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles
.

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

Hayes’ “Sonnet” recalls Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” writes Burt. | Credit: The African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As to Hayes’ “Sonnet,” Burt writes, “Hayes’s fourteen iterations play on racist stereotypes that associate rural black Americans with watermelon and fixed grins, and on the assumption that all sonnets say or mean the same thing.”

In other words, sonnets aren’t just for lovers anymore. With “Sonnet,” Hayes makes that very clear. And that’s an easy one for students to nix as well. Contemporary sonnets can literally be about anything.

As for all that repetition and its effects…

I love how Hayes takes the centuries-old sonnet form and uses extreme repetition to turn it on its head… all to expose stereotypes, racial and otherwise.

Here are some questions that I snagged on as I considered Hayes’ use of repetition in “Sonnet”:

  • What happens when we repeat?
  • When we repeat fourteen times?
  • Does it minimize meaning?
  • Does it emphasize meaning?
  • Does it otherwise distort meaning and how exactly does it distort?
  • When does repetition distract from meaning?
  • When does it inform meaning?
  • Does fashioning a sonnet whose message, effect, and power rest on the repetition of a stereotype work to reinforce the stereotype, causing the reader to feel and experience its absurdity and dishonesty?
  • Or does the repetition of a stereotype work to destroy the stereotype?

So many questions that the mere act of repetition can spark!

All these lingering questions about repetition and stereotyping begged for exploration. My poetry students would go for this, I thought. And I was right. I gave them the following guidelines for writing a Terrance Hayes-inspired “stereotype sonnet”:

  1. Write a contemporary sonnet on any topic. 
  2. Your sonnet should resemble Terrance Hayes’ “Sonnet”, i.e. your sonnet should be one line that is repeated fourteen times.
  3. Write a line that plays on a stereotype of some sort and then repeat it fourteen times.
  4. Each line should be in iambic pentameter (five pairs of two syllables). Take time to come up with an interesting line that is meaningful to you.
  5. Plan to present these in class so we can gauge the effect of the repetition and how it affects meaning.

I asked students to drop their stereotype sonnets into a shared Google Slides presentation, and then I waited for the magic to happen.

My poetry students always dive right into whatever idea or project I come up with. And predictably, their efforts did not disappoint.

Check back next week for the conclusion of this post, which will include some of the contemporary stereotype sonnets created by my students.

Thanks for reading! Don’t you love it when you discover a poem that just begs for your students to dabble with? In fact, just this morning I found another one, “When I Was Six” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I’ll share more in an upcoming post. Please become a follower or subscribe below to catch that post as well.

Have a great week!


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Featured Photo: Poet Terrance Hayes (Photo Credit: © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Used with permission.)

Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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