The sonnet for high school: (part 2)

Use these student-written mentor texts inspired by Terrance Hayes

Two weeks ago, I posted about a unique sonnet writing exercise inspired by poet Terrance Hayes that I tried with my junior-senior poetry class. Click here to read that post.

Hip Logic by Terrance Hayes

This new exercise took repetition to an extreme degree, and in so doing, demonstrated the literary technique’s effectiveness. For background, I had stumbled upon this article on Slate.com about African-American poet Terrance Hayes and his 2002 poetry collection titled Hip Logic. In that book, he has included a sonnet aptly titled “Sonnet” that repeats its one iambic pentameter line fourteen times.

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’ subject matter focuses on a stereotype aimed at African-Americans. For more analysis, read this post on This Frenzy.com, including how the repetition denies power to the turn or “volta” that is usually found before the final couplet. In addition, the effect one hears when reciting the stereotype fourteen times presents many questions.

Here are some of those questions:

  • What happens to the stereotype when we repeat?
  • When we repeat the stereotype fourteen times?
  • Does it minimize the stereotype’s meaning?
  • Does it emphasize the meaning?
  • Does it otherwise distort meaning and how exactly does it distort?
  • When does repetition distract from meaning?
  • When and how 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?

To explore repetition further and create our own change-up of the contemporary sonnet form a la Terrance Hayes, I created a quick assignment. Click here for the post with the basic instructions.

First, here’s the example that I created for my students as a mentor text:

Rural Racket by Mrs. Yung

We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.

We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.

We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.

We hang our politics on our gun racks.
We hang our politics on our gun racks.

As promised, below you’ll find some examples written by my students:

Indie Game Developers by Hannah

People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day

People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day

People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day

People paid just to play games all day
People paid just to play games all day

Christ Was One Of Us Too by Eva A.

We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.

We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.

We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.

We must walk hand in hand with the devil.
We must walk hand in hand with the devil.

Expectation by TayLynn

Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.

Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.

Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.

Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.
Teenagers are our lazy prodigies.

Crunch Culture by Meadow

Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine
Unpaid overtime is fine


Fabulous sonnets, right?!

Since my focus was on exploring the effects of repetition, I didn’t require students to use iambic pentameter. Most did, but like Meadow’s above, some didn’t. That’s okay. My goal was to try something totally new and give my students a new way to look at the sonnet utilizing a stereotype they have observed in their lives.

And then we presented.

I thought it would be interesting to not only write these sonnets, but recite them before the class, like we have done with every assignment we have completed this year.

Keep in mind that “presenting” in my poetry class is much more formal than the picture below show. While I do have a lectern that kids can use, they usually just stand before the class. Sometimes, I project their poem on the whiteboard and have them read from that. Other times I print a paper copy off from the assignment they submitted in Google Classroom.

Photo by Werner Pfennig on Pexels.com

This time, I printed out a copy to each student and even though that wasn’t necessary, I thought it might make this poetic performance as much like our others as possible.

Students did feel a little weird saying the same line fourteen times, but they also experienced repetition not just by reading it, but by voicing and hearing it.

It was fun, different, and yes, a little weird — but in a good way.

  • Some students varied the words they stressed with each line.
  • Some just read it clear through, saying every line the same.
  • Some lost their place and didn’t know it they were reading, for example, the line for the tenth or eleventh time. But that didn’t matter because others were listening intently and knew exactly what line they were on.

Questions, questions, questions…

We talked about how it felt to read the poem aloud.

  • Did it reinforce the stereotype?
  • Defeat it? Give further voice to it and/or amplify it?
  • Did it make the stereotype seem silly? Trivial?
  • Did it make the stereotype seem more audacious and inaccurate?

I would say not one overall conclusion was reached in our brief discussions after each sonnet was read. And to be sure, some students asked the reader for context if they didn’t understand. It’s funny how, for as obvious as we believe a stereotype’s meaning to be, there is usually someone who doesn’t understand.

One thing that was apparent: repetition as a technique was seen as powerful in a variety of ways.

With this Terrance Hayes-inspired project, I would say we’ve explored the sonnet in a sufficient way for this, my first year, with this poetry class. I hope that next year the new teacher in my position (I’m changing gears next year and I’ll fill you in on that in a post very soon) plays around with this lesson as well.

Terrance Hayes’ stereotype sonnet subdues the traditional technicalities of the sonnet, brings it into contemporary times and sensibilities, and highlights the rhetorical power of repetition.


Thanks for reading again this week! I hope I’ve inspired you for the next time you tackle the sonnet with your poetry students.

Feel free to comment below or on my Contact Page with your questions and requests.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!


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Featured photo credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Published by Marilyn Yung

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

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