Next Line, Please

Building a Sonnet

By David Lehman | December 20, 2016


This week we wrote six-line stanzas beginning with “You weren’t serious when you said” or with some variant of that line, preferably with an a-b-b-a-c-c rhyme scheme. Some terrific stanzas were written, and the lively and thoughtful exchanges among contributors are a model of what civil discourse can be.

From the many excellent stanzas that came in, I have picked three that struck me as promising sonnet starters.

Angela Sorby’s stanza may have mystified some readers with its strange second line—which is what the chorus of frogs belches out in Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs.

You weren’t serious when you said
Brekekexkex koax koax—
You are not Toad, but Man. The facts
will out. The spalt-hops on your head
are faux, yet you pollute the pond
with croaks. Echt-frogs sing fairer songs.

The poet’s word-choices are impressive. The frogman of the poem, with “spalt-hops on [his] head” like a stein of Bavarian beer, “pollutes the pond / with croaks.” The line-break works wonders here, and the verb fleshes out the allegory: Man is an ersatz-frog who stinks up the atmosphere. For a comedy-driven stanza, this is savage stuff.

Michael C. Rush turned in several admirable stanzas, including one that began irresistibly: “You weren’t serious when you said / you were serious.” But I opted for this one:

You weren’t serious when you said
you were serial.
When you said you were real.
One thing after another. You misled
me, promising nothing but gradual change.
But you’re static, stochastic, and strange.

The rhyme of “serial” and “real” combines in the ear to form the sound of “surreal,” which Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company, has named as its word of the year. The rhyme of “change” and “strange” repeats a rhyme from a famous poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, and “stochastic” taught me a new word for “random.”

The fertile imagination of Charise Hoge gives us

You weren’t serious when you said
leave the Garden, were you?
Let’s talk of second chances, of do-
overs, of our faltering, inbred
clumsiness. Let’s say no one’s fallen, rotten.
Apple of your eye, incognito; we’ve forgotten.

The subject is (in Milton’s lines) “Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste / Brought death into this world, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden.” The plight is that of Adam and Eve, our original parents, who may yearn in vain for a second chance, a do-over. Note how “faltering” and “fallen” work in tandem in Charise’s lines; how “rotten” may describe a particular fruit or a human condition; and how we are left wondering about the deep meaning of that sturdy old cliché “apple of your eye” as applied to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

How to choose among these three?

For next week, I propose adding a second stanza of equal length (6 lines) and equal style (a-b-b-a-c-c rhyme scheme) to the stanza of your choice.

For the first line of your stanza, line 7 of the poem, consider this from Courtney Thrash:

Love is greater than the sum of lust and duty.

Or this from Michael C. Rush:

When you said you were real

The winning stanza will form the first 12 lines of the sonnet we didn’t know we were writing when we began.

Deadline: Monday, December 28, at midnight any time zone.

This will probably be the last post of a year now officially designated “surreal.” To which the old Mets’ fan’s quick response is, “wait till next year.”

But first, I have completed a four-stanza poem of my own beginning with “You weren’t serious when you said.” Here is the whole:

You weren’t serious when you said
You loved me as roses love a light rain
In another country, when the pain
Had gone that held me in good stead.
Then I knew: it was either God
Or death before a firing squad.

You weren’t serious when you said
I’d never grow old and if I did
I’d be as lucky as a reckless kid
Who runs away from home to feed his head.
When Death comes and leaves his calling card,
The kid’s playing catch in his friend’s backyard.

You lied but I believed you when you said
I’d succeed as a failure, a writer
Who lives from hand to mouth, a fighter
Who gets knocked down but gets back up, ahead
On points, so he wins the match,
And the company gives him a silver watch.

Were you serious when you said
I’d fall in love again, win her heart, get rich quick,
And suspect all along it was a trick?
So it happened. I had a new reason to get out of bed
And walk along the streets that I know well
And learn my lines before I rang her doorbell.

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