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What is an American Sonnet? Tuesday Workshop with new example, "A Man Without a Happy Wife He Loves"

Tuesday Workshop for Writers and Teachers

Workshop: Evolution of the American Sonnet

1. The American sonnet has recently emerged with a slightly less restricted format than the traditional sonnet form derived from renaissance Italy (14th-century Petrarch) and Elizabethan England (16th-century Spenser and Shakespeare) that still continue to challenge, and intimidate, serious writers and readers of poetry all over the world.

2. Every dynamic culture with a living language, however, in literature if not in every other human activity, continually accommodates itself to the respected traditions it inherits by tailoring them to its own unique, intrinsic norms and customs.

3. The Renaissance Italian and Elizabethan English writers experienced dramatic new creative freedom working inside the newly developed rigid sonnet rhyming schemes and mandatory rhythmic boundaries to every line, and many writers today continue to honor and preserve that tradition of what some have called, "liberating structure."

4. Americans, however, have over time developed their own traditions of breaking free from many kinds of traditional restrictions on personal and social well-being, which inevitably show up in our literature.

5. Americans more naturally use heroic couplets for exalted statements, with each of the two lines ending in words of the same rhyme, and with some flexibility in the length of lines.

6. They more likely stray from the more complex four- or six- or eight-line rhyming patterns of the traditional sonnet with each line restricted to only five iambic feet.

7. Americans have much less patience with overly complex organizational schemes, and much more to say, or so they apparently think, within any given thought or sentence.

8. The sonnet's subject matter also continues to undergo subtle changes in each new culture. Petrarch was a brilliant, multi-talented scholar, but he wrote his influential 317 sonnets to his beloved, idealized, and inaccessible Laura (from Avignon) in a southern European culture that made women dramatically less visible to men than they are today in America, which has, by contrast, developed the most remarkably open society in human history for both men and women.

9. Every conceivable aspect of human life has today become accessible, available, and even plainly visible on any computer with an Internet connection to anyone with average curiosity and a third-grade education.

10. We can scarcely any longer understand the late medieval and early-modern styles that effectively used obscure images to describe, dissect, or whine about, their unfulfilled and unfulfillable romantic loves,

11. Many Americans, on the other hand, sense a profound need, perhaps more presssingly now than ever before, to find, nurture, understand, and even to promote, hopefully for its positive effect, every detectable aspect of human interaction and connection.

12. I am one person who believes that the many diversely practiced frameworks of our poetry can help define and enoble American culture, just as it has always helped other cultures in the past.

13. Perhaps a newly liberated American sonnet style, in its own small way, can join this effort to inspire, articulate, and enrich with positive direction our own new era of far-reading cultural transition.

14. As for subject matter, my modest, homey, exploratory, didactic sonnet, "A Man Without a Happy Wife He Loves," presented here with postmodern undertones more for illustration than as any consummate exemplar, aims to present one, but only one, perspective in the huge range of human interactions -- how many a man can grievously hurt himself by not taking the time, or going to the trouble, to find a happy woman who can become the right wife for him, and then attending appropriately to her needs, her interests, and her desires.

15. This imagery, with its seeminly narrow subject matter, might disappoint readers who only like to read poetry explicitly reflecting their own special point of view in such matters.

16. But folks, this is poetry, not gender politics!

17. No short written work can hope to provide a definitive philosophical statement that literally covers every possible relationship in such a complex culture as ours. Nor is it the nature and purpose of most forms of literature to do so (expository prose a major exception).

18. Even the legendary wide-ranging plays of Shakespeare did not do that. In fact, all of Petrarch's 317 sonnets combined with Shakespeare's 154 (plus those embedded in his plays) still did not exhaust all aspects of human life and interaction prevalent even in their day.

19. So please relax if you do not find yourself and your own personal family life-style represented in this one sonnet based on my background and experience!

20. If you won't expect me to be you, I won't expect you to be me! Deal?!

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21. Your day will no doubt come in other poems, with imagery more likely stemming from your own personal experience -- even if you have to construct the imagery and write the poetry yourself!

22. Indeed, your moment can begin right now if you will start writing lines that use your images, and express your personal point of view, or any point of view important for you to express.

23. I am one person waiting to see it. I am looking for it. Let me see it when you have it ready.

24. That is the whole point of my Tuesday Workshops for Writers and Teachers.

25. And if you still need a boost to get started, start with another of my poems on HubPages, "Permission to Write."

26. Experienced sonneteers need no advice from me, but to aspiring new sonneteers, I suggest you familiarize yourself with a good college Guide to Literature (with a major section on poetry), keep handy an anthology of major English and/or American writers, refer regularly to a comprehensive English dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus, and keep an informal journal of your ideas as they come to you, so it can serve as your personal resource whenever you actually do sit down to write.

27. HubPages itself provides as many resources for a new writer as you are likely to find anywhere else in one place, plus it joins me in welcoming you to use its platform to show your new work to others and get responsible feedback.

28. Speaking of feedback, please respond in the comment section below, or write me a snail-mail letter.

A Man Without a Happy Wife He Loves
An American Sonnet

A man without a happy wife he loves, respects,
and honors all the way has several defects:
he only dimly sees the sun rise up each day
because his troubles rise instead to block his way.

He seldom senses sacred music as it skitters by,
because his brain's bogged down in brittle back-streets begging, "Why?!"
The autumn leaves fall to the ground each year and slowly disappear,
but he must fall aground himself to realize them here and near.

So you should straighten up yourself when she comes in the room
and step aside respectfully when she picks up her broom,
engage in two-way conversation with her when it's time,
and favor her with flowers every year, and words that rhyme.

Yes, you there! You might be the man that I am talking to,
or you know someone else somewhere who needs a talking-to!

First draft May 4, 2011
Revised October 24, 2012


Copyright (c) 2012 by The Max Havlick School, 16 W. Vermont St., Villa Park, Illinois 60181-1938, all rights reserved. We consider language skills a basic key to life, so we feature English language, literature, and spirituality for any serious adult desiring deeper skills of a productive, creative life: reading, writing, vocabulary at HS or college levels, surveys and detailed studies in great literature.

Currently we seek one or two special individuals who might like our help starting a local chapter of our school in their local area. Please contact Max or Fay if you have strong language skills and feel called to a new educational service or ministry to adults.

We value each person's life as a priceless work of art.


Max Havlick (author) from Villa Park, Illinois on September 12, 2015:

Thank you so much, Ankit, for visiting this poem and workshop, and for honoring me with your insightful and appreciative response. For which I return free encouragement and a bit of instruction, if it may be of any worth to you.

Put your writing potential out in front of you. If sonnets really do turn you on, don't worry too much about quality; unless you're John Keats, that will only come with time, with study, practice, and experience.

Write something every day. Start a Writer's Notebook or Diary, jot down what you see and think that interests you or moves you, then you will have an invaluable personal resource later when you're ready to write. (the notebooks of many writers were later published; one is a literary and historic classic, Pepys Diary from the 17th century, bec. he commented on everything going on the world from his personal point of view.)

If you can, get Donald Hall, "To Read a Poem," 2nd ed., Harcourt, Brace, 1992 (or any other book that covers both reading and writing poetry).

Continued best wishes,


Ankit Mittal from India on September 10, 2015:

Dear Mr Havlick,

I really loved the poem at the end of the article. 'Respect' was the key takeaway for me.

I am tremendously touched by the lines- "The autumn leaves fall to the ground each year and slowly disappear,but he must fall aground himself to realize them here and near."

Looking forward to reading more of your poems.



Max Havlick (author) from Villa Park, Illinois on September 05, 2013:

Thank you, Kim, for checking into my published work and inquiring into arcane details about its existence. Hey, I take reader response any way I can get it!

This poem was written from scratch on Wednesday night, May 4, 2011, while sitting in a darkened auditorium watching and listening to Cynthia Anderson direct choir practice at St. Paul Lutheran Church (Villa Park, Illinois), where I had just visited Rev. Steve Swanson's special Pastor's Class of leading members looking, they thought, for new ideas about the nature of Christian faith and ethics. I still have the original note pad with the original text, only slightly revised in the next few days.

I first posted the poem on HubPages with the workshop essay on July 10, 2011, and revised the essay a bit on Dec. 24, 2012.

The recent revision date you noticed must refer to a very minor change I made removing a no longer relevant sentence from the copyright notice. The HubPages computer programs, like many HubPage readers, apparently do not distinguish between the different levels of importance in the information it sees.

Love ya back,


ocfireflies from North Carolina on September 05, 2013:

I see that this was published two days ago. Has it been revised?



Max Havlick (author) from Villa Park, Illinois on October 24, 2012:

Well now, Wandie, you're a real tease! Where's the poem?! Where might one go to see this American Sonnet you wrote with heroic couplets? If nothing else, you can write it as a comment right here. I actually wrote one ("Mermaidness") that way myself on March 24, 2012 as a comment to one of Northwest Starr's wonderful poems.

Wandie on September 19, 2012:

Thanks for the information on the American Sonnet. I wrote a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets. I did not know how to classify this poem because of the rhyme scheme--until reading your article. I think that I just wrote an American Sonnet!

Sarah Shepherd from San Diego, California on July 29, 2011:

Beautiful poem... you did a good job with your wording... it touched me. Thanks for sharing this!

Max Havlick on July 12, 2011:

Thank you, Exotic, for your nice comment and vote. Some readers have liked this poem, some have disliked it, but it's just an example. I don't consider myself a full fledged poet. I mostly enjoy the background context in cultural and intellectual history, but why not take my own advice and try to write one now and then.

ExoticHippieQueen on July 10, 2011:

Thanks for the updated info on the American Sonnet. I really enjoy learning about all aspects of poetry, including how it has changed and evolved over time as it relates to different styles. Your poem example was awesome! Voted up and very very useful.

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