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By the Numbers: The Prose Sonnet

Bruce has a related column about prose poems in our April 2010 issue. You can also read Bruce’s previous column here, or visit his author page to see them all.

Any time I begin a discussion of fixed forms, the first such form that I mention is the sonnet. Even if many readers can’t name the rules of a sonnet, they at least know that a sonnet is a short poem written to a set of arbitrary rules, and it’s easy to proceed from that example to a discussion of how a writer might compose by first choosing the rules and then, line by line, finding content to fit them.

Since the sonnet works as a good example of a poetic fixed form, I have tried smuggling the sonnet across the border between verse and prose. I have written flash fiction using various combinations of sonnet rules. Below are the rules for what I call the English Prose Sonnet and the Fibonacci Sonnet.

Before we consider the rules for prose sonnets, though, I want to explain where those rules come from, and for that we need to review the rules for a sonnet in verse. The two most reliable rules are that a sonnet consists of fourteen lines and that those lines are written in iambic pentameter. That is, each line more-or-less conforms to the pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (an iamb) five times. Sometimes the stress pattern is clear and perfect, as in the 13th line from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see.” Sometimes the pattern is slightly irregular, but is close enough to five iambs in a row that the reader can still sense the underlying pattern: “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

Until rhyme are regular meter began to fall out of fashion, sonnets were also rhymed in some set pattern. Shakespeare’s sonnets rhyme abab cdcd efef gg. The final words in each line of a Shakespearean or English sonnet might be sky, deed, dry, weed, ale, ropes, tail, mopes, dreads, flare, reds, snare, find and mined. Sonnets written in the Italian rhyme scheme went something like abbaabba cdecde or abababab cdccdc, with a few other patterns allowed.

As you can see by the way I have written the rhyme schemes, sonnets are also broken down into stanzas. There are names for stanzas of various lengths. A stanza of four lines is a quatrain, a stanza of just two lines is a couplet. Shakespeare’s sonnets are three quatrains followed by a couplet. Italian sonnets are an octave followed by a sestet.

In all this technical structure, what interests me as a fiction writer is that the English or Italian sonnet each contains a rhetorical template. In Shakespeare, the first twelve lines establish some idea and the final couplet executes some kind of “turn” or even “twist.” The couplet might summarize the content of the preceding lines, but more often it offers a fresh way of looking at what has gone before. In Italian sonnets, the first eight lines often pose a question which the final six lines answer.

There’s no set way of adapting the fixed form rules of poetry to write fiction. My version of the English sonnet uses sentences, rather than lines, as the basic unit of measure. I have thrown out meter, but kept the rhyme scheme. I have kept the stanzas, but as prose paragraphs. Thus, the rules for my English prose sonnet are these: Fourteen sentences. The final words of each sentence rhyme in the pattern ababcdcdefefgg. Four paragraphs of four, four, four, and two sentences, respectively. The final paragraph tries to summarize or provide a perspective on the whole story, ideally inverting some expectation.

My prose version of the Italian sonnet takes a different approach, starting with not an Italian writer, but an Italian mathematician. Leonardo Fibonacci was the first European to note the properties of a particular sequence of numbers, starting with 0 and 1, that is derived by summing the two previous numbers in the sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144… This sequence appears in natural shapes (the branching of trees, the curl of a nautilus shell, the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower) and in population growth. The ratio between any two adjacent numbers in the sequence also approximates the golden ratio, which is a proportion that has been showing up in human art and architecture for thousands of years. The higher you go in the Fibonacci sequence, the more closely two numbers will approach this aesthetically pleasing ratio, a ratio that might define how much light area versus dark area is portrayed in a painting. For some reason, art that divides time or space according to this ratio pleases human senses.

Just why should this ratio, designated by the Greek letter φ (phi) seem more beautiful than some other ratio? Perhaps the answer is simply that we see the same ratio reflected in nature all the time. And the ratio of octave to sestet is a loose approximation of phi. (Eight lines to five lines would be closer.) For my second form of prose sonnet, I want to use the Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio.

The rules for a Fibonacci sonnet: Two paragraphs. Each paragraph consists of sentences that are defined by word count, the number of words determined by the Fibonacci sequence. A paragraph may count up in the sequence or down in the sequence but always starts or ends with two sentences of one word each. One of the paragraphs is once sentence longer than the other.

For example, a Fibonacci sonnet might have a first paragraph of sentences containing the following number of words in each sentence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21. The paragraph might be sentences of 34, 21, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1 and 1 words, respectively. Or the first paragraph might be sentences of 55 words, 34, 21, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1 and 1 followed by a paragraph of 34, 21, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1 and 1.

Ideally, one paragraph poses a question which the other paragraph answers.

As with all fixed forms in prose, I think that the story works best if the reader doesn’t immediately notice that the writer is playing according to some rule. In an English prose sonnet, I hope the reader doesn’t notice the rhymes, at least not on the first reading. With the Fibonacci sonnet, the sentence fragments of only one and two words are an obvious marker of the form, but I want a reader who has never heard of the form to read the story as if those short sentences were naturally occurring, as if that style choice were a perfect match to the subject matter.

Of course, my rules don’t have to be your rules. You’re free to interpret the idea of writing a prose sonnet in your own way, and you might look up other kinds of sonnet, too, such at the Pushkin sonnet or the curtal sonnet invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins. And, as always when you’re writing to a fixed form, you can use the form as a way to get started and them throw out every last rule as you revise.

Bruce’s exemplars for this month are “The Invisible Man” and “Renaissance”.


Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.


 

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