Semi-Formal: American Sonnets (A Guest Post by Dan Brady)

by | Aug 13, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

This week, we have a wonderful guest prompt from friend of Studio Friend and subscriber Dan Brady. Dan is the author of the poetry collections Strange Children (2018) and Subtexts (forthcoming), both from Publishing Genius Press, along with two chapbooks, “Cabin Fever / Fossil Record” (Flying Guillotine Press) and “Leroy Sequences” (Horse Less Press). Dan’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Apt, Big Lucks, Sink Review, and So & So Magazine among others. He is the poetry editor of Barrelhouse and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two kids.

Next month, Dan is teaching an online poetry workshop with Barrelhouse called Contemporary Constraints. This prompt will give you a taste–honestly, more like a feast–of the kind of fare the class will dish up. More info on how to register after the prompt.

Like most people, when I was first introduced to poetry in school, the poems all rhymed and followed a strict meter. Everything was locked into a rigid structure. I imagined poets as genius clocksmiths deftly adjusting the gears of the poem to make everything tick in time. Even now, after nearly 20 years being a serious practicing poet, I’m still pretty intimidated by traditional forms—sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, etc.—but I feel like I had a breakthrough when I realized that forms, for all their history and rigidity, aren’t quite as set as they seem.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the traditional sonnet. Fourteen lines in total, a volta (or turn of thought) in the middle, and a couplet at the end, which will either tie it all together or blow the whole thing apart. In many ways, it seems like the sonnet is an ideal container for poetry in terms of length and movement (and the reader’s attention).

But even among traditional sonnets, there are many variations – Petrachan Sonnets, Spenserian Sonnets, Shakespearean Sonnets. The sonnet form is not one narrowly defined thing. It is, in fact, many forms of a form. Fast forward a few hundred years and perhaps it comes as no surprise that the sonnet is the most innovated on and adapted form of the 21st Century.

The so-called “American Sonnet” is defined very loosely. Essentially, they are poems of 14 lines. Some follow a metrical pattern, others do not. Gerald Stern’s collection American Sonnets (2002) doesn’t even stick to the 14-line rule. Some poems have twelve lines or maybe sixteen and yet they remain sonnet-like.

Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin sticks to both 14 lines and 10 syllables in each line, but not a set meter. Hayes’s book also is written in “crowns” of sonnets, groups of 14 sonnets that take the last line from one poem and use it as the first line of the next; the poems in each crown usually focus on a single theme. 

Another variation of American Sonnets is Nicole Sealey’s Obverse form, found in her excellent 2017 collection Ordinary Beast, which is a 14-line sonnet that then repeats all its lines again but in reverse order. A kind of tide in and tide out motion. Her poem “Candelabra with Heads” is an Obverse. Sidenote: There’s a fascinating breakdown of how the poem changed with editorial feedback at that link.

Wendy Xu created the Tiananmen Sonnet (her new book The Past is coming out right now!). These sonnets are 14 lines but break down as six lines of four words, four lines of 6 words, and four lines of four words. Xu explains the significance of the breakdown and its relationship to the Tiananmen Square massacre, “The numbers 6 and 4 (June 4th) are censored in China, among other allusions to the date and event.”

I think everyone’s favorite new form is the Duplex, invented by Jericho Brown and on display in his book The Tradition, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize. The poem is written in a series of seven couplets. The first line and the last line of the poem are the same (or very close, allowing for some play). In between, the poem’s lines mirror each other in sets of two, sometimes exact repetitions, sometimes in variation. But guess what? The Duplex is also a sonnet variation! It even often conforms to the traditional mid-poem volta and big finish ending.


Write an American Sonnet, a sonnet-like poem. Bend the rules as you see fit but try to maintain the general spirit of the thing with a turn and big finish. Think of it more as a movement pattern than a form. If you want something a bit more structured while getting a little experimental, try to write one of the contemporary sonnet variations discussed above. There are lots of options!

If generating new work isn’t really happening for you look through your old drafts and try to revise something into a sonnet-like shape. For as much as we think of form as a solid thing, I find revising fragments of work into form or revising formal work out of form can really break open a poem’s possibilities.

Maybe you’re thinking, this prompt isn’t that helpful. You’re telling me to write a 14-line poem. You might as well just say, go write a poem. Okay, I hear you. In terms of content, traditional sonnets are usually about love—romantic love, love of God, love gone wrong, unexpected love. So start with love. Modern sonnets don’t limit themselves to love. As you can see above, they’re often political in nature. They play against the history of the form. They think through new ideas (leverage that volta!). Even when they are angry or searching or lost, I do think the best ones maintain a bit of the tenderness of the traditional sonnet. No matter what direction you take it, try to preserve some of that tenderness as you go.


Can limiting your options make you a better writer? Beyond the sonnet, villanelle, and other traditional forms, what structures and constraints are poets creating and applying today? How does the shape of the container inform what we put it in?

In this 8-week generative poetry workshop beginning September 12th, we will explore and engage with contemporary constraints to write new poems that take us out of our comfort zones. We’ll look at 21st Century forms like Jericho Brown’s Duplex, Terrance Hayes’s Golden Shovel, and a full range of American Sonnets from Gerald Stern to Wendy Xu. We’ll play around with erasure and Oulipo-inspired prompts. We’ll discover how constraints can help us revise poems. We’ll even create new constraints to use in our writing.

Participation is limited to 12 people and every participant will have a chance to receive detailed feedback on their work. All writing levels are welcome. This course is online and asynchronous so that you can participate at the times that work best for you.

Register here.