Notes on form: Abecedarian Sonnets

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Barbara Hamby‘s poetry. (I have three lines from her “Nine Sonnets from the Psalms” tattooed on my arm, in her handwriting. If that’s not extreme poetry fandom, I don’t know what is.) I remember the very first time I read one of her poems. “Who Do Mambo” appeared at Poetry Daily, and within minutes of reading it, I’d ordered a copy of  All-Night Lingo Tango from BookWoman.  When I read it back in 2009, I was amazed at how well Hamby made use of the abecedarian form, especially abecedairan sonnet (a 13-line poem that starts with a and ends with b, etc.). Hamby has twenty-six abecedarian sonnets in All-Night Lingo Tango, cycling through the entire alphabet. The following is one of such sonnets, which also appeared in StorySouth.

Venus and Dogberry,
A Match Made in New Jersey

Venus, you are a major babe, your hair way big, and wow,
x-ray glasses are not needed with that see-though foxy
zebra print chiffon bra and matching thong. Fucking-A,
beautiful, I am not like that pansy Adonis. I want a bionic
diva in my king-size vibrating bed. Come on over here,
fair maid. Ain’t that the way youse guys talk? Thanksgiving,
Halloween, Christmas—everyday’s a holiday with you. I
just can’t believe I could get a goddess in the sack.
Let’s toot a few lines tonight, my little summer plum,
nip out for a juicy steak in my new candy-flake Eldorado,
play footsie under the table. No Miller High Life and bar-b-q
ribs for you, baby. Only the best. Put on your high heel sneakers,
toots. I’m a Sherman tank with guns blazing for you.

The few attempts I made at regular abecedarians (I didn’t consider myself skillful enough to try something other than the standard type) fell flat, in part because I wasn’t very motivated to write formal poems during that period of my writing life.

Last month, I was browsing through Wingbeats for an exercise to use as a springboard. I felt drawn to Hamby’s exercise on abecedarians, and after working through some of them, I felt compelled to write my own abecedarian sonnet series, twenty-six poems, each city based on a city or town in Texas whose name starts with the designated letter. Of course, there aren’t any towns in Texas that start with X, but I’ll figure that out as I work my way through the alphabet.

So far, I’ve written six of the sonnets (Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Houston, Laredo, San Antonio). Five are still in-progress, and the one about Dallas I consider complete, and is out for submission. I know I’ll be writing about Bastrop and Terlingua in the coming days. And even though this project is still in the very early stages, I’ve already learned a lot about abecedarian sonnets, and why I think they’re making me a better poet as I work through them

1. Writing an abecedarian sonnet is like playing chess
More so than with any other form, abecedarian sonnets require me to think at least three lines ahead. When the end of one line has to be a word that ends with d and the next line absolutely must start with  and end with f, and the line after that must start with g and end with h, you can’t just put down any old word that ends with d and decide you can fix it in revision. You’ll never get a coherent first draft. Abecedarian sonnets force me to think ahead, to know where the poem is going. And I find that, after I’ve let the draft sit, what results is more coherent than poems I’ve written where I’ve been writing blind.

2. Writing an abecedarian sonnet forces you out of linguistic complacency
When you’re writing in a form that forces you to end lines in q or j, standard English isn’t always going to cut it. You’re going to have to get creative and go exploring. You have to consider abbreviations, brands names, or other variations you might not otherwise put into your poetry. You have to explore other languages, make sure you understand the meaning of the word if the language is one you don’t know, and also make sure the word serves the purpose of the poem. You have to consider whether or not you’re going to fudge a little bit (i.e. “pool cue” if the letter is just not going to fit). So far, I’ve tried not to make those compromises, but with twenty poems left to write, I’m not sure how well I can sustain that desire.

3. Writing an abecedarian sonnet requires fastidious revision
Revision has been one of the most difficult things for me to learn as a writer. To know when something is truly great, versus good enough, is an art form unto itself. Abecedarian sonnets do not let you get away with that. The words that start and finish each line must be the absolute best ones. But the words that make up the rest of the line have to pull their own weight, too. Which is not to say that this isn’t true of other poetic forms, but the abecedarian sonnet really calls attention to that fact. There is so little room for error with word choice in this type of poem, and that means reading aloud (the part of revision I hate) over and over, questioning each word choice, and refusing to cut corners or settle.

Writing these sonnets is one of the best challenges I’ve undertaken in a while. I’m not sure what the end result will be, but I’m learning quite a bit as I go, and honing my craft in the process. I don’t imagine these sonnets will be completed anytime soon; there’s going to be a long road of revision. But I can’t wait to see how they turn out.

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