Foreplay: An Anthology of Word Sonnets

Edited by Seymour Mayne and Christal Steck

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What is a word sonnet? It is a new variation of the traditional form, fourteen lines long, but with only one word set for each verse. Concise and usually visual in effect, this miniature version can contain one or more sentences, as the articulation requires.

The earliest word sonnet seems to have seen the light of print about twenty years ago. In 1985, the American poet Brad Leithauser introduced a monosyllabic ironic poem entitled "Post-Coitum Tristesse" that was later included in a volume of his work and the anthology of New Formalist poetry, Rebel Angels. One of its kind, Leithauser's word sonnet perhaps set a precedent for others to follow.

In France, that same year, the poet René Nelli published a collection entitled Sonnets Monosyllabiques. Following in the Italian sonnet tradition, Nelli opened each poem with two quatrains, leading to two three-line concluding stanzas. Each line comprised one monosyllabic word.

Then in the late 1990s, the Menard Press in London, England, promoted the word sonnet in a literary contest judged by the Irish writer, Augustus Young, who did much to spread word of its practice by his support of the form and the example of his own writings.

Introduced at the time to Ottawa, the form flourished among student and alumni writers of the English Department of the University of Ottawa. Within the year, the word sonnet became part of the ongoing practice of a few dozen poets. Ottawa as a centre for haiku composition now became the most active hub for the word sonnet.

With five years of writing on the record, it is timely that we offer a preliminary selection from the hundreds of word sonnets recited at readings and published in journals and e-zines. Each of the writers featured in this selection has helped to initiate new variations in the composition of word sonnets. From the fetching visual selection by Kanata writer Glenn Kletke whose fourteen words dart like a zig-zagged row of children in "Kindergarten," to Frank Cormier's productions of what may be termed "triple" and "quintuple" word sonnets, each work has helped to evolve the poetic practice and set fresh stylistic departures.

A few poets comment on the innovative form by using the word sonnet itself as the medium for reflection. Susan Robertson's "Foreplay," in particular, is eye-catching and tongue in cheek:


Why has Ottawa offered so fertile a ground for the word sonnet? Is the writing a subtle revolt against the garrulity and bureaucratic discourse that flourish like dandelions in the national capital? A need for succinct utterance in a time of public and electronic surfeit of words?

Whatever the reasons, the word sonnets in this selection testify to the inventive attraction of the form and its concise resonance. We hope readers will return to these poems again and again, engaging the compact feature of the word sonnet and its felicities of expression.

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