P&W Prompt 8: Photograph, Pittsburgh 1972

This week’s Poets & Writers prompt:

Write a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem made up, typically, of three stanzas of four lines, and a fourth of two lines, or a couplet. Use the following rhyme scheme: In each of the first three stanzas, rhyme the first and third lines and the second and fourth lines (a, b, a, b, c, d, c, d, e, f, e, f); and rhyme the lines of the couplet (g, g). For a traditional example, see Shakespeare’s “From you have I been absent in the spring….”For a contemporary example, see Denis Johnson’s “Heat.”

Aye, aye, aye! The dreaded sonnet. What this prompt doesn’t tell you (and I can’t for the life of me figure out why) is that sonnets are also traditionally written in iambic pentameter (hence the “aye, aye, aye!”). I switched up the form slightly to four tercets instead of three quatrains and used an ABA, BCB, CDC rhyming pattern to mimic Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” – a poem I have no illusions about ever being able to write but love desperately.

I decided to take an old poem that I’d stopped working on and see what would happen to it if I tried to constrain it into the sonnet form. I’m not convinced that the sonnet version of the poem is any better than the early, free verse draft – but there does seem to be an urgency in the lines that was not there before. It may be that I can use some of the sonnet revisions to tighten up the lines in the original draft. Who knows! Here’s the original:

Pittsburgh 1972

The image of us: mother, brother, and me, in the photograph that hangs
on my wall, is breathtaking. Not in the way one usually thinks of breath-taking,
but in the literal, dangerous way:

there is something sinister in the way she smiles at me, wisps of dark
hair like a halo circling the wind, her head is turned toward me, her body turned
away from the boy who clutches our mother’s waist. Even as an infant,

I don’t look at her, but past her, to my brother who stares straight ahead, timid
smile creeping despite his best attempt to pull it inside, to haul it all, hand over fist,
inside. It is our vicious little circle – not one of us

seeing the love being hurled recklessly in our direction.
She tries, with both her arms, to hold me, to pull me into the single-mindedness of her
affection. The boy presses his head into the crook of her arm. My heart,
wide as the Mississippi, opens to envelope his longing.

And here’s the sonnet version:

Photograph, Pittsburgh 1972

There is something sinister in the way
she looks at me, wisps of dark hair: halo
circling the wind. Her head is turned away,

half her face obscured by hair and shadow,
from the boy who clutches our mother’s waist.
Even as an infant, I am hallowed.

Even though I look past her to the grace
of my brother’s creeping and timid smile,
his attempt to pull it inside, to place

hand over fist and haul it all in, while
not one of us sees the love being hurled
reckless in our direction. It’s her smile

that holds on to him. While his small hand curls
at his side, my big heavy heart unfurls.


Sonnets are notoriously difficult to write. I’d love to see your own experiments – failed or successful – and if you have advice for how to tackle a sonnet, please, by all means, do share!

6 thoughts on “P&W Prompt 8: Photograph, Pittsburgh 1972

  1. I really like the free verse version of the poem, but I see what you mean by the “there does seem to be an urgency in the lines that was not there before” in the sonnet version.

    I feel so challenged by this sonnet exercise for OLPS! I have a draft of a poem I wrote a few weeks ago that I think might try to rewrite as a sonnet.

    • Are you going to write a sonnet for OLPS? We’re writing ghazals for the meeting after next, right? Don’t scare me like that! 😉

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