The Cincinnati Walking Sonnet Project Overview
Take a walk through a neighborhood to inspire a new poem—specifically, a fourteen line sonnet. Eight blocks equals eight lines—each roughly ten syllables, roughly iambic—inspired by what you encounter, and then for the sonnet’s “volta” (Italian for “turn”) you will literally turn, walking and writing for six blocks back, with material for a poem that leaves you in a slightly different place than you began—as all good literature will do. (The last two blocks to home base can be your victory march!) Please send me your poem and let me know if I can include it on the Walking Sonnet page of this website.
So, what’s a Sonnet?
A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem, its name deriving from the Italian word sonato, a little sound or song.
The sonnet form involves a certain way of thinking: the setting up or development of a thought or idea which is brought to a conclusion at the end of the poem. For the Walking Sonnet we are using (loosely) the Petrarchan Sonnet form which is in two parts: an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). Sometimes the sestet is divided into one four-line stanza and a couplet (the two lines at the end) as a way conclude the poem’s thought.
Many traditional sonnets were written in the meter of iambic pentameter, in which there are five feet or ten syllables to every line and every other syllable is accented. Traditional rhyme schemes for the sonnet vary a lot. There are many online resources for traditional sonnet form if you are so inclined. We are not going to worry about rhyme or meter, but keeping the ten syllable line in mind is one way to frame this writing into a loose sonnet form.
Another way is to keep in mind the idea of the turn or “volta.” In a sonnet, the volta is the turn in the poem’s “thinking” about its subject, in this case, the walk. The octave (eight lines) presents the situation of your walk. In the sestet, or final six lines, of the sonnet, you are literally retracing your steps, revisiting your observations, questioning them or coming to some sort of conclusion. You can explore this turn in your thinking throughout your final six lines, and you can make a further turn (this time not literally) and create a couplet (two line stanza) at the end which winds up being your ultimate statement on the walk. (Adapted from The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett)
Cincinnati Walking Sonnet Cliff Notes
- Fourteen lines
- Each line is roughly ten syllables
- Each line does not need to be a complete sentence or phrase: it’s ok to carry it over the next line.
- Your first eight lines will be based on the first eight blocks that you walk; one line for each block.
- At the end of the eighth block, turn around and go back the same way you came.
- Your last six lines will be based on what you notice for each of these six blocks back.
- The turn at the end of block eight represents the “volta” in the sonnet form. It gives you the chance to reconsider the blocks you have walked.
Some Thoughts for the Journey
- You may wish to read some example Walking Sonnets for inspiration.
- You don’t need to walk in only one direction (north or south, for example); zigzagging is encouraged.
- Please make a rough map of your walk both for your memory and to share along with your poem.
- Take notes of what you see each block, yes, but also what you hear, smell, touch, even taste if the opportunity arises, as well as your responses to these sensory inputs (memories, emotions, thoughts…)
- Keep track of which notes belong in which block! This will help when you are writing your poem.
- Let your meaning-making mind engage even as you take notes. You may or may not be composing the poem as you walk, but you will begin to notice patterns, which words sing on the page, which images connect with the next.
- That turn at block eight (which also becomes block nine) is important. Take some extra time to notice and write what is there for you (internally as well as externally.) Engage your sixth sense.
The Cincinnati Walking Sonnet Project is adapted from Rosa Alcalá’s “A Walking Petrarchan Sonnet” in Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry.