On a Double Reverse Sonnet

By Bruce Taylor

When I began writing poetry I did so in so called “free verse,” believing as did many young writers that the sonnet is where old poets go to die, a belief that at its essence I may still hold but with many modifications and for completely different reasons. I then assumed, as did many others, that the consternations of my times, never mind my completely unique adolescent slings and arrows, could not and would not fit into strictures of rhythm and rhyme. What I really meant, I know now, was that I wasn’t skilled enough yet at the craft.

As I have aged both as a person and as a writer, I find that about half of what I do remains free verse and about half struggles itself into “fixed forms.” I now have enough “formal” poems to begin to send out a new book of poetry consisting of all forms.

When I was in graduate school—this either really happened or as with many stories I tell, I have told it so often I believe it is true—a poet named Gary Ligi (Guido, where are you now) wrote a double reverse sonnet. This was a class led by my mentor and savior, Miller Williams, who I am not alone in believing is the most underappreciated formalist of our time. Besides being a double reverse sonnet, as if that wasn’t enough, the poem was also an acrostic and when read down the page the first letter of each line spelled out “Miller Williams is so full of shit.”

It was the only time in all my years, in many many workshops, that I ever saw a class rise as one to give the poet a standing ovation, led, of course, by Miller himself. It was, what are the odds, however, not a very good poem.

I used to teach a poetry workshop at UW-Eau Claire in writing in forms, and I always announced that when writers even finish a poem in a difficult form, they should be honored. But then I drop the other shoe: it is not enough to write a sonnet, for instance, even though the act separates you from the mass of humanity who haven’t, never mind the even larger mass not even  interested in attempting to do so—it also has to be a “good” poem, whatever that means and to whom.

A “double reverse sonnet” as a label has a nice ring to it, sounds indeed like a dive you’d see in an Olympic competition, one you would assume with a high degree of difficulty (just imagine if you could throw in a half twist in the full pike position). The scoring, and somebody is always keeping score, whether you want them to or not, rewards such a brave attempt with points enough that completing the difficult, at all, is sometimes worth more than doing the easy, perfectly.

Much of the joy in a well done formal poem, for both the writer and reader, comes from the game of it, the rabbit out of the hat, not from up the sleeve, our natural fascination with something hard done so well it looks easy.

It was all that, and the free beer for “the winner” involved, that led a group of us who used to congregate at the Joynt in Eau Claire, Wisconsin to do things like each bring one week six words, one each on a single slip of paper, throw them in a hat and each of us draw out the six words we would have to use by the next week to write a sestina. The free beer also led the more cruel among us to select words unlikely to be easily managed in that damnable form. Defenestration, as I remember, gave all the trouble you would expect while trichinosis, somewhat less.

A less devious challenge involved picking a form, common ones only, and a title or starter line and everyone having at it. It got loud there often, often because of us, memories fuzzed, beer was drunk, miscommunications occurred. An edict involving a sestina using propositions resulted in the best attempt being awarded to one using prepositions. Oddness was encouraged, write something in a “three-lined couplet,” which led to my own invention, or at least my own label, that I called “the stuttered couplet,” and which I’ve used more than once. A poem without the letter “e,” a poem shaped in a perfect rectangle, with only one-syllable words, or three, or five.

All of this is game, of course, and challenge but beyond that makes an essential point about form. It’s only valuable if you constantly push back at it, mess with it, stretch it to just before the breaking point. It is a joy to write and read the perfect sonnet, if there is one.  By that I mean one that conforms exactly to the prescription, whichever prescription that is.  If everyone only followed the rules existing at the moment, there would be none by Shakespeare or Moore, cummings or Lowell, the list goes on and on (see Sonnet Central for just one, albeit extensive list).

I am as proud, even more tickled I must confess, of my own “Lite” sestina (synonyms are allowed), my “envoi-less” sestina (I couldn’t think of one), my use of collapsing rhyme (first and last line, second and second to last, finishing with a couplet) as I am of any of their more mannerly kin.

Someone said: “Form exists to keep the poet from saying everything.”  As with any quote whose author I can’t remember I attribute it to Paul Valery. With apologies to Robert Frost, who famously said writing free verse was like ”playing tennis with the net down.” A different game indeed, but still one with rules, and what fun to imagine what they could be: points for kicking the ball, hitting it with your head, hitting your opponent, crossing it with dodge-ball—and unimaginable without some sort of form. “Rhythm,” I think I have this one right, Ezra Pound observed, “in poetry is cut into time, as design in art is cut into space.” Dizzy Gillespie claimed that music is ok but what he was really interested in was “noise.”

Form, in all its manifestations, is inherent to language itself and to our world which speaks it everywhere. In English, for instance, my first world, there are somewhat obvious reasons for the following:

The iamb as our basic rhythm.  Scan that; it is the beat our syntax most usually falls naturally into.

The sonnet—tricky and conflicted, full of antithesis, exception, second thoughts and the most tentative conclusions—as a receptacle for what would otherwise be mere blathering, our thoughts and feelings about love and God.

Whereas it is the delicate villanelle, that round, in which the two great lines burrow themselves into the reader and remain like a song.

The most basic form of so much poetry, the Ode, is said to have originated in its three parts of strophe, antistrophe (antithesis) and epode (synthesis) in the stage movements of the Greek chorus.

So is it form as game, as a made thing, or form as the most intimate expression of our ways in the world? As with most everything else, a bit of both, and most likely lots of other stuff.

So back to the tavern where one evening in what was a more private challenge, just two people actually, the phrase “Love’s Bluff” presented itself as the title for next week. So one poet showed up with a series of smart quatrains that seemed to use “bluff” as something we might do in poker rather than a scenic overlook and ended with the following:

Believing in married love, like true
rhyme, you know, is for kids and amateurs.
Still you want to, you really do.

The other poet, me, took the term more geographically and wrote not one but two sonnets, trying to show off of course, but also something I often do when working with a preexisting subject, something I actually rarely do, and didn’t know which one I liked best.

I wrote two sonnets also, I am remembering now, because I didn’t know which couplet I liked better

this high where they used to come together
when all they ever wanted was each other.


When every day dawned its perfect weather
when things were good and getting better.

So I chose one and used the other, I thought to begin another sonnet. However the couplet nature of the lines constrained me and nearly sent me sulking away, until I thought of turning the second sonnet upside down, much easier than you first might imagine. Then when I was able to end the second poem with the same line I used to start the other, I’ll admit I gave myself an ‘ “atta boy.”

So a “Double Reverse Sonnet, ” a term that does not Google, and above and beyond when the first letter of each line is chosen acrostic- like, it spells out, absolutely nothing at all – TADA!!!

Love's Bluff

For Miller Williams

A husband is what is left of a lover,
after the nerve has been extracted.
— Helen Rowland (1875–1950),
A Guide to Men, (1922)

She doesn’t kiss him like she used to
anymore, what’s worse, he’ll bet,
he knows why.  There’s no excuse to,
there’s hardly even any reason left.

They don’t dance, they never did he realizes
now not nearly enough, and can’t
remember when they stopped, or why,
or what they thought it might have meant.

The city below him sighs itself to sleep
the stars above appear to disappear,
each house a heart if not a heartbeat,
no moment the edge it seems from here

this high where they used to come together
when all they ever wanted was each other.


When every day dawned its perfect weather
when things were good and getting better

she called him “Darling,” he called her “Dear”
they’d  never lie they swore they’d never cheat
so they kept each other  close, but not near,
one of them would die if the other would leave.

Then the kids, the house, he was content
got fat and happy, he won’t apologize
if that’s a sin he refuses to repent;
she didn’t either,  he saw it in her eyes.

All is memory now, little but regret
with nothing to do but what he chooses to.
How does he go on when he can’t forget
she doesn’t kiss him like she used to.