Teaching the sonnet is a ubiquitous (and too often tedious) poetry lesson focusing on accented syllables and rhyme schemes. Most of us begin with Shakespeare. The next time around, consider starting instead with Terrance Hayes’ “American Sonnet for My Once and Future Assassin.”
In this sonnet Hayes reflects upon the structure and purpose of the form (much as Billy Collins does in his poem “Sonnet.”)
Before handing out copies of the poem, have students listen to the audio recording of the poet reading his sonnet.
1. Draw students’ attention to Hayes’ reference to Jim Crow as “gym and crow.”
2. Give students their own copy of the sonnet and ask them to read it and choose a line that struck them for whatever reason.
3. Have students share the line they chose with a partner explaining why it stood out, puzzled, or otherwise interested them.
4. Read the poem once more to the class.
5. Discuss: Where has Terrance Hayes conformed to the “rules” of the sonnet form? Where has he broken those rules for greater artistic expression, calling the form “part prison / Part panic closet”?
6. What do you think the “beautiful catharsis” entails? Who or what is changing?
Now read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Carol Jago has taught middle and high school in Santa Monica, CA for many years and served as president of the National Council of Teachers of English. Her latest publication, The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crisis is now available from Heinemann (2019).