ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I may repeat lines and sometimes improvise phrases and fragments as I recite, but as for the poem

on the page, each word is carefully chosen. . . . I achieve lyricism  by using sound devices:

mainly internal rhyme rather than end rhyme, alliteration, assonance and enjambment.



Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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Is A Sonnet More Than “Fourteen Lines”?

By Kalamu ya Salaam


Of course. Fourteen lines is just the basic length. During over eight centuries of existence, the sonnet developed specific conventions in three broad groupings: the Italian or Petrarchan consisting of an octave and a sestet; the Spenserian employing three quatrains and a closing couplet; and, the English, or Shakespearean, likewise using three quatrains and a closing couplet however with a different rhyme scheme from the Spenserian. A major feature of the classical sonnet is its rhyme scheme.

While I am aware of many of the classical conventions, I choose to use the sonnet the way jazz musicians use the music of their times. The form is basically a jumping off point to voice my concerns, share my emotions and to impose a different aesthetic on the shell of the sonnet.

For me, in terms of crafting the sonnet, there are only two considerations: 1. length: 14 lines, no more, no less; 2. lyricism: a “singing” quality to the poem. Everything else (including themes and subject matter) is up for grabs.

At first look, fourteen lines of unmetered verse (notice, I say, “unmetered” rather than “free”) may not seem much of a restriction, but actually fourteen lines shapes the poem and forces you to drive directly toward a conclusion. Unlike the haiku, whose 17 syllables, impels you to hit it and quit it, juxtapose an image or two and be through, the sonnet gives you room to say something but no room to meander. In a sonnet, the reader expects to see a fully developed, but very lean, poem.

Regardless of length, every poem should be responsive to the rule of succinctness. Elegance in poetry is achieved when a poet uses only as many words as necessary to communicate the essentials of the particular poem.

Density of thought, emotion, and imagery are hallmarks of most text-oriented poetry. In my case, since I use a music-based aesthetic, my density must be achieved through both clever and thoughtful use of imagery and an advanced use of rhythm. Even though my diction tends to be colloquial and/or in the Black vernacular, there is nevertheless care taken in word choice, word placement and especially with economy.

In reciting I may repeat lines and sometimes improvise phrases and fragments as I recite, but as for the poem on the page, each word is carefully chosen. Thus, whether I use one word I achieve lyricism by using sound devices: mainly internal rhyme rather than end rhyme, alliteration, assonance and enjambment.

As rappers have indicated there is more to rhyming than just true rhymes at t he end of lines. I consistently use a technique I call “rhythm-rhymes,” i.e., words which have a rhyming (full or half, true or forced) quality that is based not on single words that sound alike but on groups of two or more words matched with a similar sounding word or phrase.

For example in “Making Whoopie (in chi)” I use the rhyming units “suede soft” matched to “sauntering toward”. Without the repetition of the “s” sound in “suede” and “sauntering,” soft/toward does not even faintly rhyme, yet with the appropriate alliteration up front, the two come off as kissing cousins.

 I also like to use what I call “echoes” — the repetition of a rhyming word or phrase further on in the poem. The third appearance recalls the earlier use of the rhyme scheme. Echo works best when you have the first two rhyming units close to each other, and the third (and all subsequent units) further removed. Thus, in “Making Whoopie,” whereas the rhyming unit first appears at the end of line two and the beginning of line three, the echo occurs in the middle of line five. When you get to “one accord” the reader/listener’s ear recalls the “suede soft/sauntering toward” sound, even if not consciously so.

Lyricism implies a floating quality, a horizontal motion, long line lengths or at least long phrasing units. When one hears or hums a beautiful melody, that song will generally be awash in half and whole notes; this corresponds to the use of long vowels and with sounds such as “ing” and “ion.” Another technique I use to emphasize horizontal motion and length is enjambment. I think of continuing the sense and sound of a line from the end of one to the beginning of the next as playing across bars: imposing a long phrase in the space where the ear expects two or more shorter phrases. These techniques require a good feel for the rhythm of words — a sureness (based on experience and experimentation) with manipulating both sound and syllables to keep up the momentum.

In the second stanza of “Making Whoopie” I set up the long phrase by “doubling up” — using double or more phrases in a space where one might expect there to be only one. In the second stanza of “Making Whoopie” the first two lines contain four phrase units and the next two lines contains but one. Plus, the fifth line, although actually the shortest line in the poems, achieves impact by contrast and by similarity; contrast because of length, similarity because of the use of echo.

the private dance you flash as you shudder crash

into the dark density of my palpitating chest

triggers rigid response geysering a seminal liquidity

bursting forth into the flesh seam of human life

i stutter shout a surging yes”

The four short phrase units are: 1. “the private dance you flash”, 2. “as you shudder crash”, 3. “into the dark density” and 4. “of my palpitating chest”. The one long phrase unit is “triggers rigid response geysering a seminal liquidity busting forth into the flesh seam of human life”.

I use the “flash/crash” rhyme, the “dark density” alliteration, and the “crash/chest” alliteration to make these short phrase units apparent. Notice also that single syllable words predominate in the first two lines. All of this sets up a strong contrast with lines three and four, a contrasting tension which is released by the fifth line that consists of only one and two syllable words: “i stutter shout a surging yes”.

My goal is not to ignore form and technique, but rather to substitute a different aesthetic, one which emphasizes sound and rhythm, and simultaneously maintains lyricism.

In “he gets off at 4:30 / it’s 6:09 now” I approach the problem of lyricism from a blues angle. The lines are shorter, there is repetition and heavy use of irony. Throughout I use call and response by setting up descriptive phrase and responding to those phrases.

The opening is totally unorthodox for a sonnet. Line one is a single word “here” with an ellipsis suggesting there is more but more is not said.

The next four stanzas each contain a descriptive phrase of multi-syllabic words set off by a slash and followed by a verb-object imperative (“taste me”, “kiss me”, “embrace me” and “enter me”). Then the concluding three lines consist solely of monosyllabic words and ends with a slash-separated question rather than an imperative.

Again, I used the same basic techniques but now the model is blues rather than jazz. This shift is significant although the difference between the jazz and blues devices may not be apparent to those who are unfamiliar with the musical forms.

In order to successfully use music as a basis for a literary aesthetic, the poet is required to have an advanced “feel” for, if not a technical understanding of, jazz and blues in addition to a mastery of poetic sounding and rhyming devices. After all is said and done, there is no substitute for discipline and the conscious use of an aesthetic (whatever that aesthetic may be).

Whether writing in iambic pentameter or unmetered; whether using the convention of raising a question in an opening octave and resolving the question in the concluding sestet, or using repetition and irony in a call response pattern; regardless of the choice, the key is that the poet has consciously made a choice and is using skill and talent to maximize the effect of the poem based on a specifically chosen aesthetic.

We can employ an existing form or impose/create form as we go along, either way, ultimately what matters is how well we do whatever we choose to do and how overall effective our choice is. I choose to write sonnets using a jazz and blues aesthetic. It is up to you, the audience, to judge how effective I am.


New Orleans writer Kalamu ya Salaam directs NOMMO Literary Society, an African American writers workshop. He is the leader of the WordBand, a poetry performance ensemble and the moderator of CyberDrum, an on-line community of Black writers and diverse supporters of literature. Salaam can be reached at ““.

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin James / They danced atop his casket Jaran ‘Julio’ Green

Guarding the Flame of Life

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Men We Love, Men We HateSAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men

Ways of LaughingAn Anthology of Young Black VoicesPhotographed & Edited by Kalamu ya Salaam

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02_My_Story,_My_Song.mp3 (24503 KB)

(Kalamu reading “My Story, My Song”

Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

Track List 1.  Congo Square (9:01) 2.  My Story, My Song (20:50) 3.  Danny Banjo (4:32) 4.  Miles Davis (10:26) 5.  Hard News For Hip Harry (5:03) 6.  Unfinished Blues (4:13) 7.  Rainbows Come After The Rain (2:21)/Negroidal Noise (15:53) 8.  Intro (3:59) 9.  The Whole History (3:14) 10.  Negroidal Noise (5:39) 11.  Waving At Ra (1:40) 12.  Landing (1:21) 13.  Good Luck (:04)

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The Shadows of Youth

The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation

By Andrew B. Lewis

With deep admiration and rigorous scholarship, historian Lewis (Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table) revisits the ragtag band of young men and women who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Impatient with what they considered the overly cautious and accommodating pace of the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr., the black college students and their white allies, inspired by Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and moral integrity, risked their lives to challenge a deeply entrenched system. Fanning out over the Jim Crow South, SNCC organized sit-ins, voter registration drives, Freedom Schools and protest marches. Despite early successes, the movement disintegrated in the late 1960s, succeeded by the militant Black Power movement. The highly readable history follows the later careers of the principal leaders. Some, like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, became bitter and disillusioned. Others, including Marion Barry, Julian Bond and John Lewis, tempered their idealism and moved from protest to politics, assuming positions of leadership within the very institutions they had challenged. According to the author, No organization contributed more to the civil rights movement than SNCC, and with his eloquent book, he offers a deserved tribute.—

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Hopes and Prospects

By Noam Chomsky

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 14 January 2012




Home  Kalamu Table

Related files:  Is A Sonnet More Than Fourteen Lines  On Writing Haiku  WORDS: A Neo-Griot Manifesto  That Old Black Magic  The Myth of Solitude  / What Is Black Poetry

in the hot house of black poetry another furious flowering —  Part I / Part II  /  Part III  /  Part IV