The empty sonnet frame’s a puzzle box
into whose elaborate maze ideas
are dropped. They press its walls and work to plot
a path through dark till final light appears.
Escape demands ideas adapt and bend
around slotted bridle angles, on to shelves
of lines, be they enjambed or stopped at ends,
till through the solving door they show themselves.
When a poem finds the light its shape belies
the wrestle waged within the box’s walls—
the anxious wait for rain from wordless skies
the anguish when the meter’s motor stalls.
Some ask, “Why trap ideas in rule-bound shape?”
Because, at puzzle’s end, art might escape.



Mathew Wenham is currently the Head of VCE English and Literature at a secondary college in Melbourne, Australia. He has previously worked in multiple Australian universities as a writer, researcher and teacher of philosophy where his specialisation was Epicurean ethical theory. Mathew is a long-time lover of poetry, but is in the early stages of his path as a poet.

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25 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    This from the early stages of a poet’s path?
    It promises to be a truly remarkable journey.

    • Mathew Wenham

      Thank you Joe for your encouraging comment. I suppose I could look at things a different way and say my path has been a long one – it just hasn’t involved much writing until now.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the poem.

    • Joe Tessitore

      There are twelve lines and a final couplet.
      Do you object because he didn’t separate them into verses?

      • Joe Tessitore

        On re-reading it, he never claims to be writing a sonnet.

    • Mathew Wenham

      Hi Joseph,
      Thank you for your comment.
      In response: yes it is and no it’s not.

    • C.B. Anderson

      Mr. MacKenzie,

      Ha! I had a similar thought myself. If it is a sonnet, it’s a poorly constructed one. A puzzle box, indeed! Perhaps the author should study up on first principles in regard to this venerated form. And as Julian has suggested, your explanation of your comment might be useful to all of us who write fourteen-line poems, call them what you will.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Mr. Anderson,

        That’s easy. The metrics are shoddy (as hinted at by others), the rhymes are very poorly managed, the verses are not cut according to the sense, the phrases are imbalanced and lopsided, the normal structures of the form fail to serve their essential functions with respect to each other and the whole, and the underlying conceit presenting the sonnet as “puzzle box” is self-accusatory, turning the entire exercise into an infantile game as opposed to a pre-meditated, literary act. The piece lacks elevation, depth, gravity, refinement, beauty, and meaningfulness.

        Finally, it leads one to question the author’s culture, if any, as true gentlemen of cultivation and learning have always held Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Sonnet on Sonnets” the canonical standard for those writing on the sonnet as a subject in itself. If a would-be poet has no interest in literary tradition or the value of such standards, then he should not be writing at all. I would like to conclude with Rosetti’s poem to demonstrate, by way of contrast, how the piece in question fails to attain the status of anything remotely like a sonnet.

        A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,–
        Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
        To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
        Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
        Of its own arduous fulness reverent:
        Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
        As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
        Its flowering crest impearled and orient.
        A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
        The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:–
        Whether for tribute to the august appeals
        Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue,
        It serve, or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
        In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

    • Mathew Wenham

      That’s more like it Joseph, you’ve given me something to work with here.
      Constructive (even if condescending) criticism is always welcome.
      Thank you for taking the time to elaborate.
      Kind regards,

  2. Mike Bryant

    Incredibly inventive. This metaphor appeals to the craftsman in me. I’ve never thought that poetry was a process of fitting pieces into a puzzle box. I certainly do now. Looking forward to greater things.

    • Mathew Wenham

      Thanks Mike for your encouragement. Most of my poetry thus far has been in sonnet form and much of the joy I take from writing them is in seeing what pops out at the end of the process – for me it’s almost always something different than I had expected. It feels like play, so I think that’s what drove the metaphor.
      Thanks again.

  3. Margaret Coats

    I’ve been puzzling over the poem to find exactly where the meter’s motor really stalls, and I would say it’s only in line 2, where I need to pronounce “elaborate” with the word rhythm of “perspicacious.” The other little grindings don’t stop the verse flow. Can you tell that I like “meter’s motor” just as much as “puzzle box”? It speeds off with a conclusive flash in the couplet, which is where many a sonnet stalls flat. In this one, the couplet reveals its impressive potential to redeem and resolve the poem.

    • Mathew Wenham

      Hi Margaret,
      Thank you for your constructive comments. I’ve been a bit uncomfortable with ‘elaborate’ since I wrote this poem – I’ll play around with it again and see if I can’t make it rev!
      I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • Julian D. Woodruff

      I guess one of the things to observe in Rosetti’s example is the adroitness with which “extra” syllables are handled.
      Thanks, Mr. MacKenzie, for your pointed (if not friendly) response.

      • Mathew Wenham

        Thanks for taking the time to read my work Julian, it’s much appreciated.
        Yes, the Rosetti sonnet is magnificent. Given that I’ve been writing since November of last year and that this is the first piece I had accepted for ‘publication’ I think it would be a stretch to match that one in terms of quality!
        Still, something to aim for…
        Thanks again

  4. Theresa Rodriguez

    Thank you Mathew for your beautiful and engaging sonnet. It is interesting to me that you use the concept of a puzzle in describing the process of creating a sonnet. I, too, use similar language in “Spenserian Sonnet” where I talk about the joy I find in new discoveries within “The puzzle-solving, different mental way”. I am glad you find the satisfaction in this process as I do, “Because, at puzzle’s end, art might escape.” I hope to see more of your work on the SCP website.

  5. Mathew Wenham

    Hello Theresa,
    Thank you for your comment.
    I’d love to read your sonnet, can I access it here?
    I’m glad to read that ‘joy’ is a part of your process. I wonder if sometimes that element of creativity is underplayed?
    Thanks again.

    • Theresa Rodriguez

      Mathew, thank you for your interest. If you search under my name on the date June 16, 2018 you will find it accompanying “Form Sonnet.” I want you to know that I have grown as a sonneteer and I have improved the punctuation since the publication of these sonnets– wholly due to the gentle criticisms and admonitions of acclaimed British critic James Sale. These and many others have since been amended. Thanks again for allowing us to read your sonnet!

  6. Margaret Coats

    In “Scorn not the sonnet,” sonnet master William Wordsworth reminds critics of the grand tradition of Shakespeare, Petrarch, Tasso, Camoens, Dante, Spenser, and Milton, while comparing the form to small things such as a key, a leaf, and a glowworm. In “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room,” he also compares it to mechanical craft items such as a loom or spinning wheel, and then says that for himself, the sonnet has been a “pastime” for “sundry moods,” providing him simply with “brief solace.”

    • Mathew Wenham

      Hi Margaret,
      Thank you for taking the time to read my sonnet.
      I love Wordsworth’ s ‘Nuns fret not..’ and ‘Scorn not the sonnet.’ The initial idea to write a sonnet about sonnets came, in part, from reading ‘Nuns fret not…’ It’s the best expression of the value in formal poetry that I’m aware of.

  7. David Watt

    Mathew, I take your metaphor to mean that we are never quite sure of how to reach the end result when writing a sonnet; even though there must still be an agreed structure and a set of standards to follow. For this reason I believe that your metaphor is valid.

    I also stumbled at the word ‘elaborate’, and at the bend/ends rhyme pairing.
    My suggestion would be to drop the plural and make the pairing bend/end.

    Rossetti’s great sonnet would be a hard act to follow. However, I enjoyed reading your interesting piece.

    • Mathew Wenham

      Hello David,
      Thank you for your comments. Yes, the surprise at what emerges at the end of the task is definitely something I’m trying to express in the poem. I’m also trying to say something about the playful quality in writing formal verse.
      I think part of the problem with elaborate, in the sense of ‘complex’, is that when you say it with an Australian accent it’s an amphibrach (unstressed, stressed, unstressed). But that probably isn’t the case when read with, for example, an American accent – it’s more likely to scan as two iambic feet.
      Thank you for your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed reading the poem.

  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I adore your metaphor – an inspirational conceit. I wholly relate to this perfect image; “The empty sonnet frame’s a puzzle box//into whose elaborate maze ideas//are dropped…” is a little touch of poetic genius, in MY opinion. Others may disagree. But then, my words are fireflies kept in a jar. On moon-kissed nights, I reach into that jar and pull out a poem. Mr. Wenham, I get exactly where you’re coming from and I love your poem!

  9. Mathew Wenham

    Hello Susan,
    Thank you for your comment.
    I’m very pleased that the poem worked for you.
    It’s been so interesting for me to see the variety of responses to my work for the first time. It’s almost as engaging as writing the work in the first place!
    I wish for you many moon-kissed nights!


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