The Commuter Challenge

1 October 2009

The October 2009 Challenge

by CC @ 22:43

This month’s challenge is: Sonnetfight!

Throughout the month of October, we will follow the challenges on, but instead of recording songs we’ll be writing sonnets.

If you’re unfamiliar with songfight, how it works is simple. Periodically a song title is posted to the website. During the next week anyone can compose, record, and submit an original song with the given title. All the submissions are then posted to the website, and voted on to determine the winner.

We’ll be skipping over the voting part of the process, but otherwise we’ll be following their lead. When a new title and deadline is posted, you have that much time to submit a sonnet with the given title. All entries will be posted to our website immediately following the deadline.

Sonnet Fights

  • Due October 5th: “Ring Them Bells” [optional warm-up round]
  • Due October 15th: “Monkeys on my Back”
  • Due October 25th: “Who Needs Sleep”
  • Due October 31st: “Welcome Home, Frank”

The Results

Brian Raiter

Ring Them Bells

Sally’s dress is mostly white
Joe’s one suit has gray lapels
Guests stay dancing till the night
Tom jumps up to ring them bells
Heavy storm comes into town
Bridge is flooded under swells
Joe calls out as it falls down
Tom runs up to ring them bells
Folks come out a windy day
Bid to Joe their last farewells
Not a word does Sally say
Tom goes up to ring them bells
Sally weeps and Joe he sleeps
All Tom does is ring them bells


Monkeys on my Back

In fact Pierre is rarely on my back:
He much prefers to hang out by the TV.
He likes to watch a show and eat his snack
Where he can reach the shelf to grab a CD.
He climbs upon my lap to wash my face,
And every move expresses care and grace.
He turns the paper to the comics section
Before I ask, inspiring my affection.
A year it’s been since I was in a bar —
A year since I’ve experienced a blackout
(And woke up, showered, dressed and went right back out).
A year it’s been since last I drove a car,
And since my unexpected trade-in deal: one
Metaphoric monkey for a real one.


Who Needs Sleep

I’m still at work although the day has long since turned to nighttime.
My column needs a rewrite so it fits some chosen headline.
On days like this I want to quit, but now is not the right time —
My thoughts turn to that photo of a Great Depression bread line.
I close my eyes; my words become a ghostly writhing white line.
These lead-lined hours of dead time stretch right through my bedtime.
Across from me Jack stretches as he watches clips from Nightline.
The mayor’s on now, parroting his favorite anti-crime line.
This column, with some luck, could be my first to get a byline.
When was it last I didn’t have to race against a timeline?
The sunlight starts to shine between the buildings of the skyline.
I drink the coffee till I feel my nervous system red-line.
I mutter, “Who needs sleep?” Jack laughs and says, “That’s my line.”
To work in journalism is to work under a deadline.


Welcome Home, Frank

Today’s the day of Frank’s homecoming.
His wife receives him from the nurse,
Pretending not to hear his humming
While digging keys out of her purse.
The twins are glad to see him, mostly,
But like their mom they watch him closely.
There’s honest warmth in his embrace,
But something’s frozen in his face.
At first there’s no sign of hysteria.
But then he throws a punch at Gwen,
And soon she’s sent him back again.
As Frank walks in the common area,
Ann smiles and deals a pair of jacks.
He sits and feels himself relax.
Ryan Finholm

Ring Them Bells

Ring, ring them bells, and feel the grace
When clappers tilt and irons collide –
A circle from the top (or base)
But trapezoidal from the side.
And ring them bells; their sound will reach
A thousand ears across the land.
The dulcet notes cannot impeach
The slow creep of the hour hand.
Yes, ring them bells. I never thought
I’d live to see the day, much less
Survive to hear the noise we wrought
Repeated back with wistfulness.
So ring them bells and hear their song
Intone, “Ding dong, dammit, ding dong.”


Monkeys on my Back

First, Monkey 1:
Hands over eyes —
A stupid ape, self-hypnotized,
It blocks perspective, locks in tears,
And curbs the urge to empathize.
Next, Monkey 2:
Hands over ears —
Hears nothing that its brother hears.
It’s never forced to come to grips
With others’ cares, concerns and fears.
Then Monkey 3:
Hands over lips —
Its fingers linking to eclipse
Dissent, rage, or impassioned cries
Before its flat composure slips.
So “Monkeys on my back” belies
Both more and less than it implies.


Who Needs Sleep

It’s one a.m., the sirens come and go.
The drapes flash blue and red against the night.
There is no screen to shield us from the glow,
But who needs sleep, when we’ve got noise and light?
It’s two o’clock, and car alarms still blare.
I sit and stare at you ’till 3:15.
The smell of coffee makes my nostrils flare,
And who needs sleep, when we have good caffeine?
It’s four a.m., and I’ve completely lost
The peace of mind that rest and calm preserves.
I feel as if my sentience is squashed,
But who needs sleep, when we’ve got shattered nerves?
And who needs sleep, when infomercials love us?
We have each other, God help the both of us.


Welcome Home, Frank

For years, all of us thought you were deceased;
The cemetery still displays your plaque,
But you’d been home a good three months, at least,
Before we heard that you had made it back.
Your grave had been “disturbed”, the Tribune told,
Police said that your corpse had disappeared,
There were no leads, the case had gotten cold,
But now that’s all cleared up, because you’re here.
You’d never died — the funeral was staged —
The open casket must have been a hoax.
I bet you laughed to see how much we aged
As victims of your truly morbid jokes.
But now you’re back, and everything’s all right.
Welcome home, Frank. You look so … pale tonight.


  1. A title like “Ring Them Bells” called for a different aesthetic than I would usually take to sonnet-writing. More direct in its approach, and less of an intellectual aesthetic, so to speak. After playing with a few approaches, I found myself wanting to tell a story. Not easy to do in only 14 lines, and so I would up sending most of the time trying to compress all the details I wanted to include in as few words as possible. The limited choice of rhymes for “bells” also forced a few of my choices.

    I found it absolutely impossible to stop thinking about Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells” while writing this. My earliest ideas were an explicit homage to his poem. But even my final entry still follows the sequence of three of his four bells: wedding bells, alarm bells, and funeral bells. In fact, it never before occurred to me that Poe might have explicitly intended his poem to suggest such a story line — the first one, sleigh bells, suggesting a courtship scene, followed by marriage, which is then cut short by a fire, and ending with a funeral.

    by Brian — 19 October 2009 @ 17:37

  2. My sonnet for “Monkeys on my Back” is of an unusual form. I was intending it to be a Pushkin sonnet — it’s a form that I’ve wanted to try for a while now. But while I got the rhyme scheme correct, I went and used pentameter instead of tetrameter. On top of which, I got the pattern of masculine and feminine rhymes switched around. So it’s kind of its own form.

    I was stuck on this one for most of the week. The plural in the title demanded something other than the obvious. Eventually, looking for inspiration, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for “monkey”, and found the section on monkey helpers for quadriplegics. A day or so later I realized that an addiction could be the cause of being disabled, and so I had a second monkey. Then it was just a matter of coming up with images to describe in the constrained space of fourteen lines.

    I’m surprised at the effect of a scheme that calls for four pairs of feminine rhymes. Most of my choices are closer to words with two stressed syllables (like TV/CD), which gives the line an uneven feel. The blackout/back-out couplet works so well, though.

    by Brian — 22 October 2009 @ 17:25

  3. I love Brian’s ‘Bells’ sonnet. It crams so much into so few words. On the first reading, I thought it was charming and odd, like an oblique nursery rhyme. It took me a couple readings before I got the story. It works very well either way.

    Conversely, I used obliqueness in my ‘Bells’ sonnet to try to conceal a lack of substance. I repeated the title “Ring them bells” in the poem four times for filler, and tacked some rhyming lines on to lead up to the phrase “Ding dong, dammit, ding dong,” which I knew from day one would have to be in the sonnet; it is a reference that I suppose only Brian and Dave Barry might recall. I really should try to avoid putting inside jokes into the Commuter Challenge entries.

    My first two sonnets were submitted late. I have no excuse for ‘Bells’ being late – I even used the abbreviated deadline for ‘Bells’ to make myself feel better about entering a low-quality submission, and then got it in late anyway. I really drew a blank on ‘Monkeys’ until I clicked into the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ idea and ran with it. I wanted to try a different form, so I did the rubaiyat. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out except for the last couplet. That last couplet clearly doesn’t mean anything or make any sense, and was just tacked on to circle the rhymes back to the first lines of the sonnet.

    by RyanF — 23 October 2009 @ 23:40

  4. My “Who Needs Sleep” sonnet isn’t the best thing I ever wrote. I was thinking about how a lot of compound words have this pattern of two stressed syllables (a spondee, in technical terms), and therefore have this odd, bumpy effect when used in a feminine rhyme scheme. So when I was coming up with rhymes for “deadline”, based on the given title, I got the idea of writing an entire sonnet using these sorts of words for its rhymes. “time” and “line” are both popular candidates for the second half of compound words, and it wasn’t hard to come up with ways to connect them with the subject. Unfortunately there are a couple of places where it sounds a little forced, which ruins the effect. On top of that, the sonnet just paints a single picture — it doesn’t have a turn, or a contrast, or a change in point of view. So the overall feeling winds up being rather “meh”.

    The meter for my sonnet is called “fourteener” — seven iambs, adding up fourteen syllables per line. (Though it’s really fifteen here, since they’re all feminine rhymes.) The long meter makes it easier to set up the sentences for the rhyme word, while still maintaining a strong rhythmic feel. I do like the idea of 14 lines of 14 syllables each … a nice, squared-off sonnet.

    by Brian — 27 October 2009 @ 18:40

  5. I had a hard time with the title “Welcome Home, Frank” for some reason. As a result I wrote it very quickly on the afternoon of the deadline. I think it turned out okay, given the short composition time. This one is another Pushkin sonnet, but this time I got the details right.

    by Brian — 31 October 2009 @ 17:24

  6. I can’t really decide which one of Ryan’s sonnets I like the best. “Ring Them Bells” was, as Ryan noted, simply calculated to catch me off guard and make me laugh, and it did that job quite admirably. “Monkeys on my Back” shows off a very nice use of the rubaiyat rhyme scheme adapted to the sonnet, and I will have to try it myself someday. “Who Needs Sleep” does a nice job of describing a mood very close to what I originally wanted to capture with my sonnet, before my chosen form forced me to change tack. Oddly enough, much the same can be said for “Welcome Home, Frank” — by the end of the month I realized that all of my entries so far had been very serious, and I wanted to do something funny for a change. (Then I ran out of time and had to take whatever I could cobble together.) I’m glad Ryan came through at the end with a good bit of macabre humor to take us out of October and into the next month. Happy Halloween, everyone.

    by Brian — 31 October 2009 @ 20:37

  7. I think Brian’s first and last sonnets are the two best entries of this challenge. Oddly enough, they are the titles that he (we) had the least time to work on. I also liked his other sonnets: I thought ‘Monkeys’ was really good, and the two-syllable rhymes at the end of each line along with limiting himself to two rhymes for the entire ‘Who Needs Sleep’ sonnet was impressive. I’ve already raved about ‘Ring Them Bells’, and his ‘Welcome Home, Frank’ is brilliant – a great little disturbing story in a well-matched format. It also has wonderful flow. Before this very poem, I had never read a Pushkin sonnet that I didn’t find awkward. Is that too many negatives? In general, find Pushkin sonnets to be awkward and uneven, but Brian’s is excellent.

    I was happy enough with my last two submissions. My ‘Welcome Home, Frank’ started out as an entirely different idea, about someone’s friend ribbing him about returning home after some unsuccessful venture. Being so close to Halloween, the poem sort of transmogrified itself into what you see above.

    Regarding the challenge as a whole, I have mixed feelings about this one. I’m happy that we each popped out four sonnets for the month, but I’m sure that if I’d had all month to compose just one sonnet using just one of those titles instead of four over the course of the month, I would have come up with something much better than any of the ones I submitted.

    by RyanF — 2 November 2009 @ 21:59