How (and Why) to Write a Sonnet
Why write a sonnet?
After a century of free verse poetry the idea of actually following all the rules and staying within the confines of a sonnet may seem a little old-fashioned. Before I explain exactly how to write a sonnet, what rhyme schemes are and what “iambic pentameter” means I am going to take a few moments to try to convince you that writing a sonnet really is worth your time.
Okay, I lied, I’m not going to try to convince, I am going to let American poet Aaron Kramer convince you because he said it better than I ever could. All you have to do is imagine that he is sitting right in front of you.
When asked by students why anyone would want to write a sonnet, he pulled a chair into the center of the room.
"First, " he said, pressing his wrists together, "you are handcuffed by having to write fourteen lines."
Then, " he said, sitting down to press his ankles together, "you are shackled by having to write with a set meter.
"Leaning forward to crouch into a ball, he declared, "They put you into a sack called rhyme."
Rising suddenly from the chair to spread his arms, he declared, "But think what a magic act it is if you can set your meaning free!"
A warm thanks to Aaron Kramer, there is no way I could have said it better. Now that he has (hopefully) convinced you let me add my two cents about why anyone would want to write a sonnet.
First of all, a sonnet is short, but not too short. Fourteen lines gives you plenty of space to develop an action or idea, but no so much that you are groping for more words to fill endless lines.
Another reason why you should give sonnets a try is that it’s hard. In fact it’s really, really hard to write a good sonnet, especially when following all the rules. Being forced to go back to your lines over and over again to rework them may cause you to produce a much better poem than writing with an “anything goes“ attitude.
Finally, my favourite reason for writing a sonnet: because it’s fun. It’s fun in the sense that doing a crossword puzzle or playing sudoku is fun. It’s challenging, time consuming and may even make your head ache a little bit but once you’ve finished it, you’ll have plenty of reasons for that surge of pride that fills your chest.
What is a sonnet?
So, if you’re still reading maybe I’ve convinced you. Or maybe Aaron Kramer has convinced you. Or maybe you’re not at all convinced but simply bored, curious or trying to finish some essay about sonnets so that you can get a grade. As long as you’re still here I suppose I should try to describe what a sonnet actually is.
A sonnet is a poem, made of fourteen lines (in different groupings depending on the type of sonnet). The fourteen lines are written with a certain rhyme scheme, and each line should be written in iambic meter, usually iambic pentameter.
Another key element to the sonnet is the turn or "volta". Some would say the key element to a sonnet is the volta. So, what is a volta? The volta is a change in subject matter. This usually occurs when the rhyme group changes. A volta occurring alongside a change in rhyme group is supposedly a principle for all rhymed poetry, but not one that is always followed.
As far as a sonnet’s subject matter, there is no direct rule but there are certainly trends and traditions to follow. A sonnet describes a movement in one's thoughts or feelings, not an unchanging state of mind. They are perfect for focusing on intense, brief moments. Usually sonnets are used to describe religious devotion, romantic love and the beauty of nature. As Canadian poet Anne Compton once observed, sonnets are perfect for “…the arrest of the fleeting moment.”
What is iambic pentameter?
If you are familiar with poetry you may have read the last section without batting an eye. However, if you are new to the world of poetry you may have tripped up on a certain phrase, “iambic pentameter”. It sounds more like something from a book on geometry then poetry. Believe me, when I first read it in a poetry textbook, I thought it was a mistake.
Iambic meter is a meter used when writing in verse to measure the syllables in each line. It describes the rhythm of the syllables in the line. The small groups of syllables you use to establish the rhythm are called feet (or iambus). “Iambic” means groups of two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed. For example the word “trapeze” is iambic. You say “tra-PEZE” instead of “TRA-peze”.
The word “pentameter” tells us how many feet there will be in each line. Traditionally sonnets are written in iambic pentameters, which means there are five feet in each line. So, there are ten syllables, five unstressed and five stressed. This was the way Shakespeare wrote most of his verses.
A perfect example of a line in iambic pentameter is the famous line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” There are five feet in this line, each one composed of a stressed and unstressed syllable.
Shall I/ compare/ thee to/ a sum/ mers day?
It’s difficult at first to find the stressed and unstressed syllables in each word, but with a little practise, and maybe an occasional peek in the dictionary it will become easier.
Once thing to watch out for while writing your sonnet is that you don’t cheat when it comes to the meter. Stressing the wrong syllables or messing up the language doesn’t quite count as following all the rules.
Another word of caution when writing your sonnet is to avoid “padding” your lines in order to make them fit. It’s easy to add unneeded words or syllables to your line just to keep the beat. This counts as cheating as much as stressing the wrong syllables in a word. It may be harder, but it’s infinitely more rewarding if every word and syllable in your line contributes to your meaning.
There are two main sonnet forms to choose from, although many variations have been created over the years. The two main forms are the Italian (or Petrarchan) and the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet. In the eyes of many poets, all forms are not created equal.
The Italian form is considered the more difficult, and therefore he more respected of the two. It calls for more difficult rhyme schemes, which were easier to maintain in Italian than they are in English.
In his book The Sonnet John Fuller called the English form “not quite as interesting or subtle” as the Italian. The English form is also considered by many (including myself) the easier of the two to write.
A rhyme scheme, is the pattern of the rhymed line-endings. The rhyme schemes are one of the defining characteristics of the two different forms of sonnets.
The Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet Form
In an Italian sonnet the turn or volta should be after the eighth line of the poem. This is where you begin to see, think or feel differently about the subject. At the end of the poem you and your reader should have discovered or learned something new about your subject.
The first eight lines of your poem are called the octave. They are written in one grouping and should follow this rhyme scheme:
a b b a a b b a
That means that if the last word of your first line is dove then lines 4, 5 and 8 should end in words that rhyme with dove like love, glove or shove. If the last word of the second line was heart then lines 3, 6 and 7 should end in words that rhyme with heart like art, start, smart or tart.
The remaining six lines of your sonnet are called the sestet. The sestet can have either two or three different rhyming sounds. The exact pattern for the sestet is flexible, while the octave’s pattern is not. The only real “rule” is that using a couplet for your last two lines should be avoided, as this was the rule in Italy. However poets have been breaking that rule for a long time. You have a number of options for your sestet’s rhyme scheme:
c d c d c d
c d d c d c
c d e c d e
c d e c e d
c d c e d c
The English (or Shakespearean) Sonnet
An English sonnet is written in three quatrains (four line grouping) of alternating rhymes and ends in a couplet (two line grouping). Each quatrain should have it’s own specific idea, though the ideas should all be related. In an English sonnet the volta can be placed almost anywhere, at the poet’s discretion. As you can see the English sonnet is easier in that the writer is required to write only in rhyming pairs, instead of using four lines that end in the same rhyming sound:
a b a b
c d c d
e f e f
Write your own sonnet
So now you’ve got the basics. How do you go about writing your own sonnet? There are a few steps you can take to get started, but writing your own sonnet, just like writing anything, is a personal journey. As Morpheus once said to Neo (I can’t believe I’m quoting the Matrix) “I can only show you the door”.
The first thing to do when you’re getting ready to write your sonnet is to pick a topic. The narrower your topic is the easier it will be to write just fourteen lines about it. Instead of picking “nature”, try “leaves in autumn”. Instead of “family” consider “the role my sister played in helping me to find myself”. The word sonnet comes from Occitan and Italian words meaning “little song”, and it’s true, these poems are little, so try not to be too epic.
Brainstorming always makes it easier to organize your thoughts. Think about your topic and jot down all the aspects of it that you want to include in your poem.
Organize those aspects either into two groups (and octave and sestet) or four (three quatrains and a couplet). Then lay the thoughts out in a fourteen line structure, and figure out where your volta will be, don’t worry about meters or rhyming just yet.
Get to work applying rhyme schemes and metered syllables to your thoughts and feelings. I enjoy the extra challenge of picking three or four words and trying to use them over and over again in my poem.
The title comes last. Usually I pick a line from poem that conveys the right feeling but you can pick anything you want for your title.
Writing in sonnets isn’t for everyone, it may not always lend itself to the natural poetry hiding inside each one of us. But if you haven’t tried it before you may find that your bursts of emotion that can be related in brief, powerful words are perfect for sonnets. If you prefer to linger over language and paint the page purple, you may want to stick to free verse. If a sonnet just isn’t working for you there are many other poetic forms to try. Either way writing a sonnet may prove to be the challenge, exercise or game that your looking for to enliven your writing, reinvigorate your poetry or just brighten your afternoon.