How to Write Sonnets
When is a poem a sonnet? When is a "sonnet" just a lyrical poem? Its derivation is "Little Song," so why can't we just sing a love song that rhymes correctly and call it a sonnet? Why can't we simply write fourteen lines of romantic verse with a conforming rhyme scheme and do the same?
Today's literary world is full of poets who are dubbing their poetry as sonnets, without really understanding the true classic format. Their work may qualify as beautiful poetry, but still fall short of the actual specifications of a sonnet.
|Well then - what's to learn? Let's
begin with an overview, and then touch on the semantics of form.
The sonnet originated with the "Italian" or "Petrarchan" form, and later progressed to a well-loved poetic form through the unsurpassed influence of the "English" - more specifically that of "Shakespeare."
William Shakespeare's undeniable knack for writing in perfect iambic pentameter and his propensity for the sonnet form surely are responsible for its interminable popularity. Another acceptable framework is also an English variation called "Spenserian," named after its originator.
Although the mode of the twentieth century has been to deviate from these standard formats, I admit that I remain pretty old-fashioned and continue to write them according to plan. I adamantly believe that you can't rightly break the rules unless you know what they are... I follow them myself, simply because I don't yet consider myself proficient enough to break them. (perhaps some day). Furthermore, breaking the rules - and doing it effectively - necessitates a thorough understanding of them.
Ergo - Let's cover the basics. It's easy - you'll see!
Theme is of ULTIMATE importance in a sonnet. You must present a conflict of sorts in your opening stanzas and a resolution in your closing ones. Think carefully of what you want to write and how you want to develop your work before you begin writing.
The use of imagery is another important consideration. A sonnet is a very compact piece, and as such is a great format for extended metaphors. Try to incorporate some simile, metaphor, or other types of imagery into your work.
Let's move to the structure, starting with meter - This is the easy part.... A sonnet, properly written, is done in "iambic pentameter." That means that every line will consist of five "iambic" feet. Each line of your poem will follow this pattern....
Ms. Barrett Browning loved her sonnets. Read this wonderful one in its entirety - It's just superb, isn't it? It's certainly understandable that it's so famous.
Another great poet who adhered to iambic pentameter was Keats. Read his "Oh Solitude, If I Must Dwell With Thee" - You'll be amazed at how smoothly his verses flow. Rhyme schemes may give a poem its character, but the meter is the basis for its lyrical flow. A poem that deviates in its meter simply doesn't sound like a "Little Song."
So then - Let's get on to the rhyme scheme. Guess what? You've got a choice here, and you'll still be adhering to the "rules." You can opt for any one of the following:
First, let's look at the original "Italian/Petrarchan" style - which consists of an octet (eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines).
The conflict is presented in the octet and resolved in the sestet. This option allows you less conflict, but more "resolution" time, if you should need it. The rhyme scheme is "a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a/c-d-e-c-d-e."
Occasional poets, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the above sonnet, will incorporate some variations in the scheme of the final sestet.
Second is the most popular "English/Shakespearean" sonnet. In this style the conflict is presented within three quatrains (four lines) of verse, and resolved in a final couplet. The Shakespearean format is "a-b-a-b/c-d-c-d/e-f-e-f/g-g."
Here's Shakespeare's Sonnet #12, a perfect example of his timeless brilliance.
The final, and less known format is Spenserian. This format is most similar to Shakespearean, as it incorporates three quatrains and a closing couplet. In either format, you'll need to develop your conflict in the quatrains and resolve it in the couplet.
The Spenserian format is "a-b-a-b/b-c-b-c/c-d-c-d/e-e." Like the others, it still maintains a meter of iambic pentameter.
So - Is a poem with fourteen lines and a fitting rhyme scheme really a sonnet? Who's to decide? As in every piece of prose or poetry, the reader is the ultimate interpreter. I personally don't expect too much. As a reader, I need to feel the rhythm of the iambic pentameter - I need to see a great story unfold in those short fourteen lines - I need to see a rhyme scheme that flows - I love to see a writer incorporate some great imagery Then I'll admit that it just might be a sonnet. I'm not too difficult to please, am I? Nah!!!