Columns > Published on December 10th, 2012

UPDATED WITH WINNER: Workout Your Brain: Write a Sonnet (& Win!)

Let’s get one thing straight—I am not a poet. But I am a writer, and let’s face it, poetry takes the best that language and grammar have to offer and elevates it to divine status. Even though I know poems are the result of a lot of hard work, a good one can read like a miracle.  That said, I am now going to advocate writing a poem, potentially a very bad poem, a sonnet to be exact.

Why am I telling you to write a sonnet? Because it’s hard. Because good sonnets are REALLY hard. Because there are a lot of rules you have to follow. Because it rhymes. Because, chances are, you’ve never written a sonnet, and you never plan to write one in the future. Because you need to burn more calories.

It seems like every time I look at the news, there is some new health kick. Lately, the “experts” are saying that everyday exercise is important, but doing the same exercise everyday can yield diminishing results. Your body gets used to it, so it stops burning as many calories. You have to change it up in order for your body to constantly be challenged. Well, the same goes for your writing muscle. When you write day after day in the same genre, you can get stuck. But, if you throw in a few new exercises, you will challenge it to burn more, stretch farther, and get stronger. Can’t hurt, right?

What makes a poem a sonnet?

Contemporary poets don’t write sonnets anymore. If they do, it’s to either pay homage to the poets of yestercentury or to poke fun at the archaic form with some sort of ironic twist. Serious, modern poets have so many more tricks up their sleeves than their predecessors—forms created on the fly, internal rhyme schemes, and layers of allusions so deep you might need to drill a well to plumb the depths. Yes, they are ridiculously talented people. But, if you read poems written before the avant garde movements really shook things up in the beginning of the 20th century, you will see that those poets, more often than not, used prescribed forms for their creations. The sonnet is one of those forms, and it was incredibly popular.

The sonnet came from Italy, but it was so successfully co-opted by the English in the early 16th century we hardly remember its Italian origins. It is, traditionally, a love poem, so most older sonnets are written on the subjects of love and lust. The sonnet is a fourteen line poem written in iambic pentameter that uses an intricate end-rhyming pattern. There are two basic types of sonnets: the Italian/Petrachan sonnet (named after the 14th century Italian poet Petrach) and the English/Shakespearean sonnet (named after some guy I am pretty sure you have heard of). There are many variations of each type, but I am going to use the English/Shakespearean sonnet as the model for our little experiment here.

The English Sonnet

Like all sonnets, the English sonnet has fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter (more about that in a moment). What makes it unique from the other sonnet forms is the rhyme pattern and stanza breakdown. A stanza is a section of a poem like a paragraph is a section of a story. Like a paragraph, it has a topic, a beginning/middle/end, but it also plays a part in the story/poem as a whole. The English sonnet has four stanzas. The first three stanzas are quatrains because they have four lines each. The last stanza is a couplet because it has only two lines.

Rhyme

In each quatrain, the last word (or words) of the first and third line must rhyme. Also, the last words of the second and fourth line must rhyme. We call this rhyme scheme a/b/a/b.

Here’s an example from William Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18. This is the first quatrain.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?              (a)
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:            (b)
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,    (a)
And summer’s lease hath too short a date;            (b)

Note the rhyme pattern here. This pattern will be similar in the following two quatrains, but with different rhyme sounds than appear in this quatrain. The rhyme scheme for the second stanza will be c/d/c/d, and in the third stanza, it will be e/f/e/f. In the last stanza, a couplet, the last word of each line will rhyme. That rhyme scheme is g/g. Let’s see it all together:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?                          (a)
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:                        (b)
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,               (a)
And summer’s lease hath too short a date;                       (b)
 
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,                  (c)
And often in his gold complexion dimmed;                       (d)
And every fair from fair sometimes declines;                    (c)
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;         (d)
 
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,                             (e)
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;                      (f)
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,            (e)
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.                      (f)
 
     So long as mean can breath, or eyes can see,           (g)
     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.               (g)

Note that there is a slight indent in the last two lines of the poem. The break between the 12th and the 13th line is called the turn, and it usually indicates a shift in tone from the more expository sections of the poem to the final summing up of the poet's point. It’s kind of like a kicker, or a conclusion. It takes the ideas of the body of the poem and makes a final point. Also note that each stanza has its own particular topic that builds on the idea of the previous stanza. Then it all culminates in the couplet at the end. If I were to be so bold, I might paraphrase the entire poem like this:

Stanza 1: Should I compare you to a summer’s day? No, you are far better than that.
Stanza 2: In fact, “a summer’s day” is pretty sucky; it’s hot, and my stuff gets faded and dried out.
Stanza 3: You, on the other hand, do NOT fade. In fact, you are ageless, perfect.
Stanza 4: And what’s more…you are immortal because I have written a poem about you.

I won’t continue to analyze this poem—that’d be a whole other article—but I wanted you to get a sense of the format of the sonnet as performed by one of the masters of the form—Mr. Shakespeare.

Rhythm & Meter

Ok, that’s easy enough to emulate. Now let’s talk about iambic pentameter. Poetry is music, and like music, it capitalizes on the way we say certain words in order to create a rhythm. Even though we don’t use accent marks in the English language, words with two or more syllables are pronounced with specific stresses on certain syllables.  For example, we stress the first syllable of the word po-em, the middle syllable of the word per-for-mance, and the last syllable of the word a-sleep.

When we talk about poetic meter, we are talking about how these words are put together to create a certain rhythm pattern using the stressed and unstressed syllables. For example:

Writ­-ing a ­ po-em is hard-er than it looks.

If you were to take a line of a poem and break it into equal parts, regardless of breaks between words, each part would be called a foot. Depending on the meter, each foot will have a particular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. An iambic foot has a unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Let me attempt to represent the rhythm as an onomatopoeia:

ba-bump

The word pentameter means that in each line of the poem, there are five of these feet strung together in a line:

ba-bump || ba-bump || ba-bump || ba-bump || ba-bump

Iambic pentameter will always have ten syllables regardless of the number of words. Let’s take a look at Shakespeare’s first line:

Shall I || compare|| thee to || a sum || mer’s day?

Unlike some other meter patterns, iambic pentameter is a popular choice for poets because it mimics the natural rhythm of English speech patterns. Some meters can come off too bouncy to read naturally, but iambic pentameter is considered subtle, an unobtrusive form. If you don’t believe me, try reading a sonnet next to one of those nursery rhymes that you learned as a kid. The nursery rhymes are written with meter that is NOT meant to sound natural. It is supposed to sound sing-songy in order to become memorable. And it works…because now you are probably thinking in your head:

London || bridge is || falling || down

Which is trochaic meter, the opposite of iambic. Anyway, getting the meter down is the hardest part of writing a sonnet, but it’s worth the effort because it forces you to really pay attention to your wording and the sounds of those words. Also, you can break the rules occasionally to make a point like inverting the stressed syllable on a word in order to make a particular idea stand out. Similarly, you can drop a syllable or add one as needed to make a line 9 or 11 syllables, but only if it’s done to enhance meaning or understanding.

Why this is an important exercise

Phew, that’s a lot of information, but that’s the idea. The sonnet has a lot of rules attached to it—topic, format, rhyme scheme, and meter are all prescribed parameters that limit the writer. Even if you veer away from the traditional love poem topic, the remaining boundaries still present enough challenges to work your brain into a healthy sweat. Furthermore, attempting a sonnet forces you to do certain things that you should always do when you write:

  1. Pay attention to word choice. When all your words have to fit a particular rhyme and rhythm, you will be forced to choose wisely. Not only do your words have to fit a particular syllable limit, but you’ll need each word to work overtime because you only get a limited amount.
  2. Listen to the sound of your words. Poems are meant to be read aloud, so picking words that sound interesting together heightens the level of your writing, whether it's prose or poetry.
  3. Present ideas logically. The set of three stanzas is not just pleasing to the eye, it’s pleasing to the brain. The progression from topic to point to counterpoint is a tried and true method for constructing a solid argument.
  4. Come to a conclusion. The form of the sonnet is laid out specifically to force the writer to make their point. The turn and the final couplet are in place to ensure that all that explaining in the previous three stanzas is actually going somewhere. It makes you write a strong ending.

Write a Sonnet & WIN!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a sonnet--14 lines of iambic pentameter (as best as you can manage) with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg.

Post your entries in the comments below. The best sonnet (as judged by me...) will win a sweet LitReator Swag Pack with a Chuck Palahniuk bonus! The winner will get:

  • LitReactor T-Shirt
  • LitReactor Pins
  • LitReactor Stickers
  • A copy of Damned by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Damned pin

Post your entries by midnight on December 6th and I'll post the winner the next day. Have fun!

Image by Gregory Eanes

And the winner is... Ann Gasser

My oh my, this was a hard choice. So many wonderful sonnets. I was so pleased to see what an amazing crowd of poets we have here on LitReactor. Congratulations to everyone for making the effort!

I chose Ann's poem because it sang. If you don't believe me, read it for yourself!

ARCHIBALD, YOU WERE WRONG!

 
“A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit...."
ARS POETICA by Archibald MacLeish
A poem NEVER EVER should be mute,
its every word should pulsate, throb and sing--
trill like an aria, or mountain flute
across a crystal lake in early spring.
 
A poem should speak music--violins
vibrato, passionato, tremolo;
it should be pulsing as its sound begins--
a symphony of words that gleam and glow.
 
A poem's music should be buttered air
that slips through honey with a soul-deep moan
to soothe the sick at heart, those who despair,
and those who face each empty night alone.
 
A poem may be simple or astute,
but poems NEVER EVER should be mute!

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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