The Art of Writing a Sonnet
Forms of the Sonnet
The Italian Sonnet
Giacomo da Lentini invented the sonnet in Sicily during the 13th century. He brought it back to his home in Tuscany where it became popular with his contemporaries, chiefly Dante Alighieri, Guido Cavalcanti and Petrarch.
The classic Italian sonnet is built from two quatrains (four line stanzas) followed by two tercets (three line stanzas). The quatrains often rhyme ABBA and the tercets either CDE or CDC. The first eight lines present the proposition. The last six deliver the resolution. The ninth line is referred to as the “volta” or “turn” where the poem takes a rhythmic and logical twist towards its conclusion.
The English Sonnet
In the 16th century Thomas Wyatt translated Italian sonnets (primarily Petrarch's) into English. Shakespeare, Spenser and other English writers ran with the form and made it their own. The English sonnet typically was built from three quatrains and finished with a couplet. The volta was still line nine. Iambic pentameter was the standard meter. ABAB CDCD EFEF GG was the most common rhyme scheme.
The Sonnet in Recent Times
Modern poetry has become less reliant on form and meter, yet Robert Frost, EE Cummings, Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney and others have kept the sonnet alive. Paul Muldoon has done some interesting work with “Word Sonnets” consisting simply of fourteen one-word lines.
My own favorite form, the Ten-by-Ten, is derived from the sonnet. It consists of ten lines of ten syllables each. Essentially, it is a 100 syllable proposition with no volta or resolution.
The Sonnet and You
You may be a futuristic non-rhyming free-verse writer, but you can still learn from the sonnet's structure. Every piece of writing should present a situation and then attempt some sort of solution. Every poem has rhythm, sound and form even if the author does not explicitly dictate a structure. Every verse, sentence or chapter should be meticulously crafted.
Writing a sonnet could be a valuable exercise. I like to practice format shifts. That means I will take something I'm working on and write it in a different style to get an alternate look at it. Are you having trouble with a piece of free-verse? Write it as a sonnet and see if the rhyme forces something new from you. Does your essay feel awkward? Write it as a sonnet to develop a rhythm and a flow.
Like restoring a classic muscle-car, writing sonnets is an old-school skill every poet should have.
Tips for Writing a Great Sonnet
I always start with free-writing. Turn off your filters and spill ideas onto paper without ever saying: “That's not right.” Get to the root of your topic, whether it's the love you feel for another person, some philosophy you're wrestling with or an image you're trying to describe. Be specific. Use many, many words attempting to illustrate your ideas in just the right way. Some of the combinations of letters and words you end up with will sound just right.
This is Jackson Pollock stuff. Throw paint at the floor and see how it splatters.
Now begin thinking about a rough structure. How will you break up your fourteen lines? Treat the stanzas like paragraphs in an essay. How will you introduce your proposition? Which topics will you address and in which order? How will you conclude? Outline it just like you were writing a term paper.
Craft your first line. You need a hook. You need to pull your reader in and stick them right in the middle of the conflict. You may include places, names or a central image. The sounds, diction and end-rhyme you use here will set the stage for the rest of your sonnet.
Get to writing forward and stringing together some rhymes. A rhyme scheme will present itself: Italian, English or one of your own. Honestly, I don't often write in rhyme because it comes off sing-songy, but you can do things to prevent that.
Use enjambment and caesura to vary the endings of your lines. The sonnet's rhyme scheme won't dominate the flow if the length of your ideas and sentences differs from the length of your lines. Don't end every line with a period.
Don't end lines with difficult words. “My love, she has hair the fairest orange” will give you ulcers. If your ending word is challenging to rhyme and forces you to end the next line with a word you hate, rebuild the first line. Put the last word in the middle. Use a synonym. Save yourself from having to write “beautiful/dutiful” or “clandestine/and Justin”. Use words that have lots of rhymes and give yourself numerous choices.
You may write the end before you write the middle. You know how you want to start and how to finish. Perhaps you have lots of imagery to include in between. The size of the sonnet forces you to be concise, which is always good. Select only the most important ideas and most powerful words for the body of the poem.
- Write a page about any topic. Get on all sides of the issue. Describe the good, bad, likable, dislikable, beautiful and ugly of it.
- Take the best part of your page and make it into a great iambic pentameter line. Follow it with as many iambic pentameter lines that rhyme with it as you possible can. Flex your metric and rhythmic muscles.
- Make it into a word sonnet. Using only fourteen words, illustrate your entire point.
- Stretch your word sonnet into a full fourteen line poem. Polish it until you love it or don't want to see it again.
Soleasi Nel Mio Cor
She ruled in beauty o'er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home,
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
'Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine.
The soul that all its blessings must resign,
And love whose light no more on earth finds room,
Might rend the rocks with pity for their doom,
Yet none their sorrows can in words enshrine;
They weep within my heart; and ears are deaf
Save mine alone, and I am crushed with care,
And naught remains to me save mournful breath.
Assuredly but dust and shade we are,
Assuredly desire is blind and brief,
Assuredly its hope but ends in death.
Translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson
The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird's nest
Before it strained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.
On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O'ernight 'twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.
Editor's Note: David Klenda, also known as Eighty Six, is a poet, journalist, cook and cocktail maker. He supports his wife and sons with a combination of freelance writing and hospitality. Flexible and adaptable by nature, he accepts all writing challenges. http://eightysixthepoet.blogspot.com