Sonnet-Writing Made Simple

Sonnet-Writing Made Simple

Let’s think about poetry-writing as an exercise. We tend to think of poetry in expressive terms: it’s all about putting your emotions into words, right? Well, not exactly. At least, I think it’s about something different. I’m a poet by vocation and training, and I tend to think in terms of craft. A poem, like any piece of art, is a thing which I make out of materials available to me: in other words, words. The 20th-century poet William Carlos Williams famously said that a poem is a “large or small machine made of words.” A poem is not the writer’s soul poured out on the page, though the end result may suggest that it is. A poem, at least as it’s being written, isn’t so much an act of inspiration as of writing a word, then another word, then another.

Having a structure like the sonnet form makes it easier to decide roughly how many words will be in a line – or at least how many stressed syllables — and what sorts of words, or sounds, each line should end with. Thinking about fulfilling that structure or form relieves the pressure every writer feels: the pressure to say something original and brilliant. Far from squelching the writer’s expressiveness, following the rules of form defuses his natural self-consciousness – think of it as becoming really absorbed in a game like Sudoku – and unlocks something in the mind which enables the writer to say things in ways which would not have been possible if he had been trying to think of them.

So let’s say that you’d like to try writing a sonnet. How will you go about it? Think of the English writer G.K. Chesterton’s adage that a thing worth doing is worth doing badly, and jump right in.

Your intent, from the get-go, is to conform to the rules of the sonnet. That’s all. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing about; in fact, you should probably aim, in your experiment, to write something as trivial and everyday and unexciting as possible, so that what you are focusing on is not an idea, or even on the meaning of the words themselves, but on working out the puzzle of rhyme and meter. In short, don’t get bogged down in trying to be poetic.

Meter is harder than rhyme; what you might do is first to reread some sonnets aloud, in a singsongy way, and then try speaking ordinary utterances in roughly iambic pentameter, as in I’m going to the store; d’you want to come? Make a dinner-table game of conversing in pentameter. Iambic pentameter is the closest poetic approximation of natural English speech, and if you practice at it a bit, you’ll soon start hearing it in ordinary utterance. Once you have the meter in your “ear,” you can experiment with writing lines in that meter. You don’t have to write anything strikingly original, beautiful, or poetic. I’m going to the store; d’you want to come would be a perfectly good first line for a sonnet. Then write a second line with the same rhythm, but a different end-sound.

I’m going to the store; d’you want to come?
I hear they’ve got a sale on rutabagas.

And so on. Your third line will have to rhyme with either “come” or “rutabagas,” depending on whether you’re writing a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet. And the fourth line will either rhyme with “come,” if it’s a Petrarchan sonnet, or with “rutabagas,” if you’re being Shakespearean. So for example, you might end up either with this –

I’m going to the store; d’you want to come?(a)
I hear they’ve got a sale on rutabagas.(b)
Besides, they’re raffling off a trip to Vegas -(b)
I’d like a holiday. My room’s a slum(a)

Or this –

I’m going to the store; d’you want to come?(a)
I hear they’ve got a sale on rutabagas.(b)
On second thought, you’ve got to clean your room(a)
Before we hit the highway for Las Vegas. (b)

I am making this up off the top of my head, by the way, and you will already have seen one trap it’s possible to fall into. If you use the word “rutabagas” at the end of a line, you WILL be writing about Las Vegas, whether you really want to go there or not. You’ll make your life easier by writing lines that end in slow, or rain, or be.. Also note that while it’s easy to have a line be a complete sentence, you can break lines across syntax, like this:

I’m going to the store; d’you want to come
With me today, or do you want to sit
Alone and sulk and concentrate on quantum
Physics, and dig yourself into a pit
Of abject misery, et cetera, so on . . .

This technique of breaking lines at places that aren’t natural breaks in the sentence, periods or commas, is called enjambment, by the way, and it’s a means of getting more mileage out of your available words when you’re looking for ways to rhyme.

Once you’ve set up a rhyme scheme in the first stanza, you know whether you’re writing a Petrarchan or a Shakespearean sonnet, and your task from here on out is simply to follow the form. Don’t worry about being coherent. If you run out of things to say about going to the store and wishing you were going to Las Vegas, start talking about something else. The form will hold things together; in fact, it’s taking you wherever it wants you to go. You might want to go on talking about Las Vegas, but if the rhyme scheme won’t let you, clearly it’s tired of that idea and wants you to find another. In a contest of wills between your idea and the sonnet form, the form always wins. Always. It requires you to lay down whatever plans you might have made about what you wanted to say. It requires you to let it change your mind. In the poetry dance, the sonnet leads, and you let it surprise you. You might not know what you’re saying from one line to the next, but by the time you’ve finished line fourteen, you will have said something. More importantly, you will have accomplished a sonnet. And you will have trusted the form to take you places, which is an exercise in humility.

Finally, if you make a serious study of the sonnet, you will notice that poets who write sonnets tend to write a lot of them, in cycles. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, not all on the same theme, but on a set of concerns which, if you read all his sonnets together, create the effect of the interwoven tapestry which is a mind at work. Read Shakespeare, read John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, read Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edna St. Vincent Millay. You don’t have to spend hours over every single sonnet – pick two or three for in-depth discussion, but read an entire cycle by a given writer, because while a single sonnet is a gem, to read a cycle is to discover the whole glittering mine. Then try writing not just one sonnet, but a series yourself.

I say this mainly because the best way to write one decent sonnet is to write a lot of them. One Lent I chose sonnet-writing as a discipline: I wrote a sonnet a day for the entire forty days. Most of these sonnets were . . . well, bad. One, I recall, was about a cowhide-patterned dress my daughter was wearing; I was really scraping bottom that day. Nobody would want to read that poem, ever. I mean, fourteen lines of “well, that’s really, like, black-and-white.” But writing a sonnet a day for forty days meant that I got pretty good at coming up with fourteen rhyming lines about whatever my eye fell on. I started seeing the world in terms of fourteen rhyming lines. Those lines didn’t always make sense, and they weren’t always about much of anything. But the exercise meant that occasionally I surprised myself by writing a good poem, a better poem than I had thought I was capable of writing in that form. So don’t stop at one sonnet. Write sonnets for a week, for two weeks, for a month, for forty days. Make a discipline of laying down your will to that strict little poetic form, and it will take you places.