I had planned to post this in April during National Poetry Month. Jeri Walker put together a post on how to write a sonnet. A freelance editor and writer, who I had the privilege of working with on my second novel, Fogged Up Fairy Tale, Jeri shares with us her knowledge of poetry and writing from her years of teaching.
How To Write a Sonnet
How to write a sonnet has been known to strike fear in many souls. Maybe you were forced to pen one back in school, or you tried composing a sonnet later in life with mixed results. Perhaps you like to tinker with free verse, but stricter poetic forms give you a headache. Since the recent twentieth anniversary of National Poetry Month, I thought it would be fun to share a tutorial on how to tackle this demanding form.
This post will cover how to write a sonnet known as the English, Elizabethan, or Shakespearian variety. William Shakespeare wrote 154 known sonnets, thus the poetic format became closely linked with his name. Other varieties include the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet, the Spenserian sonnet, and ones termed Indefinables in that they function like sonnets, but don’t follow a recognizable pattern (as in “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley).
Rather than use one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets for an example to discuss the components that comprise the form, I thought it would be fun to use the Prologue to Romeo and Julie instead since it happens to be written as a sonnet. Later on in the play, the two young lovers also speak to each other in sonnet format in the exchange that starts, “If I profane with my unworthiest hand.”
How to write a sonnet comes down to heeding a lot of numbers. Let’s start with the big picture. An English sonnet contains fourteen lines. The fourteen lines consist of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a couplet (two-line stanza). A problem of some sort is introduced in the first quatrain and then elaborated on in the following ones. The problem is then resolved in some fashion in the concluding couplet.
Note how every other line within each quatrain rhymes in addition to the rhyme found in the couplet. This alternating pattern of rhyme is known as a rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearian Sonnet is as follows: abab cdcd efef gg. This tends to be the trickiest part for me. Often I will come up with a rhyme scheme and then see what lines I can think of to fashion the poem around.
But wait, there’s more! On top of the strict rhyme scheme, a sonnet is written in lines of iambic pentameter. Say what? Yes, time for even more math. A small group of syllables is known as a foot, and an iamb is a two-syllable unit. An iamb consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Pentameter comes into play in that each line of a sonnet will contain five of these feet. So that means each line will have ten syllables.
I totally understand if sweat is breaking out on your brow at this point and your pulse is quickening a bit. Lucky for us, the speech patterns of English tend to naturally follow an iambic pattern. The easiest way to get a sense of where the stressed syllables fall within a line is to speak the line out loud with your hand placed beneath your chin. Pay attention to when your chin drops to feel the stressed syllables. Dictionaries will also indicate stressed syllables with an accent mark if you need to verify a word’s stress pattern.
Despite how strict the sonnet form appears, they can actually be quite fun to write if you don’t let frustration carry you away. Remember, that language is an art form and contains much beauty. Not to mention playing with language can just be plain fun. So now that you know how to write a sonnet, go forth and pen one in honor of National Poetry Month.
Have you ever written a sonnet? What poetic forms are you drawn to?
Truth really is stranger than fiction, and it’s a long damn story. Jeri Walker’s short stories, creative nonfiction, and psychological novels (in progress) show the influence of being raised by a bipolar mother in the eccentric North Idaho mining town of Wallace as well as the trauma of being abandoned by her Jekyll-and-Hyde ex whom she fell in love with while working in Yellowstone National Park.
She and her demanding pets call the Pacific Northwest home. In the continual pursuit of finding herself, she plans to someday live in an RV or a tiny house. She dwells online at Word Bank Writing & Editing, grateful to be charting a course as a freelancer. Connect with her at JeriWB.com or browse her books.