Sonnet Guest Post by Jeri Walker

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.”

Sonnet Prologue Color CodedHow 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.

0022 Shakespeare Quote

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.

0023 Shakespeare Quote

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?

JeriWB 03Truth 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.

31 thoughts on “Sonnet Guest Post by Jeri Walker

  1. Fascinating. I am not a fan of poetry and don’t recall ever reading a sonnet, but now have a whole new respect for those who do! I always enjoy learning something new so thanks!

    1. Marquita, While in college, I wasn’t a fan of poetry either, but I started writing poetry and enjoy traditional as well as free verse. Each poem is a new experience for me.

  2. I enjoy reading and writing poetry, though blog writing seems to take up more and more of my time.

    I have only just heard of a sonnet. There is so much to learn about poetry. I like that poetry can be complex, intriguing and never “wrong”.

  3. I have never written a sonnet, but after reading this I think I’d like to try. There is something fascinating about the emotion and boundlessness of poetry being expressed within a rigid format.

    1. Donna, I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve challenged myself with traditional form and invented forms. It’s great for writer’s block. Hope you get to trying out the sonnet.

    2. Donna, I’m glad this post has put the sonnet-writing urge in your mind. I have always found the results of writing poetry within rigid formats very appealing.

  4. I had to chuckle when I came to the part about breaking out in sweat because to tell the truth, I did. But then you took pity and simplified things by advising to speak out loud with my hand placed under my chin. Did that and it worked.
    It’s too bad that simplicity and humour isn’t used when Eng. Lit is taught in schools. I had to learn Romeo and Juliet which I found a bore but reading the above sonnet it is actually quite pretty.
    Thanks for the education.

      1. Denise and Lenie, Yay! I’m glad you learned something new. I had all kinds of fun teaching Shakespeare when I was in the classroom. I always had students put on skits. Oh how they loved to dress up and die!

  5. You can add me to the list of people who haven’t tried writing any structured poetry since I got out of school. Not exactly sure the reason for doing so either. Yet I did appreciate the lesson Jeri and found it interesting.

  6. Whew, now I know why Shakespeare is so revered. I don’t think I have it in me to write one. I read a lot of poetry as an English major, including Shakespeare’s sonnets. I loved reading them but have no desire to start writing poetry.

    1. Jeannette, whew indeed! I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. I love experimenting with various poetic forms and rarely write free verse.

  7. I have thought about writing a sonnet before, but it’s always been something that is difficult to do. You need to get the rhyming pattern down and the syllable level and it can be hard not to make it sound incredibly forced but smooth! Which is why I can really admire all of those who have nailed sonnets. However, this guest post will help me be able to manage it! I can’t wait to make my own sonnet one day 😀

    1. Olivia, I find I write sonnets best by not stressing over the stresses too much. Luckily, English naturally tends to follow an iambic pattern for syllables. Not always, but mostly.

  8. I have never tried to write a sonnet. I think this is a skill that I lake.
    I appreciate your post and re-exposing something to me that I had seen such a long time ago in school.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    1. William, sonnet lessons from high school probably don’t stick very well unless the teacher has students actually write one. I always made it an option. Students had to write one strict format and could choose from types such as sonnets, villanelles, or sestinas, etc.

  9. Holy Moly! I found a brand new respect for writers of sonnets!I haven’t even read one since school, but learning the how sure inspires, not to mention imbues one with an appreciation of the finished product.

    1. Jacquie, I wish I could say I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but no. At least every now and again, I’ll seek a few new ones out to read and digest.

  10. I might have written a sonnet in high school. I went to 3 different high schools so I had certain lessons multiple times and other lessons I missed altogether since different schools do things in different years. I’ve read a TON of Shakespeare though. That’s what happens when you’re a theater major in college.

    1. Erica, did you ever act in a Shakespearian play? I have so much respect for anyone who can memorize lines and also bring a character to life on stage. Your note about moving from school to school helps makes a good argument for a national curriculum, but alas in America such control is left up to the states.

  11. I managed to write one sonnet in college and still like it. However, that could be because I haven’t attempted another one! Lots of work involved in that endeavour. Something I will accomplish in this life is to read and understand more of Shakespeare–and sonnets are on the top of that list. Keep pushing!

  12. Have I ever written a sonnet? Truth is, I don’t remember! I wonder if I did in high school. I for sure have not attempted one in the last 30 years. But your ability to remember all the intricate details impresses me to no end, Jeri!

    1. Laura, I heard tales of a teacher in a neighboring school district when I was in high school that the only poem the students had to write was a sonnet. They hated it, but also probably got a lot out of not having other options.

  13. There’s something really beautiful about the precision that goes into righting a sonnet. Makes me glad that’s not the form I write in! But it also makes me appreciate the lyrical genius that it takes to put together a good sonnet. Maybe I’ll add it to my writing bucket list!

    1. Meredith, appreciating poetic forms is often reward enough. It can make reading them that much more enjoyable when the underlying structure is understood.

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