How to Write a Damn Good Sonnet

How to Write a Damn Good Sonnet

Forget the ruffles. Forget the ?thee? and ?thou?. Kick this form?s ass, 21st century style.

Image for postPhoto by Taylor Ann Wright on Unsplash

Okay, I lied to you in the title. Just a little bit.

This post will, hopefully, give you a crash course on writing a sonnet. But if it?s your first sonnet, it probably won?t be good. And that?s just fine.

The secret to writing a damn good sonnet is simple: keep writing bad ones. And eventually, they?ll stop sucking.

To be fair, that?s how we get better at anything. But with Sonnets, the learning curve is a little bit more pronounced, because our cultural touchstone for the form is a literal poetic genius who lived and wrote over half a millennium ago. We look at our own work and say ?This isn?t Shakespeare!? And decide to give up on the prospect.

Screw that. This is the 21st Century, and we will not be held back. I give you permission to write sonnets that look nothing like Shakespeare?s. Or Spenser?s. Or even Millay?s. I?m giving you permission to write bad sonnets.

You can even submit them to my publication here on Medium:

Sonnetry

Perfection in fourteen lines.

medium.com

Before you can learn, you must forget.

To that end, I want you to purge these AP English vocab words from your brain. Just forget about them.

  • Refrain
  • Volta
  • Quatrain
  • Meter
  • Iambic Pentameter

Those words are good words, and important words. And if you keep writing sonnets, you?ll definitely want to learn about them. But right now, they are only going to get in your way. Unless you?re working on a MFA at Columbia, you don?t need those words (or any words like them) in your pocket.

These are Ivy League words. And sure, the day may come when you want to hobnob with the Ivy League types, but we?re not worrying about that now.

What you need to know.

A sonnet is a 14-line poem.

There is typically some kind of organized pattern of rhyming words at the end of each line.

The lines are usually the same length. Meaning they have the same number of syllables.

That?s all you need to know for now.

This is typically where some professor from Columbia comes in. . .

and starts talking about meter. Specifically, iambic pentameter.

No, that?s not some spell from Harry Potter. I know it sounds like one.

Anyway, they?ll tell you that a sonnet has to have iambic pentameter. Or iambic tetrameter. Or iambic hexameter. That that?s what makes it a sonnet.

That?s bullshit.

Though, you know what? Meter is great. It really does help make a sonnet. But the only way you?re going to learn meter without being confused out of your gourd is to internalize the rhythm. To feel the stresses in the pattern of the words, and internalize that kind of music.

That?s exactly what it?s like: finding the beat in music.

The only way you?re going to develop your ear for it, is reading a bunch of poetry, and exaggerating the beat. Consider the beginning of Edna St. Vincent Millay?s Sonnet XXVII.

I know I am but summer to your heartand not the full four seasons of the year. . .

If you listen carefully, you?ll notice that the words have this kind of up-and-down pattern to them, a kind of rocking rhythm, that you might compare to your heartbeat:

i KNOW i AM but SUMMer TO your HEARTand NOT the FULL four SEAsons OF the YEAR.

The heartbeat rhythm is that makes it iambic. Having five of them in a line is what makes it pentameter.

If it doesn?t click, don?t worry about it. Just keep reading poetry, preferably out loud. You?ll start to hear it. Everywhere.

Meter adds an extra level to a sonnet. But don?t let the confusing way that it?s taught and explained keep you from writing sonnets.

Just start with 10 syllables. 14 lines. Some kind of rhyme.

WTF is Rhyme?

Rhyme is one of those things we kind of inherently know, but trying to find the textbook explanation is much . . . trickier.

I can sit here and throw the textbook definitions at you. But I think you can trust your ear to know what rhymes.

Some things rhyme perfectly. Some things rhyme imperfectly. Some things look like they should rhyme, but don?t. Some things look like they shouldn?t rhyme, but they do.

If you want to overthink what rhymes and what doesn?t, Wikipedia has a great breakdown on the different kinds of rhymes:

Rhyme

A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds (usually, exactly the same sound) in the final stressed syllables and any?

en.wikipedia.org

If you want something simpler, I recommend Dr. Seuss.

Trust your ears. Don?t let the Columbia brainiacs complicate this stuff.

WTF is a Rhyme Scheme?

Chances are, if you?ve googled ?how do I write a sonnet?? You?ve come across something that looks like this:

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

Just what you need: a bunch of flipping gibberish. So let?s break it down.

We know already that a sonnet is 14 lines long. This cryptic code is 14 letters long, so you might guess that every letter is a line. That would be a good guess.

And if you?ve read a lot of sonnets, especially old sonnets, you?ll see that they?re usually split into 3 sets of four lines, with a closing pair of two lines. So each block of letters is a stanza ? that is, a poetic paragraph.

And remember, from our initial definition of a sonnet above, each line is 10 syllables long. Remember the syllables from the Millay poem:

i KNOW i AM but SUMMer TO your HEARTand NOT the FULL four SEAsons OF the YEAR.

So, if you wanted to expand the road map above, it would look like this.

xx xx xx xx xaxx xx xx xx xbxx xx xx xx xaxx xx xx xx xb

xx xx xx xx xcxx xx xx xx xdxx xx xx xx xcxx xx xx xx xd

xx xx xx xx xexx xx xx xx xfxx xx xx xx xexx xx xx xx xf

xx xx xx xx xgxx xx xx xx xg

  • * please note that they?re grouped in syllables of two just to make it easier on your eyes. I?m not saying that each line has to have five two-syllable words. God, no. *

So in the graph above, an X is any syllable. It?s a place holder, a wildcard. What we?re concerned with is the rhyme at the end of the line. And each different letter represents a different rhyming sound. Any rhyming sound.

Let?s take an example from one of my poems:

This soul is ash and iron ? don?t you know,emulsified inside a dying dreamand I could never tell which way to goor trust the voice behind the empty scream

Using the shorthand above, you would say that this has an ABAB rhyme scheme.

?know? and ?go? are the A sound,?dream? and ?scream? are the B sound.

With that in mind, let?s go back to Millay?s sonnet. Can you figure out what the rhyme scheme is?

I know I am but summer to your heart,And not the full four seasons of the year;And you must welcome from another partSuch noble moods as are not mine, my dear.

No gracious weight of golden fruits to sellHave I, nor any wise and wintry thing;And I have loved you all too long and wellTo carry still the high sweet breast of Spring.

Wherefore I say: O love, as summer goes,I must be gone, steal forth with silent drums,That you may hail anew the bird and roseWhen I come back to you, as summer comes.

Else will you seek, at some not distant time,Even your summer in another clime.

N.b. I added the stanza breaks to help you. The original does not have them.

So now you know:

the weird-ass string of letters just tells you how the end words of each line should rhyme.

As you might guess:

The sonnet as a form is extremely flexible. I?m talking Olympic gymnast in bed after a couple of beers flexible. (Not that I?m speaking from experience, mind you.)

And the different types of sonnets have a bunch of different names and rhyme schemes. Here?s some you may have seen, and some you probably haven?t:

  • Elizabethan / Shakespearian: Lines are 10 syllables, scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
  • Spenserian (I?ve literally never written this, but you do you): 10 syllables, ABAB BCBC CDCD EE
  • Cyhydded Fer (Don?t worry, this won?t be on the test, or even the spelling test. This is just us good English people stealing more from the Welsh and bastardizing their art to fit our mongrel language): Lines are *8* syllables, scheme is AA BB CC DD EE FF GG.
  • Terza Rima (think Dante): *10* or *12* syllables (just pick one and go with it. Scheme: ABA BCB CDC DED FF
  • Italian: 10 or 11 syllables per line. Scheme: Some variation of: ABBAABBA CDECDE or ABBACDDC EFGEFG (basically, you don?t end on two lines with the same rhyme).
  • Stunted Sonnets (I came up with this in high school, I rarely ever use it anymore): Alternating lines of *8* and *4* OR *8* and *6*, scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
  • Clipped Sonnets (I wrote one of these once. It was predictably bad.): Each line is only *4* syllables. Scheme: AABBCCDDEEFFGG
  • Nonnet (a modern, deconstructional form by Laura LaMarca): 10 syllable lines, scheme: XXXX XXXX XXXX AA. (No, you?re not having a stroke. The only lines that rhyme are the ending couplet ? the idea is that the closing couplet gives the rest of the poem the illusion of rhyme.)
  • Monorhyme (a modern form by Amera Andersen): 10 syllable lines, scheme: AAAA BBBB CCCC DD
  • And you can get into all of the French forms, like Kyrielle sonnets, where you start repeating whole words in addition to rhymes. Good luck with that.

There will be no test on any of these terms.

Is it nice to know that there is a long, storied history of writing different sonnets in different shapes in different languages? Absolutely.

Is it nice to know that there are some standard variations on the form? Absolutely.

But there are as many ways to write sonnets as there are things to write sonnets about. And there are very few hard and fast rules.

  • Fourteen lines.
  • Each line is (usually, the vast majority of the time) the same length.

This is the beginning of your sonnet education. Not the end.

Write sonnets. Write bad sonnets. Read them out loud. Get over your High School English phobia, and read some Shakespeare.

Go watch Shakespeare.

Watch it at your local public high school, where it?s the only thing they can afford to produce because it?s in the public domain.

Watch it at your local theatre company, where it?s the only thing they can afford to produce because it?s in the public domain. But this time, some hipster with a playwriting degree from NYU has gender-bent and modernized the show in some way.

And then, realize that Shakespeare isn?t the only damn person in the English language to have written a sonnet, and read some other sonnets, too.

And keep writing your bad sonnets throughout all of this. Save them, and put them up on the internet. Be proud of them. And don?t be afraid to share them a decade later, when you?re embarrassed of them.

Like I definitely am:

For the Muse-Touchd Souls

for Kat Hallo, Miss Condor Pride 2009

It seem?st that from the stars, he shines ?pon thee,O gentle chann?ler of the poet?s muse;a halo ?pon thine brow ? by most unseenfor dusty words do oft their minds confuse.

Them ? I speak of groundlings, eas?ly capturedtheir minds enchanted by patches of skin,with children?s charms their minds lost, enraptured,simple minds not comprehending sin.

Dear poet, artist, I beg?st thee ? still shineand breathe God?s love into the agd words;Shut thine ears when the unenlightened whine,thine thoughts are rich, not fodder for the herds.

And, perhaps, when beneath the sod you laythine dusty words will see the light of day.

What are you still doing here? Go write a damn sonnet already.

Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, ?a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne?. He is a thespian, poet, and writer for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer.

If you?re still reading this, and you happen to be an admissions officer at Yale, Columbia, NYU, or UMN. Hi, I?m Zach and I?d like a spot in your poetry program. Thanks!

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