How to Write a Sonnet, Part 1

Last week, blog reader Evlora left me a comment:

Also, I have a bit of a question/request. I want to know how, when you write a sonnet, you go about it. What is your procedure, or does it vary from sonnet to sonnet? Do you write it start to finish, or the ending first? Do you plan out every line or does it just come as you write it?
I’ve been writing a few of my own, and I’m curious about how others, particularly such talented writers as yourself, write, and whether or not the way that you write them in affects the quality of the outcome. Basically, might using a different method make my sonnets better? Or is experience now the only way I can better my sonnets? (In which case… *cringe*)

A sonnet-writing guide sounds like an excellent excuse for a blog post or two. So, today and tomorrow, I’ll explain my method.

Let’s get to some sweet sonnet action!

Caveats

Two things. First, I am not William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, or Harold Bloom. I am a dude who types words on the Internets, and occasionally I dabble in Das Sonneten. Take my advice with vast quantities of salt.

Second, even if I were some sort of poetry god, remember that every writer in the world follows a totally different process than every other writer. This is just how I happen to do it, and it seems to work for me. But if the method I describe makes you recoil in horror, then by all means try something else.

What is a Sonnet?

The sonnet form has evolved over time, so there isn’t a single, fixed, absolute definition of what a sonnet is. Traditionally, though, a sonnet is a poem that meets the following requirements:

  • has fourteen lines
  • is written in iambic pentameter
  • follows a set rhyme scheme
  • has a volta

I’ll go through these in more detail.

Iambic pentameter means that each line has ten syllables, and that the syllables form a particular rhythm as you say them: da-DA, da-DA, da-DA, da-DA, da-DA. Unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, and so on, till you end on a stressed syllable.

Right: My friends and I ate twenty-seven pies.

Wrong: Never underestimate a seagull.

Iambic pentameter is generally the hardest thing for new poets to figure out. Try reading a few sonnets to get the hang of how the beat goes. It might help to read them aloud in a singsong voice, exaggerating the stresses. If this doesn’t make sense, tons of other websites out there explain it too; Google is your friend.

The rhyme scheme is easier: basically you just need to pick a pattern of rhyming and stick with it. The Shakespearean sonnet uses a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g, which is what I use. Each letter represents a line, so the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, and so on.

Other patterns exist. It doesn’t really matter what you pick, as long as you follow it.

Finally, there’s the volta, or “turn.” A volta is a shift in the poem – in tone, in the approach to the subject, or in some other way. (Again, reading a few sonnets can help you get the hang of this.) The volta generally starts either at the ninth line (which is what I do), or at the thirteenth line.

Example

Here is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s legendary and beautiful sonnet, Love Is Not All.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

Fourteen lines, Shakespearean rhyme scheme, a shift from the general to the personal on the ninth line, and solid iambic pentameter.

I count six words in this poem that cause a “hiccup” in the otherwise regular iambic pentameter rhythm. Can you identify which ones they are?

Pre-Writing

Okay, so you know what a sonnet is. Now what?

For me, the next step is to decide what you want to write about. Pick a topic. And remember you only have fourteen lines, so you’ll need something pretty specific. “Love,” for example, may be too general; you can see how Millay tackled a particular aspect of love, namely, how it stacks up against physical needs. Cyborgs are another excellent topic, but what do you want to say about cyborgs? It doesn’t have to be a tedious moral, an explicit lesson, or some kind of hidden meaning, but you should have some sort of direction in mind before you begin writing.

You also ought to think about the tone of your poem. Are you going to be serious? Funny? Satirical? Happy, sad, angry, filled with unspeakable ennui? Something else entirely? The options are limitless, but know your tone and control it. Don’t start writing an elegy and finish with a joke, unless you’re trying for some very particular effect.

One last word about pre-writing: you should try to include some element of tension in your poem. Doesn’t matter if it’s explicit and obvious (like cyborgs versus pod people) or implicit and subtle (like the beauty of snow set against the knowledge it will melt in a few months). What you don’t want to do is spend fourteen lines just talking about how great (or how bad) something is, without a hint of conflict. Even haiku are built around tension, and those only have seventeen syllables – imagine what you can do with 140!

That’s about the extent of my pre-writing. I don’t plan out every line or anything like that. I basically pick a direction and go.

So that’s all for today. Tomorrow we’ll get into the meat of it: actually writing the sonnet. Anybody have any questions so far?

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4 responses to “How to Write a Sonnet, Part 1

  1. No questions, but thank you so much for writing this!

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