Yesterday we started by explaining what a sonnet is, and by giving some guidelines for pre-writing. Today we move on to the more interesting part: actually writing the thing.
Actually Writing a Sonnet
You’ve got a topic in mind, a general idea of how you want to approach it, and a feel for the tone you want to strike. Now what?
Now write your first line.
Remember, it’s iambic pentameter, so it should have a certain rhythm to it: da-DA, da-DA, da-DA, da-DA, da-DA. This rhythm (or meter) is called the iamb, and it’s the most natural of all the poetic meters. People tend to talk this way without even realizing it. For instance, I did it a few sentences ago, completely by accident: “so IT should HAVE a CERtain RHYthm TO…” That’s iambic pentameter right there.
Your first line can be a complete thought in itself, or it can spill over into the next line. Either way is okay. But write your first line, check that it’s got good rhythm, and then start thinking about rhyme.
How do you think about rhyme? Well, let’s say my first line is:
I gently tried massaging the giraffe
(It’s possible you can do better than this.)
If your rhyme scheme is ababcdcdefefgg, then your third line will have to rhyme with your first. So you’d better have some idea of what words rhyme with your first line, so you can start taking your second line in the right direction.
What words rhyme with giraffe? The easiest method I’ve found is to run through the alphabet: A-ff (no), B-aff (n0), C-aff (calf!), D-aff (no), E-aff (no), F-aff (no), G-aff (gaffe!), and so on. (At the end of the alphabet, don’t forget to try other starting sounds like th-, sh-, and ch-.) This method only supplies one-syllable rhymes, but it’s a decent start. You can also try a rhyming dictionary, or whatever other method works for you.
Maybe you’ll find that your line has no good rhymes. In that case, change your line. Don’t feel like the words you’ve written are set in stone.
Let’s say I settle on “laugh” as a good rhyme for “giraffe.” Now I have a little better idea of where I’m headed. Then I can write a second line (thinking about rhymes for the fourth line), and follow it up with a third line ending in “laugh.”
I gently tried massaging the giraffe.
His knobby kneecaps shivered with delight,
And as I worked, I couldn’t help but laugh
Now my fourth line can tell you why I’m laughing, and it should rhyme with “delight.” You can see how the structure of the sonnet helps guide you, even as it limits you. (By the way, this phenomenon is true of more than just sonnets.)
So the rest of the sonnet goes the same way. The only extra wrinkle is the volta, or change, that I talked about yesterday. My advice there would be to try writing a few sonnets without a volta to get used to the general feel, and only tackle it once you’re more comfortable. Read some sonnets to get a better idea of how the volta works and what it looks like, and then try it yourself.
Bam! You’ve written a sonnet. Or at least, you’ve read up to this point. Either way, nice work.
Revision is just as important in poetry as in prose, if not more so. All the usual revision tactics apply: cut out cliches, make every word count, murder your darlings, etc.
But sonnets in particular lead to a certain type of mistake: compromising your language to fit the structure.
The rules of the sonnet are demanding enough that it’s tempting to feel like you’ve “won” if you just write a poem that follows the structure. But the structure is only the starting point, the price of admission into Sonnetpalooza 2012. Once you’re in, you’ve still gotta shine.
So be on the lookout for two specific types of mistakes. First: words (or whole lines) that don’t really help the poem, but only exist to give you a rhyme. Rhyming is no excuse for limp writing. And second, similar to the first: words that don’t really help the poem, but only exist to make the iambic pentameter work. Filler words like “very” or even “the” can be suspect here. I’m not saying you should never write “the,” but ask yourself whether your writing serves the poem, or just the structure. If it’s only there as scaffolding, revise.
There’s no room for fluff in sonnets or any other kind of writing. Stretch every word till it screams.
Most of my advice so far has been technical, and that worries me a little. I don’t want to imply that writing a sonnet is just following a bunch of rules. The rules are nothing more than the starting point, and if all you do is follow them, you’ll fail every time.
The rules are the body of the sonnet, but its soul is poetry.
Experiment. Be different. Be outrageous. Be fearless. Be amazing. And if you’re not amazing, try it eighty thousand more times, because that’s what writers do.