Saturday, March 27, 2010

Writing Sonnets with Meter, Rhythm, and Proper Form

Sonnets, as short as they are, sometimes strike fear into the hearts of poets.  For those unaccustomed to the challenges of writing in meter, they take a bit more work - you find yourself counting syllables and checking stress with nearly every word.  Added to this is the requirement to fit the end rhyme into one of the standard sonnet forms.  Yet because of these challenges, sonnets are also an incredibly useful teaching tool - they help develop an awareness of the interplay between meter and the perceived rhythm of your words.  This exercise will help you develop confidence in building lines which use meter and rhyme together. (see also my post "Sonnets: Poems of Love and Ideas")



Before starting on this exercise, you'll want to be familiar with the function of meter in poetry.  You can see my article "Meter - The Rhythm of Lines" for information on teaching meter.  I also recommend reading more on scansion (the rhythm of a poem).  See the Mountain View College article on "The Scansion of Poetry" for a complete discussion which includes a list of metrical forms.  Finally, the structures of the Italian (Petrarchan) and English (Shakespearean) sonnet forms can be found on pages 2042-2045 of the Norton Anthology.  Or you can visit Nelson Miller's "Basic Sonnet Forms."
The following exercises are designed to provide practice with meter and rhyme.  Please free to add and subtract words as needed – the goal is to produce clean, metrical lines with memorable meaning.


A Few Notes on Sonnets:

Iambic pentameter is a line with ten syllables broken into five metrical “feet” (here, and iamb: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).
Iambic tetrameter has eight syllables (four feet) per line instead of ten.
A trochee is a metrical foot with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.


Step One – Find the Idea for Your Poem

I recommend writing a fourteen-line "starter poem" before writing your sonnet.  Don't worry about meter or rhyme - focus on putting ideas to the page.  Bear in mind that many of the ideas will change and nearly all the lines will be reworded and rearranged, so do not worry about perfection at this stage.  Once you have your “starter poem,” you'll have your ideas ready.

For these exercises, I’ve provided practice lines for you to work with before you start on your own sonnet.


Step Two – Find Your Rhymes

Typically, it’s much easier to shift meter than it is to find a new rhyming word, especially if that new rhyming word has to fit in a particular place in the line (e.g. at the end). 

Exercise 1 – Find rhyming words for the key concepts of this statement:

As I walked to the store, I realized that I had forgotten my wallet at home.

Exercise 2 – Find more rhyming words for the following:

Turning back, I realized that a strange man wearing a dark suit and a fedora was standing at the corner with an umbrella.  He had a menacing look.  Clutched in one hand was a single long-stemmed rose.  I think it still had thorns.


Step Three – Compose Your Poem in Meter

Once you have your ideas and your rhymes, this is primarily a matter of rearranging words.

Exercise 3 – Convert Exercise 1 to Iambic Pentameter

Exercise 4 – Convert Exercise 2 to Iambic Pentameter

Exercise 5 – Write a transition to link Exercise 3 and Exercise 4


Additional Practice with Meter, Rhyme, and Arrangement

Exercise 6 – Rewrite your short poem in iambic tetrameter, maintaining the rhyme (and it’s all right to change which words rhyme).

Exercise 7 – Write an ending to your short poem.  (You may use either the iambic pentameter or iambic tetrameter version.  Or both.)



Some Notes on Writing the Sonnet Form

Choosing whether to use the Italian (Petrarchan) Form or the English (Shakespearean) Form in advance can be helpful.  This will help you plan the rhyme scheme.


The easiest way to choose is to consider where in the poem your Volta will fall.  If there’s a great deal of buildup followed by a quick conclusion, then the Shakespearean sonnet is your best bet.  If, instead, you’d like more time to linger on the conclusion, then the Petrarchan sonnet gives more freedom in the ending, but it does reduce the buildup and forces the Volta to come near the middle.


Once you’re familiar with the standard closed-form of the sonnet, you can also write variations.  By changing the rhyme scheme or the meter, you can reveal themes of broken love or irregular interest.  Traditionally, any poem with fourteen lines is considered a sonnet.  However, you can also write a fourteen line poem which isn’t a sonnet – the interesting part comes in convincing readers that it’s neither a sonnet nor a commentary on the sonnet form.

Related Links on the Sonnet Form:
How to Write a Sonnet (on Hamlet Regained) - a beginner's guide to writing sonnets, with more of a focus on the rhyme than I take here.
Shakespeare's Sonnets (quite possibly a complete list)
"Writing a Sonnet - For Dummies" - Does a complete breakdown of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"), revealing the intricate logic inherent to the sonnet form.

<--Week 11 - Week 12 - Metrical Poems
Sonnets: Themes - Sonnet Form - Closed Forms

1-2-Writing Workshops Online

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