Saturday, February 8, 2014

How to Make a Sonnet

The below is an exercise that John created for a beginner's poetry class he is teaching at Lighthouse Writers Workshop here in Denver. The wording is his own, but it stems from an exercise he did as an undergrad in Bill Knott's forms class at Emerson years ago. I'd never heard of this approach before and thought it was cool. Enjoy!

Making a Sonnet

In this exercise, you’ll convert a poem you’ve already written (one of about 100-150 words would be best) into either a Petrarchan or Elizabethan sonnet. The purpose of the experiment is twofold: 1) to learn the rules of sonnet-making and get a sense of the virtues and challenges of writing poetry in form and 2) to develop a sense of the malleability of drafts. This exercise doesn’t aim to replace your original draft for once and for all (though if you prefer the sonnet version, it’s yours to keep) but to encourage radical revision of one sort or another – whatever ends up working for you – as a method of delving deeper into a poem, figuring out not only what’s there but what could be there.

Refresher: What’s a sonnet? A sonnet is a 14-line poem first perfected by the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch. His sonnets were composed of two stanzas, an octet (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines) and rhymed abba, abba, cdecde (or, for the sestet, cdcdcd). Generally, the octet would pose a problem and the sestet would resolve it, so in this way the sonnet was a conversation with the writer’s self. Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet to England in the 16th century where it metamorphosed into what we call the Elizabethan Sonnet, exemplified by Shakespeare. Here we find three stanzas of four lines each and one stanza of two lines, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, gg, the whole in iambic pentameter of five-foot lines (lines of ten syllables each, with the stress on the second syllable of each foot). The final two lines often present a novel twist on what has come before, or even contradict it (called the “volta,” or turn). Elizabethan sonnets were a playful and intellectual form but as the centuries have accumulated the form has adapted itself to every conceivable use. Contemporary sonnets are more likely not to rhyme and not to maintain a formal, consistent meter. They may be 14 lines long or they may be shorter (but they’re not often longer).

The Exercise. Take one of your own poems (or someone else’s!) of about 100 or so words and attempt to transform it into a sonnet, Elizabethan or Petrarchan. You can of course transform it into a modern sonnet too, and may find that’s the form most suited to you, but it’s a good idea to start with the more challenging version of the exercise.

First, find the rhyming words in the poem and write them down in a column on a fresh sheet of paper in the order in which they appear, leaving plenty of space between them. Then look for slant-rhymes (ball/mole, cast/rest, fish/crash) and insert those into the column. Try to revise that column into one of the Sonnet’s typical rhyming patterns.

Next, try to rewrite the order of the original lines so that they still relate the idea, or the images, or the story you’d like to convey, but so they fit the end-rhymes. If they don’t (and they won’t entirely) use synonyms to create rhymes.

Once you’re happy with rhyme-order and line-order, nudge the lines to 10 syllables each, or thereabouts, preferably in a (loose) iambic pentameter. Voila! You have a sonnet.


  1. I probably yak too much here, so I'll say this and then shut up for a while: Knott's sonnets and ideas about sonnets have influenced what I'm doing lately. Quoting Paz, Knott calls the sonnet the western equivalent of the renga. Knott's sonnet-parts are often self-enclosed, semi-independent, autotelic quatrains and tercets, isolate bits written at different times and juxtaposed, sometimes arbitrarily. They're like a tanka sequence. (Some of what I just wrote may quote Knott almost verbatim.) Well, back in the summer I was reading Michael Gizzi's New Depths of Deadpan, and I noticed that most of those prose poems are six or seven paragraphs. And I had an idea: write a book of prose poems and give each one six or seven parts. Each part will be semi-discrete, like a tanka in a renga or a stanza in a Knott sonnet. I also thought of Jim Harrison's Ghazals: the only continuity among these there-for-their-own-sake parts would be metaphorical jumps. There'd be no logic to the sequence. In fact--and here I'm borrowing a comparison from my old teach Bill Matthews--if the parts changed positions like facets in a kaleidoscope, the next arbitrary sequence might be as interesting as the original sequence. So the facets could even be read out of sequence, like aphorisms in The Self Unstable. And I'm writing that book now--like anyone gives a shit, but it's important to me. Knott would disavow any responsibility for it, I'm sure, but in my head it's closely related to his work.

    1. I like this: "if the parts changed positions like facets in a kaleidoscope, the next arbitrary sequence might be as interesting as the original sequence"

  2. This is a fascinating way to approach writing a sonnet. A lot of my own poems (most of them, I guess) run longer than the typical length of a sonnet, so it might take some work to find a poem of a length that might shape into a sonnet, but this intrigues me enough that I might go digging and see if I can try it.

    A few years ago, a poet friend of mine was taking a college class on 17th century English drama, and in an e-mail she commented that all of the iambic pentameter was driving her crazy. On a whim I wrote a poem and sent it to her. I'll share the poem here:

    Pentamer Grows Boring Over Time

    Pentameter grows boring over time.
    Like chasing mayflies by the August moon,
    Or catching dewdrops on a silver spoon,
    It's just a thin excuse to make it rhyme.
    Pentameter grows boring over time.
    Though lovers swoon through sultry nights of June
    Oblivious to dawn, which comes to soon,
    Here comes the five-foot donkey braying rhyme.
    Pentameter grows sage with sprigs of thyme,
    With songs of sugar-plums, a blue balloon,
    The pink and bobbing ass of a baboon,
    Iambic imbeciles concocting rhyme
    (By evening shadows you can hear them croon):
    Pentamer drones on, on overtime.


  3. I adore P'archan sonnets--the limited rhyme-palate and enclosed patterning turns me on; it's so superbly un-"natural" compared to the English alternating rhyme--though vendler's Shakespeare sonnet book does wonderfully highlight the glories of his constructions; I love the way she argues, persuasively, that three quatrains and a couplet are just the minimal dynamic. I would though like to note that the ten syllable line is tough: it's, for me, easier to work with a six or eight count line, as then I can get to the rhyme faster (I suppose for some the longer the lag till the next rhyme is easier, but not for me). Sonnets need to get away from being un-rhymed; taking away the sound contours just does not fly; 14 unrhymed lines rarely achieve intensity/sufficient energy, I'd argue, and when one reads sonnet in a title I at-least immediately get a gallery of glories from several centuries in my mind's eye and the casual unrhymed acoustically un-complex 14-er ends up feeling so--scant, insipid. My one exception, maybe, would be that one deploys a rhetoric that is ultra rich, full of furling and unfurling, of gorgeously highly patterned and kinetic syntax, like, for example, Herbert's "The Collar" (which is a rhymed poem, and all the more awesome for it).

    1. Hey, you make me want to go back to Herbert and write in a traditional form--the antipode of what I've been doing lately, not that I'm disenchanted with that. I read a lot of Herbert at one time. Herbert, Hardy, Herrick--I was into that when I was a veritable kid. I had a J.V. Cunningham phase about the same time. Just got home after driving an hour down pine-flanked back roads to Beethoven I dug at the same age. I'm almost tearing up...

    2. Oh, I know what you mean -- I've definitely felt that I had to insert "filler words" to get the line length right.

    3. I was in a neo-classical state of mind when I wrote that comment because those "pine-flanked back roads" were leading me home from a play rehearsal at a little community coll. We're doing Moliere's The Schemings of Scapin (Les Fourberies de Scapin). This translation--not by Wilbur--shapes M.'s prose into heroic couplets. & there's a little excelsior stuffed in some lines.

  4. Yay for Herbert--who I actually wouldn't call traditional at-all, only sooooooo excellent that his work looks "classic."

    And, counter to my prior post, I am happy to write via prosodies that are decidedly post 1940: I dig Leslie Scalapino's New Time, for example. And I adore Stein in her marvelous piece In The Grass (or is it on?) which observes a Spanish cove/village.

    back to George: "And thou has hands"--that is sooooooooooooooooooo hot!