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.