Poetry in Form: Sonnets
Sonnets are often the first poetic form people learn about, and for good reason. They are fourteen lines long, usually about one subject, and contain a brief argument that makes a distinct point. These three qualities — brevity, focus, and argument — make them accessible to those who are beginning to read poetry.
The two traditional forms of the sonnet are the Shakespearean (think Shakespeare) and the Petrarchan (think — you guessed it — Petrarch). Both are 14 lines long and include a “volta,” or turn, in the argument or imagery of the poem occurring around line 9, and both are traditionally written in iambic pentameter and rhyme.
Much formal poetry is about repetition. The repetition can be of lines or words in specific patterns, or the repetition of a metrical pattern or a rhyme pattern. Like language, though, poetic forms are constantly evolving. Sonnets that experimented more radically are sometimes called “nonce sonnets.”
Once the sonnet form was established, poets started stretching it to fit their taste. One experiment that kept meter and rhyme was the blues sonnet. The twentieth century saw much variation on the sonnet form, but that variation has been going on for centuries. Poets employ varied rhyme schemes, or no rhyme schemes, or change the traditional number of lines, as in the curtal sonnet. Sometimes these are called “nonce sonnets,” nonce meaning a one-off. Of course, once a one-off is created, poets may imitate it.
Here’s the prompt: Do ten or so minutes of timed writing on a single subject, something about which you feel passionate. Aim for sensory details. When your ten or so minutes is up, review what you’ve written to see the argument you’ve made. Select 14 phrases or sentences. Arrange them on the page, and revise as you like.
Your subject doesn’t need to be serious. For example, I’m passionate about the fact that Dunkin’ Donuts jelly donuts are superior in every way to Krispy Kreme’s: they are covered with nicely crunchy granulated sugar instead of a weak glaze, the donut itself has the texture of cake rather than slimy dough, and the jam inside the donut is raspberry as opposed to the mystery fruit in that other brand of donut.
If you do want to write about a serious subject, Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” is an excellent model. It’s about tyranny, and after two hundred years, it’s sadly still relevant:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Two of my favorite contemporary practitioners of the sonnet are Deborah Warren and Natasha Trethewey. The sonnet below, originally published in Mezzo Cammin: an online journal of formalist poetry by women, is my attempt at a Shakespearean sonnet.
My father taught me how to play the hand
he dealt. I had to memorize each card
that fell face-up, obey his stern command
to take advantage of the chumps who didn’t guard
against their tells: the finger on the chin
that meant the player filled a Swiss-cheese straight,
the blink that meant a bluff. I learned to win
and lose without expression, to lay in wait.
When Pops had nothing left to teach, he lost
his patience, grew disgusted when I bet
on clearly losing cards, or when I tossed
a winner out. I taught myself to get
up from the table — to play the card of tough
indifference. Then indifference paid enough.