Poetry in Form: Sonnets

NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompts

Michele Sharpe

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An olive green book of Shakespeare nestled in a white duvet with a cup and saucer
Photo by dazhi on Unsplash

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.

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Michele Sharpe

Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe & MicheleSharpe.com