How to Write a Sonnet
How to Write a Sonnet
Does the word ‘Sonnet’ make you flashback to your school days? Does the mere mention make your eyes water as you yawn while your mind wanders to escape?
I was the same. I thought, ‘it’s too difficult’ and ‘I can’t write Shakespeare, so there’s no chance of a sonnet.’ You can imagine my horror when my poetry professor started her module with, you guessed it, sonnets! But she broke it down for me, and from practising and practising, I grew used to the ways of the sonnet.
Rather than bore you with the details of the sonnet’s history and have an in-depth (yawn) look at the main four types (Petrarchan, Shakespearean, Spenserian, and Miltonic; for those who want to look them up), we’ll be focusing on making the sonnet relevant and unique to you.
Firstly, forget everything you know about Sonnets. Just snap your fingers and make it vanish. Forget terms such as iambic pentameter, volta, metre, etc. They are important, but NOT right now, cos they’d only get in your way. Ready? 1…2…3…SNAP!
Just keep these in mind:
- A sonnet is fourteen lines.
- Each line has the same number of syllables.
- There is a pattern to the rhymes at the end of each line.
Of course, you will also need a topic/idea for your sonnet, and if you are struggling with this, may I suggest love as sonnets are notorious for it.
To aid your sonnet-writing journey, we will be looking at sonnets by James Nash, who is a contemporary Yorkshire-based poet. The following sonnet, ‘Skin’ was shared on his blog this year (April 2023).
I am comfortable in my own skin
For years it itched and rubbed beneath my clothes
Sometimes it seemed too baggy or too thin
But now it relaxes, and likes not loathes
The body it has covered all my days.
For at last I know who and how I am
Or at least am discovering the ways
I can be myself and not feel a sham.
For there is no fixed postcode for the where,
No colour chart to define, describe the hue
Of my new self: Sorry if I am spare
With information, I’m still joining each clue.
I feel the beauty of my circumstance
Where I can love myself, a late romance.
We have fourteen lines-Check! Now we will look at the syllables.
Each line has 10 syllables-Check! Now we will look at the rhymes at the end of each line and label them alphabetically, and if they rhyme with another, then they too are labelled the same letter.
From the alphabet labels, we can see that the rhymes have a pattern-Check! ABABCDCDEFEFGG
Those are the basic rules to follow for this type of sonnet, and the more you practise, the easier it will become. Moving forwards, you can then challenge yourself, but of course, only if you feel comfortable doing so.
Challenge 1. You can add a volta. It means a turn or change of thought or argument, which sonnets tend to do either on the eighth line or twelfth line, but they can occur anywhere in the sonnet. For example: ‘Skin,’ you may notice that Nash turned it from describing the skin to summing up a discovery towards self-love.
Challenge 2. You can add iambic pentameter. Now this is the stage where I will lose many of you, dear readers, for this challenge is considered hard, but once again, it’s up to you whether to try it or not. The iambic pentameter gives the lines a rhythm, a beat, when spoken aloud. When we speak, we stress on certain syllables/words, and on others, we don’t. For this rhythm, it will be unstressed and then stressed. So, for example, we will look at the first line from ‘Skin’:
I am / com fort / a ble / in my / own skin
Da dum / da dum / da dum / da dum / da dum
Another way to look at it would be a short syllable then a long syllable to make the da dum rhythm. Remember this rhythm is from speaking aloud and not in your head or you may get confused.
Challenge 3. Make the sonnet unique to you. For this part, I’m referring to the topic/genre of your sonnet. I imagine there’s many of you dear readers who love to write horror, gothic, sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, lovecraftian, cyberpunk, pulp, splatterpunk, and so on. Why not write a sonnet in this genre?
Example: Though Nash doesn’t write in those genres, he has written this sonnet from his collection Some Things Matter, and I’m certain you can agree it is quite dark.
I’m a shadow of a shadow, no more
The one you knew than a cloud in the sky
Can claim permanence. I’ve travelled so far
(My migrations still mysterious to me)
From any known region, no maps to chart
My journey. I’m a leaf whose flesh is rot,
Woman suspended, whose warm beating heart
Beat on when all about me had forgot.
This shadow state has light but not enough,
It’s OK, but has none of the fire
I once knew before, before the cuff
Of accident, brain blown, loss of power.
Others remark on how well I’ve done,
Shadow woman; the other one has gone.
In the end, this is just a guide, a how-to-write. It is up to you how your sonnet will turn out, but I hope this has been inspiring. Keep up the good work, and continue your writing, no matter what form it takes!
Oh, and lastly, everything about the sonnet we have just covered (the 14 lines, ten syllables, etc) is a Shakespearean-type sonnet. Gotcha! See, you can write a Shakespeare sonnet!
Thank you to James Nash for allowing me to include his work. If you’ve enjoyed the included sonnet examples and you want more, then please check out his website. So far, he has written three sonnet collections; A Bench for Billie Holiday, Some Things Matter: 63 Sonnets, and Heart Stones. https://www.jamesnash.co.uk
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Corinne Pollard is a new disabled horror writer from West Yorkshire, UK with published works in Sirens Call eZine and Trembling with Fear. With a degree in English Lit and Creative Writing, Corinne has always enjoyed the world of dark fantasy. Aside from writing, Corinne enjoys metal music, visits to graveyards and shopping for books to read.