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A Simple Way to Write a Sonnet

by Ruth Nix, Demand Media

    The sonnet has been a popular form for centuries. This type of poem is traditionally composed of 14 lines. It is written in iambic pentameter and employs a rhyme scheme. It also obeys guidelines that lay out a very specific organization with regards to the poem's theme. While the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet is the eldest of all sonnet variations, it is arguably difficult to write. Its rhyme scheme was developed for a language very much unlike English. In order to write a simple sonnet, it is best to go the way of Shakespeare and stick with the Petrarchan sonnet's popular counterpart: the English sonnet.

    Items you will need

    • A rhyming dictionary (optional)
    • A thesaurus (optional)
    Step 1

    Begin with a topic. All sonnets revolve around an argument or question of importance. For example, which is worse: failing or never trying? Would you rather be smart and miserable? Would you rather be stupid and happy? What is the definition of courage? In a sonnet, the poet's speaker (or narrator) will first have to lay out a question and argue an initial answer to it. However, like most good poems, sonnets rarely end they way they begin. In the poem's final lines, the speaker will have to express and explain a sudden change of heart. It will be helpful if you choose to explore a subject about which you, yourself, remain passionate, yet uncertain.

    Step 2

    Examine the form. English sonnets contain three quatrains (stanzas containing four lines) and a final couplet, or two-line stanza. It is in the first three quatrains in which you will present your initial argument. In the final couplet, your position will "turn" toward ambivalence.

    Step 3

    Write out your argument as a draft, following the stanzaic form noted above. You can divide your argument into three parts with each part given a stanza all its own. The first quatrain usually lays out the initial claim or question. The second quatrain further explores the problem or reveals complications. The third quatrain offers some solution or response to the issue at hand. As you write, don't worry about rhyme or meter; simply get your thoughts on the page.

    Step 4

    Concentrate on your final couplet as this will be the heart of your poem. Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd notes that in these last lines, the situation "has not changed, but the speaker’s relationship to it has. . . .he steps back and comments on that state [in which he now finds himself]. He is no longer in the midst of the experience, but now looks at it from the outside.” When you arrive at your final couplet, offer an epiphany, something that indicates the speaker's preceding argument or arguments might be wrong or foolish. If at all possible, show vulnerability and ambivalence, especially if previous stanzas have shown neither. Again, don't worry about rhyme or meter just yet.

    Step 5

    Familiarize yourself with the sonnet's rhyme scheme. The traditional scheme for the English sonnet is "abab-cdcd-efef-gg." In order to understand this sort of "code," you must remember that poets construct rhyme schemes by assigning sets of end-words that rhyme with different letters. The first set of end-rhymes is coded as a. The second is b, and so on.

    Step 6

    Add rhyme. Examine your draft and look for opportunities in which certain end-words can be changed or replaced in order to make for better rhymes. Consider rewording your lines so that words with more rhyming possibilities complete the lines. Be willing to rearrange your thoughts in the first three stanzas so that end-words might better fall into place. If you feel you need help finding rhymes or coming up with synonyms, consult a rhyming dictionary or thesaurus.

    Step 7

    Set your lines to meter. Traditionally, English sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, a pattern in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable and is repeated five times in a single line. However, more and more contemporary poets are forgoing meter altogether. In turn, the convention of rhyme is also slowly starting to die out and sonnets are seen more and more as poems that simply contain fourteen lines. As such, it is your choice as to whether or not your poem should feature meter.

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    Tip

    • If you can't think of a specific question or argument about which to write your sonnet, consider inspiration from broader themes that often offer conflicts: love, hate and everyday interactions or experiences. Leaning toward emotion and intimacy is, in fact, probably best as English sonnets often strayed from the "intellectual" traditions of the Italian sonnets.

    Warning

    • Don't let your rhyme control the meaning of your poem or the "direction" it takes. Beginning poets sometimes make the mistake of settling for awkward rhymes or building their poems around the only workable set of rhymes with which they could work. That often means that their poems turn out to say things they never intended to say. The result might be uninteresting, confusing or both.

    References

    About the Author

    Ruth Nix began her career teaching a variety of writing classes at the University of Florida. She also worked as a columnist and editorial fellow for "Esquire" magazine. In 2012, Nix was featured in the annual "Best New Poets" anthology and received the Calvin A. VanderWerf Award for excellence in teaching from the University of Florida.

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