Poetry: How To Write A Sonnet – Part 1

This is part one of a series on how to write formal poetry. We’re starting with the sonnet form, but we will explore other kinds of formal poems as well. The series will be added to regularly, so if you want more content like this, please subscribe!

Since we want you to submit formal poetry, we thought a brief review might be in order. You’re probably already familiar with most of the ideas covered here. Still, please take the time to read: even if you’ve been writing poetry for years, review helps. This series will cover the basics of formal poetry and a few of the different forms, with exercises so you can practice what we talk about in each post. If you follow the exercises, by the end of this series, you will have composed a sonnet.

A brief word about the exercises: The exercises won’t make a pretty sonnet, or even particularly pretty lines of poetry. The exercises will make you a better poet, though, because they will teach you the language of poetry. All languages must be learned through repetition and practice. The exercises will teach you the tools that you will use to write pretty poetry later. So don’t worry about writing pretty poetry for the exercises.

The sonnet we’re going to write will be of the Shakespearean variety — i.e. three quatrains, with lines rhyming alternately, and a couplet which rhymes. Don’t worry too much about all this right now. We’ll come back to it. The real thing we’re going to focus on right now is the pattern of each line. This is called meter (you might spell it metre if you’re British). A meter is the constraints on the patterns of syllables in each line: how many there are, and where the stresses fall. If you’re already familiar with meter and are complaining that this is an oversimplification, you’re right, and should reward yourself with a cookie or something. But for our purposes, the meter constrains the pattern of syllables in each line. For the sonnet we will compose, the meter is called iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter means that each line is allowed to have five (that’s the penta- part) feet. A foot is a particular pattern of stressed syllables (this changes in Latin and Greek poetry, but we’re writing in English, so take the simple definition for now, and remember that the world is a great big complicated mess of a place). When I say that a syllable is stressed I mean it’s the syllable on which you put the emphasis (EM-pha-sis, not em-PHA-sis, you see). The feet in our sonnet are going to be iambs (I-ams). Iambs are stressed on even syllables, which means they go ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM. It’s a bit like a heartbeat, and it will certainly give life to your poetry. To see what I mean, consider the first line of Shakespeare’s famous sonnet 18:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Read it out loud (always read poetry out loud). See where the stressed syllables fall. I’ve bolded where I think they fall:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

If my scansion (a term for the analysis of poetry at the level of meter, and here meaning, roughly, “quantifying where the stresses fall”) is correct, we can divide this line into five feet as follows:

“Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum|mer’s day?”

Which might be expressed in a notation system like this:

– / | – / | – / | – / | – /

where “-” is an unstressed syllable and “/” is a stressed one.

To review: We’ve seen that each line of a sonnet follows a particular meter called iambic pentameter. We’ve seen that a line in iambic pentameter is five iambs — five ba-BUMs, or x /, or heartbeats. We’ve also seen a way to notate scansion, to mark our stressed and unstressed syllables. So that gives us our two exercises below.

Exercise 1:

Print out a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 (you can find it here). First, read it aloud. Then go through it line by line and mark all the stressed and unstressed syllables. Start by using the notation system above: write a “-” above an unstressed syllable and a “/” above a stressed one. Then read through it again out loud to make sure you have all the right stresses marked. Mark out the different feet as well, with a vertical line between them.

Exercise 2:

Take no more than ten minutes and write five lines in iambic pentameter. These lines do not have to rhyme, nor should they be fantastic examples of poetry. This is all about getting the meter into your head, not about writing amazing poetry. Make sure each line is in iambic pentameter. To help you out, here are five ideas about which you can write a line apiece:

  1. Your favorite food.
  2. Your least favorite food.
  3. A place you have been recently.
  4. A place you’d like to go.
  5. What you see when you look out the nearest window.

And my five lines:

  1. I’d like to eat a pizza any day.
  2. Bleu cheeses all make me break out in hives.
  3. Financial Aid, which made tuition cheap!
  4. The Cinqueterra, hiking on the trails.
  5. The branches of a tree weighed down with nuts.

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