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The Sonnet

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Article by Kate Dempsey © 26 June 2011.
Posted in Guest Blogs ().

Try writing a poem in a traditional form. Let’s start with the sonnet.

Writing in form v Free verse. Well, you takes your pick. Sometimes a poem will fall into or suggest a form. There are a plethora (don’t you love that word?) of forms out there. If you don’t find one that suits, make up your own. It worked for the American poet, Robert Frost, who said about writing free verse ‘I’d just as soon play tennis with the net down.’

So let’s play some tennis with the net at the right height.

The sonnet originated in Italy and was adopted enthusiatically by British poets, notably Shakespeare. By his time, it was accepted as a 14 line poem with a specific rhyming scheme and structure. Shakespeare wrote 154 of them, outside of the plays, many apparently as commissions. You can google them online to get an idea of the form and how he used it. Don Paterson has written a book that examines each one called Shakespeare’s sonnets.

A shakespearean sonnet is 14 lines of iambic pentameters

(see earlier post. 5 iambic feet or de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum)

which rhyme a-b-a-b c-d-c-d e-f-e-f g-g

so the last two lines are a rhyming couplet, usually the denouement.

An Italian rhyming scheme is usually a-b-b-a c-d-d-c e-f-g-e-f-g.

Of course, pronunciation (and meaning) has changed subtly over the years so to modern ears, not all of the sonnets now rhyme.

So much so rhyming; what about the structure? The convention is to have the turning point of a sonnet at the start of the 8th line. Here is a study of Shakespeare’s sonnetts 118 and 119 from the Guardian where you can determined the turning points well.

Here’s a sonnet by e e cummings that uses and plays with the form to great effect. what time is it?it is by every star

and by WB Yeats, a Irish Airman foresees his death

So get your idea, perhaps use the start of an old poem, use your rhyming dictionary (book or online) and see where the rhymes take you. And when you’ve written one, try a few more. You should soon get into the rhytm of it.

Warning, sometimes you get so much into the sonnet rhythm, everything turns out a sonnet, whether it fits or not!


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KATE DEMPSEY runs writing.ie's Poetic License blog and is our poetry guru. She is a writer and a blogger living in Maynooth. She writes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and is widely published in Ireland and abroad, in magazines, anthologies and on the radio. She fits this around her family and a full time job, writing on the sofa, on the train and in that little coffeeshop on the corner.

Poetry can be a solitary activity and she appreciates the support she received from the online community, particularly when starting out. She is excited about continuing the dialogue with her blog here.