Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How to Write a Sonnet


I find myself unexpectedly caffeinated. I normally only use caffeine for bike rides or emergencies, but just now my wife, who drinks black tea throughout the day, had to suddenly run off somewhere and left behind a perfectly brewed and tuned cup of PG Tips. (Tuning has something to do with milk.) So I’ve wiped the trace of lipstick off the mug and made it mine. This caffeine injection, and some Metallica I’m listening to, have given me the courage to forge ahead on a difficult post about a surprisingly easy literary enterprise: writing a sonnet.

I realize there’s probably not much of a market for an essay on this topic. It’s bad enough trying to get people to read sonnets, much less write them, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from myself about writing, it’s this: screw the reader. Entertainment and the arts have bent over backwards trying to cater to their audience, and look where it’s gotten us: reality TV and “Us” magazine. Of course, where this blog is concerned, “screw the reader” may end up meaning “screw exactly one reader” (sorry Mom). That has not stopped me from adopting “screw the reader” as my mantra. (It is not, however, the mission statement of this blog, which is “albertnet — increasing shareholder value since 1969!”)

Why write a sonnet?

Before I get to the actual instruction, I’ll give you one good reason to learn how to write a sonnet: it’s the feeling you get when you’re done. What is that feeling? Well, have you ever been walking along the sidewalk, minding your own business, when suddenly you see somebody up ahead of you, running in your direction as fast as he can, trying to catch a bus or make some appointment, and you get this temptation, as he rushes past, to stick your foot out and trip him? Your only motive would be the pure spectacle of this person flying through the air, then crashing hard onto the ground, and picking himself up in a state of shock and bewilderment.

Think of it: one second the guy would be in a full run, his thoughts only on his bus or appointment, and then in a split second everything would change. He’d be as stunned by the sudden shift of circumstance as by your total lack of apparent motive. Then, of course, you’d have a serious problem on your hands, especially if he were a big guy with a hot temper, but never mind that—I’m talking about that brief period when you have arbitrarily seized control of the innocent fellow’s life. Exhilarating. Of course you would never act on this impulse, just as I wouldn’t; oddly enough, it turns out the best we can do in achieving that exhilaration is to write a sonnet.

You may be extremely skeptical of this assertion, and rightfully so. But how will you ever know if I’m right or not? After all, I’ve written sonnets (for example, this one), and you haven’t. (If you had, you wouldn’t be reading this post; you’d be doing something more fun.) The only way you’ll ever know if a sonnet can really give you this feeling is to try writing one yourself. Fear not: it’s really not that hard.

What is a sonnet?

You probably think of a sonnet as a dreary little poem such as what crusty old English poets used to write centuries ago. (As Lou Reed has sung, “The poets studied rules of verse/ And the ladies, they rolled their eyes.”) What you might not know is that the sonnet is a classic form that, though used heavily by Shakespeare, was developed centuries before his time by Italians. Yes, Italians—as in pasta, Armani, and Ferraris. Writing sonnets is not the exclusive activity of those trapped indoors by foul weather.

There was some minor tweaking of the sonnet form over time, particularly with the rhyme scheme. In this post I’m going to focus on the Shakespearean sonnet, which is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter, where the first dozen lines follow an ABAB rhyme scheme and the last two lines comprise a rhyming couplet. I’ll define each of these terms, teach you how to master them, and whether you end up writing a sonnet or not you’ll be that much more impressive at cocktail parties.

What is iambic pentameter?

Iambic refers to the inflection of words in a sonnet, which creates the rhythm of the poem and makes it so much fun to read. Meter refers to the length of the lines, which in turn dictates how much rhyme there will be. (Thanks to people like e.e. cummings, modern verse is just a tossed salad of words, so we must turn to rap music, or write our own sonnets, if we want consistent rhythm and rhyme.)

Each line of a sonnet is written in iambic pentameter (as are most of the lines in a Shakespeare play, except those spoken by lesser characters like servants). I’ll get to “iambic” in a minute, but first let's look at meter. The meter of a poem is expressed as the number of “feet” in a line. “Pentameter” simply means each line has five feet. As with humans, the size of the feet will vary from style to style. The good news is, within a sonnet each foot is the same size: it’s always two syllables. Thus, a line of iambic pentameter verse always has exactly ten syllables.

With two-syllable words, there are just two kinds of foot: the iamb and the trochee.

An iamb is simply a pair of syllables with the emphasis on the second syllable. (If you don’t know what a syllable is, you’re in the wrong blog—click here.) The following words are iambs (that is, they’re iambic): alas, belong, create, delight, excite, festoon, galore, harangue, incite, jejune, Kinkade, liaise, mature. The word “iambic” is simply the adjective form of “iamb,” meaning “consisting of or characterized by iambs.”

The following words are not iambs, but their opposite, the trochee: nature, open, pious, quickly, rotgut, sicken, trickle, uncle, Vanya, whiskey, X-ray, yuppie, Zeitgeist. (Perhaps italics will help: consider “alas, belong, create” vs. “nature, open, and pious.”) The adjective form of “trochee” is “trochaic.”

So do we totally avoid trochees in a sonnet? No: you can achieve an iambic rhythm with non-iambic words, so long as you place them correctly within the line. A bit ago I gave a number of examples of trochaic words; in the lines below I’ve arranged these words so as to achieve an iambic rhythm:

ooooThe yuppie Zeitgeist sickens Uncle Ralph,

ooooSo quickly trickle rotgut whiskey, man!

Note that I had to start and end each line with a one-syllable word, so the rhythm wouldn’t be out of phase—that is, so the lines wouldn’t be trochaic. If you start a line of a sonnet with a trochee, the rhythm will be all messed up.

Conversely, iambic words work great in a sonnet, so long as you start and end the line with the iambic word instead of with a one-syllable word:

ooooAlas, Kinkade festoons jejune delights;

ooooMature beliefs incite harangues galore.

I didn’t bother italicizing anything in those last two lines, because you’re doubtless getting the hang of it by now and no longer need the italics. The natural inflection of the words—that is to say, the succession of iambs—naturally creates the desired rhythm. I think it’s almost impossible to read those lines without getting that duh-DA, duh-DA, duh-DA, duh-DA, duh-DA effect that is the hallmark of a sonnet and the most basic definition of iambic pentameter.

Watch out for sequences of one-syllable words. In high school I was given an assignment to write a poem in dactylic trimeter. I won’t bother you with what “dactylic trimeter” means other than to say I was daunted by the assignment and, thinking myself a sneaky little bastard, wrote the entire poem using one-syllable words. I thought this would make it impossible to screw up the meter, but I was wrong. As it turns out, the inflection of a pair or sequence of one-syllable words is not always arbitrary. To put it more simply, people put the emphasis on one word or another in many two-word phrases.

For some reason, I can’t think of a single pair of one-syllable words that is iambic, but I can easily come up with examples of two-word phrases that are trochaic. For example, consider “boy scout.” Most people will accentuate the first word: boy scout.” (When I was a kid, my dad always said “boy scout,” which perplexed me. Maybe he was emphasizing the scout part, it being more impressive.) Other examples of trochaic phrases: hot dog,” “pit bull,” “big time,” “trash can.” If you defy the natural inflection of such phrases your rhythm will be off. Here is an example of right vs. wrong:


ooooA hot dog makes a pit bull want to eat,

ooooSo put the trash can lid on good and tight.


ooooHot dogs are bad for foraging pit bulls;

ooooAnd so trash can lids should be put on tight.

In the “right” example, you naturally place the inflection on the syllables that I’ve italicized. But in the “wrong” example, if you try to read the lines according to my italics (i.e., to try to adhere to the iambic convention), you have to fight what comes naturally, and the end result just sounds wrong. (It’s worth pointing out, I think, that some words, like “foraging,” simply won't work in a sonnet. Any word that has a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables is incompatible with the iambic structure.)

A final note: in a real sonnet, you will invariably have a mixture of one-syllable words, two-syllable words that are iambs, two syllable words that are trochees, and words with more than two syllables. All are okay, as long as they’re arranged in such a way that the natural inflection supports the rhythm of the poem. For example:

ooooThe yuppie Zeitgeist sickens Auntie Grace,

ooooAnd yet she likes her creature comforts, too.

ooooExquisite and expensive are her tastes;

ooooVelveeta’s cheap, but not her precious bleu.

As shown by this example, iambs can span a pair of words. “Velveeta” is neither an iamb nor a trochee, being three syllables, but “Velveeta’s cheap” produces a pair of iambs. (In case you were wondering, I don’t actually have an Auntie Grace, and if I did, I wouldn’t call her “Auntie” unless I had to.)

What is pentameter?

The pentameter part is much simpler, of course. You just count the feet (i.e., the iambs) and make sure there are five per line. Count on your fingers if you have to; I often do. (Now you know what that weirdo was doing on Bart, scrawling in a notebook and periodically watching his fingers extend, one by one, lips silently mouthing “one, two, three…”)

As simple as this pentameter business is, I’ll give some examples anyway:


ooooCan I compare you to a slimy slug? (Ten syllables total; five feet)


ooooCan I compare you to a slug? (Eight syllables; four feet)

ooooCan I compare you to a pit bull? (Nine and a half syllables ; four and a half feet)

Oddly enough, one of the most famous lines of Shakespeare’s verse violates the relatively simple pentameter rule:

ooooTo be or not to be, that is the question.

Check it out: he’s got an extra half-foot on there! Sloppy work by the master? Of course not. This is, as they say, “the exception that proves the rule.” By screwing up the meter, Shakespeare causes the reader and/or theater audience to stumble. Normally you don’t want anybody to stumble, but in this case Shakespeare wants to give you pause, so you’ll consider the word “question,” which in the context of existence is the whole point of the soliloquy. (Not that you should feel free to deliberately screw up the meter in your sonnet, at least until you’ve achieved Shakespeare’s mastery of the form.)

What is an ABAB rhyme scheme?

ABAB is, of course, a misspelling of “ABBA,” the Swedish rock band that invented the rhyme scheme later adopted by Shakespeare. Okay, that’s false. What “ABAB” means is that the third line (that is, the last word in the third line) rhymes with the first line (that is, the last word in the first line), and the fourth line rhymes with the second line. In my four-line example above, “tastes” rhymes (more or less) with “Grace,” and “bleu” rhymes (more or less) with “too.” In other words, “tastes” and “Grace” are represented by the letter A, and “bleu” and “too” are represented by the letter B, in our “ABAB” classification.

Actually, ABAB is just shorthand: in a full-length sonnet, the first twelve lines rhyme in an ABABCDCDEFEF scheme. That is, after the first four lines, you start over, so the fifth line doesn’t rhyme with anything and neither does the sixth. The seventh line rhymes with the fifth, and the eighth line rhymes with the sixth. Then you start over again. Here’s an example, with a letter assigned to the final sound of each line:

ooooCan I compare you to a slimy slug? (A)

ooooNo way—compared to you, a slug is gross! (B)

ooooIn fact, you put to shame ‘most any bug; (A)

ooooThe caterpillar isn’t even close. (B)

ooooOn you I think I’d rather fix my gaze (C)

ooooThan on a snake that’s flattened on the road. (D)

ooooI'd rather hold your hand, it’s safe to say, (C)

ooooThan stroke the skin of any horny toad. (D)

ooooAnd anyway, I’d choose to dine with you, (E)

ooooIf going hungry were my other choice. (F)

ooooI wouldn’t mind conversing with you, too, (E)

ooooIf forced to otherwise give up my voice. (F)

The final two lines of the sonnet are called a “rhyming couplet,” which is a fancy way of saying “two lines in a row that rhyme.” This is represented as “GG,” and here’s an example:

ooooooooSo just relax and feel real glad (G)

ooooooooThat I don’t think you’re really all that bad. (G)

The rhyming couplet is often indented a bit (as above), and it is often used to summarize the rest of the sonnet, or deliver the conclusion that the other lines were suggesting. The overall rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is ABABCDCDEFEFGG.


I recognize that this is a lot to grasp, so to give you some practice, here are some multiple-choice quizzes. These should help train you on the concepts of iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme of a sonnet. Answers to these exercise come at the end.

1.o Which if these is/are an iamb?

a. Dana

b. Lindsay

c. Both

d. Neither

2.o Which of these is/are an iamb?

a. Grotesque

b. Yucky

c. Both

d. Neither

3.o Which of these is/are an iamb?

a. Hors-d’oeuvre

b. Nibble

c. Both

d. Neither

4.o Which of these is/are proper iambic pentameter?

a. Whoever stole my poncho’s gonna pay.

b. I’m gonna find whoever stole my coat.

c. Both

d. Neither

5.o Which of these is/are proper iambic pentameter?

a. His blood pressure is getting higher now.

b. There’s nothing like a taqueria there.

c. Both

d. Neither

6.o Which of these is/are proper iambic pentameter?

a. I see you in the classroom every day

b. I satisfy myself with frequent looks

c. Both

d. Neither

7.o Which of these is/are proper iambic pentameter?

a. I’ll lie, I’ll steal, just to make a buck or two

b. I used to be a kid of high ideals

c. Both

d. Neither

8.o Which of these is proper iambic pentameter?

a. Relief is the only thing on your mind

b. Relief’s the only thing that’s on your mind

c. Relief’s the sole thing on your mind, buddy

d. None of the above

9.o Consider the following lines:

Alas, Kinkade festoons jejune delights;

Mature beliefs incite harangues galore.

ooooooWhich line should come next, to follow the rhyme scheme?

a. His hackneyed style’s something I abhor

b. There’s something evil in his cloying scenes

c. My eight-year-old’s got better taste than that

d. Those cozy backlit houses: fricking trite!

10.o Consider the following lines:

The yuppie Zeitgeist sickens Uncle Bob,

So quickly trickle rotgut whiskey, man!

ooooooWhich line should come next, to follow the rhyme scheme?

a. Inebriation topples every caste

b. And yet he’s quite the de la Renta fan

c. He won’t forgive a Prada-wearing snob

d. Unless he’s drunk enough to lighten up

Answers to exercises

1. d

2. a

3. a

4. c

5. b

6. c

7. b

8. b

9. d

10. c

Final considerations

Of course there’s more to fine poetry than meter and rhyme. Alliteration uses similar consonant sounds to assist sentences in sizzling. Assonance hones the sonorous flow with close vowel sounds pouring forth. Hyperbole is the best device on the fricking planet for achieving emphasis. Synecdoche is powerful in the right hands; for example, the White House is using it to good effect these days. As for onomatopoeia, even just murmuring a phrase or two of it can cause a lot of buzz, and just spelling the word correctly can earn you an honorary degree from a polytechnic university. Stuff your sonnet full of these devices and you’ve got a splendid poetic calzone on your hands. (Stunning insights, vivid sensory descriptions, deep metaphysical contemplation, and lofty subject matter sure couldn’t hurt, either.)

So, suppose you’ve just written your first sonnet, and experienced none of the exhilaration I promised earlier in this post? Perhaps you’re just not doing it right. Go try it again, but this time with feeling.

I guess that’s it—my lesson is complete. But wait, there’s one more thing, lest I forget: feel free to send your sonnet on to me. I’d like to post your work on albertnet!


For Christmas, my daughter Alexa (who read this post and passed the quiz) wrote a sonnet each for my wife and me. Here is the one she wrote for me.

oooooooooFor Daddy

If I could make a wish I’d wish to fly,

Up high I’d soar with birds up in the air.

If only it was true I’d start to cry,

I wonder what I’d give to be up there.

If I could make a wish I’d wish to soar

Or maybe just to fly a little bit

And now I think about it, life’s a bore.

But that’s not an excuse to throw a fit.

If I could make a wish I’d wish to glide,

To spread my arms and take off from the ground.

In one smooth motion I would be outside

To leave my room without making a sound.

ooooI think my family has that dream as well.

ooooIf it came true that would be really swell.

1 comment:

  1. Years after posting this, I gave a class on how to write a sonnet. It almost crashed and burned! Here is a link to my blog post about it: