So you’ve never written a sonnet? Never? If you’re a poet, you’ve probably written dozens of them without even knowing it. How’s that possible? Well, because sonnets have as many variations as there are sonneteers. There are, of course, certain very famous kinds of sonnets, including the so-called Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnets, named for prolific sonnet practitioners who rarely–if ever–followed their own crazy complicated rules exactly. These sonnets have fourteen lines of iambic pentameter in rigid rhyme schemes (show me one Shakespeare sonnet that maintains this metrical prescription without variation). And the tendency since Elizabethan times is to bend the sonnet’s formal restrictions more and more. So what’s my point? If it’s the sonnet’s strict rules which are intimidating you from writing one, throw them out. All the best poets did to one degree or another. Otherwise, a robot could’ve written it. Contemporary sonnets break all kinds of rules, and yours can too. To whet your whistle, here is an example of a fairly formal sonnet by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell):
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. by Stephen Mitchell)
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
But just what is a sonnet? Here are a few basics you should know: The word sonnet comes from the Italian sonnetto, “little song,” and is meant to have a tight, clear lyric quality. Like a song, sonnets have discernible sections which build to a cohesive unit. Instead of verses and choruses, however, sonnets generally include a setup (often in the first eight lines–called an octave) and (in the last six lines, or sestet) a subversion of that setup, including some kind of twist. In the octave, the poet evokes an image, scenario, philosophy, etc. which then is contrasted, deepened, or reimagined in the sestet. At some point in the second half of the sonnet, there is a volta or “turn,” in which the reader is jolted into a new understanding or realization of the setup. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the volta often doesn’t occur until the very end, punctuated by a final rhyming couplet.
But again, don’t be too worried if this is sounding too technical or complicated. Think of sonnets as tight, lyrical jokes: They setup a scenario, divert your expectations in some way, then deliver a punch-line. That’s all a sonnet has to do, regardless of its rhyme scheme or meter. Here are a few great examples by contemporary sonneteers:
Oil & Steel
My father lived in a dirty dish mausoleum,
watching a portable black-and-white television,
reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,
which he preferred to Modern Fiction.
One by one, his schnauzers died of liver disease,
except the one that guarded his corpse
found holding a tumbler of Bushmills.
“Dead is dead,” he would say, an anti-preacher.
I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet
and some motor oil—my inheritance.
Once, I saw him weep in a courtroom—
neglected, needing nursing—this man who never showed
me much affection but gave me a knack
for solitude, which has been mostly useful.
The Narcissus Flower
I remember my foot in its frivolous slipper,
A frightened bird… not the earth unzipped
but the way I could see my own fingers and hear
myself scream as the blossom incinerated.
And though nothing could chasten
the plunge, this man
adamant as a knife easing into
the humblest crevice, I found myself at
the center of a calm so pure, it was hate.
The mystery is, you can eat fear
before fear eats you,
you can live beyond dying –
and become a queen
whom nothing surprises.
Happy writing!! Need more inspiration? Check out our other prompts here!
Z and J
Zach Matteson (left) and Jeffrey Ricker (right)
Zach Matteson (PRISM‘s Poetry Editor) and Jeffrey Ricker (PRISM‘s Contest Manager) also facilitate a weekly writing workshop at Green College.