All right, fearless readers and writers. We’ve now explored sound and meter in poetry, so we’re ready to put them together to start creating formal poems. If you create something you really like, please share it with the rest of us. We’d love to see what you’re writing.
With every kind of formal poetry, you can follow the rules precisely and create strictly formal poems, or you can relax a little, put on those jeans with the holes in the knees, and create a looser version. Either way, it’s not about proving how good a rule-follower you are. It’s about using these forms and techniques to write the poems that matter to you and your readers.
Let’s start with that classic: sonnets. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for us. And besides, it’s only fourteen lines long.
There are two types of sonnets, each with two names, the Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnet and the Italian/Petrarchan sonnet. English is, unfortunately, a very rhyme-impoverished language, particularly as opposed to Italian, so the Italian sonnet has a lot more words that rhyme with each other. We’re going to go for the Elizabethan version, since if you’re reading this, I’m guessing your command of English is fairly strong.
All sonnets are written in iambic pentameter: ten syllables that alternate light and heavy stresses like this: ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM. If you want to know what this feels like, try limping around the room, coming down heavily every second step.
An Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains (four-line stanzas) often without a break in between, with alternating rhyme, followed by a rhyming couplet (two-line stanza). So the rhyme scheme for this sonnet looks like this:
To learn more about rhyme, go to Playing with Sound in Poetry, Part 1. To learn more about rhythm, go to Playing with Sound in Poetry, Part 2.
Here’s one of my favorite Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnets:
If I Should Learn
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again –
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man, who happened to be you,
At noon today had happened to be killed –
I should not cry aloud – I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place –
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face;
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.
Try reading it while you limp around the room.* Maybe do it several times to get the rhythm in your body. Now try writing one, just as an experiment. About anything. I wrote one about yeast once and another about apnea, so you can see the world of sonnet subjects is vast.
Remember, you can follow the rules strictly, or play with the form. If you’re just starting out, I recommend aiming for about 10 syllables per line (allowing yourself to have 9 or 11, as needed), in 14 lines, rhyming ababcdcdefefgg as above, and giving yourself the freedom to use as many slant rhymes as you want. The form is not nearly as important as taking the chance to play with different techniques, so you’ll have new ways to write the poems you want to write.
*If you want a real treat, go here to hear a Youtube version of Edna reading another of her famous poems, “Recuerdo.” I can’t get enough of her voice!