Writing Non-Fiction posted September 16, 2013


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A brief explanation of how to construct a sonnet

The Common Sonnet - How To

by Fleedleflump


















What makes a sonnet? There's a problem with asking that question. You see, questioning leads to debate, debate leads to arguing, and arguing ... leads to the dark side. Well, perhaps not the dark side - I don't think Darth Vader will engage you in semantics over your sonnet constructions, much as I'd pay to see it - but at least to abject confusion. Confused? Don't be. If you've got this far, it's because you think I can help, and if you think I can help, I can. Let's demystify the sonnet, shall we? Let's have some fun.

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[Aside 1 - In writing this article, I am assuming prior knowledge of iambic pentameter. For help with that, please read my article 'Iambic Meter - How To' which will hopefully lead naturally into this piece.]

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Keeping it Common

The most recognisable form of sonnet [to read about other types of sonnet, see Aside 2 at the bottom] is what I'm going to refer to henceforth as the Common Sonnet. It follows these rules (don't worry, I'll go into detail later):

Technical Construction

1. Each line is written in iambic pentameter (see Aside 1 above)
2. There are 14 lines in total, split into three quatrains and a couplet
3. A rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg


Thematic Construction

4. The first stanza/quatrain describes a problem or situation
5. The second stanza expands, deepens, or gives additional examples of the issue outlined in the first
6. The third stanza opens with a turn (also called a Volta), whereby the sonnet moves from description to resolution, either solving the problem or exploring an alternative perspective on the situation previously described
7. The couplet often represents a summary of the preceding poem or makes ironic statement on it


Conventions and Myths

The layout of a sonnet is very much open to taste. In this article, I'll stick to segmenting it into quatrains and a couplet, but many poets prefer to omit paragraph breaks altogether, or group the poem into two sestets and a couplet. The choice is yours.

There are several poetic techniques one often finds in a sonnet, and there's really no restriction or limit on what devices you can play with. Archaic language is often employed, especially in romantic verse, although this is best avoided unless you can use it consistently or ironically.

Enjambment is your friend when writing a sonnet, allowing you to continue a thought between lines and even stanzas. Think about how you can continue a single thought across the divides. Equally, sprinkles of internal rhyme and alliteration (alongside its cousin assonance) can help to enhance your flow and the theme. The only real rule, though, is to have fun within the parameters of the form.

If you read a book of sonnets, you'll notice the first letter of each line is usually capitalised. This is an affectation and not often found in original texts, so note that down as a personal choice. I for one avoid it, because it can get in the way of devices like enjambment and encourage each line to be read as a sentence rather than an integral part of the piece.


Making an Example

So, it might look like this:

A problem is described at sonnets' birth,
expanded on as growing pains emerge,
until a toddler walks upon the earth
with metaphors for eyes - a giggling scourge

on humourless and ever-angry men
who fear the effervescent child's design
and never take a peek outside the den
to see the growing person is benign.

But just a hug can melt the coldest heart
with unalloyed delight as deep as joy.
Unbidden love has power to impart
the greatest gift an adult can enjoy.

Constructed in the soul, a sonnet sings
of beauty and the joy a poem brings.



As an exercise, analyse this example using the seven points of construction described above. Deconstruct it to see how each element contributes to the whole. Hell, criticise it - I can take it, and it'll help you form your own thoughts on how you'd write it. Next, we'll put a new one together.


Reconstructive Word-Surgery

So, we've deconstructed the Common Sonnet. Now it's time to put it back together in a way we find pleasing. That's not just a funny turn of phrase. The beauty of a sonnet is you can turn it to almost any purpose - it's a near limitless form. To illustrate the process, I'll use a classic theme and write about flowers. If you're of a mind, write your own piece as we go. The trick is to find a subject with a natural image and a built-in turn. With flowers, we can describe growth and glory, using the turning of the season for a volta. Here goes ...

Line 1 needs to be strong - it's your hook. If you've thought of some killer phrases that work in iambic pentameter, break one out for your opener.

In sun-kissed meadows, Spring strikes up a song.

We've created a setting image, sneaked in a personification of Spring, and introduced a musical theme. Let's try to continue in that vein.

From budding bush, a dancer's leg extends
to blossom into costume colours' throng,
a rose of glory; Winter's made amends.


Probably not my best opening stanza, but it highlights the themes of music/dancing, colours, and seasons changing. Note the alliteration throughout and the enjambment between lines two and three - not required, but they add dimension and depth.

Line 5 introduces a deeper or alternative exploration of the theme. This isn't essential but it does add to the complexity and interest of the piece. Take your theme from the first stanza and consider what else might be going on around it - are other things affected, or affecting what you described in the first stanza? Alternatively, is there greater detail you can give about the events you've described so far?

The beauty sways against the Summer sky
in living rhythm, free of shadow's lee
and nature buzzes, joyous as the cry
of new-born chicks who sing of being free.


I've widened the scope of our image, bringing in other elements of nature and the outdoor environment the rose inhabits, showing how it affects and feeds on the world around it.

Okay, it's Line 9 and time for that all-important turn. I've moved through Spring and Summer, setting this up neatly for Autumn's onset, where all things must learn to hide in shadow. In your poem, keep in mind the concept of mitigation. What might mitigate the events and images described so far? This doesn't have to be a change for the worse - you might have started out with a terrible situation, and this stanza will introduce a factor that turns it around. Initially, it's easiest to start this line with a word like 'but' or 'yet' - something that indicates clearly we're at a turning point.

But beauty can't exist without the foul,
the darkness that allows the light to shine
returns upon with wings of Autumn's cowl
to cull with copper clouds our rose design.


Use of harsh consonant sounds (like the 'ck' of cowl, cull etc) can be effective to change the mood from the soft, sensual susurrus of Spring to the wicked, wrecked wasteland of Winter.

So we arrive at the couplet, our summation and conclusion. This can be an extension of the third stanza, but it can also be used to sum up the themes of the sonnet and, perhaps, offer ironic statement or a ray of hope. The rhyming couplet is a natural acceleration from the alternating rhymes of the quatrains, so try to make good use of it. Similar to your opening line, try to end on a particularly poignant or witty note.

As Winter's caustic cloak arrests our smiles,
we dream of Spring's emancipating wiles.



Review

In sun-kissed meadows, Spring strikes up a song.
From budding bush, a dancer's leg extends
to blossom into costume colours' throng,
a rose of glory; Winter's made amends.

The beauty sways against the Summer sky
in living rhythm, free of shadow's lee
and nature buzzes, joyous as the cry
of new-born chicks who sing of being free.

But beauty can't exist without the foul,
the darkness that allows the light to shine
returns upon with wings of Autumn's cowl
to cull with copper clouds our rose design.

As Winter's caustic cloak arrests our smiles,
we dream of Spring's emancipating wiles.



So, you have your finished sonnet. The only thing left to do is run through those 7 rules from the start of the article and ensure you've incorporated them. Don't be afraid to rework some lines or even change the order of stanzas if that'll help. The Common Sonnet is a remarkably resilient beast, willing to meet most whims.


Where next (Sonneteering for the masses)?

Once you've mastered the Common Sonnet, you can try experimenting with some of the alternative variants (see Aside 2, below). There are endless customisations and layouts to fiddle with. Try out different meters and rhyme structures to see how the sonnet can be adapted, or have a go at a linked crown of sonnets - a highly rewarding venture. If you're feeling cheeky, there is such a thing as a 'Modern Sonnet' which doesn't require consistent meter, but make sure you have something suitably impressive to use in its stead.

I hope you've enjoyed having a play, and this article helped you have fun with the sonnet form. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or questions, or would like additional clarification. I look forward to seeing your work.


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[Aside 2 - types of sonnet

The sonnet has evolved and been fiddled with extensively over the centuries, and it's worth noting the format described above is something of a hybrid.

The technical aspects of meter, rhyme and construction are taken from English examples such as those written by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. These are known as English or Shakespearean sonnets, and did not require the inclusion of an argument and resolution, although it was often present.

However, the thematic construction - with its building argument and volta - harks back to the oldest sonnets. These originated in 13th Century Italy, made popular by the likes of Michelangelo. This is known as the Petrarchan Sonnet, after famous early sonneteer Pertrarca. Usually, it is written in iambic pentameter and divided into an octave (two quatrains) and a sestet (two 3-line tercets), the most common rhyme scheme being: abba abba cdecde (or cdccdc).

The sonnet I wrote above is a combination of these two approaches and is a broad take on the form, widely recognised and accepted as 'a sonnet' - hence my dubbing it the Common Sonnet.

Other forms of Sonnet include:

The Spenserian Sonnet, which uses interlocking rhyme (abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee) and does not include thematic conventions;
The Caudate Sonnet, encompassing an additional 'coda' after the main sonnet which adds a satirical edge;
The Heroic Sonnet that incorporates an additional quatrain before the couplet;
The Curtal Sonnet, a proportionately shrunk variant of the original Petrarchan Sonnet usually described as 10 and a half lines long; and
The Pushkin Sonnet - usually written in iambic tetrameter and utilising a pattern of feminine line endings, with no set stanza division.

Sonnets can also be grouped into longer pieces, such as a Crown of Sonnets (seven sonnets, each exploring one aspect of a situation, interconnected by the last line of each forming the first line of the next, with the overall final line the same as the opening one) and Sonnet Sequences and Cycles, but let's not sprint before we're jogging.

As you can see, the sonnet is many-coloured and a lady of infinite variety!
]

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Recognized


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I hope this helps, and please let me know if you have any specific questions. Hopefully, my Iambic Meter How-To will also be promoted by the time you read this, so it'll be worth taking a look at too.

Mike
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Pays one point and 2 member cents.


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