With schools closed from the pandemic, the young men from Pennsylvania’s Gregory the Great Academy, where my grandson Michael is a freshman, are taking their lessons via distance learning from their homes. In an effort to maintain the bonds of unity among these boarding school students, the English teachers decided to offer the same curriculum to everyone in grades 9 through 12. In addition to studying the Gospel of St. John, on which they write various meditations, and reading, discussing, and memorizing passages from “Hamlet,” all the students are required to write and submit one sonnet a week to their teachers.
As Headmaster Luke Culley wrote to the students: “Our hope is that whether through following nature with their pens, or repeating the immortal lines of Shakespeare, or writing their own meditations on the Gospel of the beloved disciple, that all of our students will learn that beauty is real, and it is true, and it is something they can enter into with their whole being.”
Apprehension and Delight
Although Headmaster Culley in the same letter reported hearing from a student about his “newfound joy in discovering how to write a sonnet,” I suspect that some of these fellows find this assignment agonizing. To be told you must write a poem a week—and not only a poem, but a classical sonnet—isn’t the same as being blindfolded and stood before a firing squad, but for a 15-year-old boy it might feel that way.
I am familiar with that anxiety firsthand. When I was a teacher, I once required my Advanced Placement literature students to write a sonnet, an assignment that brought moans, groans, and a gnashing of teeth. To assuage their anguish, I promised that I, too, would write a sonnet and share it with the class.
With some careful editing, we shaped their work into presentable pieces of verse. One young woman wrote a lovely poem about her ballet class. Another classmate put his experiences as a baseball pitcher into his piece. Nathan, who treasured his Mac laptop as if it were gold, wrote his verse about that machine, sent it off to the Apple magazine, and was published.
I Become a Poet
As for me, I was hooked. After writing that first sonnet—I no longer remember which one I delivered to the class—I wrote between 30 and 40 more over the next several years. A few found a home in a magazine or at an online site, but most of them I deemed either unworthy or too personal for publication. Besides these sonnets, I wrote other poems as well. Unlike Emily Dickinson, who kept her poems in a trunk to be discovered and published after her death, nearly all of mine reside in folders on my computer.
Before taking a look at the good that might come from writing a sonnet, let me share one I wrote after the death of a loved one:
Locomotive in Perpetuum
A point of strange and brutal clarity
Accrues to us when loved ones turn toward death;
For these few ticks of time we pause bereft,
Caught helpless, fixed and pinned by agony;
On platforms hot with plank and tar we stand
In blazing light beside the shining track
And stare in glass as those we love stare back.
Their dying faces fade. They reprimand
By dulling eyes our feeble hopes and prayers.
We tap against the glass, we whisper screams;
To banish track and glass, this flaming air,
We tell ourselves—This is not real but dream.
Please help, help them, dear God, dear God, we pray—
And then the train shakes loose and slips away.
Writing sonnets like this one was intense for me. Word choice, rhythm, rhyme, and of course, meaning—to pack all of these elements into a restricted number of words and lines sharply focuses the mind. Oscar Wilde once spoke of working all morning to take a comma out of a poem and all afternoon putting it back again. That observation, though exaggerated, sums up my experience with the sonnet and with writing poetry in general.
What Exactly Is a Sonnet?
The structure of a sonnet bears a resemblance to ballroom dancing. The meter, beat, and rhyme are the man in the black tuxedo, the frame for the picture, while the passions we bring to those parameters, our words and thoughts, are the woman in her brightly colored gown, the picture itself.
“Sonnet” derives from the Italian “sonetto,” meaning “little song.” It’s a 14-line poem focused on a single theme and most often written in iambic pentameter, which means that each line contains five sets of unstressed/stressed syllables. The first eight lines of an Italian sonnet generally set up the problem of the poem and use the rhyme scheme abba; the last six lines seek to provide an answer to the problem and follow a cde rhyme or some variation of that. The English sonnet has three four-line quatrains followed, like a little punch, by the concluding statement of the two final lines. The rhyme scheme is usually abab cdcd efef gg.
My sonnet above blends both forms, using the Italian in the first two quatrains and the English in the last six lines. Here you can detect both rhyme schemes.
So why consider attempting a sonnet?
First, the guidelines for the construction of this form provide a sort of gymnasium for the mind, a personal trainer intent on exercising and strengthening your mental powers. To undertake a sonnet provides fresh air, jogging, and healthy food for the brain.
Second, a sonnet can remove us from the anxieties of everyday life. When we must bring all our powers of concentration into this verbal puzzle, that focus takes us away from the bills on the kitchen table, the worries over a meeting at work, or the daily news over which we have so little control. In its way, writing a sonnet offers a form of meditation, a chance to devote our attention fully to one task and so return to the world renewed in spirit.
To try our hand at a sonnet also forces us to blend the intellect and the passions in a way that can elevate us, stun us, and humble us. This challenge can be exhilarating.
Finally, there is this reason given by Headmaster Culley in his letter to my grandson and the other students: “For most of us mere mortals, writing a sonnet is not the sort of thing you do spontaneously or just for kicks. We write the sonnet because it is part of an assignment. And yet, there is the possibility that entering into this small contemplative space called a sonnet and entering it again and yet again, one can, even mere mortals, learn to love and embrace the joy of creating, as we discover how to make for ourselves and for the world this tiny vessel of words that is both intelligent and beautiful.”
Should you decide to try the sonnet, here are some suggestions to help you begin.
Read some sonnets, preferably aloud. Study the complexities of a Shakespearean poem or the more approachable works like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” When you read these verses aloud, you can hear and taste the iambic rhythms.
Select a topic you find appealing. If you enjoy gardening, write about the beauty of the rose or the ripeness of a tomato. Consider presenting your grandchildren with sonnets on their birthdays. The same holds true for any loved one.
Write the sonnet by hand. I have tried to compose poetry on my computer, but for me that method generally fails. Somehow, the intimacy of pen and paper seems more necessary for poetry.
Use a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary. Sometimes you’ll want a more exciting word, a more exact word, or you’ll get stuck making a word rhyme. Some writers scorn these tools, but I find them, especially the thesaurus, invaluable.
Play with the words and sentences. Become a child again and treat that sonnet as a toy. When you tire of it, put it aside and come back another time.
Robert Frost once said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” When you write a sonnet, the net is up and secured.
All you have to do is get on the court.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.