Writing a Sonnet: Easy to Difficult (Part 2)

December 18, 2016 8:07 am Last Updated: March 19, 2017 1:19 pm

Part 1

Level 3, Medium-Difficult: Poetry with Rhyme and Structure

Using a classical model leaves a well-structured poem resonating both backward and forward in history in ways that a free verse sonnet cannot.

Traditional or classical poets usually adhere to more rigid structure than is found in the easy-level free verse poem. In classical Chinese poetry, for example, each line has the same number of characters. In classical French poetry, poets often count the syllables. The classical Greek and English poets depend on the number and placement of stresses.

In most classical cultures, these beautiful structures create a kind of universal order, so that any missing word or stress upsets the entire order. Additionally, the sonnet itself matches other sonnets, not only in the number of lines, but the inner structure that has been used in sonnets for hundreds of years.

Using a classical model leaves a well-structured poem resonating both backward and forward in history in ways that a free verse sonnet cannot. This is magnificent! Yet, also difficult.

For English poetry, the easiest way to provide some clear structure is by counting syllables, creating what is known as syllabic verse. Not sure how many syllables a word has? Check your dictionary. Often you can also remove syllables, changing “mirror” to “mirr’r,” for example, or add syllables people don’t normally pronounce, like “poém” (pronounced “poh-EM”). It does not have to be perfect, although it should tend toward perfection. Sonnets usually have about 10 syllables per line.

Here we go. Our original free verse sonnet is revised to include a Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme and 10 syllables per line:

On William Bradford’s
‘Sunrise on the Bay of Fundy’

Steady currents of wind blow my face,
   Steady currents of water rock my feet,
As the sun rises in its brilliant grace,
   The raucous world seems so smooth and so sweet.

Our small vessel has not yet raised its sail,
   My shipmate and I contemplate the day,
And what our minor journey will entail,
   Nothing so important to again say.

And yet the immensity of the dawn,
   Accentuated by vast horizon,
Is like a giant knot that’s been undone,
   And releases each trespass and treason.

Larger and better ships may sail around,
Yet the expanse of my heart knows no bound.

Level 4, Difficult: Sonnet in Iambic Pentameter

More difficult and rewarding than counting syllables is looking at the meter. The meter is the use of stressed and unstressed syllables to create structure. The iamb is the most standard and natural unit in the English language. It is comprised of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

Iambic pentameter is the traditional meter for a sonnet, and the most common in classical English poetry in general. You can feel the rhythm of a poem more clearly when it’s composed with meter rather than with syllable counting. For iambic pentameter, the rhythm should feel something like “dee–DUM, dee–DUM, dee–DUM, dee–DUM, dee–DUM.” Here are some examples:

One iamb: I am

Five iambs (iambic pentameter): I am a man who tries and nothing more

For reference, the opposite of an iamb is a trochee, which is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable:

One trochee: Nothing

Four trochees: Nothing good can come from lying

In truth, English poets, past and present, often don’t stick to meter absolutely. There is also a kaleidoscope of nuances in pronunciations from English dialect to dialect, from Texas to South Africa to India, and between time periods and generations. Thus, some balance between the syllabic and metered approach to composing your poem is necessary.

Also important is the meaning behind the words. The sonnet is generally broken up into the first eight lines (the octave) and then the following six lines (the sestet) with the turn (or volta) in between. The octave sets up an idea, establishing it fully, and then something changes or something different happens with that idea in those last six lines. It is a small journey.

From this perspective, every single word and phrase needs to be carefully thought over and chosen. Here, there can be no filler words, or “yeah, I just put that there because it rhymes.” Every letter and comma needs to be working toward the idea and painting it with the clearest colors and most accurate perspective and proportion.

Here is our highest and final incarnation of our sonnet:

On William Bradford’s
‘Sunrise on the Bay of Fundy’

A steady wind slaps me on my boat and face,
   And rolling waves try to tip my legs and feet,
Yet, the world of light rises up in grace,
   Which makes my roughshod life seem soft and sweet.

Our ship has not yet raised its measly sail,
   My mate and I have much hard work ahead,
And yet, toward heaven’s clouds, blows the gale
   That could lift us up t’where the angels tread,

To where our hearts and minds are freed and cleansed,
   Expanded by the wide horizon line,
To where the softest clouds above ascend
   Into a color free from earth’s confines,

Beyond the mighty ships that gather round,
Beyond my flesh, which to the sea is bound.

Evan Mantyk is president of the Society of Classical Poets (ClassicalPoets.org). He teaches literature and history in upstate New York. You may send your comments, feedback, and, of course, poetry to [email protected]