So You Want to Write a Sonnet

Sonnets are a classic form of poetry which first started in Italy in the 13th century by Giacomo da Lentini. In the 16th century, Sir Thomas Wyatt pioneered the Sonnet as an English form of poetry. Sonnets are also poems that do not stand on their own. Sonnets come as part of a sequence, yet they can be read as stand-alone poetry. While all sonnets have some structural similarities, such as having fourteen lines and a set rhyme scheme, there are different kinds of sonnets with their own distinguishing features.

If you want to write a sonnet, you should understand the structural rules associated with the different forms.

The Petrarchan/Italian Sonnet

The Petrarchan, also called The Italian, sonnet is divided up into two sections – the octave and the sestet. The octave is made up of eight lines, divided in itself up into two quatrains, with the rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA. The octave usually sets up some sort of problem or question that the speaker in the sonnet is asking. The sestet is made up of six lines, divided into two tercets, that is the volta, also known as the turn or solution to the problem or question posed in the octave. The rhyme scheme of the sestet can vary – it can either be CDE CDE, CDC CDC, CDD CDE, or CDC DCD. Other variations of the rhyme scheme of the sestet have developed over time, but these are the most common classic forms.

While Petrarch wrote his 317 sonnets in Italian, there were many English sonneteers that used the Petrarchan form in English, like The Long Love That in My Heart Doth Harbor by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a translation of Petrarch’s Rima 140.

The long love that in my heart doth harbor
And in mine heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretense,
And there campeth, displaying his banner.
She that me learneth to love and to suffer,
And wills that my trust and lust’s negligence
Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewith love to the heart’s forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do when my master feareth
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.

This sonnet follows the ABBA ABBA ryhme scheme within the octave and the CDC CDC ryhme scheme within the sestet. The topic, as is common in most sonnets, is about love. Or, to be more specific, about yearning for love because there’s some obstacle in the way. This theme of longing for love stays true within most sonnet forms.

The Shakespearean/Elizabethan Sonnet

While Shakespeare wasn’t the first Englishman to write sonnets, nor the Elizabethan form of the sonnet, he is the most celebrated practitioner of the form which also bears his namesake and wrote 154 sonnets in his lifetime. The Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet share some similarities, such as a set rhyme scheme (though that scheme varies between the two forms), the number of lines, the presence of a volta, and the theme of longing love, but there are many differences between the two forms as well.

The Shakespearean sonnet also has a set meter called iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter consists of five feet. These feet are made up of two sets of syllables – the first unstressed and the second stressed. And, because English, as a language, does not have as many rhymes as a Romance-based language like Italian, the rhyme scheme was also restructured to be ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The division of the sonnet was also reconstructed to be three sets of quatrains with one volta occurring in the last two lines of the poem, so the shift or answer in the poem comes much later than it does in a Petrarchan sonnet.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 demonstrates the rhyme scheme and meter of the Shakespearean sonnet.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

While this poem is less about yearning for love, the speaker in the poem still demonstrates a yearning, but this yearning is to preserve the object of their love past what is natural.

The Spenserian Sonnet (more…)

“What is Poetry?”

In the wake of slam poetry and “spoken word,” confused audiences have asked themselves what poetry actually is. I think people tend to imagine that it looks and sounds like an English sonnet, with rhyming couplets and metered form (we all did once, right?). It might even have some kind of resolution: a neat bow of a message tying the whole poem together at the end. A poem might look this way, obviously, but I think we’ve moved on since Wordsworth. Poets like Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself”) pioneered free verse, or unrhymed, unmetered poetry, free of form or convention.

Poetry was able to say what it wanted, how it wanted. Postmodern writers came back to form from time to time, but usually to satirize their predecessors (think Annie Finch’s “Coy Mistress”, a response to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, or Billy Collins “Litany”).


Happy National Poetry Month!

That’s right – it’s April 1st! And we all know what that means. National Poetry Month has officially begun.

So let’s celebrate poetry together. Here’s three great ways to get you started in your celebrating.

1. Share a poem a day over social media! Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or whatever else you use. There are plenty of great sites out there, like Poets.Org or PoemHunter.Com, that have plenty of poems for you to choose from and share. We also have plenty of poetry posts for you to find poems to share in. You can have fun with this and make it thematic – like you can post a Shakespeare Sonnet a day, in order, or only post on social media in the form of Haikus. If you have fun with it, then your friends are going to have fun with it too.

2. Read a new poet a day! Not just a new poem, mind you, but go out there and find poets you’re not familiar with. There are many great poems and great poets out there. If you’re into American poetry or British poetry, try to go outside of the western influence and check out some work by Pablo Neruda from Chili, Li Bai from China, Matsuo Bashō from Japan, or Alexander Pushkin from Russia to get you started on your poet-a-day quest. You can also let chance play a part in your new-poet a day and sign up for Poets.Org’s poem-a-day email.

Dear Mark Grist, I’m (Still) Totally In Love with You

This morning I found this amazing video by Mark Grist and his preference on girls:


After seeing (and swooning at) this video, I started doing some research about the poet and, holy heck, I love this guy.

Mark Grist is a former English teacher who quit to become a performance poet, but his passion still lies within the classroom. Since leaving his teaching position, he has started to do workshops at schools to get kids interested in poetry again through the use of rap.


And that’s not all.


Springtime Poetry

Well, it’s officially five days into spring. To celebrate the hopeful end of snowstorms in the east and the coming of April showers in the west, today we’re sharing some of our favorite springtime poetry.

Lines Written in Early Spring
by William Wordsworth

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:–
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

A little madness in the Spring
by Emily Dickinson

A little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown —
Who ponders this tremendous scene —
This whole Experiment of Green —
As if it were his own!

Poem to Spring in a Time of Global Warming
by Michael Graves

The withholding spring,
The long-delayed,
The miser-like who will not spend
The wealth of warmth and light,
Or open up the long-denied,
Season most desired,
Salve for the wind and ice oppressed,
Yearned-for spring,
Is like a god
Who will not send a sacred child,
But unlike an omnipotent deity
Spring is neither doubted in its essence
Nor blasphemed against
By those who suffer winter’s bite.

After the Winter
by Claude McKay

Some day, when trees have shed their leaves
And against the morning’s white
The shivering birds beneath the eaves
Have sheltered for the night,
We’ll turn our faces southward, love,
Toward the summer isle
Where bamboos spire the shafted grove
And wide-mouthed orchids smile.

And we will seek the quiet hill
Where towers the cotton tree,
And leaps the laughing crystal rill,
And works the droning bee.
And we will build a cottage there
Beside an open glade,
With black-ribbed blue-bells blowing near,
And ferns that never fade.


My Favorite Harlem Renaissance Poetry

In the 1920s the neighborhood Harlem, located in New York City, became a hotbed of culture for the disenfranchised black minority in the United States. Harlem became the place where black immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and blacks across the U.S. came together in the hopes of a better life, establishing an educated black middle class, and creating art in all of its forms. This movement became known as The Harlem Renaissance.

Great thinkers, writers, and poets like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Elizabeth Alexander, among others, emerged from this scene and left behind a lot of work that is heavily influential today.

To celebrate Black History Month as well as the work of these authors, I wanted to share some of my favorite poems from The Harlem Renaissance. While these poems were penned in or about the 1920s, the sentiment found within and the struggle they illuminate are still present in America today. By reading, remembering, and celebrating these authors’ works, we’re better able to reflect on the society we live in, where it evolved from, and hopefully how to influence it to be better in the future.

You and Your Whole Race

By Langston Hughes

You and your whole race.
Look down upon the town in which you live
And be ashamed.
Look down upon white folks
And upon yourselves
And be ashamed
That such supine poverty exists there,
That such stupid ignorance breeds children there
Behind such humble shelters of despair—
That you yourselves have not the sense to care
Nor the manhood to stand up and say
I dare you to come one step nearer, evil world,
With your hands of greed seeking to touch my throat, I dare you to come one step nearer me:
When you can say that
you will be free!

Dead Fires

By Jessie Redmon Fauset

If this is peace, this dead and leaden thing,
Then better far the hateful fret, the sting.
Better the wound forever seeking balm
Than this gray calm!

Is this pain’s surcease? Better far the ache,
The long-drawn dreary day, the night’s white wake,
Better the choking sigh, the sobbing breath
Than passion’s death!


By Countee Cullen

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

No Images

By William Waring Cuney

She does not know
her beauty,
she thinks her brown body
has no glory.

If she could dance
under palm trees
and see her image in the river,
she would know.

But there are no palm trees
on the street,
and dish water gives back
no images.

If We Must Die

By Claude McKay

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!


By Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


How To Write A Last Minute Love Poem

Well, it’s February 11th. What’s the significance of that? It’s three days away from Valentine’s day.

If you ascribe to the capitalist tradition of giving gifts once a year on February 14th to begrudgingly express affection, you’re in deep shit if you haven’t purchased anything yet.

Fear not! Nothing says love like a poem. And if poetry isn’t your strong suit, continue your fearing not, because I’m here to help you write the perfect poem to express just how amorous your amour is for your paramour.

1. Bigger isn’t always better. Can’t pull off a big love poem? Write your lover a haiku and promise him or her it will be longer next time.


Short Love

We are but two souls
Brought together by our love
More to come later

2. Commit, hardcore. I generally advise people to avoid absolutes in writing, but, hey, go for it – in the name of romance. Tell your lover you will always love him or her and never leave. This can’t bite you in the butt later.


Sonnets from the Portuguese 43: How Do I Love Thee
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight.
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, –I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

3. Show them you know them. Be sure you know the person you’re writing your love poem about REALLY well. Like, too well. Like, follow them around for a day and write a poem based off of their daily activities.


Helen’s Day

3:10 – Helen goes into the bathroom.
3:30 – Helen exists the bathroom. She has taken a long time. I did not hear her wash her hands.
3:33 – Helen sneezes. I say bless you. She looks around, confused, because she thought she was alone. She can’t spot me. She starts to walk faster.

Shaped Poetry

I wouldn’t call myself a poet, but I do write poetry and do pursue publication of my poems. One weakness I have for poetry is shaped poetry. I’ve tried my hand at it many times, but outside of one shaped poem I’ve completed, I haven’t really fell in love with any of my shaped poems.

John Hollander, a well known American poet, makes some fascinating shaped poetry. For example, his cat poetry:

I want to pet his words.


Reading Poetry Out Loud

Poetry is a unique literary form. Unlike novels and short stories, poetry is meant to be read out loud. And, unlike a play or a script, poetry is not supposed to be performed. Poetry lies between silent reading and the stage. Earlier in the blog, I talked about the difference between a poem on the page and a poem out loud, and I stand by the assessment that poetry needs to be read out loud, but furthermore, for poetry to be understood it must also be read out loud and played with.

While the words of a poem on a page don’t change, the intonation, inflection, pauses, breaths, pace, and reader can have a vast effect on the received meaning of a poem. Often enough, what people remember when it comes to a poem is the inflection of the speaker rather than the words and phrases of a poem. When a poem is read in a romantic way, it is received as a romantic poem and, likewise, when a poem is read in a sorrowful way it is received as a sorrowful poem. Take, for example, this poem by W.B. Yeats titled When You Are Old:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


Let It Frost

I live in Southern California, so I don’t really get to see snow very often. But I can read a lot of Frost, as in Robert Frost, and so can you. Here are a few of my favorite Frost poems to read by the fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate. Also, here’s a gif of a fireplace. You’re welcome.

Don’t forget some marshmallows!

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

A Winter Eden

A winter Eden in an alder swamp
Where conies now come out to sun and romp,
As near a paradise as it can be
And not melt snow or start a dormant tree.

It lifts existence on a plane of snow
One level higher than the earth below,
One level nearer heaven overhead
And last year’s berries shining scarlet red.

It lifts a gaunt luxuriating beast
Where he can stretch and hold his highest feast
On some wild apple tree’s young tender bark,
What well may prove the years’ high girdle mark.

Pairing in all known paradises ends:
Here loveless birds now flock as winter friends,
Content with bud inspecting. They presume
To say which buds are leaf and which are bloom.

A feather hammer gives a double knock.
This Eden day is done at two o’clock.
An hour of winter day might seem too short
To make it worth life’s while to wake and sport.