FORMAL POETRY AND THE SONNET
by David B. Axelrod
Many poets write using rhyme. Many more are masters of set forms. At a time when the majority of America’s recognized poets are writing in a plain style–blank verse and free verse–going back to learn the “forms” might seem unfashionable. However, there are some good arguments to encourage a diligent student of poetry to the study of formal poetry.
There are those who say “if you don’t count the beats, it isn’t poetry.” After nearly a century of free verse, such a pronouncement seems a bit extreme! What can be said, however, is that the predominant history of poetry is one of regular meter and rhyme. A poet should spend some time with forms if for no other reason than to honor the past, to pay a little back to tradition!
Then, if you think about it, writing poems with “no rules, ” can breed a certain laxity. If there is no rhyme, no regular meter, no rule for length of the line or the poem itself, what measure does a poet apply to judge a poem a success? One thing following a form can do is send a poet back to work and rework the lines until they are the best example of the form. Thinking, working that hard could produce a better poem than the amorphous notion that anything goes in poem!
Perhaps one of the best explanations for what a poet can learn from a turn with forms, came from one of America’s foremost sonneteers, Aaron Kramer. Asked by students why anyone would want to write a sonnet, he pulled a chair into the center of the room.
“First, ” he said, pressing his wrists together, “you are handcuffed by having to write fourteen lines.
“Then, ” he said, sitting down to press his ankles together, “you are shackled by having to write with a set meter.”
Leaning forward to crouch into a ball, he declared, “They put you into a sack called rhyme.”
Rising suddenly from the chair to spread his arms, he declared, “But think what a magic act it is if you can set you meaning free!”
Writing a form, mastering a form, truly saying what you want while doing what they say, is a bit of a Houdini act! Why not try a sonnet and see if you can rise to the challenge. Perform the necessary word magic and you will have bragging rights for life!
Some reference material:
www.sonnets.org links you to a group devoted to sonnets and provides items like a rhyming dictionary.
http://www.sonnets.org/basicforms.htm addresses the structure or logic of the sonnet, also sometimes referred to as the “Volta.”
Here’s a definition of a sonnet by Michael Jarrett, Associate Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, which provides the basics:
A lyric poem almost invariably of fourteen lines and following one of several set rhyme-schemes. Critics of the sonnet have recognized various forms, but only two types need be discussed if the reader will understand that each of them has undergone various modifications. The two basic sonnet types are the Italian or Petrarchan and the English or Shakespearean. The Italian form is distinguished by its division into the octave and the sestet: the octave consisting of eight lines rhyming abbaabba, and the sestet consisting of six lines rhyming cdecde, cdccdc, or cdedce. The octave presents a narrative, states a proposition or raises a question; the sestet drives home the narrative by making an abstract comment, applies the proposition, or solves the problem. English poets have varied these requirements greatly. The octave and sestet division is not always kept; the thyme-scheme is often varied, but within the limitation that no Italian sonnet properly allows more than five rhymes. Iambic pentameter is usually the meter, but certain poets have experimented with hexameter and other meters.
To summarize, a sonnet has:
A set rhyme scheme
Regarding the meter: English, it is said, is spoken very comfortably in iambic pentameter. That said, most people need to relax into writing with a regular meter. Start by writing out your full name, presumably all three parts (or more): first name, middle name, last name and even Junior if that applies. You certainly know where to put the accents, the stresses when pronouncing your own name. Mark over the accented syllables with a /. Mark over the unaccented syllables with a simple –. Guess what! You just “scanned” your name. Scansion is the notation of the meter in poetry.
Set beats, or patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables are given names. Sonnets are written in measured units, “feet, ” which are called “iambs.” Sonnets are “iambic.” Each line of a sonnet contains five regular iambic units or feet. (Quick math therefore, tells you that a line has ten regularly patterned syllables, five iambic feet, and the entire sonnet, therefore, will have 140 such iambically arranged syllables or seventy iambic feet before it’s done.)
Try marking the correct stressed and unstressed syllables:
“Destroy, create, deceive, ” are all iambic words, as is “believable”–four syllables, _ / _ / .
In fact, the whole preceding sentence scans iambically as does this one!
Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables when you read the following line:
“Perhaps it’s time to scan a line of verse.” It’s five regular feet, iambic pentameter! _ / _ / _ / _ / _ /
Ah, but how could that be when the only two syllable word is “perhaps?” Well, it takes a little practice but if you just listen to the way words are spoken, and occasionally check the dictionary, you will grow accustomed to finding the beat. The trick is to not force the words into unnatural places. Don’t go putting the ACcent on the wrong SYLlable! Multi-syllabic words are pronounced in an agreed upon manner. You aren’t allowed to fracture the language and call it “sonnet.”
Another pitfall in writing the sonnet is “padding” the lines to make the meter come out correctly iambic. You may catch yourself adding unneeded words–syllables introduced into a line not because you need them but because you want to keep the beat.
Oops! Padding your lines, like padding your expense account, isn’t an honest path. A good poet holds him or herself to account. Every word, every syllable should be there to further your meaning, not just to fill out the form.
There is room in any poem for some poetic license, but as a student mastering the form, try to be as correct, as formal as you can this first time through. Similarly, you should try not to fracture normal sentence structure, syntax, to make the beats come out regular.
Try to write “naturally, ” smoothly, so that the lines scan regularly but you are still writing modern English and more so, saying what you mean.
Regarding rhyme: As noted above in the definition, sonnets commit themselves to one or another regular rhyme scheme. “Scheme” refers to the pattern of rhymed line endings. While there are a substantial variety of schemes, it’s suggested you pick one or another of the regular patterns:
A B B A C D D C E F F E GG or A B A B C D C D E F E F GG
Having established the rhyme scheme you will follow, read “How to tell a good rhyme from a bad” so that you don’t wind up writing a nursery rhyme. Rather, the challenge, the Houdini trick which Aaron Kramer so cleverly enacted, is to say what you mean, not succumb to making rhymes.
The logic of sonnets: From the rhyme scheme above, you may have noticed that your sonnet will be divided into three quatrains (three stanzas of four lines each) and a couplet (your last two rhymed lines). For some, that suggests that sonnet, like an Aristotelian plot, has a beginning, middle and end. Indeed, if sonnets don’t proceed as stories, they may act like a syllogism in logic with a major premise, minor premise and conclusion.
There is, in a sonnet, as often what is called “the volta, ” or “turn.” You may wish to organize your sonnet as a story or follow a certain logic, you will be writing a substantial poem. By that it’s meant that you have lots of room to let your subject matter grow. The lines are long enough and fourteen of them are ample length to do a good job.
Most of all, have a good time. Folks do crossword puzzle, play word games. They rise to the challenge with cleverness and a love of language. So, the sonnet should make a worthy pastime, a good game. With luck you’ll trigger something wonderful. Poets who avoid form, sometimes drift into a habit of thinking “anything goes.” If the sonnet requires more thought, more effort, that extra work could bring out the best in you. Enjoy!
YOU SAY YOU’RE NOT SATISFIED. YOU WANT MORE FOR YOU R MONEY? Click here for two sonnets I have written as samples for you: Sample Sonnets