Thursday, April 24, 2014

National Poetry Month: Sonnets!

April is National Poetry Month!
And right now, we're focusing on Sonnets - woot!

Sonnets are super easy to write. You have a structure, you have a meter, you just need to find words that fit it all. :-)
(Well, maybe not so easy. But for me it's easier than writing free verse, and my sister - who is more of a poet than I - agrees. If you want to write poems, but don't know where to start - start with limericks, and then move on to sonnets. The structure definitely helps.)

I'm going to talk about three types of sonnets - Shakespearean, Italian, and Spenserian. There are others, but these are the main ones. But first, we need to start with a description of meter - specifically iambic pentameter. (If you know what this is, feel free to skip.)

Meter refers to the rhythm our words make when we speak. When the rhythm is da-DA da-DA da-DA, it's in iambs (each da-DA is called an iamb). For example, "ToDAY I ATE some BREAD with JAM." We usually talk in iambs. Take a random sentence, and see if it's in iambs. Most likely, it is.

"Hey! Did you buy some fruit?"
"I did not have a chance to."
"There was a sale today!"

That's all in iambs. Of course, we don't say "Hey! DID you BUY some fruit?" :-)

There are other kinds of feet (iambs are a type of feet). For example, there are trochees (DA-da DA-da DA-da). We sometimes speak in these, too. Then there's dactyls (DA-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da). And anapests (da-da-DA da-da-DA). And a lot of others. But sonnets are usually (always?) written in iambs.

But I said they were written in iambic pentameter! What does that mean? It just means that for every line in a sonnet, there are five (pent-) iambs. (It can be tetrameter [three], quatrameter [four], even monometer [one iamb per line]. You can go as high as you like - heptameter [seven], octameter [eight], etc.) So a basic sonnet goes something like this:

da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA
da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA
...and so on and so forth...

Now that we understand iambic pentameter, let's move on to actual sonnets!

Sonnets usually deal with some conflict, and are divided into a part setting forth the conflict, and a part resolving the conflict in some way. Also, sonnets tend to be consistently 14 lines long. See what I meant about the strict structure?
Now, let's discuss...

Shakespearean (or English) Sonnets!

Obviously, the guy who wrote these a lot was none other than:
William Shakespeare himself!
He wrote 154 sonnets. Yup.
So, the Shakespearean sonnet is of the form ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, where each letter signifies a new line, and the lines with the same letter rhyme. Remember, every line is in iambic pentameter. Also, in a Shakespearean sonnet, the conflict generally makes up the first 12 lines (or three quatrains), and is quickly resolved in the last two (the final couplet, which is generally indented, to show its difference from the rest of the poem).

Here's an example of one of Will's sonnets. Do you "feel" the iambic pentameter?
Sonnet 73 
That time of year thou may'st in me behold  
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day, 
As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire 
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 
As the death-bed whereon it must expire 
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.    
      This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, 
     To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
You can probably see the conflict is about death and the fleetingness of life, and then the resolution is that it is this fleetingness that makes him love her so much more.

 Next up...

Italian Sonnets!

These are also sometimes called Petrarchian - after this guy:
Petrarch, an Italian scholar and poet

These are of the structure ABBA ABBA CDECDE. Well, the last sextet (or six lines) can sometimes have a different rhyme scheme, such as CDCDCD, or even CDECED. This one gives you some flexibility.
Here, generally the first two quatrains (the first eight lines) present the conflict, and the final sextet presents the resolution, though with this also there is flexibility.
Here's an example by Wordsworth:
"Scorn Not the Sonnet"
Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camoens soothed an exile's grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress wtih which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains--alas, too few!

And finally:

Spenserian Sonnets!

These were named after Edmund Spenser, who you may know as the author of the epic poem The Faerie Queen: 
The Spenserian sonnet is basically a modification of the Shakespearean sonnet, where you use the last line of the previous quatrain to determine the rhyme scheme of the next one. Here's the structure:
ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. See how the rhyming sort of overlaps?

Here's an example:

"One day I wrote her name upon the strand" 
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize!
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name;
      Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,
      Our love shall live, and later life renew.
Here, I believe that the conflict is resolved in the 9th line. So it seems that there is flexibility with conflict/resolution structure here as well. 

And those are the basic forms of sonnets.
I strongly suggest you try one - especially the Shakespearean kind. They aren't too hard. But a rhyming dictionary like this one might be useful; English isn't a very rhyme-friendly language.

Later on, I might post some of my sister's excellent sonnets. And maybe one of mine as well :-)

I talked more about writing sonnets than actually reading them, but understanding meter and the whole conflict/resolution business can make reading sonnets a bit easier.

Since it is National Poetry Month, I thought I'd start a collective poetry effort. Make your contribution HERE! All you need is a pinch of creativity to write a line or two. 

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