Today was Shakespeare’s Birthday. It’s possible that you did something fun with your classes to celebrate. I taught mine to write sonnets. Everyone is under the impression that sonnets are hard. But if they’re so hard, then why was everyone in Elizabethan England absolutely mad for writing them? The trick is to learn the form first. Accordingly, go get a sheet of paper and a pen. Write sonnets in pen. Be ambitious! Along the right side of the page, write this on successive lines: A B A B C D C D E F E F G G Ok. Now go back through the list, and choose rhyming words. Lines with an A on them, rhyme with each other, lines with B on them rhyme with each other, and so on. But D lines only rhyme with D, not with E or F.
Keep your rhyming words simple. Don’t get fancy. One kid suggested “mahagony” for a D-rhyme, and what rhymes with that?? Now… Count syllables.
Sonnets basically follow three rules:
- each Shakespearean sonnet has 14 lines;
- they rhyme according to the scheme shown above;
- each line has ten syllables in it;
each line follows this complex “iambic pentamer” rule.
I’ve been doing this a long time. Rule 4 does not come instantly, but it does come with practice. And kids will learn to HEAR it on their own,
but first they need to learn the three core rules, i.e., 14 lines, weird rhyming pattern, ten syllables in a line. So count syllables, like Shakespeare. You have ten fingertips. Your rhyme word is probably one syllable, so… find the nine syllables at lead up to that word. Is it a two-syllable word like “pencil”?So, then find the eight syllables leading up to it. Don’t change the words that you chose for your rhyme pattern. You’re not trying to write a perfect sonnet on the first go-round — you’re teaching your mind to learn a formal poetic style. And you won’t do that if you concentrate on content, that
is, the poem’s meaning. Insist that your brain conform to the form alone.
I’ve seen kids write (terrible) sonnets in twelve minutes using this method. You have to convince them that the quality of the poem doesn’t matter. (and it must NOT matter.. Extra super bonus points for really crappy sonnets that follow the form exactly, but get really weird around line 5 because the rhymes are odd. [save the meaningful poetry for the ninth or tenth run-through of the sonnet form].
The next five or six sonnets you write, choose the rhyme scheme first, then fill the fourteen lines with the correct number of syllables to match. In other words, build the poem in reverse — choose the ending words of the lines first, and then write the stanzas to obey the rhyme scheme. Around Sonnet 8 or 9, the process will reverse — your brain will find the line first, and then begin constructing the rhyme scheme. Around Sonnet 15 or 25, your brain and ear will start rejecting lines that aren’t iambic pentameter, or at least rejecting the ones which are obviously NOT iambic or pentameter.
And around the time that you write your fiftieth sonnet, some of them will be good enough to memorize. And you will no longer be the sort of person who can say, “oh, I could never write a sonnet.” And neither will your students.
But from a time management perspective, let’s break that down just a bit more. I’m guessing that it takes the time needed to write 50 sonnets for the form to become truly ingrained as a recognizable brain pattern. But let’s say you’re from Lake Woebegone, and you’re a bit above average (I assume all my blog readers are). In that case, you only need to write thirty sonnets. One a day for the next month. At fifteen minutes a pop, you’re talking seven and a half hours of writing effort to learn the base writing style of William Shakespeare.
The Bard of Avon. Happy Birthday, Billy.