How to Teach Writing Sonnets

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:

  1. each Shakespearean sonnet has 14 lines;
  2. they rhyme according to the scheme shown above;
  3. each line has ten syllables in it;
  4. 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.

17 comments

  1. […] moon sonnets — When was it? About 2006 to 2004, I wrote sonnets to the full and new moon for three years.  They’re in the poetic catalog as part of the Sun and Moon sonnet series, although they’re heavily rooted in central southern New England (think Connecticut-Rhode Island-Massachusetts meet-up area).  If you want to learn to write sonnets so you can write your own about your own area, my advice on learning to write sonnets is here. […]

  2. Although I am indeed able to write a sonnet in far less than 15 minutes, (I have written six months worth of these at least one per day, and) I find that typically I spend several hours on each one; although this may include research or additional constraints on the form. I could add a few more weapons to the arsenal of method, so to speak, that…

    • Hi David,

      I wrote around two thousand sonnets before I started teaching them, because it was “my thing” as a teacher, and I didn’t want to share.

      But for teaching seventh graders, and middle schoolers generally, I find that “forcing” the first one out rapidly — opens the possibility of more. They need to see that sonnet-writing isn’t HARD, rather they need to see that it’s easy to do, but harder to do well.

      • Oh I think that is wonderful! I so admire a teacher that will go the extra mile, as it were. I did understand you were talking of pedagogy; but as usual, was indulging in my usual rambling. No harm done, I hope !?

        2000 makes me and most everyone else a “lightweight” as they say, when compared to you. Have you posted them all anywhere as I have done? I would be very curious to see the results of such a progression. Truly a huge effort.

        When I began this project, I decided I would not write any “quickies,” so to speak. But I have, actually written a few here. I do not think that many can tell the difference between them and the ones I may have spent much more time on.

        The series that finished posting today was a more time consuming one; however the most time-consuming are those that require research and/or study. My own education in the humanities is rather spotty hence whenever there are religious or mythological references I require more time in many cases.

        In any case, thank you so much for introducing a new generation or two or three to the magic of sonnet writing. In fact, I have found that sonnet writing can be ones very own crash course in the humanities because of the study and research that must sometimes be done.

        In that way, I have made up for a lifetime of disinterest and other deficiencies.

        • I think it was the lawyer Alan Dershowitz who has written far more than both of us combined— two a day for a forty year career. Quantity guarantees some good ones — collection means they get noticed.

          Some of mine are available through the poetic catalog— a button on the top of my page will lead you to collections of sonnets and odes (my other favored form). I like the “Sun and Moon sonnets”, my myself, which track biweekly changes in weather and wilderness conditions over three years. 🙂

        • Thank you. And I did not know that about Mr. Dershowitz. If you have had a look at my site, you probably already know that I am not a “humanities man,” so to speak; but merely a “Science guy” who long ago fell in love with a “humanities girl” which was when so very long ago, I discovered sonnets. I have written them (with no particular regularity until very recently) ever since then. I feel like it must be so much easier for someone like you or Mr. Dershowitz with properly well rounded educations to make such a commitment. I know that I what I struggled with most of all was the desire to write on subjects I felt deeply about. I think if I pull myself out of that trap, I could probably write four a day!

          And, haha, as I mentioned, no one would be the wiser!!!

        • Dear David,

          I look forward to having a chance to read some of your sonnets once summer is here and I’m no longer teaching for a few weeks. At the moment, I’m rather buried in the minutiae of the end of the school year. In the meantime, though, if you’re interested in learning to pick up speed — try writing some sonnets where only the structure matters, rather than the content. It may help you learn to work through the form faster, and develop your skill at expressing content in a smaller amount of time. As to Mr. D and I having better rounded educations … I’m not sure that has anything to do with it. Time and inclination seem to have a much firmer grip!

        • Ah… well you humanities people always say that! I believe you “don’t know your own strength,” when it comes to all the connexions that you are able to make–at least re content. As I mentioned in my original comment, I’ve done a fair bit of speed writing using a variety of methods some of which you mention in your wonderful article–some odder still.

          I would be more than honoured to see you drop by any time.

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