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by Conrad Geller
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Everyone should write at least one sonnet in a lifetime.
Sonnets are fourteen-line poems, period. They exist in every line length, with every rhyme scheme imaginable, or with no rhyme scheme at all. The more or less standard sonnets, however, fall into two types: Italian and Shakepearean.
Of these, let's work with the more popular, more elaborate, and at least formally more difficult form. The Italian sonnet was popularized by the Italian poet Petrarch in the fourteenth century, when he wrote a whole bunch of them about his hopeless love for Laura (she seems to have been married). Hopeless lovers have imitated him ever since.
Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnets are usually written with a long line of five beats (da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM). They break down into one eight-line stanza, that tells an experience or expresses a thought or feeling, and a six-line stanza, that contrasts with, resolves, or comments on the first part.
The eight-line stanza, called an octave, uses two rhyme words. The first line rhymes with the fourth, fifth, and eighth lines; the second with the third, sixth, and seventh. Confused? Here is the octave of a sonnet by the best sonneteer of the twentieth century, Edna St. Vincent Millay:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
See? "Why" rhymes with "sigh," "reply," and "cry"; "lain" rhymes with "rain," "pain," and "gain."
So now she has expressed her feeling (Loneliness? Regret?) In the six-line finale (the sestet), she is going to make the feeling more vivid still by resorting to a comparison of her situation with that of a tree in winter which, cold and abandoned, seems to have only a faint, nonspecific sense of loss:
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Note the rhyming here is "tree" (line 1) rhyming with "me" (line 5); "one" (line 2) rhyming (imperfectly) with "gone" (line 4); and "before" (line 3) rhyming with "more" (line 6). We could represent that using the scheme abcbac. Actually, that's trickier than most sestets. The usual is either abcabc, ababab or, if the poet wants a summarizing last two lines, ababcc.
Does that seems too hard? I estimate that probably a million sonnets are written nowadays worldwide, by poets young and old, of all possible levels of skill. Why not you?
A bigger question is, why bother? Well, you can't know how satisfying, how pleasant, and even how liberating the sonnet can be until you try one. Millay, in a sonnet about writing a sonnet, puts it best, as usual:
I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
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Conrad Geller grew up in Boston and received his education at the Boston Latin School and Harvard. He has taught in Massachusetts and New York and spent a Fulbright year teaching in London. He has published widely on literature and education. Currently he heads the Committee on Public Doublespeak of the National Council of Teachers of English. His poetry has appeared in many publications, including Bibliophilos, Insight, and Burning Cloud Review.