There are a couple different forms of the sonnet, and several variations within those. The 3 main things they have in common are the rhythm (iambic pentameter), the volta (a change or shift in mood or perspective), and the theme (typically admiration for something).
I tried several different exercises for both Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets. A Petrarchan sonnet is written as an octave and sestet, the volta beginning the sestet. The rhyme scheme is ABBAABBA and CDCDCD/CDEEDE/CDDCEE. A Shakespearean sonnet is written in 3 quatrains and a couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
Sonnets are very strict rhythmically and in rhyme. There are so many layers going on, so as I started to work with the form I first just chose a subject and wrote 14 lines about it, thinking about the volta. In another poem I’d focus on the rhythm. With a different one I’d think about the rhyme. I worked with one layer at a time. Though the structure of the sonnet is very prescribed, it can be tweaked, and many examples I read had rhythm irregularities, adjusted the rhymes, had extra lines, or were even completely unrhymed. There are definitely liberties that can be taken. However, since the point of this was to understand and attempt the form, I wanted to write a poem that fit strictly inside the sonnet box. That being said, I didn’t achieve that!
The poem I’ll share today is the result of an exercise writing a Shakespearean sonnet. The plan was to write 12 lines about something I love, and beginning the ending couplet with “yet” “and so” or a similar transitional word or phrase signaling the volta. It ended up being about 30 lines long, with a volta somewhere in the middle. So I decided to split it up into 2 sonnets. The volta is placed where it seemed to fit best (in other words it’s not where it is “supposed” to be 🙂 ) My sonnet is also unrhymed. The element I chose to focus on was the rhythm. It is *mostly* written in iambic pentameter.
I found it to be even harder to be concise with a sonnet than it was with a cinquain because I know I have so few words with a cinquain, but with a sonnet I have 14 lines. So there’s more room to breathe and fill out, but by the time I got going it was time to wrap up. Also, I chose to write this sonnet about my Grandpa Red, and there’s a lot to say about him. So here is my sonnet, “Red,” which breaks a lot of rules and which I cried while writing.
It was a name to me before a color.
You used to either live across the yard
Or deeper down where it was warm and mild.
We’d count the days till you would come again
And you would always call to tell us when.
But usually you’d show up on your own time
And we’d see a truck the color of your name
Pulling in and we’d drop everything
To run outside and scream with sudden joy.
And when you lived across the yard in summer
We’d walk on over in the afternoons
To listen to your stories and play cards
And sometimes you would take your fake teeth out
And make that certain face we always asked for
Because you knew that it would make us laugh.
Red. It is a name, not a color.
Even though we wanted you to quit,
I’ve always liked the smell of smoky air
Because it always made things feel like you.
You were a pilot, firefighter, grandpa.
And then it got to days where you were different.
When you couldn’t think of words or important names.
We’d laugh because it made us all feel better
But it was hard to see your mind slipping away.
The worst times were when you knew things weren’t right.
And would realize you could not control the change.
And the worst day was when I realized I’d left
The country without thinking of the end.
I’d left not knowing I would never see you