Form Resources: The Sonnet
The most radical poem a poet can write today is a sonnet.”
— Barton Sutter
Often, we’re blocked from learning poetry deeply by the very real barriers of cost and time, especially those of us who cannot afford the MFA or the Lit degree. So we’ve put together a short list of free online resources that can help fill those gaps as it shows up for that eternal, ever-intimidating poetic form: the sonnet. All they require is your curiosity and poetic hunger!
The modern sonnet (in English) follows two general rules: it should have 14 lines, and it should have a volta. Or, as Adam O’Riordan puts it in his article, “The Sonnet as a Silver Marrow Spoon“, the sonnet is “an idea or a story that, somewhere around the eighth or ninth line, is nudged or diverted slightly in its path so that it turns and says something else.”
Learning About the Sonnet Form
A good place to start when learning about sonnets is the article, “Learning the Sonnet” in The Poetry Foundation. By Rachel Richardson, this article is excellent in its brevity and articulation of the movements the form has taken over time. Richardson works her way through specific poems to explicitly show the variety and depth of the modern sonnet. Also note, at the bottom of the article is a wonderful list of sonnets to read, categorized by three types: Shakespearean, Petrarchan, and Nontraditional.
For some deep history into the late middle ages and the Renaissance, this video by Linda Gregerson—the Academy of American Poets Chancellor—is very useful. Her passion and knowledge for the form shines, and before you know it, you’ll be absorbed in the dramas and erotics of the early Italian courts.
You can also check out our close reading of R.A. Villanueva’s complex and compact sonnet, “Tenebrae”.
Writing Your Own Sonnet
Don’t know where to start? The first recommendation is always the same: copy a poem you admire, and copy it poorly. As Dean Young would say, your genius is in your inability to copy well.
The second recommendation is the 5 step guide to sonnet writing by Annie Neugebauer:
- Step 1: “Gathering DNA”
- Step 2: “Structuring a Skeleton”
- Step 3: “Filling out the Flesh”
- Step 4: “Muscle Skulpting”
- Step 5: “Final Dress”
One of our favorite rhyme resources is the delightfully cheesy looking site, RhymeZone. Make sure to explore the customization options for finding that perfect word that will send your heroic couplet flying.
This document on scansion and meter, from Dr. Wheeler at Carson-Newman University, is extremely helpful for those of us who struggle to hear the stress and unstress patterns naturally.
The beauty of the sonnet is that it cannot be killed. It thrives on experimentation and deconstruction.
Laynie Brown argues the sonnet is a space for poets to meet and pursue poetry as a community. Collectively experimenting with the sonnet, she argues, allows us to talk to each other, to work together in our engagement with language and the world. In “On the Elasticity of the Sonnet and the Usefulness of Collective Experimentation”, she lists out 29 detailed prompts to get your experimental fluids pumping.
For an example of an excellent short sonnet sequence, look no further than Safia Elhillo’s “Asmar”.
And finally, here’s a quick list of a few small contests for some of that useful pressure on your writing:
- The American Aesthetic Sonnet Competition
- The Folger Shakespeare Library Sonnet Contest (for students)
- Cannon Poets’ Sonnet or Not Contest
Now go make a sonnet, sonneteers. Then send it to us.