As we get into the swing of the school year, begin to understand our schedules, and commence a new year of learning, what better poetry form to explore than the famously well-organized sonnet? Perhaps you only know sonnets as love poems written by Shakespeare. However, there are in fact many types of sonnets and they cover a wide range of topics, although love is their most common subject.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
This poem is an example of the Shakespearean sonnet form, so named for Shakespeare’s preference for this layout. Shakespearean sonnets have 14 lines. The first twelve are three quatrains, which each use the “abab” rhyme form, and the final two are a rhyming couplet. Shakespeare uses this complex form to communicate a simple message: love is a constant. Using the imagery of a mark that cannot be erased, a star to a wandering ship, and something that will never yield to the sickle, Shakespeare shows the reader that love cannot be changed. Some might note that this sonnet is like a persuasive essay, and the final couplet is analogous to a thesis, in which Shakespeare restates his main point. In addition, Shakespeare also uses iambic pentameter (an alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables) in the poem, giving it a sense of forward motion with each word. However, not all sonnets are as formal as this one.
When I die, I want your hands on my eyes:
I want the light and wheat of your beloved hands
to pass their freshness over me once more:
I want to feel the softness that changed my destiny.
I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep.
I want your ears still to hear the wind, I want you
to sniff the sea’s aroma that we loved together,
to continue to walk the sand we walk on.
I want what I love to continue to live,
and you whom I love and sang above everything else
to continue to flourish, full-flowered:
so that you can reach everything my love directs you to.
so that my shadow can travel along in your hair,
so that everything can learn the reason for my song.
Neruda’s sonnet, like Shakespeare’s, also expresses a single simple statement using a complex form. Although Shakespeare’s poem was carefully rhymed, this poem is in a free-verse form, making it more relaxed. However, it’s still considered a sonnet because it has fourteen lines. In this poem, Neruda expresses to his beloved that he wants her to continue to live life well after he passes away, “so that everything can learn the reason for my song.” This sonnet has quite a different mood than Shakespeare’s, but it features a similar theme and equally beautiful imagery, from the “light and wheat” of hands, to the sand and the wind. Interestingly, Neruda originally wrote this poem in Spanish! The sonnet may have originated in England, but it has since gained recognition around the world.
After reading these two sonnets, you might reasonably assume that sonnets are only the realm of ancient, long-dead poets. Allow me to present a sonnet from TPS alumnus Rebekah Rosamilia! Rebekah is as modern as poets come, yet she too effectively uses the sonnet form to explore a complex idea.
I do not know the proper way to love someone.
I do not know the words I’m meant to say.
I only know the flares that rise when we’ve begun,
the sirens screaming to evacuate.
My fingers fumble with the latch to flee––retreat
from voices that assume there’s nothing wrong.
How do I warn them? What can make them finally see
that I’ve been self-destructing all along?
This building’s going to crumble, every floor collapse.
I can’t have any casualties but me.
Please run, please clear the premises and don’t look back.
I need you to escape this tragedy.
I hope you hear the words behind texts unreplied:
you’re safer with a love that isn’t mine.
Rebekah uses the Shakespearean sonnet form and meter, giving her poem structure and rhythm. Even though many of her rhymes are only near-rhymes, such as “say” and “evacuate,” they achieve the same effect as a perfect rhyme. However, unlike Shakespeare’s sonnet, she also employs enjambment, in which sentences spill over their lines and into the next. This contributes to the chaotic, hurried mood of her poem, as she struggles to warn others of the danger. Through the complex form, Rebekah communicates a message, as illustrated by the final “thesis” couplet of the poem: “you’re safer with a love that isn’t mine.” Although simply expressing that in a sentence might not have much effect, through the sonnet, the words gain significance and depth of emotion.
Rebekah also has some words of advice to offer aspiring poets! “Try to think of poetry writing in terms of a ‘subject and key.’ The subject is the abstract topic (grief, friendship, innocence, etc), and the key is the concrete object you use to convey that idea (a building collapsing in “Message: Seen,” for example). Then, try to write about the key without directly mentioning the subject. This will help you write concrete, image-grounded poems instead of getting lost in abstractions. It’s a tip from my professor that I’ve found extremely helpful for my own work.”
Hopefully, this article has inspired you to learn a little more about the art of sonnet-writing, and perhaps even to write your own sonnets! The sonnet’s rigidity makes it unique among poetry forms, which are usually looser and have less rules than prose. It is this rigidity that allows the sentiments expressed in a sonnet to attain greater significance than prose could ever permit.
The GIFs are my own artworks, animated.