Sunday, 4 May 2014

Sonnet writing for dummies and the literally obsessed.

As promised I’m beginning my late contribution to NaPoWriMo, (I’m getting tired of writing it too), as I don’t have the time to write poetry, I’m going to pass on wisdom from someone who spent years learning how to write it, until I have time to work on poetry again. I’m going to structure these next few posts to save myself some worry about how to write them. Poetry in nature is something you need to learn the rules to create well, meaning effectively and artistically, but doing it this way, you destroy the art which you have sought to create; thus I will add, once you have learned to follow and reproduce these rules, for lack of a better term, you then destroy them, and thus art is born.
I would like to start off this explanation with a short history of the form we are going to approach. For me, learning the history of a poetic form is like learning the culture attached to a country and its language.
In the 13th century an Italian poet named Francesco Petrarch created the original poetic form, as we know now as a Petrarchan sonnet. It held the monopoly on this poetic form, as one of the most refined and romantic styles of poetry, thematic mostly on the idea of courtly love for a beautiful, unattainable lady for 300 years until it was brought over to Britain by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. Notable masters of this form include some of my favourite writers; Spenser, Sidney Sidney’s niece Mary Wroth and of course Shakespeare, who evolved the Petrarchan sonnet into the classic British Shakespearean sonnet. The main difference is in Shakespearean sonnets we deal less with love and more with comedy, notably Shakespeare ended many sonnets on a rhyming couplet, something never seen in Petrarch’s work. The sonnet is a form that has survived the ages because although rigid in how it must be constructed it has an adaptability that many formal poems have not. Among the best-known British writers of sonnets are John Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas, all of whom I enjoy reading for examples of how it is done right.
Sonnets are formed in several ways, but usually the form can be seen as fourteen lines of iambic pentameter and a Volta, indicating a change in rhyme scheme in the last third of the poem.
Some key words:
Iamb: an iamb is a unit of sound
Iambic pentameter: five iambs, usually made up of two beats per iamb.
Syllable: a single unit of sound that is traditionally a vowel enclosed by consonants.
            Volta: a sudden change or revelation exclusively used with sonnets.

Rather than explain the rhyme scheme of sonnets, traditionally the last syllable taking the form of a,bb,a,a,,b,b,a c,d,c,d,c, or the c,d,e,c,d,e or in Shakespearian sonnets c.d.c.d,e,e etc, I will explain it with pictures:


Just one example of how many people would write the form, also showing again its versatility.
            I would suggest all those who are new to using the form to start from scratch and learn how to write a Petrarchan sonnet, including the theme of courtly love of an unobtainable woman before moving on to Shakespeare’s form. Everything beyond these two is down to universal interpretation, but they are where most people will start to learn the form before breaking it with free verse.
            Incorporation of this form, or non-form to some, means that you no longer need to follow all the rules described so far. When you combine forms like this, the only thing that needs to be maintained is the number of lines and a Volta, the rest is down to your artistic interpretation.
            To finish off this rather long winded explanation, sonnets are considered as one of the most sophisticated forms, because when done traditionally they are exceptionally difficult to write well. Useful poetic devices that can be used in this form, which I will explain in a few weeks, include, end stopped lines, caesura, run on lines and metaphors.
            Until next time, read, write, live.

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