Try writing a Sonnet. How about a Shakespearean Sonnet?


Let us speak here of Vivian Smallwood whose book, And Finding No Mouse There was published by Negative Capability Press in 1983.  I say confidently that Vivian Smallwood was one of America’s finest poets – and particularly the sonnet – and I dare say the equal of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Vivian Smallwood was born in Vinegar Bend, Alabama but lived most of her life in Chickasaw, Alabama. She won numerous poetry awards including the Grand Prize of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies Competition in 1972 – and first lace in the World of Poetry competition in 1983.  She is the author of Window to the South  as well as And Finding No Mouse There.

Before discussing the particulars of the sonnet – and especially the Shakespearean sonnet, let read how elegant and interesting Vivian Smallwood’s sonnets can be.

Here is our prompt – to use as a possible theme: the moon, mother, child, mother and child.

Moon Mother Speaks To Her Child
(Vivian Smallwood)

You may come out now. They have gone away
And all the lovely moon is ours once more.
The rocks hold fast, the mountain ridges stay,
The hills are fastened to the valley floor,
And once again the sky is black and bare.
The wandering star has gone the way it came
And those who almost tracked us to our lair
Have vanished with the dust storm and the flame.
Time drifts toward time, unshaken, unreproved.
You need not fear the scratches on the stone,
The furrows in the sand where shadows moved
Faster than any shadows we have know.
            A thousand thousand years will leave small trace
            Of those who once profaned our holy place.

Every sonnet has 14 lines.

You will notice above that alternating lines rhyme until the final couple that rhymes: trace and place.

The rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet is ABAB / CDCD / EFEF / GG.

The sonnet can be written in quatrains – or four line stanzas – but Smallwood did not do that in this poem – the it rhymes / away / more / stay / floor – alternating rhymes. Then the lines that follow rhyme:  bare/ came / lair / flame.  And after that four more lines that rhyme: unreproved / stone / moved / known.  And last – the final couplet.

The tricky part – indeed the hard part (to me) in writing a sonnet is the meter – or the rhythm.   The standard meter is iambic pentameter.  Iambic signifies an unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat – designated as U  - .          

            And all the lovely moon is ours once more. 

The line has 5 unstressed / stressed beats.

            And all / the love / ly moon / is ours / once more.

Figuring out the beats in a sonnet (or other poem) is called scansion.

See if you can scan this poem of Vivian Smallwood:

This Comfort

There will be life along this sunny hill
When I have signed and found a darker place.
The mouse will gather grain, the bee will spill
Her bits of pollen on the Queen Anne’s lace.
The snail will move from grass to green grass,
The roly-poly crawl from stone to stone.
The locust will discard his tarnished brass
And disappear on errands of his own.
Life will go on, as busy and as bold
As it has always been. The seed will fall,
The root claim pasture, and the twig unforld,
And I shall be remembered in them all—
            Locust and mouse and bumblebee and stem,
            Forever part of me and I of them. 

Contemporary poetry also makes use of the sonnet in a very different manner. Take this sonnet published in Orion magazine by Sherman Alexie.

You will say – whoa! This can’t be a sonnet – but look.  There are 14 lines.  You will also note that the sonnet – in addition to being a sonnet – is a prose poem.  It is written like a paragraph.  So – if you’re daunted by the traditional Shakespearean sonnet, try a poem in the vein of Sherman Alexie.

Sonnet, Without Salmon
Sherman Alexie

1. The river is empty. 2. Empty of salmon, I mean. 3. But if you were talking to my grandmother, she would say the water doesn’t matter if the salmon are gone. 4. She never said that. I just did. But I’m giving her those words as a gesture of love. 5. She’s been gone for thirty-one years. 6. The water doesn’t matter if my grandmother is gone. 7. She swam wearing all of her clothes, even her shoes. 8. I don’t know if that was a tribal thing to do, or if she was just eccentric. 9. Has anybody ever said that dam building is an act of war against Indians? 10. And, yet, we need the electricity, too. 11. My mother said the reservation needs a new electrical grid because of all the brown- and blackouts. 12. “Why so many power outages?” I ask her. 13. “All the computers,” she says. 14. Today, in Seattle, I watched a cute couple at the next table whispering to their cell phones instead of to each other. But, chivalrous, he walked to the self-service coffee bar to get her a cup. Lovely, I thought. She was busy on her phone while he was ten feet away. When he sat back down, she said, “Oh, I was texting you to get me sugar and cream.”

Sherman Alexie is the author of the poetry collection Face and the poetry and story collection War Dances. He lives with his family in Seattle.

Try your hand at writing a sonnet!