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2021: Celebrating The Writers' Greenhouse
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Friday, 25 January 2019

Meddle with a sonnet

For the launch of the Meddling with Poetry course, I'm sharing 16 delicious forms of poetry I've discovered, each of them a delight to play with.

14 lines, a shift or twist about 2/3 of the way through, and some kind of a conclusion. That’s it: the rest, contrary to the school rules, is up to you! Various types of sonnets have their own rhyme schemes or metres. You can pick whatever type you want or go freestyle.

At school, most of us get taught The Sonnet as a completely fixed form, to be rigidly obeyed, never to be meddled with... so it comes as quite a shock to discover you can meddle with almost every single aspect of it!

If you ever felt frustrated or cross or like you didn't get sonnets at school, read on, because you were probably right, and I'm here to vindicate you. And then when you're feeling thoroughly vindicated, set you free!


The rules we were taught went something like... iambic pentameter (de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM), rhyme scheme abab-cdcd-efef-gg, something about a twist or whatnot, wraps up in the final couplet. And that's the Shakespearean sonnet. And then we were given Shakespearean sonnets to look at, to admire how well he did it and work out What He Was Trying To Say, and sat there scratching our heads, because even if we could get through the thickets of Shakespearean English at that age, he didn't really seem to follow the rules...

And you know what? School-You was right! Let's look at one of the most famous Shakespearean sonnets. (I've broken it into stanzas so it's easier to analyse.)
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 wand'ring 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.
So let's assume we've already got past the stuff like tempest=storm, and bark=ship, and "the remover" is death not Vanish, and all that, and start analysing the form.

Rhyme scheme: finds / minds, fair enough. That rhymes. love / remove? Nonsense! Then the teacher starts talking about "visual" rhyme because it looks like they should rhyme and that's... a thing, apparently? That's even good enough for the final couplet, prov'd / lov'd? If School-You was angry and sceptical, you were right. And what about come / doom? They don't rhyme and they don't even look the same! So much for the rhyme scheme, Shakespeare.

Next up: metre. If you're a native English speaker, you use English rhythm perfectly, naturally. And then you're told this sentence
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
is iambic pentameter: de-DUM x 5. In which case, I'd need to put the stress like this:

Let ME not TO the MARRiage OF true MINDS
which is clearly the speech of an alien. Honestly, just try saying it out loud like that. Anyone with the faintest grasp of English will, quite naturally and correctly, put the stress like this:
LET me NOT to the MARRiage of TRUE MINDS
or even this
Let me NOT to the MARRiage of TRUE MINDS
And then you end up thinking that you don't understand metre, because you can't see how that's iambic pentameter (hint: it's not) and rhyme doesn't even mean anything anymore, and then you're told to write a sonnet "following the rules" when apparently even Shakespeare couldn't get it right.

Here's the thing: Shakespeare's sonnets often don't rhyme and aren't iambic pentametre – but they used to, and they once were. The language changed. The way we pronounce words changed, and the way we stress things changed. There's no such thing as visual rhyme. (Well, there is now, but only because people made it up because they misunderstood.) The words that look like they rhyme? They used to rhyme! (Later, other poets came along and thought, 'Oh, those words look like they rhyme but they don't, so that must be okay,' but they were wrong. I'm looking at you, William Blake, with your eye / symmetry.) Mostly this is because of something called The Great Vowel Shift which was a huge change in English pronunication and no-one really knows why it happened. As for the metre – I believe that was iambic pentameter once, and everyone's still frantically embarrassedly pretending it still is, but it's clearly not.

So! Tl; dr: There is such a thing as a Shakespearean sonnet, which does follow those rules, but Shakespeare's sonnets don't anymore because the language has changed. And that's not the be-all and end-all of sonnets! Prepare to be set free...


So far I've counted up 28 sonnet forms, and I'm sure there's plenty more I've yet to find. The rhyme schemes vary wildly and they don't even all use rhymes. Iambic pentameter? Pfft! In the sonnet history, that's a modern upstart; the original and older sonnet forms didn't use that, and plenty of the newer forms don't either. We can see it as a phase we went through, in the middle. Ten syllables, at least? Nope: the world's yer oyster. Go wild. Write very short lines, if you want. Or even longer ones.

The only things all the sonnets have in common, the kernel of what-makes-a-sonnet-a-sonnet, are these:
  • 14 lines
  • some kind of 'twist' in the argument (the pivot, also known as volta) about two-thirds of the way through
  • some kind of conclusion (from the neat tie-it-up-with-a-bow rhyming couplet to the slightly vaguer gestured-at suggestions of conclusions in most contemporary sonnets)
That's it. All the rest are variations that people made up. You can copy their variations if you like them, you can make up your own, you can do completely as you please. If you're worried it's not 'authentic', then relax. The first sonnet form was the Sicilian sonnet, which was invented circa 1200 AD. It rhymed abababab cdcdcd, it had no particular metre, and it was supposed to be about courtly chivalrous love. So if 'authentic' is 'going with the original form', then Shakespeare, Petrarch, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Pushkin, Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning were all writing inauthentic sonnets, so you're in bloody good company!

I happen to love writing Shakespearean sonnets (though I'm starting to play more with other ones) and pretty rigorous iambic pentameter, so the example is a Shakespearean sonnet, which really does follow "the rules", but you do you! (And because I live to let other people copy my homework, if you want my summary of sonnet forms, just email me on and I'll happily send it to you.)
TThe empty post-box down the broken drive
was weathered tin. The gravel cut my feet.
You wrote me daily, bringing me alive –
you touched me, then. Each moment, incomplete
without you, stung. I needed you. At night,
I dreamt of hands which crossed the world to touch
in matrices of meaning, gloves of light –
we wrote so many letters. Bore so much.
The future came. My hands, in blind despair,
through emails, Facebook, website stats pursue
your ghost with data gloves, but clutch at air –
and I have no address to write to you.
I'm lost in losses time and I forgot.
The world moves on, but I, my love, cannot.
Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The next Meddling with Poetry course starts in May 2020. It explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.

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