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Modernizing Sonnets

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be writing on traditional poetic forms, and how they might be modernized. When you think of an ode, what form do you picture? Is it the Horatian style of Pope’s Ode on Solitude, the swinging rhymes of Keats’s On a Grecian Urn, or the seemingly scattered and randomness of Neruda’s Ode to a Watermelon? It might surprise you to learn that none of them is the original ode: odes are traced all the way back to Pindar in ancient Greece. Though the packaging has undergone many changes, odes have kept their central essence of spontaneity, celebration, emotion, and reflection. This is what I’ll be attempting to do with each of these forms, break them down into their essence, that one might toy with the packaging. Those who love baking shows (or desserts in general) have probably seen thousands of variants of tiramisu, but I’d bet every one of them was layered. I likewise seek the defining characteristics.

The first form I’ll be covering is the sonnet. Being a traditionalist poet, I’m a huge fan of sonnets. They’re a great vehicle for dramatic thought; writing one is almost like having a conversation with yourself. Now, traditionally sonnets have a rather strict form: fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, separated by an octet and a sestet. The rhyme scheme varies, but they’re separated into two groups. The Shakespearean sonnet typically builds into a climax at the last two lines and is (typically) rhymed ababcdcdefefgg. The Petrarchan sonnet usually starts with an octet abbaabba followed by a sestet rhymed cdecde or cdcdcd, though poets sometimes do other combinations like cdcede. If you want a traditional sonnet, that’s the route you take.

But does a sonnet have to be traditional? Of course not. There are a ton of ways to experiment with the form. The most obvious way would be the meter. Iambic pentameter is the most poetic of meters, but there are all kinds of combinations: dactylic tetrameter, trochaic hexameter, spondaic trimeter. You could even alternate them; make the a lines one meter, the b lines another, and so on. The possibilities are really endless.

Rhyme scheme seems another obvious way to play with the form. For example, I’ve written a sonnet that rhymed abcdabcdabcdee, and another rhymed abbaabbacdcdee. Neither of those was particularly daring, but they’re both non-traditional rhyme schemes. A fun way to do it would be maybe to steal from another form: terza rima, for instance. A sonnet rhymed abacbcdedfefgg could be interesting. It would divide the work into two sestets plus a couplet; could add a dramatic element. Abacbdcedfegfg could also serve as a cool experiment; it has that barrel-of-monkeys feel to it. For people who like to swing with their musings, they could find success here.

So what is it that makes a sonnet a sonnet? What elements must we keep to allow ourselves the freedom to write something new and still call it a sonnet? First, the line count. Fourteen lines seem an essential part of making a sonnet a sonnet. It’s short enough to be contained to a single thought, idea, or moment in time, yet long enough to explore the layers of the subject. Fourteen lines just scream sonnet; it’s an essential part of sonnet-ness.

It should also be patterned and consistent. Using a different kind of foot is OK, even encouraged, but the same foot should probably be used throughout the entire piece. Thoughts, though sometimes scattered, usually keep the same tempo in my experience. Any playing with the line length shouldn’t be random; it should still hold a shape. If you want to alternate feet in a line, say, 43434343434366 or 43344334523523, that has the potential to work; doing something random like 43756184286376 would not. It’d be like trying to make a clay flower vase by picking up a chunk of wet clay and squeezing it in a fist. Yeah, the resulting shape might hold water, but it’d make a poor flowerpot.

Finally, at the bare minimum, a sonnet should consist of one main idea and at least one supporting idea. You can include multiple supporting ideas or include a conclusion, but it should at least have two parts to it. Sonnets are about combining smaller ideas into bigger ones. If you have one can of blue paint and a second can of blue paint, you’re not going to be able to mix colors very well! Likewise, a sonnet that has only one idea can’t grow into something more.

Let’s see what you can do, poets! Have fun playing with a great form in its elemental state; perhaps you can grow it into something no one’s ever seen before! I look forward to reading about it.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Adam Mann