Shakespearan Sonnet School With The Forever Schoolgirl

Wildings, today we are lucky enough to have Featured Artist Kristin Garth teaching a brilliant introduction to sonnet writing! Grab your best notebook and glitter gel pen, take a seat and prepare to soak up knowledge! Kristin, over to you!

"Once upon a time (over twenty years ago) before I found my way to a stripper pole and my unique road to personal freedom, I taught, for a single year, high school English. I didn’t last long in that job as it’s really not my personality to be a teacher though I loved my students very much. One thing I hoped to impart to them (as a teacher had to me) was an introduction to formal poetry — the one form I fell in love with, in an obsessive compulsive way, the Shakespearean sonnet.

I made a worksheet that broke down a Shakespearean sonnet into syllables. Every high school English student I had that year made their attempt at producing one. I know for many it was an annoyance that they would never repeat. I hoped, perhaps, that it made them see that formal poetry, while a challenge, was a worthwhile one, not as overwhelming or alien as they thought.

Kristin Garth's Sonnet Worksheet

Sonnets don’t have to sound archaic or Shakespearean in tone or diction. They certainly can. When I write lyrical sonnets where I inject internal rhyme and perhaps want to revisit another time, a sonnet is certainly a form that can lend itself to transporting the reader to another time.

I’m writing a lot of pieces like that right now for my book Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream. The book is set in 1883, and so I am embracing the anachronistic sound of the lyrical sonnet because it feels of the time in which I’m writing — and therefore really not anachronistic at all but fitting. An example of that style of sonnet is my sonnet Rosemancy published in Pulp Poets Press:

I also like to write sonnets that when they are read out loud may not be heard as sonnets. In these I like to be conversational and modern and rant. I still follow the rules of a Shakespearean sonnet though (we’re about to get to those in a second.) Here is an example of a rant sonnet of mine, Woman, Carbs Redacted recently published in Ghost City Press :

To teach you the rules of a sonnet I thought I’d take a sonnet or mine and dissect it. I’m using one that is more modern in tone called True Crime In Trees (first published in The New Southern Fugitives):

True Crime in Trees

A book is nature, not good, evil, more
deciduous corpse of the tree it used
to be. Stood 40 feet above & bore
its killers fruit, decade of shade, abused
by indifference, climbers fingers, feet
before the penetration of the blade.
The splintering skeleton bleats, creaks;
its branches claw away, attempt to stay
another fleeting second inside sky.
A slice of life, majestic thud, the sound
of falling gods vivisected ghost we buy,
put high, some shelf, a dead animal bound
for dusty sacrifice. Forget to read.
Its story is the suffering of seeds.

Shakespearean Sonnet Rules:

1.) A sonnet has 14 lines of iambic pentameter. That sounds very complicated — not the 14 lines part but the iambic part. Obviously the poem above has 14 lines. If you count the syllables of each line you will see they have ten syllables.

2.) The word pentameter means five sets of iambs compose the line. What is an iamb? An iamb is a rhythmic two syllabic arrangement, patterned as unstressed/stressed. On the worksheet above, you will notice these marks above the syllables:

The one that looks like a smile indicated an unstressed syllable and the mark that looks like an accent symbol means stressed syllable. 

Pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in sonnet form
This arrangement makes a rhythm of sound that I compare to a heartbeat. A fun fact about sonnets is that comes from the word for little song. We all know the importance in music of both lyrics and rhythm. Sonnets when they are executed correctly will have a pleasing rhythm by design.

An example of iambic pentameter, If you look at the last line of True Crime in Trees:
“Its story is the suffering of seeds.” You would
say it follows a predominantly unstressed/stressed syllabic pattern. And I will stress that this pattern doesn’t have to be perfect but it should be the norm.

3.) Another requirement of a Shakespearean sonnet is a rather involved rhyme scheme. 
It’s not just an end rhyme or rhyming couplets — no no no. This is a scheme, and the thing about schemes is the good ones — the kinds that last hundreds of years come from cunning and lots of thought. The scheme of rhyme in a Shakespearean sonnet is ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. So the first and third line rhyme, second and fourth, fifth and seventh eye cetera until you get to the last two lines, GG, a rhyming couplet.

An example of the ABAB rhyme scheme in True Crime in Trees:

“A book is nature, not good, evil, more (A)
deciduous corpse of the tree it used (B)
to be. Stood 40 feet above & bore (A)
its killers fruit, decade of shade, abused.” (B)

4.) And about that couplet ... now I am going to offer a Garthian sonnet tip: we don’t just give them a couplet. We make it a KILLER couplet! If you want to slay with your poetry, the ending of a poem is where you make a lasting impression. And in a sonnet you have a chance for magic because a couplet can be super powerful if, like a gymnast coming off the uneven bars you stick that landing. So it doesn’t only just need to rhyme — it needs to stick in the reader’s mind.

The couplet is True Crime in Trees isn’t completely contained in two lines — it uses something that I consider a magic trick in making sonnets sound fresh and modern: enjambment. Enjambment is a word for a
sentence that carries past the end of the line. The first three lines of this passage below carry over the thought. Enjambment is critical in making sonnets sound modern and conversational.

“A slice of life, majestic thud, the sound
of falling gods vivisected ghost we buy,
put high, some shelf, a dead animal bound
for dusty sacrifice. Forget to read.
Its story is the suffering of seeds.”

When you end a line of a sonnet on a rhyming word, it calls a lot of attention to the rhyme, the scheme, the form. That’s not all bad, and sometimes you, in fact, want to do this — choose to do this. If you want to be sly and fresh and vary your form a bit, you may use the strategic enjambment that doesn’t emphasize the rhyme as much. So in the example, due to enjambment, the couplet is more chopped up.

Also while we are speaking of scheming, at least rhyme scheming, I’m going to offer a bit of advice 
about rhyming with a wee introduction by another great poet I adore, Emily Dickinson, who said: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I would say follow the rule of rhyme scheme but rhyme it slant. Not always but often you can use slant rhymes which are pleasing to the ear but not so pat and on the nose. Like rhyming the words lover and brother for example.  They sound close but they aren’t exact and it’s a way to nod to the rhyme scheme and also be a bit more modern and not constrained in your content by rules. That’s something I do a lot. 

I know all these rules sound involved, and some of you may think that the rules are all you think about. At the beginning, it can feel that way. For me, that beginning is over 25 years ago now so I’ll confess I don’t remember it much.

For me, they have become mostly internalized. People in coffee shops will see me counting syllables on my fingers at times, my fingers drumming on the table. They may think I’m composing music or just lost my mind entirely and I couldn’t argue with either of these actually.  

The best sonnets are music. Perhaps the best way to think about the “rules” in sonnet composition is learning the rules of music, chords and notes — being able to read sheet music. It’s a lot of background and a lot of practice but at some point — differing points for everyone, it becomes internalized and then you can just play. 

And that’s how I feel about sonnets, less a teacher or an adherent to a lot of rules I don’t think about so much anymore. In sonnet composition, like most areas of my life I am not comfortable being the teacher — though I thank Animal Heart and all of you for the opportunity today. My personality is more forever schoolgirl girl on an ancient playground, with all the rules and structure deep in the background, who is just ready to run free inside a fence I know is there, but often forget, and just play."