Does the word “sonnet” scare you? Are you already having flashbacks to Shakespeare and a thousand bad readings at awkward weddings that have already gone on way too long by the time someone compares thee to a summer’s day?

Well, never fear. We’re here to demystify the sonnet with yeah write’s February poetry slam. We’re going to focus on the Shakespearean sonnet (for reasons I’ll get into in just a moment) and we hope you’ll all play along. Sonnets don’t have to be boring or trite, and they’re a great way to practice rhyme and scansion without having to write an entire saga.

So what’s a sonnet?

A sonnet is a 14-line poem that scans and adheres to a specific rhyme scheme.

No, really, that’s it. 14 lines that rhyme and scan.

Now that we’ve established the basics, let’s talk about rhyming and scansion. Rhyming first, because it’s easier for most people.

rhymes and notation

I’m assuming everyone knows how to rhyme.

For a sonnet, of course, the words that you need to make rhyme are at the end of each line. (Some types of poetry have internal rhyme schemes; we’ll talk about those another time.) If you’re struggling to find a rhyme, there are some great resources online to help you find words.

When we discuss rhyming in poetry, we assign each sound that has to be rhymed a letter, in the order it appears in the poem. For example:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

The first line ends in “fet” so we’ll assign the letter A to “fet.” The next line ends in “fet” too, so the rhyme scheme so far is A/A. The third line, though, ends in a long “a” sound. That’s our B rhyme, and the “der” in the fourth and fifth lines is C. The last line goes back to the long “a” and is another B. Still with me?

The poem all together has the rhyme scheme AAB CCB. One easy way to see this is by putting the letter at the end of each line:

Little Miss Muffet (A)
Sat on a tuffet, (A)
Eating her curds and whey; (B)
Along came a spider, (C)
Who sat down beside her (C)
And frightened Miss Muffet away. (B)

Now that we know how rhyme schemes are annotated, let’s delve into the rhyme schemes for sonnets.

rhyming in sonnets

There are three major rhyme schemes for sonnets: Petrarchan, Shakespearian, and Spenserian. There are also a lot of variations and subsets of these schemes, but when someone says “sonnet” to you they’re generally thinking of one of these three.

Petrarchan sonnet

The sonnet was invented in the 13th century CE and became widely adopted in Italy. Let me tell you a little something about the Italian language here: practically everything rhymes, and words end in a very few sounds (think -a and -o and -i). “I went to the store, I bought bread” is practically a mini-poem. So it’s not surprising that the Petrarchan sonnet (named after Francesco Petrarca) has a very tight rhyme scheme.

The Petrarchan sonnet is broken into two stanzas. The first stanza has eight lines and the second has six. Stylistically, the first stanza is supposed to set up an image, and the following six lines are the “turn” that resolves the problem or casts the image in a new light.

The eight line stanza has the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA. The six-line stanza has several different options, the most popular early on being CDCCDC, with CDCDCD showing up not long after.

Go back and look at that  rhyme scheme. There are only four sounds in it. Because the English language has a whole lot more sounds at the ends of words than Italian does, we’re not going to use Petrarchan sonnets for the poetry slam this month.

Shakespearean (English) sonnet

The Shakespearean, or English, sonnet is the form that most people are familiar with. It is generally structured as three quartets and a couplet. Shakespearean sonnets have a much broader rhyme scheme than Petrarchan sonnets, and only the couplet at the end is supposed to contrast with or resolve the rest of the poem. As you look at the rhyme scheme for a Shakespearean sonnet, think about how the sudden change in rhyme for the final couplet cues the listener that this is “the important part.”

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

This deeper rhyme scheme takes advantage of the breadth of the English language and gives the writer a lot more options. We’ll be working with this form this month.

Spenserian sonnet

The Spenserian sonnet is a compromise between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes. Each quartet builds on the rhyme of the preceding quartet, creating a pleasing internal repetition.

ABAB BCBC CDCD EE

Like the Petrarchan sonnet, the Spenserian sonnet is usually broken into two stanzas of eight and six lines respectively, but unlike the Petrarchan form there is no real requirement that the stanzas contrast.

Scansion

As some of the folks who’ve gotten love letters from me know all too well, it’s not enough for a poem – or at least a poem in verse, which a sonnet is – to rhyme. It has to scan, too.

What’s “scan?” Well, poems have “meter” and scansion is the way we talk about and represent that meter visually.

Meter is the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line of a poem. Meter is usually talked about in two-syllable chunks, and these chunks have all kinds of fascinating and intimidating names like “trochee” and “iamb” and “anapest” and “dactyl.” You don’t have to memorize all of these things, though, because what we want for a Shakespearean sonnet is iambic pentameter. That’s fancy talk for “five iambs per line.”

Oh my god I’m so lost. What’s an iamb?

Cool. Let’s go back to scansion.

how to scan a poem

When you talk, you naturally emphasize certain syllables in your words. To scan a sentence of phrase, you just write it down and put a “/” over the syllables that are stressed, and a “u” over the unstressed syllables.  Because this is a blog post and who even knows how it will line up on your screen, I’m going to just write it in the correct order and you can pretend it’s on top of the syllables. It’ll be our secret. Let’s try it:

u / u u / u u / u
There was an old mathematician,

u / u u / u u / u
Who had a profound intuition;

u / u u / u
A smart operation

u / u u / u
Called multiplication

u / u u / u u / u
Would speed up the task of addition.

Hey, wouldja look at that? We just scanned a limerick. Now check out the pattern of the stressed and unstressed syllables: the three long lines match perfectly and so do the two short ones. That’s how you know that this limerick scans properly.

There are all sorts of fancy ways to play with scansion once you’ve got the hang of it. If you’re curious about it, this article is a very accessible way to dig deeper into the options for scansion and substitutions.

iambic pentameter

Now that you’ve got the hang of scansion, let’s talk about iambs. An iamb (say “I am”) is a set of two syllables with the emphasis on the second one. You scan it like this: “u/” and it sounds like a heartbeat. lub-DUP. lub-DUP. Iambs are a very natural and soothing rhythm in poetry and they’re often used to cause that sort of comforting and familiar effect.

Iambic pentameter, then, means five iambs per line. Each line of a Shakespearean sonnet should scan like this: u/ u/ u/ u/ u/.

Let’s see how the Bard himself stacks up to our standards:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

OK. if you were writing this in English Class for Mrs. Camarillo in the 7th grade (Hi, Mrs. C, I ‘m still writing!) you would write the syllables like this:

shall I com PARE thee TO a SUM mer’s DAY

or, if you want to use the notation of scansion, u/ u/ u/ u/ u/

Whaddaya know, iambic pentameter!

Putting it all together

Okay. TL;DR a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14 line poem in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

Here are a few examples of sonnets our editors have produced recently to get you started or read a collection of sonnets: Complete Sonnets and Poems. As you can see, poems don’t have to be stilted or stuffy to be sonnets. In fact, check out these sonnets, you might recognize a few!

The editorial staff is excited to play with sonnets this month, so you’ll be seeing more of them on the fiction|poetry grid – along with yours, we hope!

Feel free to hit us up on Facebook, Twitter, or post and discuss questions in the coffeehouse!