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Joanne the Poet - The Poetry of Joanne M. Clarkson

What I Learned from Writing Sonnets

It’s hard. Not just a little difficult, but seriously challenging to craft a good poem in a specific, time-tested, venerated form. One that doesn’t sound forced or stilted. One that makes sense but that doesn’t bludgeon the reader with Meaning. One that does service to melody within thought.

I decided to try this verse form because I read that a certain journal I respected had chosen ‘sonnets’ as one of its upcoming themes. I had not attempted a sonnet for years and thought it might enrich my writing to study structure. I selected Robert Frost’s “Design” as a template.

Before finding “Design” I reviewed the possibilities of a sonnet from the two main schemes of Shakespearean and Petrarchan to some modern examples that didn’t rhyme at all. It seems that today, as long as a poem has 14 lines and some sort of a shift between lines 8 and 9, poets feel comfortable calling their poem ‘sonnet.’

I did not feel comfortable with such an open interpretation and made myself use end rhyme in one of the tradition patterns – either abab, cdcd, efef, gg or abba, cddc, efg efg or some such combination. And at first I insisted that the final line words rhyme precisely – not sort of like slant rhyme or assonance.

This didn’t work very well. The first couple of my sonnets truly and honestly sucked. I persevered and got more into the swing, envisioning a rhyme for every individual line I came up with – which made me feel a little crazy but also made me more aware of sound in general. I conceded to off-rhyme. I concluded that it is difficult to write a sonnet without some sort of question or concept driving it. Just a description or narrative didn’t work for me.

One morning I finally came up with a sonnet I actually sort of admired. It just came to me while I was in the shower – the way the best writing blessedly does once in a great while. Thank you, Muse. It wasn’t my favorite poem I ever envisioned, but it worked as a sonnet.

The best thing about this poem was that it was birthed from and driven by sound alone. Yes, there was a theme to it, but it was the coincidence of pitch and tone, plosives and glottals that made the work attractive. As with all my best writing, it seemed to come from outside me, unforced and uncontrived. I had finally immersed myself in sonnets long enough – both reading and trying to write – that I ‘got’ them!

I wrote four more, one I threw away, one that I put in a ‘to be revised’ file and two that were okay. After that I said, “Enough.”

While I am no longer trying to write sonnets, the sense of sound driving language is lingering in the poems I am working on now – and improving them I believe. There is a lot more connection between sound and sense than I previously realized. I am not talking just about onomatopoeia. Words carry their histories inside them and this does involve how they are spoken. And words invite each other, cousins from a common ear.

So thank you, Shakespeare! My appreciation, Petrarch! Much gratitude, Robert F! I will add an occasional sonnet to my repertoire. And count respect for sound as a sixth sense as one part of inspiration I continue to explore.

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