Making

If you want to be happy, then take care of your mind and body.

Easier typed than done, I know! What I mean:

Your body is that of a hunter-gatherer. It needs to move every day. It’s designed to range around its habitat, gleaning and grazing, feasting on a big kill only occasionally. If you resist the urge to seek comfort on the couch, if you arrange your tasks so that you get regular activity, you will feel better, sleep better, eat and poop with more gusto, handle stress and even enjoy it.

Your mind needs exercise too. It wants to be used. It is a complicated organ and because it doesn’t have the kind of nerve ends found elsewhere in the body, brain-studiers say we have no way of feeling how it operates or what it needs. Poppycock. Just pay attention. You won’t get to examine it the way you can the palm of your hand, but that doesn’t mean you’re ignorant. If you heed it you’ll know what your mind wants.

The thing about composing a sonnet is that it taps both sides of the brain. Its rules need left lobe logical analysis. Its music engages the right hemisphere. It combines word and number in a form short enough to be sayable, portable, internet-printable. I contend that it’s better than a crossword or sudoku puzzle for keeping the gray matter fit. Composing limericks or haiku or another short strict verse will work also, but not as well; a sonnet is a little longer than those forms but much deeper.

I won’t go into the history or the names for different rhymes. We have Google and Wikipedia for that. Let me rough out the rules.

Basics
 
A sonnet is 14 lines of rhyming metered poetry. The standard is iambic pentameter:
duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH  
Example: The lines that Lady Margaret wept to hear.

In fact, English falls into iambs rather gracefully, provided the words were originally Greek or Latin … impossible, categorical, undeniable … hear how the stress alternates? If the words come instead from Anglo Saxon they won’t be as sing-song, but they’ll be strong: kiss, want, hug, keep, hearth, murder. They are harder to place in a sonnet but they pack some punch, and they lend themselves to:

alliteration (same initial letter- example: A mountain mass of moving manatee), and

assonance (same internal vowel sound – example: Within his skin the gripping itch begins).

A sonnet usually has a sense break between lines 8 and 9, splitting it into an octet and a sestet, but not always. And while there are some typical rhyme schemes, I think you can use just about any pattern. Most common is abab cdcd efef gg. Hardest is probably abbaabba cdecde.

The Italians invented the sonnet (song), and they have it easy. Italian has pure vowel sounds, so everything rhymes. As Dorothy Sayers wrote in the introduction to her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Penguin Classic page 57): “English is poor in rhymes because it is remarkably rich in vowel-sounds. Of these, Italian possesses seven only, all ‘pure’ and unmodified by the succeeding consonants. For English, on the other hand, the Shorter O.E.D. lists no fewer than fifty-two native varieties, shading into one another by imperceptible degrees.”

Beginning
 
Start with the simplest type. Stick with iambic pentameter and the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme. That’s four quatrains and a couplet. They can be made separately and then assembled and reassembled as you choose.
I think it’s easiest to compose while walking. Put a small notebook and pen in your pocket and hit the street. duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH. Start that cadence pumping in your head. As you walk to that, let the words come. Stop and jot them down. They won’t be perfect but they are likely to give you ideas about improved arrangements. If you can’t come up with a line yourself, then try one of these:

I wish I didn’t have to go to work…

The leaves are filigree against a sky…

I hesitate to gripe, but I must say…

Do not wear headphones. If you want to create while cycling, make sure it’s a stationary bike. Be careful in public, lest you appear to be talking to yourself. For the fact is, this exercise will absorb your attention.

You probably won’t write all 14 lines while walking. But you may snare six to eight. Then you can sit down, on the train or a bench, in a coffee shop or a bus, and draft the rest.

It’s completely doable. You can write 140 syllables and make the end words rhyme.

Now you get to edit. It’s time to refine what you wrote. Read it aloud. Does it make sense? If not, can it be made sensible, or should it be used for syllabic or other exercise before you move on? Try to revise it, even if that means swapping to other rhymes, so that it makes sense and does not contain affectation.

Congratulations. You have written a sonnet. You have made a poem. Poem, by the way, comes from the Greek verb “to make.” It’s not a sacred object. It is a kernel of exquisite mental creation. It’s fun to collaborate at it.

Advanced

It may be that no sonnet is ever finished. I have some I’ve been revisiting and revising for 20 years. When you’re working with 14 lines and you really want to say something, you have to make every word count. And you want it to be a pleasure to pronounce.

I print the sonnet as prose. Does it read naturally? Or is it forcing syntax to meet the rhyme or meter? It’s not a good sonnet if it doesn’t work as a paragraph or two of prose.

Once you’ve mastered the basic honest tuneful sonnet, you can start stretching the rules. You can flirt with feminine rhymes, play with different meter, make an anagram of first letters. You’ll have a mine of sonnet drafts to polish or twist.

More than all that: I predict you’ll be walking taller and with a little bounce in your step. You’ll probably be incubating more ideas than you have since you were 12. As solemn as poetry is thought to be, I’ll bet you’ll be smiling more.

Here is Pole Dancing, as edited in August 2010:

The bars of poetry don’t form a pen
to keep the world without and me within,
but they define the space to sing and when
to dance. They cast a shadow so my skin
is safe; I can expose without a burn,
dissect without a wound, examine me
while music-masqued, that you and I may learn
a little more of our humanity.

Poetic license doesn’t mean excuse
to blather self-absorbed or volley rage.
I think instead that its intrinsic use
is revelation in a golden cage.
No other mental pleasure’s as sublime
as dancing at the bars of measured rhyme.

Here is Pole Dancing as two paragraphs:
 
The bars of poetry don’t form a pen to keep the world without and me within, but they define the space to sing and when to dance. They cast a shadow so my skin is safe; I can expose without a burn, dissect without a wound, examine me while music-masqued, that you and I may learn a little more of our humanity.

Poetic license doesn’t mean excuse to blather self-absorbed or volley rage. I think instead that its intrinsic use is revelation in a golden cage. No other mental pleasure’s as sublime as dancing at the bars of measured rhyme.

And here is Pole Dancing, then called Tradition, as first written in August 1995:

These golden bars do not a prison make
that keep the world without and me within,
but they’ve a density to hold a shape
and they’ve enough of substance that my skin
is safe; I can expose without a burn,
reveal without a wound, examine me
with little risk, that you and I may learn
a little more of our humanity.

Poetic license doesn’t mean excuse
to blather self-absorbed, or cry, or rage.
I think instead the concept’s proper use
is revelation in a golden cage,
for only in the bars of poetry
am I enough protected to be free.

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