Just to recap: The rules of the sonnet.

1: Fourteen lines, traditionally divided into three, four-line ‘quatrains,’ and a final couplet.


An eight line ‘octave’, followed by two, three-line tercets.

2: Rhyme schemes vary:

Petrarchan: A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A-C-D-E-C-D-E


Italian: A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A-C-D-C-C-D-C


English Rennaissance: A-B-A-B-C-D-C-D-E-F-E-F-G-G

3: Iambic Pentameter: Each line has ten syllables:

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4: A sonnet is an argument (an essay of sorts), and it presents its argument in a specific way.

First Quatrain (four lines): An exposition of the main theme and main metaphor.

Second Quatrain: Theme and metaphor extended or complicated; often some imaginative example is given.

Third Quatrain: Peripeteia (dramatic reversal––thank you Aristotle––more about that later in the semester), often beginning with ‘but.’ 

Final Couplet (two lines with end-rhymes): Summarises and leaves the reader with a new, concluding image.


You are going to write a sonnet.

You must write at least 14 lines, and you must adhere to at least one of the rules above.

So, for example, you can write a 14-line poem that develops an argument, but does not use iambic pentameter or rhyme.

Or you could write an 18 line poem in iambic pentameter that doesn’t rhyme or develop an argument.


A couple of sonnet exercises suggest themselves here:

  1. Begin a sonnet with the word “not” or “no” or another negation. Don’t worry too much about sticking with the exact meter, but do try for a strong sense of rhythm.

  2. Write a poem in which the speaker addresses someone else directly. Ask questions. Don’t answer them.

  3. Or begin your sonnet with the words: Shall I compare thee to…

    Shall I compare thee to a submarine.
    Thou art more shark-like, and made of steel…

Try to make the line work as iambic pentameter, which may mean adding or subtracting words, and perhaps shifting the order fo the words.

Iambic pentameter does not need to be recited with much emphasis on the stressed vowels, so you shouldn’t worry too much of the meter places stresses on your words in the wrong place.

Here are some sonnets to (hopefully) inspire you:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)

Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892 – 1950

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, 

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain 

Under my head till morning; but the rain 

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh 

Upon the glass and listen for reply, 

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain 

For unremembered lads that not again 

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. 

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, 

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, 

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before: 

I cannot say what loves have come and gone, 

I only know that summer sang in me 

A little while, that in me sings no more.

[When the bed is empty … ]


When the bed is empty, we pull the shades to block light,

light of resemblance to remembery, long light of waiting,

an impatience in the glows of it. The here of the now and the glow

that days make in the room, without the body but with the stench

of it. So we say, vacancy and abject,against the was, against

a philosophy of once and then not. Not-being against.

A child once grew here. As lines on a wall. As

growing without knowing what would one day not be. A

gnawing grows. Grew and was. Protection is curled. Motion-

less. I envy her in her room. Hers with paint and dolls and hand-

prints. Great green and glowing under blankets with a hand

that nurtures the heart of the mouth, purrs into mouth, loves

the heart. Heart beating within another—blushing blood—

God, the beating, lit, and doing what it does.

Incandescent War Poem Sonnet


Even before I saw the chambered nautilus

I wanted to sail not in the us navy

Tonight I’m waiting for you, your letter

At the same time his letter, the view of you

By him and then by me in the park, no rhymes

I saw you, this is in prose, no it’s not

Sitting with the molluscs & anemones in an

Empty autumn enterprise baby you look pretty

With your long eventual hair, is love king?

What’s this? A sonnet? Love’s a babe we know that

I’m coming up, I’m coming, Shakespeare only stuck

To one subject but I’ll mention nobody said

You have to get young Americans some ice cream

In the artificial light in which she woke

The Hurt Sonnet


Dark days when I awaken so I slump

                             back to the swamp of his armpit, a whit

from the arachnid he inked to the stump

                that’s left. So close to the vestige of it,

                                            the danger he’s a reliquary of:

               tattooed noose to venerate the fist

                            of a slug buried still in his butt above

a white cross for the men he didn’t miss.

               If only I could strip off the black map

I sleep against and be his liniment,

                            gloss over the explosion, the mishap

                                           phantom he feels in a forearm itch.

               He won’t leave the long tale his tattoos read

                           for me, so I amend the story.

From Six Unrhymed Sonnets

Diane Seuss


I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment but didn’t

have the energy to get out of the car. Rental. Blue Ford

Focus. I had to stop in a semipublic place to pee

on the ground. Just squatted there on the roadside.

I don’t know what’s up with my bladder. I pee and then

I have to pee and pee again. Instead of sightseeing

I climbed into the back seat of the car and took a nap.

I’m a little like Frank O’Hara without the handsome

nose and penis and the New York School and Larry

Rivers. Paid for a day pass at Cape Disappointment

thinking hard about that long drop from the lighthouse

to the sea. Thought about going into the Ocean

Medical Center for a check-up but how do I explain

this restless search for beauty or relief?

Four Sonnets About Food

Adrienne Su


Words can’t do

what bird bones

can: stew

to the stony


of one

small soul, the spent

sacrifice boiled down

to the hard white

matter that nourishes

the mighty

predator, who flourishes

on the slaughtered

animal and water.


Who feeds

another is like bones

to him who eats

(I say “him” only

because it is a man

in my house

who eats and a woman

who goes about

the matter of sustenance),

food being always

a matter of life and

death and each day’s


another small dying.


Scallops seared

in hot iron

with grated ginger,

rice wine,

and a little oil

of sesame, served

with boiled

jasmine rice, cures

the malaise

of long, fluorescent



in the city

for money.


I am afraid

I can’t always be

here when you need

a warm body

or words; someday

I’ll slip

into the red clay

I started with

and forget

who you are,


for now, here’s

my offering: baked red

fish, clear soup, bread.