Sonnets: Shakespeare wrote ’em so why can’t we?

Sonnets are a staple of English-language poetry. They can also be intimidating to introduce to children, because of their density and formality and because lots of the best ones were written a long time ago. However, I’ve been teaching them — after a solid foundation in other poetry — for several years now, and while the lesson is a challenging one, it opens up whole new areas of poetic awareness. Here are my thoughts on teaching sonnets to children:

While the younger children get some element or another from this lesson, it seems to be most engaging for the ten and up crowd.

We start by learning about metric feet. I explain this as being the beats of a line — you could also say the stresses. We recite the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock” while marching around, one step per metrical foot. Everyone gets this pretty quickly. We try taking a step for every syllable, too, to show the difference. Then I write the rhyme on the board, showing where we took each step: HICkory DICkory DOCK. (I use slashes to show the stressed syllables, the ones where we take the step, and flat dashes to show the unstressed, unstepped syllables — it’s hard to do that on this blog.) We notice that there can be a couple of unstressed syllables between stressed ones, like in the word “Hickory.”

Then I pass out a handout with a couple of sonnets on it. Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare is a fun one, as is Love is Not All, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I tell the class to think of them as puzzles. We start with the puzzle of what they are saying. I read them and translate as necessary.

Then I set the students out to do their own detective work. I tell them to look at one sonnet, and if they like, to see if what they find is true in the other sonnet too. Some students whip through all of the following, while others focus on one element. We try to discover three main things:

1. FEET ~ Where are the feet in the poem? Can they walk them out? Can they mark them?How many are there per line? Is there a pattern?

(Answer: sonnets have roughly five stresses per line, usually mostly in iambic pentameter, which is the rhythm that goes da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. There are enough variations in rhythm in most sonnets that I usually stop with just knowing that there are five beats per line, but many kids instinctually feel the rhythm and put it into their own poems.)

2.RHYME ~ What are the words at the end of each line? Do they rhyme with other end words? Is there a pattern?

(Answer: sonnets can rhyme in a couple of different ways. Both the ones above rhyme in the pattern ababcdcdefefgg. That will make sense if you look at it.)

3. LINES ~ How many lines are there? Are they all their own sentences?

(Answer: sonnets have fourteen lines, but lines aren’t sentences. The new line starts when the old one has its five beats.)

Sometimes we also look at how there is a turn or surprise in the last two lines. Often there is more than enough going on already.

Then, of course, we write our own. I encourage kids who need a challenge to try to write a sonnet that follows all of the rules we discovered. It’s also fine to play with parts of what a sonnet does — to write with a certain number of beats per line, to write with a rhyme scheme, to write a poem that is fourteen lines long, to write the first four lines of a sonnet, to write about love or death or time.