What is a sonnet? The form can be traced back to 13th century Europe -- it's translated meaning "little song" -- and was highly popularized by Shakespeare, whose sonnets were first published in the 1600's. The form appears, at first glance, to be very complex, but over time the rhythms of its structure become "second nature" -- one hears the line length and musicality in one's head, and one quickly learns to use end words that lend themselves to rhyming.

I cannot remember when I wrote my first sonnet, no doubt in college when I took a variety of poetry courses, but there were many years when I did not write sonnets, and only in recent times have I become greatly enamored of them. Unlike Haiku, with its brief three line structure, the sonnet allows the poet to elaborate, to expand her theme, to work toward a resolution, and to find the apt summation in the final couplet.

Let us go over the structure, and then I will provide several examples.

A sonnet consists of 14 lines ---12 with an ABAB, CDCD, EFEF rhyme scheme, and a two line concluding couplet that rhymes with itself (GG). Further, all lines contain ten syllables. If you are not familiar with the ABAB terminology, let me explain it here. Line one rhymes with line three; line two rhymes with line four. This same rhyming scheme continues throughout the poem, and only the couplet rhymes with itself.


Fall leaves are scattered on the backyard hill

A rhymes with A

strewn about by a gentle artist's hand

B rhymes with B

orange, brown, green and gold, on grass lying still

no wind today, just peace upon the land

My cat seems mesmerized by the beauty

C rhymes with C

she doesn't move a muscle, just gazes


out on her queendom, with feline duty

accepting Zen-like the seasons phases

And now, a hint of sun breaks thru the trees

an impressionist dream of colored light

ennobles the scene with just enough breeze

to awaken my eyes with pure delight

This autumn day calls all to harmony

the gently turning earth, my cat, and me.

Fall, 2008

Just as well, the sonnet could look like this:

Fall leaves are scattered on the backyard hill
strewn about by a gentle artist's hand
orange, brown, green and gold, on grass lying still
no wind today, just peace upon the land.
My cat seems mesmerized by the beauty
she doesn't move a muscle, just gazes
out on her queendom, with feline duty
accepting Zen-like the seasons phases.
And now, a hint of sun breaks thru the trees
an impressionist dream of colored light
ennobles the scene with just enough breeze
to awaken my eyes with pure delight.
This autumn day calls all to harmony
the gently turning earth, my cat, and me.

(Note: without the spaces, I have chosen to add periods at the end of each four lines.)

It is often said that the first part of a sonnet "sets up a situation" and the second part "resolves" it. I myself have, in the first example, visually broken the sonnet into three four-line stanzas, and a final couplet, but sonnets in general do not have spaces between the lines. I suppose I have found it restful, in reading my work, to have the spaces provide a breath, or a pause, but again, this is only my peculiarity.

As you begin practicing sonneteering, please use the spacing or lack of it, to honor your own creative judgment, and study what other sonnet writers have done. In your explorations, you will soon realize there is no limit to what images or ideas can be expressed in this form. Sonnets can be lighthearted, deeply philosophical, full of nature images; they can be love poems, poems of confusion and remorse, poems of delicacy or strong passion, yet they all "sing" with the particular melody of the form, giving us a shape that is timeless and enduring, drawing the poet into the lure of its call.

Here are some sample sonnets of mine, one from a writing pen-pal, one by Shakespeare and one by Edna St. Vincent Millay. See how each artist - or the same artist on different occasions - offers their unique voice in a similar poetic structure.


A day goes by with me walking in it
a day on this bright earth and big spring sky
day goes by in what feels like a minute
but I hum along as I watch time fly

Life is an eternal circle I know
and I'm just a short arc on the great frame
so I try to surrender to the flow
and remember my earthly spirit name

The trees ride by, the pond ducks swim and dive
sunlight glimmers on my bare springtime arms
new buds on the flowers each day arrive
I collect joys like a bracelet of charms

A day and I are pledged to consummate
an act of love while on a timeless date.

April, 2008


My mother died six years ago today
when a heart operation went awry
she just slept on and on and passed away
I never got a chance to say goodbye

Whenever I go home to visit Dad
she makes sure her roses are in full bloom
Mom always said, make good what might seem bad
rejoice in what's here, don't wallow in gloom

And so today, when watering my plants
I saw she had sent a fragrant pink rose
fully open - in the warm breeze it danced
reminding me Mom's energy still flows

There is no need to say goodbye, I see
her loving spirit keeps me company.

June, 2008


Even now the lemon sun is mellow
slanting itself against the browning grass
the balm of summer all dressed in yellow
while autumn's days have nearly come to pass

Dreaming of crisp air to come, she studies
for hints of color the green leafy trees
just as two golden butterfly buddies
dance a duet in the afternoon breeze

So easily she could herself lie down
before the leaves turn on the backyard hill
in her softest cotton dressing gown
surrender to the universal will

Between two seasons, she readies her pen
a poem waits inside, the muse will say when.

October, 2008

Now, one of my sonnets with single spacing:


Ocean of mermaids, diving with pleasure
blue sequined tails slapping the far wave
sky shines down on undiscovered treasure
which shells shall I pass by, which shall I save?
Granted, the sea has been here forever
and other seekers of fortune have tried
to find the pearl, a worthy endeavor
and while they hunted, in out rolled the tide.
Ocean of mystery, ocean of bliss
what I seek is looking for me I know
the eyes of snail shells I shall not miss
your peaceful rhythms teach me how to flow.
Together sea creatures and I abide
in eternal mystery, side by side.

Winter, 02

This sonnet was written by my pen-pal in St. Louis:


I can hear the wind coming through the trees
racing over the hills, tickling the leaves
rippling the water, this humorous breeze
nature's magician with tricks up its sleeve

A gigantic broom doing Spring cleaning
while pushing dead debris into a pile
as creation prepares for new greening
you see this jester is quite versatile

It caresses my cheek as it passes
singing its wild melodies in my ear
then it quickly moves on to the grasses
kissing them too, messenger of good cheer

Oh it's hard to predict where the wind goes
and where it will stop, well, nobody knows.

Tina Busch-Nema, April, 2008

My favorite Shakespeare sonnet (don't be put off by the "archaic" verb forms)

That time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
    This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Sonnet 73

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Note: Whereas I only capitalize the beginning line of each foursome, in this sonnet all lines are capitalized. Notice also the couplet is indented. Again, study how others write sonnets and decide what punctuation and spacing feels appropriate for your poem.

A favorite sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, (who used double spacing in her poems):


Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink

Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,

Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, from lack of love alone.

It may well be that in a difficult hour,

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,

Or nagged by want past resolution's power,

I might be driven to sell your love for peace,

Or trade the memory of this night for food.

It may well be. I do not think I would.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, (1892-1950)


Try writing a sonnet about:

This season

A loved one (yes, a real love poem!)

A fear or sorrow you're struggling with

A celebration of a special day
(birthday, anniversary, holiday)

Check Publications Page for my upcoming Journal of a Sonneteer - 2010