Go on: look out of your window and set the scene. Don’t worry about iambic pentameters yet, just write what you see: you can shape it later. Now pick a specific object, a bird, an animal, a car, and write the scene from their viewpoint. Use this as the basis for your volta, the turn that lies at the heart of the sonnet, and draw a conclusion. Now you’ve notes for your sonnet, shape it.
Decide on your rhyme scheme, look at your stress patterns, shape them into iambic pentameters and read it aloud. Does it scan? Can it be read without your tongue twisting? Look at the logic, does it make sense? Check the grammar and punctuation. Double-check the spelling.
You have completed a useful creative writing exercise, but do you have a poem?
Paul Lee once commented, “sound and syntax are every bit as important as sense. More so, I would say, otherwise how is poetry different from prose? I read a lot of poetry that is prose masquerading as poetry. It’s like throwing the potato out with the peelings. And I hear so few writers saying how much they enjoy writing. I can only remember Simon Armitage saying how much he loved writing, and he meant that word ‘loved’. He also said how much he hated being a writer. Usually I hear what a pain it is. Well, why bother then? Is it because you want to be a writer, rather than write?
“Can creativity, can this sense of joy, be taught? I’m not sure ‘taught’ is the right word. I think you can try to awaken it, and that it’s never too late. I know of poets who did not start until late into their fifties or sixties, and who were published. The oldest I know is into her nineties, and still writing.
“I didn’t start to get published until I’d re-united the two halves of my brain. That’s the other lesson for writers, I think. You have to learn to sweat, you have to learn the craft, poets just as much as other writers. There’s more to poetry than just the line. Otherwise, again, how is it different to prose? And craft can be taught.
“In this process, I learned that I am predominantly a poet who employs stress, rhythm, and rhyme. I like structure, I like regular stanzas. I’m concerned about the shape and appearance of the poem on the page. I’m decidedly on the side of form, and like writing villanelles, sonnets, triolets, pantoum and haiku. I’ve written a sestina, and won’t for a long time again. I’m currently playing around with the rondeau form. I admire poets who write in rhyming tercets, terza rima, but haven’t yet myself, simply because I’ve not yet written a poem that called for that form. BUT, I don’t force them. I let the poem dictate its own form. If it insists on writing itself as prose, I let it, so long as it’s poetic. I indulge in pure wordplay.”
Look at your sonnet again. It may technically be a sonnet with its fourteen lines, volta, iambic pentameters and rhymes. It was a useful exercise as the best way to understand the sonnet form is to write sonnets. Even poets who predominately use free verse benefit from understanding the foundations of a recognised form and developing an appreciation for the technical side of poetry.
But I doubt very much your sonnet (no matter how accomplished it is as a sonnet) is a poem. Chances are your sonnet was rather flat and observational. Your window-view is similar to a million other window-views so, unless you teased out that detail that makes your street scene so vividly memorable, it’s unlikely you have a poem.
A poem is not simply the sum of its parts. Adding rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration and/or other poetic devices to prose and subtracting padding, ornate descriptions, consciously poetic phrases won’t equal a poem. Underlying a poem is a desire to communicate, a need to say something. Without that, it’s just an exercise in technical skill.
By Emma Lee