In this series I have written about the creative process of poetry in some detail, but I would like to add some thoughts on the specific issues around writing sonnets. These questions to yourself come before you start to focus on elements of diction, rhetoric, syntax, or trope.
The initial question is why have you chosen to write a sonnet? Have you just read a great sonnet in an anthology and want to produce your own example? Are you working through several poetic forms as practice? Has a workshop tutor suggested this? Have you tried lots of other forms, found the sonnet too daunting a prospect, but now want a challenge? Do you prefer concision rather than long ballads, etc.? Because you do not have to, there are plenty of other forms in which to express your thoughts. Some poets are just not interested in sonnets.
As you know, form should follow function. When you have some poetic ideas, you should look for a form that will best fit that material, whether closed forms, like villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets, or open forms, like free verse or prose poems. So, you should not really start with a blank page and say: “I now want to write a sonnet” – I do not recommend writing poetry to order. I believe you should be inspired first by some personal memory that has real meaning and in an area you know well, and then try an appropriate form.
When you have some initial material ready, you can choose a form from either one you’ve used before or look at a new form from a poetry guide. You might not get this right first time. I have seen a poet at workshop bring their “final” version, then, when a different form is suggested by the others, rework it to find that the suggested form fits perfectly, and that the poem is much stronger. I’ve previously covered sonnet-like forms such as the bref-double.
However, if you have a strong idea that embodies a sense of duality or dilemma, you can certainly try out sonnet form first as the most likely final form. An example might be the exploration of a single tangible object then drawing out some wider implication or surprising insight about this object, i.e. a description of something in two parts, a duality. Sometimes the second part may lead to a generalisation about the object. A sonnet is not suitable for a complex, narrative situation, nor an extended dialogue. You would have to extract the simplest essence, some kernel, from this for it to work.
I enjoy the constraint of fourteen lines, the discipline of ruthlessly editing whatever amount of raw source material I start with. I enjoy balancing simplicity with intensity.
Beware, writing sonnets is addictive and there are some who only write sonnets and nothing else. I find that some of my material suits other forms and am happy to attempt those, often with a degree of success. I admit though that I have written over eighty sonnets to date.
Be prepared that writing sonnets is also quite tricky for some and requires a lot of thought, editing, or rework. If you feel you have the patience to achieve this, then let your creativity flow.