Oberlin Blogs


December 2, 2023

Evan Hamilton ’26

Why I’m a Writer Anyway

During the first half of this fall semester, I took a module class called “The Sonnet.” A module class is simply a course at Oberlin that lasts for only half of a semester’s duration and thus counts for only two instead of the standard four credits. In this class, I learned and practiced a poetic form that hundreds have worked on and molded with their turns of phrase into a refined testament to human wordcraft. This testament is, of course, the sonnet. Writing poetry like the sonnet, however, is not my usual occupation as a writer. I became a writer because I wanted to tell the many stories in my head, and writing them in novels provided a way to share these with the world. I’ve written almost 100,000 words of my first fantasy novel (and I’m not finished yet), so you can see I’ve really dedicated myself to writing fictional prose. It then perhaps goes without saying that writing sonnets is a substantial departure from this, and the module class I took this semester was an interesting journey because of that.

What is a Sonnet Anyway?

In case you’re not familiar with the form of the sonnet, I’ll break it down for you here: 

It has fourteen lines in iambic pentameter (a type of poetic meter that you can look up if you want a full explanation). It’s got a rhyme scheme, something like ABBAABBACDECDE (the form used by the famous sonneteer Petrarch) or ABABCDCDEFEFGG (the form used by the famous sonneteer Shakespeare). On the note of rhyme schemes for those new to poetry, each letter in the rhyme scheme represents the ending sound of a line, such that the following: 

I tried to write a poem,

Specifically a sonnet,

I sat for hours alone,

My page with nothing on it.

…has the rhyme scheme ABAB. You might notice that these endings aren’t perfect rhymes. “Poem” and “alone” don’t quite match in their sounds, but this is called a slant rhyme and is quite acceptable in the modern forms of sonnets. In fact, in my class, it was encouraged.

A sonnet is usually about some interior issue for a person or some form of frustrated love (like the many poems written by Petrarch about just one woman, Laura, whom he was obsessed with but could not marry, according to his work). And perhaps most essentially, the form of a sonnet has a volta (Italian for turn), which is the turning point or instance of realization in the argument. In Petrarch’s sonnets, the volta tended to come around line nine, while in Shakespeare’s sonnets, it came in the final two lines, with the “GG” rhyming couplet. 

How Sonnets Have Changed Over Time

Now, you probably noticed, as I explained sonnets, that the famous figures mentioned (Petrarch and Shakespeare) lived hundreds of years ago. Thus, it seems strange that the sonnet might be a form we focus on now. The answer to this query is that, yes, the sonnet was at its peak a long time ago and has since fallen out of style, seen as an antiquated poetic form with too many strictures and that was associated with a problematic archetype (the beautiful, silent woman, and the man writing about her). There has been a gradual return of the sonnet through modern poets, however, and as the form has come back, it has broken free of its traditional rhyme, meter, and subject restrictions to be reclaimed and become more diverse and dynamic. 

You might ask, what do you mean it has broken free? Doesn’t a sonnet have to follow the rules of a sonnet to be one? To this, I again answer yes, BUT… also no. Modern poets writing sonnets have begun taking liberties with the form and changing it. They follow some of the traditional rules of the sonnet, paying homage to its legacy, but at the same time, create something new in the sonnet’s repertoire by adding their own creative choices.

Some of the sonnets we read in “The Sonnet” course didn’t adhere to rhyme schemes, and many broke from the strict syllable count of iambic pentameter. One poem that we read let its fourteen lines ramble on for so long that it had to be placed horizontally on a page instead of vertically.

When I saw these breaks in the form initially, I was skeptical of the things we were reading. I had expected to take “The Sonnet” course and learn how to create beauty within strict confines. Yet our professor, who was wonderful, charming, and always cheerful, continually encouraged me and others to write outside the sonnet boundaries we were learning about. She kept telling us how most dynamic moments could be found by breaking free of the form. And this was a surprise for me. Eventually, however, as I wrote more poetry and found my poetic voice throughout the module, I came to appreciate the beauty of what she was teaching us.

The modern sonnet has become more than the boxy form crafted in the Renaissance so long ago. Taking the fourteen-line inherited form from before, modern sonnets find playful relationships in the margins and past the boundaries of what made a sonnet. Oftentimes, they contextualize themselves as sonnets, adhering just enough to the form (the fourteen-line restriction is specifically still quite common, for instance) or being placed with other sonnets in some kind of poetry collection, to be identified as one. Despite their place as a sonnet and, in fact, because of it, they then become beautiful when their writing breaks free. Modern sonnets flow into new facets of the mind just as they do so on the page. Along with this, they’ve addressed subject matter differently from and in opposition to the form’s problematic ways back in older times.

How My Sonneteering Changed Over Time

Word choice is a quality I pride myself on and have taken time to develop in fictional prose writing. I still have much to learn about it, though, and this was the first thing that was brought into focus as I worked on my sonnets during this semester. My word choice had to be more exact than usual because I had so few words to work with and so many restrictions as to what they could be. Especially once I began writing sonnets in iambic pentameter (after our lesson on it in the course), I was forced to find other options than what I might have considered a perfect descriptor in order to fit the meter. 

As I kept working to get better with my word choice, I also found more freedom in breaking the sonnet form—and not necessarily for word choice freedom. Going along with what she often said in class, my professor commented on my first poems that I adhered more strictly to sonnet rules than needed. Thus, as the class went on and we experimented with different variations on the sonnet we were meant to write, I found freedom in writing past the normal line length and weaved unique rules into my poems. By the time we had finished writing our pieces and began workshopping them, I felt proud of how far I’d progressed in my poetry. In workshop, I was subsequently impressed by what other writers had accomplished too. In my creative writing courses, I’ve always enjoyed workshop as a display of what’s possible, and this class was no exception. 

From the Form Forward

I still don’t intend to become primarily a poet after writing sonnets this semester, but I enjoyed the poetry I did and may dabble in the subject more later on. If nothing else, I’ve certainly gained a new perspective with which to look at my choices of words as I write prose. Additionally, I picked the course on “The Sonnet” to explore the history of a form I found interesting, and felt quite satisfied with our exploration of just that through our readings. Soon after the first module of the semester ended, I was accepted to the Creative Writing major, the only major in the college to which you must apply (and generally to which you apply during your second year, based on when you’ve completed the prerequisite courses), and was over the moon with excitement about it. I’ll now get to write much more at Oberlin and will keep my skills and pleasant experience from “The Sonnet” with me as I do.  I’d like to thank all those who were part of the course for contributing to that experience. Thank you to my wonderful professor and my fellow students for making the “The Sonnet” a splendid time! I can’t wait to see where my learning in the course will help lead me as I move forward.

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