How to think like a sonnet, or, fourteen ways of looking around a room

A jeweled binding for a Shakespeare sonnet collection
The Sonnets of William Shakespeare. 1992 American jeweled binding by J. Franklin Mowery. The design of the covers and spine is based upon the fact that a sonnet has 14 lines. (Click the image to see more details in the Folger’s digital image collection.)

Why must I thus forever be confined?” Many of us share Hester Pulter’s frustration with being held at home, restrained from roaming beyond “a journey round my room.” We feel, in Macbeth’s claustrophobically condensed line, “cabined, cribbed, confined.”

Yet there remains an amazing way that intent study — concentration — momentarily removes the mind’s confines. People in far more restricted “Stone Walls,” including Nelson Mandela, have found solace in Shakespeare during trying times. Indeed, the conceit of the poem as a paradoxically freeing “prison” resonates from Petrarch to Terrance Hayes.

Poets have long worked within the confinement of the stanza — a term derived from the Italian for “room,” or “resting place.” (In Arabic and Hebrew, stanza is likewise spatially identified: it’s the same word as “dwelling place.”)

What’s in a room? Whether it’s Emily Dickinson’s “mighty room” or Samuel Daniel’s “small room,” William Wordsworth’s “narrow room” or John Donne’s “pretty rooms,” we strive to “find room” in these “little room”s — a phrase invoked by Hayes, and before him Billy Collins, William Wordsworth, Thomas Campion, and John Donne. As Ted Berrigan self-reflexively queried, “Is there room in the room that you room in?”

The sonnet’s protean form invites such meditations on constraint and liberty, as in the epilogue to Henry V: “In little room confining mighty men.”

My first-year writing seminars were immersed in Shakespeare’s sonnets when we, like everyone, were abruptly forced to confine ourselves to distant little rooms. The sonnets, “dense capsules of meaning,” as The Old Globe’s Barry Edelstein calls them, were, fortuitously, more conducive to remote reading than the plays would have been for me.

The sonnet’s 10-syllable (roughly — but see #20 and #145) by 14-line (generally — but see #99 and #126) “frame” is akin to a 140-syllable “budget.” This budget demands concentration, the way 140 characters used to concentrate a Twitter post.

We found re-reading the sonnets a welcome respite for our scattered attention, helping us to “Stand still,” as another Donne lyric enjoins. As Rita Dove confides, “the sonnet comforts even while its prim borders (but what a pretty fence!) are stultifying.”

Here, then, are fourteen ways of “thinking in sonnets,” or looking around this mighty, small, narrow, pretty, little room.

1. Read.

It’s tempting to jump to a paraphrase, or a modern “translation.” Resist the urge; don’t cheat yourself by skipping this fundamental step. Linger with the lines.

2. Re-read.

Vladmir Nabokov held that “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” When you re-read, which words make you stumble? Look them up in a historical lexicon, like the Oxford English Dictionary (if your library subscribes), the Online Etymology Dictionary (which is public), or Shakespeare’s Words (which is providing free access to students during the crisis).

3. Recite.

The lyric (as its name suggests) developed from sung poetry. Try reading the poem in different voices, different paces . . . quietly, loudly, seriously, humorously, quickly, slowly. These extremes help reveal nuances.

4. Listen.

Jermyn Street Theatre has been performing sonnets daily, as has Patrick Stewart; a decade earlier, Stewart was part of Touch Press’ interactive edition of the sonnets. The New York Sonnet Project has filmed short adaptations, while RSC actors have been recording Sonnets in Solitude; contribute your own with the hashtag #readasonnet.

5. Copy.

Even the most extreme form of imitation, raw reproduction, generates insight. James Wright typed out Rilke’s German sonnets, “to better hear their music.” Pretend that you are composing your sonnet as you go along, pausing after words and lines to reflect upon what you have “written” — and what you might write next.

6. Punctuate.

Is there a pause in the middle of a line (a caesura)? Is there a pause at the end of a line — or does the phrase cascade over the next line (enjambment)? Punctuation in Shakespeare’s era was more fluid than ours; it can be eye-opening to compare your version of the sonnet with the 1609 quarto.

7. Hear.

Is there a mono-syllabic line, like Sonnet 12’s “When I do count the clock that tells the time”? Is that tick-tock-y rhythm then abruptly disrupted by a polysyllabic word, like “hideous”? Does the last sound of one word repeat as the first sound of the next? (As our visiting director Nick Hutchison taught us, listen to Sonnet 73’s “That time,” “which shake,” “Bare ruined,” “birds sang,” “Death’s second,” “with that” — each shapes slower readings). And if the rhymes don’t seem to chime, consider their original pronunciation.

8. Ask.

Who is speaking to whom? Are the speaker and addressee gendered, or not? Do any key words repeat (like Sonnet 29’s “state”)? When does the sonnet begin (sometimes in the midst of a previous, implied event), and when does it end? Into how many parts can you divide the poem? Where does the mini-drama of the poem turn (the volta)? How does it compare to other sonnets you’ve read — does it follow or break convention? And how does it, in turn, reshape “The Tradition” (the fraught title sonnet to Jericho Brown’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volume)?

9. Erase.

How much of the poem could you omit, yet still have it make sense? Basil Bunting did this in the 1920s, under Ezra Pound’s guidance. George Starbuck wittily distilled some to thin, monosyllabic lines. More recently, Jen Bervin made Nets, stripped-down versions where you can still discern faint traces of the original.

10. Rewrite.

As Emma Smith reminds us: “Shakespeare’s first readers engaged in acts of rewriting where they felt the original was lacking or could be improved.” Try your hand at remixing your sonnet. Start with the first line, and go from there, as Wendy Cope and others have done. Or just have fun reading Erik Didriksen’s translation of contemporary pop lyrics into Shakespearean sonnets.

11. Translate.

Northrop Frye cautioned that we “tend to follow the structure of the language we’re thinking in.” How to avoid these ruts? As Frye recalls, “humanists have always insisted that you don’t learn to think wholly from one language: you learn to think better from linguistic conflict, from bouncing one language off another.” So seek out a version of your sonnet in Arabic; Chinese; Dutch; French; German; Hebrew; Latin; Polish; Russian; Spanish; Swedish; Turkish. Or make your own! What’s lost in translation? What’s gained?

12. Explore.

What have other readers seen in your poem? Check out commentary in The Folger Shakespeare, or in Gerard Ledger’s online edition. Pay attention to how scholars have modernized spelling and punctuation, decisions that shape interpretation. I recommend consulting Stephen Booth, Helen Vendler, and Colin Burrow. Jane Kingsley-Smith’s recent The Afterlife of Shakespeare’s Sonnets surveys responses from 1609 to the present.

13. Memorize.

There’s nothing like having your sonnet to hand — and to mind. Ken Ludwig offers some helpful suggestions.

14. Return.

Go back, and re-read your sonnet anew, with “eyes to wonder.” Happily, as Alison Brackenbury concludes: “The sonnet has no room to make an end.”