Saturday Night Date with a Sonnet

I love teaching poetry. I especially love teaching it to students who think they hate poetry and can’t understand it and think poetry is full of “hidden meanings.”

“You don’t have to love poetry, but I can help you appreciate it,” I reassure them.

“If you can read, you can understand poetry,” I promise them.

“Scout’s honor, there are no ‘hidden meanings’ in poetry,” I confide to them.

Then I break the news that poems require closer reading than a text message like, “want 2 hang out sat nite?”

The sonnet is one of the best forms for teaching my students that the mysteries of poetry are out in the open, free for the taking.

As with all things word-related, it helps to start with definitions. A sonnet, one of the most rigid of the fixed poetic forms, is defined by its many rules. I tell my students that knowing the rules of the sonnet helps in understanding it in the same way that knowing the rules of football helps in following the game. Many of them smile.

Most of the students in my introductory courses remember something about the sonnet from high school, so I build from there: fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, a set rhyme scheme that reflects the stanza structure (here we get into the English versus the Italian form), with a turn in thought or emphasis at the end, usually focusing on a serious subject such as love, sex, art, life, death, or taxes. (I’m kidding about the last one, of course. But that always gets the students to laugh, which is important when trying to warm them up to something they approach the way my dogs approach a snakeskin on the woodpile.)

Then I ask them why anyone would choose to write according to so many rules, all the way down to the number and beat of the syllables. Someone usually answers, “For the challenge.” And that’s not a bad answer. A few others will give it a good college try, trying to figure out why someone would go to all that trouble, although I can tell they think people who write sonnets probably just have trouble getting dates on Saturday night.

So after a few answers, I give them my own: “For the freedom.”

The students look at me as though I must not have had a Saturday night out in long, long time.

“Imagine,” I tell them, while they squint at me quizzically, “if I gave you ten minutes and asked you all to write about love, anyway you want, no rules at all. How original do you think might be in what you say?” Not very, I assure them. A couple of heads slowly nod.

“Now let’s say I ask you to write about love in a certain number of syllables, arranged in a certain meter with a certain number of lines, according to a set rhyme scheme. I bet that in following these rules, you would likely discover an idea, a nuance, an image, a comparison, a slant, something fresh and new.” A few more heads nod.

Then I tell them about a famous playground study—one where the children playing in an unenclosed playground, unsure of the boundaries, tended to huddle together toward the middle, not daring to venture out from the group. But children in a fenced playground ranged confidently all over the yard, some even climbing the fences.

The rules of a sonnet, it turns out, set us free to explore. And what better way to spend a Saturday night?

Photo by André Fincato, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me


  1. Nick says

    Love this post. It is amazing how many examples there are of boundaries creating the contours for flourishing – right down to the grammar for a coherent sentence.

    This made me nostalgic for our classroom of circled desks – enjoying Pope’s playground together.

  2. Brittany says

    This post makes me excited (and a little less nervous…maybe) to teach poetry in 102 this semester. I miss your classes, Dr. Prior!

  3. Amber says

    Speaking of Collins, I heard him read some of his poetry on NPR a few weeks ago- his new collection is titled “The Trouble With Poetry.” Hilarious.

  4. Tania Runyan says

    Absolutely. When I taught fiction back in grad school I assigned one story in which the students drew two slips of paper: one with a character’s profession and one with an action (such as jumping on one foot). The character had to be the protagonist, and the climax had to include the action. The stories were stupendous, even though the students complained. The next story was “free.” Lots of bland tales about prom and fraternity rushes. The students got it after that!

  5. Marcy Terwilliger says

    Well put SimplyDarlene. I read the article put couldn’t get the image out of my mind. You guys put someone taking a leak at a fence. Guess we could go back to the cat poems and pee on them for awhile.


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