A while back, I was corresponding by email with a poet friend, when the subject of The Sonnet inevitably came up. (There is no escaping the long reach of the small song—which is literally what the Italian word “sonetto” means.) My friend declared that the challenge of trying to fit her ideas into a fourteen-line container of such careful construction felt like trying to squeeze her big foot into a glass slipper. (She is from Texas, and people do speak in a colorful way in that part of the world.)
Though many poets have spoken and written (complained and kvetched) about the difficulties of this form, this particular metaphor had the ring of both originality and truth. I responded with delight and immediately challenged us to a sonnet duel, of sorts: we would both write a Glass Slipper Sonnet—a sonnet describing the process of writing a sonnet in terms of her comparison. We liked the idea—were eager to begin—charged our weapons, took our twenty paces. Then we promptly forgot about it.
Later, as I was culling through old emails, I came upon this exchange and thought it high time to take a shot at it (not her, mind you), based on the assumption that a late sonnet is better than no sonnet at all. The result was this poem:
GLASS SLIPPER SONNET
Pity the poor step-sister those big feet
she’ll never stuff in a size-six sonnet,
her flesh so fulsome the slipper seems effete,
unworthy of the labor spent on it.
But try she must, and so she makes a pass,
jams four fat toes in the narrow throat,
the fifth pig smarting, pressed against the glass
(though pain’s no stranger—she knows it by rote.)
The other shoe drops—as it is wont to do—
a second foot is squeezed into the vamp.
She stands up straight and takes a stride towards you,
her footfall heavy as a farmgirl’s tramp.
The slipper strains against those excess feet.
She hobbles onward—she has a prince to meet.
Though the poem above will certainly garner no prizes, I must confess—it was fun to write.
After growing up (like most of us) channeling Cinderella (whose story is the obvious origin of the Glass Slipper image) and holding the wicked step-sisters in contempt, I enjoyed adopting the perspective of her nemesis. (It’s not easy being ugly and ungainly, unloved and un-princed—and that awful mother!) So the poem satisfied my desire to give the silent sufferers in the tale their due. I also enjoyed learning some new words that describe shoe construction (“vamp” being my personal favorite) and using slang to describe certain body parts (“the fifth pig” having arrived as a complete surprise, coming as it does out of another—very different—childhood story, one involving, mysteriously enough, roast beef).
The form of this sonnet is traditional, in most ways, but the attentive reader (and would-be sonneteer) will also note that it breaks with tradition, as well:
1. The rhyme scheme corresponds to that of the Shakespearean Sonnet (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG). However, instead of being grouped into 3 quatrains (4-line stanzas) and a concluding couplet, the lines form a series of seven couplets. The effect of this is to make the poem move more slowly, one step followed by another, and then another. In fact, the pairings suggest the image of feet (which tend to come in pairs) and the act of walking (which is actually described in the latter portion of the poem). The pairing of lines—which I did instinctively rather than intentionally–allowed me to control the pacing of the revisionist tale. Thus, the poem both conforms to and breaks with sonnet tradition. This kind of playing within and also against the boundaries of the form lies at the heart of sonnet writing. The goal for the poet ought to be to obey the rules as much as possible—unless he or she comes up with a better idea.
2. The length of the lines in the poem is more or less equivalent. The traditional sonnet form calls for 14 lines of iambic pentameter, and, accordingly, most lines in the poem have 10 syllables, 5 of them stressed and 5 unstressed. I do confess that these are “loose iambics, ” as Robert Frost liked to call colloquial-sounding lines. There are times that I have violated this rule in the interest of creating some variation in the meter and introducing some tonal changes.
For example, the final line contains 11 syllables instead of 10, in part because of the repetition of “she” in the line. This redundancy, together with the awkward pause in the middle of the line, seems to be a rhythmic echo of the step-sister’s awkward gait, as she hobbles along, putting one big foot after another, trying to wear a shoe that doesn’t really fit. Again, the poem both obeys and flouts the rules in attempt to meet the expectations of the reader and then to surprise him or her—pleasantly, I hope—by upsetting those expectations. The immediate goal, of course, is to create a humorous conclusion to the poem. The ultimate goal is to write a sonnet (or wear the slipper), but to do so on my own terms (like the step-sister!).
TRYING IT ON
As you set out to write your sonnet, you’ll want to make a few choices. These will help you to create a blueprint for your poem:
1. Which rhyme scheme—and which rhetorical structure—will you adopt?
The Petrarchan (or Italian) Sonnet is divided into two parts: the first 8 lines (the Octave), rhyming ABBAABBA tend to present a problem or situation, and the last 6 lines (the Sestet), rhyming CDCDCD, tend to resolve it. This works well when you want to present two sides of a story or to establish contrast or tension between two entities or ideas.
The Shakespearian (or English) Sonnet is divided into four parts: three four-line stanzas (or quatrains) rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF and a couplet rhyming GG. Each of the four parts tends to present some aspect of the poem’s subject, each one building upon the previous assertion. The couplet tends to resolve the difficulty or challenge expressed in the poem. This tends to work well when you have a series of ideas you want to explore.
You’ll want to decide whether either of these rhyme schemes is easier for you to execute and/or whether either of these structures is more or less suitable for the story you want to tell.
2. What rhyming words would you like to use?
Some poets like to decide in advance which rhyming words they might like to use. If you choose to do this, you might even block out the poem, writing the rhyme words at the (imagined) end of each line by and then creating lines to fit them.
Another option is to begin with your first line and simply see where it takes you, allowing the rhymes to develop more organically as the poem proceeds.
In either case, feel free to have a rhyming dictionary handy. It serves as a great aid to memory!
3. Which characters (if any) will appear in your Glass Slipper Sonnet? What voice might you adopt/ what point of view might you assume?
Your choices are, of course, unlimited. They range from the traditional characters in the fairy tale—Cinderella, the Prince, the wicked step-mother, the wicked step-sisters, the fairy godmother, etc—to characters who have absolutely nothing to do with the story. In fact, introducing a new, unexpected character into the sonnet is more likely to lead you away from safe and familiar paths.
4. What will the tone and approach of your poem be?
Do you want to write a humorous poem? a tragic poem? a satire? a revision of the story? an indictment of it? Or some combination? (The tone of the poem ought to change—and most likely will as you follow out the implications of your “story.”)
PUTTING YOUR BEST FOOT FORWARD
Start your poem by writing down the first sentence that comes into your head. Even if it seems to have nothing to do with sonnets or glass slippers, just write it down. If it isn’t a 10-syllable line, try to cut or introduce more words and/or syllables to make it close.
Once you’ve got a first line, you’ve got a foundation to build on. Your second line can be a reaction to or a continuation of the first—or it may have nothing to do with it at all. Your goal should be to come up with approximately ten syllables and to conclude the line with a word that you will be able to find a rhyme for pretty readily. That’s it! (If you work to satisfy the form—the content will come.)
Proceed in this way in writing the 3rd and 4th lines, making sure to create rhymes in keeping with the pattern you’ve selected. Your goal is the accumulation of 4 lines which present or loosely describe a particular scenario or situation having to do with shoes and feet.
With the 5th line, you can begin a new sub-topic—something related to the theme you’ve already explored, but one that takes the theme in a slightly (or entirely) new direction. The 6th, 7th, and 8th lines should then follow suit, addressing this new theme and fulfilling the rhyme scheme.
Lines 9-12 of the sonnet might introduce yet another theme or set of images, once again allowing you to deviate from what has been said and to go in a new direction.
Lines 13-14 of the sonnet should, in some way, attempt to tie up some loose ends, sum up a central theme—perhaps gesture back towards the beginning—and leave the reader with something to ponder.
RETRACING YOUR STEPS
Once you have your 14 lines, the blueprint of your sonnet is complete. Now you can begin re-vamping with them in several ways:
1. Eliminate and introduce words in attempt to come up with the best, most precise, most entertaining or surprising words, whose denotation(s) and connotation(s) enrich the poem’s possibilities.
2. Count out the syllables and stresses in each line, adding some where the lines fall short and removing some where the lines are too long. (You don’t want to be too mechanical about this or to strive for metronomic exactitude—feel free to make some allowances for variation.)
3. Substitute end rhymes, to get the most satisfying sounds, and in the process feel free to write alternate endings and/or beginnings of lines.
4. Pay attention to the music made by the words inside the lines, as well as those at the end. Try to make your sonnet sound like the “little song” that it is by introducing as much alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and internal rhyme as you can.
What you’ll discover in this process is that the sonnet form is very elastic and expansive—that there is plenty of room to move around inside the fourteen-line structure you have built—and that it is a pleasure to play within the rules, as well as to occasionally break them, as you attempt to create the most satisfying form that says what you want it to say.
To return to our original metaphor, you may also discover that the Glass Slipper isn’t quite as delicate or as rigid as it may have seemed at the outset. Instead, you will find, good shoe that it is, that it will expand to accommodate your foot, and will prove a sturdy sole-mate as you continue along your poetic journey.
You might also discover the secret to the celebrated sonnet sequences written by Petrarch, Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Donne, Wordsworth, Barrett Browning, and so many other poets: writing sonnets is addicting. Once you have experienced the satisfaction of producing a small, well-made sonnet, you will want to do it again. And again.
I can readily attest to this. There are currently four completed Glass Slipper Sonnets, and more are on the way. Perhaps part of the pleasure of the sonnet lies in knowing that you will almost certainly fail to include everything you wish to say in fourteen lines—but you can always pick up where you left off and write another.
GLASS SLIPPER SONNET #2
Sister Two tries her hand—or feet—
and fits more flush in the fragile shoe
(as if that were possible to do,
given her sibling’s previous feat).
But she—well-versed in the art of snugly
stuffing in clothes so small (this gets ugly)
the seams perform an undulant dance
along her sides and posterior expanse—
yes, she quite matches her sister’s skill
in making that slipper conform to her will.
(When the shoe breaks, the sonnet must fall
two lines short, no sonnet at all.)
GLASS SLIPPER SONNET #3
A brother bemoans his unfair exclusion
from glass slipper rites, the final conclusion
of which will decide who is the true beauty,
the siblings remaining bounden by duty
to serve their good sister and her happy prince,
polish the mirrors, remove fingerprints
from those holy shoes only her hands may touch.
He questions his fate: isn’t this a bit much?
Condemned to wear sneakers, she gets to wear glass?
Confined by my gender to be middle class?
Forced to be subject while she gets to rule?
Forced to look average while she looks so cool?
But she does not answer his whining or woes.
She hears only verse. He speaks only prose.
GLASS SLIPPER SONNET #4
“But why a glass slipper?” she asks, and you pause—
“Why not made of rubies, like Dorothy’s in Oz?”
“And what about diamonds or Mother of Pearl?”
“Such glamorous stuff appeals to a girl.”
Your daughter is right. The story is daft.
Glass slippers are cheap. The prince is an ass
to think brittle footwear will win him a bride.
He needs to bring something she’ll slip on with pride.
The tale has a flaw no mother can men—
unless she insert a new shoe at the end—
hijack the story, fly off on her own,
leave the step-sisters (and their feet) alone.
A bright, glitzy slipper a princess can wear
she pulls (like this sonnet) out of thin air.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland