Think of your first crush. Or think of the time when you realized you had a best friend. Think of the moment you heard a melody that you wanted to dance to, or learn how to play yourself. Think of a meal, savory or sweet — or the perfect mix of both — when eating it sharpens and brightens everyone and everything else around you. That’s what I think it’s like to read a sonnet. A sonnet, or any poem for that matter, is something you experience.
My hope when I taught the form in middle school classrooms was not that students would “get it,” but that they would want to return to it. That they would be intrigued and curious enough to look again.
Once in a seventh grade classroom, we were reading Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a story that is in part about a boy who must read Shakespeare with his teacher. Holling Hoodhood, the main character, detests the Bard at first. Something happens, though, and I think trying to explain what that something is, is like trying to explain why you must get up and dance to the melody that tugs at everything within you. Understanding the sonnet is the least of Holling’s concerns. He just wants to interact with the language. “I decided to learn them all by heart — even if I didn’t know exactly what they meant.”
I think there is a lesson in what it means to learn in Holling’s decision to memorize the sonnets. Here, to learn feels like something that deepens with time and practice: like a relationship, like a friendship, like a dance.
With that attitude, I created a little sonnet project for my seventh-graders. I handed out several of Shakespeare’s sonnets and had students choose one to work with. They were to copy it by hand and, using a dictionary or a thesaurus, find meanings to any words they didn’t understand. They drew a picture and wrote a summary of what they thought the poem was about, and then finally they memorized it.
On an afternoon when leaves the color of burnt orange and brown grocery bags crunched from the cold and from their fall from tree limbs, telling us autumn was turning itself into another season, I brought in homemade cupcakes and my students, who’d already grown out of their new school pants, whose voices creaked and cracked at the emergence of something deeper, stood in front of their classmates and shared William Shakespeare’s words with one another.
It was an intense experience, sharing something from your heart that you don’t completely understand. Certainly, it’s an experience much like middle school — perhaps even in the world we are living in today. Perhaps the sonnet is the perfect form of poetry for us all to take to heart and wrestle with right now.
This week, copy, draw, summarize, and memorize a sonnet. Start with Shakespeare, if you wish. Jeanne Murray Walker’s book of sonnets, Pilgrim, You Find the Way by Walking, is one of my favorites as well. Here’s a worksheet you can try, or share with a parent or teacher you know.
If you wish, write a sonnet. Share your poetry, your pictures, or maybe even your memorized sonnets in the comments below.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here’s on from Megan Willome that we enjoyed.