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What Are the Different Types of Modern Sonnets?

By Dee Jones
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sonnets are one of the oldest types of poetry, and the most well-known sonneteer is probably William Shakespeare, who wrote 154 individual sonnets, and also included many sonnets in his plays. There was a time when sonnets fell out of favor, and were seen as too old fashioned and restrictive. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many modern poets like E.E. Cummings, Robert Frosh, and Edna St. Vincent Millay helped to keep this form of poetry alive. Modern sonnets, however, don’t necessarily follow the same rules as more traditional sonnets. While there were once strict rules about how many lines could be in a sonnet, how many syllables had to be in every line, and the rhyme scheme the sonnet had to follow, the writers of modern sonnets have much more freedom when it comes to structure and rhyme.

It can be difficult to distinguish different types of modern sonnets because the purpose of the modern poetry writers who write these types of poems is often to break the rules. In fact, modern sonnets have a lot in common with free form, also known as free verse, poetry. There are few, if any, distinct rules when writing free form poetry, giving the poet the freedom to express himself and his creativity in almost any way he can imagine. However, while similar to free form poetry in many ways, modern sonnets tend to have a bit more structure. While modern sonnets might look or sound like a free form poem at first, it will have certain characteristics that will classify it as a sonnet.

One of the first modern sonnets that didn’t use rhyme at all was called “The Secret Agent.” Written in 1928, this poem was penned by W.H. Auden. Auden also wrote many more traditional sonnets, although he also devoted much time to pushing the boundaries of the sonnet form.

One specific type of modern sonnet is the inverted sonnet, but even inverted sonnets don’t necessarily follow strict rules. One type of traditional sonnet is classified as having exactly 14 lines and a strict rhyming scheme. While an inverted sonnet might also have exactly 14 lines, and an opening rhyming couplet similar to that found in traditional sonnets, the remaining lines could be written in free form. A sonnet that’s been split in half, with each section having its own tone and style, might also be referred to as an inverted sonnet.

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Discussion Comments
By miriam98 — On Feb 12, 2012

@everetra - If the whole point of some sonnet poems is to break the rules then I guess I can understand the ambiguity and abstractions.

I’ve read and enjoyed the sonnets of E.E. Cummings, and his stuff leans towards the transcendental and philosophical, quite clearly.

You can read into it what you want I suppose. It’s a matter of debate whether you can really know what the author meant to say.

By everetra — On Feb 12, 2012

@nony - Well I’ve read “The Secret Agent,” and that sonnet is way out there in my opinion. The article is right that there is no rhyme, but the content itself is very ambiguous and open to a lot of interpretation.

What responsibility does the poet have in providing clarity in his poem? I suppose that if your name is Auden you have greater artistic license in that sense.

I prefer poems that I can understand, rhyme or no rhyme, structure or free form.

By nony — On Feb 12, 2012

@MrMoody - Most of the modern sonnet examples I’ve seen do try to stay close to the strictest definition of this art form. The variations I’ve seen have more to do with what part of the line will rhyme and how the lines are lumped together.

Not all of them will have three stanzas consisting of four lines and a fourth stanzas consisting of two lines. Sometimes the stanzas are split in two or the whole stanza will consist of fourteen lines.

I think in either case it deserves its classification as a sonnet. I won’t kid you however; most amateur poets are likely to shun this poetic device, viewing it as too restrictive. I think that you should start with the structured poems first, and then go for free form later on.

By MrMoody — On Feb 11, 2012

What’s the point of calling it a sonnet if it’s just free form? To me these definitions should mean something.

If the word sonnet has evolved to mean something entirely opposite to its original meaning, then I think that a substitute word should be used instead. I am a bit of a traditionalist, perhaps because I took so many English literature courses in college and loved reading the Western classics.

I think that if you are going to write contemporary sonnets you should toe the line and try to stick as close to the original, structured form as possible. Some flexibility is okay in my opinion; but it should at least have fourteen lines and still have some rhyme and structure the way that I see it.

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