The Sonnet Machine: How It Works

One of my favourite exercises for exploring an idea or enlivening a piece of dull writing is to put myself through The Sonnet Machine. Here’s how it works.

In one end go the raw materials: our glorious visions, that one luminous word we adore, the brilliant opening line of the novel we can’t write, junk, a dream, a moment, the crucial scene in our short story, the shape of a cloud, someone else’s brilliant idea, the poem you wrote when you were 15 and heartbroken, whatever …

… and The Sonnet Machine delivers a piece of writing with an aesthetic form and language-rich content.

The Machine’s primary function is to find patterns: of images, sounds, feelings, rhythms. It also illuminates shadow material: characters who may have been hiding, emotions you’ve suppressed, opinions your super ego censors.

Your sonnet won’t be a finished piece of work. Indeed, it’s likely to be clunky and not make sense. But it will be bulging with images, throbbing with a beat. It will want you to work out what it wants you to say. It’s like your pattern-loving brain and Shakespeare and Petrach and a few other geniuses went into a bosberaad and came out with some suggestions.

In particular, The Sonnet Machine does not deliver narrative. Telling a story is not what a sonnet does best. As Mark Strand and Eavan Boland describe it in The Making of a Poem, the sonnet engages an emotional or intellectual question, captures mood and tone, and allows a fairly free association of images to develop lyrically toward a conclusion.

And now you, the prose writer, must do the work.

Highveld Reading and Writing Studios offers The Sonnet Machine as an 8-week online studio.

In The Sonnet Machine, we use the strictures of form to release us from the strictures of our habits. We all make creative moves that come easily to us: perhaps they’ve been successful in past work, perhaps we admire them in other writers, perhaps we’ve just been making them for years. They can become so familiar that they feel natural, and we forget that once it was a choice to use that particular voice, or punctuation style, or way of ending a story. Included in these comfortable moves are our imaginative associations. One idea reliably generates another idea we love. The Sonnet Machine forces us to make moves we may not want to or like, and takes us beyond our creative defences into the danger zone of our untamed imagination. This intensive studio begins with a brief introduction to the sonnet forms, then moves to a sonnet writing hazing out of the familiar and into the wild of your writer’s mind. You will forge new neural pathways to the images, stories – the words – that your habits have been protecting you from. In the final session of the studio, I will guide you to begin a new piece of work with the stamina and freedom you will have acquired.

I also use it as an element of other studios, such as Disturbing Immersions.

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