Lesson on 'Sonnet' by Billy Collins

Carol Atherton


Billy Collins' poem 'Sonnet' offers an accessible and entertaining take on the act of writing sonnets. In this lesson it is used as the starting-point for an exploration of how the sonnet form has been used, adapted and subverted by a range of poets, enabling students to explore the interaction between poetic form, structure and meaning.

This activity could be extended to form a sequence of lessons on the sonnet, allowing you to get students to work in home and expert groups or devise a mini-lesson in which they present their findings to the rest of the class. It will encourage post-16 students to read widely, make connections between texts and explore aspects of the literary tradition. It could be used at the beginning of the AS level course to introduce students to the analysis of poetic form and structure and establish expectations about wide reading, but it might also be a useful activity for the post-exam period at the end of Year 12, when students might be thinking about what they want to do for their comparative coursework.

  • To explore how a range of poets use the sonnet form
  • To develop skills of close reading, including the analysis of poetic form and structure
  • To develop skills of collaborative work
Resources needed
  • John Cooper Clarke's 'Sonnet'
  • Data projector and whiteboard
  • Copies of additional sonnets; a possible list is as follows:
  • 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day' by William Shakespeare
  • 'On my first Sonne by Ben Johnson
  • 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • 'As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame' by Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • 'Patrolling Barnegat' by Walt Whitman
  • 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' by Wilfred Owen
  • 'Book Ends' by Tony Harrison
  • 'I am very bothered ...' by Simon Armitage

Teaching sequence of activities


Display the poem 'Haiku' by John Cooper Clarke. What is this poem doing? Tell students that they will be looking at another poem that comments on the act of writing poetry, this time a sonnet.

Pool existing knowledge about sonnets - they will need to know a little about the tradition of sonnet-writing, plus definitions of the following terms:

  • Shakespearean sonnet
  • Petrarchan sonnet
  • Octave
  • Sestet
  • Volta
  • Quatrain
  • Couplet
  • Metre (they need to be able to recognise iambic pentameter)
  • Curtal sonnet
  • Caudate sonnet

  • Development

    Play the Poetry Archive recording of Billy Collins reading 'Sonnet' at least twice. The text of the poem should be projected so that students can read it while they are listening. After their second listening, students should list the conventions of the sonnet form that Collins refers to in the poem.

    Students, in groups, to be given a sonnet from the list in the 'Resources' section. They should explore the ways in which the poet uses or subverts the conventions of the sonnet form and comment on how this helps to shape the meaning of the poem.

    Depending on how much time you have available, you might want to get students to think about how they could present their findings to the rest of the class. They could devise a mini-lesson or seminar presentation, or produce an annotated version of their sonnet, with editor's notes, for inclusion in a class anthology.


    Ask one student from each group to bring a copy of their sonnet to the front. Get them to line up in order of how conventional they think their sonnet is, with the most conventional at one end and the most experimental at the other. They have to justify their choice of where to stand. The rest of the group has the chance to comment on their choices and make changes to the order, but they have to explain their actions.

    Extension Activities

    Explore some of the other sonnets on the Poetry Archive website, thinking about how they play with the conventions of the sonnet form.

    Students could also have a go at writing their own sonnet, or at the very least, their own couplet or quatrain in iambic pentameter - see Stephen Fry's book The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within (Arrow Books, 2007) for some ideas

    Further Reading

  • Don Paterson ed., 101 Sonnets (Faber & Faber, 1999)
  • Some contemporary sonnet sequences that students could compare for coursework are Seamus Heaney's 'Glanmore Sonnets', Tony Harrison's 'The School of Eloquence' and Simon Armitage's sequence of sonnets in Book of Matches (Faber & Faber, 1993).
  • There is an online tutorial on the sonnet on the Virginia College Community System website: 'Oneline Tutorial'. This explores metre, rhyme and imagery, and contains audio files of different readings of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.

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