June 9, 2021
$260 | 6 Weeks
Write dazzling, arresting stanzas in this formal poetry course.
The poet Robert Frost opined that writing “free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” The point of this course is not to prove Frost right or wrong, nor to be a writing baseliner, but to pay close attention to the poetic net.
This course’s primary models will be poems written in traditional forms in the last hundred years, in part because poetry is not, nor need not be, far removed from your daily life. You can write a villanelle about the landlord who never returns your calls (or the tenant who’s three months behind on rent); you can write a sonnet about the current pandemic or a blues poem about your Facebook page. Whatever theme or subject you choose, through close readings of model poems, we will unpack the blueprint of a given poem or poet’s formal muse, with an eye toward how we can mold our own poems. Because of this minute scrutiny, we will look at no more than two poems in a given week. However, other examples will be provided to broaden your formal palette. The course will also be a negotiation between spontaneity and control. And the emphasis will be on writing poems with a narrative pulse.
When a person says “poetic form,” most writers think of a poem’s scaffolding: stanza, rhyme scheme and meter. These are the most salient formal elements. But form is also the coherent relationship of all of a poem’s parts, the satisfying patterns created by repetition and variation that distinguish poems from prose—including the aforementioned meter, rhyme and stanzas—but also anaphora, alliteration, consonant or dissonant lines, chiming vowels and recurring imagery. Note that some of the “parts” of a formal poem—such as alliteration and anaphora—are also rhetorical devices employed in and often used to organize free verse poems.
Once the six-week course concludes, you will have:
- An understanding of and appreciation for received and novel forms and formal techniques.
- A calabash full of poetic tools and terminology you can either apply when writing formal poems or incorporate into free verse poems.
- An understanding of the distinction between but also the connectedness of form and structure.
- An appreciation for some twenty-first century hybrid and novel poetic forms.
- Poems that you can submit to journals or contests.
I like to think of poems as conversations on paper. And I would hope you think you are one of the more interesting people you know and therefore would really enjoy talking to yourself with a writing utensil or keyboard (Mac or PC).
Zoom Schedule for Writing Formal Poetry
We will meet once a week on the following day/time:
Mondays 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM US Eastern Time
Zoom calls will primarily be poetry-based lectures, with provided reading materials and discussions of poetic devices. Your attendance at these lectures is not mandatory, but is part of the full experience of the course.
If you need help getting set up on Zoom, the Writers.com staff are happy to help.
Writing Formal Poetry: Course Syllabus
CLASS 1: Don’t Get Stressed Out, Because Little Poetic Feets (and Other Poetic Elements) Won’t Fail You Now
What does poetic form mean to you? Choose a formal poem—which you will bring to the first class—and write two paragraphs about the poem. Mention, at minimum, two observations about the poem’s form, but you should also share your thoughts about the poem’s theme, figurative language, syntax or diction. Or if you do not regularly read or particularly care for formal poems, choose a formal poem that puzzles or unsettles you and write about why you feel puzzled, unsettled or alienated by the work. Is it not understanding what’s going on formally, content wise or both? Send your samples—both poem and thoughts about the poem—before our first class. Then, we will begin to deconstruct and construct the architecture of a poem’s heart by breaking down model poems’ rhetorical and formal strategies and start honing your own.
Some building blocks of formal poetry we will discuss:
- FEET/STRESS: iamb, anapest, trochee, dactyl, pyrrhic, spondee
- METER: trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, alexandrine
- Feminine endings
- Stanza: Octave/Sestet
- Elizabethan and Petrarchan sonnets
- Blank verse
- Slant-rhyme/internal rhyme
- Accentual-syllabic verse
- Lineation—consonant and dissonant
In-class exercise #1
Choose either the Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnet form (I will provide examples) then think of a theme, a season or setting. Come up with fourteen end rhymes that adhere to the rhyme scheme of either the Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnet that relate to your theme, setting or season. Exchange your end rhymes with a classmate without sharing your theme.
CLASS 2: The Sonnet (from the Italian sonetto—a little sound or song)
FROM FREEDOM TO DISCIPLINE
We will deconstruct a sonnet by unpacking the blueprint of a particular poet’s muse. We will also look closely at the model poem’s lineation—defining and exploring annotated, parsed and end-stopped lines. The writing exercise will be a negotiation between freedom and discipline. Come up with a theme. Write a free-verse poem with that theme in mind. (The free-verse poem should be no more than twenty lines.) Keep the free-verse version. By either compressing or expanding your free-verse poem, write a sonnet, adhering to the formal constraints, maintaining the thematic integrity and as much of the imagery and lines (albeit likely compressed) of your free-verse version. If you choose to write an Elizabethan sonnet, the poem must contain three quatrains and a concluding couplet. As a metacognitive exercise, think about what the stanzaic compression—going from the Elizabethan quatrains to its final couplet—makes you think, feel or do as you write. Write a few sentences about your experience of writing and/or ruminating on the final stanzaic compression. Write a sentence or two about the difference (other than the obvious difference that one of your drafts is free verse and the other formal) between your formal sonnet and the free-verse poem on the same theme. Try to include at least one instance of personification.
(Strongly encouraged) in-class exercise #2
Look back at the sonnet rhyme scheme you received from a classmate the previous week and write the Elizabethan sonnet based on the end rhymes you were given. Share your sonnet with the person who gave you her/his rhyme scheme.
CLASS 3: The Villanelle (from the Italian villanella, a rustic song)
LET MY POEM GO: FROM DISCIPLINE TO FREEDOM
Next, we will deconstruct the architecture of a villanelle’s heart. Along with the poem’s scaffolding, I want you to think about repetition and tone. Again, come up with a theme first. (You might change your theme. But write your first formal and free-verse versions using the same theme. Meaning, if you change your theme once, you have to have two formal and free-verse drafts).
This time you will write the first version of your villanelle in its received form. Then, you will write a free-verse version using the same theme and similar imagery from your villanelle. (The free-verse version should be no more than twenty-five lines.) What’s the effect of going from structure to freedom? There might be more figurative language or longer lines in the free-verse draft; therefore, your free-verse version might contain figures that do not “fit” in your formal villanelle. Keep those figures and, over time (even after the course has ended) see if there is a way to incorporate figures (as many as you like and you feel have imaginative merit) within your formal villanelle.
The villanelle’s final stanza expands the number of lines relative to the preceding stanzas, whereas an Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnet’s concluding stanza contracts. As a metacognitive exercise, write about how the villanelle’s final stanzaic expansion impacts you as you are writing? Does the final stanza actually strike you as expansive? Revisit what you wrote about the sonnet’s concluding contraction. How does your experience of both displacements diverge or converge?
Include at least one metaphor in your villanelle and write a sentence or two about repetition and tone in the formal poem you generate.
CLASS 4: Blues poem (Blues—American folk song with roots in African-American culture)
FORM AND STRUCTURE
The blues poem has a deceptively simple form but there is nuance within that seeming simplicity. One of the subtle things that contributes to that nuance is a blues poem’s “dictional tendencies.” Hence, we will look closely at the model poem’s diction—is it formal, informal, colloquial, slang or some combination of these various registers? Unlike the sonnet and villanelle, traditional blues poems maintain their stanzaic uniformity yet have no formal stanzaic closure. (A writer could use the traditional twelve-bar-blues song form as a guide to how many stanzas should be in a blues poem. But that guide is not hard and fast. Because, although most twelve-bar blues have four verses (and if we see stanza and verse as interchangeable) there are twelve-bar-blues verses that range anywhere from three to six “stanzas” long.
As we discuss the model poem, think about what distinguishes the blues form from the two other received western forms we have explored? Write a blues poem thinking about repetition and its impact on the poem. To explode notions of structure, once you have written a draft, write your poem backwards. (Meaning the last line of the final stanza should be the first line of the new draft’s first stanza, the penultimate line of the final stanza should be the second line of the new draft’s first stanza, the antepenultimate line of the final stanza should be the final line of the new draft’s first stanza, etc. etc.). Do not alter the reversed version too radically. But if there are places where the “reversed blues” does not make sense add a few words as necessary to ensure the “reversed version” has a logical/narrative flow. Now look at both drafts. What does the reversed version do to your understanding of your first version? Are there elements you might be able to incorporate from your “reversed draft” into your original?
Why do you think that the three received forms we have worked on—especially the sonnet and villanelle but the blues as well—have within their original denotations the word “song.” Try to include at least one simile in your poem.
CLASS 5: Hybrid Form: The Blues-Haiku
EXPLODING PRECONCEIVED FORMAL STRATEGIES OF RECEIVED FORMS
Have you ever thought about combining two forms into one form/poem? If so, would you imagine that the blues form and haiku could work together rhetorically as a hybrid form? What similarities and differences are there in the blues form and haiku? How might those similarities and divergences lend themselves to the invention of a hybrid blues-haiku form? What are the leitmotivs of the blues poem and haiku, respectively? After we unpack the formal elements of the hybrid, model poem, could an individual make the argument that the model poem’s title should be different?
CLASS 6: Experimental/novel form
Formal poetry is not a static art. We will analyze and deconstruct a novel, twenty-first century form. All the received forms we have explored—the blues, villanelle, sonnet and even haiku—have their roots in oral traditions. Italian song informs the sonnet and villanelle; African-American folk music informs the blues poetic form. Haiku has roots in Japanese, spoken-word renga compositions. The class’ final, experimental form grows out of a written activity. (I mentioned the class will be a negotiation between spontaneity and discipline; therefore, I am intentionally leaving the form’s name out of the class description, because I would like you to experience the novel form with a combination of a child’s eyes and an adult’s mind.) As with all forms, this final, wholly-novel form has rules. After writing this poem, think about how the experience was different from writing the previous, received forms? Do this novel poem’s rules strike you as whimsical, arbitrary or exacting? Do you think seven hundred years from now people—if they are still writing or reading this currently novel form—will find the form’s rules and rhetorical strategies dated or difficult? We will also look closely at the model poem’s syntax—defining and exploring terms such as normal-order, parallel, fundament, parataxis and hypotaxis.
Why Take a Formal Poetry Course with Writers.com?
- We welcome writers of all backgrounds and experience levels, and we are here for one reason: to support you on your writing journey.
- Small groups keep our online writing classes lively and intimate.
- Work through your weekly written lectures, course materials, and writing assignments at your own pace.
- Share and discuss your work with classmates in a supportive class environment.
- Award-winning instructor David Mills will offer you direct, personal feedback and suggestions on every assignment you submit.
Master the art of writing formal poetry. Reserve your spot today!
Learn more about how our courses work here, and contact us with any other questions.
Student Feedback for Instructor David Mills
I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge presented by this course. We delved into several formal structures of English poetry and were expected to refine our focus in order to create within these structures. David is very professional and knowledgeable about the structure of poetry. It was a great experience. Jock Jacober
This class stretched my knowledge. David Mills teaches beyond expectations. This is not a class for the casual attendee but extremely worthwhile for the attentive poet. I am still processing his remarks given to each student. He gave dynamite suggestions! Joan Connor
Thoroughly enjoyable and creatively-run class. David guided us through close readings of great works in the canon as well as lesser-known works, explained and illuminated the techniques used by these poets, then effectively showed us how to incorporate these methods into our own writing. Engaging and inspirational, with many takeaways. Definitely increased my confidence in the craft! Kimberly Lee