The Craft of Poetry

with Jonathan J.G. McClure

the craft of poetry

March 27, 2024
10 Weeks


Some say they hate poetry because they “don’t get it.” There’s a good reason for that feeling: academic courses in poetry tend to give the unfortunate impression that when Shakespeare died, poetry died with him. Who could blame these people for not liking poetry? If poetry ended 500 years ago, I probably wouldn’t care much about it either.

But poetry is alive and well. Contemporary poets can be touching, terrifying, and laugh-out-loud funny at once. This course isn’t about “thee” and “thou.” Contemporary poetry is, above all, about human experience: our experience, today.

The poet William Carlos Williams described a poem as “a machine made out of words.” My aim in this course is to help you become a literary mechanic. We’ll take apart poems to see how they work; we’ll tune the parts and put them back together even better than before. We’ll explore a wide range of contemporary poems (plus a handful of older classics), focusing on what makes them tick and how we can adapt those techniques to our own writing.

While our focus will be on poetry, the techniques we’ll explore apply just as well to fiction, and I definitely encourage prose writers to check out the class. We’ll spend time looking at how poems tell stories, and we’ll check out the blurry/imaginary line between prose poetry and flash fiction.

By the end of this 8-week class, students will:

  • Have a strong sense of what you like in a poem—what matters most to you as a reader and as a writer? What do you want your writing to do?
  • Understand all those terrifying poetry terms like trochaic pentameter and volta—and see why they’re much, much easier than your English teacher made them sound.
  • Learn to “read like a writer”: take apart any poem (or story or essay!), figure out how it works, and learn to make its techniques your own.
  • Write and revise 7-8 new poems and learn where and how to publish them, if desired.

Above all, we’ll have fun along the way—if writing poetry wasn’t a pleasure, nobody would write it.

Course Outline

1. What We Talk About When We Talk About Good Poems

Carefully study a favorite poem. Write a 500ish word overview of the craft elements that make it work.

2. Speaker/Author/Listener

Adapting the techniques discussed this week, write a poem in a voice obviously not your own: a stapler, a giraffe, Napoleon, etc.

3. Show Don’t Tell? Ideas, Things, and the Objective Correlative 

A twist on a classic writing exercise. Write two short poems that each describe a barn…

4. Go In Fear of Abstractions? Metaphor, Simile, and Conceit

Taking as examples the poems discussed this week, write a poem in which an abstract idea (love, hate, drunkenness, etc.) is made concrete through metaphor.

5. Revision, Part 1

Choose one of the poems you submitted earlier in the class, and post a revised version for workshop. 

6. The Sentence/The Line

Write a poem that uses a different lineation style than you usually use. If you usually write very short lines, try very long lines. If you usually break lines at syntactical breaks, try breaking the line against the syntax, etc. How does your approach to / experience of writing the poem change this way? 

7. Rhyme and Meter: How They Work and Why We Should Care

Write a poem in one of the following:

  • Blank verse
  • Iambic tetrameter quatrains
  • Iambic pentameter couplets

Or, write a poem in one of the following forms: villanelle, pantoum, sestina, tritina, or ghazal.

In either case, pay attention to how your subject matter guides your formal selection, and how the formal requirements affect the content of the poem. 

8. Prose Poetry and Flash

Write a prose poem/flash fiction. How does your approach to writing change when working without line breaks?

9. Poem as Argument, Poem as Story

Write a poem that makes an argument without ceasing to be a poem, or a poem that tells a story in an unconventional way.

10. Revision, Part 2

Choose one of the poems you submitted earlier in the class, and post a revised version for workshop. 

Bonus Content: The Literary Workman – Revision and Publishing

Look back at what you wrote during this course. Revise as many of the poems as you’d like, focusing on making specific craft improvements. Once you’re satisfied, consider submitting one (or more!) to a literary magazine using the best practices discussed in the bonus course pack.

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Student Feedback for Jonathan J.G. McClure:

I’ve taken many classes with and Jonathan’s class was one of the best. The material was interesting, his feedback always very thorough and to the point. It was obvious that he put a lot of thought, time and effort into making this class satisfying and engaging. Ariela L Zucker

The Literary Essay course was delightful. Jonathan’s knowledge, getting to the point with his comments, treating his students with attention and respect, and his sense of humor are at the core of his tutoring gift. The week on building strong sentences was of an absolutely revelatory quality for me. I’ve had a great writing experience with Jonathan again and wish to take the next step if possible. Please share this info with him. Joanna Kania

The course material was excellent. It kept me engaged and learning throughout. This class was so helpful because it focused not just on individual poems but on seeing work (your own and others’) in terms of a collection. The class work and generous attention of the teacher were invaluable. I wish there were more classes like this! Mary Paulson

The course readings were excellent – inspiring and varied, often captivating and sometimes bizarre. Between this class and the other I took with Jonathan (The Literary Essay) I feel like I have an infinitely better grasp on what’s going on in the world of contemporary literature, plus types of writings that were developed and built upon in the past. The written lectures were engaging and very readable; they made the assignments clear and definitely enriched my understanding of the readings and their relevance to the unit at hand.

I can’t overstate how insightful and useful Jonathan’s comments were. He always went very in-depth and gave very nuanced feedback. I actually downloaded all of his comments to everybody in the class so I can use them to help with my own writing. Jonathan clearly saw what we were trying to do with each of our pieces and helped bridge the gap between what was in our heads and what was actually being conveyed to the reader. He was always kind and encouraging but didn’t hold back on the constructive criticism (on both the macro and micro level), which is why I was happy to pay for a second course; I’m involved in a writing group with friends but we all tend to mutually shy away from criticism. Laura DeFazio

I thought the teacher was talented–what a great writer!–polite, well meaning, intelligent and diligent. The lectures were extremely well written and put together, and the exercises varied and interesting. I can’t find any fault at all! Becky Mitchell

This was the best class I’ve taken! Jonathan gave us detailed lessons, packed with useful information. He gave us assignments designed to increase our understanding and they did…Jonathan was generous with his feedback, pointing out both the strengths of our work and opportunities to strengthen it. He always explained why something wasn’t working or could be improved and gave examples of how. His suggestions really helped me to see how I could improve, not just that particular poem, but others as well. He was encouraging as well as constructive. He was excellent in every regard. Just want to thank you for this great learning experience. Barbara Ireland

Jonathan was an amazing teacher. The level of critique he offered was way beyond what I thought I’d get in an online course. He was a close and careful reader and his comments on our work were sensitive and insightful. GREAT lectures, clear, concise but in depth, with fantastic poetic examples. Yes, very happy. Chloe Coventry

This course has been fabulous: each week a great lecture with a twist, splendid sample of poems from known and less known poets, supportive and constructive tutorial feedback, phenomenal language. I’m still savoring the course contents. I appreciate your sense of humor, too ;). I’ve loved every minute spent here. I’m definitely taking part two of this course (or its sequel). In the meantime, I’ll read your poems (I wish you’d shared more of them during the course). Looking forward to writing with again. Joanna Kania

I find you guys run great classes and this was no exception! I felt Jonathan was very thoughtful in setting up the material. He was engaged, thorough, and responded in a timely fashion. Andrea Sauder

Lovely! Very well structured and fascinating course. Very! Felt that [Jonathan] knew his stuff and felt safe with the commentary. Maren Bodenstein

March 27, 2024
10 Weeks


jonathan mcclure what is good poetry interview


Jonathan “J.G.” McClure holds an MFA from the University of California – Irvine. His poetry and prose appear widely, including in Best New Poets, Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, and The Pinch, among others. He is the author of the poetry collection The Fire Lit & Nearing (Indolent Books 2018) and the translator of Swimming (Valparaíso Edicciones 2019). His work has been nominated for awards and honors including the Pushcart Prize, Best American Essays, and Best of the Net. He is a book reviewer for several journals including Colorado Review and Rain Taxi, and the former Craft Essay Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor of Cleaver Magazine.

A former instructor at UC-Irvine, Jonathan has taught a variety of courses in poetry and prose and edited literary magazines for four years. Today, he works as a writing consultant in Washington, D.C., where he is an active member of the city’s literary community.