Poetry Writing: A Guide to Poetic Forms

What makes a formal poem tick? It's more than meter and rhyme. Discover how traditional forms spark rather than stifle creativity. Examine in-depth the sestina, villanelle, sonnet, and ghazal; tackle the unique challenges of writing each; and explore how to artfully merge form and content. Includes analysis of model poems, formal structures at a glance, and instructor critique.

At a glance

What: Poetry Writing: A Guide to Poetic Forms

When: Start anytime, complete within 1 year

Where: Online

Cost: $175

Continuing education credit: 20 hours (2.0 CEUs)

Instructor: Angela Rydell

Register Online
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608-262-2451
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For additional information, contact Christine DeSmet: 608-262-3447


Writing in form puts you in good company

Head back to poetry’s roots, and write in forms poets have written in for centuries. You, like Shakespeare, will write a sonnet; like Dylan Thomas, a villanelle; like Agha Shahid Ali, a ghazal; like Elizabeth Bishop, a sestina.

You’ll follow in the footsteps of giants, but formal poems needn’t parody the past. Analysis of both classic and contemporary models helps you navigate each form. You’ll take away tips for finding inventive rhymes and varying conventional rhythms while writing with a contemporary voice. Soon you’ll be dreaming in iambic pentameter.

Freedom in constraints

But why force your ideas into fixed forms when you can write verse that’s “free”? Many poets chafe at non-negotiable line length or strict meter. But there’s a rhyme and reason behind structural rules: they can be downright liberating.

Too many options often overwhelm. Form gives you a place to start, and a place to go. It defines a handful of clear choices, challenging you to be creative within a framework where “the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas.” (T.S. Eliot)  Poets who masterfully manipulate form and structure not only entrance readers, but satisfy a deep yearning for merging pattern and mystery, coherence and surprise.

Of course, formal verse isn’t for everybody. Yet dabbling in rhyme and meter may open new dimensions in your own reluctant poems. Training your ear to the nuances of form can make your writing more musical, whether you were born with a good ear or not. And relying on tried-and-true structures teaches you how to make graceful arguments, use meter to invigorate every line you write, and explore the delightful comingling of form and content. You’ll add new tricks to your writer’s toolbox, which you can use on poems both formal and free long after finishing the course.

Course syllabus

Each unit introduces a poetic form, discusses classic subjects to embrace or subvert, and includes checklists to lock key concepts in place. You’ll try your hand at the form, submit your poem for feedback, and move on to the unit that follows:

Unit 1: The Sestina’s Story. Try out the sestina’s succinct word repetition and the surprising narrative it inspires.

Unit 2: The Villanelle’s Dance. Learn to craft the haunting refrains and tight rhyme scheme of the villanelle.

Unit 3. The Petrarchan Sonnet’s Little Song. Study the classic rhyme scheme and lyric turn of the first sonnets written in English.

Unit 4. The Shakespearean Sonnet’s Argument. Delve deeper into a sonnet’s argument structure via quatrains and a concluding couplet.

Unit 5. The Ghazal’s Longing. Explore how to build anticipation using the ghazal’s refrain and beguiling internal rhymes.

All 5 units are divided into sections to facilitate both clarity and creativity in your formal venture:

  • Read it and reap. Analyze a model poem that demonstrates the form.
  • At a glance. Use a checklist and visual map as a speedy reference of form’s requirements.
  • Form by osmosis. Read a short anthology of six poems, classic and contemporary, written by notable poets in the form.
  • How-to-guide. Follow a step-by-step guide to composition and creativity within a formal structure.
  • Firming up your form. Tackle challenges unique to each form, and take away strategies for overcoming them.

Plus! The course also includes in-depth handouts on meter and rhyme, which help you find surprising rhymes, match meter with emotion, and use repetition that’s never the same twice.

Who is this course for?

  • Free verse poets ready to shed formal inhibitions and embrace creativity within formal structures
  • Writers who want to write in form to get closer to the roots of poetic tradition
  • Poets looking to write contemporary poems using the conventions of fixed forms
  • Any writer who’s taken the online courses “Getting to Good” or “Taking the Poetic Leap” and would like to expand into formal techniques (there’s no required prerequisite, but it’s recommend you take at least one poetry course before this one if you’ve never penned a poem)
  • Intermediate or advanced poets inspired by the challenge and discipline of writing in traditional forms and looking to take their writing to the next level
  • Any poet who wants to improve their ear, expand their vocabulary, and strengthen structure—so they can write some of their best poems yet

How the course works

You can start our workshops anytime, and there are no required hours to log on. It's all done with one-on-one correspondence with the instructor using email. You can read and print course materials in the course Web site, which you can access at your leisure with a password that we will give you. We have writers from around the world participating in our workshops. A lot of great writing gets accomplished via email. Because of the one-on-one nature of our workshops, you'll find them an excellent "coaching" or mentoring situation that will keep you going. And if you want to just work on your own — hey, that's fine too. Of course you can do the suggested exercises on your own without the feedback if you'd rather do that. We're also here throughout the year if you have questions.