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The Essential Poet’s Toolbox for Readers and Writers

Learn to recognise and appreciate the techniques that lie at the heart of modern English poetry.
Gwyneth Box
425 students enrolled
At the end of the course, poets will be better equipped to use poetry techniques in their own writing, while readers will have gained an appreciation of what poetry attempts to do and a better understanding of whether these goals are achieved.

For non-poets and for novice writers, modern poetry can seem very arbitrary: poor writers proclaim themselves poets and present us with chopped-up prose labelled as poetry. Unless we understand the poet’s tools and techniques, we are powerless to discriminate between good and bad and recognise when we are being sold short.

This course aims to introduce some of the techniques used in modern English poetry and explain how they are used, leading to greater skill in writing and better appreciation when reading.

Learn to recognise and appreciate the techniques that lie at the heart of modern English poetry.

  • Discover what poetry is and how the definitions lead us towards the tools and techniques available to the poet.
  • Learn about the emotional effect of metre and discover the innate rhythm of the English language.
  • Take a closer look at sonnets, haiku and other poetic forms.
  • Explore the different types of rhyme and other sound effects.
  • Learn about format and layout, the poet’s own specific tools, and discover how line breaks and line length affect the way a poem is read.
  • Explore other devices that bind a poem together and distinguish poetry from prose.

Whether you want to read or write poetry, enhance your enjoyment by increasing your understanding of the poet’s tools.

Poetry is one of the oldest art forms, a way of expressing and channeling our emotions. For both readers and writers, poetry offers a means of exploring topics that may be difficult to talk about: we turn to poetry in times of grief and in times of celebration; we write it to comfort ourselves and to communicate our experience with others; we read it to better understand own feelings and to learn about the world beyond our own experience.

Benefits of writing poetry include improved verbal expression, articulation, self-awareness, spiritual growth, and enhanced linguistic skills, while reading poetry encourages empathy, and memorising poetry can help long-term brain function.

Course Overview:

The course contains more than 20 lectures and over 2 hours of video content. It is especially suited to novice poets and readers, as well as  writers of other genres who are interested in expanding their repertoire or in understanding their poetical colleagues.

Note: the course focuses on modern English poetry; it is non-technical and does not attempt to teach formal literary criticism.

I have been reading and writing poetry since I was a child; when I first started reading. I simply enjoyed the poems, although I didn’t know why, so when I started to write, I just wrote what felt good to me. Sometimes one poem seemed more successful than another, but I didn’t have any objective criteria by which to judge that success. Then, when I started to study the tools and techniques that are the essence of poetry, it was like adding a whole layer of meaning and it suddenly all became a whole lot more fun.

Later, I started to attend writing workshops and I realised that much of the time even writers of other genres don’t really understand what is going on inside a poem: all too often, they would tell me they thought poetry was entirely a matter of personal taste and if I’d written my poem like that it must, automatically, be right.

I developed this course to shine a light on to some of the inner workings of poetry, to enable others to understand and appreciate what poets are doing, and to help them recognise when this is working. Like most things in life, poetry is more fun when you know what’s going on: I hope that by taking the course, you, too, can share the fun.

Introduction to poetry and the poet's tools

What is a poem?

We start by looking at what poetry is. By considering a number of definitions of poetry, we extract a selection of the tools involved in writing poems.

You'll be invited to think of poetry as a game, as something to be enjoyed, and see that whether you are a reader or a writer, it helps to understand the rules and the tools of poetry - "the equipment that the poet uses to play the game of poetry".

Note that there are two resource files you can download here, with a set of on-going exercises that will help you as you progress through the course. One set of exercises focuses on honing your skills as a reader of poetry, while the other focuses on writing poetry.

The poet's tools

We recap the poet's tools, noting that although a poet can use all the techniques that are available to any creative writer, there are some that are more specific poetry. These are the ones we will focus on in the course, dividing them into the five sections: metre, form, layout, rhyme and sound.


An introduction to metre

When it comes to metre, there are two main problems we need to overcome:

1. A lot of people are worried about fancy words like anapaests, iambic pentameter etc.

2. English speakers are notoriously lacking in a sense of rhythm. We take a quick look at some technical words for metre: Iamb, Dactyl, Trochee, Anapaest, Spondee

You'll learn about the emotional effect of metre and the need for variations if you don't want to bore your reader. You'll see how ordinary English uses stressed and unstressed syllables and begin to understand that English speakers have natural rhythm.
Syllables and stress I

Every word in English has a particular rhythm or stress pattern, every sentence has a metrical pattern, too.

In this section you'll learn more about how we use stressed and unstressed syllables in English to emphasise new and important information.

You'll see that the length of a word is not necessarily indicative of how long we take to say it.. You'll learn about the emotional effect of sounds and lexis and how metre, lexis and sound work together to create an effect in the reader's mind.

The downloadable resource file includes a short explanation of content words in English, as this grammatical concept is connected with metre in poetry.

Syllables and stress II

Here you'll consider two apparently similar phrases and discover how context adds more information and helps the reader recognise the intended stress pattern. You'll also see how a consequence of this is that poetry needs to be read aloud.

Stress in the English language

In this final section on metre, you'll take a look at the popular form, the limerick, and see how it demonstrates the innate rhythm of the English language.

Poetic forms

Traditional poetry forms

In this lecture you'll be introduced to some traditional poetry forms that are still being used – and sometimes subverted – by modern poets.

The villanelle

Forms are defined by structures of stanza and line length; patterns of rhyme and metre. One complex form is the villanelle. You'll be told about possibly the best villanelle in the English language and learn that although the definition matters, the poem matters more: you don't have to have written a good example of every poetical form to consider yourself a poet.

The sonnet, blank verse and free verse

The sonnet is a form that's been in use for centuries. Here, you'll consider a modern Petrarchan sonnet and learn the basics of the metrical definition, rhyme pattern, octet and sestet, the turn, the final couplet. 

You'll learn how the sonnet and blank verse share the same metre pattern and learn the difference between blank verse and free verse.

The Haiku and the SciFaiku

This section introduces the Haiku, a form that has come from the east. You'll learn about the kigo and season symbols and learn how the juxtaposition of images to produce the moment of insight is more important in modern Western haiku than the syllable count in this simple imagistic form. 

You'll also discover the SciFaiku – a modern form that has been created based on the Haiku to match our contemporary lifestyle – and see some examples taken from a series of SciFaiku by a modern American poet.


Introduction to rhyme

Rhyme is an essential tool for the poet as it structures the experience of the poem for the reader.

In this section we'll look at some traditional poems that use a lot of rhyme, and see that, used to excess, rhyme can now appear comical. 

We'll consider full rhymes; end rhymes and internal rhymes; the difference between masculine and feminine rhymes.

Imperfect rhyme & other sound techniques

We'll note how patterns establish expectations in the reader's mind, which makes it important to use irregularities deliberately and to good effect. 

In this section we explore imperfect rhyme and other sound effects and techniques such as assonance, consonance and alliteration, which can be included within the broad field of rhyme.


Layout: the poet's special tool

We start by looking at the units of poetry and comparing them with the units of prose. 

You'll learn how some tools – grammar, punctuation etc. – are common to prose and poetry, but formatting and layout are special tools that the poet has that the prose writer doesn't, which makes them particularly important and powerful.

The stanza

We'll look at the derivation and meaning of the word “stanza” and see how this can help us deduce how we can make effective use of  stanzas. 

We'll take a close look at a six-stanza poem by a British poet and see how each stanza is used to explore a different idea within the bigger scope of the poem.


We'll look further at patterns and irregularity and how they affect the reader.

We'll explore line breaks and pausing and see how to read poems that use enjambment (where a sentence continues from one line to the next without a pause). 

You'll see how line breaks work together with grammar, lexis and punctuation to guide the reader.

Line length

Line breaks and lines are inextricably linked. Looking at two specific examples, we'll explore how line length affects the way the reader reads and pauses, making reading aloud essential for understanding and appreciation.


As we continue to explore line breaks, we'll see how the poet can use them to play with reader expectations to create ambiguity and get them more involved.

Front and end stress

Looking further at linebreaks, we'll explore how they can be used to draw attention to the words at the beginnings and ends of lines and how linebreaks, grammar and punctuation work together to direct the reader to what the the poet wants to emphasise.

The downloadable resource file contains an article about Elizabeth Alexander's poem for President Obama's inauguration in 2009, an occasion when the poem was presented to a worldwide audience as a spoken piece before the written format was made available. 


Sound as a connector

Returning to the sound devices we started to look at in the rhyme section, we'll see how similar sounds can help to hold a text together. You'll learn that spelling and sound don't always correspond, and discover the schwa sound, frequently used in English for unstressed vowels.

Beyond sound

We'll look further at sound as a binding device and see how it can be used to create or signal a change in atmosphere. 

Moving on, we'll look more closely at how poetry uses language creatively and how we can include hints that help the reader infer things that aren't actually specified in the poem.



In this section, we review the five different areas of the poet's toolbox and the topics we've seen in the course, before returning to the idea of poetry as a game - something that should be enjoyed.


Not just words
On the course, we’ve just looked at poetry - words and texts, written and spoken. But many poets are also artists and combine their skills: an image can reinforce or add to the meaning the reader gleans from the poem.  In this section, we discover the haiga, which, in Western culture, usually juxtaposes a simple image with a haiku-style poem.
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