poetry composition 1

verses in the mirror

creative writing 7041
avi sato (avi.sato@icloud.com)


we are a reflection of our society but it is a reflection of us, our thoughts, our feelings, our words. as poets, we put our mark not only on complete ideas but individual images and their component parts — the words we select. this course is an examination of how poets produce their craft in the real world and how to learn from those examples. it is a practical approach to creating new poetry within the framework of cultural narrative, how to understand the rules of poetic creation and how to break them.


we will be meeting twice a week for two hours each session. tuesdays 16.00-18.00 will be a seminar block and thursdays 16.00-18.00 will be a workshop.


this course focuses on you achieving the following. by the end of this course, you should be able to…

  • create poetic verse in various forms and styles.
  • adapt and modulate your writing to the requirements of any given form or style as required by the situation.
  • improvise poetic verse on the fly both in writing and spoken in response to given prompts or as a reaction to other verse composed in an ongoing manner.
  • work in a collaborative commentary environment where you give and receive criticism and specific suggestions.
  • use critical approaches to analyzing your own work and that of others for mutual benefit.
  • edit large volumes of your own and others’ work effectively and efficiently.
  • understand the compositional style and form used in a variety of poetic techniques and apply those to your own work as needed.

learning outcomes

during the course, you will be able to demonstrate…

  • mastery of editing and compositional technique in a variety of poetic forms.
  • creative reflection on given situations and improvised prompts.
  • adaptation of your work to achieve expectations as given by an instructor and/or other students.
  • understanding of the relationship between form and content in various cultures and time periods.
  • cooperation within a group-editing situation.
  • self-directed and self-motivated working under short-term deadline and iterative workflow requirements.

curriculum details

this is a mixed-methodology course with half its in-class time in a seminar style and the other half in a workshop style. this means that you will be responsible for participation in seminars and, in addition to that, presentation and commentary in workshop settings. the presentation of draft work is a necessity in these situations and criticism will be forthcoming both from me and the other students on an ongoing basis, both in-class and online. relevant discussion is encouraged but it is expected that you will be mindful of the emotional effect of your words.


there is no assigned textbook for this course. individual poems to be studied in some of the seminar classes will be distributed as needed. there are several copies of most books we are using available in the department’s in-house library and i have at least one copy of each that you are welcome to consult.


  • 15% poetry journal
    (due friday of week 12)
  • 25% bi-weekly submissions
    (due friday of weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10)
  • 10% shared commentaries
    (due before thursday class of week following submission each week)
  • 10% mirroring assignment
    (due friday of week 12)
  • 40% poetry portfolio
    (due friday of week 12)


  1. you are expected to keep a poetry composition journal throughout this course. the minimum requirement for this is four entries per week, a minimum length of two hundred words per entry. you are encouraged to complete these on a daily basis but, as there is no way to check that this is being done, you are welcome to write as many of these at a time as you desire. as the course extends for twelve weeks, this works out to be a minimum of 48 entries and 9600 words. while absolutely daily entries are not a requirement for an excellent grade on this assignment, you are encouraged to write thoroughly thought-out, short pieces often rather than longer pieces that attempt to do more than tackle a single idea. examples of these entries will be provided throughout the semester but a loose guideline is to write either a commentary on a piece of poetry that you have read (no more than 25% of the total entries may be commentary) or to compose a short poem of your own. you are welcome to write thoughts and comments about your own work. no matter what length this works out to be or how many entries, i will be happy to read it completely and offer suggestions on anything you submit. you are welcome to submit this assignment as often as you like for ongoing commentary and suggestions rather than waiting until the last day to send it for the first time. frequent and repeated submission of the work is optional but highly encouraged.
  2. you are required to submit a single poem or a short group or series of poems for sharing, discussion, public reading and commentary every two weeks. these may be poems following the patterns discussed in the tuesday sessions (forms, themes, etc) or completely of your own choosing. it is encouraged that you attempt to apply what has been discussed that week but you are free to write how you wish. these are to be submitted no later than 23.59 friday of weeks 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 to the online forum. minimum 200 words, no maximum but please keep in mind that other students will be reading and commenting on your work and it may be unkind to make them read thousands of words. remember, everyone in the course will be reading everyone else’s submissions but not commenting on them. it will be your choice whose work you comment on and either work that is not sufficiently thought-provoking, polished or concise will not likely be selected by others and you will not benefit as thoroughly from their attention. i will be giving comments and suggestions on all submissions. you are encouraged to submit these as early as possible on the weeks indicated as it gives others a longer window to send comments and suggestions and that, in turn, allows you to make improvements to your work before in-class discussions take place. these will be reviewed and commented on with suggestions at the time but you are expected to update and improve your work throughout the semester. whichever version is the latest by the last day of the semester will be the version that will be assigned a final grade. a running grade will be assigned with each submitted revision and there is no limit to how many times this may be changed.
  3. commentaries on five other students’ work are to be submitted each two-week period before class on thursday of weeks 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11. these do not need to be long (minimum 100 word commentary plus any helpful suggestions you feel you can make). you will be graded on how constructive and helpful these comments are. please note that telling others that their work is exceptionally good (or bad) is unhelpful and will be graded no higher than submitting no work at all. be brief and concise with your suggestions, specific words and phrases. if there is a particular piece that you would like more comments on, i am happy to arrange with other students an exchange where you comment on their work and they comment on yours. otherwise and in general, you may select any work submitted for that week. there is no limit to how many pieces you can comment on but a minimum of five per week, not 25 total, will be graded. this means that if you comment on ten this week, you still need to comment on five every other week but your grade will be increased if you have provided more help by commenting on more than the minimum. as always, extra initiative will be rewarded and extra effort will result in better results for all concerned.
  4. throughout the semester, we will be looking at different styles of poetry throughout the history of writing, from the western poetic traditions and other cultures. you are to select three works that are discussed in the seminars (or others of your choosing, if you have cleared them with me in advance) and write your own poems using that style and voice. there is no specific minimum or maximum word count for this submission as it will distinctly depend on the work itself. please keep in mind, though, that for extremely short work (haiku comes to mind) it is advisable to treat a cycle of poems as a single work for these purposes as you will be rewarded for your effort and production. as this is an ongoing project, you are welcome to submit it in pieces or complete starting at any point during the semester. you are encouraged to do this early and often as there is no limit to the number of submissions and you will receive suggestions and an ongoing grade each time you offer it as partially complete. the final edition submitted by the last day of the semester will be your final grade on the assignment. (previous submissions receiving excellent marks have been approximately 500-2000 words.)
  5. you are required to submit as your final project a poetry portfolio of your own work. there is no specific number of poems that this is to include but i recommend a minimum word count of 2500 words. there is no maximum number of poems or words and the minimum is suggested rather than required but if you wish to submit either a very small or large number, i would highly recommend you speak to me first about your submission and to do so early in the semester so you are not surprised by the decision. as with the mirroring project above, this project may be submitted in pieces as many times as you like during the semester for ongoing grades, suggestions and comments. your final grade on this project will be the one applied to the last-submitted version on the last day of the semester. (previous submissions receiving excellent marks have been approximately 3000-5000 words.)


it is general practice to provide this in chronological order and this will be done in that way, to an extent. i mention this, though, because seminar classes will be outlined first, followed by workshops. i believe this makes it clearer but please be aware that there are, in fact, two simultaneous lists that follow.


please note that all the readings will be provided electronically at least one week before the class discussing them (with the exception of the first two weeks for obvious reasons) and you will be expected to have them with you either on screen or, if necessary, on paper in class. these are short examples and it would be wise to ensure that you have read them thoroughly and given at least some thought to composing in the style of each as this is exactly what will be expected.

each seminar will be divided into four pieces, each lasting a half hour. the first piece will discuss the selections provided and how they are constructed. the second piece will discuss more general guidelines for the form and their relationship to the culture (both time and location) where they were created. the third piece will be a group exercise in creation of your own take on these forms and these groups will be assigned during the class. these compositions will not be graded but they may be shared, at least partially. the fourth piece will be an ongoing comparison between the new forms that we have discussed and those of previous weeks. the first two seminars will vary somewhat from this structure. each seminar will be given a form or several related forms, a culture to focus on and example verse to be used purely as guidance.

week 1

this class will be an introduction to various forms of poetry and examples will be provided in-class so there is nothing to prepare. you will be called on to compose short verses but there will be no miniature workshop session. you will also be given this syllabus in this class and we will end slightly earlier than usual so you can thoroughly read it and ask any questions individually that you may have on first reflection on the materials. this is also the point at which you will be asked to provide a contact email to receive an electronic copy of this, ongoing class notes and the examples for the remainder of the course. this does not need to be your primary email but you will need to check it throughout the semester to access electronic work and to receive electronic suggestions and comments on your work. you may certainly request to have this in hard copy but it will be more quickly available electronically, if that is possible. i am happy to supplement the examples here with work from my own publications but i certainly do not presume to use these as teaching tools. if this is something that you would like to have added to your weekly examples, i invite you to let me know.

week 2

this class will discuss free-verse poetry and its various cultural implications both in the west and in contemporary traditions in china, japan and korea. this is the first of several free-verse sessions in this class, as this form offers the widest range of possible expressive forms. it works as a good introduction to the format of the seminars but the other classes focusing on its intricacies and options will be at the end of the course, after we have dealt with various more formally-rigid concepts.

  • “the day when poetics are recycled” and “border z”, minashita kiriu
  • “the snowy night” and “a faraway place”, moon taejun
  • a selection of poems from infinite citizen of the shaking tent, liz howard
  • a selection of poems from not written words, xi xi
  • a selection of poems from the blue hour of the day, lorna crozier
  • a selection of work from autobiography of red, anne carson

you have doubtless already become aware that these selections are taken from much longer works. you are encouraged to read the whole collections they belong to but we will only be discussing the example works provided out of fairness to demands on your time. when possible, i will bring hard copies of the collections to class and any student is more than welcome to borrow them for a short time, even after the semester is complete, to read the work in its context.

note that this class will be split into two one-hour segments, the first discussing free-verse composition and the second a miniature group workshop to create your own free-verse works. as this will be the first of these groups, you will be given the full hour to create and share your ideas in preparation for the more condensed sessions in following weeks.

week 3

the third week will focus on a discussion of what is likely the most famous literary form of verse, the sonnet. we will discuss it in its traditional iterations and its contemporary versions, the society from which it came, in the english-speaking world and italy in particular, and its typical subject matter and expectations. this will also be our first discussion on how you as poets can go about breaking the norms of poetic form and when/where you may wish to look at doing so, why it is possible in the contemporary world in a way that it never has been before and the connection between traditional verse and popular music (something that will be discussed more fully in another session).

  • sonnets 5, 13, 18, 71 and 100, william shakespeare
  • “london”, william wordsworth
  • “november”, lorna davis
  • “ozymandias”, percy bysshe shelley
  • “vermont”, phillip whidden

week 4

in week four, we will be discussing epic poetry but, rest assured, i have no intention of asking you to read them in their completeness. we will look at traditional greek and indian styles and excerpts from contemporary epics. in this workshop, you will not be asked to write your own epic but to plan how one may be written and compose a few lines from different sections.


note that this is a far longer list than in other weeks because of the breadth of epic poetry. these examples are very short, however, so please do not be discouraged from looking at them all. as this is a developmental discussion, these are all given in chronological order and it is advisable to read them for the first time in the order shown — there is a distinct progression that you will see from exploring them.

excerpts from…
  • iliad, homer
  • mahābhārata
  • de raptu proserpinae, claudian
  • neelakesi
  • chanson de la croisade albigeoise
  • shmuel-bukh
  • hermann and dorothea, johann wolfgang von goethe
  • the lord of the isles, walter scott
  • tamerlane, edgar allan poe
  • evangeline, henry wadsworth longfellow
  • the cantos, ezra pound
  • the lay of the children of húrin, j. r. r. tolkien
  • empire of dreams, giannina braschi

week 5

the fifth week is a look at poetry celebrating life and death. we will look at traditional forms (elegy & ode) and some poetic interpretations of modern funeral rites. we will be discussing the ideas of death, suicide, the afterlife and cultural variations on how those themes are understood, discussed and transformed into poetry, both written and oral. please be aware that this is impossible without some potentially-triggering moments and if this is in any way a potential problem, i would ask you to speak to me about it before this week takes place. that is certainly not a problem and i have prepared an alternative selection of poems and a prerecorded seminar looking only at odes to muses, complete with its own workshop assignments so you will not be lacking in practice or understanding if you feel the need to miss this week’s topics. i believe that they are significant and important enough in the way that poetry is used in contemporary society that a course in poetic methods and composition would be remiss to leave it out but that does not make me unsympathetic to those who would wish not to participate.


given the length of some of these works, i will not generally shorten them but will highlight the section that will be discussed and, if time is particularly tight, you can decide for yourself how much to read.

  • “america”, robert creeley
  • “daddy”, sylvia plath
  • “dejection”, samuel taylor coleridge
  • “dissection”, anne wilkinson
  • “fugue of death”, paul celan
  • “in memoriam”, alfred tennyson
  • “ode to salvador dalí”, federico garcía lorca
  • “ode to the confederate dead”, allen tate
  • “pietà”, kevin young
  • “the haw lantern”, seamus heaney
  • “you were you are elegy”, mary jo bang

in addition, short excerpts from contemporary and traditional memorial services from various traditions will be included and briefly explored for their cultural and poetic content and applicability. it is likely that you will at some point in your career be asked to write memorial poetry and it is one of the most common times to feel underprepared as a poet.

week 6

at the half-way point, week six, we will be looking at contemporary music as a form of poetry. i will not be expecting you to produce the lyrics of new hit songs but the study of lyrics is an excellent way to connect what you write with a far larger potential audience, an audience generally disconnected from traditional forms of poetic publication. while it is sadly a small minority who walks into a bookstore to buy a book of poems, nearly every person in the modern world at least occasionally listens to music being performed with words. whether you think this poetry has artistic merit or not is an open subject for debate but it is certainly poetry that gets listeners and sometimes that takes with it its own type of success.

much as with any of the other work in this course but perhaps more obviously here, the content of this work being provided here contains ideas of other times and places that may be objectionable and its investigation and discussion here should not be taken to be even the slightest support for the cultural norms or statements that are being presented by the writers and singers in question.

  • “american pie”, don mclean
  • “bird on the wire”, leonard cohen
  • “doo-wop”, lauren hill
  • “forever young”, bob dylan
  • “hey jude”, john lennon
  • “i’m not in love”, tori amos
  • “let her go”, passenger
  • “once in a lifetime”, talking heads
  • “paranoid android”, radiohead
  • “rolling in the deep”, adele
  • “short skirt long jacket”, cake
  • “the kids aren’t alright”, the offspring
  • “who will save your soul”, jewel
  • “you don’t know my name”, alicia keys

while i often offer extra seminars on specific topics on request, it has been the norm that this week will be the source of another look at popular lyrics as poetry in an open discussion forum closer to the end of the semester. if this is something you would like to see, please let me know. the caveat is that i will ask you to suggest a contemporary pop song whose lyrics are worth discussing as poetry.

week 7

the seventh and eighth weeks, we will focus on short poetry from various cultures and what makes each special. we will be looking mostly at written forms in week seven and improvised forms in week eight. this will include the haiku, tanka, renga (japanese), daina (latvian), pathya vat (cambodian), kural (tamil), yuefu (chinese) and goryeo (korean).

in this week, we will be looking at a collection of short poems from each of the following poets. given that many of these are only two or three lines long, this may appear a longer list than it is in practice.

  • e. e. cummings
  • edward storer
  • joseph campbell
  • kang eun-gyo
  • kobayashi issa
  • makoto ōoka
  • matsuo bashō
  • natsume sōseki
  • richard aldington
  • ryūnosuke akutagawa
  • taneda santoka

we will supplement this list with contemporary examples of new year’s couplets in the chinese tradition and various anonymous works from the japanese, chinese and korean short poetry traditions. in addition, we will look at memorable advertising slogans as poetic forms.

week 8

the eighth week will be a continuation of the exploration from week seven of short poetic forms and the time for exploration of your own work will be somewhat extended in this class so that we all have an opportunity to share impromptu composition. we will be using most of the time in this week and in the workshop that follows to work on improvisational poetry, starting with the rigid forms discussed in week seven and moving to free-verse improvisation. we will also take a short look at the rise of extremely short poetry in social media — twitter, facebook and even instagram.

week 9

in the ninth week, we will be taking a look at scripture as poetry. while this is not always seen as a good example of contemporary compositional style (and it generally isn’t), it is a completely different motivation for writing than the others that we have looked at. you may be familiar with some of the writings that we will explore here from a religious context but we are not going to debate religion. we’re going to look at these as works of poetic writing and what kind of effect they have on a contemporary audience. then we will explore what you can take away from the example of scripture and liturgy that you can use to improve your own poetry. we’re also going to have a short discussion of what it means to be a poetry translator, as almost all of this work is in translation.

excerpts from…
  • bible and torah (primarily psalms, proverbs, 1 corinthians, revelation)
  • dhammapada (primarily the first two chapters)
  • maṭnawīye ma’nawī, jalāl ad-dīn muhammad rūmī
  • mukhya upanishads (primarily brahmanas)
  • qur’an (primarily al-anfal, an-nahl, al-kahf and as-saffat)
  • the lotus sutra
  • various recitations from the pali canon

in addition, we will look at collections of religious poetry from thich nhat hanh, mahmoud darwish, navit barel, chih yuan, chia tao and han-shan te-ch’ing.

weeks 10-12

the tenth, eleventh and twelfth weeks will be a return to free-verse and prose poetry. we will look at some contemporary work and take time to explore the submissions already given by you (with your permission, of course). the example list for these three weeks will be short as we will mostly focus on your own writing and create more within the class setting both collaboratively and individually. as we have already focused on short poetry, the main area of interest in these classes will be on longer works.

  • “smile” & “tower of light”, sugimoto maiko
  • “snail” & “galaxy”, hachikai mimi
  • a selection of poems from a really good brown girl, marilyn dumont
  • a selection of poems from boy with a thorn, rickey laurentiis
  • a selection of poems from engine empire, cathy park hong
  • a selection of poems from faithful and virtuous night, louise glück
  • a selection of poems from kingdom animalia, aracelis girmay
  • a selection of poems from lighthead, terrance hayes
  • a selection of poems from native guard, natasha trethewey
  • a selection of poems from neon vernacular, yusef komunyakaa
  • a selection of poems from north end love songs, katherena vermette
  • a selection of poems from red erotic, janet rogers
  • a selection of poems from salsa, hsia yü
  • a selection of poems from six girls without pants, paisley rekdal
  • a selection of poems from tender hooks, beth ann fennelly
  • a selection of poems from the country between us, carolyn forche


the workshops are generally based on the seminars for the same week and this is more of an expansion on those expectations.

week 1

the first week’s workshop will be on improvisational poetic forms so you will not need to prepare anything except your own mind.

week 2

your second week’s workshop will be on any free-verse poem or group of poems that you would like to share. this week’s minimum word count will be approximately 1000 words, which may be a single piece or a set. comments from other students will likely be confined to one poem but mine will be on the entire submission. in this and all other weeks, there is no maximum word count for submissions and you may consider this an opportunity to receive comments on a group of poems.

week 3

week three will be a workshop on sonnets. you are encouraged to write a sonnet for this workshop but it is permissible to submit another form if you would like. if you write a sonnet, one is sufficient but more will be accepted. if you are writing another piece of work, an approximate minimum of 200 words is expected.

week 4

the fourth week will certainly not require you to write an epic poem. in this workshop, you are free to write a short poem in the epic style or any other narrative form of poetry — narrative free verse or prose poetry. i encourage you to write a single work with a minimum of 1000 words but you are free to use a cycle or collection of poems to achieve this minimum word count.

week 5

week five is devoted to poems on life and death. you are free to write any style you wish but you are encouraged to experiment with ode and elegy. again, your minimum submission length is approximately 1000 words but this may be several pieces together.

week 6

in week six, you are encouraged to write a song. there is no particular word count expected but if you decide to write outside of the lyrical form (songwriting lyrics, not lyric poetry), again this will be approximately 1000 words. no musical style is necessary but if you feel like recording a performance of your work, this is certainly not in any way required but it would be appreciated by everyone in the class, i have no doubt. as always, all information and submissions are private but i shall repeat this here that anything shared with the group is not to be distributed outside the class without written permission of the person who created it.

week 7

the seventh week is a workshop on short poems, particularly those of eastern cultures. you are encouraged to write a series of poems in any of the styles discussed. i would recommend either haiku or tanka as a foundation for writing a group of linked poems. the approximate minimum word count for this week is 250 words if you are writing a series of short, linked works or 1000 words if you are submitting longer poems.

week 8

week eight is a continuation of week seven. you may write another similar work to that of the previous week or explore the more flexible social-media and advertising forms. the word count expectations are also the same as week seven.

week 9

in the ninth week, i am going to encourage you to do something different. i would like you to write a creation myth in verse. this should be a minimum of 1000 words but, as always, there is no maximum length. it may be related to that of your own faith or completely different. it is completely up to you, as long as it is in english. if you wish to write something else, you are certainly welcome to do so but we will focus mainly on historical and scriptural writing in the workshop.

week 10

the tenth week comes along with the expectation to write at least one free-verse poem. the minimum is 1000 words for your submission but that may be split among a series of works or even unrelated poems.

week 11

week eleven will be devoted to prose poetry. i would like you to write at least one paragraph poem and your total should be no less than 1500 words.

week 12

in week twelve, we will be looking at flexible forms of poetry and you may submit any non-formal poetic type you like. this is expected to be a minimum of 1500 words in one work or spread over several, even many. you may use short or long forms. in addition, you may submit as much of your portfolio for general commentary from the class at this point but i expect that you will have already shared much of what you have been working on for that project by the last week.


this document was last updated on 2019.11.17 and corresponds to the fall 2019 semester version of this course. for earlier course outlines, please get in touch directly as only the most recent version will be displayed here to avoid potential confusion.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.