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EN238 The Practice of Poetry

The Practice of Poetry is a flagship Year 2 module of the Warwick Writing Programme.
Convener: Jonathan Skinner (2018-19)
Tutor: Jonathan Skinner

Seminars: Tuesday 11:00am - 1:00pm, Tuesday 5:00 - 7:00pm

This module is an option solely for Year Two students taking English Literature and Creative Writing. The module offers a practical, imaginative and robust progression to the Year 3 Personal Writing Project in which you work one-to-one with a tutor. It is vital that applicants have read and written poetry and possess experience of writing workshops. Workshops are two hours long.

To see the world in a grain of sand

the Blow is Creation
& the Twist the Nasturtium
is any one of Ourselves
And the Place of it All!
Mother Earth Alone

—Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems

Tutor: Jonathan Skinner
2018-19 Academic Year

2018-19 Workshops: Tuesday 11:00 - 13.00, 17.00-19.00 - Writers' Room.

The structure of The Practice of Poetry for the 2018-19 Academic Year will be:

Week 1 “The Blow is Creation”: how to get the writing horse before the idea cart.

Week 2 "Twisting": how to get at the poem sideways.

Week 3 "Placing": how we determine finally what the poem is "about," and how we guide it there.

Week 4 Blowing II: finding your characteristic "stamp," the "type" of your work.

Week 5 Twisting II: prosody, scanning poetry.

Week 6 Writing Week

Week 7 Placing II: topics, bringing outside materials into the poem, ekphrasis.

Week 8 Blowing III: breaking the line, duende.

Week 9 Twisting III: troping, what the poem figures and how figures work for (or against) poetry.

Week 10 Placing III: research and documentary, poet as witness.

Winter Vacation

Term 2

Week 11 Reviewing: poetry and value, how to read a book of poems.

Week 12 Shuffling the line: sonnet, villanelle, sestina.

Week 13 Beyond “form”: “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” and “Conceptual” poetry.

Week 14 Collaboration: poetry as correspondence, writing communities.

Week 15 Editing, re-vision and reframing: titles, first lines, endings.

Week 16 Re-Writing Week

Week 17 Performance: the “discrepant engagement” of poetry on and off the page, spoken word.

Week 18 Odes and elegies: poetry as praise, remembrance and occasion.

Week 19 Work, community, revolution: poetry in the world.

Week 20 Initial final portfolio workshop.

Please read the following information carefully. It contains the objectives, learning outcomes and assessment criteria for The Practice of Poetry.
It also details recommended reading, websites and sample research questions to help you write your essay. The Moodle for this module can be accessed here.


The module will introduce students to a range of traditional and experimental approaches to writing poems. The module is taught through a series of poetry workshops in The Writers’ Room. The workshops encourage you to study and create poems, and to understand and adopt the techniques that suit, as well as challenge, your developing voice as a poet. There are workshops on different types of form as well as opportunities to experiment and break fresh ground. There is an emphasis on learning and teaching as an experience and event, group work and real world creative practice.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module the student will have:

1. Worked in several forms of poetry and created poems using a variety of media: page, spoken, conceptual, ecphrasis.

2. Received an introduction to the work of some contemporary poets writing in English, and how their work may be used as models for the student's own practice - through the use of weekly handouts.

3. Acquired some knowledge of the power and practice of imagination in poetic creation.

4. Worked in metred and unmetred verse, using a variety of rhyme strategies, and through working in various forms.

5. Appreciated the diversity of contemporary verse strategies, including prose poetry, and the role of performance.

6. Acquired a practical understanding of their own poetics, and that of other poets, with regard to poetry.

7. Acquired a realistic knowledge of the marketplace for poetry.

8. Improved their skills in writing and thinking about their poetry.

These outcomes reflect those in the QAA benchmarks for creative writing (February 2016).

Teaching time

There will be two groups taught on Tuesdays in The Writers' Room. You are urged to use the office hours provided by Writing Programme tutors: this is important receive one-to-one feedback. You are recommended to attend free Warwick Thursday events in The Writers' Room.

Method of Assessment

Students will submit a portfolio of their own poetry. This will count for 60% of the final mark, and should be no less than 25 pages and no more than 30 pages. Each poem must be accompanied by a commentary which explains the aims and processes behind the writing of the poem. The word count for all the commentaries put together is 1,500 words long. Use single-spacing for everything and use one of the following fonts: palatino, times, garamond.

Students will also submit an assessed literary essay of 3,000 words on the practice of poetry. The essay will account for 30% of the final mark. A suggested list of sample topics and research questions is available to students on this web-page. However, students are encouraged to pursue their own enthusiasms and obsessions for a topic in consultation with your tutors. The essay will carry a full bibliography. Consider a literary essay to be like any other essay, but written as a piece of creative writing: as literary nonfiction.

Students will also submit one of the following: a recording of a spoken word performance by the student of no less than 10 minutes which can take the form a vlog; a piece of poetry-derived conceptual art with a 300-word commentary on its aims and processes; or a review of no less than 600 words in total about three contemporary poetry collections. The review can also take the form of a vlog. If you are submitting a spoken word performance, please ensure you submit the link to the recording and a written description of no fewer than 40 words. This submission will account for 10% of the final mark.

The deadline for portfolio and essay is posted by the English office. All work is submitted through Tabula. Extensions can only be granted by the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

Recommended reading

Handouts will contain poems that will be studied during class. They offer many leads to other poets, poetics and praxis.

The best reading you can do is to read poetry, and to read contemporary poetry from around the world.

Always have the best dictionaries and thesaurus beside you as you write. You cannot work without them. I reccomend you do not use the thesaurus from your Word programme as it is deeply limiting to the possibilities of language.

Books about the practice of poetry:

Jo Bell and Jane Commane, How to Be a Poet (Nine Arches Press, 2018);

Michelle Boisseau and Robert Wallace’s Writing Poems (6th ed., Longman Pearson, 2004);

Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry (Chicago University Press, 1999);

William Packard’s The Art of Poetry Writing (St Martin’s Press, 1992);

James Fenton’s An Introduction to English Poetry (Penguin, 2002);

Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook (Harvest, 1994);

Clayton Eshleman’s Companion Spider (Wesleyan, 2001);

Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town (Norton, 1979);

Mark Strand and Eavan Boland's The Making of a Poem (Norton, 2000);

Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (Random House, 1965);

John Hollander's Rhyme’s Reason (Yale, 2001);

Timothy Steele’s All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (Ohio, 1999).


The most useful resource for rhyme is The Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes (OUP, 2006) whose organization relies more on indirect rhyme, sound’s side-tracks and echoes. Its lists of rhymed words not only blend traditional/ancient with modern/contemporary but also introduce place names, and technological and scientific terms.


The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is the definitive, brick-wide handbook for working poets; it squats like a bookend alongside your dog-eared thesaurus and dictionaries.

Spoken Work Resources

The Electronic Poetry Center is the place to begin. Materials formerly housed at the EPC have been moved over to, and greatly augmented at, PennSound:

There are many websites for the spoken word, but for poetry The Academy of American Poets ( and The Poetry Archive carry online recordings, as well as essays by and about contemporary poets and links to other poetry sites.

The Writers at Warwick Archive

The Writers at Warwick Archive also represents readings by many poets and interviews with them about their practice. The interviews and readings are usefully broken down into topics and poems. This remarkable archive represents 20 years of work by the Warwick Writing Programme as well as visits by poets from the 1970s onwards including Allen Ginsburg, WS Graham and Basil Bunting! Free access.

The Poetry Library in London's Royal Festival Hall

The single best place in the UK for researching and writing your essay.

What is the Poetry Library?

  • The most comprehensive and accessible collection of poetry from 1912 in Britain
  • It is the major library for modern and contemporary poetry funded by the Arts Council England
  • Poetry is available in many formats: books, pamphlets, audio cassette, CD, video and DVD for reference and loan; magazines, press cuttings, photographs, posters and postcards for reference. See our links pages for our pick of web-based poetry
  • The Poetry Library is the home of, an ever-growing full-text database for UK poetry magazines of the 20th and 21st centuries
  • There are comprehensive education and children's sections
  • The Poetry Library promotes the reading of poetry for people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds in collaboration with Learning and Participation


  • The library contains 200,000 items and is growing all the time
  • We acquire two copies of each book and audio title, one for reference and one for loan
  • We aim to stock all poetry titles published in the UK with a representation of work from other countries including work in parallel text and English translation
  • An exhibition space featuring works by artists engaging with the Library's collection, text and poetry in general, and projects and events at Southbank Centre
  • The librarians meet once a month to consider self-published and small press items for the collection and will always respond to those who submitted something for consideration

Opening Hours

  • Tuesday - Sunday, 11am - 8pm
  • The Library is closed to the public on Mondays

Membership and Lending

  • The Poetry Library is free to join for all members of the public on display of current ID with proof of address e.g bank statement, utlity bill, driving licence etc
  • The Poetry Library is part of the national inter-lending service, so the loan collection is available via the public library network
  • There is a postal loan service for members with sight problems
  • Other members may return loan items in the post
Sample Topics for the Essay

The title of an essay might derive from a quotation within the essay - or a poem quoted in the essay. It may also bear an explorative sub-title.

Write the essay in reference to your own poetic practice and that of other poets. Use direct quotations - not only from their poetry but also from any statements of poetics some of which we have explored in workshops.

Demonstrate a range of reading – of poetry from other countries, other languages, other times, from other cultures, other genres even. Delight in being various, but keep your focus on the thesis and your own practice of poetry.

 Research Questions - these are starting points, springboards for your ideas
  • Which prose fiction writers are the greatest influences on your poetry and that of other contemporary poets, and why?
  • The aural and visual significance of the line- and stanza-break with reference to your own poetry and that of three other poets.
  • What do you understand by the restrictive freedom of poetic form? Discuss your response with reference to your own experience of writing terza rima, sonnets, pantoums, sestinas and villanelles.
  • What is formal about the forms of poetry? Answer this question with reference to your own poetry and that of three other poets.
  • Is poetry a visual experience or a verbal experience? Explore your answer with reference to shape poetry, calligrammes and conceptual art poems.
  • Is poetry supreme fiction or supreme truth? Write an essay with reference to your own poetry and that of two other poets.
  • Are certain poetic forms more or less suited to particular subjects? Discuss this with reference to your own experience of writing terza rima, sonnet, haiku, sevenling, pantoum and villanelle etc.
  • Is poetry a form of performance? Write an essay using your experience of writing “page poems” and listening to or taking part in spoken word performances.
  • Write an essay on the new forms of “publication” available to poetry in the twenty-first century.
  • Is poetry a form of emotion or a form of knowledge? Write an essay with reference to your own poetry and that of three other poets.
  • Discuss the importance of chance and choice in the drafting and revision of your poems and those of other poets. Write an essay with reference to your own poetry and that of three other poets.
  • Is poetry a natural form for performance within new media? Discuss using at least five examples.
  • An essay on the non-verbal life of a poem (space, punctuation, indentation, shaping, etc.)
  • What do you understand by cadence, tone and inevitability in the crafting of poetry? Write an essay with reference to your own poetry and that of three other poets.
Topic Questions - again, these are here to catalyze your own thinking

Write this essay in reference to your own poetic practice and that of five or six other poets.

  • What is an 'ideal poem'?
  • Explore the uselessness of poetry.
  • What are the uses of poetry?
  • Is poetry a living art?
  • Big ‘P’ Poetry versus little ‘p’ poetry.
  • Everything is poetry. Discuss.
  • Are all poets one poet?
  • Is poetic design a form of fiction?
  • Is poetry the opposite of money?
  • Is a poem ever finished or is it simply abandoned?
  • What is the truth of poetry?
  • What is bad poetry? Describe the qualities that make for bad poetry, with examples drawn from your own reading and writing.
  • What is the poetic nature of your own reality?
  • Is a literary lyric poem a song in metaphor only?
  • Are poems spoken songs or are songs sung poems?
  • Is poetry a form of cosmology?
  • Is honesty, in poetry, a matter of craft, or a matter of tone, or both?
  • What is a poet’s poet?
Topics that Open with Quotations on Poetic Process
  • ‘The fact is that poetry is its own reality and no matter how much a poet may concede to the corrective pressures of social, moral, political and historical reality, the ultimate fidelity must be to the demands or promise of the artistic event’. (Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, London: Faber and Faber, 1988) Explore this statement with reference to your own understanding of the demands or promise of writing poems.
  • ‘Some gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.’ (Ian Hamilton Finlay, quoted in Little Sparta: The Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jessie Sheeler, London: Francis Lincoln, 2003). Using Finlay’s axiom as a starting point, describe a large-scale, outdoor conceptual poetry project you wish to carry out. Discuss the research you will need to do; describe the methods and resources required to execute the project; and explain what impact you hope to have on the public’s consciousness of poetry in the world at large.
  • ‘The duende is a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive, all that the performer is creating at a certain moment. The duende resembles what Goethe called the “demoniacal”. It manifests itself principally among musicians and poets of the spoken word, rather than among painters and architects, for it needs the trembling of the moment and then a long silence’. (Federico Garcia Lorca, In Search of Duende, New York: New Directions, 2010) Discuss your response to Lorca’s statement using your experience of writing poems and listening to spoken word performances.
  • ‘The theory of progress in literature represents the crudest, most repugnant form of academic ignorance. Literary forms change, one set of forms yielding its place to another. However, each change, each gain, is accomplished by a loss, a forfeit. In literature nothing is ever ‘better’, no progress can be made simply because there is no literary machine and no finish line toward which everyone must race as rapidly as possible’. (‘On the Nature of the Word’ by Osip Mandelstam, Mandelstam: The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, ed. Jane Gray Harris, trans. Jane Gray Harris and Constance Link, Ann Arbour: Michigan University Press, 1979). Discuss this statement with relation to your own understanding of ‘progress’ in contemporary poetry.
  • ‘God is a symbol for something that can take other forms, as, for example, the form of high poetry.’ (Wallace Stevens, quoted in Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, Dennis O’Driscoll, London: Faber and Faber, 2008). Does a religious faith offer an imaginative liberation for writers of poetry, or is poetry itself a form of faith?
  • ‘In all literary matters, to delete in error is better than to include in error.’ (Don Paterson, The Book of Shadows, London: Picador, 2004) Discuss the importance of serendipity in the composition and drafting of poetry.
  • ‘The meaning of a poem is in the cadences and the shape of the lines and the pulse of thought which is given by those lines’. (George Oppen, quoted in The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2008). In your experience as a poet, what does a line of poetry do?
  • ‘Question: When does a poem become itself? Is it always there to be retrieved? Poetry, where are you?’ (‘From Still Life’ by Deryn Rees-Jones, In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry, ed. Helen Ivory and George Szirtes, Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012). Explore these three questions with reference to your own processes for poetry.
  • ‘A poem coherently expresses the presence of a human creature.’ (Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry, London: Oberon, 2012) Expand this statement with regard to your own poetry.
  • ‘In a sense, every poem is about writing poetry, since the art itself is supremely self-conscious’. (‘A Murmuration’ by Mark Ganier, In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry, ed. Helen Ivory and George Szirtes, Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012). Is every poem about writing poetry?
  • Writing about the poem ‘Tar’ by C.K. Williams, Robert Pinsky comments, ‘The art of the poem is that it achieves an intense cadence that is neither prose nor iambic: that is one way of defining “free verse”.’ (Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998). How would you define “free verse”? Answer this question with reference to your own poetry and that of three other poets.
  • ‘Emily Dickinson would not have had a Facebook page, although her cryptic lines make excellent status updates’. (‘Emily Dickinson, Vampire Slayer’ by Sophie Mayer, Stress Fractures: Essays on Poetry, ed. Tom Chivers, London: Penned in the Margins, 2010). In what ways have social media affected the writing and reception of poetry by contemporary poets?
  • ‘The poetry of the ages is an argument with God, but few poets have picked up that argument in recent years.’ Christopher Buckley, The American Poetry Review. Explore and expand this statement with reference to your own work but also to the beliefs, poems and poetics of at least three other poets.

  • ‘Poetry touchstones are like loves: there’s no point in listing who you think they ought to be’. (Fiona Sampson, Poetry Writing, London: Robert Hale, 2009). Who are your ‘poetry touchstones’ and why is there no point in listing who they ought to be?
  • ‘One of the purposes of counterpoint is to create tension. When a line is broken at a piece of punctuation or a natural pause that break creates rest. When a line is broken between pauses, or pieces of punctuation, that creates tension.’ (Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996) Discuss the importance of the line-break with reference to your own poetry and that of three other poets.
  • ‘The emotional, aesthetic and existential value is the same … when looking into a microscope…and when looking into the nascent organism of the poem.’ (Miroslav Holub, The Dimension of the Present Moment, London: Faber and Faber, 1990). Discuss this statement with reference to your own perceptual experience as a writer of poetry and that of at least three other poets.
  • ‘No matter what bizarre stage you find yourself reading poetry on, if you want your audience to enjoy themselves, maybe you don’t have to turn yourself into a comedian. Maybe instead, you can try to turn your audience into poets’. (‘Live Audiences’ by Ross Sutherland, In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry, ed. Helen Ivory and George Szirtes, Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012). What is the future for poetry as both written and spoken performance?
  • ‘Poetry: a step into the interior. A journey. Do you go in always knowing there is a thread to lead you to freedom? Poetry: Theseus, or the Minotaur? Sometimes it is like catching the thread of a song. Losing the thread, the plot. Like catching onto a thread and pulling….’. (‘From Still Life’ by Deryn Rees-Jones, In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry, ed. Helen Ivory and George Szirtes, Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2012). Discuss this statement with relation to your own understanding of ‘process’ when writing a poem.
  • ‘To renounce not the self, but your self; somehow a very different proposition.’ (Don Paterson, The Book of Shadows, London: Picador, 2004) Discuss this statement with regard to the initial composition and subsequent rewriting of your poems.
  • ‘If a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, then a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand: it has roads, detours, destinations; a heart line, a head line; morals and money come into it. Where the fist excludes and stuns, the open hand can touch and encompass a great deal in its travels’. (‘A Comparison’ by Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, London: Faber and Faber, 1979). Discuss your response to Plath’s statement using your experience of writing poems and writing prose.
  • ‘I attended [Sir Humphrey] Davy’s lectures to enlarge my stock of metaphors…Every subject in Davy’s mind has the principle of Vitality. Living thoughts spring up like Turf under his feet’ (Samuel Taylor Coleridge quoted in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, London: HarperPress, 2008) Write a personal essay about how you have ‘enlarged [your] stock of metaphors’ for your poetry from subjects outside the Humanities.


On poetry:


What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless, concentration..

Elizabeth Bishop

Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know".

Wislawa Syzmborska

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

Emily Dickinson

All one's inventions are true, you can be sure of that. Poetry is as exact a science as geometry.

Gustave Flaubert

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different

T. S. Eliot

Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.

William Wordsworth

Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it.

Hannah Arendt

Poems are living things. Please dance with them.

Bob Holman