Course Description

Understanding Poetry

NOTE :: Originally a Barnes U Noble University online course I completed Dec. 2001, immediately after the 9-11 tragedy.

Visit today’s: Barnes & – B&N Book Clubs

Course Creator

Mark Phillipson recently earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley, where he specialized in nineteenth-century poetry. He’s taught courses for ten years, in classrooms and online.


When was the last time you read a poem for fun? This course is designed to give your imagination a kick-start by introducing — or perhaps reintroducing — you to some of the basics of poetry. After taking this course you’ll know the basic elements of poetry, important types of poems, and fundamental poetic obsessions. We’ll canvass many different forms of poems from many different time periods, and notice an amazing variety of tricks along the way. But each lesson will hone in on close readings of one or two preeminent examples, so we can give them the concentration they deserve. By the course’s end, you’ll know afresh what you like about poetry — and your appetite will be whetted for more.


  • To distinguish poetry from other forms of writing
  • To become familiar with poetic imagery, figurative language, and variations of tone
  • To apply this knowledge to a challenging poem Audience
  • Learn basics of meter, sound, and line formation.
  • Consider relationship of shape to meaning in poetry.
  • Apply lesson to a close reading of a moderately difficult poem.
  • To become familiar with specific forms of short poetry, such as heroic couplets, stanzas, sestinas, and sonnets.
  • To track contemporary use of traditional form.
  • To apply lessons of poetic shape to a close reading of a Shakespearean sonnet.
  • To become familiar with larger forms of poetry, such as ballads, odes, and epics.
  • To become aware of the differing function of narrative and lyric.
  • To closely read an ode, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
  • To highlight the importance of place in poetry.
  • To survey traditional and contemporary nature poetry.
  • To provide an introduction to the pastoral poem.
  • To read closely a preeminent nature poem: William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”
  • To become aware of how poems take on time thematically.
  • To get to know two time-obsessed forms: elegy and satire.
  • To distinguish treatment of time and place in poems.
  • To analyze a specific poem for the ways it uses elegiac tradition.
  • To raise awareness of the interaction of poem and audience.
  • To recognize methods of audience shaping in love poetry.
  • To track audience manipulation in dramatic monologue.
  • To consider the relationship of modern poetry to the past.
  • To examine open forms and the resistance to tradition.
  • To read closely a contemporary poem: Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.”

Course Materials

The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms

Explaining beauty is hard work. But distinguished poets Mark Strand and Eavan Boland have produced a clear, super-helpful book that unravels part of the mystery of great poems through an engaging exploration of poetic structure. Strand and Boland begin by promising to “look squarely at some of the headaches” of poetic form: the building blocks of poetry. The Making of a Poem gradually cures many of those headaches.

Americans’ Favorite Poems

This anthology embodies Robert Pinsky’s commitment to discover America’s beloved poems, his special undertaking as Poet Laureate of the United States. The selections in this anthology were chosen from the personal letters of thousands of Americans who responded to Robert Pinsky’s invitation to write to him about their favorite poems.


  • The Top 500 Poems: A Columbia Anthology
  • Poet’s Market: 1,800 Places to Publish Your Poetry
  • Poetry Bookshelf

If you’ve ever wondered what makes a poem work but can’t tell a spondee from a trochee, or assonance from enjambment, take heart: Celebrated poets from Edward Hirsch to Jane Hirschfield, Molly Peacock to Robert Pinsky, have written engaging and accessible “how-to” handbooks designed to give casual readers, teachers, and aspiring poets alike a better understanding of English-language verse, from Chaucer to the present day. Check out our collection of poetry resource titles, and see what you’ve been missing!