poetry workshopThe Workshop Section is poetry in action — how it is written and, more particularly, how it is eventually crafted into an acceptable article, which requires creativity and all the skills of literary criticism.

The section is also a experiment, to see:

  • 1. if acceptable poetry can be written in the old verse styles, and

  • 2. what of traditional and foreign verse techniques can be added to the toolbox of contemporary poetry.


If the experiments are thought a success — and readers must judge for themselves — the section transforms into the suggestion that poems may be best appreciated by understanding them sufficiently to write good copies.

The approach that may seem unconventional today, but was once accepted without question. Until the nineteenth century, practically all European poets learned from the classics, translating from the Greek or Latin to a modern equivalent, and then translating back to see how closely they could achieve the admired model. The best poets were frequently those who studied the classics most assiduously, and though they didn't generally succeed in surpassing their models, their work did benefit remarkably. {1} Painters also copied masterpieces, not only because photography was unavailable, but because the exercise taught them just why each element had been handled in that particular manner. Change the colour purity of a sleeve by a fraction, move the grapes in the still life by a couple of centimeters, and something was clearly wrong. The exercise developed a painterly sensibility, and built up a handbook of practical skill.

Those who'd dismiss this approach as pastiche, plagiarism, or playing with outmoded concepts should consider Auguste Rodin. No one will call the godfather of modern sculpture a pasticheur, but until the age of thirty-six, when he produced The Age of Bronze, and to some extent throughout his life, Rodin studied, copied and cast in many styles: Classicist, Rococo, Mannerist, Realistic. He was constantly experimenting, but also studying the past masters. And it was through such study that he came to realize that the Academy virtues were not wrong, but incomplete, bound by fashion and shallow dogma. {2}

The arts continually return to earlier hopes, and these were spelled out long ago by Ben Jonson: "The third requisition in our poet, or maker [after natural wit and exercise] is imitation, to be able to convert the substance, or riches of another poet, to his own use. . . I know nothing can conduce more to letters, than to examine the writings of the ancients, and not to rest in their sole authority, or take all upon trust from them. . . It is true they opened the gates, and made their way, that went before us; but as guides, not commanders." {3}

But why the emphasis here on metre, rhythm and phrasing, as though these were the only things that mattered? They are not, of course, most certainly, but they are the foundations on which everything else is built. Imagery, content and emotion are all deployed through language, and the language of poetry is verse, verse of some sort. That statement may dumbfound an increasing number of students, teachers, critics and poets who will be incredulous to learn that by making free verse the only serious contender today they have largely lost the ear for the phrasal and rhythmic nature of poetry, though still imagining that they are reading poems properly. In traditional work they are not. Great poets were masters of verse, and indeed had to be to write as they wished. Verse is a vital help in the writing and the enjoyment of poetry, and if we cannot hear the piece as its author intended then we are little better than the woman in Perrault's story:

'An admirer of the classics. . . was praising Pindar with enormous enthusiasm, and reciting the first few lines of the first Olympian ode, with great feeling, in Greek. His wife asked him what it was all about. He said it would lose all its nobility in translation, but she pressed him. So he translated:

Water is indeed very good, and gold which shines like blazing fire in the night is far better than all the riches which make men proud. But, my spirit, if you desire to sing of contests, do not look for any star brighter than the sun during the day in the empty heavens, nor let us sing any contest more illustrious than Olympia.

She listened to this and said 'You are making fun of me. You have made up all this nonsense for a joke; but you can't fool me so easily' And although her husband kept trying to explain that he was giving a plain literal translation, she insisted that the ancients were not so stupid as to write stuff like that.' {4}

What Pindar wrote only 'works' in and with the language he employs, and it is futile to expect quasi-prose styles to serve. Formal verse can do things that prose cannot, and it does them with power and economy immediately apparent to the verse writer. The best analogies are not with the reductive approaches of radical theory, but with the simple experience of learning a foreign tongue. We need to think and speak in the language concerned, in the phrases that native speakers actually use. Those phrases contain the sense, just as they do in physics, where problems practically insoluble in one mathematical formulation are speedily resolved in another. Physicists do not formulate a problem and then search for ways of representing it mathematically, but formulate and understand the problem within a particular branch of mathematics, when the situation discloses itself and is solved in those terms. Poetry also discloses a world according to its formulation, and the older forms, though hard for beginners to master, create a world larger and more varied than can be encompassed in prose.

If a poem to be translated is in formal verse, then its translation takes the poet into the workshop of that language, giving him an insight into how and why the original was so constructed. In converting to another language, the best method is often that of repeated correction, a zigzag path between fuller meaning and pleasing verse expression, the aim being the fusion of the two where shaping is a part of meaning. By echoing the actual process of poetry writing, the translation reads better, and the verse is enriched with specific words whose properties have been assayed through their deployment.

Certainly there are dangers. If poetry is what gets lost in translation, as Robert Frost once quipped, then the translator may indeed put a poetry back in that is not the original, but his own. But all poetry is translation of a sort — into the reader's outlook, literary experience and skill in reading verse — and to write with no ear at all for the rhythms of English, as so many do today under the banner of free verse, is to write a doggerel that negates what their author was perhaps trying to convey.

I have suggested that Modernism has now run its course, and is largely a stultifying influence on the contemporary scene. But why then was Modernism so successful, and where are all the good twentieth-century poets who ignored it entirely? Well, although its precepts were misunderstood, or perhaps wrong in the first place, poets initially found Modernism an exciting and liberating experience, and were happily swept along in the tide that promised them riches on a wider shore. But in time, as so often happens, the revolution developed its own orthodoxy, and the liberty to experiment and differ from prevailing norms hardened into the requirement to fit a movement that alone gave authenticity.

Poetry is a natural activity, and something like it will always appear, in whatever may be the contemporary garb. Poetry is as varied as the personalities of its practitioners, moreover, which is why in following these workshop examples (should you care to) you will not write like Heaney, Lowell or Larkin. Not only because you don't have their skills — which can be acquired with practice — but because you are not Heaney, Lowell or Larkin: different backgrounds, obsessions, literary personalities.

In suggesting what can be learned from Chinese, Sanskrit and Islamic models, I should explain that, far from being a polyglot, I am unfortunately a very poor linguist, always needing grammar books and dictionaries. Reading literature in another language takes effort — particularly Sanskrit — but the average reader of these pages will probably find the exercises easier than I do. Translating with only a basic knowledge of the languages concerned is taboo in many academic circles, but I will happily look at errors that professionals and native speakers may care to point out to me.

Writing verse also takes time and effort, and I have occasionally clocked my hours as a guide for those attempting the longer poem. But I would hope that results speak for themselves, and to outlaw all but current styles may result in even thinner work.

I have not commented much on previous translations, knowing from workshops and email correspondence that many readers and poets feel efforts to do better are deluded when the originals are untouchable or in styles no longer read. To many the differences may indeed be unimportant or invisible, and authors seem generally happy with their efforts, sometimes picking up literary prizes into the bargain. Poetry is a communication of experience in literary form, however, and the great work of the past is not great for the literary theory that may be read into it, but for the surpassing literary craftsmanship it displays. If that is not evident — and I suspect it is not in many cases — then readers are not getting the best from their studies. The old prescription may still be the best: reading, lots of it, and for pleasure.

Poetry has to deploy many elements if it is to succeed, but the specific points addressed in this section are currently as follows:

dealing with:




larkin: rhetoric today: rhyming couplets: contemporary tone

lyric 1

rossetti: beauty in phrasing: italian and platonic influences

sonnet 1

pound: accentual basis to free verse: shaping by line: voice

free-verse lyric 1

pound: image as content: quotation and allusion

imagist poem 1

lowell & milton: power of rhetoric: tight rhyming: ambiguity: variable metre

high-modernist poem 1

peacock: free verse: contemporary idiom: line breaks

modernist poem 1

riley: free-floating meaning: aporias: tonal consistency

postmodernist poem 1

gray: end-stopped line: public declamation: verse texture

ode 1

arnold: mood by repetition & dependent clause: irregular rhythms

pastoral 1

pope & cowper: end-stopped lines: caesura: modulation into blank verse

heroic couplets 1

tennyson: blank verse: verse techniques needed for success

blank verse

praed: humour: dexterity: conversational ease

light verse



examining the original for phrasing and emphasis

ronsard 1

french alexandrine and comparison with english heroic verse

racine 1

french verse forms, elevated language, textural absurdities

hugo 1

learning from previous translations

baudelaire 1

french vowel sounds: masculine and feminine rhymes sound values

verlaine 1

taking a translation in stages

verlaine 2

style and personality: fidelity to the period

mallarmé 1

freshness of original: semantic obscurities

rimbaud 1

making sense of symbolist verse

valéry 1

poesie pure in its extreme form

valéry 2

introducing rhyme

jammes 1

bizarre imagery and non-sequiturs

apollinaire 1

avoiding the banal and fatuous

apollinaire 2

spanish verse forms: nineties melodic invention: work involved

darío 1

exigencies of rhyme: finding an english form

darío 2

tone: liberties permissible in translation

darío 3

popular songs: loosening up

tango 1

italian verse forms: respecting the original form

leopardi 1

introduction to translation: some maxims

heine 1

rhyme and mood: work-arounds for structural differences

rilke 1

strict forms: keeping to the text

pushkin 1

observing the form: ambiguity of meaning

hafiz 1

nature of persian poetry

hafiz 2

persian prosody: using metric tables

amir khusraw 1

persian poetry: evading translation difficulties

amir khusraw 2

image and word play in persian poetry

iraqi 1

strict versus free verse: english equivalents

li bai 1

characteristics of chinese poetry: following the text

du fu 1

reproducing the original rhyme schemes: historical context

du fu 2

interpreting ideograms for fuller sense

wang wei 1

characteristics of classical sanskrit poetry: researching the fuller meaning

bhartrihari 1

replicating quantitative verse in English

bhartrihari 2

quantitative nature, free word order and general nature of Sanskrit poetry

kalidasa 1

avoiding the prose paraphrase

bilhana 1

poetic licence and theories of translation

bilhana 2

rhythmic variety and yamakas in sanskrit poetry

jayadeva 1

dealing with textural difficulties in ancient greek

sophocles 1

varieties of blank verse

ovid 1

latin measures

catullus 1


propertius 1


virgil 1



isolating and improving on an existing line or phrase

starting 1

rewriting an existing poem in different styles / genres / voices

starting 2

generating lines from foreign forms: cadence

starting 3

starting with everyday observations: smuggling in controls

starting 4

character and story from speech snippets:

starting 5

changing viewpoint through adjectives

starting 6

extending content and emotional range with more complex forms

complex lyric 1

contemporary sonnets: verse textures: varying pace: clipping syllables: pararhyme

sonnet 1

pastoral: singing lines: strict forms in pararhyme


symbolist techniques: condensation visualization and omission

symbolist poem 1

redrafting for rhythmic control: power of rhyme

political poem 1

distancing with the third person: breaking the metre: the telling image

confessional poem 1

accental verse: surrealist techniques: political sensitivities

expressionist poem 1

story in ballad form: stanza form: key episodes: plot

narrative poem 1

blank verse: melodic variation: checking content and scansion

blank verse: traditional 1

blank verse: developing the intriguing phrase: removing the banal

blank verse postmod 1

seven-stress line in rhymic free verse: phrasing by paragraph

rhythmic free verse 1

extended line: tightening for rhythmic control: plotting a story

nonrhythmic free verse 1

postmodernist collages of unconnected fragments: alternative renderings

post modernist 1

experimental forms with typographical arrangements and graphics programs

experimental poem 1

simple verse and its problems: doing the unexpected in light verse

light verse poem 1



proper clothes for proper occasions

goldsmith 1

finding optimal tone and size

wordsworth 1

improving intelligibility

coleridge 1

from poetic trifle to masterwork

tennyson 1

sincerity and social propriety

rossetti 1



1. Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (OUP, 1949).
2. Albert E. Elsen, Rodin (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1963) 13-19.
3. Ben Jonson, Discoveries II, 166-71, 3056-65, 160-3. Cited by Isabel Rivers, Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry: A Students' Guide (George Allen & Unwin, 1979; Routledge, 2002)
4. Highet 1949, 271-2.


 C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2004 2005 2006 2007 2012 2013 2015