Sketching for poets: Notes on a how-to talk by Robert Hass

So, I’m taking this amazing free online course, How Writers Write Poetry from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.  We get twice-weekly video lectures that are all available on YouTube, and we write new poems twice a week to workshop.

I’m finding that I want to channel my inner undergrad and take real lecture notes!  So, I thought I’d share — I also had fun looking up the links to the poems that were quoted in the talk.

My aim is to take notes on at least 30-50% of the lectures this way; I’m assuming some will be more compelling or info-heavy than others.  This first lecture was a real treasure trove; thus, a loooong post!

I’m already finding these exercises incredibly helpful as I put the final touches on my poetry manuscript which is coming out very soon. 🙂

These notes refer to a video lecture by Robert Hass that is part of the free How Writers Write Poetry e-course from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Please note that the poet quoted many poems from memory, and some quotations might be paraphrases. Where I have looked up a quotation, I’ve included the link/citation.

Please let me know of any corrections at minal [at] minalhajratwala [dot] com . You can also read the closed-caption transcript on YouTube.

Lecture: Sketching Techniques

Robert Hass = Former US Poet Laureate + 7 books of poetry + founder of the Northern California eco-poetry festival Watershed + winner of MacArthur/Pulitzer/etc. Married to the poet Brenda Hillman.


Hass says “sketching” is a technique for sitting down to the blank page — “which I’m not very good at.”

The painter, Degas, ran into his neighbor, Stéphane Mallarmé. Degas said he was having trouble writing poems; he had ideas but couldn’t turn them into anything. Mallarmé said, “Ah, the problem is that poetry is not made out of ideas, it’s made out of words.”

Sketch 1 line, 2 lines, 3 lines, 4 lines, then a paragraph.

1 line

The basic unit of poetry is a single line.

Some forms are single-line poems. In Japanese, haiku are often written in one long line.

In this world we walk on the roof of hell gazing at flowers
—Issa, 19th c.

That’s the English version. In original, literally, a series of possessives: This world’s hell’s roof’s flower gazing.

Looking for a parking place I can’t find to meditate
— rough paraphrase of a poem by Allen Ginsberg.

The line can be identical to the sentence, or the line can spill over into the next sentence. You get a pause, or you get energy.

The boy walked out into the field to see the white horse.
— paraphrase of a line by DH Lawrence. 

In a single line, it creates a sense of peace. If you broke it other ways, you could create anxiety, or suspense.  [Here is the actual poem, which is a bit different: ]

Examples of wonderful single lines:

All things that love the sun are out of doors.
— William Wordsworth

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then?
—Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Half my hundred year life is gone.
—a Chinese poet <?>

O Rose thou art sick.
— William Blake

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
—Theodore Roethke


  • Write down 20 sentences that might be lines from poems / first lines. Look around the room  you’re in now, and write sentences that are descriptions of things. Look around, check out your feelings, and try writing sentences that are a single thought or phrase. Begin with an image, some record of a feeling, something that takes you inward, a strange metaphor, an image of the adequacy or the inadequacy of the world.

2 lines

One is about identity, two is about relation.

The most famous 2-line poem in Latin:

I hate and love, you may ask me why,
I don’t know but I feel it and suffer.
— Catullus  [several translations of Odi Et Amo here:

It’s two lines but each line has 2 parts.

Look to the blues, spirituals, call & response.


What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified Desire.

Who is it knows the trouble I’ve seen?
Nobody knows but Jesus.

Emptiness! my bride!
Who whistles? who listens?
— Tomaž Šalamun

The wind that blows
Is all that anybody knows.
— Thoreau

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me,
Why should you not speak to me?
—Walt Whitman

Last winter I observed the snow on a spree with the northwest wind
And it put me out of conceit of all fences and other imaginary lines.

Soft as the massacre of Suns
By Evening’s Sabres slain
— Emily Dickinson

What’ll I do if you are far away
and I am blue. What’ll I do?
—Irving Berlin

Study of the work songs of the Bantu [in Technicians of the Sacred, ed. Jerome Rothenberg,]: Someone says a line and someone responds. The 2nd line must not be obviously related to the 1st.  For example:

1st person: The elephant was killed by a small arrow.
2nd person: A lake dries up at the edges.

Skillful relationship between the lines: A large thing defeated by something minor. And, the dried lakebed resembles elephant skin.


  • Write a question and then write an answer. Answer in a surprising way.  Or make a statement and then ask a question.
  • Look at your one-liners and see if you want to add a second line. Let the second one surprise you in relation to the first.
  • Consider 2 lines as a game you can play with yourself — quick flash free association to get to the second line.  Try it with the same first line a few times. See what happens. Go Salt: Pepper. Then, Salt: Wound.

3 lines

Here you have the whole world of haiku.

Suma village / A urine-stained quilt / drying on the line


Also think about the rhythm of the body and the rhythm of the mind.

3 is about weaving together different things or parts.


  • Write something out that’s fairly long: description of your day, a vivid dream you’ve had lately. Then try setting the phrases dancing in a  three-line stanza.

4 lines

Humans organize the world into fours. North/South/West/East.  The world of knowledge — like a strong table on all fours.

Models: Chinese quatrain / English ballad.

Yesterday we climbed stony mountain.
The rocks on the trail were the color of trout.
We talked about our lives, about loneliness.
On top, in the fog, we couldn’t see a thing.
—Tu Fu

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
—Robert Frost

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
—Theodore Roethke

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,  …
—Elizabeth Bishop

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
— W.B. Yeats

Make a proposition/ask a question.

Often three lines set up the situation and then the fourth line/leg sets the thing down.

Four brushstrokes of what’s in your consciousness.

Can play with rhyme.

Listen to the singing inside four. We are form-seeking, meaning-seeking, symbol-making creatures to the core of our being. This desire fuses with the sets of four, the order and play of numbers – so this is often where poetry really comes alive.


  • Make a four-line gesture that comes to some kind of peace, or question, or disturbance at the end.
  • Write a line. Then write a pair of lines—see how many odd ways you can make relation of twoness: grammatical parallel, rhyme, same idea, contrasting idea. Then try the dance of three’s: take perceptions you have and see what they look line in a three-line stanza, set your imagination skipping. And then maybe for the task of definition, the four line stanza would be appropriate.
  • Hass shares an exercise that his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, assigns: Write a four-line poem that completely sums up your view of the world.

Whew! That’s plenty to do!

Classmates, I look forward to seeing you in our class forums 🙂 and please also feel free to poke around this site or connect with me elsewhere:

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