Saturday, February 6, 2016

Prompt #245 – Take Five

I’ve always felt that reading poetry can go a long way toward generating poetry. We’re often inspired by what we read, we discover new forms and styles, and we find interesting examples of how language can be used in different and engaging ways.

Inspiration comes in many forms. Often, when we read another poet’s poem, we feel inspired, encouraged, and perhaps even compelled to write something of our own. In general, derivative works are frowned upon, but finding bits of stimulation here can be a very good thing. It's how we use what inspires us that makes the difference.

This week, to encourage poetry reading and to explore some ways in which other poets’ words can motivate us, we’re going to begin with poems that other poets have written.


1. The first thing I’d like you to do is select five short poems from books you have or from the Internet. Try to use poems that are under 40 lines each. The poems may be old favorites or new discoveries—you decide.

2. Read all five poems carefully.

3. Jot down 5 interesting things about each of the poems you selected. 

  • Write down one stunning, startling, or otherwise noteworthy image from the poem.
  • How does the poet invite you into the poem? Is there a “hook” in the first line?
  • How does the last line, the dismount, bring the poem to closure?
  • What’s unique about the last line? 
  • What has the poet written that resonates for you?
  • Make a note of anything else that stands out in the poems you’ve selected.

4. Now, in the spirit of writing a cento, borrow a meaning, metaphor, simile, line, phrase, image, or word from each of the five poems you chose. Altogether, that’s only five things—only one from each of the poems you chose to read.

Note: Cento is the Latin word for patchwork (as in patchwork quilt). In poetry, a cento is made entirely of lines taken from poems by other authors. The rules are simple: no more than one line may be taken from any one poem; any number of quotes is acceptable; and centos may be rhymed or unrhymed. Remember that “borrowing” other poets’ words is typically regarded as an honorific practice when the work is well-done and sources are properly credited. Be sure to provide credits (usually at the end of your poem).

5.  Reflect on your five “borrowed” items. What do they suggest to you? Do they, in any way, lead you to a subject for a poem of your own? Establish the subject for a poem.

6. At this point, begin to write a poem in which you incorporate all five of the “borrowed” items; but, here’s the challenge: unlike writing a cento, you can’t quote anything directly. In other words, the things you chose for the poems you read are purely for inspiration. All the words in your poem must be completely your own.


1. Let yourself be inspired gently, take whatever suggestions the poems you read might have to offer, but don’t be locked into anything.

2. Spend a lot of time, playing” with the ideas you gathered from other people’s poems. Where do they lead you? What moments of inspiration do they bring? How can you “piggy back” from these ideas into something spectacular of your own?

3. Be sure to reject anything that doesn’t fit the poem you begin to write.

4. Keep your poem short, don’t ramble.

5. After you’ve written a draft, look for “lifeless” parts of the poem and delete or rework them.

6. In the end, your new poem should bear little or no resemblance to any of the poems you read. 

7. Remember, this isn’t a prompt about “grand theft poetry”—it’s a prompt about how other people’s writing can inspire your own!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Prompt #244 – What I Didn't

Some time back I posted a list of dos and don’ts for writing poetry. This week, I’m going to revisit that list with the specific intention of enhancing the poems you write for this prompt. You’ll find the list under “Tips.”


1. Reflect for a few moments on a difficult decision or choice you’ve had to make.

2. What were the implications of the decision you made? What happened as a result? What didn’t happened? Was your decision a good one or not?

3. Now, here’s the challenge: write a poem about what might have happened had you made a different decision or choice. In other words, explore the possibilities of what you didn’t opt to do.

4. After you’ve drafted your poem, take a look at the tips below. One by one, apply each to your poem and make appropriate edits.


Don’t: End with a moral.

Don’t: Close with an “I’m going to tell you what this poem is about” ending.

Don’t: Go with an expected outcome (especially in a narrative poem). Shake up your readers’ expectations.

Don’t: Use up all the air in your poem on the last couple of lines—leave the reader room to breathe.

Don’t: Undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp.

Don’t: Conclude with a sentimental or emotional statement (both sentiment and emotion may be heartfelt but, when they’re blatantly stated, they can detract from the power of your poem).

Don’t: Close the door on your poem; leave it slightly ajar.

Do: Link the end of the poem to the beginning but not overtly—and don’t over-write.

Do: Write beyond the last line, then go back and find the last line hidden in what you’ve written.

Do: Use more one-syllable words than multi-syllable words in your last couple of lines (think in terms of strong verbs and no superfluous language).

Do: Try (minimal) repetition from another part of the poem—sometimes this can work very well.

Do: Resist the urge to apologize (or to even suggest apology).

Do: Leave your reader something to reflect upon.

Do: Point toward something broader than the body of the poem.

Do: Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”


The Road Not Taken 
     By Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Prompt #243 – What Does Your Poem Mean?

It may be said that poems are in one way like icebergs:
only about a third of their bulk appears above the surface of the page.

—Howard Nemerov

A short time ago, I came across the following Facebook post by my dear friend and fellow poet, Michael T. Young:

“When people ask what a poem means, it seems they expect to be led back to some point of origin that is a clear thought, articulated as prose, and which then defines the poem. The problem is that poems emerge out of fog. A poet doesn’t have a thought that he translates into words but more often he has a vague feeling, “a sense of wrong, a homesickness”—as Frost called it—that he struggles to find words for. It’s one of the reasons it nearly always stumps a poet to be asked what his poem means. A poet has this vague feeling he struggles to find words for and that poem is the meaning he wrestled out of the vagueness. The poem is the clarity which came out of that fog. To then have someone ask what the poem means is like asking what a dollar bill costs or what the length of a yardstick is. It’s a redundancy and a regression to obscurity. The poem is the meaning that was sought and found. The meaning is found in the destination, which is the poem, and not in the origin, which was the blank page. So, to take a reader back there is to lead them back into the fog, into the vagueness the poem emerged from, not to return to some point of clarity. The poem is the clarity.”

(Reprinted by permission of Michael T. Young.)


The connection Michael makes between meaning and clarity is an important one—it led me to reflect on how well we really do express what we “struggle to find words for.” It may be argued that too much analysis spoils the poem, but this week, to focus on meaning and clarity (along with editing and refining), I’d like you to go through some of your already-written poems, select one that you especially like, and do a bit of after-the-fact analysis.


1. Spend some time with the poem you’ve chosen—read it and think about it. Then answer these questions:

A. What is the meaning of the poem (that is, what did you intend to “say” in it)?
B. Did you have that meaning in mind when you started writing the poem? Did you “say” anything else?
C. Remember that some of the best poems contain their obvious subjects and one or more other subjects—what in your poem appears below “the surface of the page?”
D. How well did you convey the poem’s meaning?
E. How well did you achieve clarity in the poem?
F. Now, spend some time re-working the poem. Think in terms of meaning, clarity, and how you can “say what you want to say” better this time around.

2. Identify a phrase, sentence, or line that represents the poem’s emotional center. What have you included (and should delete) in your poem that’s really meaningless in relation to the poem’s emotional core?

3. Compare your two versions. Decide which is better and think about why. How is your better version “the meaning” you “wrestled out of the vagueness?”


1. Be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements.
2. Think about freshness of expression and how you can better express the truth of your experience in perceptible and actual terms.
3. Make sure your poem has a sense of movement and trajectory.
4. Don’t lose sight of the whole poem while editing the particular. As you prune your poems, make sure that every word, every, phrase, clause, and sentence is necessary.
5. Present your subject exactly as you perceive it. Make your poem “the meaning that was sought and found!”