Saturday, January 26, 2013

Prompt #134 – Apocalypse, When?

Apocalyptic beliefs have been around for a long time. Consider England’s Doomsday Book. Commissioned by William the Conqueror for tax purposes, many people of the time thought the end of the world would occur when the book was completed. Isaac Newton (widely considered the world’s greatest physicist) spent a lot of time searching the Bible for clues to the “end date” (which he calculated as 2060). The funniest end of the world story comes from Leeds, England in 1806 when a hen began laying eggs on which the words “Christ is coming” appeared. This convinced many people that the end of the world was near until a sensible local person actually watched the hen lay an egg and it became clear that a silly hoax had been “hatched.”

End of the world prophecies are arguably as old as the world, and for quite a long time before December 21, 2012, there was a lot of buzz about the Mayan calendar and the supposed end of the world. Even the most skeptical among us undoubtedly gave a thought to the possibility, however lightly taken the whole idea was. 12-21-12 may have been the end of the Mayan calendar, the beginning of a new cycle of history, or simply another first day of winter in the northern hemisphere, but that’s all it was.

Yes, you guessed it, this week’s prompt is to write poems about the end of the world. There’s just one rule: poems must be fourteen lines long (or less) and must contain at least one image that will amaze your readers. Work hard to make your poem unique—make your readers a little uneasy or fidgety—find ways to surprise even yourself.


1. Write a poem about the failure of the world to end on 12-21-12.

2. Write a biblically referenced poem about the end of the world.

3. Write a reflection or meditation about the world’s end.

4. Write a poem about a time when it seemed your world was ending. Remember that simply telling a story doesn’t make a poem. A good example for this is the old 1963 Skeeter Davis song “The End of the World?” Click here to listen.

5. Write a response to the final stanza of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (perhaps his most often-quoted lines).

“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”

6. Write a weather report for the last day of the world (volcanic explosions, tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, or rogue meteors in the forecast).

7. Write a humorous poem about the end of the world.

8. Write a post-apocalyptic poem.

9. If you don’t fancy writing about the end of the world, try writing a poem about another kind of ending. Click the link below for some poems about endings by Laura Kasischke, Maxine Kumin, Gregory Orr, Dana Levin, Tom Hennen, and Bob Hicok (from the NY Times).

Tip: As you’re writing, it’s helpful to read your lines aloud. Hearing how the words and phrases sound can help with editing and can also “generate” what you want to write next. Let the sound of your poem “speak” to you as you write. 


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Prompt #133 – Ideals, Windmills, Impossible Dreams

I recently found an old edition of Don Quixote on one of my book shelves and spent some time thinking about the title character as an icon for idealism and the ways in which we pursue our personal notions of the ideal. Quixotism is typically defined as a visionary action in which the quixotic person seeks truth, justice, or beauty with an internal vision so clear that it “sees” through the illusions of exterior experiences. It is also defined as “impractical pursuit of ideals.” Impulsive people, spontaneous people, idealists, dreamers, and romantics are considered quixotic. If you’re not familiar with the book by Cervantes, you can read a brief summary at  the following website:

There are, of course, complexities in Cervantes’s novel, as well as multiple interpretations, that we needn’t address here, but I thought that this week we might look at times in our lives when we’ve been led by visionary ideals, impulses, spontaneity, or romantic notions. I’m reminded here of a time many years ago when I was driving to work and saw and elderly lady trip and fall on the sidewalk. I pulled over to the side of the road and ran back to help her. With a lot more strength that I could have imagined, she threw a punch that connected with my arm and then shouted that if I didn’t leave she’d scream for help. I didn’t want to leave her sitting there on the sidewalk (and those were the days before cell phones), so I hesitated, and she started to scream. In fact, she got up and began to chase me down the street. I suspected that she must be embarrassed by the fall, but she was definitely not as red-faced as I was. So much for being “heroic.” I like to think I did the right thing, even though it made me late for work and cost me a bruise on the arm.

Things To Think About:

1. Has there ever been a time when you tried to act as a “knight in shinning armor” but were rejected? What “ideal” inspired you? How did the rejection make you feel?

2. Has there been a time when you were “foolishly impractical?” Where did it lead you?

3. Don Quixote “tilted at windmills,” seeing them as giants who threatened people. The expression “tilting at windmills” has become an English language idiom that means attacking imaginary or unbeatable enemies (“tilting” refers to jousting or, more generally, to engaging in combat). Is there a metaphorical windmill at which you’ve tilted? Has there ever been a concern or issue in your life that you later learned was inconsequential despite your fear of it?

4. In 1644, John Cleveland published in his London diurnall, “The Quixotes of this age fight the windmills of their owne [sic] heads.” Can you relate that to something personal or perhaps something in current society or politics? Have you ever fought a symbolic windmill “in your own head?”

5. “Tilting at windmills” has also come to mean trying to fight battles that can’t be won. Has there been such a “battle” in your life? Keep in mind that the larger question is not failure but, more importantly, how your actions affirmed a higher quality of character. 

6. When it first appeared in print, Don Quixote was considered a comic novel; by the nineteenth century, it was considered a social commentary; and it later came to be called a tragedy. In keeping with the lighter (comic) interpretations, can you write a narrative poem in which you tell the story of a funny time you were idealistic, romantic, or heroic?

7. Is there something appealing about an idealistic Don Quixote-kind of figure to you? What specifically? Why? How are you like Don Quixote?

8. Do you remember a song titled “The Impossible Dream” from the play and movie The Man of La Mancha (based on the Cervantes novel)? To hear it, click on the arrow below. Now ...  do you have (or have you ever had) an “impossible dream?” 


1. Be sure to write in an authentic voice—the way you “say” things is critical to a poem’s success. Your attitude toward the content is definitely part of the content, and your language should be imaginative, unique, and distinctive. Don’t simply tell a story—that would be prose.

2. Be wary of including so many details that your poem becomes cluttered. You want to hold your readers’ attention, not lose them in superfluous particulars.


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Prompt #132 – Mysterious Moments

I’ve always loved mystery novels—the thrill of suspense and the challenge of trying to figure out “whodunit” have never failed to capture my imagination. I’ve also had a long-time interest in the  unexplained (Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Shroud of Turin, Crop Circles) and unsolved historical mysteries/crimes such as the truth behind the deaths of England’s Little Princes and the identity of Victorian England’s notorious Jack the Ripper. There’s a sense of intellectual challenge, as well as a sense of fun that goes with the intrigue of mystery-solving. There’s also a bit of fear and spine tingling in some mysteries—something compelling about a dark road, a cemetery at midnight, and an abandoned house. In addition, catching a glimpse of a world beyond that in which we live is an intriguing possibility. 

The “Gothic” genre in British literature, which began during the mid-eighteenth century with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto, combined elements of mystery, horror, and romance (Gothic author Ann Radcliffe added detail to the genre and became the most popular and best-paid novelist of her time). The Romantic Movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries prompted exploration of mysterious themes in literature as writers of the time explored the hidden worlds within and beyond human emotions. Supernatural elements were prevalent in Keats’s poems (e.g., “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “The Eve of St. Agnes”), in Lord Byron’s works (e.g., “The Giaour,” a vampire poem), and an interest in the supernatural appears repeatedly in Shelley’s poems (e.g., “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc”). In William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, angels visit a poor chimney sweep. The mystery genre in American literature is generally agreed to have come into its own through Edgar Allan Poe during the 1840s. His poem “The Raven” is one of the best-known poems in the “mysterious literature” canon.

You can see where I'm going with this, right? This week, let's write about something mysterious.

Things to Think About Before Writing:

Has something mysterious happened to you? Something that has never been explained?

Have you ever had a paranormal experience? Have you seen or heard something ghostly or of another world such as a UFO?

Is there an unsolved mystery that interests you? 

Is there something mysterious in the natural world that fascinates you?

Is there a mysterious place to which you’ve traveled or would like to travel?  

Have you ever visited a “haunted” place (the Tower of London, Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle, Ireland’s Leap Castle, London’s Highgate Cemetery, India’s Bhangarh Fort).

Is there anything “mysterious” about your emotions, an emotional reaction you’ve had, an emotional attachment that makes little sense?

Remember the old story starter “It was a dark, rainy night, and I was alone?” How about writing a poem that’s entirely creative and not based on an actual experience: you’re driving alone on a dark road; perhaps it’s raining; there may be thunder and lightning. Where are you going? What happens?(Create a “mysterious” scenario.)


Don’t confuse “mystery” and “obscurity.” A mysterious poem is far more likely to succeed than an obscure one.

Be sure to invite the reader into your poem with a great first line.

Create a sense and tone of mystery through language.

Your poem should make the reader “see” the “world” in a new and exciting way. At the same time, you should find some insight that you weren't aware of before.

Try to create at least one image that will leave the reader astonished, startled, and maybe even a bit breathless.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Prompt #131 – Old and New

Happy New Year, everyone!
May 2013 bring you good health, abundant blessings, 
and all the things that you love most.

With the start of this new year, I’ve been reflecting on how often in life we look to the past to power the present and how often things that once seemed old become new again (either in reality or metaphorically). For many years, I wrote articles for antiques magazines and I never failed to marvel at the way trendy antiques became “tired” while “new” [different] antiques became fashionable among collectors. I believe that’s true of life in general.

This week, let’s think about the old and the new and the ways in which they become interchangeable.

Things to Think About Before Writing;

1. Is there anything is your life that became “old”  and then “new again.”
2. Has there been a relationship in your life that faded or ended and then revived?
3. Have you had an interest that you lost and then found again?
4. In “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot wrote,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Can you relate this quote to anything (time, place, interest, person) in your own life? How have things changed in your life and brought you back to places you knew before (how has something old become new again)?

5. Aldous Huxley wrote, “The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.” What is there in your personal history that affirms this quotation?

6. Is there an old dream that you gave up on and later revived (something you wished for, a person you hoped would be part of your life, a goal, etc.)?

7. It has been the job of Britain’s Poet Laureate to write a New Year's poem for many centuries. Laureate Nahum Tate wrote eight New Year odes between 1693 and 1708, and the phrase “ring out the old, ring in the new” comes from British Laureate’s Alfred Tennyson's well-known poem “In Memoriam.”

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Do these words resonate for you? When you think of “old” and “new,” what is “false” and what is "true,” what experiences or incidents come to mind?

8. There’s a great old song written by Peter Allen called “Everything Old is New Again.” The last stanza of the lyrics is:

And don't throw the past away
You might need it some other rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again
When everything old is new again.

Can you relate these lines to something in your life? What past dream haven't you thrown away? What past dream has come true for you?

(Here's a recording of "Everything Old is New Again" for your enjoyment and inspiration!)

  • For this poem, you’ll need to dig deeply into your experiences and to think about changes from old to new and from new to old.
  • Avoid everything superfluous: words, syllables, conjunctions, articles.
  • Avoid the passive voice. Eliminate "ing" endings to create a greater sense of immediacy in your poem.
  • Be wary of the “purely competent” poem. Take a few risks. 
  • Develop layers of meaning.
  • Your poem should astonish the reader in some way.
  • Let there be an element of mystery in your writing. Work with caesuras to allow silences a place in your poem.
  • Don’t explain—trust your images to “tell” your story, and leave some gaps for the reader to fill in.