Saturday, January 31, 2015

Prompt #215 - List-Ness

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that from time to time I ask you to start planning your poem by creating a list of relevant items. This week, we’re going to work on list poems. The idea of writing a list poem isn’t original—such poems have a long history. In fact, many interesting poems are actually lists or inventories. Over 200 years ago, Christopher Smart wrote a list poem known as "For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry" in which he detailed what his cat did every morning (part of the longer work One of the Great Joys of Jubilate Agno”). Here’s an excerpt:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

Walt Whitman, one of America’s greatest poets, is known for using the “list format” in a number of his poems (please see the example poems below).

Most list poems are inventories of people, places, things, or ideas (often without transitional phrases). They can read like litanies. They work through a repetitive, sometimes patterned format, and they offer opportunities to think about sequencing.

The challenge this week will be to create a list poem but to give it substance beyond its “list-ness.” That is, the goal isn’t to simply create a list and call it a poem, but to take your list into something more profound. I strongly suggest reading the example poems for some ideas of how that can work.


Consider some possibilities for lists: 
  • What’s on Your Desk?
  • What’s in Your Desk Drawer?
  • What’s on the Top Shelf of Your Closet?
  • What Items are Stored in Your Basement?
  • What are the Important Books on Your Bookshelves?
  • In What Ways Do You Procrastinate?
  • What’s Your Emotional Inventory?
  • What Makes You Nervous (the “nail-biters” in your life)?
  • What Frightens You (things that “go bump in the night”)?
Think of other list possibilities—in fact, make a list of things for which you might write list poems.

Decide on your list, and then begin listing appropriate things.

After you’ve generated a substantial list, take a look at what you’ve written. Delete superfluous items. Think in terms or order or sequencing. Is there a better order for the items in your list?

What does this list call to mind? Where do the list items lead you? Is there something (theme, tone, emotion) underlying the list?

Edit, revise, rewrite.


Understand from the get-go that a list poem is deceptively easy to write—that is to say, good list poems aren't easy to create.

Walt Whitman’s lists suggest the range of people, situations, or objects in particular poems. He mastered the “inventory” or “catalog” style by presenting numbers of images without being overly repetitive and providing freshness to each line of a given poem. Think about this in your own work.

Write with a sense of your reader’s reaction. A purely personal list might not mean anything to most
readers. How can you make your list meaningful to anyone who might read your poem?

If the bulk of your poem is pure list or inventory, create a dismount with a twist or punch. Veer off into a different direction. Don't be afraid to make a sudden shift or to create a unique and interesting juxtaposition. Conclude with a statement that brings the list together (but be careful of trying the poem up in too neat a package).


“Apostroph” by Walt Whitman

Friday, January 23, 2015

Prompt #214 – The Language of Lunes

The Lune, also known as the American Haiku was created by poet and literature professor Robert Kelly as a response to traditional Haiku. His new “form” was a self-contained, tercet (three-line poem) that consisted of 13 syllables divided into 5, 3, 5 syllables per line (five in the first line, three in the second line, and five in the third line). Unlike haiku, though, there are no rules, no required kigo (season word), no cutting word, and no conceptual break (or the shift in perception that we often see in haiku). Kelly named his form the “Lune” because the right side of most examples creates a “syllabic shape” reminiscent of the crescent moon.

Poet Jack Collom devised a variation of Kelly’s Lune in a self-contained tercet that is word-based rather than syllable-based: three words in the first line, five words in the second line, and three words in the third line. Just as Kelly imposed no other rules, neither did Collom.


Decide which form of the Lune you’d like to try (Kelly’s syllable-number form, or Collom’s word-number form).

Then, simply write an image/thought of three words or five syllables as your first line and see where the poem takes you. Here are "formats" for you to experiment with (copy and paste into your document, and then fill in the lines).

Robert Kelly Style Lune (This style doesn’t use capitalization or punctuation.)

Line 1: Five Syllables

Line 2: Three Syllables

Line 3:  Five Syllables

Jack Collom Style Lune (This style does use capitals and punctuation.)

Line 1: Three Words

Line 2: Five Words

Line 3:  Three Words

If you like Lunes, try writing a series of related Lunes or a Lune poem that contains several Lune-stanzas (individual but related "links" that line up on the page like stanzas).


Stick to the format, and work toward the leaping (and crystal-cutting) quality of haiku.

Think in terms of imagery (Lunes are great for developing a sense of image).

Don’t try to be profound—simply make a statement and then “play” with the words to “pump up” your idea. Go for a moment in time, a small enlightenment, something wonderfully ordinary.

By nature, both Lune forms require strict attention to the words you use. Choose carefully!


A Lune from Robert Kelly’s book Knee Lunes.

     thin sliver of the
     crescent moon
     high up the real world

A Lune from Jack Collom’s  “Moving Windows: Evaluating the Poetry Children Write.”

     When the sun’s
     rays hit the shades, it
     lights up lines.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Prompt #213 – Tell It to the Birds

Everyone likes birds. 
What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears,
 as close to us and everyone in the world, 
as universal as a bird (David Attenborough)

Note: I had some issues with this prompt when I first posted it on Saturday. Title and links font colors changed to an awful neon blue and, no matter how I tried, I couldn't correct them. After much "fiddling" about, and some great advice from our friend Diane Lockward, I deleted the post and have redone it. The blog seems to have "righted" itself, and all seems okay. I apologize to those of you who left comments, which were lost with the first post. Maybe you won't mind re-posting them? Thanks, dear readers, for your patience!

I’ve always loved birds (they appear frequently in my poems), and I raised small exotic birds for many years. Although I don't have any exotics living in the house with me now, I feed the backyard birds, especially during the cold months, and I always look forward to seeing them—from the nondescript sparrows to the brilliant cardinals.

This week, I’d like you write create a poem in which you direct your comments (a kind of monologue) to a bird. You may be serious or humorous, but the idea is to come up with a theme that somehow relates to or juxtaposes bird life and human life. For example, some possible themes might include freedom, flight/flying, providing for children, and not wanting to be caged (literally or figuratively).


Think of all the bird species you know and select one (i.e., sparrow, lark, robin, canary, zebra finch, parrot, macaw, hawk, egret, heron, mourning dove, early bird, night owl, phoenix, stork).

Make a list of things that you might say to a bird—work toward a single theme and stick to that theme.

Write a poem in which you talk to a bird-member of the species you chose.

An alternative might be to address comments to more than one bird (that reminds me of the story about St. Francis of Assisi and how he preached to a flock of birds).

Or, you might want to try a conversation with a bird in which you and the bird speak to one another (dialogue rather than monologue).

You may prefer a humorous approach and address a bird that dropped a little “something” on your shoulder or head, the stork that delivered your son or daughter, the crow that stole a piece of your jewelry, or the parrot (parakeet) that learned a few naughty words.


Think in terms of no more than a 12-15 lines.

Don’t spend a lot of time in describing the bird—focus on what you have to say to it.

Depending on which source you consult, you’ll find that various birds are symbolic of different qualities. Here are a few general ideas:

Doves symbolize peace.
Eagles symbolize power, resurrection, and courage.
Cranes symbolizes long life and immortality.
Falcons symbolize protection.
Nightingales symbolize love and longing.
Sparrows symbolize hope, gentleness, and intelligence.
Swans symbolize gracefulness and beauty.
Herons symbolize self-reliance and determination.
Hawks symbolize guardianship, illumination, and truth.
Woodpeckers symbolize magic and prophecy.
Robins symbolize joy, hope, and happiness.
Cardinals symbolize loved ones who have passed.
Crows symbolize trickery, cunning, and theft.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Prompt #212 – Whatever You Do, Don't Read the Articles

If you’ve ever written for a newspaper, you know that newspaper articles must have headlines that say, “Stop and read this article.” They have to be accessible and engaging. The same is true for poems—“stop-and-read-me” titles (and first lines that invite you in) are imperative. And, like good newspaper headlines, good poems are driven by strong verbs. This week’s prompt uses newspaper headlines as the springboard for your poems.


Pick up any newspaper (current or old) and write any headlines that “jump out at you” on a piece of paper. Whatever you do, don’t read the articles, only the headlines.

Jot down headlines that immediately flash an image for you or cause you to remember something from your own or someone else’s past.

Jot down headlines that “speak” to you either figuratively (metaphorically), creatively, or remind you of actual events.

After you’ve written 5-10 headlines, sit back and read through them slowly. Make a few notes for each one.

Now, choose one and begin to write a poem based on what the headline suggested to you. Feel free to make up the content of the poem—you aren’t limited to actual experience.

For an interesting twist, check online for a foreign language newspaper, find a translation of the headline, and see what you can do with a headline in a language other than the text of your poem.


Use the active, not passive voice and strong present-tense verbs to create a sense of immediacy.

Try working with a “first, then, next” format to give the poem a sense of chronology or sequence, possibly formatting your poem in three stanzas. Feel free to make your stanzas long and closely packed.

Consider writing a narrative poem (though this is only a suggestion and not a requirement).

Work on strong verbs and a few, well-chosen adjectives.

Watch out for “ing” endings and prepositional phrases—eliminate these wherever you can.

Work on sound in your poem—that is, concentrate on alliteration, assonance, and a few internal rhymes or anaphora to give your poem a kind of music. Read your poem aloud with each bit of editing and revision and think about how it sounds.

The exact text of the headline that inspired you needn’t be included anywhere in the poem.


Couldn’t find a single one, so please send me some!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Prompt #211 – Still Life Fast Moving & Happy New Year

Happy New Year!
It's great to be back blogging again!

I hope you all enjoyed the holiday season,
and I hope that 2015 brings you good health,
happiness and peace,
and, of course, the joys of poetry written and shared!

We’ve worked with ekphrasis before, and it’s always a great way to jump start the creative process. I thought we might begin this New Year with a prompt that takes its inspiration from a Salvador Dalí painting. (If you click on the picture, you'll get a larger image to work with.)

I recently used this prompt with one of my workshop groups, and the responses were amazing: five group members and five dramatically different poems.

By way of background on the artist, Salvador Dalí (May 11, 1904 – January 23, 1989) was born in Figueres, Spain in 1904. He is known for his technical skill as well as for his incredible imagination. Dalí was the only surviving male child of a wealthy Catalan family. After attending a leading art academy in Madrid, he became involved in the Surrealist movement (Paris, 1929), and soon became its most unmistakable and notorious member. Also in 1929, he met Gala Eluard when she visited him with her husband, poet Paul Eluard. Gala ultimately became Dalí’s wife, his muse, his principal model, and his life-long obsession.

By 1939, Dalí broke away from with the Surrealist movement. He and Gala left Europe in 1940 and spent the war years in the United States where his artistic philosophy changed as he rejected Modernism and embraced other traditions. They returned to Spain in 1947, but continued to spend time in both Spain and in the U.S. In 1974, Dalí established the Teatro-Museo Dali in Figueres to house his own art. After Gala died in 1982, Dalí’s own health declined, and he spent his final years in seclusion at home. Although considered outré by some, his work is arguably the most unique of the 20th century.


  • Look above at the picture of the painting Sill Life – Fast Moving by Salvador Dalí.
  • Study the various images and get a sense of “what’s going on” in the painting. Imagine the artist creating this painting.
  • How does the painting “speak” to you? To your life? To a specific experience that you’ve had?
  • Come up with a startling opening line (make the reader want to read more), and then write a poem based (even if only loosely) on this painting. Notice how Dalí controls his subjects and makes them float in mid-air—they tilt and tango and travel across the canvas in unexpected ways. Make your words do the same thing!
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment, to “translate” the painting into written language, to suggest emotion. Flip into the unexpected, or, find a more “standard” way of telling your “story.” Dalí was a Surrealist; so don’t hesitate to give Surrealism a nod if you’d like to try that kind of poetry. Most importantly, let the artwork direct your thoughts—let your poem tell you where it wants to go. 
  • Avoid cliches, sentimentality, and preachiness (poetry that beats you over the head with a message or moral rarely, if ever, works).
  • Create an integrated whole of language, form, and meaning.
  • Show, don't tell. 
  • Move with momentum and a sense of trajectory. 
  • Connect, reveal, surprise.
  • Remember that your dismount shouldn't merely "sum up" the poem. Close with a punch.

Here's a poem written by Bob Rosenbloom from my writing workshop group in which the inspiration painting reminded him of another, and he merged two Dalí paintings in this "encounter with the artist."

                  By Bob Rosenbloom

After The Persistence of Memory and Still Life-Fast Moving by Salvador Dali
It is what it is, Dali said— 
generations trapped
in tar pits of parent-guilt.
Travel light, he says.
He led me into his efficiency apartment. 
What is persistent memory, he asked?
It chases its tail. Its fragrant.
It smells like bacon grease.
Character is key, he pontificates,
great art, basic. 
The fundamental rules apply.
Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.
Make someone happy.
You're nobody until somebody loves you.
I felt like a tourist in the art world, 
a Sunday driver, thanks to Sal.
Come for breakfast on the weekend, he said.
He mixed me up with someone from Manhattan,
The Village, probably.
I'm Brooklyn born, Jersey now.
His "clocks" had melted, slid down
the walls and came to relax on furniture.
Soft wax coated the sofa and credenza.
Mounds of it clogged the kitchen sink.
Time disappears like electron traces
in cloud chambers, memory clings
like sweaters charged with enough
static electricity to light up New York.
I told him what I thought to be 
universal truth, that
God wound up a big spring
clock and walked away.  
Time has been nothing but trouble
ever since.

And here's another by Nancy Lubarsky that takes a completely different direction:

     By Nancy Lubarsky

—After  Still Life – Fast Moving by Salvador Dali

The mess – It begins innocently with
yesterday’s clothes, this morning’s
breakfast dishes, today’s mail. Over time
it spreads to floors, cabinets, drawers,
and hard-to-reach shelves.

The mess – We argue, blame each other:
Aren’t those YOUR jeans?
I thought YOU put the mugs in the sink.
These coupons – do you REALLY need them?
But it’s too late.

The mess – It grows and expands
to every surface, every corner. It’s why we
can’t shut the closet door, or pull it open.
It’s the excuse not to invite friends over,
or the reason we lug piles to the attic.

The mess – We clean it up, the next day
it’s back.  It swells through doorways
and out to the porch, the yard –
it’s our own Blob without
Steve McQueen to rescue us.

The mess – It’s become family.
We squeeze between it while
watching TV, excuse ourselves
when we trip over it.
It even has its own room.

The mess – Someday we’ll retire to a
seaside cottage with tables that can tilt
toward the water. Or, better yet, when
laundry, dishes, or paper piles feel an
ocean breeze – they will rise up,
and take leave.

And ... a murder scene by Basil Rouskas:

     By Basil Rouskas      

After Sill Life – Fast Moving By Salvador Dalí

Make no mistake,
this is a murder scene!
Don’t look at half-full
wine glasses, empty bottle’s
levitation over tables, or
orange rhombuses
on the butcher table.
Forget dried coral reefs,
and artsy-stem bowls;
they are all here to distract.

Don’t be fooled by brown leaves
or a pear’s mock grind against
the sharpened knife.
Who cleaned the blood from it?
Why would you settle peeling a pear
when you’ve just drained a queen’s blood?
And, where is the second glass?

The murderer wants to confuse —
Check out the aimless
swallow’s flight
and shadowy patterns’
nitty gritty obsession
with the tablecloth’s wrinkles.

Most of all, look at
the invisible man’s hand
on the left — he sits where
the sun sits; his seashell
doesn’t miss an ocean sound.
Is he The One?
Where did the lovers go?
No blood stains?
Where are the bodies?
Are these cherries on the table,
or her lover’s eyes?
And, where is the second glass?

And, adding on January 4th, still another "take" from the poetry workshop group:

     By Wendy Rosenberg
—After Still Life–Fast Moving by Salvatore Dali

They met on the beach—
leaves in her hair,
sand stuck to cheeks.

He saw her through teenage
eyes, asked for a date—
dinner, his place.

She arrived before sunset,
watched his table float, and
the olives dangle midair.

An apple hit from behind
glared at her through its
pale, bruised skin.

She mistook a broccoli head
for flowers, sniffed it, thought,
How sweet.

Her parents, in a parked car,
didn’t see the water turn to
ribbon, or hear the neighbor’s,

No one’s home! They didn’t see
their daughter jump the gate,
pummel the table,

slice the pear, sip the Scotch,
or salt her ego. The gull
refused her invitation—

suggested instead she sit
in a bowl, chat with the shadows,
and move on.