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
“Apostroph” by Walt Whitman