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!”

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Prompt #242 – What Bugs You?

A while back, I was asked to discuss my “pet poetry peeves” in an interview question. I haven’t thought about it since, but I came across the file a few days ago and thought it might be interesting to work with the idea of “peeves” for this week’s prompt.

Following is my answer to the question, “What are your pet poetry peeves and general poetry philosophy?” I hope something in it resonates for you.

Poetry “Peeves” and Poetry “Philosophy”

There’s a big difference between writing a poem and creating art. A lot of people who write poetry work from a prose impulse and a prose logic that they arrange in lines and stanzas. They may be very capable writers, but art has to be something more than competent. It’s too easy to tell a story in a format that looks like a poem.

Some people who write poetry are so interested in being poets, telling their stories, and getting applause that they (the writers) are indelibly superimposed over their poems. The poem is the thing and it needs to be free of the poet if it can ever be called art. There is definitely a finding and loss of the self in poetry writing—that sounds contradictory, but it isn’t. The poet enters the poem to learn something; once a poem is written, the poet necessarily exits; the poem shouldn’t carry the poet along with it—all that bulk and bone can cast shadows on a poem’s light. A good poem takes risks—artistic and emotional—but never through concepts and notions or simplifications. Every poem needs a strong emotional center that doesn’t smother meaning with sentiment (I think of that as sediment)—subtlety (and that doesn’t mean obscurity) is necessary for a poem to succeed.

A poem must contain an element of mystery or surprise—first to the poet and then to the reader or listener. A poet, beyond competence, has to trust his or her readers to fill in some of the blanks. Dylan Thomas wrote, “You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick... You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps … so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.”

The best lesson a poet can learn is to write “little”—to work from the minute on the way to the large.

Now … for this week’s prompt … simply write a poem about a pet peeve—something that really irks you (and it doesn’t have to be poetry or writing related).


1. Start with a list of things that annoy you.

2. Select one item for your list and write a poem about it.

3. You may choose to write about the peeve itself or how that peeve came to be something that really “bugs” you.


1. Because this kind of poem lends itself to a good “rant,” you might try that approach.

2. You may choose to be humorous or serious.

3. Stick to specifics and don’t let emotion rule your content. Remember that this is a poem and should contain the qualities of good poetry (imagery, figures of speech, effective line breaks, sound).
4. Don’t close the door on your poem; leave it slightly ajar.

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

Pet Peeve Suggestions:
  • People who talk with their moths full of food
  • People who use poor grammar
  • People who use or pronounce words incorrectly
  • Screaming (noisy) children in churches, movie theaters, restaurants
  • Terrible service in a restaurant
  • Arrogance
  • Overuse of the word like 
  • Overuse of the word actually 
  • Vanity
  • Bigotry
  • Slow drivers in the fast lanePeople who always have to get the last word 
  • Loud Music
  • Phoniness (insincerity)
  • Liars 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Prompt #241 – Nouns and Verbs to Poems

This week’s prompt is designed to be fun, but it’s not “just for fun.” I’ve often stressed how important it is to be wary of using too many adjectives, adverbs, articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. With that in mind, here’s an experiment to further underscore how meaning is often inherent in nouns and verbs. It’s also an exercise in doing the opposite of what we often do when we write poems—we often over-write and then go back and condense. This week the challenge is to under-write and then add only the most perfect and necessary details.


1. Write a poem using only nouns and verbs. That right, no other parts of speech are allowed at this point in the writing. Be aware as you write that your poems must have meaning, so don’t just write any old things that pops into mind. Be sequential, make sense, create the “skeleton” of the poem to come.

2. After you’ve written your noun-verb poem read it carefully and add only enough details to give your poem a “body.” Be judicious is your use of modifiers, qualifiers, and don’t add any word that aren’t absolutely necessary.

3. Let the poem sit for a few hours, or even for a few days, then go back to it. What’s your poem about? Does it say what you wanted it to say? What’s its apparent subject? What’s the unspoken subject? At this point, you’ll continue to work the poem to give it its “spirit” (its emotional core).

4. It may be helpful to take a look at the example below and try to work through the guidelines using the example given before trying your own poem.


1. Decide what you want to write about before you begin.

2. Think about the meaning(s) you want to create.

3. Stick to your subject.

4. When you begin to flesh out your poem and then give it a spirit, think how you can most concisely give your poem a sense of relationship to its meaning and to its language. How can this poem be developed to explore, illuminate, and situate something about the human condition?

Example (Guideline 1):

went home
ate dinner
washed dishes
walked dog
saw stranger
remembered time
whispered words

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Prompt #240 – What's Your Ism?

Welcome back to blogging here on The Music in It, and sincerest best wishes to all for a healthy and happy New Year with lots of poetry to bring you joy!

For this first prompt of the New Year, we’re going to take a quick look back at Merriam Webster’s “Word of the Year,” for 2015, which, according to Merriam Webster isn’t a word at all but, rather, a suffix—"ism." According to MW an “ism” is “a belief, attitude, style, etc., that is referred to by a word that ends in the suffix -ism.”

Merriam-Webster’s choice is based on growing numbers of people looking up “ism” words on the dictionary’s website. Some of the most prominent “isms,” according to what the dictionary company told the Associated Press about its traffic are socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism, and terrorism.


For additional info about Merriam Webster’s Word of the Year:


With “isms” in mind, your challenge for the first prompt of 2016 is to create an “ism” of your own and then write a poem about it.


1. The “ism” that you write about cannot be one that anyone might find in a dictionary. In other words, you have to make up something that no one has ever heard of before.

2. Think about things that are important to you (or go in the opposite direction and think about things that are totally unimportant to you.)

3. Begin by making a list.

4. Choose one item from your list and make it an “ism.”

5. Them write a poem about your “ism.”

6. You can be philosophical, funny, or fantastical. Take any approach that works for you and your “ism.”

7. Ferris Bueller (in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) said, “Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.” How does your created “ism” speak to who you are?


1.  Try not to write more than a dozen or fifteen lines. Understand that overstatement and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t ramble on, and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long.

2. Show, don’t tell. Use imagery and examples to show.

3. Avoid clichés.

4. Remember what Mark Twain said about adjectives, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and avoid overusing them. Decide which adjectives your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

5. Bring your poem to closure with a dazzling dismount. (Be careful not to undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t elicit at least a sharp intake of breath.)


Dinerism (for those who love diner food)
Bookism (for those who read a lot of books)
Poetism (for those who read and/or write poetry)
Soccerism (for those who play in or watch a lot of soccer matches)
Dogism or Catism (for those who love dogs or cats)
Goofyism (for those who like to be silly)
Phoneyism (for those who are phonies)
Chocolateism (for those who love chocolate)