Saturday, March 11, 2017

Prompt #275 – Memory & Meaning (8 Prompts)

“A poem is an event, not the record of an event.”
– Robert Lowell
I thought it might be interesting to offer several related prompts for you to use during the next couple of weeks, and below you will find eight ideas or prompts for poems that deal with memories. (Of course, if none of these works for you, feel free to let memories take your poems into places of their own!)

As you write, keep in mind that poetry is a “conversation” – a conversation with the heart, the soul, the earth and the stars, ourselves, and each other. We’re here to add our voices to this conversation. With these prompts you’ll have suggestions for recalling and defining what certain memories mean to you. Often, our most vivid autobiographical memories are of emotional events, which are likely to be recalled with greater clarity and in greater detail than less emotionally charged times. Memory is a kind of middle ground in which we meet and re-meet the things we have seen and done. When we write about memories, we decide what life experiences we choose to “converse” about and share.

Whichever prompts you choose, try to reflect on a specific past experience and write a poem based on your memory of it.

Guidelines & Tips:

Concentrate on images, sounds, and rhythms. Poetry is visual and sonic in impression.  

Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “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 which ones 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.)

Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality). 

Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.

Look into your poem deeply to identify its emotional center.

Think in terms of layered meaning. A poem should always “say” more that its words. Take your readers beyond the surface of simply reading. Create “line levels” that are compelling and lead to the deeper intentionality of your poem.

Be generous with caesuras (pauses). Allow the unspoken silences of the poem their equal time. Sometimes the best part of the poem is what is left unsaid. You can create pauses with dashes, parentheses, spacing, and line breaks.

Include a figure of speech or two. 

During the process of revision and editing,  condense and condense some more. While drafting and revising, find the lifeless part or parts of your poem and give them some vitality. Be wary, though, of adding. One of the best approaches to editing is to take out rather than to add.

Remember Robert Lowell’s words above, “A poem is an event, not the record of an event.” Don’t just record your memory; recreate the memory so that your poem becomes an event in itself.

Leave your readers with something to think about.

Prompt #1 – My Earliest Memory

What is your most vivid early memory? Re-create the experience in a poem.

Prompt #2 – The Way Things Were

Do you miss the way things used to be? Are there yesterday-elements (memories) that you wish were still part of your life? Think about things like your childhood, your hometown, your country, the world, seasons past, school days, family life, advancements in technologies, relationships – anything "then" – and write a poem about something you miss. (Pay attention to details but be careful not to overdo.)

You might write a list poem in which you list things from the past that you miss. Be sure to work with your list to diminish the obviousness of a simple inventory. Use some enjambments and include details. Bringing a list poem to closure can be a challenge. After creating your list, work on a “dismount” with a bit of punch.

Are there things you might have done in the past (could have/should have) that might have impacted the way things are now? Write a poem about things you should have, might have, could have done in the past.

Prompt #3 – My Favorite Age

The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been.

– Madeleine L'Engle

For this prompt, begin by looking back and thinking about a specific time in your life that you remember as especially good. How old were you? What wonder-filled quality did being that age have? Your poem may be about a particular experience or about being a certain age in general. Some things to consider: What made that age so special? What special things happened to you? Who were the important people in your life at that age? This week, time-travel back to an age of happiness and relive it in a poem.

Prompt # 4 – Guilt Shop

Are you haunted by a guilty memory? Visit your personal “guilt shop.” Take inventory. Walk up and down the aisles. Take your guilts down from the shelves and look at them. What’s their story? What did they mean to you in the past? What do they mean to you now? How can you speak/write the language of guilt? Write a poem about one of your guilts. Think mea culpa ... big guilt ... little guilt ... the guilt that won’t let go ...

Prompt #5 – No Place Like Home

In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy only had to click her ruby heels three times while repeating, “There’s no place like home,” and there she was, back in Kansas. Going home may not be quite that easy for the rest of us, but poetry can be the way we click our heels to get there. Quite often, the journey is healing.

In poetry, home has been written as the “brick and mortar” of actual places and as places deep in our memories. A “home poem” may be about a place once shared with people who are no longer living.

For this prompt, dig deeply into your memory for the details of a home in which you once lived.

Here are some things to think about:

1. What memories do you have of a childhood home? 

2. Is there a place you’ve lived that was special to you? What made it special?

3. What happiness have you found in a particular home? What sadness? 

4. Is there anyone with whom you once shared a home and now miss? 

5. Can you think of something in your life for which “home” may be a metaphor? 

6. Is there a particular object (piece of furniture, painting, lamp, etc.) that evokes the feeling of a former home for you? 

7. How has a place you’ve lived been a “castle” for you? 

8. Is there a “haunted House” in your history (a home that haunts you in some way)? 

Prompt #6 – A Misty Memory

To remember something is to literally put it back together. Explore a hazy or difficult memory. What do you remember or not remember about an important event or time in your life? 

Prompt #7 – The Memory of a Loss

Write a poem about the loss of a loved one – family member, friend, pet.

Prompt #8 – To Remember or Not to Remember

What do you wish you could remember; what do you wish you could forget? What do you choose to remember or forget? Write a poem about something you wish you could forget, or about how you make the conscious decision not to be driven or hurt by certain memories. 


  1. Brava, Adele! So much richness and eight prompts. You leave me spoiled for choice, and I may have to try all of them!

    1. Thanks so much, Jamie! Hope the prompts work well for you!

  2. This is great! Thanks so much! I like the idea of giving my students choices.

    1. Thanks, Rich! Hope your students like the ideas.

  3. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)March 12, 2017 at 10:37 AM

    Thank you for several prompts on one subject. It's always lovely to have options, and you provide that for us this week!

  4. Big thanks, Adele!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Sandy!

  5. Great prompts, Adele! Thanks!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Kathleen!

  6. Hi, Adele,

    A lot of thought by you gone into this week's prompt and much for us to think on — much appreciated. I have taken elements from all eight prompts and combined them into Prompt #1 – My Earliest Memory — seen then as now. 

    Also, included are some fragments that appeared while responding to the prompt.

    ~ ~ ~

    With Memory Restored

    Nearer than my hand the sea.
    Mother in a boat to row
    Waits on waves for our return —
    I upon my father's shoulders
    The sand beneath his feet.

    The air, the sky, the sun right there —
    The father, mother, son —
    They are never they — but one —
    before and after —
    I — forever that awareness.

    ~ ~ ~

    Gift shop

    She's by the trellis
    around the entrance to a gift shop.

    Eyes closed
    her face to a rose
    the distance
    a kiss will close. 

    ~ ~ ~


    Mothers clasped hands
    at rest in her lap.

    ~ ~ ~

    They reach a shore

    On another land the sand
    with its selection of seashells,
    starfish, and many-colored pebbles
    where the children have
    cast off their sandals
    to play and find marooned among the rocks
    a passenger the captain of
    a seashell submarine.

    ~ ~ ~


    With a steel stair spiral 
    on concrete painted white 
    two red rings around it. 

    ~ ~ ~

    1. All wonderful, Lewis! Thank you for sharing with us!

    2. Thank you, Jamie. What's wonderful is this all round sharing!

    3. Well done, Lewis! Thanks so much for sharing the poems these prompts encouraged. Your comments and poems are always much appreciated.

  7. pink paper lanterns
    ancient prayers vibrate
    timeless miracles

    1. Hi, Risa,

      With this poem comes a feeling of joy — as though the prayer — the desired form — believed in becomes at the appropriate time a reality.

    2. Thank you, Lewis. Sharing .... I am so encouraged to continue!

    3. I love it, Risa! Written in your inimitable style—nothing superfluous and every word ringing with meaning. Thank you so much for sharing.

    4. What a lovely poem! I can hear the rustle of the paper lanterns, see their pink color, and feel the vibration of the wind (and, metaphorically, time). So much said in so few words. So prayerfully focused on the miraculous around us. Thank you for sharing this, Risa!

    5. Risa, this little poem really resonates for me. There's something very special about it that I can't quite define, and that's a compliment!

  8. Máire Ó CathailMarch 17, 2017 at 7:34 AM

    Wishing you the blessings of St. Patrick from Ireland on this grand St. Patrick's Day!

    1. Thanks so much, Maire! Wishing blessings back to you!

  9. Yes, dearest Adele! Happy St Patrick's Day!