Saturday, May 29, 2010

Poetry Prompt #7 - What We Remember

This is a pattern poem to help "jump start" your writing process.  The poem will be about a memory – something real that is important to you, a poem sourced to the past. 

(a) Write a word or two to set a time "backdrop" that you associate with your memory. The word(s) with which you begin can suggest a season, month, day, occasion, morning, afternoon, night, etc. End with a period.

(b) On the same line start an image that characterizes your time word(s). This is an image – descriptive, evocative. Stay in the present tense – the poem begins now, in the present to create a sense of immediacy. Find a natural pause in your image and go to the next line to complete it. You may need more than one line to do this. Remember: break to a new line when you “feel” a pause. Use as many lines as you need, but keep it fairly brief. Punctuate as you would in prose.

(c) Now add a second image, still in the present tense. Use as many lines as you need.

(d) In the next several lines, you get to the memory. If you look at the sample, you’ll see the ellipsis at the end of the last line. This doesn’t signal the end of the poem! At this point you begin to "tell" your memory. You don’t need to use words like “I remember” (you may if you wish, but there are better ways to make the transition from present to past). From this point on, you will work through the memory. Try to use alliteration, assonance, and figures of speech – just don’t overdo – and, beware the dreaded Prose-o-saurus (fight the prose impulse and remember that a memory poem is not a journal or diary entry).

(e) Finally, bring the poem to closure – not a summation or moralization. You don’t need to overtly make your point in the last line or tell your readers what the rest of the poem means – the body of the poem should do that. Remember that less (a quick, sharp punch) is often more, especially at the end of a poem.

Sample Draft:

(a) Late night. (b) Deepening dark,
(b) and no moon.
(c) Curtains move in the windows –
(c) ghosts of ourselves
beneath the pale and perfect stars.
(d) It is now and night
(d) and twenty years ago …
(e) ___________________________

After you’ve drafted the poem, edit, revise, and tweak. It’s okay to revamp the pattern at the beginning and rewrite if you wish (make the poem uniquely yours).

Work on line breaks, and remember that there are two effective ways to end lines within a poem. Lines may be enjambed, (where one line flows smoothly into the next with little pause), or lines may be end-stopped (when readers pause before moving into the next line). Enjambment works well when you build a scene, description, or feeling and want the reader to move quickly into the next line; end-stops work when you want to slow the reader down to emphasize a word or image, complete a sequence, or create a more fragmented, scattered feeling. End-stopped lines require appropriate punctuation (period, colon, dash) and are best when they conclude with a strong word.

While tweaking, look for adjectives that you don’t need. Be wary of "ing" endings (gerunds) and the passive voice. Be ready to eliminate prepositions or prepositional phrases (i.e., change a phrase like “the whisper of a church” to “a church’s whisper." Polish your poem’s form (stanzas, use of space).

Choose a title (often a significant phrase from the poem).

Here's a fully realized poem that began with this prompt.

By Which
by Rev. Alex D. Pinto

We do not speak of winter or what happened.
How we longed for this: the almost-rose that
leans against the fence, the iris bed a promise
that will be fulfilled – all promises fulfilled –
the tree, the hill – the ether shift and how we
learned what things are fragile, what endures,
the toxins and the cures. The window and the
hyacinth are rigged with scent. She lives and
nonetheless, the sutured hole that was a breast –
we prayed for this: the light unthinned, the grace
by which we know it, the grace we cannot earn.

Acknowledgment: The Carriage House Poetry Series Tenth Anniversary Anthology
Copyright © 2008 by Muse-Pie Press. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of Muse-Pie Press.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Poets' Death Masks (Slideshow)

Here's a strange "poetry subject" but interesting enough to share!

While I was doing the research for an article on Victorian photography, post mortem photos, and related customs, I came across photographs of death masks that included some famous poets.

While our modern sensibilities might find these objects morbid, I found myself looking at the images with a kind of reverence and fascination for the final "impressions" of poets whom we "know" today by their works. Click the arrow below to see a few.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Poetry Prompt #6 - Quotable Quotes: The Cento

Cento is the Latin word for patchwork (as in patchwork quilt). In poetry, a cento is made entirely of lines taken from poems by other authors. The rules are simple: no more than one line may be taken from any one poem; any number of quotes is acceptable; and centos may be rhymed or unrhymed. Remember that “borrowing” other poets’ words is typically regarded as an honorific practice when the work is well-done and sources are properly credited. Be sure to provide credits (usually at the end of your poem).

Historically, the cento is ancient. Early Greeks built poems from such works as The Iliad and The Odyssey. Roman poets composed centos taken from the works of Virgil, and Renaissance poets worked with lines from Petrarch and Cicero. Modern cento forms include variations (i.e., a single borrowed line that’s echoed throughout a poem), and today’s centos are often witty or ironic. 

Be sure to read “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” (a cento by John Ashbury that takes its title from Edward Lear and includes lines from poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and Lord Byron, (, and "Ode: Salute to the New York School 1950-1970 " by Peter Gizzi,

1. Centos are fun to experiment with and are reasonably easy to “put together.” For this prompt activity, create a cento based on a particular idea or theme (don’t simply collage randomly). Use a poetry anthology if you have one handy. Alternatively, the Internet offers many poetry sites at which you can look for poems by poets or by titles and themes (you might want to try

Example: Here’s a cento example on the theme of “goodbye” that I “put together” yesterday:

That Was
That was the real world (I have touched it once),
which, though silent to the ear,
licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
where wings have memory of wings…

Ah, sweet! Even now in that bird’s song,
even now I may confess,
we are what life made us, and shall be –
more glory and more grief than I can tell.

All pleasures and all pains, remembering –
(I learnt the verbs of will, and had my secret).
These are the years and the walls and the door.
Now, whether it were by peculiar grace,

(long after the days and the seasons) –
better by far that you should forget and smile.
I lift my eyes in a light-headed credo,
then let you reach your hat and go.

Line 1: (Edwin Muir, “The Labyrinth”)
Line 2: (Percy Busshe Shelley, “LinesWritten in the Bay of Lerici”)
Line 3: (T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)
Line 4: (William Butler Yeats, “Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation")

Line 5: (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The Blessed Damozel”)
Line 6: (Alexander Pushkin, “I Loved You”)
Line 7: (Algernon Charles Swinburne, “At a Month’s End”)
Line 8: (Emily Bronte, “Stanzas”)

Line 9: (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”)
Line 10: (Dylan Thomas, “From Love’s First Fever To Her Plague”)
Line 11: (Elizabeth Bishop, “Visit to St Elizabeths”)
Line 12: (William Wordsworth, “Resolution and Independence”)

Line 13: (Arthur Rimbaud, “”Barbarian”)
Line 14: (Christina Rossetti, “Remember”)
Line 15: (Seamus Heaney, “ Remembered Columns”)
Line 16: (Hart Crane, “The Bridge”)

2. After creating a cento, you may want to try working on something more original: write a poem that is uniquely your own but begins with a quotation/epigraph by a famous poet (be sure to credit the poet). Your poem should relate to the quotation, carry its idea into your experience, and express the quote’s meaning through images that are new-struck and resonant.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Poetry Prompt #5 - Through the Viewfinder

Locate an old photo album (or a box of old photos) and spend some time looking at the pictures. What do those old photos “say” to you?

Select one photo. The photo may be of you, someone you’ve been close to, an event from your past, or may even be a scenic photo of a special place.

Take yourself into the photo you've chosen: jot down impressions, memories, details. and emotions. Then work on corresponding images and work them into a poem.

As you pause to look at old photos, and as you work on this poem, think about caesura – the art of the pause in poetry. Caesura is a natural break in a line of poetry, usually near the middle of the line although placement may vary to achieve different effects. Be aware that pauses are important in poetry – they can be used to create drama, to emphasize feelings, and to add meaning. You can create pauses in many ways, particularly through punctuation (periods, commas, and semicolons). Remember that caesura is dictated by natural speech rhythms rather than by metrics; a pause at the end of a line is not caesura.

Well-known examples of caesura (pauses are indicated by //):

Alexander Pope – “To err is human; // to forgive, divine.” [note the semi-colon before the pause]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning – “How do I love thee? // Let me count the ways." [note the question mark before the pause]
John Donne – “Death, // be not proud, though some have called thee” [note the comma before the pause]

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Poetry Prompt #4 - Linked Poem

The video below (scroll down a bit to view it) is the result of a Facebook experiment in which twelve writers from the US, Canada, and Ireland wrote a linked poem on the theme of remembering. The writers included Ray Brown, Marina Antropow Cramer, Adam Fitzgerald, Gina Larkin, Diane Lockward, Adele Kenny, Leah Maines, Tomás Ó Cárthaigh, Donna Gagnon Pugh, Linda Radice, Susanna Rich, and Joe Weil. (Video photos courtesy of

Many linked poems take inspiration from the Japanese form of poetry called Renga (連歌) written by two or more poets. Formal Renga have numerous rules and can be challenging to compose. The form, however, is sometimes adapted for less rigid composition of a simple linked-verse or sequenced poem with multiple lines. In this kind of "relaxed" exercise, one writer begins the poem, and each subsequent writer adds a line that relates to the preceding line. These lines are typically "linked" through obvious cause and effect or comparison and contrast. Sometimes, however, line relationships may be less obvious, surprising, and even mysterious.

Imagery, figures of speech, alliteration, assonance, anaphora, and other poetic devices should be part of the process but, most importantly, this is an exercise designed for sharing and for having fun. Get some friends together and give it a try!

Here's a suggested format, but remember that guidelines are entirely flexible:

1. Plan how to share the writing experience (in person, via email, on Facebook, through other electronic means).
2. Select a group of poets/friends with whom you'd like to write, and get in touch.
3. Establish a theme and whatever "rules" you think may be appropriate. Make sure everyone in the group knows what's expected. (If you're interested, check out the rules for formal Renga.)
4. Write the first link, and share it with the next writer in your group (who will pass it along to the next, and so on).
5. Ask the last writer to bring the poem to closure or, alternatively, write the last link yourself.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Poetry Prompt #3 - Ubi Sunt

Ubi sunt is a phrase taken from the Latin Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt
(“Where are those who were before us?”).

Ubi sunt began in Medieval Latin, to suggest the mutability of all things and how transitory life is. In poetry, ubi sunt often took the form of a series of questions that ask where the beautiful, the strong, and the good have gone.
In general, ubi sunt is a poetic theme in which the poet asks, “Where are they?” Examples are found in Shakespeare (i.e., in Hamlet – “Alas, poor Yorick”), in Nashe’s “Beauty is But a Flower,” and in Rossetti’s translation of François Villon’s “The Ballad of Dead Ladies.”
An example of 20th century music that incorporates the ubi sunt motif is Pete Seeger’s 1960s folk song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Ubi sunt is also seen in Tolkien’s poem in The Two Towers: “Where now the horse and the rider?” (based on the 10th century poem “The Wanderer”).
Begin by making a list of questions about things that are gone. Reflect on your list; if it’s very long, pare it down to a specific theme or content area. Then work the list into a poem. Experiment with stanzas, and plan how many lines in each, or use a stichic (one stanza) format. Add a simile or metaphor. Think about the sound of your poem (the music in it!), and incorporate some alliteration, assonance, or internal rhyme. Work for a sense of immediacy. Watch out for “ing” endings and too many adjectives. Keep your language fresh – avoid clichés. Remember that sometimes less really is more – try to limit your poem to no more than 25 lines.
Here’s an example of ubi sunt that I wrote for Tiferet Journal (Issue 4, Page 28).

By Adele Kenny

Are they there in that place where
stars and human hearts begin? Were
there God-shaped hills to guide them
toward light? A sympathetic angel to
lead the way? Was it as simple as
opening their eyes, unstartled,
unblinking, in a luminous room?
Do they remember the moon’s half-
face and full, the deep sky trestled
with clouds or marked with stars?
Do they still know the river, windbud
and thorn, and the way skin feels?
Have they been transfigured or risen
faceless, their hands too vague, too
shapeless, to hold? And if there is
music, does any refrain tug memory
toward the tattered screen door, the
way its hinges creaked as it shut,
softly, behind them?

Copyright © 2006 by TIFERET: A Journal of Spiritual Literature.
Reprinted by permission.