Saturday, July 2, 2011

Poetry Prompt #60 - Last Lines First

When Patricia Smith read in the Carriage House Poetry Series recently, she mentioned that she usually writes the last line of a poem before she writes anything else. That way, she explained, she always knows where her poem is going. For this week's prompt, let's give Patricia's approach a try. 

Knowing where your poem is headed presents a unique challenge. As you write your way up, you’ll find countless options for choice as you plot a course through the possibilities. It’s a bit like knowing the destination of a trip and then discovering the roads you’ll take to get there. 

1. To begin, and to get things rolling, think of a subject and Google it. Yes, that’s right. Google it!

Did you know that poetry created using search engines is called flarf poetry? Although, many don’t consider flarf real poetry, the form (created by poet Gary Sullivan) is defined as an avant garde movement of the 20th and early 21st centuries in which practitioners mine the Internet with unusual search items and work the results into sometimes funny, sometimes disconcerting poems.

Flarfing isn’t our goal, but starting with the flarf method and Googling a subject may be helpful. So, enter your word and search away.

2. Check out some of the sites that come up and extract words, phrases, and ideas that interest you. Make a list.

3. After you’ve compiled your list, consider the items you’ve recorded. Has connecting to the Net made any “connections” for you? Does anything in your list resonate in a special way?  Has something you’ve discovered triggered a particular image? A memory? Now try working a few of the things in your list into images or phrases.

4. Pick one of your images or phrases and write a line of poetry that includes it. This will be the concluding line in your poem. (You may want try this with a few subjects and then select the one you find most interesting.)

5. After you’ve written your last line, work backwards to compose the rest of the poem. Write to your last line, but, as always, let the poem lead you (even if that means changing your last line when the rest of the poem is written).


  1. I've actually written a few last lines first and, in an instance or two, the poem's direction changed so much as I wrote up that I changed the last line after the rest of the poem was written. It's so important, as you often remind us, to let the poem lead you!

    Thanks, as always!


  2. Thanks for your comment, Jamie!

    I really do believe that poems have their own energy (spirit, if you will) and it's important to let them lead us.

    I love this related craft tip (not last line first but the poem's energy) from Renee Ashley as it appeared in one of Diane Lockward's newsletters:

    This month's craft tip comes from Renee Ashley. As the author of five books of poetry, the recipient of numerous awards, a long-time poet with the Dodge Foundation, and a member of the faculty in the low-res MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Renee knows whereof she speaks. Check out her recent collection, Basic Heart, winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize. Here's Renee's tip:

    Every good poem has at least two subjects--the obvious one, its material, and the unarticulated one, its matter. Don't assume, because you've told the story, say, of your aunt, her encounter with the man from Bolivia, and her broken heart, that your poem is complete--a set of lines that treats only material is usually just an anecdote. While you're writing, give the poem its head; give it the freedom to swerve. Keep writing until your poem discovers its second subject, and, maybe, a third. Make sure the poem has layers of meaning--it's your job to push past that surface subject to find the real, unspoken one. Writing is an act of discovery. Don't settle for what you meant to say.

  3. I never heard of flarf poetry before - sounds bogus to me if not downright silly! Some people will call anything "art."

    Renee's tip is a good one.

    Thanks for another great (and informative) prompt.

  4. This is a very interesting approach, and I've enjoyed experimenting with it.

    For me, though, a poem reaches a point where it needs to write itself to a certain extent, and that typically includes the last line. I rarely know where a poem is going when I begin writing. Sometimes it goes nowhere and is consigned to the "maybe someday" section of my notebook. Other times, the poems takes on its own life and leads me to its closure. It was great to try writing the last line first and affirming my own process "in the process."

    I'm grateful, as I'm sure your other readers are, for the great variety you always offer us!

    Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)

  5. Thanks for your comment, Maire! My process is similar to yours!


    On a finishing line by Linda Radice

    We had an agreement you and I
    That this sprawling hospital complex
    would never get between us.

    We would carve out time for my
    afternoon visits, discount doctors’
    orders and be rebellious with nurses

    bearing medications in small paper cups.
    And our pact held out well until that
    humid sweltering day

    they stopped me at the door.
    And when I entered all I could see was
    your heart beat in uneven purple lines.

    Basil Rouskas, All rights reserved
    July 26, 2011

  7. Very nice, Basil!

    I'm so glad our workshop "experiment" worked for you! Be sure to let Linda know that you've posted here so she can see where you took her line!