Saturday, September 28, 2013

Prompt #165 – The "New" Poetry

I’ve heard it called “Some Kind of Language Poetry,” “Neo-Poetry,” “Out Poetry,” “That Tripe Younger Poets Are Writing,” and (my favorite) “Sudsy Rubbish.” I’ve heard it criticized as “recycled Ashbery,” “self-referential,” “deliberately unclear,” “inward and evasive.” I’m not sure what to call it (or if the poets who write it have given it a name), but it’s definitely putting the screws to the contemporary poetry we’ve come to expect as standard fare.  I admit that, initially, I found it daunting and off-putting; but I’ve come to see it as a style that’s compelling and strangely convincing.

The “new” poetry’s closest association to a particular “school” appears to be to the New York School, which began during the 1960s with poets John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara. Heavily influenced by surrealism and modernism, New York School poetry is serious but also ironical, and incorporates an urban awareness into the body of work. I also see a closeness to Language Poetry, which is formed on the premise that language dictates meaning and stresses the reader's role in determining what a poem is about. There is, of course, always some margin-blurring, and one school leads into (and borrows from) another. This one, so far at least, eludes definition; hence, my generic term “new.”

The “new” poems are often quite cleverly acrobatic (and I write that as a former gymnast and gymnastics choreographer). Their cartwheels and back-flips are charged with inventive intelligence that can be playfully deliberate and teasingly ambiguous. They suggest a freestyle performance of handsprings and leaps propelled by wordy miscellany and oblique content, all choreographed into line breaks and stanzaic arrangements that are characteristically tight. Clearly, the voice is unique and, whether current and streetwise or deep in antiquity, the “new” poets know how to nail a dismount.

I might accuse the “new” poets of using too many adjectives; but, most of the time, the adjectives, though abundant, are startling, memorable, and used in unique combinations, curious admixtures of words and allusions (and even when they defy conventional understanding, they still sound very cool).

I’m drawn to the “new” poems’ longer lines, occasional absences of terminal punctuation, syntactical negotiations, and disregard for levelheaded “sense.” I’m persuaded by the poems’ tendency toward the romantic and surreal (dreaminess rather than poetic muscularity), a sense of longing (perhaps even neediness), and a sharp edge (honed by linguistic acuity). The poems offer drama, tonal turns, and the dazzle of written language. I see in them, as well, a sense of Hart Crane’s optimism and something of the same social and artistic longing for redemption. There is also a sense of the futility of it all. This “new” poetry is nothing if not powered by passion for words and buttressed by an energy that’s dynamic and fresh. I’m reminded here of a line from Adam Fitzgerald's “The Dialogue” (The Late Parade, W. W. Norton/Liveright, 2013): “It’s extraordinary. It is extraordinary.

The “new” poets ramp up language’s natural music with alliteration, assonance, consonance, anaphora, and scattered rhymes. Edgy (sometimes intellectual without being academic), the “new” poems are typically lyrical in their movement away from the linear progression of narrative poetry. Reading them is like walking through a city in which all the windows are open, and conversations converge.

There is about this style a sense of entitlement, but that’s not intended as uncomplimentary or pejorative. Every era has its share of entitled poets, that is, poets who break and change the rules and do something important. Remember (among other schools and movements) the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso), the Surrealists (Breton, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Éluard), and the Imagists (Pound, Williams, HD)? Lately, when I read poems by Adam Fitzgerald and Timothy Donnelly (among others), I can’t help thinking about previous game changers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and e. e. cummings.

I don’t always understand the “new” poetry, but I’m intrigued by it and find it substantially more interesting than some of the rambling narratives, dreary lyricals, and technically perfect but ordinary sonnets and villanelles that we often find in journals and online. It would appear that poetry needs, from time to time, a reorientation, a readjustment—the shock of some discovery—and this “school” of poets is providing just that. 

This week, read the example poems very carefully, and then try to write a poem in a similar style.

1. Break a few rules.
2. Write something different, step out of your poetry routine (rut or comfort zone).
3. Play with language, work on lushness and texture in your phrasing.
4. Make some magical music (internal and off rhymes, alliteration, assonance, dissonance, anaphora).
5. Don’t, whatever you do, simply tell a story, but “tell” something.
6. Start with a theme or mood in mind and let that “concept” power the poem.
7. Include startling images and unique combinations of words and phrases.
8. Do something different with punctuation.
8. Make up a word or a quirky expression.
10. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
11. Remember that every poem should make a reader gasp at least once (in appreciative amazement).
12. Surprise yourself.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Prompt #164 – Jigsaw Puzzles

Years ago, when I was a teenager living home with my parents, there was always a card table set up in a corner of our sun porch with one jigsaw puzzle or another that we all worked on—sometimes together, sometimes individually. My mom and dad had a great knack for selecting puzzles that were either wonderfully beautiful or, in some way, educational. Remembering those old puzzles led me to wonder how jigsaw puzzle imagery might direct and power a poem.

By way of history, it’s believed that British mapmaker John Spilbury constructed the first jigsaw puzzle around 1760. He took one of his world maps, pasted it to sheet of hardwood, and cut out the countries with a fine-bladed saw to create a visual aid that he used to help children learn world geography.  

Jigsaw puzzles are deceptively simple and straightforward in concept: fit the pieces together to make a whole. Psychological studies, however, have recognized several thought processes required to make the identification process and the process of applying identified shapes to overall patterns. Interestingly, in an interview posted on, former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove described her writing process as “similar to assembling a jigsaw puzzle.”

This week, think about jigsaw puzzles and the imagery and symbolisms they suggest, and then write a poem based on how your life (or some aspect of your life) is like a jigsaw puzzle.

1. Focus on form, content, and trope.
2. Try to work in something different with syntax, some unusual sentence structure that will create an element of surprise, perhaps something that suggests a “jigsaw puzzle."
3. Be sure that your line break “logic” is clear but not intrusive. Enjambments lend themselves well to this subject.

Things To Think About:

1. In what ways is your life, metaphorically, a jigsaw puzzle?
2. What’s the one jigsaw puzzle in your life that you haven’t been able to piece together?
3. What are some of the “interlocking pieces” in your life?
4. Who’s the biggest “puzzler” in your experience? 
5. Imagine that you find an old jigsaw puzzle in a box, but there’s no indication of what the finished image should look like. As you put the puzzle together, what emerges? What’s the subject of the finished puzzle?
6. Write about a life experience (“jigsaw puzzle”) in which you found that there were more pieces than you needed (or could handle).
7. Write a poem about a jigsaw puzzle that was left unfinished.
8. If you can’t quite relate your life or particular experiences to a jigsaw puzzle, try writing a poem about an actual jigsaw puzzle.


(A visual poem in which sixty-three individual fragments of text are cut into the shapes of jigsaw puzzle pieces and are placed together in a rectangular grid.) 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Prompt #163 – Changes

As summer draws to a close and autumn begins, there’s a familiar feeling of seasonal change in the air. That turned my thinking to changes in general and how changes impact our lives. So ... this week, let’s not go with an obvious change-of-season theme; instead, let’s write about changes (other than seasonal) that have occurred in our lives.

The psychology of change is an involved subject but, without getting into the details, change (for most of us) is accompanied by a range of feelings, including relief, hope, fear, disquiet, or expectation. Sometimes we resist change. Along with change may come feelings of impermanence, loss of control, uncertainly, self-doubt, fear of surprises, and concern about the ripple effects of change. Sometimes, though, we welcome change and look forward to happy outcomes.

Things To Think About:

1. Are you usually comfortable or uncomfortable about changes in your life?

2. Frame of mind can impact feelings about change (fearful people fear change, hopeful people look forward to changes for the better). Has your frame of mind been a consideration in how you dealt with a change in your life?

3. Have you ever had a change forced upon you (change of job, position, marital status)?

4. How has a particular change rocked your status quo or shaken you out of your comfort zone?

5. Have you experienced a change that you feared but which brought positive results?

6. How has a change in your life made you stronger?

7. Have you ever had a significant “change of heart” about someone or something?

8. What does the statement “people change, feelings change” mean to you?

9. What's the biggest change in your life?

10. What change do you see in yourself following a specific life experience or series of experiences?


1. You might start by making a list of important changes that have occurred in your life and then selecting one to write about. Think about changes you have resisted or welcomed, and why. Think what the outcome of a particular change was.

2. Try to reach the universal through the personal. Think about how readers will “feel” your change incident.

3. Now, for an added challenge: I’d like you to include a change within your poem—that is, a switch from the change you began writing about to something else—a shift in subject, tone, thinking, imagery. Work with making an unexplained connection between the two parts of your poem, and be sure to think about what you want to “say” and what you actually “say.”


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Prompt #162 – Snapping Out of Your Rut (a.k.a. The Rut Buster) by Guest Prompter Renée Ashley


As poets, we’ve all experienced the routines that become ruts in our writing—we become stuck in a bog of repeated subjects, themes, and styles; we write in the same tired voices; and we need the occasional jolt of something new to get us unstuck. (I think that’s true for bloggers too!)

Accordingly, I thought it might be fun for you to work with a prompt by another poet from time to time, so here’s our first guest prompt from my dear friend and distinguished poet Renée Ashley.

Renée lives in northern New Jersey with her husband (Jack) and two dogs (Mona and Steve). She teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Creative Writing and Literature for Educators programs and is the author of five poetry collections (Salt (Brittingham Prize in Poetry, Univ. of Wisconsin Press), The Various Reasons of Light, The Revisionist’s Dream, Basic Heart  (X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press), and Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea (Subito Press Poetry Prize). She is also the author of two chapbooks (The Museum of Lost Wings  and The Verbs of Desiring), as well as a novel (Someplace Like This). A portion of her poem “First Book of the Moon” is etched in marble in Penn Station Terminal in Manhattan, part of a permanent installation by the artist Larry Kirkland. Currently poetry editor for The Literary Review, she has received fellowships in both poetry and prose from New Jersey State Council on the Arts and a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. Read more at her website:

And now, this week’s prompt from Renée—a great challenge—one that will make you focus and really think about what you’re writing. Have fun with it!

Thanks for sharing with us, Renée!


This is an exercise I use to snap writers out of their ruts. I have my students do it until they make it work. It takes a kind of concentration that subject prompts don't guarantee—a conscious effort to break up the surface of a poem, yet keep it grounded, while putting forth a more ambitious language-body than many writers are given to. It reminds the brain that there are other ways to work than the ones you fall into without resistance, ways to enlarge our possibilities for discovery while we're writing. And when this becomes too easy, there are lots of great grammatical ways to crank up the stakes! It's a sort of eye-opener for many. This is it:

Write a 10-line poem

— that uses NO abstract nouns
— that has at least one concrete noun in each line
— that does not have a narrative (a story line)
— and that has at least 3 sentence fragments


Here’s an example by Hank Kalet from a workshop with Renée in which she used this prompt. Thanks, Hank, for permission to use your poem. 

Original draft, based on the prompt:


Flash of yellow and blue
hotter than the July afternoon.
Red Oldsmobile burns,
roadside Belt Parkway,
its flames scrape the sky,
razor-like, pitching smoke
up and across the inlet.
No clouds, just soot.
And the terrible smell
Of burning rubber

Final draft:


With a flash of yellow and blue,
hotter than July's afternoon,
the red Oldsmobile burns on the roadside.
Its flames scrape the sky; it pitches smoke
up and across the inlet. No clouds, just
soot. And the terrible smell
of burning.


An abstract noun refers to states, events, concepts, feelings, qualities, etc., that have no physical existence. Abstract nouns convey things we can’t experience though our senses—we can’t see, hear, touch, smell, or taste them; abstract nouns don’t exist as material objects and refer to intangible things. Examples of abstract nouns include: love, anger, hate, peace, loyalty, pride, courage, honesty, deceit, compassion, bravery, patriotism, friendship, truth, justice, faith, freedom, serenity, and joy.

A concrete noun is noun that refers to a physical object. Time is an abstract noun because it has no physical existence, but watches and clocks are concrete nouns because they exist materially.  Concrete nouns refer to things that we can experience through our five senses—we can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste them. Examples of concrete nouns include: flowers, rain, pizza, fish, perfume, air, thunder, and lightning.

A narrative is a story line; narrative poetry typically tells a story.

A sentence fragment is not a complete sentence, it can’t stand alone in the sense that a sentence can. In poetry, fragments often “behave” like sentences, but they don’t express complete thoughts.