Saturday, March 26, 2016

Prompt #251 – National Poetry Month 2016

"Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own."
― Dylan Thomas

Established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month begins on April 1st and runs through April 30th. The largest literary celebration in the world, this month-long celebration of poetry is held every April “to widen the attention of individuals and the media to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern.” During April, poets, poetry lovers, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and schools throughout the United States celebrate poetry.

One of the challenges of NPM is to read and/or write a poem every day. So ... in the spirit of the observance, as I’ve done for the past five years, I offer you what I hope will inspire you on each of April’s thirty days.


1. Each day, think about the key word (in caps next to the date).

2. Then click on the link below the title, and read the poem—one each day of the month. Let each day’s poem inspire you.

3. After thinking a bit about the content of the poem you read, identify something in that poem that “strikes a chord” for you.

4. Working from that “chord,” try to write a poem of your own that somehow incorporates the key word (doesn’t have to be exact) and that may or may involve content similar to the example poem.

5. I’ve deliberately made some leaps in the ways my key words sometimes differ from the content of the poems to which I’ve matched them—take some leaps yourself!


1. Don’t feel compelled to match your content to the examples’—in fact, do just the opposite and make your poems as different as you possibly can. The inspiration titles and the example poems are only intended to trigger some poetry-spark that’s unique to you, to guide your thinking a little—don’t let them enter too deeply into your poems, don’t let their content become your content.

2. Let your reactions to the key words and poems surprise you. Begin with no expectations, and let your poems take you where they want to go.

3. Give the topics your own spin, twist and turn them, let the phrases trigger personal responses: pin down your ghosts, identify your frailties, build bridges and cross rivers, take chances!

4. Keep in mind that writing a poem a day doesn’t mean you have to “finish” each poem immediately. You can write a draft each day and set your drafts aside to work on later.

5. I've added some additional tips after the list of dates and poems, so be sure to check them out!

6. Whatever you do this month, find some time (a little or a lot) to enjoy poetry!

As always, your sharing is welcome,
so please consider this an invitation to 
post your thoughts and poems as comments!

Regular weekly prompts will resume on April 30th.
In the meantime, I wish you a wonderful and poetry-filled April!
Happy National Poetry Month!

“If You Forget Me” by Pablo Neruda

“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

April 3—AGING
“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats

“Where the Mind Is Without Fear” by Rabindranath Tagore

“Echo” by Christina Rossetti

April 6—MUSIC
“I Am in Need of Music” by Elizabeth Bishop

“A Golden Day” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

“Alone Looking at the Mountain” by Li Po

“A Moment of Happiness” by Jalal al-Din Rumi

April 10—LOVE
“April Love” by Ernest Christopher Dowson

April 11—POETRY
“My Husband Discovers Poetry” by Diane Lockward

“Patterns” by Amy Lowell

April 13—RAIN
“The Rain” by Robert Creeley

April 14—BOREDOM
“Dream Song 14” by John Berryman

“The Promise” by Jane Hirschfield

“Twilight” by Henri Cole

“One Good Thing” by Edwin Romond

“The Risk of Listening to Brahms” by Michael T. Young

April 19—CHANGES
“The Moment I Knew My Life Had Changed” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

April 20—WAKING
“Why I Wake Early’ by Mary Oliver (Audio)

“Failure” by Philip Schultz

“Atlantis—A Lost Sonnet” by Eavan Boland

“I Have a Theory about Reflection” by Renee Ashley

April 24—YES
“Yes” by Catherine Doty

“The Astronomer” By Laura Boss

“To the Next Centuries” by James Richardson

April 27—CARS
“Which Way Is Up?” by Tony Gruenewald

“You Are My GPS” by Linda Radice

“The Star-Ledger” by BJ Ward

“A History of Weather” by Billy Collins


1. 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).

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

3. 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.)

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

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

6. Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.

7. Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”

8. If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.

9. 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.

10. 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 make your readers gasp.)

Happy Poetry Month!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Prompt #250 –Who?

Have you ever wanted to be someone other than who you are? This week, try to write a poem in which you pretend to be someone else. In other words, adopt a persona. Get out of your own head. Re-create yourself as someone you admire or someone you make up. Be anyone but yourself.


1. Give some thought to people you admire or would like to know. These may be everyday people, family members, friends, famous people, people in the news, media reporters, entertainment industry people, or sports stars.

2. You might begin by making a list of people from whom to choose. You can add brief notes to your list that include personality traits, etc. about the people you've listed.

3. Select one person and jot down some detailed things that help you get inside that person’s head.

4. Begin your first draft and see where your thoughts take you.

5. Stay focused on a particular quality of character, a particular event, or something very specific about the person you’ve chosen. Remember, you’re going to become that person for the space of your poem. You won’t write as yourself but, rather, you’ll write as the person you selected in step 3.


1. As always, show, don’t tell.  Whether the person you become is real or imagined, don’t tell abut the person—use examples of behaviors to demonstrate who that person is.

2. Work toward getting rid of pesky relative pronouns (that, which, whom, who). If you find one in your draft, try to rewrite the line without it.

3. Avoid including too many details.

4. Take out adjectives where they aren’t really necessary.

5. Stay away from prepositional phrases and “ing” endings.

6. Include the person's name somewhere in the poem. (A note at the beginning or end would be fine.)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Prompt #249 –Telling the Story

We’ve worked with narrative poems in the past (see Prompt #171, November 9, 2013) and, because of the genre’s popularity, we’re revisiting it this week. The challenge will be to write a personal narrative (a personal memory) in a poem and to write it in such a way that you leave out enough details for the reader to “fit” into your poem. In other words, it will be your story, but you'll need to think about why that story will be interesting, and perhaps even compelling, to your readers.

Historically, poetry has its roots in an oral tradition that predates all other forms of modern communication. Before there were printed books, people told stories through narrative poems. Early narrative verse used rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and vivid language—easily remembered and recited and, arguably, the first examples of performance poetry.

Early narratives were ballads, epics, idylls, and lays. Many of these are long, especially examples such as Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” and Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” Narrative poems have also been collected into interrelated groups, as with Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

As a “genre,” narrative poetry has retained importance throughout written history. Over the past thirty years, the form has made a comeback against lyric poetry, which dominated the last century. Contemporary narrative poems are dramatic and compelling and deal with personal histories, losses, regrets, and recollections. Today’s narrative poems focus on brief but emotionally intense moments; they are typically powered by imagery and buttressed by nuance in ways that distinguish them from prose memoirs.

Narrative poems initiate contact between poets and readers; they bring people together through mutual experiences—specific details may be different, but they “speak” to the shared situations of both poet and audience. Importantly, they teach us that we’re not alone.

Personal narratives sometimes fail to move beyond the anecdotal and simply recount an experience that the poet has had. A great personal narrative, though, has to be larger and more meaningful than an anecdotal poem. In other words, a great personal narrative can’t rest on its anecdotal laurels and must do more than simply tell a story. It needs to approach the universal through the personal, it needs to mean more than the story it tells, and the old rule “show, don’t tell” definitely applies.


1. Don’t simply relate your narrative or tell your readers what they should feel. Your job is to show and not to tell.

2. Avoid “emotion words” such as “anger”—bear in mind that when someone is angry he or she is more likely to slam a door than to say, “Hey, I’m angry.” You can show anger or any other emotion without ever using the words. Let actions and sensory images lead your readers to understand the emotions in the poem. As the writer of a personal narrative poem, it’s your job to include revealing details, not to interpret or explain them for your readers. You may want to avoid the passive voice, “to be” verbs, and “ing” endings as these can inhibit the process of showing rather than telling.

3. Decide upon the approach you’d like to take in your personal narrative: chronological, flashback, or reflective. In chronological, you structure your poem around a time-ordered sequence of events; in flashback, you write from a perspective of looking back; and in reflective, you write thoughtfully or “philosophically” about the story you tell.

4. Begin writing in the first person singular, but feel free to change that once you’ve completed a couple of drafts.

5. Be aware that merely telling your story and arranging it in lines and stanzas won’t make it a poem. Think about the qualities of writing that make good poems good and include some of them in this poem.


1. Remember that narrative poems often fail because the poets have included too much detail.  Leave out details that might mean something to you but aren’t essential to the narrative you’ve chosen to tell.

2. Watch out for over-use of adjectives.

3. Don’t waste words introducing characters or describing scenes—jump in with both feet.

4. Don’t ramble. Be concise and get to the point. Yes, there should be a point to your narrative—something that’s something bigger than the experience, something with which readers will be able to relate. Along that line, be sure to leave room in your poem for the reader to enter and “belong.”


Click Title to Read “At the Factory Where My Mother Worked”

By Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Prompt #248 – Aging

 Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind it, it doesn't matter.
                                                                                              —Mark Twain

Like it or not, aging is something we’re all doing—right now—regardless of how old or young we may be. Have you thought about getting older and what that means to you?

Last Thursday night, I read in a series directed by poets Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Laura Boss. My co-reader was a wonderful poet whom you know from previous posts—Joe Weil. We prepared a back-and-forth reading, both of us at the mic at the same time, taking turns reading on predetermined subjects. One of those subjects was aging. The next morning, I happened upon former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s presentation on just that topic, and I began to think about a related prompt.

This week, the challenge is to reflect upon getting older
and to write a poem about it.


1. Free write for a while, and see what happens.
2. Let your free write sit for an hour or so (or even longer), and then go back to it. Read it carefully and select an important point that you made. (This might be a specific incident or a more general reflection.)
3. Begin a poem based on something in your free write.


1. Some subjects you might consider include:
  • The Difference Between Getting Older and Getting Old
  • Wishing You Were Older When You Were Young 
  • Waiting to be Old Enough to Do Something
  • Moving Ahead
  • The Past
  • Self-Knowledge and Getting Older
  • The Wisdom of Age
  • Aging Parents
  • Religion and Aging
  • Retirement
  • Memory? What memory?

2. Remember, even if you are a younger writer, things are different now than they were five or ten years ago. You might want to consider that in your poem.

3. You may want to write from the perspective of a much younger you or even the you that you will be years from now.

4.  William Butler Yeats looks at aging with regret in his poem “When You Are Old”:

          When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
           And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
           And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
           Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

However, you might take a humorous approach in your poem.

5. Avoid sentimentality!

6. Keep in mind that adjectives are descriptors and, in general, they lack the power of nouns and verbs. Often, adjectives are just spectators at a prizefight, the real power and punch come through nouns and verbs. In fact, adjectives sometimes duplicate the meaning of the nouns they describe and are therefore redundant. Too many adjectives can ruin an otherwise good poem. So, as Mark Twain 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.”

7. Avoid overuse of conjunctions such as and, remove prepositional phrases wherever you can, and stay away from the passive voice.

Examples (Google titles, all may be found online):
“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats
“Age” by Robert Creeley
“Affirmation” by Donald Hall
“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas
“Lines on Retirement after Reading Lear” by David Wright

And this prose poem, by way of sharing, from my book A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All:

You Reach a Certain Age

And sometimes the weight of it gets to you, this language of leaving, of holding on. It’s nothing to do with what gets lifted up—a river holds whatever the sky throws into it, a bird that has no need of earth flies away. You reach a certain age and begin to see how things unwind, the way it all plays out. You learn what’s essential, what’s not, and it hardly matters what the world was like when you first tried to exalt it. There are rooms in your life unaccounted for, but you can live with that. (Remember the room you slept in as a child? In less time than you spent there, the sun turned its curtains into dust.) You push back your chair and get up. Outside, a neighbor’s cat stitches and re-stitches the same torn hem, its yellow eye in line with the moon.

(A Lightness, a Thirst, or Nothing at All, Welcome Rain Publishers, 2015, 
Copyright © by Adele Kenny. All rights reserved.)