Saturday, July 30, 2016

Summer Rerun – Clichéd Phrases

This week, we’re revisiting prompt #38 from five years ago, January 8, 2011. This prompt can be fun and lends itself to humor.

There’s an old joke about a man who walks out of a theater after seeing Hamlet and says, “I don’t know why everybody thinks Hamlet is such a well-written play, it’s full of clichés.” Of course, phrases from Hamlet such as “in my heart of hearts,” “in my mind's eye” and “there’s the rub” weren’t clichés when Shakespeare wrote them. They’ve become clichés because they’ve been quoted so extensively. 

Webster’s defines cliché as “a trite expression or idea,” and trite is defined as “hackneyed or boring from much use; not fresh or original.” In everyday speech, clichés become a kind of verbal shorthand. Clichés, however, require little thought and rarely evoke thought or emotion when they appear in poetry. Readers don't come to poetry looking for what they already know or have heard before. They want fresh content, distinctive perspectives, acute angles – freshness and originality.

Clichés are the worry stones of language: they began angled and sharp but have been rubbed smooth by repeated handling. They are generic, not specific, and poetry requires specifics. In poetry, some topics (i.e. love poems) invite clichés, and clichés often masquerade as similes (“dark as night,” “tears like rain,” “like a bat out of hell,” pale as a ghost, “fast as lightning”). They may also refer to ideas: “a fluffy kitten,” “a pounding heart, “ “sweaty palms.” The caveat when writing is to avoid clichés “like the plague.”

For this prompt, we’re going to work with clichéd phrases for the purpose of becoming more aware of them in our writing. You’ll find a list of clichés at

Here are some starters:

1. Make a list of several clichés and then write a poem around them. You might make this a funny poem in which you accent the obvious.

2. Choose a cliché that really annoys you and write a poem about it.

3.  Choose a cliché to describe a relationship you’ve had, and use it as the basis for a poem. Is there a cliché in or about your life that you might write about?

4. Choose a well-worn cliché and re-invent it to create a new meaning. Use the new meaning created by this turnaround to write a poem.

5. Write a poem entirely from clichés and have fun with it.


He Was Just Another Cliché

To this day, I know that time
heals all wounds (all in due
time) but, needless to say, I
was having the time of my life
when the unexpected happened.

His silence was deafening, so I told
him to cut to the chase. I was scared
out of my mind. The moment lasted
an eternity – it seemed to take
forever – so long that I lost track

of time; I stopped in my tracks.
The long and short of it is this: he
left me faster than greased lightning.
My bubble burst. All that glitters
is not gold, and love is blind.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Summer Rerun – 10-Line Poems

This week’s summer rerun comes from Prompt #167. The challenge is for you to write a 10-line  poem (not a line less or more) using a prescribed format. For starters, the “rules” are specific, so try to follow them closely for your first draft. 

The “Rules”

1. Don’t use any terminal punctuation, but begin each line with a capital letter.
2. Throw out all prose impulses (no narrative poems).
3. Resist all formal tendencies (no metrical patterns or rhyme schemes).
4. Don’t plan any part of your poem—just write from line to line.
5. As you write, see what relationships develop; discover what’s going on in the poem.
6. When you finish, look through the poem for a word or phrase that you can use as a title.
7. Let the poem “sit” for a day or two and then look at it again. That will be the time to make changes, to break the rules, tweak, refine, and “color outside the margins.”

Now ...

8. Make changes in capitalization and punctuation (add periods, question marks, commas etc).
9. Work on alliteration and other sound qualities in your poem.
10. Decide on line breaks. 


Line 1: Open the poem with an action.
Line 2: Write a specific image related (even if only superficially) to the last word in line 1.
Line 3: Ask an unconnected question and put it in italics.
Line 4: Write an image related to the question in line 3.
Line 5: Answer the question in line 3 and include a color.
Line 6: Write an image related to the answer in line 5 (direct or suggested).
Line 7: Add a detail in which you modify a noun with an unusual or unlikely adjective.
Line 8: Add an image that echoes or relates to the action in line 1.
Line 9: Free line—add whatever you wish.
Line 10: Close with something seemingly unrelated, strange, or surreal. 

Sample Poem (Draft Only)

A Lingering Dream

Line 1:  She lifts the potted plant from its place on the windowsill
Line 2:  Dusk slips in through parted curtains
Line 3:  A lingering dream, and what came after
Line 4:  The evening sky deepens into something darker
Line 5:  A shade of blue she’s never seen before
Line 6:  Ghosts in spaces between the stars
Line 7:  The clattering choices were hers to make
Line 8:  Gently, her fingertip traces the edge of a tiny bloom
Line 9:  Choices, yes, and flowers among the regrets
Line 10: She removes the china doll from her dresser drawer

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Summer Rerun – Memoir Poem

This week, I've gone all the way back to June 27, 2010 and Prompt #11. (You'll notice ow the prompt format has changed over the years).  Memoir poems are perennial favorites with many options for new work.

For this prompt, try writing a memoir poem about an experience that haunts you. This is not to suggest a bad experience but, rather, a memory that continues to inform the present.

Memoir poems are narrative because they tell stories. However, we often see memoir "poems" that "narrate" in what is essentially prose (with a couple of good images, a few similes or metaphors, and stanzaic arrangements). Most of these poems don't succeed because they never reach beyond the poet’s impulse to “tell.” The poem has to be more than the story – it has to be about what happened because of the story.

Watch out for abstractions and generalizations that equal sentimentality – there's a big difference between image and abstraction. A memoir poem needs a strong emotional center that doesn’t smother meaning with sentiment or read like a diary entry.

A poem should contain an element of mystery or surprise – first to the poet and then to the reader or listener. A lot of the poems that are read and published today are so cluttered with superfluous detail (and adjectives) that there are no mysteries or surprises, and the poems become claustrophobic experiences (I call it TMW – too many words). Write short for this one as a discipline against writing too much. Leave a few blanks for the reader to fill in. In other words, tell, but don't "tell it all." Your memoir poem should lead readers to something more than the memory.

A perfect example is John Ashbery's "This Room."

In this poem Ashbery remembers a room, a person, a relationship. He incorporates a few precise details, but not many – he leaves much to the reader and still achieves a startling sense of loss and remembrance.

Other great examples (and these, too, are short poems) are William Stafford's "Once in the 40s" and Gerald Stern's "The Dancing."

William Stafford: "Once in the 40's"
Gerald Stern: "The Dancing"

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Summer Rerun – Fly on the Wall

This week’s rerun dates to January 11, 2011 and the subject of flies (seems appropriate for summertime). Flies in poetry may not be common, but I'm sure you're familiar with Emily Dickinson's famous poem "I Heard a Fly Buzz."

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died - (591) By Emily Dickinson

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around - had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue - uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

This week we're going to work with a "fly idea," but our treatment will be different from Emily D's. We've all heard the expression "fly on the wall." The meaning of the phrase suggests the ability to observe a situation without being seen or heard.

This isn't a new prompt idea, but it's one with lots of possibilities, and the challenge this week is to take yourself – in the form of a fly – into an unusual or emotionally charged place to tell what you see and hear. The idea is to become virtually invisible but nonetheless present.

1. You may "become" the fly and speak from the fly's point of view (persona/personification).

2. You may go back in time to observe yourself in a particular situation from your past.

3. You may eavesdrop on a conversation you were never intended to hear.

4. You may be anywhere, at any time, observing people and listening to what they say.

5. Your tone may be serious, humorous, or ironic.

To begin, imagine yourself as a fly on a wall. Where are you? What do you see? Who is there with you? What do you hear? What insights into a situation do you have from your unseen/unnoticed perspective? What can you (the fly) explain about human behavior in the situation you observe? Is there a situation in which you (the fly) can offer insights into your own actions or personality? What do you learn when you (the fly) observes you (the person)? How may the fly become a metaphor?

Some places to consider for your wall: a cocktail party, a wedding, a masked ball, a birthday party from your childhood, the midst of an argument, a classroom, a divorce court, a funeral parlor, a room in an altered dimension, an empty house, a cruise ship, a bar or pub, a tent deep in a forest. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Summer Rerun Prompt #213– Tell It to the Birds

As noted in an earlier post, summer is the time for reruns here on the blog. I've selected a number of old prompts that I hope you'll find interesting and useful. Even if you've used these prompts before, revisiting them just might generate some new ideas for new poems.

Here we go!

Prompt #213 – Tell It to the Birds

I’ve always loved birds (they appear frequently in my poems), and I raised small exotic birds for many years. Although I don't have any exotics living in the house with me now, I feed the backyard birds, especially during the cold months, and I always look forward to seeing them—from the nondescript sparrows to the brilliant cardinals. Summer is, of course, a wonderful time for bird watching.
This week, I’d like you write create a poem in which you direct your comments (a kind of monologue) to a bird. You may be serious or humorous, but the idea is to come up with a theme that somehow relates to or juxtaposes bird life and human life. For example, some possible themes might include freedom, flight/flying, providing for children, and not wanting to be caged (literally or figuratively).


Think of all the bird species you know and select one (i.e., sparrow, lark, robin, canary, zebra finch, parrot, macaw, hawk, egret, heron, mourning dove, early bird, night owl, phoenix, stork).

Make a list of things that you might say to a bird—work toward a single theme and stick to that theme.

Write a poem in which you talk to a bird-member of the species you chose.

An alternative might be to address comments to more than one bird (that reminds me of the story about St. Francis of Assisi and how he preached to a flock of birds).

Or, you might want to try a conversation with a bird in which you and the bird speak to one another (dialogue rather than monologue).

You may prefer a humorous approach and address a bird that dropped a little “something” on your shoulder or head, the stork that delivered your son or daughter, the crow that stole a piece of your jewelry, or the parrot (parakeet) that learned a few naughty words.


Think in terms of no more than a 12-15 lines.

Don’t spend a lot of time in describing the bird—focus on what you have to say to it.

Depending on which source you consult, you’ll find that various birds are symbolic of different qualities. Here are a few general ideas:
  • Doves symbolize peace.
  • Eagles symbolize power, resurrection, and courage.
  • Cranes symbolizes long life and immortality.
  • Falcons symbolize protection.
  • Nightingales symbolize love and longing.
  • Sparrows symbolize hope, gentleness, and intelligence.
  • Swans symbolize gracefulness and beauty.
  • Herons symbolize self-reliance and determination.
  • Hawks symbolize guardianship, illumination, and truth.
  • Woodpeckers symbolize magic and prophecy.
  • Robins symbolize joy, hope, and happiness.
  • Cardinals symbolize loved ones who have passed.
  • Crows symbolize trickery, cunning, and theft.


P.S. The image above was taken three years ago when a mama robin built her nest in one of my cedar trees. There were four babies, and all grew up to be fully feathered and to fly away.