Saturday, March 25, 2017

Prompt #276 – When Seasons Change


Although there are still patches of snow on the ground here in central New Jersey, the snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils are in bloom. The hyacinths are above ground, and there are leaf buds on many of the trees, including the lilac in my backyard. Mornings dawn to bird songs—the twittering and chattering in marked contrast to winter’s silence.  There’s an ineffable softness in the air (even though it’s still cold outside) that seems to be lifted by fragrances about to come. So much of what seems magical about springtime is measured by the return of things that have been absent. That thought struck me when, earlier today, I discovered the following poem by thirteenth century mystical poet Jelaluddin Rumi.

The Music We Are
     By Rumi

Did you hear that winter is over? The basil
and the carnations cannot control their

laughter. The nightingale, back from his
wandering, has been made singing master

over the birds. The trees reach out their
congratulations. The soul goes dancing

through the king's doorway. Anemones blush
because they have seen the rose naked.

Spring, the only fair judge, walks in the
courtroom, and several December thieves steal

away. Last year's miracles will soon be
forgotten. New creatures whirl in from non-

existence, galaxies scattered around their
feet. Have you met them? Do you hear the

bud of Jesus crooning in the cradle? A single
narcissus flower has been appointed Inspector

of Kingdoms. A feast is set. Listen: the
wind is pouring wine! Love used to hide

inside images: no more! The orchard hangs
out its lanterns. The dead come stumbling by

in shrouds. Nothing can stay bound or be
imprisoned. You say, “End this poem here,

and wait for what's next.” I will. Poems
are rough notations for the music we are.

I thought this might be a good week to write about changing seasons. I do know that for some blog readers the seasonal change right now is just the opposite of what I’m experiencing (spring here and autumn for you). Whether your new season is spring or autumn, the challenge is for you to translate the sights, sounds, smells, and impressions of your new season into written language—that is, into a poem.


1. Begin with a list in which you note some things about the changing season that are meaningful to you.

2. Begin thinking in terms of images (especially nature images).

3. List some images that pertain to light or darkness, to sounds unique to the new season, and to anything that you relate specifically to the season you’re leaving and the season you’re entering. Watch out for clichéd images. Examine your proposed images carefully and note any phrases or lines that seem familiar or general. Work to create images that are striking and fresh—distinctive and different. Think in terms of similes, metaphors, and other types of figurative language, and how you can use these to enhance your images.

4. After listing for a while, read what you’ve written and sift through to see what might work together to make a poem.

5. Begin your poem as Rumi began his by noting that the previous season is over.

6. Using Rumi’s poem as a model, begin writing your own poem.


1. Emphasize awareness in your poem (sensory awareness in particular—work through your senses).

2.  Observe the usual caveats (what I call my “high five”):

A.   Avoid the passive voice.
B.    Eliminate “ing” endings wherever you can.
C.    Limit use of adjectives.
D.   Avoid prepositional phrases when you can.
E.    Get rid of articles (a, an, the) as much as possible.

3. Be aware of the complexities in our relationship to, within, and outside of the natural world.

4. Be generous with caesuras (pauses). Allow the unspoken silences of the poem their equal time. Sometimes the best part of the poem is what is left unsaid. You can create pauses with dashes, parentheses, spacing, and line breaks.

5. Make connections. Create revelations. And ... bring your poem to closure with an unexpected dismount.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Prompt #275 – Memory & Meaning (8 Prompts)

“A poem is an event, not the record of an event.”
– Robert Lowell
I thought it might be interesting to offer several related prompts for you to use during the next couple of weeks, and below you will find eight ideas or prompts for poems that deal with memories. (Of course, if none of these works for you, feel free to let memories take your poems into places of their own!)

As you write, keep in mind that poetry is a “conversation” – a conversation with the heart, the soul, the earth and the stars, ourselves, and each other. We’re here to add our voices to this conversation. With these prompts you’ll have suggestions for recalling and defining what certain memories mean to you. Often, our most vivid autobiographical memories are of emotional events, which are likely to be recalled with greater clarity and in greater detail than less emotionally charged times. Memory is a kind of middle ground in which we meet and re-meet the things we have seen and done. When we write about memories, we decide what life experiences we choose to “converse” about and share.

Whichever prompts you choose, try to reflect on a specific past experience and write a poem based on your memory of it.

Guidelines & Tips:

Concentrate on images, sounds, and rhythms. Poetry is visual and sonic in impression.  

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).

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

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.)

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

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

Look into your poem deeply to identify its emotional center.

Think in terms of layered meaning. A poem should always “say” more that its words. Take your readers beyond the surface of simply reading. Create “line levels” that are compelling and lead to the deeper intentionality of your poem.

Be generous with caesuras (pauses). Allow the unspoken silences of the poem their equal time. Sometimes the best part of the poem is what is left unsaid. You can create pauses with dashes, parentheses, spacing, and line breaks.

Include a figure of speech or two. 

During the process of revision and editing,  condense and condense some more. While drafting and revising, find the lifeless part or parts of your poem and give them some vitality. Be wary, though, of adding. One of the best approaches to editing is to take out rather than to add.

Remember Robert Lowell’s words above, “A poem is an event, not the record of an event.” Don’t just record your memory; recreate the memory so that your poem becomes an event in itself.

Leave your readers with something to think about.

Prompt #1 – My Earliest Memory

What is your most vivid early memory? Re-create the experience in a poem.

Prompt #2 – The Way Things Were

Do you miss the way things used to be? Are there yesterday-elements (memories) that you wish were still part of your life? Think about things like your childhood, your hometown, your country, the world, seasons past, school days, family life, advancements in technologies, relationships – anything "then" – and write a poem about something you miss. (Pay attention to details but be careful not to overdo.)

You might write a list poem in which you list things from the past that you miss. Be sure to work with your list to diminish the obviousness of a simple inventory. Use some enjambments and include details. Bringing a list poem to closure can be a challenge. After creating your list, work on a “dismount” with a bit of punch.

Are there things you might have done in the past (could have/should have) that might have impacted the way things are now? Write a poem about things you should have, might have, could have done in the past.

Prompt #3 – My Favorite Age

The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been.

– Madeleine L'Engle

For this prompt, begin by looking back and thinking about a specific time in your life that you remember as especially good. How old were you? What wonder-filled quality did being that age have? Your poem may be about a particular experience or about being a certain age in general. Some things to consider: What made that age so special? What special things happened to you? Who were the important people in your life at that age? This week, time-travel back to an age of happiness and relive it in a poem.

Prompt # 4 – Guilt Shop

Are you haunted by a guilty memory? Visit your personal “guilt shop.” Take inventory. Walk up and down the aisles. Take your guilts down from the shelves and look at them. What’s their story? What did they mean to you in the past? What do they mean to you now? How can you speak/write the language of guilt? Write a poem about one of your guilts. Think mea culpa ... big guilt ... little guilt ... the guilt that won’t let go ...

Prompt #5 – No Place Like Home

In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy only had to click her ruby heels three times while repeating, “There’s no place like home,” and there she was, back in Kansas. Going home may not be quite that easy for the rest of us, but poetry can be the way we click our heels to get there. Quite often, the journey is healing.

In poetry, home has been written as the “brick and mortar” of actual places and as places deep in our memories. A “home poem” may be about a place once shared with people who are no longer living.

For this prompt, dig deeply into your memory for the details of a home in which you once lived.

Here are some things to think about:

1. What memories do you have of a childhood home? 

2. Is there a place you’ve lived that was special to you? What made it special?

3. What happiness have you found in a particular home? What sadness? 

4. Is there anyone with whom you once shared a home and now miss? 

5. Can you think of something in your life for which “home” may be a metaphor? 

6. Is there a particular object (piece of furniture, painting, lamp, etc.) that evokes the feeling of a former home for you? 

7. How has a place you’ve lived been a “castle” for you? 

8. Is there a “haunted House” in your history (a home that haunts you in some way)? 

Prompt #6 – A Misty Memory

To remember something is to literally put it back together. Explore a hazy or difficult memory. What do you remember or not remember about an important event or time in your life? 

Prompt #7 – The Memory of a Loss

Write a poem about the loss of a loved one – family member, friend, pet.

Prompt #8 – To Remember or Not to Remember

What do you wish you could remember; what do you wish you could forget? What do you choose to remember or forget? Write a poem about something you wish you could forget, or about how you make the conscious decision not to be driven or hurt by certain memories.