Saturday, November 24, 2018

Prompt #328 – Your Wild and Precious Life

(Photo Courtesy of Bob Fiorellino)

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
 with your one wild and precious life?

— Mary Oliver (“The Summer Day,” House of Light, 1990)

I love the above quote from Mary Oliver, and it was the inspiration for this prompt. For me, it calls to mind all the possibilities for a life well-lived, as well as the power of intention.

Mary Oliver is a master of deceptive simplicity. She’s a poet who flawlessly and seamlessly moves from the immediate world into something much more profound. Read on one level, Oliver’s poems are easily understood, but underneath, between the lines, and inherent in her language choices is an insistent voice, which never fails to remind me that no good poem can be fully comprehended on a first reading—clarity with a hint of being on the edge of understanding always invites contemplation.

For this prompt, think about your life. What does your life mean to you? How is your life “wild and precious?” What do you hope for, dream about, think about, and work toward in your life?


1. Free write for a while about your life; focus on what you hope your life will be like.

2. Think about the words “wild” and “precious” and think about the ways in which your life has been, or you would like it to be, wild and precious. Look those words up, explore the synonyms for the them. Work with the words “wild” and “precious.”

3. Even if you are of advanced years, what would you like your remaining “wild and precious” life to hold for you? No matter how old you are, your life is always wild and precious. That said, if you’d prefer to write about how you looked at life when you were younger, go for it!

4. Your poem make you see the world in a way in which you have never seen it before. Hopefully, you will gain some insight into your own life.

5. Begin composing your poem. Try to keep it within the 15-25 line range.

6. After you’ve written a draft or two, put the poem away for a couple of days. When you come back to it, look for “leads” into other ideas and ways to expand the levels of meaning in your poem.

7. During drafting and revising, find the “lifeless” parts of your poem and give them some strength through more effective language (and imagery). If that doesn’t work, remember that sometimes it’s necessary to sacrifice a line or phrase that you love to save a poem's life.  One of the best approaches to editing is to remove rather than to add.


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.)


“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Prompt #327 – Give Thanks in a Poem

Gratitude is a developmental emotion, and books have been written on its psychology. Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” There are times in our lives when we feel more Grinch than grateful, especially when the stresses of every day living gather momentum and all but overwhelm us. However, acknowledging and expressing our gratitude can have a beneficial effect on our lives, relationships, and work.

Here in the U.S., Thanksgiving will be celebrated this coming week on Thursday, November 22nd. Our Thanksgiving has a long history beginning in 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is considered the first Thanksgiving celebration. For over 200 years, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. In 1827, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale began a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln set the last Thursday in November as the official day for a national Thanksgiving observance. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week, and in 1941 Roosevelt signed a bill that designated the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

What are you grateful for? This week let’s write about a specific thing for which we’re grateful. A French proverb tells us, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.” Our first step in writing this week will be to remember—to look into our memories and to identify a single thing for which we’re especially grateful.


1. Make a list of things for which you’re thankful.

2. Choose one item from the list.

3. Free write about the item you chose.

4. Look at your free write and select images and details for your poem.

5. Draft your poem.

6. As you write, think about the reasons for your gratitude and show (without telling) what those feelings mean.

7. Think in terms of particulars and details – not ideas, but specifics (i.e. not love, but an example of love that you've known; not friendship, but a particular friend).

8. Think of places in which you've been especially thankful (the "geography of thanks"). Think of the people who were part of the story.

9. Try writing a Kyrielle. Once very popular, the Kyrielle originated in France, dates to the Middle Ages, and takes its name from kyrie (a litany in the Catholic Mass). Many hymn lyrics were written in this form, but content is not limited to religious subjects. A traditional Kyrielle is often short, octosyllabic (each lines contains eight syllables), and is typically presented in four-line stanzas. A traditional Kyrielle also contains a refrain (a repeated line, phrase, or word) at the end of each stanza.

A. Write a few ideas for "thankful" refrains (repeated line, phrase, or word) before you begin writing the kyrielle.

B. Write a quatrain (four-line stanza) about a particular thing for which you're thankful. Each line should contain eight syllables. If you wish, you may create a rhyme scheme, but rhyme isn't required. The last line, phrase, or word in your first stanza will become your refrain.

C. Repeat step B as many times as you wish. Don't forget that each quatrain (four-line stanza) will end with the same line, phrase, or word. You may write your Kyrielle about one thing for which you're grateful, or each quatrain may be about individual things that have inspired your gratitude.

D. Remember that with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not "drive" your poem. If the form begins to feel forced or unwieldy, you may switch to something less deliberate (i.e., free verse, prose poem). 

10. Whatever form of poem you choose to write, dig deeply to reach beyond the specifics of your personal experience to the underlying universal subject with which your readers will identify.

Note: You might address or dedicate your poem to a person for whom you're thankful, or you might go to the flip side and write about a challenging time (or a time of adversity) that somehow led you to feelings of gratefulness (my mom used to say that good always comes from bad).

1. Always be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements. Images aren’t about abstractions or philosophical musings. Rather, they evoke the meaning and truth of human experiences in perceptible and “actual” terms.

2. Avoid lofty language and literary affectation. Neither big words nor literary pretensions lend themselves well to effective imagery. The “wow factor” in most poems lies in language that is unexpected and deceptively simple.

3. Watch out for clichés. Examine your poem carefully and note any phrases or lines that seem familiar or general. 
4. Think in terms of similes, metaphors, and other types of figurative language. W. H. Auden wrote: [A poem] “must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.”Look for the universal meaning of your poem.
5. Don’t be clever or cutesy. Let your images and use of language evolve organically with just the right amount of tweaking.
6. Be wary of “overkill.” Too many or over-written images can be tedious if not mind-numbing. When asked how many images a mid-sized poem should contain, my answer is always the same: if you look at poem you’re writing and only find five great lines, then the poem should only be five lines long; in the same way, if you look at a poem you’re working on and only find a single brilliant image, then the poem should only contain a single image. 
7. Keep in mind that sometimes lines and images we love aren’t quite “right” for the poem in which we’ve placed them. When this happens, be prepared to sacrifice an image you love for the sake of the poem. The poem (and your readers) will be grateful.

"Thanks" by W. S. Merwin 

"Te Deum" by Charles Reznikoff

"Thanksgiving Letter from Harry" by Carl Dennis 

"The Thanksgivings" by Harriet Maxwell Converse

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Prompt #326 - Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

It's been said that we travel to lose ourselves, and that we travel to find ourselves. As Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”


1. Think about what “travel” means to you in terms of wonder, discovery, and self-revelation. Has any journey in your life given you “new eyes?” (For example, a trip to another country, the journey through school, through a romance, through marriage or divorce, through parenthood, through loss and grief.)

2. Think about times you've traveled without going anywhere.

3. Write a poem in which you travel: the journey may be geographical, real, imagined, emotional, or spiritual. You may take an “overland trip” through description, attention to details, and sensory perceptions, or you may lead readers through your journey’s surface terrain into the emotional, spiritual, or metaphorical landscape at its center.

4. Before you start writing, be sure to read the examples below. In the T. S. Eliot poem, what kind of journey did he write about?


1. Power your travel poem with details that show without telling.

2. Be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements. Avoid abstractions or philosophical musings. Use imagery to evoke the meaning and truth of human experiences in perceptible and “actual” terms.

3. Create layers of meaning (at least 2—the stated meaning and the underlying meaning).

4. Don’t give away the deeper meaning of “travel” in your poem. Hint at it, give the reader room to enter the poem and discover whatever layers of meaning you develop.


Little Gidding (excerpt)
By T. S.Eliot

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

The railroad track is miles away,
    And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
    But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by,
    Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
    And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
    And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I'd rather take,
    No matter where it's going.

"The Journey" By Mary Oliver