“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, / Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— / While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…” First published almost two hundred years ago, Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven” was itself partially inspired by the raven in Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge and has gone on to spark numerous renditions, homages, and parodies. And the poem’s influence has extended far beyond literature, giving a name to an NFL team (Baltimore Ravens) and providing inspiration for a range of artists, from cartoonists (The Simpsons and Calvin and Hobbes) to musicians (Lou Reed and the Grateful Dead). Write a poem that takes its cue from an element of Poe’s verse that you are especially drawn toward. Consider its themes of loss and devotion; the extensive use of alliteration and rhyme; the “nevermore” refrain; classical, mythological, and biblical references; the question-and-answer sequencing; the symbolism of the raven; or the forebodingly dark atmosphere.
Writing Prompts & Exercises
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers three new and original writing prompts each week to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also curate a list of essential books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend for guidance and inspiration. Whether you’re struggling with writer’s block, looking for a fresh topic, or just starting to write, our archive of writing prompts has what you need. Need a starter pack? Check out our Writing Prompts for Beginners.
Tuesdays: Poetry prompts
Wednesdays: Fiction prompts
Thursdays: Creative nonfiction prompts
Get immediate access to more than 1,800 writing prompts with the tool below:
Bright blue hot springs ringed by yellow and orange. Red canyons, green auroras, cloud-white ice caves, golden sand dunes. Browse through National Geographic’s slideshow of some of the most colorful places on earth, many of them naturally occurring, and take in the sights. Then, write a poem that incorporates a variety of colors, hues, and shades found in nature. Allow the images and colors to guide your poem’s thematic direction, perhaps toward an expansive meditation of the outdoors, or toward memories or associations with people in your life.
Swamp soccer, air guitar, wife carrying, mosquito killing, and ant-nest sitting are all examples of the unusual competitive championships that have become increasingly popular in Finland in the last couple of decades. Write a poem inspired by the imagery you envision for one of these wacky sporting events, based on their name. How can you play with sound, syntax, and vocabulary to convey humor, joy, triumph, loss, and perseverance with an irreverent spirit?
“As much as we might have enjoyed reading (and writing) poetry when we were children, in school we are taught that poetry is inherently ‘difficult,’ and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning,” writes Matthew Zapruder in the New York Times essay “Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think.” In “To Vibrebrate: In Defense of Strangeness,” a response to Zapruder's piece on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Johannes Göransson counters: “Not all poems prioritize everyday language. Some poems value arguments and narrative above the experience of language. Sometimes poems have mystical meanings.... The idea that poetry—or language in general—is ever ‘straightforward’ seems impossible to my immigrant ears and eyes.” Taking inspiration from the issues being argued, choose a theme or subject and then write two versions of the poem: one that uses more literal or straightforward language, and one that approaches your subject from a more oblique or mystical angle.
“Generally I think that when you’re talking about the music of a country, you’re talking more or less about the soundtrack of a country, the soundtrack by which people’s lives are lived,” poet Tyehimba Jess said in a recent interview with the New School’s Wynne Kontos. “What’s interesting to me is to hear about the lives of the people who have created that soundtrack.” Jess’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Olio (Wave Books, 2016), covers an array of nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American musicians and performers, presenting a multiplicity of voices and histories through a collage of verse, song, and narrative. What musicians are part of the soundtrack of your life? Choose several musicians or bands integral to your soundtrack, and write poems that reflect on the lives of these musicians, combining research and imagination in a song of your own.
Watermelon, Mississippi Mud Pie, Red Velvet, Pumpkin Spice, Firework. The original Oreo with its classic pairing of chocolate cookie and white cream filling might remain unchanged, but over the years the Nabisco company has released limited edition flavors to the delight of some fans and the confusion or disapproval of others. Write a poem dedicated to a beloved snack from your childhood, exploring how it has changed or remained the same throughout the years. Consider the effect that consistency has on your life, even in the form of a favorite snack.
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” begins Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself.” Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall’s video series Whitman, Alabama, featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, captures a wide range of Alabamians in different settings and locales in the state, each reciting from one of the fifty-two verses of Whitman’s iconic poem. Watch the series and choose several lines from the poem that feel particularly resonant to you, either capturing the mood of the moment or a theme you’ve been thinking about for a while. Write a poem starting with Whitman’s words, and then move on to explore how this theme ties in with your own ideas about American identity, community, and interpersonal connections.
The essay “The Art at the End of the World” is Heidi Julavits’s account of a pilgrimage to see Robert Smithson’s land art sculpture “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. Write a poem inspired by a land art piece that particularly draws you in. In her essay, Julavits juxtaposes the haunting otherworldliness and existential provocations of the landscape with family dynamics and mundane details of traveling with her husband and two children. Does the immensity of this land art piece in its natural surroundings propel you to think about the relative size and scope of your own concerns, goals, and relationships?
Street art, family and friends, selfies, concerts, a painting in a museum, funny signage. Many of us use our cell phones to capture photos and videos depicting everything from special occasions to the random striking visual encountered on a daily commute. Look through the photos on your cell phone and decide on a common theme, mood, or sentiment you’d like to convey in a poem. Are there photos you took by accident or ones you didn’t even know existed until browsing through? Write a poem consisting solely of descriptions of a selection of your photos. Which everyday objects, places, activities, or resonating visuals can you use to communicate a message?
“Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart / somehow or other still carried away by America,” writes Alicia Ostriker in “Ghazal: America the Beautiful.” This Fourth of July, begin a poem with the title “America the Beautiful” and let this phrase guide your piece, allowing your mind freedom to reflect on the things you find beautiful (or not so beautiful) about the nation. Read through some other Independence Day poetry by writers such as Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Claude McKay, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths for further inspiration.
Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs mixes multiple languages and uses a variety of musical influences in the poems from her debut collection, TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Drawing inspiration from Nevada Diggs, write a poem where you incorporate words and phrases from two or more languages or dialects that are significant to you, whether they are fictional languages like Klingon or spoken languages like Cajun French.
“Palettes of mud, pillowcases of doorknobs, bags of ice…. Softest polyester stuffing spills out from black armor. It’s a leather jacket thrown over a bubble bath. This could describe a few people I know,” writes artist and author Leanne Shapton in a New York Times Magazine essay about the clothing designed by Rei Kawakubo. Taking inspiration from Kawakubo’s peculiarly surreal fashion designs, write a poem that starts with one of Shapton’s descriptive phrases, such as “a babble of valves and blisters,” “a reptile of lint,” “gobs of cheesecloth,” “potato-like clumps stuck to a neck,” or “exploded metallic popcorn kernel.” From there, let your imagination take over using these textures and shapes to portray an unexpected subject or feeling.
Write a poem inspired by a natural park, area, or cultural monument in your region. Search through the National Park Service’s system of sites by state, or browse through photos of the parks for inspiration. The National Park Service, which celebrated its one hundredth anniversary last summer, may be most known for its large national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but also oversees hundreds of smaller outdoor monuments, scenic areas, and scientifically important sites that span the entire United States. Imagine the textures and sounds present in your chosen spot or site, and incorporate them into your poem’s rhythm and imagery.
Something beginning with the letter D. Something metallic. Something green. Something winding. Write a poem inspired by I Spy, the guessing game popular with kids during car rides and other long periods of downtime, in which the spy offers descriptive clues that hint at a visible object for other players to guess. Use this as an exercise to expand your vocabulary and the way you observe and perceive an emotion, person, situation or an object.
“Renga for Obama” is an ongoing project edited by Major Jackson and published by the Harvard Review in which each linked segment is written by a pair of poets, creating a chain of verse meditating on Barack Obama’s presidency. Renga, a traditional Japanese collaborative form, consists of alternating three- and two-line stanzas: a haiku (5-7-5 syllables) followed by a couplet, each line of which consists of seven syllables, that responds to the haiku. This pattern can be repeated up to a few dozen or even hundreds of lines. Choose a current theme that you are interested in probing further with words and imagery—it could be political, aesthetic, domestic, environmental, or pop culture–related. Spend some time discussing, sharing reflections, and expressing gratitude or feelings about the topic with a friend, family member, or colleague. Write a renga together, and pass it on to others with an invitation to contribute to the chain, thereby initiating a continuing exploration.
“’It wasn’t a rhyme time,’” said Gwendolyn Brooks in 1968, as quoted in Major Jackson’s essay “Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Brooks was speaking about her decision to move away from the sonnet and other traditional verse forms in favor of allying more closely to the Black community and politically conscious poetry. Do you consider the contemporary moment a “rhyme time?” Why or why not? How might you transform the style and/or meter of your poetry to reflect your own evolving creative interests, priorities, and influences? Write a poem that marks some sort of departure from your typical work, in spirit and purpose.
“May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade. / My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second. / My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.” Taking inspiration from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Under One Small Star,” write a poem that plays with apology or an apologetic tone. What may you have taken for granted in the past? To whom might you offer your apologies, and for what are you sorry? What are you grateful for now?
“I was young when you came to me. / Each thing rings its turn…” begins Meena Alexander’s poem “Muse.” Write a poem of direct address to a muse—any specific object, memory, person, moment, or idea that invokes wonder and reflection. Read the rest of Alexander’s poem for inspiration derived from sensory pleasures, multiple languages, and the associations between words and images.
While a crocodile’s ankles might be something you’ve never thought much about, a recent discovery of fossils shows that an early relative of dinosaurs had “crocodylian-like ankle morphology”—or crocodile ankles—an important factor in placing the carnivore within the evolutionary timeline. Write a poem inspired by an unusual phrase or terminology for an animal’s (or human’s) physicality, such as purlicue, perhaps finding humor or playfulness in its sound, sense, and associated imagery.
Poetry and science combined to join forces at this year’s March for Science in Washington, D.C. Jane Hirshfield organized writing workshops and readings, and science poems by writers like Tracy K. Smith and Gary Snyder were displayed on banners. Many poets are using social media to respond quickly and powerfully to events occurring in the tumult of the political climate. Browse through newspapers or online for fresh science news—such as scientists attempting to capture the first image of a black hole—and write an urgent poem in response. What sort of emotional or philosophical significance can you draw between this scientific news and your feelings about current affairs?
Can girls be robots? How do you make water? What does extinct mean? Children have a curiosity for the world that can often inspire them to ask difficult questions like these from filmmaker Kelly O’Brien’s five-year-old daughter Willow. In the spirit of childish inquisitiveness, write a poem entirely of questions. How might you use a child’s persona to explore your own concerns and wonder for the world?
Last month, Crayola announced the retirement of one of their yellow crayon colors, Dandelion, which will soon be replaced by a blue crayon. Since Binney & Smith first began producing Crayola crayons in 1903, many colors have been cycled in and out. Some colors have remained the same shade but changed names over the years, such as Peach, which was previously named Flesh Tint, Flesh, and Pink Beige. Read more about the history of Crayola crayon colors, and write a poem inspired by some of the names you find most evocative, perhaps finding thematic potential in how the types of names have evolved over the years.
“For the first time, I agreed last year to cotranslate a book from a language I don’t speak at all…. It was an opportunity for new kinds of thinking but also new kinds of failure,” writes poet, novelist, and translator Idra Novey in her essay “Writing While Translating.” Many contemporary writers have expanded the art of translation by experimenting with form and content: Mary Jo Bang filled her translation of Dante’s Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012) with pop culture references; David Cameron used spell-check and word-association methods for Flowers of Bad (Unbelievable Alligator/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007), his “false translation” of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal; and Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney’s Books, 2012) is a translation of Emily Dickinson’s poetry into one-line renderings, from English into a different version of English. Try your hand at translating a short series of poems from one language to another. Use your knowledge of another language, slang, dictionaries, or any unlikely source to explore the elasticity of language while considering how new kinds of failure might inspire a refreshing direction for your writing.
In his book Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008), poet Kevin Young has a series of odes to particular foods that meditate on memories of the speaker’s father and other family members, such as “Ode to Okra.” Using Young’s poem as inspiration, write an ode to one of your favorite foods that personifies and addresses the dish as “you.” Explore the senses—flavors, smells, sounds, textures, colors—that are stirred from these memories of meals.
“There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter,” wrote Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder in 1956. Write a poem centered around one image or sensation you associate with the spring season, using diction and rhythm to evoke the repeated refrains, patterns, and cycles of nature. Explore both the symbolic and physical beauty of your image.
A salt lake in Melbourne, Australia recently turned pink due to the growth of algae “in response to very high salt levels, high temperatures, sunlight, and lack of rainfall.” The phenomenon transformed the lake from its natural blue tone to an unusually bright flamingo color. Write a poem that begins by evoking the sensations of one color, and then—gradually or abruptly—turns a strikingly different color, perhaps even pink. How will you manipulate the mood, images, sounds, and rhythms of your language to reflect the color change?
If you read, in order, the last word of each line in Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Golden Shovel,” you will discover that they are the words of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” the inspiration for Hayes’s poem. Select one or more lines from a poem you admire, and write your own “Golden Shovel” poem. Use each word from the source text in its original order for the last word in each line of your new poem. When you are finished, the end-words of your poem should trace out the origin poem. Be sure to add a note crediting the poet whose line(s) you’ve used.
Artist B. A. Van Sise’s photo series Children of Grass—featured in “The Written Image” in the March/April 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine—consists of portraits of American poets who have been influenced by Walt Whitman, with each photograph based on a poem. Browse through some of Van Sise’s portraits or select any other poet portrait of your choice, and taking a reverse approach to Van Sise’s project, write a poem based on the image. How does the language, tone, and rhythm in your poem relate to the composition, props, and background of the portrait?
Writing an unsentimental love poem can be one of the more difficult endeavors a poet can take on, whether the subject of that poem is a lover, a family member, or friend. Taking inspiration from the popular film 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, write an ode to the aspects of a loved one that downright irk you. How might you use a form of repetition in your poem—like an anaphora or refrain—to build tension and showcase either the unlikable or admirable aspects of this person?
“The Love Song for Shu-Sin”—written around 2000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia—is considered the oldest love poem that exists in text form, but also functioned as a song performed during a sacred marriage ceremony for Shu-Sin, a ruler in the city of Ur. Read through Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer’s translation and think about the elements of the writing that tie it to its specific time and context. What feels ancient about the poem? Can you extrapolate or interpret its meanings in a way that reflect your own experiences of contemporary love? Write a love poem that meditates on love as it might have been expressed four thousand years ago versus how you see it today.
The Bop is a form of poetic argument consisting of three stanzas, each followed by a repeated line or refrain. The first stanza is six lines and presents a problem; the second stanza is eight lines and further expands upon the problem; and the third stanza is six lines and either resolves or documents the failure of resolving the problem. Read a Bop poem by Afaa Michael Weaver, who created the form during a Cave Canem writing retreat, and then try writing your own.
Many of the food-related traditions associated with the Chinese New Year—including eating fish, sweet rice dumplings, and certain vegetables—have their origins in Mandarin-language homophonic puns. Jot down a list of food-related homonyms, such as homophonic pairings like “lettuce” and “let us” or “beets” and “beats,” or homographic words with multiple meanings like “cake” or “milk.” Create a festive poem using some of the words or phrases you come up with that celebrate the start of a new year.
Starting a new year often means an attempt at challenging resolutions or constraints, but in poetry, constraint can seem natural and even fun. For example, in Oulipo, formulas and frameworks (some more complicated than others) are applied to the lines and words of a poem. Try this exercise in constraint: Write a poem in which all of the words contain a vowel of your choice. For inspiration, read “Ballad in A” by Cathy Park Hong.
“I began writing poetry as an act of survival,” writes Safiya Sinclair in “Shadows of Words: Our Twelfth Annual Look at Debut Poets” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Think about how you might look at your own writing as an act of survival: What are the most troublesome issues and sources of conflict in your everyday life, whether small and tangible or large and amorphous? How might the practice of putting pen to paper and giving words to emotions be integral to your encounter with these obstacles? Write a poem that helps you think through and voice your troubles.
The cento, whose name is derived from a Latin term meaning “patchwork,” is a form of fragmented poetry originating in the third century consisting of lines taken from poems written by other poets. Contemporary centos often offer a humorous juxtaposition of contrasting images, ideas, and tones. Read centos written by John Ashbery and Simone Muench, and then try writing your own, sampling verses from diverse time periods, styles, and subject matter, and citing your sources at the end.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?” wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her most popular poems, published in 1891. Have you ever jotted down a memo to nobody in particular? Ever sent out to sea a message in a bottle? Left a note on a wall or a park bench to someone, anyone, who might happen upon it? All these types of missives have in common a sense of mystery surrounding the identity of the recipient, and an uncertainty about the intended recipient ever receiving the communication. Write a series of short poems addressed to an unknown person. How does removing the certainty of an addressee place more emphasis on other external factors, like geography and physical distance, and your own current preoccupations and state of mind? As you engage in a conversation with Nobody, what insights are revealed?
“In the red room there is a sky which is painted over in red / but is not red and was, once, the sky. / This is how I live. / A red table in a red room filled with air.” Using these lines from Rachel Zucker’s “Letter [Persephone to Demeter]” as inspiration, write a poem where everything in the environment is red, as though the speaker is looking through red glass. How might color affect the way the speaker feels about an object, animal, or person? How might it affect tone?
The Hong Kong film 2046, written and directed by Wong Kar-wai, predominantly follows the main character Chow, a writer, over the course of several years, escapades, and love affairs, often dipping into scenes of him dining out on Christmas Eve each year. Jot down specific moments or memories from the same holiday over the years that you hold especially resonant and seem to connect a narrative. Then, write a series of poems capturing these events and experiences. How does the holiday itself lend a certain expected or consistent atmosphere even if the events that occurred or people present were completely different?
In Iceland, to write poetry is considered “part of being an Icelander,” according to Icelandic literature professor Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, and not a “specialist activity” but one that includes a variety of practitioners such as horse breeders, scientists, and politicians. Write a few ferskeytt poems, a popular Icelandic four-line verse form with alternating rhyme. Spend just ten minutes or so on each one, implementing the poem as a casual and functional way to inject some humor or wit into dealing with everyday duties, workday blues, or the oncoming winter.
The landay is a form of folk poetry from Afghanistan consisting of a single couplet—nine syllables in the first line, and thirteen in the second line—that is generally written anonymously and often recited or sung by women. As poet and journalist Eliza Griswold writes, “It must take on one of five subjects: meena, love; jang, war; watan, homeland; biltoon, separation; and, finally, gham, which means despair or grief.” Read more about the form and its historical and contemporary practices in Griswold’s piece in Poetry magazine. Then, write several landays of your own—biting, bawdy, or lamenting.
In an essay for the Ploughshares blog, Emily Smith discusses representations of witches in literature and how they are usually associated with fear and terror. In her exploration of Macbeth, Smith notices that, “Shakespeare’s witches are…followed by dark clouds of rain.” Write a poem using dark or gothic imagery, such as a woman being followed by dark clouds of rain. What emotions are elicited from your depiction? Is she focused on the storm clouds or does she notice them only peripherally? How might you alter your rhythm and sounds to mimic those of a thunderstorm?
In the early twentieth century, anthropologist Franz Boas published claims that the Eskimo languages had dozens or more words for snow—claims that have been pored over and analyzed, debunked and reaffirmed, and criticized and clarified in countless investigations since. Think of a natural or cultural phenomenon, such as a certain type of food, or an emotion, that you believe deserves or warrants a larger vocabulary. Write a poem that presents these new words—perhaps compound words of your own invention—along with their definitions and an exploration of why these articulations are significant to you.
In his 1821 essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley writes, “Poetry is…the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it….” Make a list of words and phrases that describe the surface textures, odors, and colors that surround you as this year draws to an end, choosing the details that are most evocative of the season. You may find yourself drawing inspiration from the contrasting primary colors of holiday cheer, bright puffy parkas or dark wool coats, the shiny prints and textures of patterned gift wrap, the stark tones of snow, or the scents of fragrant conifers and baked desserts. Write a trio of poems, each focusing on one type of sensory input. Select an element—setting, narrator’s voice, repeated words, or a specific object—that stays constant through all three, tying them together.
“By existing in a cinematic space, Shakespeare can feel alive and present,” says Ross Williams, founder of the nonprofit New York Shakespeare Exchange, whose film project Maya C. Popa writes about in “The Shakespeare Sonnet Project” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The project aims to collect videos of each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets performed by actors in different locations in New York City, with a future series to be filmed in locations in the rest of the country and abroad. Browse through some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and choose one that reminds you of a place you know, or which evokes a site-specific memory. Write your own sonnet in response, bringing phrases and ideas used almost half a millennium ago into the present by incorporating cinematic imagery of a contemporary locale.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday celebrated during the first two days of November in which family and friends commemorate the dead: gathering to tidy up tombs in the cemetery, presenting offerings on altars, eating and drinking, playing music, and telling stories. Write a poem that joyfully honors a loved one who has passed away—or that confronts death and mortality in a more general way—with a tone of both respect and celebration. How does imbuing the gravity of mortality with liveliness and vitality inspire you to think about imagery, rhythm, and diction in new ways?
Edward Gorey wrote and illustrated more than one hundred books, including several alphabet-driven works such as The Gashlycrumb Tinies (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs”), The Glorious Nosebleed (“She wandered among the trees Aimlessly”), and The Just Dessert (“Apologize”). In the spirit of Gorey’s dark humor unexpectedly combined with a children’s alphabet primer, write a macabre poem similarly derived from the first ten letters of the alphabet, or any ten letters of your choosing.
Last week, in a surprising decision, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan is the first musician to win the award and in its citation the Swedish Academy, which administers the prize, credited Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Whether you agree with the decision or not, examine some of Dylan’s lyrics. Then, write a poem that begins with a line you find compelling.
Taking inspiration from the “Dear President” feature in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, in which fifty American poets and writers were asked to write several sentences addressing the next president, write a short poem of address that starts with the words, “Dear President.” Touch upon one or two of the most important issues to you about contemporary society and/or government. Share any advice, wisdom, wishes, or requests.
The first Nobel Prize winner of 2016, announced in the Physiology or Medicine category this week, was awarded to Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi. Ohsumi is a cell biologist who won the prize for his studies of autophagy, Greek for “self eating,” a process in which the cells in our body break down or destroy, and then recycle, certain component parts. Write a poem inspired by the workings of the human body at a cellular level. You may find ideas by looking at different vocabulary and terminology, or drawing connections between cellular functions and processes to situations in your emotional life and interpersonal relationships.
Hollywood has a long tradition of remaking films and television shows from decades gone by, including recent or forthcoming reboots of The Magnificent Seven, Die Hard, Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Point Break, MacGyver, Twin Peaks, Splash, and Mary Poppins. Write a remake of a poem written between the 1960s and 1980s. Select two major elements to retain from the original poem such as setting, narrative voice, overarching formal structure, or emotional progression, and then give it a fresh, new spin by altering other aspects of the poem.
Pine, oak, cedar, birch, aspen, fir, maple. Joshua, jacaranda, palm. There are thousands of species of trees in the world; some are found in many regions and some in only one place. There are trees that grow fruits and nuts; there are desert trees and tropical trees. Robert Frost, H. D., Denise Levertov, Federico García Lorca, William Shakespeare, and many others have all written poems about trees. Spend some time studying a specific tree in your neighborhood, paying close attention to its shapes and sounds, its colors, smells, and textures. Perhaps make a sketch of it, or research it online or at the library. Then write a series of short poems about this one tree, trying to approach each poem from a different angle—exploring rhythm and sound, for instance, or your personal memories and associations.
There have been several notable recent occurrences of museumgoers from all over the world breaking or damaging artwork. In a video widely shared on the internet last year, a boy tripped in a museum in Taiwan, and in bracing his fall, accidentally smashed a hole through a seventeenth-century Italian oil painting valued at over one million dollars. Using this image or concept of the physical defacement of art, write a poem that experiments with the idea of broken surfaces with the use of fragments or erasure. What are some ways of inserting literal or figurative holes into the body of a poem?
While at Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, New York, artists Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley built a house that spins and tilts in accordance with the wind, and the shifting weight of its inhabitants. Then they resided in the structure for five days; and will spend another several days living there this fall. Write a poem inspired by the image or idea of living in a structure that is constantly spinning, and which tilts up or down as you walk through it. What kind of vocabulary or pacing might mimic or reflect the sensation of spinning? How can you play with emotional weight or levity to create shifting feelings throughout your poem?
British music critic, librettist, and author Paul Griffiths’s novel Let Me Tell You (Reality Street, 2008) is told from the point of view of Ophelia, the character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Using an Oulipo type of constraint, the novel uses only the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in the original play. Choose one of Shakespeare’s plays, and make a list of words spoken by one character in a pivotal scene, or part of a scene. Write a poem inspired by this list of words, allowing your creative impulses to dictate whether you use only words from the list, or include a few additional words of your own.
Have you ever stepped onto foreign soil—whether it be another town, state, or country—and immediately felt like you were in a different galaxy? Or conversely, have you traveled to a seemingly faraway place only to find that it felt surprisingly just like home? Write two short poems about places you have visited or passed through, and explore your expectations and feelings of familiarity or strangeness in each one. For inspiration, read about Baarle, a small European village situated partially in Belgium and partially in the Netherlands, with its international borders actually cutting through the middle of shops, living rooms, and backyards.
Instead of using GPS coordinates or traditional street numbers and names, a postal mail service in Mongolia will begin using a new address location system, created by a British tech start-up, in which the world map is divided into trillions of nine-square-meter patches and assigned a unique three-word code. Find the code for your own address at the What3Words website or create your own code. Then write a poem inspired by the combination of these three random words and how they connect to your concept of home.
Cargo shorts, which rose to popularity in the 1990s, have recently sparked heated opinions and reignited the debate of whether the fashion item should exist. Is there a particular style or article of clothing you have grown so attached to over the years that you refuse to part with regardless of new trends or the disapproval of loved ones? Write a poem inspired by the comforts of dressing in a familiar way. Include reminiscences about well-worn and long-cherished items from your wardrobe, and the people and events associated with them.
Heat dome, corn sweat, thundersnow. Meteorologists and weather reports often coin new words and phrases for the purposes of both explaining and entertaining. Learn some new weather-related terminology, or create your own phrases that explain existing and made-up weather phenomena. Select one of these terms as the title of a poem, and allow it to guide your imagination as you write your lines. Do you end up with a poem that is somehow connected to meteorology, or does the title lead you toward a completely different direction?
Did this past winter seem to drag on interminably, while spring was over in the blink of an eye, and the summer months keep zipping on by? Sometimes days, weeks, and months feel like they pass at varying speeds, depending on factors such as the weather, travel obligations, school or work schedules, and personal tastes and moods. Write a poem that explores two or more distinctly paced periods of time that occurred in the past year or so. Manipulate the sound and rhythm of your language—as well as the expository or emotional content of your lines—to reflect the drag or rush of each period.
This week, look through some photographs you’ve taken while you were on a trip, either from recent summer travels or a long-ago vacation. To what extent does the photograph encapsulate that locale and your memories of that trip with emotional accuracy? Write a poem that explores the distance between your current self and that photograph, and between an image and a feeling or memory.
Last week, a bunch of Ruby Roman grapes sold at an auction for almost eleven thousand dollars in Japan, where highly valued seasonal fruit can serve as an important status symbol. While money may not be the most obvious choice for poetic lyricism, it can reveal a lot about our society and human nature. Write a poem about a situation in which you had to make a sizable financial decision—saving or spending, dealing with a sudden gain or loss—and examine how your personal value system is intertwined with money.
The higher temperatures, longer days, and more time spent outside in the summer months propel many of us toward beach reads and dramatic blockbuster films. Oftentimes, these forms of entertainment are filled with exciting, action-packed scenes, plots that twist and turn, and sequences that keep us on the edge of our seats. Write the summer blockbuster version of a poem. Try to balance the use of easily accessible, widely appealing language and images with emotions that are both universally recognizable and unique to your personal sensibilities.
More and more cities are displaying poems on subway cars, in train stations, on buses, and even in coffee shops. In “Traveling Stanzas” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum reports on an initiative created by the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University to showcase poetry in public spaces throughout Northeast Ohio. Write a poem with a specific local spot in mind, such as a cafe, library, bus stop, or park bench—the poem’s content may be directly or indirectly related to your choice. If it’s permitted, post a copy of your poem at the intended location, or perhaps hand out copies or stage an impromptu reading there. For inspiration, watch Fatou M’Baye read her poem “Thank You, Tree” in a video produced by the Wick Poetry Center.
“By entering a found text as a poem, the poet doubles its context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles," Annie Dillard wrote in Mornings Like This: Found Poems (Harper Perennial, 1996). "The poet adds, or at any rate increases, the element of delight." Many twentieth-century writers have experimented with found poetry, whether composing entire poems that consist solely of outside texts collaged together (David Antin, Blaise Cendrars, Charles Reznikoff) or incorporating pieces of found text into poems (T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams). Using these poets as inspiration, create a found poem using materials from street signs, newspapers, product packaging, legal documents, or e-mails. Play with different rearrangements and line breaks to form a new meaning that may be an unexpected juxtaposition to the original text.
An ode is a poem that celebrates a person, an event, or object. But what if you don’t want to sing your praises for someone or something? Choose a person, event, or object with which you have a love-hate relationship, and write an anti-ode that examines the bases of your feelings of both opposition and attraction. How can you use diction and rhythm to reflect the complexity of tension between two extreme emotions for the subject of your poem? For inspiration, read Dean Young’s “Sean Penn Anti-Ode.”
Most people spend at least a few minutes a day in front of a mirror, whether while brushing teeth at the bathroom sink at night, or involved in a focused morning makeup or hairstyling routine. Spend a more intensive amount of time in front of a mirror and write a self-portrait poem as you study your own reflection. How has your face evolved over the years? Do your features seem more or less familiar the longer you look? Are there particular elements of your face that remind you of certain people or memories?
"Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them," writes Oscar Wilde in his 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Drawing upon your own experiences with parents, guardians, mother or father figures—or your personal history as a parent yourself—compile a short list of specific memories and observations divided into three categories: love, judgment, and forgiveness. Would you agree with Wilde that children's love for and judgment of parents are inevitable, but forgiveness of them may be less so? How might you see forgiveness as a more conscious component of a parent-child relationship? Write a three-part poem that explores the many nuances of a parent-child relationship as it evolves with age.
Get out of town. Take a drive, a train, or a bus. It doesn’t matter how. It doesn’t have to be far. Just get away. Once you’re there, buy a postcard, address it to yourself, and write a poem on it. Fill up the whole card. Don’t edit yourself too much, just let it roll, then drop it in the mail. When it finally arrives back home, transcribe it onto a notebook and see if you can build from it. It may already be well on its way to a finished product, or it may only have one or two lines worth keeping. Regardless, stepping away from what’s familiar and writing a poem to your future self can help guide you to new images and thoughts that the daily writing life may not inspire.
Beginning next week, a collection of Marilyn Monroe’s personal possessions—including handwritten notes and receipts, an address book, lipstick and cigarettes—will be displayed on a worldwide tour before being put on auction. Choose one of Monroe’s items and write a poem imagining the story behind her connection to the item. You might even want to try writing from the point of view of the inanimate object.
A recent study by Paul Thibodeau, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, examines the phenomenon of “word aversion”—the extremely visceral distaste that some people have in response to certain words, such as “moist,” “luggage,” and “phlegm.” Write down a list of five words that you find particularly repulsive, words that might not otherwise have any definitively negative connotations. Use these words in a poem and explore how word choice can propel you toward certain subject matter. Do you find yourself pulled to other repellant images and memories, or pushed to offset those words with more pleasing evocations?
For a period of eighteen months in the late 1970s, an unexpected pairing of communities took place: the building that housed the San Francisco Club for the Deaf, a social club for the deaf community, became the venue for notable punk rock shows and album recordings. In an article about a Deaf Club event in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Opal Gordon, a deaf performer, said, “Music is strong, [deaf people] can feel the vibrations. Punk is perfect because it’s loud, it’s heavy, it’s in your face.” Write a poem in which you imagine experiencing a musical performance—whether punk, classical, country, or jazz—that you can see and feel, but not hear. Think about the ways in which music can transcend sound, focusing on the visual or literal attitude of the performance.
In During (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), the new collection by National Book Award finalist James Richardson, there are, in addition to many wonderful poems, dozens and dozens of aphorisms (a poetic specialty of his), including gems like, “Maybe what interests me in the mirror is not myself but that person who looks so interested in me.” Try your hand at writing a handful of aphorisms, focusing on the way they use brevity and clarity to find their way into an idea. For inspiration, read more of Richardson’s aphorisms, and some from his favorite aphorist Antonio Porchia.
Technological and scientific advances have recently enabled surgeons to implant a chip into a human brain that, through a computer, can send signals to the body allowing a person living with paralysis to regain movement. Write a poem reflecting on your own observations about autonomy, the role of technology, and the physical mechanisms of the body. Think of unique ways to describe the inner workings of our minds, muscles, and limbs.
In preparation for next week’s Poem in Your Pocket Day, find a short poem that you are especially drawn to and carry it with you, taking time to reread and reflect upon it. If you need help finding one, try the Academy of American Poets or Poets House websites. At the end of the week, write your own poem that in some way responds to your chosen poem. Next Thursday, on Poem in Your Pocket Day, add your original poem to your pocket and share it with others.
Matthew Zapruder, poetry editor for the New York Times Magazine, says of Eileen Myles’s poem “Summer”: “Its drifting, elusive movement defines and also conjures the feeling of experiencing summer itself.” This week, make a short list of adjectives and phrases that signify to you the feeling of experiencing summer. Then write a poem that mimics the motions, rhythms, or sensations of the season. Be sure to include personal impressions or events that make your observations unique.
A recent issue of the New Yorker includes poet Timothy Donnelly’s wild ode to one of his favorite guilty pleasures, “Diet Mountain Dew.” The poem barrels along, exploring all the qualities of the less-than-quality beverage, including its radiant green, prominent logo, and commercial history. Write an ode to one of your own culinary guilty pleasures that engages directly with its unsavory elements, such as its ingredients, appearance, and origin. Use your imagination to transform these details into avenues for lyrical observations.
This week, select a random year from the last five to ten years, and by combing through your memory, old notes, e-mails, and calendars, jot down a list of events in your life from that year. What were some of your reactions and emotions that accompanied those situations? Write a poem that encapsulates the ups and downs of that single year. Be sure to explore how the intervening years between then and now may have provided you with a wiser, refreshed perspective on past occurrences, and offers a reflective conclusion to your poem.
In the story of Pandora’s box in Greek mythology, Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, opens the lid of a container, thereby allowing all of the evils stored inside to escape out into the world. In contemporary colloquial usage, to “open a Pandora’s box” refers to an action that seems small or harmless but ultimately proves to have disastrous consequences. Write a poem that starts with a seemingly innocent action, which then unexpectedly unleashes a dramatic chain of events. For inspiration, listen to Ada Limón’s poem “The Last Move.”
Visual artists who have been productive over long stretches of time often develop certain periods of work with shared characteristics, such as similar color palettes. For example, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse both had dark periods, Pablo Picasso had his blue and rose periods, and Victor Vasarely had a black-and-white period. As we begin to think about the year's transition from winter to spring, bringing along with it seasonal changes in light and sound, consider embarking on a new period of your own work. Write a series of short poems inspired by your observations of the different colors, moods, and scenery around you that signal the forthcoming spring season. To begin a green period, for example, what might be your key points of inspiration, in terms of imagery and vocabulary?
Scientists announced last month that they had recorded the sound of two black holes colliding and merging a billion light-years away. The sound was described as a small, quick, birdlike chirp. Create a list of object pairs; the items can be clearly connected—like a red car and a blue car, or you and a loved one—or disparate, or conceptual. Choose an especially inspiring pair from your list and write a poem about the two objects as they head on a collision course, and the unexpected sound that’s heard when they finally merge.
If you’re having trouble starting a poem, begin at the end. Take a single collection of poems and make a list of the last two words from each poem. Then write your own poem using only these words. Be vigilant at first utilizing just the vocabulary from the list. After a couple of drafts, stray from the limited words to help bring the poem to its full realization.
Write a poem exploring a broad topic or theme—like love, death, kindness, the passage of time, or faith, for example—that uses vivid, sensory detail. Utilize language from familiar worlds such as animal behavior or everyday household objects to form connections to these larger subjects. For inspiration, listen to the late C. D. Wright read “Obscurity and Voyaging” in the latest episode of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast.
Scientists recently reported that 2015 was the hottest year on record, and yet certain areas of the North Atlantic Ocean experienced unusually low temperatures, and New York City had its second largest snowfall last month. With these historic weather events in mind, write a two-part poem with a tone shift involving hot and cold climates. Move beyond the most frequently used images and vocabulary associated with extreme temperatures, and explore fresh new ideas, sounds, and textures that achieve chilling or sweltering effects.
February 8 marks the new year on the lunar calendar this year. On the Chinese zodiac, this date marks the passage from the Year of the Sheep, a year of prosperity and promise, to the Year of the Monkey, a sign known for mischief and playfulness. Write a poem about this animal sign, looking beyond the typically cited characteristics of the monkey and exploring the lesser-known traits that might be associated with your own specific wishes or worries for 2016.
The challenge is simple: Write a poem that is a single sentence long. But don’t write just any old sentence. Instead, challenge yourself to sustain the sentence for as long as possible. Use all the tools of syntax, grammar, and poetic form to help keep it going. While these tools are already at play when writing a poem, the single-sentence constraint will force you into exciting and unexpected rhetorical solutions. For inspiration, read this article on one-sentence poems by poet Camille Dungy.
On February 2, according to popular folklore, a groundhog that emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow signifies six more weeks of winter; if it's cloudy and no shadow is present, spring will arrive early. Other animals, too, are said to exhibit weather-forecasting attributes: sneezing cats, fat rabbits, and howling wolves, for example. Write a poem based on one of these legends, perhaps experimenting with an unexpected point of view, such as having the speaker of the poem be the animal, or an onlooker who is completely unfamiliar with the myth behind it. What textures, sights, and sounds would be unique to the occurrence? Explore the emotional resonances and psychological underpinnings of superstitions and folklore.
As forms of creative expression, music and poetry share similarities in the usage of sound and rhythm to generate emotional resonance. Musicians and poets have often expressed their mutual admiration, and even collaborated with each other. Read the poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?,” from Tracy K. Smith’s collection Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011), with its many references to David Bowie, or watch an animation of Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” read by Tom Waits. Then write a poem of your own inspired by the mood or themes of a favorite musician or song.
The end of the year is often accompanied by the practice of looking back at the previous twelve months and drawing up “Best of” lists: best moments, best books, best songs. As the new year kicks off, browse through some 2015 lists and jot down words, phrases, and notes about the themes in popular songs and books. Then write a poem that encapsulates the spirit of the music and literature recognized in 2015.
Think back over the past year. What does the memory of each month feel like? What is its emotional tone, vibration, form? Write a poem in twelve parts that tries to capture each month’s abstract feeling in a single line or stanza. Like Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” you can repeat the same object or setting throughout the poem, or offer a different context for each section. Challenge yourself to avoid the clichéd images that are often paired with months (i.e. the beach and July, leaves and October), and instead, try to translate the ineffable into the visual. When finished, you’ll have a calendar of metaphor.
Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich has said, “I love how humans talk...I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.” Write a series of short poems each written in the voice of a distinct first-person speaker using casual spoken language. You might try loosely connecting the poems by having the voices in dialogue with one another, or by using recurring themes or repeated phrases. Emphasize the uniqueness of each voice with different perspectives, speech tics, slang, and tone.
This week, write a pantoum, a modern verse form adapted from traditional Malaysian folk poetry that uses repeated lines throughout a series of quatrains. How does the repetition of words influence the mood or pacing of your poem? Allow the repeated phrases to take on different meanings as the contexts shift throughout the piece. Refer to the Academy of American Poets website for details and examples of pantoums.
Muggle, Heffalump, Chortle, Chintzy. From Sir Thomas More (utopia) to Robert A. Heinlein (grok) to J. K. Rowling (quidditch), writers throughout history have created new words to describe the invented worlds in their books. Sometimes these neologisms are names of made-up places, feelings, or actions, but sometimes the meaning is more mysterious and ambiguous. Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" appears in the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as part of a dream. Although it is full of nonsense words, the poem itself follows conventional syntax and structures. Invent your own word and designate it as the name of a newly imagined place or feeling. Write a poem inspired by this new word, combining vivid imagery and specific sounds and rhythms, with familiar elements, to evoke the sensations of a completely new and invented—or inverted—universe.
There is the view that all poetry is a translation of feelings and perceptions that are in some ways fundamentally unsayable. Try translating a poem after you’ve read a few different translations of the same poem. Several interesting things may happen: you check one version against another; you’re on high alert for the “prose meaning” of the original, as well as the tone; you see what the translations at once obscure and reveal of the original piece; even if one translation is just a remote account, it offers a particular construal. After reading, try your own translation of the same poem. If it is not in a language you know, you now have an idea of what is there and to be looked for. You may find that you’re creating with a refreshed eye and ear for the true, and any false, notes in the music that is poetry.
This week’s poetry prompt comes from Sandra Lim, author of The Wilderness (Norton, 2014). Read Lim’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.
As winter approaches, the days are getting shorter and shorter making it a perfect time to write an aubade, a poem set at dawn. Though its tradition is rooted in love poetry, modern masters like Philip Larkin have used the form to muse on the darker side of sunup. Whether in the tradition of John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” or Larkin’s “Aubade,” write your own version that explores how the early hours spin your imagination.
In “Mermaids and Matryoshkas: The Secret Life of a Poetic Sequence” by Sandra Beasley in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Matthea Harvey talks about "harvesting words from the dictionary... to create the vocabulary bank for new poems." Grab a dictionary, flip through it, and put your finger down on a random page. Record the word you land on and go to the next page and write down the word that appears at the same spot, repeating until you have accumulated a vocabulary bank to work from. Write a poem by constructing surprising associations, perhaps thinking of familiar words in an unexpected way, or drawing a personal connection to a new term.
In our Writers Recommend series, Camille Rankine writes about how her ideas and inspiration come from “eavesdropping on the world.” This week, collect phrases from overheard conversations, radio broadcasts, TV shows, or magazine articles. When you have a quiet moment, read over your notes and pick one quote that sparks your imaginative impulses. Write a poem that uses the found quote as a first line. Explore your immediate reactions and emotions, allowing those feelings to develop the tone of the lines that follow.
This week, listen to a poem new to you—by a contemporary poet or a bygone poet—and jot down the words, phrases, and images that are most striking or memorable to you. Then write your own poem inspired by this list of words. How do you transform someone else's poetic intuition and choices into a work that demonstrates your personal idiosyncrasies and specific aesthetic sense?
After All Hallows’ Eve comes All Saints’ Day. The good news: Hagiography is a treasure trove of unique material for poems. Write a poem in the voice of a famous saint who has returned for this day. What would he or she make of the modern world? Would the remnants of present-day Halloween festivities leave the saint perplexed, mystified, even horrified? Challenge yourself to make the common rituals of modern life seem foreign and charged with possible meaning.
In “Selected Poems: Looking Back on a Lifetime of Writing” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Donald Hall writes, “A grumpy stranger asked me, ‘What do you write about anyway?’ I blurted out, ‘Love, death, and New Hampshire.’” What would you blurt out if you were asked the same question? Write a poem that draws upon your top three thematic obsessions, whether you instinctively reach for these topics each time you start writing, or enjoy revisiting this material in your work. What fresh insights might the juxtaposition of these three subjects in a single poem bring to light?
In recent years, NASA scientists have found a steadily increasing amount of evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars. These discoveries could lead to scientists’ quest to confirm that the planet has hosted life. Write a poem in which you explore the mysterious possibilities of the red planet, extraterrestrial life, the galaxies and constellations, or the notion of human colonies on other planets. Focus on examining the emotions that emerge when you contemplate the vast unknowns of outer space.