Rising global temperatures and natural disasters, such as the recent tropical storms and hurricanes in North America and the earthquake in Haiti, bring to mind the fragility of the environment and the effects of climate change. Over the years, poets have taken to their craft to raise awareness and humanize the climate crisis in works such as “I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth” by Fatimah Asghar, “Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield, “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now” by Matthew Olzmann. Write a poem about the environment that draws the reader in emotionally, whether it is by describing a changing landscape or reflecting on the issue. For further inspiration, browse these poems engaging with the climate crisis curated by the Academy of American Poets.
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.
In a preface to “After Cecilia Vicuña,” a poem from the collection Villainy, published in September by Nightboat Books, Andrea Abi-Karam includes a note on the Chilean poet and visual artist Cecilia Vicuña, who condemned General Augusto Pinochet and spoke out about how “the lies (the words, the language) of the Chilean dictatorship murdered & tortured thousands of people.” In the poem, Abi-Karam asks questions about the power of words and how to provoke change through a medium such as poetry that at times can feel devoid of consequence. “i ask questions like / … how to weaponize the poem words as weapons / give the poem teeth.” What questions would you ask yourself about the power of your own words? Write a poem that contemplates the impact you wish to make as a writer—the reasons, hesitations, desires, and conflicts that arise when you create.
In Paul Tran’s “Progress Report,” published on Literary Hub and featured in their forthcoming debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin Poets, 2022), the poem catalogues the speaker’s life while filling out a form: “Photograph of the ’93 Mazda MPV he reportedly turned into an ice cream truck. / I marked Humor. / Holes where the nails had been in the wall. / I marked Self-harm.” The poem, made up of single end-stopped lines, uses a call-and-response technique to reveal new information as it progresses. Write a poem in which the speaker is filling out a form—perhaps a progress report, an immigration document, or a demographic survey. How can you use the poem’s form as a way of highlighting an important event?
In C. K. Williams’s poem “Marina,” published in the New Yorker in 2005, the speaker is reading essays by Marina Tsvetaeva as a bug makes its way across the table. As the poem progresses, lines from Tsvetaeva’s essays are interlaced with descriptions of the bug dragging its transparent wings behind it, and the bug becomes a metaphor for her difficult life. “‘The soul is our capacity for pain.’ // When I breathe across it, / the bug squats, quakes, finally flies. / And couldn’t she have flown again, / again have been flown?” Write a poem involving lines from a writer you admire. Try, as Williams does, to elucidate or challenge the featured lines.
“I will tell you all. I will conceal nothing,” writes Muriel Rukeyser in her poem “Effort at Speech Between Two People,” in which two disembodied voices confess, speak, and exchange information about their lives. In the poem, the voices are both individual and collective, and the use of caesuras serve as a visual cue for silence in a conversation. Write a poem in which two people speak without relying on the use of traditional dialogue tags. How can you focus on the sounds of the language and the potential for slippage between voices to add texture to the poem? For more inspiration, watch Carl Phillips read Rukeyser’s poem in the Poets & Writers Theater.
“A language is a map of our failures,” writes Adrienne Rich in “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” a poem that begins by reflecting on an incident involving children burning a book in a backyard. In the five-section poem, several forms and topics are discussed as the scope of the situation is widened to a global scale, then focused onto the intimacies of sexual relations, resulting in a capacious exploration of language and its failures. Write a poem that reflects upon your relationship to your first language and expands upon how communication can fail us.
In an article for the New Statesman, Andrew McMillan writes about discovering the poetry of Thom Gunn after his death and the impact of his writing on male desire and the male body: “While for the Romantics the sublime might have been an engagement with the vastness and wildness of a landscape, Gunn locates it in encounters with lovers or strangers, a striving towards and never quite achieving transcendence of the self.” This week, write a poem that strives for transcendence through a desirous encounter with a lover or a stranger. For inspiration, browse Gunn’s poetry published on the Poetry Foundation website.
The sonnet form dates back to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy where it was popularized by the poet Petrarch, whose work was translated and introduced in the sixteenth century to English poets. A new type of sonnet with a different rhyme scheme was then developed and made famous through the work of William Shakespeare. Poets such as Wanda Coleman, Diane Seuss, and Terrance Hayes have given voice to the more contemporary “American” sonnet, demonstrating the flexibility of the fourteen-line form. This week, write your own sonnet—either a traditional sonnet or one inspired by a contemporary poet.
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Stephen Dunn died on his eighty-second birthday on June 24. Over the weekend many fans and readers shared memories and favorite poems on social media, collectively mourning the loss of this major literary figure. One such poem of Dunn’s is “The Routine Things Around the House,” which tackles the difficult subject of grieving a mother through a memory of when he was twelve and asked his mother if he could see her breasts. “She took me into her room / without embarrassment or coyness / and I stared at them, / afraid to ask for more,” writes Dunn. “This poem / is dedicated to where / we stopped, to the incompleteness / that was sufficient.” This week, write an elegy that focuses on a memory that would be considered uncommon or surprising. See where it takes you.
In many countries, Father’s Day was observed this past Sunday, an occasion in which fatherhood is celebrated and reflected upon. Over the centuries, poets have explored and honored their relationships with their fathers in poems such as “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, “Yesterday” by W. S. Merwin, and “My Father. A Tree.” by Tina Chang. This week, write a poem dedicated to a father figure in your life. Try writing it from the perspective of a child as an added challenge.
Black Earth: Selected Poems and Prose, a new collection of writing by Osip Mandelstam, translated from the Russian by Peter France and forthcoming in July from New Directions, offers a fresh look at the celebrated work of the revered Russian poet who died in a Stalinist labor camp in 1938. Known for the electric and haunting poems written toward the end of his life, Mandelstam was also part of the symbolist movement, as evidenced in his poem “Notre-Dame,” which reimagines what the Parisian cathedral looked like when it was built in medieval France. “Here, where a Roman judge once judged an alien people, / stands a basilica, fresh minted, full of joy,” he writes, “as Adam long ago stood tall and flexed his sinews, / its muscles ripple through the light crisscrossing vaults.” Write a poem about an old building in your neighborhood that reimagines what it looked like when first constructed. Try to combine images of the structure with the history behind its survival.
“I wrote a good omelet… and ate / a hot poem… after loving you,” writes Nikki Giovanni in her poem “I Wrote a Good Omelet.” The poet, whose seventy-eighth birthday was earlier this week, describes going about various common tasks in strange and humorous ways, replacing, for example, “car” for “coat” in the phrase “drove my coat home” and “bed” for “hair” in “turned down my hair.” Through these playful reversals, Giovanni mimics the dizzying feeling of falling in love, as if the speaker is unable to focus on anything after being with their beloved. Write a poem that expresses this giddy feeling of love by using unexpected combinations of phrases and words.
“Whatever comes to pass: you know your time, / my bird, you put on your veil / and fly through the mist to me,” writes Ingeborg Bachmann in her poem “My Bird,” translated from the German by Mark Anderson and published in the Summer 1984 issue of the Paris Review. In the poem, twilight passes into dawn as the narrator follows the owl through its many nightly transformations and their relationship is described by Bachmann in uncommon and evocative ways, such as “my nighttime ally,” “my ice-gray shoulder companion,” and “my weapon.” This week, write a poem about a bird that you think of as a companion. Try addressing the bird directly as Bachmann does in her poem.
The months of May and June mark the time when most schools and universities celebrate graduations, and poetry is oftentimes relied upon for commencement speeches and congratulatory messages to express feelings of hope and possibility. From Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to Langston Hughes’s “Dreams,” poets offer timeless, thoughtful, and even funny responses applicable to this unique transition in a person’s life. Write a poem for a graduate that expresses your advice or some words of wisdom. For inspiration, browse the poems for graduation resource page from the Academy of American Poets.
“She seems a part of me, / and then she seems entirely like what she is: / a white dog, / less white suddenly, against the snow,” writes Carl Phillips, recipient of the 2021 Jackson Poetry Prize, in his poem “White Dog” from his collection The Rest of Love (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004). In the poem, the speaker recounts walking their dog during the first snow of the year and realizing through their relationship the limits of love and loss. Inspired by Phillips, write a poem featuring a beloved pet of yours or an animal you’ve befriended in which you learn something new.
“The only way to know tenderness is to dismantle it,” writes Diane Seuss in “White violet, not so much an image” from her 2015 poetry collection Four-Legged Girl about how the flower is “not so much an image of tenderness as an image of a memory of tenderness.” In the poem, she dissects the flower petal-by-petal, trying to capture its fragility, and associating between the metaphors and memories this act conjures. This week, write a poem about the memories a particular flower conjures for you. Like Seuss, let yourself associate as freely as possible considering all the senses and try to go beyond the traditional portrait of a flower.
Forrest Gander’s poem “Pastoral,” published last month in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, begins with a scene of a couple gazing out a window that is interrupted by a stanza with a parenthetical meditation on the act of looking before the last lines complete the description of the scenery outside. The middle stanza in parentheses questions the language used in the first stanza’s description and moves away from the physical into the interiority of the speaker’s mind. Inspired by the poem’s form, write a poem about the act of looking. How can you subvert the expectations of the reader by leaving the scene to go into the interior of your mind?
“In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love,” writes Frank O’Hara in his poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in which the Beat poet writes an ode to his favorite movie stars and the magic of movies. Listing thirty actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood in relationship to one another, O’Hara describes, with humor, their personalities and appeal on the movie screen. “Mae West in a furry sled, / her bordello radiance and bland remarks, Rudolph Valentino of the moon, / its crushing passions, and moonlike, too, the gentle Norma Shearer,” he writes. Write an ode to your favorite movie or movie star. How can you employ techniques often seen on the screen through the language of the poem?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s poem “Ghazal Connected as Though Cargo Freights,” winner of Winning Writers’ Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for traditional verse, uses the Persian poetic form as a way of capturing the landscape in which the speaker grew up as a trans child while balancing the taut music of the line with a narrative propulsion that grounds the story. The ghazal, which originated in seventh-century Arabia, consists of at least five couplets that are structurally autonomous—the first stanza ending both lines with the same word and each stanza that follows repeating the same word at the end of the second line. This week, write a ghazal that explores your childhood. For more guidance on the history of the form and to read examples, visit the Poetry Foundation’s glossary entry on the ghazal.
In an afterword to The Essential June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller and forthcoming in May by Copper Canyon Press, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Jericho Brown writes about how the legacy of June Jordan, who died in 2002, “allows another opportunity to think not only about what poems are, but also what poems can do.” In this definitive volume the celebrated poet’s voice shines as she explores difficult subject matter, such as racist police brutality and violence against women, with a commitment to global solidarity and radical kindness. She dedicates many of her poems to lovers and friends, along with historical and pop culture figures, including “1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer,” “Poem for Mark,” and “Poem on the Death of Princess Diana.” Taking inspiration from Jordan, write a poem that is dedicated to a single person. Consider using your new poem’s title to help frame a complicated subject.
In Tomas Tranströmer’s lyrical autobiography Memories Look at Me (New Directions, 2011), translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton, he describes his high school experience of reading the work of Horace out loud in the original Latin and instantaneously translating it into English. “This alternation between the trivial and decrepit on the one hand and the buoyant and sublime on the other taught me a lot,” writes Tranströmer. “It had to do with the conditions of poetry and life. That through form something could be raised to another level.” Write a poem with a central moment or image that risks being ridiculous. How can form be used to tether that moment to a more sublime mission? For inspiration, read “Old Man Leaves Party” by Mark Strand and “The Indoors Is Endless” by Tranströmer.
In an interview with Paisley Rekdal curated by Victoria Chang for Tupelo Quarterly, the poet discusses how she always writes in pursuit of a form. “Once I have an idea (really, more of a feeling than a subject), I’m always trying to find a way to shape the material of that feeling,” says Rekdal. As an example, Rekdal talks about her poem “Philomela,” from her book Nightingale (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), and how identifying what dissatisfied her about the poem allowed her to find a form for it. This week, find an unfinished poem that you’ve been dissatisfied with and try to express why in a brief sentence. Next, write a new poem that directly addresses this dissatisfaction. Does this exercise help you discover new forms?
Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who died on March 21 at the age of seventy-five, was known for his intermingling of, as he once put it in an interview, the “historic world with the cosmic world that is static, or rather moves in a totally different rhythm.” The title of his poem “Mysticism for Beginners,” translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, is taken from a book cover the speaker notices and then uses as an opportunity to describe his surroundings with a mystical sense of praise: “Suddenly I understood that the swallows / patrolling the streets of Montepulciano / with their shrill whistles” and “the white herons standing…like nuns in fields of rice” are only “mysticism for beginners, / the elementary course, prelude / to a test that’s been / postponed.” Write a poem “for beginners” about a concept that is explored through concrete, physical descriptions. Take a note from Zagajewski’s poem and start by writing down a list of images.
Springtime, the season between the barrenness of winter and the exuberant heat of summer for those in the northern hemisphere, has always been a source of inspiration for poets as it signals new life and change. From T. S. Eliot’s famous first line in “The Waste Land” (“April is the cruellest month”), to contemporary poems such as “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón, “Lilacs” by Amy Lowell, and “Crisscross” by Arthur Sze, spring can bring to mind themes of rebirth and transformation. This week, write a poem inspired by spring. Challenge yourself by writing about how springtime is personally significant to you.
“In this city / each door I cross / in search of your room / grows darker / than the sky,” writes Aldo Amparán in “Aubade at the City of Change,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In The Essential Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch, an aubade is defined as a poem or song for the dawn expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak that dates back to Europe at the end of the twelfth century. In Amparán’s poem, he uses the form to meditate on the mourning of a loved one and conjures images of light to illustrate how loss can leave one feeling “suspended in time” even as the world continues to shift and change. This week, write an aubade. Use the dawn as an image to illustrate the theme of change in the poem.