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.
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.
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 Writers Recommend, Camille Rankine shares that her ideas and inspiration come from “eavesdropping on the world.” This week, collect phrases from overheard conversations, the radio, TV, or magazine articles. When you have a quiet moment, read over your notes and pick one quote that especially sparks your imaginative impulses. Write a poem that uses the found quote as a first line. Explore your immediate reactions and emotions, and allow 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.
“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself,” said author Mohsin Hamid in a 2012 interview. Think about a stranger with whom you recently crossed paths. It could be the person who bagged your groceries, stood in front of you in line at the post office, or simply walked by you on the street. What type of situation can you imagine this stranger experiencing? Which emotions or feelings would you project onto this stranger? Write a poem about this imagined event from the stranger's perspective. Concentrate on digging deeply into your own private observations and personal history to capture what sensations might be echoed in another person’s experience.
In “To Autumn,” John Keats personifies the season through descriptions of landscape and life in agrarian England. Write an ode that personifies a modern vision of autumn. Use characteristics of contemporary life: perhaps a new school year, a harvest we no longer see, football and its violence, costumes and horror, or our obsession with pumpkin spice. Explore what these aspects reveal about our present-day relationship to nature and the seasons. Does the idyllic character of Keats’s poem endure?
Richard Wilbur says about inspiration, "A poem comes looking for me rather than I hunting after it." Quickly make a list of the first five things that pop into your head, "looking" for you. It may be a striking image, a phrase, or a memory of someone from your past that has resurfaced unexpectedly. Use one of the items on your list as a source of inspiration and write a poem examining why this subject occupies your mind. As you write, continue to hunt for some clarity.
As kids, the prospect of getting new school supplies always seemed to brighten back-to-school woes. This week, imagine what you would pack in a backpack to prepare yourself for the school of life. Make a list of five "supplies" that you can picture yourself using every day—they can be practical tools, made-up magic potions, or even intangible thoughts or mantras. Write a poem in which you describe the supplies with concrete details, exploring how having each one easily accessible at all times would vastly improve your prospects.
Choose a memorable character from a movie—someone from an old Western or a James Bond film, for example—and write a poem inspired by this on-screen persona. What are the most striking aspects of her style or demeanor? Focus on connecting specific details, like a certain way of walking or talking or dressing, to her emotional state to create a lyrical portrayal of this larger-than-life character.
Do your poems tend to be loud or quiet? Try your hand at switching up your writing's volume. Write a poem that's noisy and full of hard consonants and cacophonous sounds, or write a calmer poem that whispers with a softer rhythm and smoother pacing. Perhaps you can transform your piece by altering capitalization or punctuation, or by italicizing. When you increase or decrease the levels in your poem, are the types of images or emotions that come to mind drastically different?
In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Dean Young talks about his earliest recollection of writing a poem as a child and the realization that, "you could make up reality with language.... You could write the words blue cow, for example, and there'd be a blue cow." Make a list of five vivid but nonsensical phrases describing things that don't exist in reality. Then, choosing one of the phrases to use as a first line, write a poem that is unrestrained by fact or conventional logic. Rather than focusing on consistency or reason, allow your imagination to quickly zigzag from one surprising image, sound, or emotion to the next.
Epic poems, like Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, chronicle the tales of heroes set against the backdrop of historical events. They are often lengthy, and typically include narratives featuring superhuman feats, wild adventures, and stylized language. While we usually equate epic poetry with ancient times, the form has also been used by modern poets. From Lord Byron's comic use of the epic form in Don Juan, to Ezra Pound's The Cantos and Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette, this form has been used throughout the ages. Try your hand at writing the beginning of an epic poem. Choose a hero and a quest, and then set sail on a lyric journey. Write in dactylic hexameter, as Homer did, or use your own meter. After all, it's your adventure!
This week, encourage someone close to you to collaborate on writing a poem. Together, choose a subject—it can be a shared experience, a mutual friend or loved one, or a place familiar to you both—and then separately, write a short poem on the chosen subject from the first-person perspective. Finally, work together on the editing process, combining the two poems by interweaving lines and stanzas, and formulating a collective rhythm. For inspiration, read "Two Fathers" by Lois Baer Barr and Ellen Birkett Morris.
If you found yourself stranded on a desert island, what would you most want to have with you? Make a list of ten things—anything from books, music, and photos, to people, pets, or food—and then write a poem with the items in your order of importance. Include the reasons why you can’t live without each item. Are there specific memories attached to certain items that persuaded you to choose them?
The "dog days" of summer typically refer to the hottest days around July and August. The term originates with the ancient Romans who associated this time of year with the brightest star Sirius—also known as the Dog Star—rising and setting in sync with the sun, supposedly making the days hotter. Explore other natural occurrences that coincide with summer—fire rainbows, foxfire, midnight sun—and write a poem in tribute to the hottest days of the year.
Poet and translator George Szirtes says: "Nobody reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. They read the poem for the experience of travelling through it." This week, choose a short poem—it can be one of your own or someone else’s—and cross out the last line. Read it again now without its last line, and imagine how the poem might take a different turn at this juncture. Write a continuation of the poem, allowing it to travel to an entirely new conclusion.