Abecedarian poems begin with the first letter of the alphabet, and each successive line or stanza begins with the next letter until the final letter is reached. Before you lump this form in with those acrostic poems your middle-school English teacher made you compose using the letters of your name, give it a chance. If you're not sure what to write about, or feel like everything you're producing sounds the same, try this strict form to help break free from the creative constraints of your usual words and phrases. For more information consult poets.org. Who knows? You might become so taken with the form that you decide to write an entire collection of abecedarian poems, like Harryette Mullen's Sleeping With the Dictionary.
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.
Anne Carson's poem "God's Work" opens with the line: "Moonlight in the kitchen is a sign of God." Have you ever experienced a moment like this? This week, write a poem about noticing tiny glimpses of the workings of some higher power. Are these signs comforting or reassuring? Are they motivating, as they are in Carson's poem? If you are not a spiritual person, write about the signs that remind you how much work needs to be done to make our world a better place.
Maya Angelou once said, "To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power." This week, write a poem describing your mother. What immediately comes to mind when you think about her? What everyday things remind you of her? If you feel like you don't know her very well, describe what you imagine she's like. If you want to make your mom feel extra special, try to find a way to share your poem with her this Sunday.
Take a moment to think about where you are from. If that's not so easy to pin down, think instead about a place that's had an impact on you, a place in which you've spent a relatively long time, or the place you live now. Now think about how the people talk there. What are the phrases or cadences that color their speech? Take this local voice and use it in a poem about the place you are thinking of. For example, write a poem about going to summer camp in Maine using the Mainer accent, or about moving to New Orleans in the voice of a Louisiana native.
In an interview with Cynthia Dewi Oka back in 2013, poet Andrea Walls talked about the soap epitaphs she started seeing on the backs of car windows around Camden, New Jersey. They struck her as poems that illustrated "the way that we vanish and the way we say we were here vanishes too." This week, write something using an impermanent medium, paying particular consideration to the medium itself. Write a poem about the ocean on a sandy beach, or about your childhood in chalk on the sidewalk. Write a poem for your partner in the condensation on the bathroom mirror. But most importantly, don't write it on paper. It will vanish, but that doesn't mean you have to forget it.
“O, thou ever restless sea / 'God’s half-uttered mystery,'" wrote Albert Laighton in his poem “The Missing Ships” (1878). While significantly fewer ships go missing nowadays, search teams have recently been pouring all of their efforts into finding the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The longer the search takes, the higher the likelihood the secrets inside the aircraft’s black box will be lost forever. This week write a poem about searching for a “lost ship.” Consider the ocean’s depth, the cleansing powers of its salt water, and the hopelessness of its vast magnitude.
Frank O’Hara wrote Lunch Poems while sitting in Times Square during his lunch hour. This week, take time during your lunch hour to pause and reflect on what’s going on around you. Write down a description of the space you’re in, the details of your lunch ritual, the conversation you’re overhearing or participating in, or any other such observation.
The first card in the Major Arcana of the tarot, a deck of cards used by mystics for divination, is called “The Fool." He is depicted on the card as gliding towards the edge of a cliff with the sun rising up behind to light his way, beginning a new journey full of unlimited potential. Have you recently set out on a new journey? Or are you itching to try something new, be spontaneous, and break out of your routine? Write a poem that captures the excitement of the first day of a new adventure. It could be a physical journey, like traveling to a distant land, or an emotional journey, like the start of a new relationship. Whatever path you choose, make sure it’s exhilarating!
Have you tried writing a tanka, ghazal, or triolet? This week, try working in a form that’s unfamiliar to you. You can even adapt an existing draft to fit a form, or come up with your own constraints and pattern. For a list of forms and their descriptions, consult the list of Poetic Forms and Techniques compiled by the Academy of American Poets.
This week, in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, research the life of a saint and write a poem that incorporates some element of his or her story. It can be an image, a symbol (like Saint Patrick’s shamrock, the three-leafed plant he supposedly used to teach the doctrine of the Holy Trinity), or you might try writing a narrative poem. There are patron saints of headaches, florists, and bankers. Find the story that most interests you.
In “[The Lost Pines Inn would be a good name for a motel]” Lyn Hejinian generates a list of “good names” for motels, music groups, and streets. This week, create your own list of imaginative names for something and build a poem around your particular catalogue.
Most of us have ancestors born in countries we may have never visited. This week, trace your family’s origins to a foreign city or town. Try to imagine the landscape of this place: the terrain, nature, and customs that characterize it. Find a way to connect it to your current landscape, creating a poem that joins these two places.
Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote dramatic verse, poems that doubled as monologues. This week, write a monologue in the voice of a fictional character. For inspiration, read Browning's "My Last Duchess" and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." If you’re stuck, try assuming the voice of a character from one of your favorite novels.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is famous for his wonderful odes to unexpected subjects. "Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” and “Ode to an Artichoke” celebrate items we might not typically expect to hear lauded. This week, write an ode to a household object. Try to come up with as many epithets and images for the item as you can.
W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts" draws inspiration from Pieter Bruegel's painting Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. Many poets have found inspiration in other media: Painting, sculpture, even memorials appear in poems. This week, respond to a piece of visual art in verse. You can describe the work in detail, or the source of your inspiration can be subtly channeled into your poem. Similarly, you can choose to title your poem after the artwork or find a new title.
“The most wasted of all days is one without laughter,” wrote E. E. Cummings. Timing is important both in comedy and in poetry. Though poets often engage with serious subjects, a well-placed moment of levity can make a poem even more poignant. This week, try to incorporate humor in your own writing. It can be a funny image, a pun, or a parody. See how this moment affects the tone of your poem, or how it leads you in a new, unexpected direction.
“The poet is the priest of the invisible,” wrote Wallace Stevens. This week, try to write about an invisible force that affects you deeply. For example, it could be your DNA, music, or the smell of your childhood home. Try to imagine the complexity of the invisible (at least to the naked eye) structure that you are describing. Integrate all of your senses to navigate its visual formlessness.
"The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest," Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech on December 5, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Poetry can be a powerful vehicle for protest and social change. Write a poem in which you confront a subject that inspires personal objection. The topic does not have to be strictly political. For instance, Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night” protests the death of the poet’s father: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” See how you can wield and transfer oppositional energy into language and form.
“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” This quote from Robert Frost reveals the raw origins of poetry, and emphasizes the complex cerebral and emotional forces that inspire poems. Think of how poetry accommodates both the expansiveness and simplicity of our emotions. Use this unique and paradoxical phenomenon to write about a profound and complicated experience in your life: perhaps the death of a long-suffering loved one, or the graduation of a child, or the private self-confession of having fallen out of love. Start with a single emotion, and begin your journey there.
This week, people are adjusting their lives to the arctic conditions that have invaded much of the country. The weather is beyond our control, which gives it an otherworldly and spiritual quality. From historic military battles to cancelled softball games, the weather has had a profound impact on the human race and individuals. Write a poem about a time the weather affected your life. Use imagery that symbolizes the ancient, omnipresent, and indifferent soul of nature: a sapling sheathed in ice, June moonlight on a broken window, a flashbulb thunderstorm over an evacuated swimming pool. The weather is different for every life. Put yours to poetry.
The end of 2013 has arrived. Considering we are all on earth for a limited amount of time, it is important to reflect and appreciate the end, and beginning, of another year. Take time away from the popping champagne bottles, boisterous countdowns, and feigned promises of resolutions. Sit alone somewhere and ruminate on the past year. Slow down. Think. Be grateful. Write a poem about your thoughts and emotions as you recall the people, moments, and events that brought you joy and sadness this past year. Time is indifferent to life and death. This is why poetry exists.
Despite the commercialism, stress, and anxiety over gifts and travel, the holidays are a time to reflect on the more endearing aspects of humanity: our ability to love, connect with, and help those around us—including strangers. Write a poem that explores the complexities of the human heart and mind, and how the holiday season—if only for a few days or even moments—brings out the best in the poetically flawed human condition.
Sounds are filled with meaning. Poets can use sounds not only to create wonderful and complex worlds through words, but also to create a rhythm and flow that gives life to the wind, the footsteps, and closing doors around us. Sit quietly somewhere with colorful and unique sounds: an art museum, a lonely riverbank, or a bustling subway station. Write a poem about the sounds you hear. Focus on the poetry and music of the sounds, and how the sounds put everything else—nature, life, and death—into context.
Poetry has very powerful redemptive and healing capacities. The mere process of writing and reading poetry forces us to connect with life on a meaningful, meditative level. Poetry requires a deliberate and calm contemplation that creates spaces for forgiveness, understanding, and self-awareness. Write a poem about a recent disappointment in your life. Be honest about your feelings. The power of your poetry begins with your truths.
Like snowflakes, every family is unique. From quirky aunts and greedy uncles to gracious moms and despicable cousins, every family is peculiar in some meaningful way. Write a poem about your family. Focus on the people who create the love, the pain, and the dynamics that define your family. Be honest. Be courageous. Be open.