Poetry, like life, is about making decisions. Write a poem to the person you may have become had you made an important life decision differently. Remember, this version of you is also vulnerable to the whims of an indifferent universe, so you’re merely making an educated guess as to your doppelgänger’s outcome. Craft your poem with respect. You’re writing to you.
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.
Choose an inch of space anywhere around you: the sole of your hiking boot, the rusted headlight of an abandoned car, that weathered and broken thumb your grandfather used to pry open the back fence. Write about that inch. As poets we often become overwhelmed by the big picture. We seek to conquer love, injustice, and the meaning of meaning. Take a step back. Focus the scope of your poetry. Writing about a single drop of rain can tell us the most about the sky above.
"For the poetry reader...there are certain emotions you are allowed to feel—sadness, love—but this is such a miserable choice of all the emotions one feels," writes Craig Raine in the English Review. "One feels anger, boredom, chilliness—quite strong emotions, but they don't get much of a run in poetry, and I think they should." Write a poem about anger or boredom or any other "nonpoetic" emotion. If you have trouble getting started, try using the first line of John Berryman's devastating "Dream Song 14": "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so."
On June 25, 1857, French poet Charles Baudelaire published his book Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), which led to his conviction on charges of blasphemy and obscenity. Here's a sample: "Huddled, teeming, like gut-worms by the million, a clutch of Demons make whoopee in our brain and, when we breath, Death floods our lungs, an invisible torrent, muffled in groans." Get good and dark: Read a bit from Flowers of Evil then write a short poem. Unleash the gut-worms!
"I know Midwesterners are accused of talking too much about the weather, but that criticism must surely come from people who don't have weather like ours," novelist David Rhodes once wrote to his editor at Milkweed Editions, Ben Barnhart. "These last few weeks have been filled with the bright, indolent humidity of summer, offset by sudden, tyrannical darkness and booming threats of supernatural violence. Not mentioning such revolutionary experiences would be inhuman." Go Midwestern and write a poem about today's weather. And if you're interested, read "After the Flood: A Profile of David Rhodes," from the September/October 2008 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.
In a profile of Natasha Trethewey in the September/October 2012 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, contributing editor Kevin Nance quotes the poet laureate (who was elected to a second term on Monday) about her use of poetic form. "I never set out to write in a particular form, but usually something in the early drafting process suggests to me the possibility of a form I might follow that might help take the poem in a better direction than I might have sent it without following that impulse,” Trethewey says. “I find that it helps me with poems that have seemed unruly for some reason—maybe the story is too big, or the emotion of it is overwhelming for me, and the form helps bring shape to it." Choose a poem that has been giving you trouble—an unruly poem of your own—and try to rewrite it as a sonnet, a villanelle, a pantoum, or another form. (Consult the Academy of American Poets website for help with poetic forms.)
In their introduction to My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi write about Spicer's idea of the serial poem, "a book-length progression of short poems that function together as a single movement." Robin Blaser described the form as "a dark house, where you throw a light on in a room, then turn it off, and enter the next room, where you turn on a light, and so on." As Spicer's poetry "moves from dark room to dark room," Killian and Gizzi write, "each flash of illumination leaves an afterimage on the imagination, and the lines of the poem become artifacts of an ongoing engagement with larger forces." Read some of Jack Spicer's long poems, including The Holy Grail and Billy the Kid. Consider throwing a light on some rooms of your own.
In honor of the centennial anniversary of the birth of May Swenson, on May 28, read some poems by this award-winning poet (consult the Academy of American Poets website for a bibliography), then write a poem with her work in mind. Remember, this is a poet who, four months before her death on December 28, 1989, wrote, "The best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree. Youth, naivety, reliance on instinct more than learning and method, a sense of freedom and play, even trust in randomness, is necessary to the making of a poem."
Poetry is all around you. Find a public place—a train station, a park bench, a street corner, a coffee shop, a bookstore, the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles—and listen to the people around you. Choose one quote from a stranger and use it as the first and last line of a new poem.
Print or write out a handful of unfinished poems you’ve had difficulty revising. Cut out each line and mix them up. Rearrange the lines to make a new poem. Consider using one of the lines as the title.
Pick an iconic figure with a famous weak spot (Superman and kryptonite, Achilles and his heel, Samson and his hair, the Wicked Witch of the West and water). Write a letter from the icon to the weakness or from the weakness to the icon. Is it hate mail? A love poem? A blackmail note? Advice?
Choose a favorite or compelling line from another writer's poem, and write your own line with same number of stressed syllables and same vowel sounds. Use this line as the start of a new poem.
Write a Terza Rima, a poem of three-line stanzas in which the end-word of the second line in the first tercet establishes the rhyme for the first and third lines in the following tercet and so on. The poem can have as many stanzas as you’d like, and the rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc. continues through the final stanza.
Write a poem of fourteen lines. Instead of using the first person (I), use only the second person (you).
Choose a word or phrase you find yourself saying often (e.g. like, totally, hate, really, kind of) and write a poem using it as much as possible, turning it over and over, repositioning it, extending it, playing with its uses and the parts of speech into which it can be shaped.
Choose a poem—a classic work or something you've newly discovered—and memorize it. As you do so, note the rhythms, sounds, and structure that help you remember it. To test your memory, and in honor of National Poetry Month, consider reciting it to a friend in person, leaving a recording of it on a friend's voicemail, or sending an audio file of it to one or more friends via e-mail.
Make a collage inspired by a working draft of one of your poems, using images from books, photographs, magazines, newspapers, and drawings. You may incorporate words as well. Let the transformation of your poem into another medium inform a revision of the poem on the page.
Collect phrases and words that you see throughout the day today. Arrange them on the page, using line breaks where they seem to naturally fall. Next, above the lines you’ve recorded, write words and phrases that are somehow related to those on the page, such as synomyms, antonyms, or words that sound or look similar. Rewrite what you’ve recorded replacing the new words with the old. Use this as the first draft of a poem and continue revising it into a finished draft.
Today there are fifteen lines of poetry that will present themselves to you in various ways. Some will be visual, some will be spoken. Look and listen carefully. Take the time to record them. Then refine them and use them to craft a poem.
Write a poem in the form of a letter to an imaginary friend in which you ask them for help that begins, Dear Friend. Keeping the person or creature or entity you’re writing to in mind, include details and images that reveal your imaginary friend’s characteristics as you craft your entreaty.
As poet Ted Kooser writes in The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), “When it comes to the form your poem takes, you can determine it as you write....As you work on your poem, try to see what shape the poetry wants to assume.” Following Kooser’s advice, write a draft of a poem and analyze its structure. How many lines does it have? How many stanzas? How many stressed syllables per line? Look for a dominant pattern in what you’ve written and revise the poem to fit that pattern consistently.
Send a line of poetry to a friend via text message or e-mail and ask her to compose a line in response. Collaborate on drafting a poem in this way, building it line by line until you both agree that it's reached its end. Using the final product as a draft, revise the poem and have your friend do the same. Compare your final drafts.
Using scissors, cut up one of your poems that needs revision into its lines or parts of lines. Rearrange these clippings in various combinations and create a new draft. Write a revision of your poem based on this new draft.
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of American poet Robert Frost. To honor this day, read Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" on the Academy of American Poets' website. Analyze the poem's structure, and write a poem with the same rhyme scheme and number of lines.