The holiday season is here, which means you will soon be a guest at a work party, gathering of friends, or family-oriented celebration. This is the season for poets. Begin your “Thank You” poems now. Celebrate what companionship means to you and express your gratitude for the honor of being invited. Make your poems personal and sincere. (Consider attaching each poem to a nice bottle of wine and personally hand it to your host.)
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.
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Halloween week is here. Write a poem about something you feared as a child. As adults we fear loneliness, intellectual and financial ruin, and—of course—death. However, children experience the world and their own humanity differently; yet, their fears are just as scary, valid, and profound. Begin the poem as an innocent child. End the poem as a mature adult.
Poetry is an act of appreciation. With our increasingly busy schedules, we lose our ability to appreciate. Poets must resist the modern temptation to overlook what holds meaning in our lives. Identify something in your surroundings—a rusted hoe draped in spider webs, an unfashionable dress abandoned by time, a wine cork buried in a drawer of unpaid bills—and write a poem that appreciates these lonely items.
Life is about relationships. As with everything in life, all relationships end for various reasons. Think about a relationship that you valued that has ended—a friend, a lover, a family member. Write a poem that encapsulates your sense of loss and appreciation and how this particular person impacted your life. The power of poetry transcends everything that ends.
Collisions spark creativity. Colors collide to form new colors. Opposing ideas create an inspired argument. Friction makes fire. Write a poem that combines two unrelated entities in your life: Imagine your birth certificate under a decaying woodpile, your mother-in-law clenching spark plugs, a bluebird singing in your freezer. Push your imagination. The words will follow.
The human race, by nature, is flawed. Deep within our DNA is the capacity for violence, hatred, and deceit. Choose an aspect of human nature that disturbs you. Write a poem describing this ugly and flawed characteristic of human nature. Write a second poem about how we, the human race, can fix it.
Revisit one of your favorite poems by another poet. What appeals to you about this particular poem—the structure, the sound, the imagery, the subject matter? Write a poem dedicated to this poet and poem. Show your appreciation by instilling those same respected qualities in your own writing.
People come in and out of our lives like passengers on a train. Some stay for much of our journey. Others get on and off, quickly disappearing into their own travels. Write a poem about someone who became part of your life, but left the train. Who were they? Why do you miss them? What happened? Focus on tone, voice, and imagery.
Writing poetry can be a lonely endeavor. Reading poetry, however, can introduce us to people and worlds we’ve never experienced. Use the power of poetry to help someone who is lonely. The woman resting her head on the steering wheel at a long red light. The old man with a soggy coaster at the end of the bar. The adolescent kid hiding in the school bathroom. Write a poem for them, from you.
The end of summer means the beginning of autumn. This is a time of change. Write a poem about the changes occurring in your life. Choose powerful verbs. Focus on the feelings of expectation, fear, and relief that come with change. Use vivid imagery. It is during change that we are often the most alive.
The center of our families, our homes, and our most treasured conversations occur at the kitchen table. We discuss the vibrant color of sautéed asparagus, the deep laugh of a deceased grandfather, or sit quietly, alone, worrying about our children at 3am. Write a poem about your kitchen table, and the food, voices, and thoughts it has experienced over the years.
Windows, like frames for photos and paintings, provide a context to the vast world around us. Sit by your favorite window and write a poem about life beyond the glass: diaphanous oak leaves spangled in sunlight, fatigued men hanging from a garbage truck, chirping songbirds flitting through summer rain, a hunched elderly woman who feels forgotten. Remember: This is your window as defined by your life. Give yourself thirty minutes.
Think of your favorite meal. Write a poem about the recipe, describing how each ingredient and every action contributes to the final whole. Evoke the five senses—from the sound of a whisk to the smell of paprika. Explore what this meal means to you and why. Write vibrantly, unless gruel is your thing.
Writing poetry is an act of empowerment. Sit quietly at your desk. Think about what you’re most insecure about in life: being a good parent, making enough money, not being able to love fully. Write a poem about how you plan to overcome that insecurity.
Time is what we call the brutal miracle that makes us grow old. Certain months of time remind us of falling in love, burying a loved one, or moving into a new house. This week, as we say goodbye to July, reflect on what August has meant to your life. Begin your poem with your childhood. Then describe how August has changed you and your perception of the world.
Poetry harnesses the power of metaphors and similes to reach a part of humanity that is inaccessible to all other forms of communication. Think about someone you love. Spend 15 minutes making a list of their notable attributes—both flattering and incriminating. Describe those attributes using simple metaphors and similes to explain the complex feelings this person evokes within you.
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.
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.