Read up on a famous figure (living or dead) whose personality is completely different from your own. Write a poem from that person's perspective about an important event or series of events that shaped who he or she was.
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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Write a poem that incorporates the following words: transfer, single, impend, knot, rhapsody, revue, air lock.
Spend a day at a museum or reading an art book. Choose a piece of artwork that you enjoy or that you find thought-provoking. Rather than composing an ekphrasis that comments on the artwork itself, try your hand at writing a poem in the “mode” of the artwork. This may mean writing a poem in the poetic style that you think is reflected by the artwork, or it may mean trying to write in what you perceive to be the “tone” or "voice" of the artwork.
Write a poem that addresses a past or future version of yourself. Write in the second-person singular. Reassure a younger self, send warnings to a future self, or ask questions to which you don’t know the answers.
During the next week, take note of the various flora and fauna you encounter. Look through classification books or search online for the precise names for the animals, birds, and plants you’ve observed. Choose the most sonorous names and include two in your next poem.
In his poem “Refrigerator, 1957” (originally published in the New Yorker, July 28, 1997), Thomas Lux writes about a jar of “lit-from-within red” maraschino cherries that, as a boy, he never ate from. Write a poem about something that you longed for when you were younger, but was always off-limits.
Write a poem whose title is “Preface to________.” Fill in the blank. Is the poem a preface to a love note? A preface to a confession? Write the poem as if it were an introduction to another written work.
Write an epistolary poem in which you apologize to the recipient of the letter. Read “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams and “I Had Just Hung Up From Talking to You” by Jessica Greenbaum for two examples.
Read James Richardson’s aphorisms or “ten-second essays." Pick one that resonates with you, and use the aphorism as an epigraph or starting off point for a poem.
In June 2012, Matthew and Michael Dickman released Fifty American Plays (Poems) (Copper Canyon Press), a book of poem-plays about the fifty American states. Choose a state (or region or country outside of the United States) that you feel a deep connection to and write a poem about it. Give the reader a sense of the landscape and mood you associate with the place. As an additional challenge, try to convey a sense of the location without ever naming it in the poem.
In her essay “The Art of Finding” originally published in American Poet in 2006, Linda Gregg advises poets to be more attuned to the physical world and to find concrete images that possess a special vibrancy. Gregg writes about how she asks her students to keep “a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things.” Try this exercise for one week, and at the end of the week, use two images from your journal in a poem.
Write a poem that begins with a description of a photograph you have in your possession. Delve into the memories evoked by the photograph, or reveal what personal significance the photograph has for you. For inspiration, read Natasha Trethewey’s “History Lesson.”
In a 2008 Paris Review interview with Kay Ryan, she explains her neologism “recombinant rhyme”—a craft technique of stashing “rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middle.” According to Ryan, “snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem” allows her to “get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.” Take a poem of yours that could use more musicality, and revise it to include recombinant rhyme.
Choose one of your poems that needs revision. Give it to five friends and ask each of them to create an audio version of it by reading it into your telephone answering machine or recording themselves reading it and sending you the audio file. Listen to the five audio versions for places where the rhythm or musical qualities of the poem fall away or sound flat. Use these readings to revise the poem.
Poet Wayne Miller once compared reading a poem in translation to “watching a film with the sound turned down.” Find two or more English translations of a poem originally written in a foreign language with which you’re not familiar. Compare the translations, and try to “re-translate” the original poem based on the various English translations you’ve read.
Write a poem in which you give the reader directions about how to assemble an object or an emotional experience. Think of the various sensory stimuli your directions provide and experiment with the order of the lines. For inspiration, read Matthea Harvey’s poem “Setting the Table.”
An ekphrasis is a poem about, describing, or inspired by, a piece of art. Rather than writing a poem based on a piece of art, try writing a poem inspired by an existing ekphrasis.
Revisit a poem of yours that is longer than one page. Try rewriting the poem by condensing it to ten lines or fewer. Cut and rearrange lines from the original poem, or write a completely new one that gives fresh attention to an evocative image or line from the original.
Make a list of commonly used phrases or idioms (e.g. “don't let the cat out of the bag,” “beat a dead horse,” “no strings attached”). Choose one or two and examine them closely, particularly their literal meaning. Write a poem in which at least one line attempts to reveal the strangeness of a commonly used idiom. Read Dora Malech’s “Love Poem” for inspiration.
A cento, Latin for "patchwork," is a poem composed entirely of fragments and lines taken from other poems and/or written sources. Try creating your own patchwork poem by incorporating lines from various poems in a poetry anthology. For inspiration, read David Lehman's cento in the New York Times.
While writing poetry in a particular form can feel restrictive, it also forces you to make decisions, use words, and write lines that you might not otherwise. Look over your poetry for common features such as the number of lines and stanzas. Based on what you find, create a form—a set number of lines, a set number of stressed syllables per line, and perhaps a relationship among lines, such as having certain lines rhyme or repeat. Write five poems using this form.
Choose a well-known person from history or from the news. Write a persona poem from this person's voice and perspective. For an example, read the poet Ai's "The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981," from her collection Sin (Norton, 1986), written from the perspective of convicted murderer Wayne Williams, or watch a video of Ai reading the poem.
Imagine today that the universe is trying to send you a message. Try to see everything through this imagined perspective. Take note of the day's incidentals that are working to convey this message to you: the guy walking toward you on the street wearing your brother's favorite color, the petals of the same color blowing in the wind, a sign you notice with a saying that strikes you, how the quality of light conjures a past event. Write a poem using these collected images and impressions that reveals the message.
Look through your poem drafts, notes, and writing fragments. Choose one line that you like and refine it until it feels as complete and polished as one line out of context can be. Use that line as a refrain in a new poem. When you've completed a decent draft, try writing an additional draft of the poem without the line, using it instead as the title.