Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Want to Write a Ten-Line Poem for Tuesday?

Following is a "prompt" for a ten-line poem. Of course, such prompts in and of themselves still strike many writers and readers as counterintuitive if not absurd or insulting, a prevailing assumption being that poems spring from poets naturally and need not and cannot be elicited by anything as formulaic as a prompt--an assignment. I

In The Triggering Town, however, Richard Hugo--arguably as intuitive a poet as there ever was--praised assignments given to him and others by their teacher, Theodore Roethke. Hugo describes one such assignment in the book, and the assignment is brutal in its requirements. Hugo maintains that as one part of the mind focuses on the artificial limits of the assignment, another part goes in unpredictable but productive directions, and you come up with material you probably would not have discovered otherwise. Of course, all prompts and assignments come with a codicil or two: one always has the right to rewrite the draft so drastically that traces of the prompt may disappear altogether; one has the right to take just one line, image, or idea from the draft and go off in a completely different direction; and so on. So this really isn't like paint-by-numbers because you can paint over the canvas as much and as often as you like.

In fashioning the prompt, I borrowed some other notions from the Triggering Town, including Hugo's suggestion that poets should let themselves be led on--to the next word or the next line, for instance--more because of sound or arbitrary decisions than because of a more linear or single-minded desire to pursue a message, as one does, for example, in an essay. Also, Hugo disliked "connective" or "transition" words such as "but," "however," and "although." He also suggests that if a poet asks a question in a poem, he or she should not then answer the question; otherwise, he argues, the question wasn't worth asking (from a poetic point of view). I'm just paraphrasing what he wrote, so don't kill the messenger.

If indeed you're tempted to be prompted, take pleasure in the writing, and probably everything will work out just fine. And we're making a poem here--a first draft, at that--not performing emergency heart-surgery. So there's that. You'll notice that the topic and "sense" of the poem are left entirely up to you. The prompt:

A ten-line, free-verse poem. Start by writing a first line. Then follow steps 1 through 11.

1. Rewrite the first line, rearranging the syntax:


The blue lake still resembles slate.
The still lake is slated to resemble blue.

2. Write a second line in which, at some point, you repeat a sound from the first.

3. If the second line did not end in a one-syllable word, make sure, now, that it does.

4. Phrase line three has a question.

5. In line five, do NOT answer the question in line four but do include a word that includes the letter “u," and make doubly sure this line contains an image.

6. Line six should be either a very short line or a very long line—in relation to previous lines.

7. Take a break and review lines one through six. Cross out any connecting words like and, but, while, although, so, or then.

8. Line 7 should include words of one syllable each. You are allowed one exception.

9. To start line 8, write a last word of that line. Now finish line 8 by working backwards, moving to the next-to-last word, and so on, until you write the first word of the line.

10. In line 9, write anything you like but make the sound and rhythm similar to those in line 8.

11. Do whatever you want in line 10.
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