Thursday, March 12, 2009

Promptly Write Poetry

I was cleaning up my computer's "desktop," which is neither a desk nor a top (an uppermost surface), and I ran across a list of "prompts" or "ideas" for poems--each prompt designed to help students start writing a poem.
Probably, the issue of whether to use prompts in creative-writing classes (or simply in one's own writing) is less contentious now than it was 10-20 years ago. In all the creative-writing courses I took in college, we were given almost no prompts. In one class, however, Karl Shapiro gave us a semester-long task of writing poems about a poet whose worked we liked. I chose Hopkins and wrote a series of poems about him.
I guess one argument against "assigning" poems or providing prompts is that poetry is supposed to spring purely from inspiration. Of course, a nearby philosopher will immediately order, "Define 'inspiration.'"
With regard to this issue, I'm terribly biased, so much so that I co-wrote a book, Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively that discusses different aspects of writing poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction but that, in each piece, ends with some ideas for writing. In a way, it's a book full of prompts, topics, tasks, assignments, experiments, triggers, suggestions (choose your favorite term).
I'm the sort of writer that often likes to be given tasks or challenges, and I actually think many poets fall into (or wander into) this category. To some degree, Shakespeare challenged himself (or maybe one of his friends challenged him) to write a sonnet that disrupted conventions of sonnets when he wrote "Sonnet 18." "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" It's as if he's asking himself more than he's asking the imaginary listener. Much of the poem is taken up with his showing that the comparison isn't a good idea, so Shakespeare is writing a kind of counter-sonnet that refuses to make conventional comparisons. His implicit poetic answer to the question is, "Well, I shall and I shan't--watch this."
Sometimes the challenge or prompt is as simple as. . . trying to write a villanelle, a sestina, a sonnet, or a pantoum, etc....or trying to write a poem in one long sentence...or trying to write a poem on a topic about which you've written a poem: refrigerator, feet, landfill (e.g.). Often, that is, "inspiration" may spring from a fairly plain task one gives oneself or from an idea or an experiment someone asks you to try. Once the writing is underway, we might find more inspiration, more reasons to keep wanting to write the thing.
Anyway, here are the prompts I found on my non-existent but nonetheless cluttered "desktop," in the unlikely event your're interested:

Write an homage-poem about a favorite writer. You need not be enthralled by the writer or her/his work, but you should like a lot of the writing, and you should feel a strong connection to it or to her/him (as you imagine her/him—after all, the writer may have died long ago). But it’s fine to have mixed, ambivalent feelings toward the writer and his/her work. (Auden wrote an homage to Yeats; Ginsberg wrote an homage to Whitman.)

Write a poem about a time when you were excluded from a group or, at the very least, when you believed yourself to have been excluded from a group.

Pick an age, more or less arbitrarily: 11, 9, 15, 13 years old. Then write a poem in which you completely make up an “autobiographical” event. But it should seem real, not farcical or over the top. And it might even capture an emotion you might have felt at that age, even if the “facts” of the poem are entirely fictional.

Write a poem that begins, “After you lied to me, . . . .”

Write a poem that begins, “After I lied to you, . . . .”

Write a poem about an animal you have observed closely—but not a pet. It has to be an animal you’ve watched—maybe smelled or heard, too. --You know, like that one horse that slobbered on you, or the spider that lives in your bathroom.

Quickly list ten verbs, in the past tense. Then start a poem that draws heavily on this list of verbs. Let the language pull the subject. Follow the verbs. See where they go.

Write a poem consisting of 10 images you associate with a given topic, thing, subject. You might start by making a list of topics, things, or subjects--or even by asking someone else help you make the list. When you write, make your language precise. Present the images. Then see where the poem takes you.

Think of a strong emotion—fear, love, disgust, outrage. Then write a poem about something neutral—tea, a boulder, being in the library, whatever. Let the emotion drive the poem—but not overtly. Leave the emotion under the poem, like molten but unseen lava.

Write a poem that is somehow concerned with the topic of shame, but be concrete—trust the images.

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