poetry prompts

17 posts

The Ordinary–It Should Scare You to Death


Fringe. Niche. Eccentric.

These are words you might hear when people describe poets or poetry in general, at least in the States. Thing is, the joke’s on them (or at least in their mirrors). Why? Because everyone’s a poet, or at least was at one time.

As proof, my favorite 2 minute and 37 second video to share with students is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “One Boy Told Me.” Before reading a found poem wholly consisting of things her son said when he was 2- and 3-years-old, she shares what William Stafford once said when someone asked, “When did you become a poet?” He responded: “That’s not really the right question. The question is, when did you STOP being a poet? We’re all poets when we’re little. Some of us just try to keep up the habit.”

A little logic tells us, then, that the kid in all of us is the poet in all of us. It’s kind of like Halloween. You never quite get it out of your system. Now #2 behind Christmas in retail sales, October 31st has practically been taken over by adults who want to play dress up and “trick or treat” (without the door-to-door nonsense), too.

Whether you’re a student, a writer, or a party animal, then, you should take note: It’s the ordinary that should scare you to death.

What if I asked you to write something scary, for instance? Too often, when writers set out to scare readers, they fall victim to stock props of the genre as found on TV, in the movies, and yes, in literature. But there’s more to scaring people than vampires by night, zombies by day, and Fox News talking heads by any measure of time.

If you really want to write about fear, get in touch with your inner child (whether you’re age 50 or 12). As adults drugged on maturity, we often forget the powerful knack little kids have for seeing malevolence in the ordinary, and there’s no better Museum of the Extraordinarily Ordinary than a house’s basement.

Don’t believe me? Close your eyes a moment and conjure the basement of the house you grew up in. In my case, there was a rec room of no account on one side and then the unfinished side: concrete floor, washer/dryer, sump pump, oil tank, furnace, and that all important basement prop, “thing that goes bump in the night.” I can recall many a nightmare where various horrors came through the door separating these two sections.

But let’s move on to a good example of how basements tap can into our inner child mentality (and therefore our poetic imagination). It appears in the late poet Thomas Lux’s poem,  “Cellar Stairs,” a piece in which ice skates, ice picks, roofing nails, a fuse-box switch, and yes, even a freezer, do yeoman duty as witches, monsters, and boogeymen. As it’s only three 9-line stanzas, let’s take a look:

      Cellar Stairs
      by Thomas Lux

      It’s rickety down to the dark.
      Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
      on your left and want to slash your throat,
      but they can’t, they can’t, being only skates.
      On a shelf above, tools: shears,
      three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
      poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
      halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
      you don’t want to fall face first into,

      no, you don’t. To your right,
      a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
      on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
      on a bad. Against the wall,
      on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
      together, no pair, as if the dead
      went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
      which is down these steps,
      at the bottom of which is a swollen,

      humming, huge white freezer
      big enough for many bodies—
      of children, at least. And this
      is where you’re sent each night
      for the frozen bag of beans
      or peas or broccoli
      that lies beside the slab
      of meat you’ll eat for dinner,
      each countless childhood meal your last.

      “Cellar Stairs,” from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

The minute you go for laughs or frights in the usual, well-trod places is the minute you should stop and reconsider the tack you’re on. Heck with masked, chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, people are killed every day by ladders, bathtubs, and stairs.

My advice, if it’s scares you’re after? Put down your remote and channel your childhood home and how much it resembles your present-day home. There are places in the former that scared you and places in the latter that should, and even though those places are populated with objects both hum and drum, your job — as a writer, as a poet, and as an aficionado of Halloween — is to make them thrum. Basements, attics, crawlspaces, closets, the one room people tend to avoid.

After that, scare yourself even more. Try reading some poetry. Or scare ME by writing a short poem about your cellar and sending it my way. I promise it will not be shared here or any other place, like behind the furnace.

See you later. I’m going to the cellar for a ball-peen hammer and some ideas I’ve been toying with.


Bringing Color to Your List Poem

Although Dorianne Laux’s poem, “Ode to Gray,” is dedicated to Sharon Olds, for poets it stands as a unique type of list poem, a more challenging one. What Laux did was what any of us could do, and though the concept is a simple one, the execution is another matter.

What you do is start with a color, any color, and then write a poem consisting of words or phrases that match the color. Of course, the order is up to your organizing spirit, as are the stanzas.

Here’s what Laux came up with when she launched with the seemingly-drab color, gray.

Ode to Gray by Dorianne Laux

Mourning dove. Goose. Catbird. Butcher bird. Heron.
A child’s plush stuffed rabbit. Buckets. Chains.

Silver. Slate. Steel. Thistle. Tin.
Old man. Old woman.
The new screen door.

A squadron of Mirage F-1’s dogfighting
above ground fog. Sprites. Smoke.
“Snapshot gray” circa 1952.

Foxes. Rats. Nails. Wolves. River stones. Whales.
Brains. Newspapers. The backs of dead hands.

The sky over the ocean just before the clouds
let down their rain.


The seas just before the clouds
let down their nets of rain.

Angelfish. Hooks. Hummingbird nests.
Teak wood. Seal whiskers. Silos. Railroad ties.

Mushrooms. Dray horses. Sage. Clay. Driftwood.
Crayfish in a stainless steel bowl.

The eyes of a certain girl.


You might wonder how some of the things in the list are actually gray (foxes? Angelfish? sage?), but I suppose, in certain states or parts, all qualify.

More mind-boggling is how many items Laux came up with and got across with specific nouns. By my count, 47.

And poetic items still play a role. Note examples of alliteration (“Silver. Slate. Steel. Thistle. Tin.”) for instance, and repetition (“Old man. Old woman.”)

Using the world at large, both natural and man-made, you can play this game, too, starting with your color and your list. See if you can reach 30 items, and then push yourself further.

Finally, bring some art to the arrangement, and just like that, you have a Neruda-like ode to the tune of “Color My World” by Chicago.

Good luck.

The Poem Outside Your Window


Occam’s Razor is a philosophical principle that even laymen like me can understand: When given competing theories, side with the simpler one until proven wrong.

At times, in an effort to be novel and upset the apple cart I call Ecclesiastes (where it intones, “There is nothing new under the sun”), poets get overly complicated with ideas, styles, and wordplay.

Egads, man. Just look out your window, why don’t you? Jane Kenyon, who had a bird feeder outside her New Hampshire window, did exactly that. The poem “At the Feeder” cuts clean and simple, each stanza a blend of description and simile for familiar birds: Chickadees, Evening Grosbeaks, Bluejays, Nuthatches, and Slate-Colored Juncoes.

There’s even a first-stanza treat for poets: the nostalgia of getting replies from poetry journals via snail mail. (As Orwell would say: Such, such were the days!)

So instead of the all-too commercial line, “What’s in your wallet?”, let’s shift today to “What’s outside your window?” Chances are, it’s a poem in hiding. You know, like those old Highlights for Children drawings with hidden images to circle with a crayon or pencil while you waited for the dentist to scare the hell out of your mouth.


At the Feeder
Jane Kenyon

First the Chickadees take
their share, then fly
to the bittersweet vine,
where they crack open the seeds,
excited, like poets
opening the day’s mail.

And the Evening Grosbeaks—
those large and prosperous
finches—resemble skiers
with the latest equipment, bright
yellow goggles on their faces.

Now the Bluejay comes in
for a landing, like a SAC bomber
returning to Plattsburgh
after a day of patrolling the ozone.
Every teacup in the pantry rattles.

The solid and graceful bodies
of Nuthatches, perpetually
upside down, like Yogis…
and Slate-Colored Juncoes, feeding
on the ground, taking only
what falls to them.

The cats watch, one
from the lid of the breadbox,
another from the piano. A third
flexes its claws in sleep, dreaming
perhaps, of a chicken neck,
or of being worshiped as a god
at Bubastis, during
the XXIII dynasty.


FYI: Bubastis was an Ancient Egyptian city, perhaps the birthplace of Occam IV.

One Defining Moment Deserves Another


Thinking back to school daze, you’d probably agree that one of the original sins of “education” is a teacher forcing students to copy definitions out of a dictionary. They wrote the Geneva Conventions about stuff like that, no?

But definition is, in its humble way, sophisticated stuff. No, not Merriam’s or Webster’s. Yours.

Redefining, or defining something in your own way. I put it right up there with metaphor, a type of redefinition itself. But, if you think about it, taking a list of abstracts and then redefining them with concrete images is a great poetry-writing warm-up, like push-ups at 6 a.m. And, like any warm-up, it leads to greater feats and bigger accomplishments, in this case a poem based on definition.

We all know that an extended metaphor is one that finds multiple ways that one thing is like something else. A successful definition poem — I mean, uber successful — would be one that does the same, and although I cannot find one that extends like that right now, I did stumble across a simple definition poem by way of illustration. Cue the late David Budbill of Vermont:

The Sound of Summer

David Budbill

The screened door slamming tells me it is summer.

There are other sounds only in the summer, too.
The hummingbirds moving from
feeder to feeder on the porch, chickadee’s two-note
song we hear early on summer mornings, ravens
croaking back to their aeries on the ledges
every summer evening.

There are other birds too, visitors we hear only
in the summertime, but it’s the screened door slamming
that is the definition of summer for me.


Simply put, this poem takes an abstract (summer) and redefines it in concrete terms (the screened door slamming). Summer to you might be something quite different. Summer to you, in fact, might be ten different concrete sorts of familiar imagery, which is the point. Definition poems are a great “in,” especially if you, unlike me, are a believer in writer’s block.

Maybe, if your well is dry and you’d like to write the first draft of a poem today, the “Merriam and Webster Way,” as I don’t call it (you’re welcome), is your “in.” For me, definition poems (concrete) are one definition of “creativity” (abstract).

Don’t believe me? Go ahead and check under “C.”

The Poetry of One Brief, Shining Moment


Ours is a God of Irony. I often invoke this fact when people confront me about my illogical fear of flying, especially if they know I love roller coasters.

“Wait a minute,” they say. “You won’t get on the safest form of transportation known to man, the airplane, but you will get into a car to drive all over hell and gone. And on top of that, you strap yourself into roller coasters each summer? Freakin’ roller coasters?”

OK, OK. Point made. And if I die in a car or roller coaster accident, the God of Irony will chalk another one up (with an omnipotent chuckle because, in this world, you take laughs where you can get them).

These thoughts dawned on me as I read Ginger Murchison’s poem “Roller Coaster.” Why? Because the average roller coaster ride lasts 112 seconds, which means, as a writer, you have less than two minutes to absorb all the sensory shocks your body is subjected to by the experience, followed by all the time you want to think about it and craft a poem.

In that sense, the roller coaster ride is an apt metaphor for writing. Many instructors suggest you “explode the moment” or “zoom in” and describe an event that lasts only minutes or less.

Why? Because less experienced writers get trapped by “dawn-to-dusk” writing or, worse, “Monday-to-Sunday” writing or, worse still, “How-I-Misspent-My-Summer-Vacation” writing.

No, no, no. If you squeeze yourself into a teeny-tiny clown car, you will be subjected to an overload of sensory details and figurative language ideas to describe the cramped experience.

In the case of poetry inspiration, however, it will be brief experience alone, not a brief (and very scary, if clowns are in there) automobile experience you’ll be writing about.

I’ll leave you with Murchison’s example and my own encouragement to write about a brief, shining moment from your life. Think about all those sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and experiences of touch. Think about what everything’s like. And make it a metaphor for life, if you want to show off (and you do). Good luck!


Roller Coaster
Ginger Murchison

It starts with the climbing in,
nerved-up enough
for that defiance
of gravity, the slow-grind
rackety-clack one-inch cog
at a time—the mystery of machinery,
the sane and safe weightedness
of stiff-starched values,
wondering if there were
sins we’d committed
since our last confession, then
at the top, out on the edge,
beyond the solid-ground world
parents live in, test life,
theirs and our own, up where
we are a hole in the sky,
wholly abandoned in the eyes-
shut, heart-stopped drop,
like lawlessness on falling’s
crisp speed, the first curve, a blur,
the world’s suddenness,
metal, air and a prayer
half-mouthed, spun,
flung into another plunge,
a curve swerving,
a tiny boat in a tempest—
and isn’t this how we want
to live, live higher up,
hungry to leave the ground,
flinging sparks, the lights brighter,
the dark darker, bodies at war
with mere air, but still obedient
to the tracks laid down
to keep us on track.

Life Goes On…


Creating poetry prompts is often considered an art form, one where you have to be uber creative by coming up with quirky and specific prods for the writer’s imagination.

But hold on here a minute. What about the cliché as poetry prompt? Behind every mundane phrase first uttered by, say, Aristotle, there’s a truth teeming with particulars.

Let’s take the expression “life goes on” as a for instance, shall we? Because there’s a year, month, day, hour, and minute out there with our names on it—the moment we will take our last breaths, I mean—and when that happens, life surely will go on, completely indifferent to that preciousness we know as ourselves.

Question is, if I tasked you with a list of specifics on ways life would go on (and I mean particulars that are particular to you and not, say, to Aunt Kate in Kansas), you would envision something peculiar to your own life (external geography) and mind (internal geography).

In short, by zooming in on the little things first, writing, and then going back to give these truths a dose of figurative touch-ups, you’d soon have a poem not unlike Faith Shearin’s below.

As a starting point, Shearin chooses that universal filler-topic, the weather. She cites items entire years have been famous for (droughts, floods) and items you might see on any given day (“weathervanes, dizzy on top of farmhouses”).

Either way, zooming in or panning out, it works if the imagery is sharp, specific, and treated in a novel way. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the cliché comes alive. And though weather is the overarching theme in her particular paean to life moving along, most any broad topic could be to yours.

Read it as an exemplar, then give it a go. How will life go on when you make your exit, stage left? Might as well take your chance to produce and direct it now. You’ll have little control once you’re through that exit door!


Faith Shearin

There is weather on the day you are born
and weather on the day you die. There is
the year of drought, and the year of floods,
when everything rises and swells,
the year when winter will not stop falling,
and the year when summer lightning
burns the prairie, makes it disappear.
There are the weathervanes, dizzy
on top of farmhouses, hurricanes
curled like cats on a map of sky:
there are cows under the trees outlined
in flies. There is the weather that blows
a stranger into town and the weather
that changes suddenly: an argument,
a sickness, a baby born
too soon. Crops fail and a field becomes
a study in hunger; storm clouds
billow over the sea;
tornadoes appear like the drunk
trunks of elephants. People talking about
weather are people who don’t know what to say
and yet the weather is what happens to all of us:
the blizzard that makes our neighborhoods
strange, the flood that carries away
our plans. We are getting ready for the weather,
or cleaning up after the weather, or enduring
the weather. We are drenched in rain
or sweat: we are looking for an umbrella,
a second mitten; we are gathering
wood to build a fire.

When Truisms Beget Poetry


Sometimes, as a writer, an idea strikes you so much that you decide to honor it as a personal truism. You hold this truth to be self-evident; the job, then, is explaining how the sun rose on this dawning.

Today’s poem, by the late Jim Harrison, is a great example of one of these abstract truths made concrete. If you can build the idea to the poem’s last line as Harrison does, so much the better. And if the raison d’être is rooted in imagery (here the sounds and sights of trains powered by coal furnaces), better still.

What I like especially is the concept of something appearing to be eternal: the poet ages from boy to man (subject to both change and eventual demise), but the object of his poem seems to be eternal. For me, this idea often springs from animals and nature, but for Harrison, the old train works equally well.  Let’s see how.

All aboard!


Kooser called from Nebraska to say he’d found…
Jim Harrison

Kooser called from Nebraska to say he’d found
a large cinder on a long walk along abandoned
country railroad tracks, a remnant of steam
trains, the cinder similar to those our fathers
shoveled from coal furnaces in the early winter mornings
before stoking the fire. In your dark bedroom
you’d hear the scrape of the shovel and the thump
when cinders were dropped in metal washtubs.
Now the trains are all diesel and in Livingston at night
I hear them pass, Burlington & Northern, the horn
an immense bassoon warning the drunks at crossings.
Some complain but I love this night music,
imagining that some of the railroad cars are from
my youth when I stood in a pasture and thrilled
to my favorite, “Route of the Phoebe Snow.”
To be excited by a cinder is to be excited about life.


I don’t know about you, but I love “In your dark bedroom / you’d hear the scrape of the shovel and the thump / when cinders were dropped in metal washtubs.” Even if you’re too young to have known these sounds, Harrison makes them real through his description. This talent is a must in the poet’s toolbox.

Then, the train’s horn: “an immense bassoon warning the drunks at crossings.” And the lovely flourish at the end: “To be excited by a cinder is to be excited about life.” That says it all, no? And the readers know it, because each of us could replace “a cinder” with something—seemingly small—that makes us excited about life. Think about it.

Though nowhere near as accomplished, my poem “Here and Gone” was going for the same strategy as Harrison’s: the concept of eternity in the form of something from the past (in this case minnows, dragonflies, and small-mouth bass) looking the same while time works its cruelties on its observer. It’s from my second collection, Lost Sherpa of Happiness:


Here and Gone
Ken Craft

excluding a war zone
human death remains
the mad relative
hidden from sight
while nature
files and catalogues
its dead on the public
narrative of roads

why then
looking down on these shallows
at this same school of minnows
hanging in the same green-peg balance
as last month;

looking at
this same dragonfly
stutter-flying the water’s stippled surface
as last summer;

looking at
these small-mouth bass
swimming over the same soul shadows
against gold-gilled sand
as ten years ago;

am I reminded of you

and why would this moment
choose me to endure the eternity
inherent in minnows, dragonflies,
and soul shadows


What about you? What sounds, smells, sights, tastes, or touch sensations seem eternal and timeless in your world? What simple thing makes you excited about life?

Write about it!

Talk, Talk, Talk: Famous or Not


Some beginning poets are too wary, I think. Too conservative. They don’t want to try new forms, sentences or lack of sentences, stanza types, subject matter, et and cetera, because they want to stay within what they believe to be universally accepted lines, the equivalent of using training wheels while they learn to bike.

Truth is, there’s little you can’t try as an aspiring poet. Today’s poem features two techniques that newbies might consider “filler” or “against the rules”: dialogue (even lots of it) and/or quotes.

Whether you use quotation marks or not (and it’s your choice), entire poems can be dialogue or monologue (think Shakespeare, think soliloquies). Quotes, sayings, or aphorisms are also fair game, as long as you embed the source.

If the talk or conversation is interesting to you as a writer, then it should be interesting to readers as well. Ditto to the way you weave personal meaning around familiar or not-so-familiar sayings, be they from famous people (e.g. Lorca, below) or anonymous sources (e.g. a well-known proverb from a particular country).

The key is contextualizing. As a poet, you build a particular situation (the unique) and fold it into the broader context of something you overheard, created, or researched (the familiar). This means you can use either talk (and any prose writer will tell you readers love it) or favorite quotes from favorite writers as a lens through which to better see a scenario of your own making.

Here, Malena Mörling provides a narrative about a wake. She goes against expectation (sadness) to feature an instance where a wake brought joy. More important for poets learning the craft, however, is how 6 of the poem’s 19 lines—almost a full third—are not the words of Mörling but of Lorca.

Idea-wise, this might provide fodder for your own poetry. Have a favorite saying or quote, a touchstone you come back to or repeat to yourself often? No doubt there’s a reason for that, and no doubt that reason is rooted in experience. That combination is poetry waiting to happen! As an exemplar, I give you “A Wake”:


A Wake
Malena Mörling

I called Michael and he told me he just got home from a
wake. “Oh, I am sorry,” I said. “No, no,” he said, “it was
the best wake I have ever been to. The funeral home was
as warm and as cozy as anyone’s living room. We had the
greatest time. My friend looked wonderful, much better
dead than alive. He wore his red and green Hawaiian
shirt. He was the most handsome corpse I’d ever seen.
They did such a good job! His daughter was there and
a lot of old friends I had not seen in years. You know,
he drank himself to death. He’d been on and off the
wagon for years, but for some reason this is what he
ended up doing.” As my friend kept talking, I thought
of Lorca and what he wrote about death and Spain: “A
dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man than any-
place else in the world” and “Everywhere else, death is
an end. Death comes, and they draw the curtains. Not
in Spain. In Spain they open them. Many Spaniards live
indoors until the day they die and are taken out into the

Epistolary Poetry: Secrets and Epiphanies


This month’s issue of Poetry offers an interesting poem by Jessica Greenbaum, one that holds up to rereading because, well, it requires as much.

It is unusual in a few respects. For one, it is written as an epistolary poem with the salutation, simply enough, as the title. Two, it is one very long sentence, loaded to the gunwales with introductory phrases and clauses, breathless almost. And three, it has a turn and gets somewhere—a conclusion, a change, though the reader has to work to figure out the relationship between the speaker and the titular Charlene. The other challenge is positioning the exact moment in time the poem is written.

Me, I like working for meaning. Simple poems are nice, but sometimes the exercise of rereading (as in Anne Frank’s Diary, which makes a cameo in the poem itself) offers its own rewards. The fifth reading won’t be the same as the first, in other words, and all the introductory clutter will move more smoothly because you, the reader, will become more adept at reading them the way they should be read.


Jessica Greenbaum


one night, leaving your son’s makeshift bedroom in the loft
of the barn, in that first house I knew you in,
crunching through January’s snow back into your kitchen,
past dinner’s left-out dessert plates, then past the fireplace whose embers
still chittered like the chatting old sisters on the bus
I had taken here the day before, north, for eleven and a half hours—
a trip during which I sometimes crocheted what became
a rather long scarf for your son—then up the stairs past your bedroom,
to the guest room, up to the gables with its sloped ceiling
where waited the bed’s patchwork quilts, a painted comb, the lamp
you left on for me, and for some reason lost to time
a copy of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl near enough—
maybe on a low bookshelf outside the room?—near enough
for me to choose it, and once under the covers I was awake
from start to finish with Dear Kitty again, with the Epilogue, again,
though I felt I was reading it for the first time, or more like
I was a tree to which a bird returns and this time sees
the branch on which it will make its nest, and so I understood—
because being told of your death I want to parse all I have learned from you—
I understood we were to have some experiences many times in our lives
if we were lucky, but we would live them each time differently,
which seems obvious now, but then I was sixteen and didn’t know,
I didn’t know that each experience wasn’t just the first of identical ones to
like a rack of same dresses, and for that reason I thought
the mother of men I loved would all be like you, and all their sons
as kind as he, and that the journey between barn and house on a winter
would always show a spray of constellations that would connect
all I was feeling with the goodness of the earth, also turning.


After reading this, you might try writing poem as old-fashioned snail-mail letter yourself. If it is written to a person whose life has made an impact on yours—and if it is driven by the engines of emotion, especially—you might find a poem you can work with.

Dear Reader,

What’s to lose in trying?


What If…?


A lot of good poetry comes from a simple question that’s been in your toolbox since childhood: “What if…?

There’s no end to playing this game, sometimes playful and sometimes serious. I often wonder, for instance, what if women ruled the world? Would it be safer? Saner?

My answer always seems to be yes, that the world would suffer much less ego and stupidity because of the switch, but you can’t be sure until the answer is test-driven. I’m heading to the dealership now.

Kevin Young plays the game in his poem “Negative.” He takes the concept of black and white and reverses it in interesting ways. The results—which tell us something about race—are striking, and one thing you always like to see from your poetry is “striking.” See if you agree:


Kevin Young

Wake to find everything black
what was white, all the vice
versa—white maids on TV, black

sitcoms that star white dwarfs
cute as pearl buttons. Black Presidents,
Black Houses. White horse

candidates. All bleach burns
clothes black. Drive roads
white as you are, white songs

on the radio stolen by black bands
like secret pancake recipes, white back-up
singers, ball-players & boxers all

white as tar. Feathers on chickens
dark as everything, boiling in the pot
that called the kettle honky. Even

whites of the eye turn dark, pupils
clear & changing as a cat’s.
Is this what we’ve wanted

& waited for? to see snow
covering everything black
as Christmas, dark pages written

white upon? All our eclipses bright,
dark stars shooting across pale
sky, glowing like ash in fire, shower

every skin. Only money keeps
green, still grows & burns like grass
under dark daylight.


As a writing prompt, it’s both simple and audacious. You can even make a list to choose from before diving in. Go ahead. Pick up a pencil and pull out some paper: “What if…?”