The Power of Lists

crow

The humble list poem. It is not to be underestimated. As your cue, writer, consider Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s memorable words, “Let me count the ways.”

That was love, but love isn’t the only thing worth counting. Everything that resonates is fair game. As an example, we have the late Tony Hoagland’s “Example”:

 

Examples
Tony Hoagland

Aspirin,
crack cocaine,
the poetry of Keats,
Kathleen’s big beautiful face,
and The Communist Manifesto
— these are all pain relievers.

Death from cancer of the mouth
of the tyrant Joseph McCarthy;
the blue crow sliding over the arroyo, cawing;
the baby taking the lima bean from his mouth
and pushing it between the lips of his mother
— these are examples of justice.

The moment when you step away from the party;
the sound of the eighty-foot spruce tree, creaking;
the hour in the waning afternoon
when the attorney stands beside her car,
removes her sunglasses, and looks up at the sky
— these are examples of remembering.

The metaphor that makes you laugh out loud.
The warm breast of the dental hygienist
pressed against your ear
as she leans to get access to your plaque.

The dream in which you find yourself at sea,
at night, with water under you so deep
you weep with fear. And yet the darkness
does not take you into it
— these are examples of fortune.

 

Let us count the counted: pain relievers, justice, remembering, and fortune. But you can create any category you wish. The key is to list concretes which illustrate your abstractions.

For example, in S1 here, pain relievers become aspirin, crack cocaine, the poetry of Keats, Kathleen’s beautiful face, and The Communist Manifesto. If your list creates odd bedfellows, all the better. Your reader will stop and wonder why or how, and we all know that wondering and readers make for a heady match.

Note, too, how the crow in S2 is blue. A black crow will not do. It is expected, and writers should always respect such inferences on the part of the reader. Press adjectives into duty only when they fly against expectations. Thus, the beauty in “a blue crow sliding over the arroyo, cawing.”

Note, too, imagery, such as “the sound of eighty-foot spruce tree, creaking.”

Note, too, the specificity we can relate to, even if we haven’t personally seen it: “the baby taking the lima bean from his mouth / and pushing it between the lips of his mother.”

And finally, the last item on your list, which assumes a position of power, much like the first Canada goose in a V flying south:

The dream in which you find yourself at sea,
at night, with water under you so deep
you weep with fear. And yet the darkness
does not take you into it

These are examples of your good fortune in reading a list poem that works. Now you write, too.

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