list poems

3 posts

Sleeping Late and Other Small Delights



For young writers — especially those who say they cannot write poetry — imitation is a teacher’s best friend. Even if they’re too young to know the word “gratitude,” you can ask them to make a list of things they love.

From there it becomes a specific noun exercise, a sensory detail (or “imagery” in poeti-speak) exercise. Ten items will do, although the Laura Foley example below employs 15. Once that anyone-can-create-it list is done, students are ready to make it prayer-like. “Praise be…!”

Whether you want it to be a 14-line sonnet “-ish” poem is completely optional. Once your students’ (or your own) list is complete, have them read Foley’s poem and mark their favorite lines. I used to tell kids to highlight “the cool lines.” Being “cool” is forever, after all, and it’s always interesting how students instinctively “like” lines that showcase a poetic element. (Awesome work, students!) Students might also create categories for Foley’s and their own lists. It might help others who are reaching for that old familiar — “writer’s block.” Thus, thinking up favorites from nature, from foods, from sports, from family traditions, etc., breaks the logjam.

Then it’s off to the races. One with a clear and obvious finish line for those with poetry phobia.


Gratitude List
Laura Foley

Praise be this morning for sleeping late,
the sandy sheets, the ocean air,
the midnight storm that blew its waters in.
Praise be the morning swim, mid-tide,
the clear sands underneath our feet,
the dogs who leap into the waves,
their fur, sticky with salt,
the ball we throw again and again.
Praise be the green tea with honey,
the bread we dip in finest olive oil,
the eggs we fry. Praise be the reeds,
gold and pink in the summer light,
the sand between our toes,
our swimsuits, flapping in the breeze.

When the Humble List Poem Gets Sneaky-Good

Some list poems are obvious. You find yourself reading a list that only works because a.) it is specific and visual with the other senses occasionally thrown in to spice things up, and b.) it has some context in that it is working toward a greater cause (theme, tone, voice).

Other times, the simple list poem is less obvious. You find yourself reading a “sneaky list poem,” as I call them. It’s an anecdote of sorts, and this fact distracts you. Then, upon second reading, you realize that the little story is propped by a list. It owes its success, in other words, to a little itemization.

To illustrate, let’s look at Faith Shearin’s “The Dog Watched Television.” The story is simple enough. Grandma, nervous about an approaching surgery, is upset. Then there’s Fido, who has smaller concerns (at least from our viewpoint). He hates being left alone in a silent bedroom and registers his displeasure in the universal language of dogs everywhere: barking. Nonstop.

Solution? Leave the television on, of course. While it doesn’t solve the Grandma problem (who is carted off to the hospital with the poem’s speaker), it certainly proves medicinal to the dog.

Why? As Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said, “Let me count the ways.” And eureka, the reader has found it! A little list of what’s on television, specifically shows that might make a canine feel fine and a reader feel amused.

Bottom line? No more barking! (Though I do wonder how Fido managed the remote, which baffled Grandma, even.)


The Dog Watched Television
Faith Shearin

The summer of my mother’s illness,
a season so hot and dry it might
have erupted in flames, we discovered
the dog liked television. She barked
if we left her alone in the dim silence
of the bedroom but was cheerful
if we provided a documentary
about whales. She learned why
prehistoric wolves were likely to
care for their sick and injured while
we drove my mother, fasting,
to the operating room and kicked
the broken dishwasher and forgot
garbage day for so many weeks
the utility room became an odor.
The dog watched Billy the Exterminator
capture raccoons and alligators
and restore them to their natural habitats;
she watched The Civil War, learned
about our national parks, considered
the troubles facing our oceans.
My mother wept and raged and drank
clear liquids and worried that none of us
loved her enough, and the dog settled
her narrow head on a pillow,
her black eyes wise.

The Power of Lists


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”:


Tony Hoagland

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.