September 13, 2010

From Duluth's Poet Laureate: A Community Wide Poetry Assignment

Since becoming poet laureate of Duluth, I've been considering ways to invite the community to write poems.   Poems are marvelous little machines.   They are made of sound and image and if poems are good, they will touch you. This kind of touch is especially important during times of transition:  a loss or a death, a departure, a journey, a union like a marriage, a new job, new home, an illness, a recovery, a birth, a new beginning.   Poetry has so much to offer everybody.

So on this blog, I've decided to offer some writing prompts.  I've gathered three examples and invite you to write a poem that is structured like the example.    "Copying from the masters" is a good way to learn the craft of poetry.   But instead of recreating the master's work, make a parallel poem.  Try adapting one of the master's features to your own.  Make a poem with the same number of lines or stanzas.   Make a poem on a related topic.   Use language in a similar way.   Play with it 'fast and loose.'  In this way, you can use the master's poem as a scaffold of sorts to build your own poem.   

The following suggestions are drawn from the following poem examples.   When you begin writing, detach from the internal critic.   Avoid perfectionism.   Focus on details and the five senses.   Experiment, play, follow your instinct.   Make a first draft without much thought.  Save that for later.

Writing prompt:   Write a poem about a piece of clothing  
Writing prompt:  Write a list poem about something you've lost or found
Writing prompt:  Write about a first lesson

In this poem by Connie Wanek (from her book of poems, On Speaking Terms, Copper Canyon Press, c2010), Connie focuses on a rag, a sleeve of an old shirt, to express changes:


I dust with a sleeve I loved
to look at on my arm.
Blue is gray now, like a patch
of sky filthy with clouds.
Why is piano dust always so gray?
Something about sound waves
and day
that science could explain.

I didn't need scissors
the cotton was so rotted
by sun and sweat, the salt I made,
the sticky seawater.  I was glad
to actually wear something out,
to have seen one thing
completely through,
even though I'd miss
being the person who wore it.

Poetry has such an economy of words and yet conveys volumes.   This poem focuses on just one object, a dust rag that she'd made from a worn shirt.   The last line is so striking; one understands suddenly getting older.

In this poem, Elizabeth Bishop talks about loss.  It is from her book The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, LLC).

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names and where it was you meant
to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next to last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

This poem is a form called villanelle that features 3 line stanzas and repeated lines 1 and 3 from the first stanza.  It uses figurative language like many poems.    It starts out with simple losses but with each stanza, the loss becomes greater and deeper.   Bishop's tone is light and ironic, but she conveys the devastation.   Poems like these bring the reader gifts of solace and beauty.

Poems are gifts.  To receive a poem is an honor.   Consider writing a poem about a person, a place, or a thing in your life.   In the example by Connie Wanek, she shows us how writing about the sleeve of a shirt can reveal a life.   Wanek's poem is tightly focused.      In the example by Elizabeth Bishop, she creates a list.  Lists are very good ways to build a poem.  Bishop's losses were very important ones to her.  It is essential to write about what is important.  

This poem by Philip Booth (you can find it at is a memory that also becomes a blessing:

First Lesson

Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

This poem concentrates on the details of learning to swim.   Booth does allow the poem to open up, past the particular day of the swimming lesson, but he remains in the metaphor of swimming.  Metaphors allow the writer/poet a longer reach.  Booth is talking about swimming, but we all know he is talking about life as well.

I invite you to try these exercises and share your work with others.

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