Poetry Prompts

#1. Read a few sonnets — here are some by Shakespeare and Millay. Now write a sonnet. It should be 14-lines long and use at least three of the other distinguishing features of the form: iambs, pentameter, rhyme scheme, volta, octave, sestet, quatrains, couplets, love. Here’s the trick, though: whatever you do, be specific. Use interesting nouns and verbs. Avoid abstractions — especially if you’re writing about an abstract concept (i.e., love).

#2. Memorize one of the Shakespeare sonnets or one of Millay’s sonnets. Recite it publicly.

#3. Object Poems. Read three object poems: “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke (he of Franz Kappus/Letters to a Young Poet fame); “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” by Pablo Neruda; and “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop. Now find and consider an interesting object.

  • After Rilke: Write a sonnet in which you use the first twelve lines to describe your object in great detail using lots of sensory images. Nouns. Verbs. Similes. Metaphors. Then use the last two lines to change the focus entirely — either to the speaker of the poem (“I”) or the reader (“you”).
  • After Neruda: Write a poem that’s directly addressed to your object. Use at least thirty short lines (one to three or four words each). Be celebratory. Make big imaginative leaps with your metaphors and similes.
  • After Bishop: Write a poem in one long stanza in which you tell the story of how you discovered/caught/obtained your object. While you’re at it, describe the object in great detail, including the things about it that you can’t know or see, and imagine all the places it’s been before it came to you.

#4. Consider two photos: one of you when you were much younger and one of a place that holds a lot of memories for you.

  • Imagine that you could go back in time and give the younger version of yourself advice based on all the things you know now. Put it in a poem.
  • Write a poem about something in the periphery of one of your photos.
  • Write a poem in which you walk through the place in your photo. Don’t explain the significance of the place. Use your descriptions to show the significance.

#5. Write a poem to, for, or about one of the following: John Lennon, Che Guevara, Michelle Obama, or Bruce Lee.

#6. Write a poem that is a set of instructions. Could be something tangible, like building a house or tying a shoe. Could be something intangible, like falling in love or saying a prayer. Use these instructions to express an essential truth about the human experience. Or something.

#7. Write a poem with the same number of words in each line. Have somebody washing something.

#8. Read this little manifesto about Reasonable and Unreasonable poems. You’re probably predisposed to one or the other type of poem. Write a poem (or revise one you’ve already written) that fits the style you’re not as accustomed to writing in.

#9. Write a poem that includes the nouns sinewegg, and slice, and this verb: boomerang.

#10. Mine your preoccupations:

  • Describe the face or hands (or both) of one of the people on your list of preoccupations in your Journal. See if you can turn that description into a poem.
  • Use a one-word item from the list of preoccupations in your Commonplace Book as the title of a poem. Try to be as specific and sensory as you can.

#11. Read this about Ekphrastic Poems. Now find and consider an image of a piece of art located on one of the following museum websites: The High Museum in Atlanta, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or the National Gallery in Washington, DC. And, okay, if you’re really feeling fancy: The Louvre in Paris. Now pick one or several of the following prompts:

  • Write about the scene or subject being depicted in the artwork. Maybe imagine a story behind what you see depicted in the piece. Perhaps relate it to something else it reminds you of.
  • Write in the voice of a person or object shown in the work of art. The person or object can address the reader or another character/object in the piece.
  • Speak directly to the artist. Try to speculate about why he or she created the work and/or imagine what was happening while the artist was creating the piece.

#12. Read some Walt Whitman. Now write a long poem (30 lines or more) with long(ish) lines. Use the comma as your dominant mode of punctuation. Feel free to keep going with one of your preoccupations. (One of Whitman’s was most certainly America and the idea of democracy.) You can also follow Whitman’s example by making your poem a kind of “oratorical” address. Repetition/refrain is always nice.

#13. Read some Emily Dickinson. Dickinson rather famously once wrote, “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.  Is there any other way?” For Dickinson, a poem was/is a thing that makes you feel a certain way. What it “means” is less important than how it makes a reader feel.

So yeah. Write a poem in which sense and feeling are more important than meaning. Try to avoid being nonsensical — instead aim for ambiguity, leaving your readers with a feeling that they’re not getting all of the facts. But they are getting full access to the emotions surrounding said facts. Think again in terms of your preoccupation(s). Use exactly 53 words. Use at least 9 lines. Use white space. Caesura. And, of course, use dashes as your primary form of punctuation. If you want to, put a bee in it. (PS, I know encorporating all of that into a poem is hard. If you’re up for the challenge, go for it. If not, try encorporating at least a few of them. Say, 53 words, 9 lines, and dashes.)

#14. Read some Robert Frost. Okay, now try your hand at iambs. If you’re really feeling it, go with iambic tetrameter (four stresses per line) or unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse). Either way, do your best to write a poem that consistently creates a pattern of unstressed-stressed. While you’re at it, try to tell a story. (PS, if the iambs are really throwing you for a loop, write in syllabics.)

#15. Read some T.S. Eliot. Now write a very long poem in sections. Use rhyme and repetition intermittently. Make allusions — to literature and high art — if you can. And/or make allusions to pop art, pop culture. Blend past and present, the ordinary-everyday with the epic-yesteryear.

#16. Read some William Carlos Williams. Now pick one of the images below and write a short, Imagist poem about it.

Remember Ezra Pound‘s instructions for what an Imagist poem should do:

  • Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
  • To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  • As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

#17. Read some Elizabeth Bishop. Now pick one of the following:

  • Invent your own form, a la “Visits to St. Elizabeths.”
  • Write a long(ish) narrative poem about a particular real-life experience. Don’t be prosaic–limit your line lengths and pay attention to sound (alliteration, repetition, rhyme, etc.). Here’s the key: REFLECT.

#18. Read some John Berryman. Now invent a persona — with a name and everything — and write in that voice and/or refer to that persona in the third person. Worry most about evoking a particular mood. For instance: Henry is, of course, somewhat troubled, dark, forlorn — with a touch of mad vitality. Hence, the Dream Songs are troubled, dark, forlorn — with a touch of mad vitality. There are narrative elements (scenes; settings; a cast of characters), but the project is concerned mostly with recreating the surreal atmosphere of Henry’s (Berryman’s?) mind. Your “persona” doesn’t have to be as dark or as surreal as Berryman’s. It can be happy or curious or naive or whimsical — you know, whatever you want. Just be sure to make it at least a little bit larger than life. Paint in broad strokes.

#19. Read some Philip Levine. Now write a poem about work. Set it somewhere real in the world. Write it in one long stanza with uniform line lengths.

#20. Read some Adrienne Rich. Now pick one of the following:

  • Write a poem that extends a metaphor — a la “Diving into the Wreck” — to “mythologize” a personal experience, exploration, or emotion.
  • Write a poem that is directly informed by your political/social identity, whatever that means to you.

#21. Read some Russell Edson. Now write a prose poem. (Not a short-short.)

#22. Read some Lucille Clifton. Now pick one of the following:

  • Write a poem with “sparse punctuation and a lean lexicon of rudimentary but evocative words.”
  • Use direct, ordinary language to write a poem about transcending an everyday human difficulty. (Pick a difficulty you know well.)

#23. Read some Lyn Hejinian. Now write a poem that, in both form and content, addresses the idea that language is an imperfect medium for conveying meaning and feeling. Jumble syntax and use unconventional punctuation (or none at all). Think of this as a “Poem That Doesn’t Make Sense” but one that’s more interested in how language works (or doesn’t) than in capturing some sort of nonlinear, intuitive truth about human emotion.  Use this poem to question the nature of language, what it can communicate, whether it can actually convey information or emotion at all.

#24. Read some Li-Young Lee. Now write a  long — not long(ish); long: at least three pages — love poem that includes at least two different loves, two different kinds of love.

#25. Read some Rita Dove. Now pick one of the following:

  • Write a dream poem.
  • Write a history poem. With a real life historical figure in it. Make it a personal poem — meaning one that focuses on the figure’s personhood as much as it does her/his historical significance.
  • Write a poem called “Adolescence I” or “Adolescence III.”
  • Write a poem with two fictional characters in the very first stages of love.

#26. Read some Paul Guest. Now pick one of the following:

  • Write a poem that references a rock-and-roll band and/or a cartoon character.
  • Write a poem about something that really happened to you. Document it. Wax philosophical too.

#27. Read some Katie Ford. Now pick one of the following:

  • Write a poem in one, long, extended breath. (Whatever that means to you.)
  • Write a poem in long-lined couplets.
  • Write a poem about loss: a loss of faith, a loss of identity, a loss of love.

#28. Use a passage from one of the poems we’ve read this semester as an epigraph for a new poem. In the poem itself, make a direct address to the poet you quote.


Wholly re-see (i.e., revise: [Origin: 1560–70; revīsere to look back at, revisit, freq. of revidére to see again;]) something that you’ve written during this semester using one (or all) of the following strategies:

  • Add 50 lines to the end of the poem. Seriously. 50. Just keep going. Don’t worry about going on a tangent. If you’re doing it “right,” you’ll end up in a completely new place. Do you have a new poem? Two new poems? The first or last line for seven new poems?
  • If it’s 25 lines or less, double it.
  • If it’s 25 lines or more, cut it in half.
  • Add two extra syllables to each line. You can add lines but you can’t subtract them.
  • Make the first line the last line of a new poem OR…
  • Make the last line the first line of a new poem.
  • Make it a sonnet.
  • Make it a ghazal.
  • Make it a sestina.
  • Make it a prose poem. Eliminate at least 25% of the words.
  • Make each line the same number of syllables. You can add lines but you can’t subtract them.
  • Cut 3 syllables from each line. You can cut lines but not add them.
  • Take out all the adjectives and adverbs. Count them. Add at least half that many new verbs and nouns to the poem — without adding any new adjectives or adverbs. Articles, prepositions, etc, are okay, but don’t go crazy with extra language. Keep it to mostly new nouns and verbs.

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