“As much as we might have enjoyed reading (and writing) poetry when we were children, in school we are taught that poetry is inherently ‘difficult,’ and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning,” writes Matthew Zapruder in the New York Times essay “Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think.” In “To Vibrebrate: In Defense of Strangeness,” a response to Zapruder's piece on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Johannes Göransson counters: “Not all poems prioritize everyday language. Some poems value arguments and narrative above the experience of language. Sometimes poems have mystical meanings.... The idea that poetry—or language in general—is ever ‘straightforward’ seems impossible to my immigrant ears and eyes.” Taking inspiration from the issues being argued, choose a theme or subject and then write two versions of the poem: one that uses more literal or straightforward language, and one that approaches your subject from a more oblique or mystical angle.
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
“Generally I think that when you’re talking about the music of a country, you’re talking more or less about the soundtrack of a country, the soundtrack by which people’s lives are lived,” poet Tyehimba Jess said in a recent interview with the New School’s Wynne Kontos. “What’s interesting to me is to hear about the lives of the people who have created that soundtrack.” Jess’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Olio (Wave Books, 2016), covers an array of nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American musicians and performers, presenting a multiplicity of voices and histories through a collage of verse, song, and narrative. What musicians are part of the soundtrack of your life? Choose several musicians or bands integral to your soundtrack, and write poems that reflect on the lives of these musicians, combining research and imagination in a song of your own.
Watermelon, Mississippi Mud Pie, Red Velvet, Pumpkin Spice, Firework. The original Oreo with its classic pairing of chocolate cookie and white cream filling might remain unchanged, but over the years the Nabisco company has released limited edition flavors to the delight of some fans and the confusion or disapproval of others. Write a poem dedicated to a beloved snack from your childhood, exploring how it has changed or remained the same throughout the years. Consider the effect that consistency has on your life, even in the form of a favorite snack.
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” begins Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself.” Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall’s video series Whitman, Alabama, featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, captures a wide range of Alabamians in different settings and locales in the state, each reciting from one of the fifty-two verses of Whitman’s iconic poem. Watch the series and choose several lines from the poem that feel particularly resonant to you, either capturing the mood of the moment or a theme you’ve been thinking about for a while. Write a poem starting with Whitman’s words, and then move on to explore how this theme ties in with your own ideas about American identity, community, and interpersonal connections.
The essay “The Art at the End of the World” is Heidi Julavits’s account of a pilgrimage to see Robert Smithson’s land art sculpture “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. Write a poem inspired by a land art piece that particularly draws you in. In her essay, Julavits juxtaposes the haunting otherworldliness and existential provocations of the landscape with family dynamics and mundane details of traveling with her husband and two children. Does the immensity of this land art piece in its natural surroundings propel you to think about the relative size and scope of your own concerns, goals, and relationships?
Street art, family and friends, selfies, concerts, a painting in a museum, funny signage. Many of us use our cell phones to capture photos and videos depicting everything from special occasions to the random striking visual encountered on a daily commute. Look through the photos on your cell phone and decide on a common theme, mood, or sentiment you’d like to convey in a poem. Are there photos you took by accident or ones you didn’t even know existed until browsing through? Write a poem consisting solely of descriptions of a selection of your photos. Which everyday objects, places, activities, or resonating visuals can you use to communicate a message?
“Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart / somehow or other still carried away by America,” writes Alicia Ostriker in “Ghazal: America the Beautiful.” This Fourth of July, begin a poem with the title “America the Beautiful” and let this phrase guide your piece, allowing your mind freedom to reflect on the things you find beautiful (or not so beautiful) about the nation. Read through some other Independence Day poetry by writers such as Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Claude McKay, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths for further inspiration.
Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs mixes multiple languages and uses a variety of musical influences in the poems from her debut collection, TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Drawing inspiration from Nevada Diggs, write a poem where you incorporate words and phrases from two or more languages or dialects that are significant to you, whether they are fictional languages like Klingon or spoken languages like Cajun French.
“Palettes of mud, pillowcases of doorknobs, bags of ice…. Softest polyester stuffing spills out from black armor. It’s a leather jacket thrown over a bubble bath. This could describe a few people I know,” writes artist and author Leanne Shapton in a New York Times Magazine essay about the clothing designed by Rei Kawakubo. Taking inspiration from Kawakubo’s peculiarly surreal fashion designs, write a poem that starts with one of Shapton’s descriptive phrases, such as “a babble of valves and blisters,” “a reptile of lint,” “gobs of cheesecloth,” “potato-like clumps stuck to a neck,” or “exploded metallic popcorn kernel.” From there, let your imagination take over using these textures and shapes to portray an unexpected subject or feeling.
Write a poem inspired by a natural park, area, or cultural monument in your region. Search through the National Park Service’s system of sites by state, or browse through photos of the parks for inspiration. The National Park Service, which celebrated its one hundredth anniversary last summer, may be most known for its large national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but also oversees hundreds of smaller outdoor monuments, scenic areas, and scientifically important sites that span the entire United States. Imagine the textures and sounds present in your chosen spot or site, and incorporate them into your poem’s rhythm and imagery.
Something beginning with the letter D. Something metallic. Something green. Something winding. Write a poem inspired by I Spy, the guessing game popular with kids during car rides and other long periods of downtime, in which the spy offers descriptive clues that hint at a visible object for other players to guess. Use this as an exercise to expand your vocabulary and the way you observe and perceive an emotion, person, situation or an object.
“Renga for Obama” is an ongoing project edited by Major Jackson and published by the Harvard Review in which each linked segment is written by a pair of poets, creating a chain of verse meditating on Barack Obama’s presidency. Renga, a traditional Japanese collaborative form, consists of alternating three- and two-line stanzas: a haiku (5-7-5 syllables) followed by a couplet, each line of which consists of seven syllables, that responds to the haiku. This pattern can be repeated up to a few dozen or even hundreds of lines. Choose a current theme that you are interested in probing further with words and imagery—it could be political, aesthetic, domestic, environmental, or pop culture–related. Spend some time discussing, sharing reflections, and expressing gratitude or feelings about the topic with a friend, family member, or colleague. Write a renga together, and pass it on to others with an invitation to contribute to the chain, thereby initiating a continuing exploration.
“’It wasn’t a rhyme time,’” said Gwendolyn Brooks in 1968, as quoted in Major Jackson’s essay “Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Brooks was speaking about her decision to move away from the sonnet and other traditional verse forms in favor of allying more closely to the black community and politically conscious poetry. Do you consider the contemporary moment a “rhyme time”? Why or why not? How might you transform the style and/or meter of your poetry to reflect your own evolving creative interests, priorities, and influences? Write a poem that marks some sort of departure from your typical work, in spirit and purpose.
“May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade. / My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second. / My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.” Taking inspiration from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Under One Small Star,” write a poem that plays with apology or an apologetic tone. What may you have taken for granted in the past? To whom might you offer your apologies, and for what are you sorry? What are you grateful for now?
“I was young when you came to me. / Each thing rings its turn…” begins Meena Alexander’s poem “Muse.” Write a poem of direct address to a muse—any specific object, memory, person, moment, or idea that invokes wonder and reflection. Read the rest of Alexander’s poem for inspiration derived from sensory pleasures, multiple languages, and the associations between words and images.
While a crocodile’s ankles might be something you’ve never thought much about, a recent discovery of fossils shows that an early relative of dinosaurs had “crocodylian-like ankle morphology”—or crocodile ankles—an important factor in placing the carnivore within the evolutionary timeline. Write a poem inspired by an unusual phrase or terminology for an animal’s (or human’s) physicality, such as purlicue, perhaps finding humor or playfulness in its sound, sense, and associated imagery.
Poetry and science combined to join forces at this year’s March for Science in Washington, D.C. Jane Hirshfield organized writing workshops and readings, and science poems by writers like Tracy K. Smith and Gary Snyder were displayed on banners. Many poets are using social media to respond quickly and powerfully to events occurring in the tumult of the political climate. Browse through newspapers or online for fresh science news—such as scientists attempting to capture the first image of a black hole—and write an urgent poem in response. What sort of emotional or philosophical significance can you draw between this scientific news and your feelings about current affairs?
Can girls be robots? How do you make water? What does extinct mean? Children have a curiosity for the world that can often inspire them to ask difficult questions like these from filmmaker Kelly O’Brien’s five-year-old daughter Willow. In the spirit of childish inquisitiveness, write a poem entirely of questions. How might you use a child’s persona to explore your own concerns and wonder for the world?
Last month, Crayola announced the retirement of one of their yellow crayon colors, Dandelion, which will soon be replaced by a blue crayon. Since Binney & Smith first began producing Crayola crayons in 1903, many colors have been cycled in and out. Some colors have remained the same shade but changed names over the years, such as Peach, which was previously named Flesh Tint, Flesh, and Pink Beige. Read more about the history of Crayola crayon colors, and write a poem inspired by some of the names you find most evocative, perhaps finding thematic potential in how the types of names have evolved over the years.
“For the first time, I agreed last year to cotranslate a book from a language I don’t speak at all…. It was an opportunity for new kinds of thinking but also new kinds of failure,” writes poet, novelist, and translator Idra Novey in her essay “Writing While Translating.” Many contemporary writers have expanded the art of translation by experimenting with form and content: Mary Jo Bang filled her translation of Dante’s Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012) with pop culture references; David Cameron used spell-check and word-association methods for Flowers of Bad (Unbelievable Alligator/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007), his “false translation” of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal; and Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney’s Books, 2012) is a translation of Emily Dickinson’s poetry into one-line renderings, from English into a different version of English. Try your hand at translating a short series of poems from one language to another. Use your knowledge of another language, slang, dictionaries, or any unlikely source to explore the elasticity of language while considering how new kinds of failure might inspire a refreshing direction for your writing.
In his book Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008), poet Kevin Young has a series of odes to particular foods that meditate on memories of the speaker’s father and other family members, such as “Ode to Okra.” Using Young’s poem as inspiration, write an ode to one of your favorite foods that personifies and addresses the dish as “you.” Explore the senses—flavors, smells, sounds, textures, colors—that are stirred from these memories of meals.
“There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter,” wrote Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder in 1956. Write a poem centered around one image or sensation you associate with the spring season, using diction and rhythm to evoke the repeated refrains, patterns, and cycles of nature. Explore both the symbolic and physical beauty of your image.
A salt lake in Melbourne, Australia recently turned pink due to the growth of algae “in response to very high salt levels, high temperatures, sunlight, and lack of rainfall.” The phenomenon transformed the lake from its natural blue tone to an unusually bright flamingo color. Write a poem that begins by evoking the sensations of one color, and then—gradually or abruptly—turns a strikingly different color, perhaps even pink. How will you manipulate the mood, images, sounds, and rhythms of your language to reflect the color change?
If you read, in order, the last word of each line in Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Golden Shovel,” you will discover that they are the words of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” the inspiration for Hayes’s poem. Select one or more lines from a poem you admire, and write your own “Golden Shovel” poem. Use each word from the source text in its original order for the last word in each line of your new poem. When you are finished, the end-words of your poem should trace out the origin poem. Be sure to add a note crediting the poet whose line(s) you’ve used.
Artist B. A. Van Sise’s photo series Children of Grass—featured in “The Written Image” in the March/April 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine—consists of portraits of American poets who have been influenced by Walt Whitman, with each photograph based on a poem. Browse through some of Van Sise’s portraits or select any other poet portrait of your choice, and taking a reverse approach to Van Sise’s project, write a poem based on the image. How does the language, tone, and rhythm in your poem relate to the composition, props, and background of the portrait?