Thursday, October 22, 2009

Writing Ideas and Prompts for Sparking Poems

Writing Ideas and Prompts for Sparking Poems
By Sheila Bender

With poetry, we mourn the passage of time, celebrate connections, yell out at injustice, cry from the pain of unrequited love and exclaim our joy in love and gratitude. Over the years, I have known I would start poems because of seeing the wet outline of my husband's swimming trunks through his slacks as we drove after arguing; because of attending a traditional tea ceremony with my daughter as she was coming of age and the tea ceremony hostess' mother was dying; because of awe I felt at the fragility of human life after I drove along the Columbia River with my young son. I've written a poem because a blue moon in August made me sit down and consider the feelings I had when my daughter left our family to study in Japan. Usually, I have had only the feeling of needing to write and no knowledge of what I had inside to write. But as I wrote the poems, I began to understand poem-making in the way William Stafford describes it, as "a process that brought about new things" I would not have thought of if I "didn't start to say them."

The more I wrote, the more I read poems, and I found that reading other poets and absorbing their strategies for delivering perception always helped me find ways to explore my topics. This week, I offer exercises aimed at helping you notice more of what is around you and what you remember and at helping you write from all of your senses, use associations, and verify those moments that poets really see how they learn important lessons from small moments.

This month, you might consider keeping a special "inspired by poetry" notebook handy. It can be as simple as a fresh spiral notebook. Fill the notebook with your responses to the exercises below and with responses to poems you discover (Poetry 180, and are good sites to access A LOT of poetry). Do the same exercises more than once and end up with different poems and passages or with several parts to a longer piece. In addition to finding lyric and prose poems inside what you freewrite, you may also find new ways into topics you have wanted to write about for years. This notebook of passages rich with imagery and quirky organizational strategies will be something you can mine for months to come.


Exercise One: Writing Thanks for True Wealth

In 1914 and 15, Carl Sandburg was writing poems against the emotional backdrop of World War I, in which men were dying at a higher rate and on a larger scale than in any previous war because of the new war technology of machine guns, tanks and barbed wire. Here is one of the poems:

"Our Prayer of Thanks"

For the gladness here where the sun is shining at evening on the weeds at the river,
Our prayer of thanks.

For the laughter of children who tumble barefooted and bareheaded in the summer grass,
Our prayer of thanks.

For the sunset and the stars, the women and the white arms that hold us,
Our prayer of thanks.

If you are deaf and blind, if this is all lost to you,
God, if the dead in their coffins amid the silver handles on the edge of town, or the reckless dead of war days thrown unknown in pits, if these dead are forever deaf and blind and lost,
Our prayer of thanks.

The game is all your way, the secrets and the signals and the system; and so for the break of the game and the first play and the last.
Our prayer of thanks.

I think Sandburg was thinking about the gentleness of a mother's arms over the brawn of a father's arms tanned from fieldwork when he wrote, "the women and the white arms that hold us." Today, we might praise a father holding his baby and think twice about the way the alliteration brings in the word "white" and excludes people of color. Still, we can learn from Sandburg's poem that we don't have to look too far for the material that helps us evoke our sense of life and extract wealth from our experience.

If you want to capture the mood of a day, a day when you received a meaningful gift or felt loved, saw the beauty in the world or amazed yourself with an insight or good deed, you can go about finding the depth of your experience by imagining yourself led in a spiritual meditation by Sandburg. What are the sounds, conversations, sights, textures, smells and tastes you experienced on the day you are capturing? What opportunities, no matter how small, have you had to learn something new? To think from a perspective that is a little different than the one from which you normally think?

After re-reading Sandburg, I wrote:

The Secrets and the Signals and the System
from "Our Prayer of Thanks" by Carl Sandburg

The temperatures are only a little above freezing
well past the first day of spring
in our usually temperate climate.

We pray for the roots of the newly planted
blueberries to stay warm in our garden's dark earth,
though we are thankful for last night's snow
brightening mountaintops we see from our window.

We pray that higher rivers will be there for salmon
in late summer when they spawn, after our berries show
their juicy blue and we gorge on thoughts of years to come.

Take a turn writing in response to this poem by Sandburg by saying what you give thanks for. Then, select a line that particularly resonates with you and use it as your title. You can do something similar with any poem you find that you enjoy reading. Pay attention to repeated phrases or themes and write what you have to say on the topic by using specifics from one of your life situations.

Exercise Two: Wake Up Cooing

Poetry relies on sound. Sometimes we forget that and use our academic language skills in a way that squelches the magic of one sound leading to another. The excitement and emotion of our insight vanishes under the heavy-handed exposition we have much experience writing for school and at work.

Imagine yourself cooing and shrieking and delighting yourself with your voice and the sounds you can make when you aren't trying for words. Write down a string of such sounds. Next, do a free write where you start with these sounds and free associate to images and memories:

Na-Na-Na-Na, Mum, Mum, Mum
Delicious morning. Sunlight streaming through the windows,
yellow stripes on the carpet. I drive to Shilshoe Bay, watch
cormorants on pilings spread their wings, dry them in the sun,
see a great blue heron cast its shadow over blue water
then dive for a fish. In the silver glimmer of the fish's belly
I catch my own life, startled and slippery.

Give this kind of freewrite a try. By using different sounds on different mornings, you can create a variety of meditations.

Exercise Three: Scandalous Pleasures

Now is the time for spring to burst from every branch and patch of soil. What has been bare for several months now shows tender green, colorful pinks, yellows, and purples. The sight of buds and shoots fills us with a sense of the miraculous bounty in the world and creates in us an awe of life's resiliency and quality of renewal.

Here is a writing exercise to make yourself aware of these feelings or to help you create them for yourself this spring:

Decide on a euphoric emotion or one of contentment. Give it a name: bliss, joy, satisfaction, completion, scandalous pleasure, for instance. Now it will be your writing assignment to describe a specific person or a specific place using details that will evoke the emotion you have chosen. In your writing, sprinkle in the word or phrase you are using to identify your emotion. For example:

In Early March

I walk along Island Crest Way
and see clusters of daffodils,
scandalous pleasure of a parade
on the meridian. The joggers are out
in shorts after winter rains, their dogs
beside them, tongues long like stamens.
Scandalous pleasures of March:
the daffodils' height after February's
low beauty of crocus. No need
for coats, okay with thin stockings,
and puddles all shrunk to button-size.

Whatever you are describing, use details, repeat the word or phrase you selected; insert it whenever you need help continuing. You can take out too much repetition later.

Sheila Bender writes content for’s journaling software for writers, as well as provides webinars and online classes for, and The Freelance Editors’ Association of America. She has written ten books on creative writing, including Writing and Publishing Personal Essays from Silver Thread Press in San Diego.

A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief is just out from Imago Press in Tucson. Visit Click here for information about the book as well as information about Ms. Bender’s online magazine for those who write from personal experience.

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