Thursday, April 30, 2009

A poem of a different color

I love collections :-) One of Kenneth Koch's ideas in Wishes, Lies, and Dreams was to sprinkle a poem with Spanish colors (which grew into other words too).

I thought it might be fun to collect color names from many different languages. Try picking one language and not looking at the English color names. (Though some are from familiar roots and you'll be able to guess :-) Use the colors by sound. Or use the words to mean something else. What does each sound like?

In prose or poetry, create a colorful event: a festival, a holiday, a circus, nightclub, a culture drawn to bright colors. Set it in the future or past or a fantasy world. An interstellar ship trying to keep people's spirits up during the years long trip with spirited music and colorful decorations. A culture where dyes are rare so they bring out their colorful clothes only once a year in celebration of spring.

Here's what a couple of the kids did with the idea in Wishes, Lies and Dreams:
On my planeta named Carambona La Paloma
We have a fiesta called Luna Estrella.
A funny looking hombre comes to our homes.
He has four heads: a leon head, an oso head, a mono head, and a culebra head.
We do a baile named Mar of Nieve.
On this fiesta we eat platos.
That's how we celebrate Christmas on my planet.

Marion Mackles
The luna is big and clara.
The perro I saw is almost as big as a caballo.
The caballo I saw ate the manzana I had.
The estrella was as clara as the sun.

Valerie Chasse

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Just the facts

When I stumbled across this week's quote, it reminded me of a prompt that provides a structure for a poem (or for a brief story or character sketch).

Write a poem (or sketch) that answers the 5 Ws (+H) reporters are told to include in their stories: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. They can be answered in any order. You can leave off one if it seems to tell too much. (Usually why.)

Here's some examples from Getting the Knack by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford. (The questions in parentheses aren't part of the poem.)


(who?)    Our elected representative, Ms. Ludlaw
(what?)   pumping voters' hands
(how?)    as if they were slot-machine levers
(where?)  outside Faculty Lounge
(when?)   Tuesday, after school.
(why?)    Next month, election.


(what?)   Flocking toward Mexico
(when?)   before Winter's first ka-choooo,
(how?)    thrashing the silver air
(where?)  in Ontario's gray sky,
(why?)    wanting warm --
(who?)    a blizzard of ducks

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tumbling skeltons

If you like to rhyme, skeltonic verse can be fun. The structure is playful and suggests lively movement so is also known as tumbling verse. The lines are short (3-6 words on average) and the rhyme continues as long as you feel it's working. Then it moves onto the next rhyme. One rhyme may last two lines, another a dozen.

(If you need help with rhymes try Rhymer or Rhymezone.)

Here's an example from John Skelton who invented the form back in the 16th century:
from Colin Clout

What can it avail
To drive forth a snail,
Or to make a sail
Of an herring's tail?
To rhyme or to rail
To write or to indict,
Either for delight
Or else for despite?
Or books to compile
Of divers manners style,
Vice to revile
And sin to exile?
To teach or to preach
As reason will reach?

Say this, and say that:
His head is so fat
He wotteth never what
Nor whereof he speaketh;
He crieth and he creaketh,
He prieth and he peeketh,
He chides and he chatters,
He prates and he patters,
He clitters and he clatters,
He meddles and he smatters,
He glozes and he flatters!

Or if he speak plain,
Then he lacketh brain,
He is but a fool;
Let him go to school.
A three-footed stool!
That he may down sit,
For he lacketh wit!
And if that he hit
The nail on the head,
It standeth in no stead;
The devil, they say, is dead,
The devil is dead!

It may well so be,
Or else they would see
Otherwise, and flee
from worldly vanity,
And foul covetousness
And other wretchedness,
Fickle falseness,
With unstableness.
And if ye stand in doubt
Who brought this rhyme about,
My name is Colin Clout.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fill in the blanks

Use the following first and last words from lines of poetry for inspiration. When you're done, the originals are in the comments. (They're probably familiar.)

She ... from
Yesterday ... gone
While ... bright
Or ... night
No ... knows
She ... goes

Don't ... free
She'll ... be
She ... chained
To ... gained
And ... lost
At ... cost

There's ... say
Catch ... away
Dying ... time
Lose ... dreams
And ... mind
Ain't ... unkind

Finished ... mind
people ... time
All ... satisfy
Think ... pacify
Can ... brain
I ... find
I ... blind
Make ... cry
Happiness ... unreal
And ... state
I ... late

So ... far
Couldn't ... heart
Forever ... are
And ... matters

Never ... way
Life ... way
All ... say
And ... matters

Trust ... you
Every ... new
Open ... view
And ... matters

Never ... do
Never ... know
But ... know

Metaphorically speaking

A metaphor turns one thing into another. Start with the statement:

A road is a road for cars.

and see how many roads (and paths and byways) you can come up with that carry something from one place to another.
  • An artery is a road for exhausted blood leading back to the heart.
  • The internet is a superhighway for spam.
  • School is a potholed dull path to college that they've been promising to pave for decades.
  • A river is snowmelt's road from mountain to ocean.
  • Pretend is a road to anywhere.
  • A lecture is a pathway to sleep.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Don't be scared! The pantoum form looks way more complex than it is! The beauty is a poem that's twice as long as the number of lines you write. The cool thing is that because the repeated lines will fall in different orders, you'll see new connections between the ideas and the meaning of words may shift in their new context.

The pattern is the even lines of one stanza become the odd lines of the next stanza. You write new even lines for the new stanza. The Malays, who invented this form, could keep this up for hours :-) You're allowed to stop with 4 or 5 stanzas :-) Here's the pattern to repeat:

Two copied here
Four copied here

The last stanza pattern is slightly different. In fact you've already written the stanza. It's just repeats. Again, the odd lines are the even lines from the previous stanza. Then use the poem's first line as the last line of the stanza and use the poem's third line as the stanza's second line.

(There's also an imperfect pantoum where the last stanza's odd lines can be new (like the previous stanzas) or the last lines may fall in any order.)

Here's a summary of the tips from "Getting the Knack " by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford:
  1. Doodle six or eight words or phrases. If you're stuck, skim a book or magazine for something that interests you. Steal lines from your own poems.
  2. Once you have something that interests you, ask what they remind you of, and write that. The goal is four lines.
    • Think of each line as a separate unit. Not necessarily a full sentence, but a bit that can be shifted about without needing the line that followed it.
    • For now begin each line with a capital letter.
    • For now, leave out punctuation.
    • Be alert for messages the poem is revealing as you work, rhymes, rhythms, new meanings.
  3. When writing the new even lines, be aware of not only the previous line, but the next line.
  4. Try out various rearrangements of the final lines to see which works for you.
  5. When you look back over it, the words on repeated lines will be the same but feel free to alter punctuation or capitalization. (Eg, a word on one line may be a name in another line, or an added comma may alter the meaning.) In the pure form, that's all you can change. In "Getting the Knack" the authors suggest allowing yourself to change tenses and spellings but caution you not to solve all your problems with exceptions.
  6. Tinker. Play around with it. Read it out loud and look for rhymes and rhythms.
A pantoum doesn't need to rhyme, but Neil Peart of Rush did and turned it into a song :-) (Note, it's an imperfect pantoum. Line two of the last stanza is new.)
The Larger Bowl (A Pantoum)
by Neil Peart
from Snakes & Arrows by Rush

If we're so much the same like I always hear
Why such different fortunes and fates?
Some of us live in a cloud of fear
Some live behind iron gates

Why such different fortunes and fates?
Some are blessed and some are cursed
Some live behind iron gates
While others only see the worst

Some are blessed and some are cursed
The golden one or scarred from birth
While others only see the worst
Such a lot of pain on the earth

The golden one or scarred from birth
Some things can never be changed
Such a lot of pain on this earth
It's somehow so badly arranged

Some things can never be changed
Some reasons will never come clear
It's somehow so badly arranged
If we're so much the same like I always hear

Chorus, so not part of the pantoum form:

(Some are blessed and some are cursed
The golden one or scarred from birth
While others only see the worst
Such a lot of pain on the earth)
There are links to some more examples at:

Poetry -- Pantoum at
Pantoum at Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Grab a permanent marker and newspaper or magazine from recycling. Flip to a random page, preferably with columns. First scan through the text for an image that strikes your fancy. (Your poem doesn't need to begin there. It's an idea to build on.) Next, begin blacking out the words until you hit a phrase or word or piece of word you'd like to use in your poem. Read across the columns rather than straight down to mix things up.

This is a variation on the cutups done by the Dadaists . Artists cut up pictures and poets cut up articles, then pasted them randomly together.

Austin Kleon has created many (with a book of them to be published next year) and run a few contests a couple of years ago. You can see his at his blog and more at the Flickr group of Newspaper Blackout Poems for a load of examples.

Here are Austin Kleon's TIPS:
  • Combine both columns into one poem—don’t just do each column at a time! It doesn’t make for a good read. Skip between the two…this allows for more interesting possibilities. You can see the winners here and here and here and here .
  • Remember that Westerners read left-to-right, up-to-down. Poems read best if they follow that pattern.
  • You can get around the left/right/up/down problem by connecting words with whitespace. (See an example.)
  • What you are doing when making a blackout poem, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, is “shopping for images.” Nouns and verbs make the best images.
  • Regardless of where it’s located in the text, I always start a poem by looking for a word or image that resonates with me and move from there.
  • It’s a lot like a word search.
  • You don’t have to use the whole text. What to leave in / leave out / how long is the magic.
  • Poetry doesn’t have to be serious!
  • Try not to think to hard about it and let it flow! It might take you a bunch of tries. Don’t be intimidated! Anyone can do it!
If you're lacking in newspapers or magazines, here's the text he used for the contests. If you use a paint or photo editing program, you can blackout with the paintbrush tool.


Thursday, April 09, 2009


Write a poem where each word begins with the next letter in the alphabet. (You can also write a paragraph or really long sentence if you wish.)
Andopholus Brown could devour entire fields
Grown heavy in July.
Kranky Luscious munched near open plains
Questing restlessly.
Soon Tontubulous Urvin would xray yellow zebras.
Okay, pretty awful! ;-) More prose than poetry, but the words flowed out more easily than I thought they would. (Feel free to use words beginning with "ex" for X.) It's a nice short exercise since you only need 26 words, and with some work, an actual readable poem might emerge!

Some other ideas:
  • Write from Z to A.
  • Create a 26 word poem with each letter of the alphabet but allow any order.
  • Make a list of alphabetized words or phrases about a subject (animals, your dog, restaurants, Star Trek technobabble ...). You could put 3 per line and challenge yourself to see if you can make them rhyming couplets (each pair of lines rhymes).
There are several here:

Unskilled Poet, and these at the Rock, Waves, Beach blog, all written by Kate An Alphabet Poem, Another Alphabet Poem, A December Alphabet Poem, Knitting Alphabet Poem..

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


A ritual is a series of actions meant to bring about or prevent an event. A ritual gives a sense of control over the unseen forces shaping our lives. In the past the actions and order were created by shamans. Today, anyone can devise a ritual. (As many sports players and teams do! Like Top 10 Sports Traditions  ;-)

Come up with a ritual for some event you (or your characters) would like control over. (It can be a simple prose list or a poetic list.)

Ron Padgett in Handbook of Poetic Forms (where this idea comes from) suggests:
  1. Decide what you would like to have occur.
  2. Examine all aspects of the subject.
  3. Think of actions to illustrate some of these aspects.
  4. Write each action down as a command.
  5. Number the commands.
  6. Let yourself go.
Here's a Storm Ritual from Alaskan Eskimos who sought to subside a storm.
  1. Build a snowman with a big head.
  2. Give the snowman's head a large mouth.
  3. Catch salmon, skin the carcasses, freeze them.
  4. Hack away at the frozen fish and push the pieces into the snowman's mouth.
  5. Afterward, have a big feast in which all the pieces of fish are eaten.


This reminds me of the experiments performed by B.F. Skinner. He placed pigeons in boxes and randomly released food. The pigeons eventually began performing whatever random action they had been performing before the food was released, suggesting a type or ritual or superstition.

"One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return."

Coloring all over the lines

For this poetry warm up, put a color in each line. Try starting with just one color.

This will free you to see the color in not only objects but sounds and smells and numbers and feelings.

As the warm up to the warm up, Koch dropped some keys on the desk and slapped the desk with a ruler and asked the kids what color those were. He asked them what was the color of France, England and Spain; of Monday and Wednesday and the number fourteen hundred.

From Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching children to write poetry by Kenneth Koch.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Like a window

Similes compare two unlike things to call your attention to similar aspects you wouldn't have seen. They help you see things in new ways.

Though both similes and metaphors are figures of speech, difference is similes keep the two ideas separate: The thief escaped as fast as a cheetah, and metaphors turn one thing into another: When the starter's pistol cracked, she was a cheetah freed from its cage.

Similes in Poems at Writing Fix generated the following. In either poetry or prose, expand on one of the ideas. Explore the similarities between the trait and the noun. Don't worry about whether your comparisons are working! Just get them out and down. Let them flow. Make multiple comparisons for the same aspect so you have more to work with in the edit.

Alternatively, make them all about one person and expand each a little. Explore how they all work together.

And, as always, don't feel tied to contemporary times or human characters.
  • His obedience was like a window.
  • Her need for revenge was like the desert.
  • His loyalty was like a tavern.
  • Her face was like a train.
  • His sadness was like a lighthouse.
  • Her scream was like a song.
  • His anger was like a card game.
  • Her fear was like a museum.

Egg moon

This is an idea from Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching children to write poetry by Kenneth Koch.

A bit pressed for time, here's my explanation from 2007 when I introduced them:

"In his book he has a whole series of what he calls poetry warm ups. It's a way of getting some thoughts down on paper that might with some rearranging, cutting and editing, become a poem or the seed of a poem.

Some are templates, so each line begins the same. Some are the seed to write a series of related ideas. Most have some repetition in them to help get things flowing. Don't be discouraged if your first dozen lines or more are trite. That's just the clogs coming out of your creative pathways :-) But that stuff needs to get out onto paper so the path can be freed for better ideas to flow more freely."

In addition to the regular writing prompts, I'll post one of these warm ups too.

Today's warm up is comparisons.

Include "like" or "as" in each line. The lines can be all about the same thing, or about one subject, or all different.

Some examples of templates:

______ is like ______.

______ is as ______ as ______.

Here are some examples from kids in Kenneth Koch's class:

A butterfly is like a flying rainbow.
Clouds are like flying ice cream.
Hair is like spaghetti.
The sun is as red as a fire.
The moon is like an egg.
Slow is like vanilla ice cream.
A moon is like a banana.
Thunder is like bowling.
Black ink is dark as m idnight.
Snow is as white as the sun shines.
A rose is as red as a beating of drums.