Poetry Prompts

Too often I turn to the Internet for answers. Having a writing group means that I need to crank out a poem every two weeks, which is graduate school pace. This is good for me. As is my work slowdown. I made two pie crusts this morning and sat down to write a poem. (Not working is like not writing. You finish one paper and then your regular supplier doesn’t have any more papers, and you despair. Will I ever work again? Maybe this is how drug addicts feel too.) Nothing.

So I googled “poetry prompts,” as I have done too many times to count in the past. I have a sick fascination with writing prompts. In general I hate them, and yet that never stops me from searching. In the beginning of my grad school career I had a book of prompts that actually worked for me. But that was the first and the last time. I’m like my little dog who runs to the second tree in the park every time because once, three years ago, he found a Ritz cracker there. C’mon ant-covered salty yellow muse, show up again!

Prompts fall into two categories: stupid and idiotic. The stupid ones are at a fourth-grade level. Write a poem about autumn! Write a letter to someone you love! Write a poem about summer using the words beach ball, lipstick, pink, and tanning oil. Write a poem about how much you appreciate your mother. You get the idea.

But the more intellectual (idiotic) ones are just as bad. In order to not feel like Hallmark employees, idiotic prompt writers find a poem they love. Usually it is a good poem, interesting and rich. Then they try to reverse engineer the poem.

Violet’s Wash


You can’t have nothing clean.
I scrubbed like a crazy woman
at Isom’s clothes that first week
and here they come off the line, little black
stripes wherever I’d pinned them up
or hung them over—coal dust settles
on the clothesline, piles up
like a line of snow on a tree branch.
After that, I wiped down the clothesline
every time, but no matter, you can’t
get it all off. His coveralls is stripy
with black and gray lines,
ankles of his pants is ringed around,
like marks left by shackles.
I thought I’d die that first week
when I seen him walk off to the mine,
black, burnt-looking marks
on his shirt over his shoulders, right
where wings would of folded.
“Write about a task you do for someone you love, and end with an image of angels.” (Actually the first part of that prompt is good, and the second part is exaggerated, but you get the idea. And if you like this poem, read Kettle Bottom, which is DP’s favorite book of poetry other than mine.)


Or they set you up to write the world’s most complacent poem. “Talk abut going to a strange city. What are the smells? The sights? What are people doing for their daily tasks?” I imagine the poetry prompt writer is thinking about Paris or Prague or maybe her travels in Eastern Bora Bora. There’s an ad that shows up on my email sometimes with a young wide-eyed white woman walking through a medieval city, and it says “travel writer,” as if walking through a city as a stranger means that you’re cosmopolitan and smart and a good writer, rather than rich and privileged.

I was talking to S, one of my very favorite writer partners in crime, about complacent poetry. “People get settled and middle aged. They are happier than they were in their twenties, and don’t write wild poems about heartbreak and sex on the kitchen floor. So they look around and think, what should I write about? And they write about their gardens. I don’t mind a good complicated poem about a plant, but a description of lilies? Please kill me.” And S solemnly swore to shoot me if I started to write poems about lilies. This is why S and I are friends. That and I don’t think she could hold a gun in my direction without dissolving into laughter.

There’s a quote from Adrienne Rich that I saw recently that really struck me.

There’s a lot of what I would call comfortable poetry around. But then there is all this other stuff going on — which is wilder, which is bristling; it’s juicier, it’s everything that you would want. And it’s not comfortable. That’s the kind of poetry that interests me — a field of energy. It’s intellectual and moral and political and sexual and sensual — all of that fermenting together. It can speak to people who have themselves felt like monsters and say: you are not alone, this is not monstrous. It can disturb and enrapture.

Now what prompts speak to intellectual, moral, political, sexual, sensual, juicy, uncomfortable poems? What do you look for in poetry? What poems answer your questions?


8 responses to “Poetry Prompts

  1. Depends on the question.

    But I’d like poems that have youngcrazywild bathroom sex (metaphorically or otherwise), but still acknowledge the hell that kind of behavior has on one’s knees . . . and perhaps offers an opinion about whether it’s still worth it or a complete sell out to want to move to somewhere easier on the joints—and maybe what to do with a partner who goes out and buys you waterproof kneeguards.

    Write that one, please.

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