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Prompts for Poem-writing

Invented Etymologies

Make a list of nonsense words–about 10-12 will do. Pick the word that you find to be the most sonically interesting or elegant, and invent a definition and etymology for it. Taking a cue from Robert Hass’s poem “Etymology” (here), incorporate your new word and its meaning[s] into a poem that asks a question to which you do not know the answer.


Write a poem that takes the design of a labyrinth as its inspiration. Unlike mazes, which have dead ends and are meant to invoke confusion, a labyrinth offers a long and winding path to a meaningful center and offers a chance for introspection and contemplation. (The design for the Chartres Labyrinth, one of the most famous labyrinth styles, is available here.) Your poem can mimic a labyrinth in terms of format, grammar, image, logic, or any combination thereof, but it must reach a center and then wind back out again. 

Behind a Little House

Spend some time with the “Behind a Little House” series by Italian photographer Manuel Cosentino (here). Consider what time and weather do to the little house and its landscape. How can we make sense of these changes? Can we call one of the photographs the most beautiful? Write a poem that explores these questions but does not definitively answer them.

After the Love Song

Taking a cue from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (full poem here), write a poem that begins and ends with rhyming couplets. The poem can have a rhyme scheme throughout, but does not necessarily  have to follow Eliot’s model. Aside from its sound formalities, your poem must also contain the name of a fruit and a reference to a famous artist, living or dead.

Off to the Races

Write a poem detailing a race or a chase, taking care to select a form that either mimics or contributes to the movement of the poem. Who are the competitors, and what is the prize? What does the wind do, and what’s in the sky? Be careful to avoid cliches, and don’t forget to tell us the outcome and what it means.

Old Furniture

In his The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes, “When a poet rubs a piece of furniture–even vicariously–when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything it touches, he creates a new object; he increases the object’s human dignity…” Select a piece of furniture that you remember well–from an old house or apartment, or from childhood, and bring it back to life in a poem. As always, the “polishing” you do here can be either literal or metaphorical.


Write a poem that evokes at least one of the qualities or uses of salt. Keep in mind that we have in English many words that come from “salt”: salad, salami, salary, saltpeter, sausage, sauce, etc. Include in the poem: the name of an organ and the name of a song.

Battle Plans

Spend some time with the Wiki list of historical battles, found here. Using whatever method you wish–a time period of interest, a fascinating battle name–choose one of the battles and read more about the men and desires that made it happen. Write a poem that illuminates this battle. For a challenge, write from the first person plural point of view.

House Plans

Make a sketch of the house plan of your childhood home. Label each room with the strongest memory that you associate with it. After you’ve assigned thoughts to each room, select the memory that evokes the most sensory details and write a poem about how this space has been inhabited with memory. What, do you think, has been forgotten?


Write a poem about someone who is dressed as someone else. What made him/her don a costume? What does it look like? Do others know that it’s a disguise? What would happen if his/her “true identity” were discovered?

Characters of the Rain

It is raining. Write a poem about the rain–personified. The poem must be in three parts, and each part much be about a different occupation or character the rain plays. Give it a monologue or give it stage directions–in some way, let it speak.

Six Clocks

Imagine six clocks, each in a different location. Where are they? Who keeps time by them? What lives and worlds do they witness? Write a poem about these six clocks. Do they ever quiet, or will they always continue to tick?


Take a minute to peruse the photography of Nick Veasey here. (To access his gallery, click “Projects” on the homepage.) Select one of the photographs–the one that most speaks to you–and write an ekphrastic poem about it. What happens to us when we are allowed to see the inside of a lily? A baby carriage? A spider who–though not poisonous–still can bite?


Write a poem that utilizes the spectrum of colors (here we’re in the old camp of ROY G BIV–red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). They need not be mentioned in order or by their exact names, but they must be at least represented metaphorically.


What would living be like without a heart? The organ, or what we say it does to us? Write a poem in which you or a persona do not have a heart. The answer isn’t: Haha! You’d be dead. That’s too easy. Think about it, give the poem magic if it needs it, and don’t forget that hearts also make a steady sound–when they’re there.

Three Prompts Inspired by Anne Carson: “Cranberries, You and God”

1) Number a scrap piece of paper from 1 to 10 three times.

–Title the first list “Fruits I Remember Eating.”  List ten fruits that you have a particular memory of.

–Title the second list “I Am Sorry.”  List ten things that you are sorry for.

–Title the final list “New Religion.”  List ten things that strike you as religious.  This can be your tiny Buddha or your run-of-the-mill Pope hat, but it can also be things like: agate, violin cases, overstocked bookshelves.

2) Use your three lists as an outline for a three-part poem.  You may use the list titles as section titles if you wish, but more importantly, be sure to include a couple items from the lists themselves when writing.

3) Title your poem “Who Made the World.”

Three Prompts Inspired by Anne Carson: “Short Talks”

Write a poem or a flash fiction piece modeled after Anne Carson’s short talk poetic form.  It can be about anything: coat hangers, baby teeth, Canadian accents, your mother’s tendency to visit the pantry late at night.  Try to be funny in strange and unexpected ways, but remember to keep it short!  Title it “Short Talk on Subject.”

Three Prompts Inspired by Anne Carson: “Fragments”

Anne Carson translates Sapphic fragment #120 as such:

but I am not someone who likes to wound
  rather I have a quiet mind

Using this fragment as an epigraph, write a poem or a scene from a short story concerning the concept of the intersection of hurt and silence.  Include in your piece: (1) three questions (2) one answer.