I am not a poet, but I love the room of opportunites that poem doors open up for writing teachers. Leave it to a fabulous poem to start many, many conversations about language, choice, authorial intention, image, or persona. Or a hundred billion other things.
The Practice of Poetry is one of those books I’ve used exhaustively over the last ten years to get those discussions started. The exercises are unique and delivered in such a way that even the most reluctuant student poets can produce something artful.
Because the writing exercises in The Practice of Poetry are written by poets who are also teachers, each exercise comes with an explanation of how the poet developed the exercise and the purpose for which she created it. In class Friday, we embarked on Jim Simmerman’s great exercise “Twenty Little Poetry Projects.” Simmerman states, “This exercise is great for producing free-for-all wackiness, inventive word play, and the sheer oddities of language itself.” Because I have a mixed bag of writers in my classroom, I felt like this exercise would be great for those who felt stymied by the pressure to sound “poetic” (whatever that means) or any kid out there dealing with writer’s block, or as Simmerman states in the explanation, any one “stuck in a single style.”
The key to doing this exercise is to write all the “projects,” then revise for unity and coherence, looking for the opportunities for repetition and parallelism, capitalizing on the experimental nature of the activity to have fun and take risks with language and image. The twenty projects are:
- Begin the poem with a metaphor.
- Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
- Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
- Use of example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
- Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
- Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
- Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
- Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
- Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
- Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand.)
- Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…
- Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
- Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
- Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
- Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
- Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
- Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense.
- Use a phrase from a language other than English.
- Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
- Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.
The students had a lot of fun doing this activity. Even though the exercise is a formula of sorts, my students made the poems personal through the use of voice, style, or mood. Here are a few selections for your enjoyment.