Like many students, I discovered poetry in my freshman year of high school–the kind that made my heart expand three times its limit, the kind that made me believe in humanity’s innate potential for growth amidst all the events going on in the world. As for many high schoolers, poetry saved me during a time when I didn’t know I needed to be saved, and those experiences propelled me to try writing some of my own.
But writing poems? Not easy. Writing poetry can be both exhilarating and frustrating, but whether you’re struggling to find your next set of words or just looking for a change of pace, here we’re sending a list of poetry prompts your way.
1. Write a cento. Cento, which is Latin for “patchwork,” is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Because of the juxtaposition of images and ideas that they form, centos can be ironic and humorous with their multiple meanings. Take specific lines out of different poems (it can be yours, others, or a mismatch of both!) and see what you can create.
2. Make an erasure poem, where you erase words from existing text and leave the result as the final poem. Examples of source texts include using a dictionary, an online article, or even one of your own poems.
3. Experiment with a form you’ve never tried before, such as a sonnet, a prose poem, or a sestina.
4. Make a list poem, where you play on the use of repetition with a specific word or with a certain theme. Or, for a more specific prompt, read poet Michael McGriff’s article, “The Image List,” wherein he asks students to list and develop images important to them.
5. While listening to music, write down what you hear or “see” from the piece. Be careful of cliché or overused phrases, and try to push for more concrete imagery or expressions.
6. Experiment with repetition. Deborah Landau’s “Solitaire” is a great example of how repetition can break or mold the form of a poem, while Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise” and Joanna Klink’s “Some Feel Rain” propel the reader forward through the use of repetition.
7. Here’s an Adroit Mentorship prompt! Write an instructional poem, either to yourself or to an unknown speaker, about how to do a certain action. Try to ensure that the piece remains as tangible as possible, and to show, rather than telling. Read Traci Brimhall’s “How to Find the Underworld” and “How I Learned to Walk” by Javier Zamora for examples.
8. Write a poem based on a photograph, whether it be one of yours or someone else’s. Louise Glück’s “A Summer Garden” and “Photograph from September 11” by Wisława Szymborska are both based on photographs yet explore them in different ways: while Gluck focuses more on the world within and surrounding the photograph, Szymborska focuses more on the photograph itself and its significance given context.
9. Another Adroit Mentorship prompt: Write a persona poem, where you adopt the perspective of another individual, such as a historical figure or an ancestor. For examples, check out Tyler Mills’s “Marie Curie,” or Natasha Tretheway’s “Letter Home.”
10. Write an apology poem, or a poem inspired by guilt. I find this prompt useful mostly because guilt as an emotion can be applied to everyone and provokes a strong response within writers, whether the event or situation is directly or indirectly theirs to blame. Both Matthew Olzmann’s “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now” and Donika Kelly’s “I Never Figured How to Get Free” explore guilt in different ways, but both carry an implicit message of involvement.
11. Write a poem where you adopt the persona of an inanimate object or an animal, whether real or mythical. In her book Bestiary, Donika Kelly frequently utilizes this form to reflect on the speaker’s greater relationship to the world, such as her poems “Self-Portrait as a Door” and “Love Poem.”
12. Sometimes, we learn more from what we don’t like versus what we do. Rewrite a poem (from another poet) that you personally think is just not that great. Hopefully, you can discover exactly what elements or pieces of that poem aren’t for you and allow it to reveal more about you and your writing in the process.
13. Rearrange a poem you’ve already written. This allows you to play with form in a similar way that the cento does, although it’s just focusing on one piece. A good starter is to change the last line to the first.
14. Write a poem addressed to a future version of yourself, such as Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong.”
15. Anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of each sentence, is an interesting (and relatively easy) way to capture the rhythm of a poem when feeling stuck, while also allowing for a lot of freedom in imagery and style. Examples of anaphora range from classics such as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” to more contemporary poems such as Roger Reeves’s “Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves.”
16. Flarf, or poetry that often relies on Google and the Internet to produce odd and often deliberately “bad” poems, is a fun way to experiment with word choice. Create your own flarf poem using anything from search results to Google Translate. For reference, check out Poets.org’s “A Brief Guide to Flarf Poetry,” which explains the origins of how the movement started, as well as providing examples of “flarf” poetry.
17. Write a poem using only 2nd-grade language. For reference, check out the vocabulary spelling lists for elementary school students online.
18. Write a poem based on Joe Brainard’s “I Remember,” wherein he recalled both minute and principal details from his life growing up, while starting every sentence with the words “I remember.” These can center on a specific theme.
19. For those interested in a group project, construct what is called an “exquisite corpse poem,” a poem by allowing each person to write one line or sentence before passing on to the next. However, with each new line written, fold the piece of paper so that only the previous line can be shown. Make a game of it!