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NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompt 30: What Do You See?

Sarah and Jeff Boyle

Difficulty Level 1/5

Imagery is the backbone of lyric poetry. Crash course in academic poetry terms: narrative poetry tells a story and lyric poetry presents a series of ideas and asks the reader to make the association among them. Today, we’re going full on lyric, with a focused eye on imagery.

Surely you’ve heard of imagery in your English classes, but just to refresh your memory imagery is poetic description using the five senses. Writers use imagery when they want to make a particular place or object (or person or animal or anything out there in the real world) come to life. 

We’ve got classic examples of imagery from the English canon to show you how particular writers used the tool. William Butler Yeats is a bit of a poet’s poet—he’s just so darn good with his form that often readers don’t realize what he’s doing unless they’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to write with rhyme and meter. Here he paints a loving portrait of his personal utopia, describing it with such loving detail that anyone would want to live there. As you read, take note especially of the sounds and colors Yeats calls up.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening’s full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Oh, that “bee-loud glade” hits me in the heart every time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Elizabeth Bishop uses imagery to reanimate a dead fish. No romanticized vision of utopia here. Bishop’s goal is not to find beauty in the beautiful, but beauty in the hard-won victories of an ugly fish. See how ugly and how beautiful she renders the fish she caught in the excerpt below. And then go read the whole poem here.

from The Fish

He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
strained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygene
o—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

Now it’s your turn. First think of a subject: what do you want to bring to life for your readers? Describe it using every sense in the imagery arsenal. Here’s a handy-dandy brainstorming sheet for generating sensory details about your subject. After you’ve got the details down, ask yourself “So what?” In other words, when you choose and order your images, consider the emotions and the greater significance you want your reader to take away from the poem. For Yeats, those emotions were calm and peace and quiet pleasure. For Bishop, the significance of her fish is that life persists, even when it’s ugly and seemingly impossible.

And that does it, folks. Today was the last day of NaPoWriMo. How did you do? We think we did pretty well ourselves. Thanks for playing along with us.

NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompt 29: Do You Remember Mad Libs?

Sarah and Jeff Boyle

Difficulty: 4/5

Remember Mad Libs? When we were kids, we played them a lot, especially at school when it was too cold or rainy to go outside for recess. If you've never done it before, you're in for a treat, we hope. The basic premise is to make a list of parts of speech without any knowledge of the context into which they will be placed. Then you fill in a story with the words you've listed and what seems to be a very straightforward story becomes very silly (or at the very least, surreal).

So that's how we're creating today. Take a short poem (or section of a poem), strip out a few words in each line, making note of the part of speech the word is. Give yourself a few minutes away, then come back and assign new words for each part of speech. Then plug your new words back into the poem to see what you end up with.  Here's mine, based on "A Supermarket in California" by Allen Ginsberg:

What _______(plural noun) I have of you _____(time of day), Walt Whitman, for I ______(past tense verb) down the sidestreets under the ______(plural noun) with a ______(minor ailment)
self-conscious looking at the full ______(heavenly body). In my ______(adjective) fatigue, and ______(gerund) for images, I went into the neon ______(fruit or vegetable) supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! What _______(plural noun) and what ______(plural noun)!  Whole families ______(gerund) at night!  Aisles full of ______(plural of family member)!  Wives in the _______(fruits/vegetables), (plural of family member) in the tomatoes!--and you, García Lorca, what were you doing ______(direction) by the ______(plural of fruit/vegetable)?

plural noun: refrigerators
time of day: dawn
past tense verb: tumbled
plural noun: wallets
minor ailment: impetigo
heavenly body: Mars
adjective: healthy
gerund: yelling
fruit/vegetable: kumquat
plural noun: doors
plural noun: oven
gerund: toasting
plural of family member: grandmothers
fruits/vegetables: avocados
plural of family member: cousins
direction: up
fruits/vegetables: eggs

New version:

What refrigerators I have of you at dawn, Walt Whitman, for I tumbled down the sidestreets under the wallets with  impetigo self-conscious looking at the full Mars. In my healthy fatigue, and yelling for images, I went into the neon kumquat supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! What doors and what ovens!  Whole families toasting at night!  Aisles full of grandmothers!  Wives in the avocados, cousins in the tomatoes!--and you, García Lorca, what were you doing up by the eggs?

It's an intensive workout and multi-step, but it can yield some strange and interesting results. I found that prose poems work well, but it would be cool to see what you can do with more minimally-written work. Try a couple different iterations. If you're working with someone else, ask him or her to fill out your word bank just to make it more interesting and truer to the original spirit of Mad Libs! Let us know what you come up with. We'd love to know.

We're going to keep accepting poems to publish here on the blog! Keep 'em coming. This has been a blast to see what you guys come up with. Send us your work here: Thanks!

NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompt 28: It's Alive!

Sarah and Jeff Boyle

Difficulty Level 2/5

Pop culture is filled with toys coming to life. Kids’ books and movies—and horror movies, notably. Just to refresh your memory a little, there’s Corduroy, a teddy bear who lives in a department store and spends a night searching for his missing button:

There’s the Velveteen Rabbit, a book that made us cry as small children with its portrait of what makes a toy "real":

And on the other end of the spectrum, there is the horror of Chucky, a doll who is possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. No screenshots for Chucky, because that movie still freaks Jeff out and we are an all-ages blog. 

Your task today is write a poem about a toy that comes to life. Your toy may be lonely, like Corduroy or the Velveteen Rabbit. Your toy may be living a secret life, hidden from the world of people, like the toys of the “Toy Story” trilogy. Your toy could be a sinister force in the world, using its cuteness to disguise its ill intentions. Your toy could be possessed, a la Chucky. 

As you write your poem, you may want to use some of the techniques we talked about in the dramatic monologue prompt to structure the narrative of your poem. You may also want to revisit the monster poems we wrote to decide whether you tell the poem from your toy’s point of view or in the third-person, looking at the toy from a (safe?) distance.

Send us your toy poems at Take a picture of your toy, too, if you can. 

Update: See Sarah's response to this prompt here