A Journey to Nowhere

Write a poem in which you undertake a journey to an unknown destination.

The poem does not necessarily have to have a formal “plot,” but does have to leave you at the end of the journey, in a wholly unexpected place: either in the midst of a strange landscape (mental and/or physical) or in the throes of a threatening or exciting discovery (self, other, or both).

Begin the poem with a predicament: the speaker of the poem ( the poet, a fictional narrator, or an actual person re-imagined) is lost, or hunting for something (someone), or is being propelled into a quest against her will, or is on a supposedly ordinary journey that turns weird.

Make the poem long enough (25+ lines) to make it hard for you to predict its outcome. Make each line a consistent length or meter. Some regularity of form helps give the sense that the poem is taking the poet on the journey; it works against a too-rational and too-orderly plotting by setting up a crafty, quasi-deliberate momentum.

This journey-poem is useful for its challenge to your customary anxiety for closure, an anxiety that may prohibit the imagination. As you write your way into a world created as you go along, you have the privilege of using “useless” material: images that exist for their own quirky beauty, flotsam and jetsam from actual journeys, revived memories, “superstitious trash” from old legends and stories, dream images and other nonrational arcana.

Enact the journey on several levels so that what you see resonates with what you cannot explain.

Getting at Metaphor

This exercise comes in three parts:

1. Describe an object or scene that particularly interests you without making any comparisons of one thing to another. Rewrite it, if necessary, until it is as free of comparisons as possible.

2. Take the same object or scene and use it to describe one of your parents. In other words indulge yourself in comparisons.

3. Write a poem which, though it is a description of the object or scene, is really about your parent.

It may be useful to publish and share the first part before moving on. Get feedback from your peers to be certain your initial description does no lapse into comparison.

This exercise helps teach the necessity of indirection. The quickest way from point A to B (from a person to a clarified feeling, say) detours through metaphor. Not to mention through several drafts in the rewriting.

by Julio Noboa Polanco

Let them be as flowers,
always watered, fed, guarded, admired,
but harnessed to a pot of dirt.

I'd rather be a tall, ugly weed,
clinging on cliffs, like an eagle
wind-wavering above high, jagged rocks.

To have broken through the surface of stone,
to live, to feel exposed to the madness
of the vast, eternal sky.
To be swayed by the breezes of an ancient sea,
carrying my soul, my seed,
beyond the mountains of time or into the abyss of the bizarre.

I'd rather be unseen, and if
then shunned by everyone,
than to be a pleasant-smelling flower,
growing in clusters in the fertile valley,
where they're praised, handled, and plucked
by greedy, human hands.

I'd rather smell of musty, green stench
than of sweet, fragrant lilac.
If I could stand alone, strong and free,
I'd rather be a tall, ugly weed.

One’s Self, En-Masse

One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse. – Walt Whitman

With the above in mind, write a description of two or three paragraphs, no longer than 220 words, in which you describe one particular member or element of a set:

  • one sparrow in a flock of sparrows
  • one baby in a nursery of babies
  • one marble in a bag of marbles
  • one scream in a stadium of screams
  • one somersault in a series of somersaults
  • one baby goat in a stock trailer of baby goats

The challenge is to perceive the qualities of the group, and to distinguish what makes an individual a member of that group both a part of it and apart from it. Avoid the above examples; instead use sets (groups) that you can observe directly, or observe them from your imagination. Try for clarity and simplicity in your language.

At first, this is a prose exercise – write a couple of descriptive paragraphs. To make a poem, pull lines/phrases from the paragraphs and arrange as you’ve done in other exercises.

Five Easy Pieces

As in the movie this title refers to, we discover things visually in fragmentary form, and what we think we know or see and what someone else knows or sees and what we communicate between those two positions is scant. This exercise attempts to tell a whole story in a quick scene.

It is to be written in five sentences*, and can be done in a class.

There are two preparation steps.

The first step is to remember a person you know well, or to invent a person.

The second step is to imagine a place where you find the person.

Then you are ready for the five pieces.

  1. Describe the person’s hands.
  2. Describe something s/he is doing with the hands.
  3. Use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place.
  4. Mention what you would want to ask this person in the context of 2 and 3, above.
  5. The person looks up or toward you, notices you there, gives an answer that suggest s/he only gets part of what you asked.

* The more experienced could dedicate an entire stanza or section to each piece but a single sentence or line per piece is recommended for beginners.

by M. Andrew Patterson

His hands were smooth
Never having labored over a hot stove in July
The grease burning and searing the skin
The charcoal embedding under your nails.

His pencil twitched a rapid staccato
As his hand moved it smoothly over the page
A ballerina in graphite
Dancing through Elysian fields
A swan over stormy seas.

"What do you think?" I ask it. I dread it
A pause -- A dip
The dancing done.

"Tuesday would be a good time, you think?" 

Found Poem

Cut with a kitchen knife
Cut with a kitchen knife

Pull several short phrases from a text – especially evocative and vivid phrases from a story or novel (write them on scraps of paper).

Arrange/modify/edit/group the phrases into a “found poem.”

For a “Dadaist” flavour, pull the slips of paper from a bag randomly and use them in the order drawn.



Found Poem from The Truce by Charles G.D. Roberts.

Every now and then a woodsman pays with his life for failing to recognize
that the bear won't always play by rule.
The wilderness loves a master; and the challenge was not accepted.
From that moment he was a veritable demon of vengeance,
his hunger was all forgotten in red rage.

A light of elation came into his eyes,
And he felt himself able to win the contest against whatever odds.
Then, even as he spoke, a strange, terrifying sound ran all about him,
a straining grumble, ominous as the first growl of an earthquake.

He bit off a chew from his plug of "blackjack,"
and with calm eyes surveyed the doom toward which he was rushing.
Now that he and his enemy were involved in a common and appalling doom,
the enmity was forgotten.

He made ready to plunge in and at least die battling,
when fate took yet another whim.
He rose cautiously and crouched,
every sinew tense to renew the battle for life.

His late enemy, alive, strong, splendid, and speeding to a hideous destruction,
was of the keener interest to his wilderness spirit.
There might be the ghost of a chance for him,
but the man saw that there was no chance of his adversary's escape.

In his eagerness, and without any conscious thought of what he was doing,
the man stepped down into the water knee-deep.
For a moment he wondered if he could hold on,
but he soon saw that his caution was unnecessary.

Whoever might be the victor, what remained for him?
The situation was not satisfactory from any point of view.
After a long, sagacious survey of the flood,
he drew his knife and cut himself an alpenstock.

This was the moment for which the man was waiting.
The man picked his way across the slippery, chaotic surface.
He strode up the trail till the great woods closed about him
and the raving thunders gradually died into quiet.

Whoever might be the victor, what remained for him?

Auction: First Lines

In a post, write a line of poetry that seems to be an opening line. Discuss why your line is a first line rather than a line that might function equally well in a different context. Describe the poem you envision following your line in terms of ideas and form (stanzaic structure, meter, rhyme, length, tone, etc.). Then be prepared to give your line away.

Now in a comment below the post, other students “offer” suggestions – what sort of poem do they see burgeoning from that opening line, and why. These comments form the “bids.” Then the author of the line agrees to give it – no strings attached and forever – to the student whose suggestion, enthusiasm, or oddball approach most pleases him/her.

Each student produces a poem with a “purchased” opening line.

Oddball connection?

Ten-Minute Spill

Write a ten line poem. The poem must include a proverb, adage, or cliché that you have changed in some way as well as five of the following words:

  • cliff
  • needle
  • voice
  • whir
  • strawberry
  • cloud
  • mother
  • lick

You have ten minutes.



Try this list as a “spill”:

  • northern
  • put
  • upper
  • fast
  • inquiry
  • plastic
  • limited
  • grace

or this:

  • estate
  • measure
  • underneath
  • resemblance
  • mortality
  • theatre
  • herd
  • resurrection

If you don’t freeze immediately in terror – and the ridiculously short time allotment usually allays panic, since you know it is impossible to write a poem in ten minutes, right? – what tends to come out are scary and wild chunks of psychic landscape.

Translations: Idea to Image

“Shut your eyes and I’ll say a word. Open your eyes and write down what you saw.”

If I say “justice,” you may see a judge in a courtroom. This is the mind’s “translation” of an idea, an abstract concept to a mental picture, an image. The mind does this naturally.

For example:

  • Love: hearts, a loved one’s face
  • Death: coffin, grave, tombstone
  • Self: mirror, photo, guitar case
  • Soul: votive candle, Black-Eyed Peas, apple core

Be honest about what you see. Don’t worry if you see a Brussels sprout when I say “self” — your mind is telling you something. It is making a connection, which may not be readily apparent to you.

There is no such thing as a non sequitor the mind always has logic; it might not be obvious logic, but the mind has its reasons for connecting two seemingly unlike notions.

Let’s track the process a little bit. If I say “self” and you see a Brussels sprout, continue to interrogate that image and write down the next image it inspires, and the next. You may find that you are “tracking: the ignition of a poem — let’s say you see a hand picking up the Brussels sprout, or a toy next to it. You recognize the hand as yours, your hand as a child, you begin to enlarge the frame, you see it’s you as a baby eating Brussels sprouts for the first time, conscious of being a separate (perhaps suffering!) being. That’s OK, too, but keep the record, write down these signals from the unconscious.

Writing is an intuitive process; we must trust our intuition.

Here is a list of “abstractions” in four groups to enable a solo poet to play a kind of translation “solitaire.”

  1. Rage, Order, Justice, Common
  2. Solitude, Ecstasy, Evil, Gratitude
  3. Mercy, Pain, Hunger, God
  4. Peace, War, History, Angel

The idea is investigation: follow the thread back to the literal referent.

Give yourself five minutes. Pick a word, at first glance, from each group, then write down all the non sequitor images you get for each one.

See where this takes you. See what connections occur among the groups.

Look at what you’ve written and circle words that seem most vivid or evocative, that seem to reverberate with intention.

Take another five minutes. Try these words in lines.

Experiment; allow your intuition to lead you. Don’t frighten yourself: trust what comes up.

If you want to try a kind of solitaire, put each word on a card and deal your own groups. You could use all the listed words in a kind of nonassociative narrative – place one list over another, try to connect these dissimilar progressions.



Only Connect

Select any three entries from your blog and discover in verse the connection among them.

The three entires on which you base the poem should be well removed from one another, so that there is no bossy idea, package, or summary.

Many academic (mis)instructors ask, What is the poet trying to say? As if s/he had some awful throat disease. The poet who successfully completes this exercise may answer that what s/he is saying is what has been said (of course it ought to make some sense).

The capital-M meaning of the poem, that is, consists exactly in the language, imagination, and logic that found the connections. Ideas inevitably emerge from poetry, they must not determine it.

Try cutting and pasting a list of phrases and putting them next to each other causes ideas to emerge:

I should add that I enjoy poems with an emphasis on the abstract or philosophic, but the intellectual control of a poem is something to apply after the materials have been allowed to float to the surface.

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