Sample Exercises

The three exercises which follow appeared first in The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, ed. Robin Behn and Chase Twichell (1992).

1Breaking the Sentence; or No Sentences But in Things

 Write a poem that is simply a list of things.

I often assign this exercise to poets whose minds seem, at the time, overdetermined by the sentence and all its rules and proprieties. Overborne by language, you might say. When someone writes something like, "When I stepped out onto the back porch," it is sometimes difficult for that person to get away from what the language is demanding. She might well finish the sentence with a clause like "the moon hung like spittle in the prophet's beard" or something more imaginative (hopefully), but the writing will often seem as if it were made by the sentence rather than by the freed imagination. It makes a kind of writing all teachers are familiar with, more thought than feeling, more concept than image, more of whatever it is that language has been constructed to produce—clarity, coherence, and the like—than that thing which poets hope to isolate through or with the aid of language. We all have a sense of the necessity and beauty of language in writing poetry, but we only come slowly to the realization that language is also an obstacle, almost the enemy.

In the whole process of dismantling the relationship to language all of us are given—language as tool, for the most part—and learning a more plastic sense of it, this exercise can be helpful. It also has the virtue of urging writers to look outside their minds to or toward the objective world.  What happens in this exercise is that you find you only have images to manipulate. This helps everyone, of course, especially the verbose or verbally facile, begin to see the possibility of "speaking" in images rather than in sentences and concepts. And, too, with the elimination of the traditional structures provided by the sentence, i.e., narrative or exposition, you're freer to arrange things in your own order, and that can be a useful introduction to notions of structure in a poem, indeed to the idea of structuring.

So, while we wouldn't want a great many poems that were simply lists, I think the exercise can help with a number of the basic lessons all writers need to learn: that language is a more plastic medium than we are taught, that the objective world is our best (perhaps only) source of images, and that poems are made things.

See Robert Bly's News of the Universe. The section on the "object poem" is a useful extension of some of these ideas.

Further reading suggested by Christopher Buckley. These poems use lists in a wide variety of ways:

bulletGary Soto: "Ode to the Yard Sal," "The Soup," "Song For the Pockets"
bulletJames Wright: "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"
bulletJames Tate: "The Blue Booby"
bulletElizabeth Bishop: "The Fish"
bulletDiane Wakowski: "Snowy Winter in East Lansing," "Overweight Poem"
bulletCharles Simic: "Forest Birds"
bulletGary Snyder: "Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier Than Students of Zen," "Above Pate Valley"
bulletPhilip Levine: "Grandmother in Heaven," "Salami," "The Cemetery at Academy, California"
bulletLynne McMahon: "Earth"
bulletAllen Ginsberg: "Howl"
bulletPeter Everwine: "Back From the Fields," "Learning to Speak"


2.  Getting at Metaphor

This exercise comes in three parts.

A. 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.

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

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

I've found it best to do this exercise one part at a time. In fact, I've sometimes split part A in two, first asking the class to describe without comparisons and then having them read their writing aloud, pointing out along the way where they succeed and where they lapse into comparison. It's useful for them to see how automatic and essential the making of comparisons is and how difficult it is to write or think without it. Metaphor is not just a game people play to make their statements striking, and of course, it is not just poets' property; it is a basic tool of comprehension. The exercise helps teach the necessity of indirection. The quickest way from point A to point B (from a person to his clarified feeling, say) detours through metaphor. Not to mention through several drafts in the rewriting.

Sometimes I change the menu slightly. I bring a pinecone or some other complex natural object to class and have students describe it, or I ask them to use it in part B to get at something they are afraid to talk about.

Anthologies abound with poems that describe one thing in terms of another. Donne's "I am a little world made cunningly" is a good example. Shakespeare has an interesting time in "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," freeing his praise for his mistress of "false compare." Though the poem begins with simile, the principle is the same.

And, I must give a nod to Robert Bly, who, visiting my class several years ago, put us all, himself included, through an exercise that gave me a number of ideas for this one.

3. Tell by Showing: An Exercise Against Technique

The following is a list of quotations from various pre-Socratic philosophers. Write a poem using one of them as an epigraph.

A. Actions always planned are never completed.  —Democritus
B. Old men were once young, but it is uncertain if young men will reach old age.  —Democritus

C. The path up and down is one and the same.  —Heraclitus

D. Nature likes to hide itself.Heraclitus
E. The world is change; life is opinion.

F. Heraclitus said that a man's character is his fate.

G. [Parmenides] speaks of perceiving and thinking as the same thing.

H. All things were together. Then mind came and arranged them.

I. Worlds are altered rather than destroyed.

J. Dark and light, bad and good, are not different but one and the same.

(For further pre-Socratic quotations, see Jonathan Barne's Early Greek Philosophy.)

I like this exercise for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it gives writers complex issues to write about right away, issues that seem that much more complex for having been framed in the remote past from documents that are often fragments. Heraclitus is famous for his remark that you can't step in the same river twice, but Heraclitus's words have apparently been lost. They survive only in Plutarch's writings. That, in itself, is a lesson.

The exercise also focuses on thinking, and it reminds us that poetry and philosophy are close cousins. In doing all of these things, it challenges one of the basic teachings of the twentieth century, codified in the famous maxim, "show, don't tell." I had been dutifully telling my students that for decades, until one day a few years ago I realized I was robbing them of one of the basic pleasures of writing.

When it's been repeated to you a few dozen times, "show, don't tell" sounds like "don't ever tell" or "telling is bad." The truth is, we all want to tell. It is natural to want to tell. Why else write except to tell? Have we ever read anything of value that didn't tell us, that didn't want to tell us, that didn't have telling as its primary purpose?

How did we paint ourselves into this corner? The maxim, "show, don't tell" comes to us from the late nineteenth century. Henry James's chief advice to writers was to use the "dramatic method." It was devised in reaction to the cumbersomely didactic literature of that century. It informed the thinking of the "art for art's sake" movement. We hear it announced by Pound in the early twentieth century: "Go in fear of abstractions."

To be sure, it was a necessary antidote then. Now, however, we live in a time when, having been told it so often and so automatically, we are apt to think that thinking, propounding, generalizing, telling, and the like are crimes against art. In other words, we are still legatees of the Esthetic Movement a hundred years or so after its demise, poets whose work is apt to be sensuous rather than visionary, better at showing than telling, embarrassed by, if not nearly incapable of, thinking.

I don't think James, Pound, or even Walter Pater would object to reframing their advice. "Tell by showing" is probably what they mean anyway. It is still an exhortation to "show."
In giving this exercise, I hope to encourage you to speak on issues that matter to you, to come right out and tell if you have to. You can go back and find images for your urgencies and vision later. "Show, don't tell" is excellent advice for someone who already has the impulse to tell and who knows the value and necessity of it. But many young writers today don't have that impulse, or have it but think it needs to be weeded out of their minds.