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).
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
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:
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
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
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
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.