24 IDEAS FOR DOWNRIGHT BAD-ASS POEMS
Here are some basic (but not necessarily easy) exercises to get the ball rolling. In many cases, these exercises prohibit you from using certain words in certain poems. This is not to say that a love poem can’t contain the word “love,” for example; this is just an exercise designed to force you to work harder on your descriptions and pack more punch into your lines.
1) Write a love poem in which the following words do NOT appear: love, heart, soul, moon, eyes, clouds, rain, blessing, dream.
2) Write an ode to a body part or a physical activity not normally praised or discussed. For inspiration, listen to “Ode to the Tampon” and “Ode to a Composting Toilet” by Sharon Olds, “Ode to My Socks” by Pablo Neruda.
3) Eavesdrop on someone’s conversation and/or jot down the actual phrasing of a piece of conversation that struck you as bizarre, wise, stupid, or funny. Write a poem in which that exact phrase appears. Put italics around it if you’re writing a narrative poem that contains a quote or conversation.
4) Pretend you have deeply wronged someone you love (or draw on actual experiences of such an event). Be as specific and detailed as possible, and try to make it clear to the reader that you’re contrite, WITHOUT using the following words: forgive, forgiveness, mercy, please, plead, beg, mistake, sorry.
5) Write a poem narrating your day. The events described can be dramatic or mundane, serious or comical; but include as many images and sensory details as possible. Be specific. Avoid heavy-handed philosophical musings and no “moral of the story!”
6) Write a poem in which all the action revolves around one central image or metaphor. Examples: “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins.
7) Write a poem in the voice of someone who is dying, or about someone who is dying, without ever actually telling the reader that the poem is about death.
8) Write an erotic poem that isn’t sexual. In other words, write a poem that contains vivid physical descriptions and details about some kind of physical activity WITHOUT deliberately or accidentally using sexual connotations.
9) Write a poem about a physical event that is in no way sexual, but use words that have a sexual connotation, in order to give the poem extra energy and sensuality. Push the envelope; make sure it’s obvious to your reader that you meant to do this and didn’t just mess up.
10) Write a poem either about or from the perspective of a villain. Try to make them sympathetic to the audience WITHOUT making it too obvious what his/her crime was.
11) Write a poem in which you greatly vary your sentence length. For instance, maybe some sentences are just one line (i.e. they incorporate end stops) whereas other sentences are enjambed and continue for several lines. Don’t just do this randomly; try to create some kind of dramatic or narrative effect. Remember, longer sentences with lots of enjambment tend to sound a bit more narrative, reflective, descriptive, pastoral, relaxing, etc. Short sentences, on the other hand, tend to build tension by sounding more frantic clipped (for the same reason that “obscene: words are often one or two syllables, and we yell “Fire!” instead of “My friends, note the combustion event taking place all around us!”).
12) Write a Prose-Poem. In other words, write a poem that looks like a short paragraph, in which you don’t care about line breaks, but in which you still try to make the language of each and every sentence as poetic and descriptive as possible.
13) Write about something that literally or figuratively scares you. Note: if you don’t feel uncomfortable while you’re writing it and/or you don’t feel uncomfortable showing it to others, then you haven’t done the exercise properly.
14) Write a poem that seems to be poking fun at a serious topic, but has some serious lines throughout, then ends on a serious note. Example: “Suicide Song” by Tony Hoagland.
15) Write a poem that uses form in an unconventional manner. Examples: “Read This Poem from the Bottom Up” by Ruth Porritt, “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” and “Buffalo Bill’s” by e.e. cummings.
16) Write a poem making frequent use of anaphora—that is, a poem that exactly or more or less exactly repeats a given phrase or structure. Examples: “The Matter” by Kim Addonizio, “Library” by Albert Goldbarth.
17) Choose a topic you know very little about, do a small amount of research (thank you, Wikipedia!) and write a poem about it. Examples: “Petroglyphs” by George Bilgere, “First Motor Vehicle Fatality in America” by Ron Egatz, “The Five Stages of Grief” by Linda Pastan, “In Praise of the Potato” by David Williams.
18) Write a poem in which the drama or message hinges almost entirely on the last one or two lines. Examples: “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright, “The Surgeon” by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, “The Cobweb” and “Rain” by Raymond Carver.
19) Take the first one or two lines of a poem by an established poet, use them as the first two lines of your own poem, and write the rest of the poem. When you’re done, go back and change (or even cut) those borrowed lines. For more on this, listen to “Litany” by Billy Collins.
20) Write a poem that risks offending a sensitive audience, but do NOT do so purely for shock value. In other words, have some sort of reason or point (other than just following the assignment) for what you’re doing. Examples: "Practicing" by Marie Howe, “By Their Works” by Bob Hicok, “Fixation” by Ron Padgett, “A Day in the Life” by Marge Piercy, “Suicide Song” (again) by Tony Hoagland.
21) Write a poem openly praising or condoning something that isn’t necessarily illegal, but also isn’t actually something you personally believe in.
22) Write a poem structured like a letter to your parents or some other important person in your life. Say whatever it is you’ve been dying to say. Be specific so an outside reader could tell what you’re getting at. More importantly, though, be as blunt as you like. Remember, the subject of your poem doesn’t ever have to see it if you don’t want them to.
23) In the first half of a poem, directly address a poet or writer that invokes a strong personal feeling (aka someone you like or someone you hate). In the second half of the poem, adapt that poet/writer’s voice and respond.
24) Write about a place you have never visited, something you always wanted to do but never did, or something that you wish had happened but didn’t actually happen. Start off by vividly describing this place or event, so the reader will think you know it firsthand. Do a small amount of research if necessary. Then, in the second half of the poem, pull the rug out from under us. Make it clear that you never actually saw this place and/or this thing never actually happened, but you wish you had. Option: add a third stanza rectifying the first two. Example: “Like Riding a Bicycle” by George Bilgere.