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  • Christine Delea

No Surprise for the Writer . . . : Poetry Prompt

Updated: Feb 19

I love looking through prompt books and web pages. I love taking generative poetry classes and workshops, and a silver lining to this horrible pandemic has been having so many poetry opportunities moving online. I have attended poetry events in Oklahoma, California, Maryland, Washington, New York, Minnesota, and elsewhere, all from my home office in Oregon.


As a professor, a workshop leader, and a member of poem-generating groups, I have had to come up with prompts fairly regularly for years. I have learned a lot, sometimes from the mistakes I have made in creating a prompt.


Most prompts--mine and those by others--work for most people but not everyone. Once in a while, one prompt sparks incredible poems by everyone. And sometimes, a prompt is just not good.


One book I recently perused had writing prompts such as, and I am paraphrasing, "Write about death. Use the words funeral, sad, empty, and darkness in your piece."


This is an example of a not-so-great prompt. First, death is one of those BIG topics that really needs to be made detailed, tangible, and concrete to become good writing. Second, every writer writes about death at some point, in some way, so this prompt is telling us to do what we will do and have done already. Third, the 4 words the writer is supposed to use in their piece are words that would most likely be in a poem about death. Lastly, those four words offer no challenge to the writer--a poem about death with those four words could very well be vague, impersonal, cliché, and dull.


Robert Frost said (and poets have been repeating it ever since): "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." (You can read many more quotations about writing and other related topics here on this website! Check out my Quotations pages!) There should be some surprise in a poem. This is not to suggest a twist ending, or a tangent that makes no sense, or anything as blatant. But there should be something in the poem that the reader is not expecting when they read the title and/or the first few lines. Prompts can be one of the best tools for supplying the writer with a base for surprising themselves, and that will surprise the reader.


This week's prompt gives you a choice. I am taking a few of the topics from this book with their word lists, but I am mixing them up. Your choices:


1.) Write about a Child's Birthday Party

Use the words funeral, sad, empty, darkness


2.) Write about Death

Use the words skill, judgement, test, segregate


3.) Write about Education

Use the words mystery, foreign, lonely, energy


4.) Write about Patterns

Use the words enemy, exploit, weapon, milestone


5.) Write about a Household/Yard Chore

Use the words clown, guests, candy, pony


6.) Write about a Craving

Use the words machine, clog, pollution, tool


7.) Write about Horses

Use the words migration, weave, repeat, baldness


8.) Write about a Specific Food

Use the words library, collection, archive, exhibit


9.) Write about Reading

Use the words bride, shield, transparent, shadow


10.) Write about Valentine's Day

Use the words tax, obligation, oath, trade


Of course, feel free to mix these up even more! Have fun and write some drafts this week! Surprise yourself!



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