Kenneth Koch’s Rose Where Did You Get That Red is classic book of poetry invention exercises geared to fourth graders. He uses the structure and premise of existing poems as a template or recipe for a new poem. For example, the recipe you might extract from William Blake’s “Tyger” is: ask a magical creature how it was made and what makes it tick, and make each question describe an awe-inspiring aspect of the creature using metaphor. This recipe technique is a common writing prompt for adults, also.
Inspired by Koch and the “Where I’m From” poetry template broadly available online, I developed a template based on Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” which has resulted in some excellent student work in my college introduction to creative writing classes.
If you haven’t already, outlining some basic components of poetry reliably steers students in the right direction, especially those afraid of poetry.
Rough Poetry Rules
- Uses images and more than one of the five senses to show rather than tell
- Balances concrete and abstract word choices
- Uses the space on page for evocation (line breaks to emphasize last and first words, white space and stanza breaks, etc)
- Comes from the unconscious and speaks to the unconscious
- Reverberates with more than one layer of meaning the more you read it
- Uses language concisely (is compressed)
- Involves leaps of association (from light to dark, inside to outside, etc)
- Progresses (as in change of mood, plot, character-development, or perspective)
Good class discussions also occur when I ask students to extract their own recipes from published poems.
The Writing Prompt
Preparation: Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” takes place in front of the black, reflective surface of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. Read the poem two or three times, each time asking students what images they remember ( as per Sheridan Blau’s literature workshop). Note how Komunyakaa uses reflective surfaces to shift from outside to inside the reflection, from flesh to image, from surface to depth, from past to present, and from illusion to reality.
Directions for students:
Compose a poem following these steps. Break the rules wherever inspired. The numbered directions loosely correspond to the lines of the poem. When confused, notice how Komunyakaa’s poem does it and substitute your own images/ideas.
- Stand in front of a reflective surface (window, black computer/TV screen, polished stone, where you can see both a reflection of yourself, and images behind you
- Describe what you see in the reflection: My __________________________ (body part) ________(does something).
- Describe the image floating over, next to, or behind you.
- Describe an emotion you are feeling and trying not to feel – or pick a life problem that just won’t go away: I am _______________(name a plant/mineral as a metaphor for how this problem makes you feel). I am________________(name some part of your body).
- Provide an animal metaphor for what your reflection looks like and tell us what it is doing in reaction to you.
- Move in some way and describe where your reflection goes.
- Name something you can see/feel, hear/smell/taste about the weather or the setting you’re in.
- Describe what you see on the other side of the window or through your reflection.
- Describe how your reflection interacts with what is beyond the window or beyond the reflection.
- Say something about your emotional state in relation to this life problem.
- Describe what you expect to see through the window/reflection.
- Describe a memory that relates to this problem that won’t go away.
- Now go back to something you see in the reflection, through the window, or on the surface of the window, superimposed over your own image.
- Create some illusion with what you see in the reflection
- Take away the illusion and show us what is really there that in some way shows a leap, shift or progression.
Revise and edit as needed to make a coherent poem that follows the rough rules above.