Even an experienced and prolific poet can sometimes feel stale and blocked. And for the beginning poet, inspiration can be too elusive to be dependable. All poets, at times, need a jump-start for their work, and two of the most useful techniques for this are the “cut up” and “found” poems. These poetic strategies are fun and have a game-like quality, but they’re not superficial. Poets have long used these techniques to freshen their vision.
Address them with an open attitude, and they’re sure to work for you.
FROM PROSE TO POETRY
Take a page of prose that interests you. It can be anythingfrom the dense, imagistic writing of Gabriel Garciéa Maérquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude to a passage from a Virginia Woolf novel to a manual on a home renovation technique. Now, break it into poetry. Take out anything that doesn’t interest you. Prune out small words such as “the” and “a,” and look for surprises, metaphors and unexpected combinations. The result may be a complete poem (be sure to credit the original) or simply an exercise to stretch your imagination. Adding your own lines of response can make it into an entirely different poem. For example, the poet D.W. Snodgrass used a marine manual on self-defense, with some shockingly violent images, to intercut with an examination of a relationship based on the words of Martin Buber, in his poem “After Experience Taught Me”:
Take the first two fingers of this hand;
Fork them outkind of a “V for Victory”
Whether there might be something whose discovery
Would grant me supreme, unending happiness.
And jam them into the eyes of your enemy.
You have to do this hard. Very hard. Then press
No virtue can be thought to have priority
Over this endeavor to preserves one’s being.
The French surrealists, who were active in the early 20th century, practiced techniques that forced their imaginationsand poemsto leap. Dadaist poets would sometimes cut up pages of the dictionary, scatter the words on the floor and regroup them as a new poem (kind of like using the magnetic poetry you find in stores). Try this yourself. For an interesting variation on this, take a poem you’re working onmaybe one that’s giving you some troubleand take your scissors to it. Lay the words out on your desk. Can you assemble a different poem? You may be surprisingly pleased with the results.
FOUND IN THE TABLOIDS
Most of us like to scan the tabloids at the supermarket check-out line, but few of us will admit to buying them. Here’s a great excuse. Buy a few and look at the most outlandish stories for poetic inspiration. Are 4,000 pairs of shoes found annually in the New York City subway system? Do you have an explanation? Write a poem about it. When my daughter was little, I used to enjoy taking her grocery shopping because she could ride in the cart. I glanced at a tabloid and was intrigued by the headline “Baby Found Inside Watermelon.” The story claimed that a large watermelon on a kibbutz in Israel had been sliced open, only to reveal an infant inside. Babies and produce were on my mind that day. I wrote a poem that took its title from the headline:
Tabloid headline on the check-out line
My basket full of cantaloupe
The night you were conceived, little one,
I, your mother, dreamed of a slit peach
With a tiny dark-haired baby inside
Like the old couple in the Japanese fairy tale
Who looked for peach boy, peach girl.
Without the tabloid, I probably never would have remembered the dream and wanted to share its importance. The poem then goes on to discuss the tabloid story and ends:
Promise me, little milk and honey girl
That you’ll sprout
Quick as the wild gourd
Mystery inside of fruit.
A FRACTURED PROVERB
The poet Rita Dove likes to encourage students to put an altered proverb in a poem. Take a timeworn clicheé and jazz it up with a new twistmaybe people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw themselves around, or a bird in the hand is worth…you fill it in. See how many of these you can work into a poem. And the next time you find yourself automatically reaching for a tired phrase for a poem, revise it as soon as you notice. Maybe your blood didn’t run coldinstead it ran as bubbly as cola. This gives you a handy way to revise clicheés and make them your own.
Even poems in another language can be a source of inspiration. Pick a language you don’t know. Look at Pablo Neruda in Spanish, Basho in Japanese, Anna Akhmatova in Russian. Most good books of poetry translations contain the original language. Now, “translate” from the original. Follow each line, punctuation, etc. If it’s a language in an alphabet you can read, you can also associate from sound. This exercise may seem a bit silly at first and requires a leap of faith, but it’ll help inspire you.
For example, I took one of Akhmatova’s poems and applied this exercise. The result had nothing to do with the original, but I was pleased with it as an independent poem. One thing I did do was follow the punctuation; as a result, the last two lines read:
What is this exclamation point! And in the middle of a line
It tells me I am right to doubt that you love me.
If you’re an overly rational poet, always trying to create poems that make sense in a linear fashion, these departures may be a rich source for you. All of these techniques jog the imagination by mixing things up and then forcing you to connect the dots. Play with them and you may even come up with some of your own ideas to kick-start your creativity.