November 11, 2012

Prompts? Or …

I'm not sure when it started, this fascination with what are now being called "prompts" for writing poems, particularly for these exercises in writing a poem each day in certain months of the year (which is another subject). Most poetry workshops I've been in, including one's I've led myself, have used some topic or subject or prod to get folks to focus on writing, to get away from the search for the grand theme. Sometimes it's the artwork in a gallery or museum, or a list of words, or a stack of postcards or photographs. It works, & we usually surprise ourselves with what we come up with. Visual artists do it all the time -- you take a painting class & there is a nude model, or a still life set up for you, or you're on a hillside somewhere & told to paint what & how you see it. But then, wise painters mostly leave those exercises stacked against a wall, while we poets in this Age of the Blog, feel compelled to post our efforts online, still wet & screaming. But then again, the reality is that most people don't read those Blogs anyway.

Full disclosure, I've written daily during the poem-a-day months of November (& April), even published a chapbook in 2011 of a selection of the poems written during November 2010 (Poeming the Prompt). But few of the other poems written then have seen the light of day, & even fewer have been revealed in what could only be characterized as strange light. I recognize the usefulness of such exercises, for some people more than others, like the way I keep a poetry workbook & a pocket notebook, & always, of course, a pen. 

Then again, there are some poets locally & online whose work I admire & read regularly who use the prompts to write good poems on themes & topics they deal with all the time.  The prompts just point them in directions they may not have taken, or revive images & ideas lurking beneath the surface (or tucked away in notebooks).  So I guess what makes me uncomfortable about prompts are when I read those poems that never would have been written (& never should have to have been read) had it not been for some twit with a big idea & a website, & marketed for someone sitting around a split-level in East-by-Jesus wondering, "what am I ever going to write about?"

These thoughts were prompted (there's that word again) by reading a list of poetry prompts on a wonderful new Blog devoted to a planned print journal, Up the River, & written by my friend Jill Crammond.  One of her suggestions was to "Write a poem inspired by a headline." Now I've written many poems, mostly political, but some humorous or philosophical or outrageous (i.e., "The Lady Bishop"), in response to reading a news story (or TV news, e.g. "Baghdad/Albany"), but I would not have ever characterized the sources of these poems as "prompts." It was just that -- a news story, a source, an inspiration, I was reacting to something out there in the world that had moved me & then wrote about it. Why is it necessary to tell someone that headlines (i.e., the world around you) is a good source of inspiration for poems?  You either get it or you don't; I mean, the kind of people you have to tell that to probably wouldn't write poems anyway.  When I write a poem about something I read in the morning paper, it is not a trick to wake up the Muse, it is a kick-in-the-ass to me the poet from the Real World. Does one need a prompt when your lover walks out the door? When a child dies?  When a storm hits (think of the boatload of Katrina poems, the stack of World Trade Center poems)?

I agree that artists shouldn't just sit around waiting for that random kick-in-the-ass, but perhaps instead what we poets must do is to train our eyes to see these so-called "prompts" in the everyday world, to become aware of the wealth of inspiration around us daily, to learn to see with what someone has called "haiku eyes." If we do that then when the frog jumps we know that it means a lot more than just a splash in a pond. We take out our notebooks, our pens & write.

No comments: