Alternate Poetry Prompts

On this page, I have added  poetry prompts that you can use to for writing exercises in your writing notebook.    I have stolen some of these prompts from various books on writing poetry.   If you have some favorite prompts, send them to me in an email and I will add them to our list for all students to enjoy.

Set 1

  1. Write a poem about your relationship with writing or with words.  One way would be to focus on a metaphor about words or writing–an act or an object (say, knives and cutting).  Search for the emotional quality of the act or object.
  2. Think of a myth that applies to your life–it can be Christian myth, Greek, American Indian, it doesn’t matter.  Use the elements of that myth, such as the characters, conflicts, settings, images and things, to explore an identity or way of thinking about yourself.
  3. Think of a color that evokes a great deal of meaning and emotion for you.  What comes out of that emotion?  One way to begin is to do a little brainstorming and list objects and places and ideas that somehow come to mind when thinking (and feeling) about that color.
  4. Describe your own brief still life scene.  Like a student in an art class, arrange on the table several objects.  Then, again like the art student, “draw” the scene.  The emotion and meaning of the poem will come from how you make the lines (words and connotations) relate and connect.
  5. Thumb through a book on the history of art, looking at the reproductions of drawings, paintings, or sculpture.  Pick the work of art that you think is the ugliest, the most repulsive.  Write a poem in the voice of the emotion or of the subject of the work.  For instance, if you hate Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe, write a poem in the voice of Marilyn as she is in that print.  Or find an object in the painting–the dead chicken in Rembrandt’s Night Watch, for instance, and write from that point of view.  You can, but you don’t have to refer to the work of art.
  6. Write a poem on any other idea that strikes your fancy.


Set 2

  1. Write a poem that is built on contrasting you with another person.  Your father, mother, sibling, cousin, friend.
  2. Write a poem that is built on contrasting any two ideas or things.
  3. Choose a powerful, emotional moment in your life:  having a child, first time you had sex, first failure, first success.  Write about it objectively, coolly.  Try to avoid “I.”
  4. Think of a family member and think of an activity you did with that person and write one time you did that activity.  “Fishing with Dad.”  “Watching My Brother Ski,”  “Mother Making Bread.”  “Grandpa Chopping Wood.”  “Monopoly at Jason’s House.”  “Barbie Dolls.”  Search the activity for connotations, for life lesson.  For instance, Barbie dolls can be about the how a girl learns what being a girl is like.  Baking bread can be about touch and the strength of you mother’s love and patience.
  5. Or write about what you have been thinking and seeing this week.

Set 3

  1. Look on your desk or place you keep several objects.  Choose three or four of those objects.    Write a stanza about each of those objects, looking for the meaning and significance inside each of them.  Then discover the connection of those objects, where do they take you emotionally?  Express that.
  2. Choose a incident in weather–sunshine, rain, fog, etc–describe it.  It is best to describe a particular day you can remember.  In other words, don’t describe sunshine, but describe the sunshine you remember seeing on the beach one day.  What does this weather tells us about life and living life and emotions?  Include that realization in the poem.
  3. Take a line from a poem that you like by someone else.  Change it up a little bit and write what follows it.   For instance, I could take the like “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow.”  This is a famous stanza by William Carlos Williams.  I thought of it then transformed it into “I never wait on red lights.”  Don’t ask me how that happened.  It just did.  You can have that line.  But you see how it is done.  “Quoth the Raven nevermore” can become “The canary sings of love.”
  4. Remember the conversations you have had with three or four friends.  Summarize the conversation in a sentence or a stanza.  You can leave yourself out of the sentences.  “A young wife bakes bread for Thanksgiving while her husband falls asleep before the big game.”  Built up several of these instances until you discover the thread that connect them.  Give a title that hints at the connection, but do not explain the connection.
  5. Or write about what you have been thinking or seeing this week.


Set 4

  1. Think about a time when you or someone you knew had the chance to break an old habit.  Who were you at that moment. what was happening?  Maybe turn yourself into a prototype.  Where you a young woman and a guy stood you up and you had the opportunity to decide that you will put up with it or you won’t  You could write, “I waited for the phone to ring.”  or you could write, “A girl in a blue strangles a magazine.  /The clock speaking like her mother /tells her to smooth the wrinkles from her dress.”
  2. Write a poem that explores the meaning of childhood games:  tag, freeze tag, hide and go seek, dodge ball, Marco Polo, water balloon fights.
  3. Describe the place you go when you want to feel safe.  As always, don’t be obvious:  don’t say “When I am scared I go to Umlaugh Sculpture Garden.”    Write instead, “The stillness could be chains/ stone hands plunge into the gut.”
  4. Write a letter to yourself at a different time in your life.  For instance, write a letter to you when you were a child.  Or imagine yourself in the future writing to you as you are now.”  Don’t use “I” but address yourself as you.  “Do you remember the time you were afraid of the coyotes beneath your bed?”  Try not to be obvious, but give hints of how to survive and move on.  Remember to use imagery.  Don’t say:  “Things will be better when you get your driver’s license.”  Try maybe “Your hands will know how to steer.”
  5. This assignment is listed in the Week Four Notes and Comments : Write a series of “Variations.” This is what many composers have done. They take a short piece of music—”Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a famous one—and play it in different tempos in different keys. For your variations, paint a scene in words: the view of a lake, your backyard, your kitchen, a scene in a painting. Remember—concrete nouns and action verbs. Write only about five or so lines. Then begin changing the nouns and the verbs and adjectives, just like I did with the boat and ship, and barge. Changes things wildly and with abandon. Do this several times, four or five times. The pine becomes an oak and becomes a mast and becomes a cross and becomes flag pole. Change everything and see what happens because of the changes in the sounds and sights of the poem.
  6. Or write about what you have been thinking or seeing this week.


Set 5

  1. Write a poem based on a nightmare.
  2. Write a poem about a childhood game or toy.
  3. Write a poem about a parent.  Make it a short poem that focuses only on one memory.  Or make is longer poem, maybe one that uses section breaks, that recalls several related or slightly related memory.
  4. Remember a room in the house that you grew up in.  Write about a memory there or a series of memories.

Set 6

  1. Write a poem that concerns childhood innocence.
  2. Write a poem that uses the activities of grade school.
  3. Write a poem using the voice of a child of or in poverty.
  4. Write a poem about reading the work of another poet.  I am thinking of Robin Britton’s poem about Robert Bly.  But could you also look back at John Keat’s “On Looking at Chapman’s Homer.”  I bet it is on the web somewhere.
  5. Write a poem about baseball, watching baseball, playing baseball.  Or, of course, any sport or activity.

Set 7

  1. Write a poem in three or more sections.  You can base the sections on  different memories of the same person or same kind of object (clothing, toy, jewelry, songs), or places.  Don’t worry, there will be an inherent unity because of the connection.  You might discover a sense of progress or change or you might discover a sense of stasis and tradition.
  2. Pick a favorite childhood or current adult food.  Write a poem about the eating of it, the things it makes you think of, the memories.
  3. Write a poem that compares you or someone else to a single object. ” Nancy is a purse.”  Then continue for a few lines that borrows the language from that object and applies them to the person.  “She closes up around her memories, zipped tight.”
  4. Write a poem to or about a body part.  “My hands.”  Or “Why I love my fat belly.”  Lucille Clifton has a wonderful poem about her hips.

 Set 8

  1. Write a poem about a family vacation or vacation spot.  Maybe focus on one incident that occurred on a vacation.  Maybe a memory of a home movie or a photograph will help you remember.
  2. Write a poem about what you want in a family.  Write a poem that spells out your dreams for your future.  You can take any tone you wish–funny, sad, desperate.  Maybe it is a prayer.
  3. Is there an idea that you have that could break up into poems titled “Part 1 and “Part 2”  The poems by Carlyn Luke Reding might provide ideas for such a poem or series of poems.
  4. Take a trip to a junk shop, or museum, or any place, and choose an object there and imagine what that object knows.  what could it say about all the things that it has seen?  Be the voice of the object.  Write the poem as yourself or as the object.  Try both ways.
  5. Choose a historical event that means something to you.  One that you have thought about many times.  A war, an election, a disaster and write a meditation about it, about thinking about it.  Columbine?  The crucifiction?  The Shuttle?  The Florida election controversy?  A civil war battle?  The Alamo?  The death of Kurt Cobain?


Set 9

  1. Drive down a street that you travel on a good deal.  Really notice the people, signs, buildings, vehicles, road, sidewalk.  What are you feeling as you see all this?  What do you need to tell others about its meaning to you.
  2. Drive down a street that you never travel on.  Really notice the people, signs, buildings, vehicles, road, sidewalk.  What are you feeling as you see all this?  What do you need to tell others about its meaning to you.
  3. Write about anything you want to.
  4. Write any of the assignments you have not completed.
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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.