Monday, April 18, 2011

Writing Prompt #4: A Set Lexicon

One main way in which poetry differs from prose is the importance of every last word, phrase and even punctuation mark.  We want our language to be as vivid and imaginative as possible, and at the same time to have a pleasing sonic interplay with the words surrounding it, however this isn't always easy to achieve on the first pass.  Likewise, throughout the first round of our workshop we've stressed the importance of specificity, of concreteness, as a way to make our work seem more real, more visual, more appealing to our readers.  Taken together, this is quite a tall order — how exactly are you supposed to do all of these things at once?  Well, one way to start is to think intently about language.

So today's prompt — inspired in part by our having recently seen several workshop poems that exemplified and/or needed attention to this technique — will ask you to cast a wide net for poetic to gather the raw materials of language you'll need for your poem.  Because I'm going to ask you to explore the intricacies of the language subset pertaining to one idea, one thing, one place, etc., I'm calling this exercise "A Set Lexicon."  For this prompt, an object poem might be your best bet, though you could also do a landscape/scene, or work around an abstract emotion — there are lots of possibilities, so find the one that works best for your needs.  

As a hypothetical example, consider the word "apple."  What sorts of ideas come to mind when you hear that word?  Perhaps color, so you might start by thinking "red, green, yellow" and then hit a wall.  So you shift gears again — "sweet, tart, juicy" — now aside from taste, what other senses can you bring into play?  "Waxy, crunch, bite, firm, shiny."  What visuals might you get?  "An apple orchard, a worm in an apple, an apple on the teacher's desk, the apple waiting in your lunch bag."  What phrases come to mind?  "The apple of my eye.  An apple a day keeps the doctor away.  The Big Apple."  What about cultural associations?  "Eve and the forbidden apple.  William Tell shooting the apple off of his son's head."  What specific words or names do you think of? "Mackintosh, Fuji, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Winesap"  Keep going until you run out of ideas, writing everything you come up with down.  Now go back and look over your list: here you have some really wonderfully vivid raw materials with which you can construct a poem, so do so!

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate
One of the best examples of this sort of technique in action is Robert Pinsky's classic poem "Shirt."  Here, we see him take a simple concept, the shirt, and take it in a number of strange associative directions.  Some of my favorite parts of the poem, however, are devoid of narrative — instead they're the places where Pinsky weaves clever music out of the specific parts of the shirt, all of the special, arcane language that applies to it.

Now, you might not necessarily write a ton of poems in this fashion, but what it's priming you to do is activate that list mode when you find yourself stuck for a specific word that'll serve as a hook for your readers, or when you're revising a poem and seeking to clear up any vague language.

1 comment:

  1. i really love the way pinsky reads this poem. i've been putting this assignment off because nothing feels right! ugh! i'll get it eventually