I would never ever have written a poem if I’d waited for inspiration. I am rarely inspired before I work.
Instead, I need a starting point. I start to write, play with the words awhile, and then the inspiration comes.
I managed to write 16 poems during April, National Poetry Month. But only 11 of them grew out of the official daily prompts. Too often I stare at a prompt and think, I’ve got nothing.
Some of my best poems come from exercises in poetry textbooks. I’ve worked through poemcrazy by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, and I’m currently studying The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward. I take the exercises very seriously, as if I were being graded in a college course.
My second favorite source of prompts is The Daily Post. These single words often spark an association my brain wants to explore (like those word-association activities where someone says a word and you say the first thing that comes to mind). I most often interpret these prompts in a poem, though you can use any medium. The added benefit of these prompts is, once you finish your piece (or before, but I wait until after) you can see how other people interpreted the prompt. (Click on a prompt, and choose from the linked responses.)
Poets on the Page hosts an October poetry challenge with daily prompts, and provides somewhat weekly prompts the rest of the year.
Sometimes my motivation for a poem comes from a form rather than prompt. I usually write free verse, but the poems that delight me have meter and rhyme, so I try to experience traditional forms as well. A good resource is the Poetry Types page on Shadow Poetry.
Here are 25 prompts designed by me to help you start a poem. These are just suggestions, not limitations. Feel free to let them be jumping off points for your own imagination.
- Metaphors—tell how one thing is like another (such as how my Mustang is like the space shuttle or my spaghetti dinner is like Medusa’s head).
- Symbols—explore a theme with a recurring symbol, like a knife for separation or an alarm clock for aging.
- Choose a color and make a list of at least 10 things that are that color. Then write a poem that connects those things by a quality other than color. (What do an apple, a rose, a barn, wine, and blood have in common other than redness?)
- Drawing on an incident from your childhood, what do you understand about it now that you didn’t then?
- Create a hero and send him on a quest. Write an epic poem describing his adventures over 40 years.
- Your grandchildren will never experience certain things that were common during your lifetime. Choose one of them (video rental stores, S&H green stamp redemption centers, telephone booths, boom boxes, Barney the dinosaur) and describe in minute detail.
- Describe a time when you suffered from culture shock. (When I was 10, we visited my aunt’s house in Germany, which didn’t yet have a flush toilet.)
- What is your favorite flower? Describe it to someone who has never seen it.
- Describe a place you where you used to live. How was it unique?
- Describe someone who was once your friend. What did you like about him or her? Why did the friendship end?
- What is the most important advice you could give to someone graduating from high school or college?
- If you had to travel across the country, which form of transportation would you choose? Extol its virtues.
- What is the best planet? Explain why.
- Using all your senses, tell what it’s like to hold a newborn baby (or kitten, or puppy, or calf).
- What is it like to watch an elderly person deteriorate?
- Enumerate the steps in washing windows.
- Pretend you’re a sixteen-year-old choosing a prom dress. What would the ideal dress look like?
- What do you like to do that other people pay professionals to do? (Paint rooms? Change tires? Lay sod? Plan parties?) Tell about the satisfaction of a job well done.
- What is the best thing about early in the morning? Or about late at night?
- What is your favorite type of birdsong? Why?
- You’re on the lip of the Grand Canyon, or at the North Pole, or climbing hundreds of steps to the top of an ancient Mayan temple. Describe what you see and how it makes you feel.
- You lost your child at a crowded fairground. What do you do?
- What was the worst experience of your life?
- What was the best experience of your life?
- What is the greatest honor you’ve ever received?
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Did these prompts help you to write a poem? Feel free to share it with us in the comments below.