GETTING STARTED ON A POEM

Is writing poetry something new for you? Here's a suggestion: begin by reading some poetry -- aloud, if possible -- by contemporaries, those who can fill your consciousness with the sounds and subjects, the diction, thought, rhythms and reference, of our own wacky times.
Next, take a vow not to rhyme. Please? Just at the beginning? Why? Because playing with rhyme when you're starting out -- also with set stanza-structures and metrical notions -- may keep you busy skimming the surface instead of plunging to some personal depth. There will be plenty of time later to toss off a cute limerick or sweat over a sonnet or sestina.
Now here's an exercise that many have found helpful. It works against blockage by asking you to start and end with arbitrary lines. That way you're not daunted by the thought of the high nobility of "committing a poem."
The crucial tool against blocked poems is not a rhyming dictionary nor a metronome nor rules of any kind. Just the opposite. What's needed is relaxation and a willingness to leap off cliffs, verbally speaking.

EXERCISE:

Step one: say a few words, any words. The very words "say a few words" will do. Really, I mean any words, absolutely arbitrary words -- "absolutely arbitrary words" makes a fine example -- and set those words down AS YOUR FIRST LINE.

Obviously, once you're finished with your draft you're free to change these words, maybe remove them altogether like the scaffolding of a finished building. You're the boss of your poem. Sometimes, just for the fun of it, I'll write on the blackboard whatever folks are willing to blurt out in the classroom and say "choose one of these for your first line." Or I'll put down a choice of lines from some poems already published (in the long run the new poet drops such borrowings, but they function nicely for starters).

Example: choose one of these as a first line.

Hey, not so fast, I don't understand
You mean I should just write anything at all?
I can't think of a word to say, I'm sorry
I was late to class, what's going on?
Or:
Hold, hold it tight
War. She bangs the door
Bedded in the new leaves
They're losing the ways

The first set comes from mutterings in a classroom. The second borrows the third lines of the first four poems in this book (Writing Yourself Home).
Now, rapidly, follow up on the chosen first line, let 'er roll, this is only a DRAFT, a first try to see what you may have it in you to write. Since you're not invested in the starting line -- though something in you picked that one over other options -- why not continue? You can always follow line one with at least a few more. Watch:

They're losing the ways
like a horse with no rider
like a dog with no master
they're losing the ways

Continue as long as words are willing to let 'er roll.

As long as words are willing to let 'er roll
I'll slam down any old thing
look, Ma, no hands!
this is freewheeling talking....

Please don't worry about the quality of insight, the lilt, the turn of phrase. Later you can brood over word-choice, rhythm, symbol, cutting away the dead parts, making change, choices, rearranging, developing ideas. Now you simply want to keep going. Continuing will lead you somewhere, maybe to tears, to surprise if you're lucky. But those new to this "rolling on" will usually go dry, often rather soon. You'll find you're slowing down, through a disinclination or inability to go any further. Aha, now comes tricky step two of the exercise.

Step two: take one of the first lines you didn't choose -- or any line at all! -- and jot it at the bottom of the page. Here's a set of options:

And that's how it came to an end.
The reasons ran on past knowing.
My mouth fell in love with itself.
I live in this tuna fish can.

Or temporarily borrow the fifth, or eighth, line of some of the poems in this book:

the musicians played instruments of bread
Kindly remember that.
understand
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God

Now, continue developing what you've written so far with the intent to finish on the chosen last line while making some kind of sense.

See what you're doing here in step two? You're combining the arbitrary -- even the zany -- with a degree of meaningfulness. Step two of the exercise wants to lead you to the exploratory work of "thinking like a poet" by forging connecting links to bring this little ticking machine of a poem to a halt with a sense of closure on just the crazy last line you've chosen.

Now it's time to look the page over and throw away everything not to your liking. You may be left with only a line, a phrase, that sings, that you find truly interesting... or you may have tricked yourself into a whole sequence displaying that quality of especially fresh and moving language we call poetry. (Once, doing this exercise, I crossed out all but two words before I started again.)

You may want to begin a second draft attempting to weave together the lines you like from draft number one with the subject matter the exercise may have helped you find. Writing a poem is a voyage of discovery. In fact, supplying your own first and last lines in future will provide a method of composition that could keep you writing poems for a lifetime.

Barry Spacks

Excerpted from Writing Yourself Home

Dharma Writing Workshop