Thursday, 14 January 2021

Prompts and exercises

First things first, I do understand and respect that prompts and exercises help certain poets unblock ideas at specific difficult points in their writing lives.

However, as a poet, I personally find that my own poetry is best served when I get on with my daily business, making sure I read, read, read in the gaps between the stuff I’m doing, thus allowing poems to ripen in my mind before putting pen to paper. As mentioned previously on Rogue Strands, sometimes it's better to wait rather than forcing work to come out.

As a reader, meanwhile, I get the impression that certain collections seem to use prompts and exercises as a systematic method of writing. I'm afraid I have to admit these are books I don't tend to enjoy because I find it extremely hard to connect with the poems in question...


  1. Hi Matthew - first off I really enjoy these provocations (prompts?) so thank you for sharing them. I think this is very fair and reflects my own experiences. As a reader, being able to see the scaffolding is usually a bit of a distraction. (There is an ongoing vogue for 'Poem in which', which immediately and no doubt unfairly makes me grumpy when I see the title.)

    But then I find myself wondering why I am more likely to experience prompts as a distraction than, say, traditional forms. I think there is a good answer to that which isn't just prejudice, but I don't have it at my finger tips!*

    Somewhere exercises really do work very well is in encouraging people who aren't, and may never be, habitual poets just to get writing - in whatever setting - and there is real value in that for a whole host of reasons.

    *I suppose one answer is that unlike prompts, forms can be stored up ready and waiting for that moment of inspiration.

    1. Hi Jeremy. Thanks for commenting! Yes, beyond prejudice there are clearly identificable traits to many mediocre poems that are born out of prompts. Of course, the good ones evolve a lot more and become something very different where the prompt isn't obtrusive, maybe a bit like form in that respect...?

  2. I'm noticing more of this too - books that should be titled "Guess the prompts". Other tell-tale signs are sequences. If I write a poem and call it "October" I don't feel the urge to write one for each of the other months too. Ditto for planets, fruits, etc. If I write about a cousin, I don't look upon it as an opportunity to write one for each of my other relatives. And don't get me started on commissions - I've rarely seen a good one.

    A CW teacher employed on the strength of their creative publications is probably under departmental pressure to regularly publish. Even if a writer has a non-CW job there's often a feeling that one should somehow keep the momentum going once one's published a book or two. As I've said before, in such situations it's amateurish to put all one's good lines into a single poem when you could share them out across several poems which though not excellent, are publishable. Consequently we get good-enough books containing few excellent poems.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, the regular production line of books by CW lecturers is a grim sign of how creativity turns into obligation.

      As you say, this is made clear in so many artifical sequences that read like exercises and notes, and tend to fill up space in certain collections...