Where Poems Come From, Part I: The Prompt

“By teaching me close observation, developing my memory and playing word games with me, she made me a poet.” — Marge Piercy, writing about her mother, in Sleeping with Cats



Where do your poems come from? How did you do that? Did it just come to you out of nowhere?

I get questions like this on occasion. The most direct answer is, “I don’t know, not exactly.”

It’s like this sometimes: I decide I’m going to write a poem of a certain type on a certain topic, and it’s a lot of work and walking around and sweating. It wrestles me to the ground. Then I get the upper hand, and come out with something that looks like poetry.

Other times: I get an idea and I write it down. Boom, done.

And yet… Poems never come completely unbidden, fall out of the sky, out of nowhere, into my lap. They are woven into and spun out of my life.

Marge Piercy credits “close observation”; Norah Ephron wrote, “Everything is copy”; and Natalie Goldberg says, “Notice everything.” To me, they are all drinking from the same well, saying very much the same thing: Pay attention. Life is the Muse, if you would attend to her, to all parts of her. There is no subject more worthy of poetry than any other, if you are a poet.

I think that may be why I love a prompt. I write nearly every day, not because I am inspired to write or have some idea that’s just itching to get out. I write daily because it’s what I do. It’s a way of scratching at the soil of my brain, turning it over, looking for the nail clippings, rotting vegetables, squirmy earthworms that can fertilize the roots of poetry. I usually have no idea what I’m going to write about when I sit down at my desk. I use prompts as a way to get the fingers moving across the keyboard.

Prompts can come from anywhere, including Twitter (check out #haikuchallenge or #haikuwordgame, for examples); National Poetry Writing Month – NaPoWriMo – and other coordinated online “events” that encourage writing; friends – ask them what they’d be interested in reading, then write about that (this blog post, for example, comes from asking and getting an answer to this very question); great poetry – reading lots of it, then responding to it. Natalie Goldberg provides bunches of prompts in Writing Down the Bones. I’ve used them over and over again.

Lately, though, I find I need outside prompts less, as I gain confidence and interest in my own interior landscape. Things I touch, food I taste, people I love, people I have never met but I see around town or on tv (what are their real stories?), the one branch of early Autumned red leaves on a green maple tree in the middle of August that I noticed on my walk the other day – these are all rich fodder for writing. The dilemma is only in the choosing. Discipline kicks in, and I just start, pick the first thing on my own internal prompts list, and go from there.

The result of all that writing may or may not be a poem. Many times what comes from those writing sessions is the start of a blog post, or a letter to a friend, or a rant to self. But because I’ve been stirring up the soil, I have thoughts emerge that later may feed a poem.

I do wonder, though, if sometimes people give up on the idea of writing poetry because they think it has to be about some amazing concept, an illuminating choirs-from-heaven brilliant series of gorgeous lines that leave the reader breathless. If that’s what I thought poetry had to be, I’d never write a word of it.

To me, poetry is about scratching the scabby back of the earth with a broken stick, and hearing the earth respond, “Thanks, I needed that.”


7 thoughts on “Where Poems Come From, Part I: The Prompt

  1. annepeterson says:


    Great post. I especially liked your last line. LOVED that line.

    Being a poet as well, some poems do need to be mined, but others just float out and find their place on the paper.

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