One way I free up my creative mind is to box it in. Sound contradictory? It is, but it works. Forcing my brain into constraints forces it to find new ways out, to connect things that are not normally connected and to reach for ways to use available concepts or images or ideas that aren’t the easy default but something deeper.
Using constraints is not a new concept, and it applies to all creativity, not just writing. Composer Igor Stravinsky described it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.”
Here are some constraints that I use to start poems. Notice, I say “to start”. Some of these tactics may produce a finished poem, but more often they simple set my mind in a new direction. After that I ignore the constraint and let the new idea lead me where it may.
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect. When the initial writing is done, you can remove the phrase and just work with the images and thoughts you’ve generated.
I find it good to pick a focus, like a place, time, person or experience and use phrases like “On Saturdays…” or “My Aunt Emily…” In London…” etc., as well as general introductions like “I remember…” or “I don’t remember”, I believe…”, “I want…” or “If I could…”
Joe Brainard wrote a book length poem about his life in the 1950s called I Remember. Here is an excerpt:
I remember a piece of old wood with termites running around all over it the termite men found under our front porch.
I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days. I remember, downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.
I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.
A lipogram is writing that excludes one or more letters. Here is a short poem by Daniel J Webster that excludes the most used letter in the English alphabet: “e”.
Most common of all marks from A to Z,
It’s tyrant to orthography, and smug
That not a thing of worth is said without
Our using it. . . .
A poem using only one vowel. Canadian poet Christian Bok is famous for his collection Eunoia, a collection of five univocal prose poems (which run into many pages each), one for each vowel.
Here is an excerpt from “A”
Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal – a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man’s bath and wash a man’s back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar – a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah. A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth.
Take a poem you find interesting (your own or someone else’s) and write a line opposite in meaning to each line in the poem. For a bigger stretch, keep to the same form and/or rhyme scheme.
Excerpt from PETALS
by Amy Lowell
Life is a stream
On which we strew
Petal by petal the flower of our heart;
The end lost in dream,
They float past our view,
We only watch their glad, early start.
by Gwynn Scheltema
Death is earth
On which we pile
Stone by stone the cairn of our mind;
The beginning found in birth
We build up all the while,
Only to miss their sad, final end.
Imitate a poem, even incorporating phrases from the original poem. If you use this only as an opening up exercise to find your own thoughts, make sure you eliminate the original poet’s words in your poem. If you keep any of them make sure to acknowledge the original poet.
Excerpt from “PATTERNS” by Amy Lowell
I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.
After Amy Lowell
I walk down the garden-paths,
And all the peonies
Are full and showy, like happy children
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my husband’s shadow
With painted smile and high bred manner
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
Riffing off a concept
Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in which each stanza is a mini-poem, but all of them refer to a blackbird in some way, to unite the whole. This is a great way to start writing a poem. Think of 13 (or 14 or 16 ) ways of looking at anything: sunsets; lovers; baking apple pie; train journeys…..
First and Last
Here, take two lines at random from any text. Make it truly random by getting someone else to pick them. One line becomes the first and one the last line of your poem. When you’re done, remove the borrowed lines.
Poet John Hewitt recommends this tactic because “…it gives you something to start from. If you know what your last line has to be, you start to think of ways that you can get there. If you know that you have to write a poem about the constellation Orion, you go out and stare at the stars. You are no longer dealing with a blank page. You know that at least one of those words is going to be “Orion”. That’s a place you can start from.”
And one more thing
It is important to realize a constraint is a tool. It helps bring focus to a poem. You won’t always want restraints, but when you are stuck, a constraint is a good way to get the words flowing again.
Gilbert Sorrentino, poet, novelist, critic and professor says “Generative Devices are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the “laws” set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of “inspiration,” and its idiot brother, “writer’s block.”