I’m very excited because today’s NaPoWriMo prompt, which involves using an online rhyming dictionary to create a word bank that will provide material for your poem, dovetailed nicely with an idea I had for a list poem. A list poem, or catalog poem, presents an inventory of objects, places, people, or ideas. List poems often use repetition and may also include rhyme. Their structure is usually deliberate rather than random, and they tend to conclude with a strong image or significant idea. (If I sound like I am lecturing you, it’s likely because that definition comes from a lecture I give to my creative writing students.)
Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” is a famous example of a list poem, as is “Shirt” by Robert Pinksy. Some of my favorite list poems come from The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon. During her time at court, Shōnagan kept a daybook to document her observations and reflections. Sometimes she wrote a more typical diary entry, but she also created lyrical lists that could be considered prose poems. Here are some examples from the Ivan Morris translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon:
16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster
Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.
It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shutters.
29. Elegant Things
A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syraup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.
43. Poetic Subjects
The capital city. Arrowroot. Water-bur. Colts. Hail. Bamboo grass. The round-leaved violet. Club moss. Water oats. Flat river-boats. The mandarin duck. The scattered chigaya reed. Lawns. The green vine. The pear tree. The jujube tree. The althea.
If your social distancing circumstances include cohabitating with children and teens, you might invite them to experiment with writing a catalog poem of their own. I found a sample lesson plan for high school students on the NCTE’s website. A (very lazy) search on the interwebs took me to multiple list poem lesson plans for younger children (like this one), as well as this plan designed for college students. I also found an interesting article about using image lists to jumpstart your writing process.
What I am saying in a very roundabout way is I have written today’s NaPoWriMo poem! and I actually followed the prompt! and I wrote a list poem! and You can read it below! Hooray!
The rhyming dictionary definitely helped me take this poem in an unexpected direction. It also allowed me to indulge my lifelong obsession with Greek mythology. The rhyming dictionary suggested golden mean as a rhyming partner for quarantine, and looking up the definition reminded me of the violet hour, a reference found in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland,” a poem you may have studied in school. If you have never read “The Wasteland,” you probably are still familiar with its first line, which people often quote this time of year: April is the cruelest month. Typically, this line can be read as a reference to the emergence of spring, or the earth’s attempt to resurrect plants and flowers (i.e., “breeding / lilacs out of the dead land”).
This April we’re experiencing another type of cruelty, which is why I am seeking comfort in poetry. I hope you are finding solace as well! What is bringing you comfort these days? What provides you with solace?