What Prompts a Poem

April 22, 2023

In one of the last Fridays at 4 discussions I mentioned my bafflement at the current popularity of prompts for poems, and that’s still on my mind, partly because I don’t think any of the poems I love and go back to started that way.  I can’t imagine Frost or Bishop or Plath  or Clifton or Szymborska wanting or needing a prompt from someone else.

But when I read a poem I love, I do imagine how it might have come into being–where did it start, and why is it shaped the way it is?  I can only guess, unless the poem itself reveals its origin, or the poet talks about it in an interview, but that doesn’t stop me from imagining how it came about.

For each of the poems below, I’m going to walk through what I know or imagine about what prompted them, what brought them into being–the spark and the kindling.



Alice Oswald

This is what happened
the dead were settling in under their mud roof
and something was shuffling overhead

it was a badger treading on the thin partition

bewildered were the dead
going about their days and nights in the dark
putting their feet down carefully and finding themselves floating
but that badger

still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted
was shuffling away alive

hard at work
with the living shovel of himself
into the lane he dropped
]    ]    not once looking up

and missed the sight of his own corpse falling like a suitcase towards him
with the grin like an opened zip
]    ]     (as I found it this morning)

and went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
]    ]      water might keep its shape


I’ve posted Oswald’s poem before.  It astonished me the first time I read it, and continues to reveal more of itself each time I read it.  It’s also an apt example, because the poem tells us exactly how it began, in that third line of the sixth stanza: “(as I found it this morning).”  It’s a startling first-person intrusion into what’s been a third-person point of view, and calls more attention to itself with the parentheses.  We’re briefly taken outside the poem we’ve been reading to the earlier event that prompted it.  The poem might have begun with that, or might have left it out altogether, so why this choice?  The rest of the poem is the imagined story of how that observed scene came to be.  That single parenthetical line unzips the story for a moment to show us its origins, to remind us that art doesn’t simply report facts, but transforms them.  It reminds us that the poem is a made thing, a construct.  And we carry that glimpse of the person behind the poem into that stunning final image of the badger preserved “for one backwards moment” between life and death.  It lets us feel the emotions that drive the poem: the urge to preserve what’s lost, or will be.



Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I was planning to include this poem–one of the most read, and certainly the most misread–but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to put it next to the Oswald poem until I was thinking hers and realized how much they have in common.   This poem too reveals its origins: the speaker was out for a walk and came to a fork in the path.  The poem spends its first three stanzas on arriving there, debating about which path to take, then taking one.  It seems straight forward enough, but  the first line of the fourth stanza upends everything we thought we knew–just as that parenthetical interruption complicates and deepens Oswald’s poem.  Those first three stanzas weren’t simply a description of the speaker’s walk–they were the constructed story that he was going to tell about it.  This is similar to Oswald’s poem, where most of the poem is a work of the imagination, with little glimpses of what the imagination began with.   Here there’s no difference between the two paths, no reason to choose one over the other–but humans need meaning and explanations for their choices, so he invents one.  I don’t think the poem necessarily began with an actual walk–though it might have.  But I can imagine him having wrestled with some other choice altogether, should I do this or that, realizing it was like flipping a coin, maybe even hearing the phrase “fork in the road” in his head and deciding to ground the poem in that image.


from  HOWL

Allen Ginsberg


I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in
]   ] the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural
darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering
on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-
]   ] light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the
]   ] windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and
listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana
]   ] for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried
]   ] their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward
poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between…


Once again we know a lot about how this poem began, because Ginsberg described it himself, in his incredibly useful book, The Annotated Howl.  Ginsberg learned that a man he had known during a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, Carl Solomon, had been rehospitalized for his illness.  Ginsberg reacted out of grief and rage, and that spark fell on a tremendous piling of kindling.  Ginsberg had been writing poetry for ten years, and  before that studying literature.  He had completed two poetry manuscripts, but neither of them had been published.  Many of those poems were rhymed and metered, and driven by his love for Blake and Keats.  He had written to William Carlos Williams, both because he admired his work and because they were both form the same town, Paterson, New Jersey, and Williams made some helpful suggestions.  When Ginsberg sat down at his desk in San Francisco to write what became “Howl,” one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, he was full of emotion, and was also trying desperately trying to find his voice as a poet.  The phrases he was hearing needed some kind of long line, so he began the first draft with three-line stanzas that step across and down the page, like the ones in Williams’ late poems.  But that structure turns out not to be sturdy enough, and soon those step-downs collapse into the long lines we associate with Ginsberg.  If you read the drafts, you can see him discover them.




Wislawa Szymborska      trans. by Clare Cavanagh

They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.
True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.


I like the simplicity of the connection here between the poem and what began it: “They say he [Darwin] read novels to relax.”  That was all it took for Szymborska to speculate on why that might have been, and also why he wanted only novels with happy endings–something that might seem surprising for a trained and sophisticated scientist.  I like it that she doesn’t say “he might have had enough of dying species,” but just declares that he has, thinks and speaks for him.  I’m not usually a fan of lists, but I keep going back to the one that takes up the poem’s last stanza.  It catalogs the details we–and Szymborska–would right if we were in charge of the world, all the injustices of real life.  I think of Dickens, though his novels are darker and more complex than the ones she has in mind here.  But goodness prevails, just as it sometimes does in life.  So maybe those novels aren’t complete fantasies, just elaborations of the best of times, of people’s best impulses and not their worst.  The phrase in the poem that most strikes me is “fiction/ with its diminutions.”  Hmm. What an interesting choice of words.  Would life be diminished if it lacked cruelty and injustice?  I’m still thinking about the implications.  The image that most stands out for me  is “cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,” the only original image in a long list of deliberately overfamiliar examples.  I’m still thinking about that, too.



James Tate

Jim just loves to garden, yes he does.
He likes nothing better than to put on
his little overalls and his straw hat.
He says, “Let’s go get those tools, Jim.”
But then doubt begins to set in.
He says, “What is a garden, anyway?”
And thoughts about a “modernistic” garden
begin to trouble him, eat away at his resolve.
He stands in the driveway a long time.
“Horticulture is a groping in the dark
into the obscure and unfamiliar,
kneeling before a disinterested secret,
slapping it, punching it like a Chinese puzzle,
birdbrained, babbling gibberish, dig and
destroy, pull out and apply salt,
hoe and spray, before it spreads, burn roots,
where not desired, with gloved hands, poisonous,
the self-sacrifice of it, the self-love,
into the interior, thunderclap, excruciating,
through the nose, the earsplitting necrology
of it, the withering, shriveling,
the handy hose holder and Persian insect powder
and smut fungi, the enemies of the iris,
wireworms are worse than their parents,
there is no way out, flowers as big as heads,
pock-marked, disfigured, blinking insolently
at me, the me who so loves to garden
because it prevents the heaving of the ground
and the untimely death of porch furniture,
and dark, murky days in a large city
and the dream home under a permanent storm
is also a factor to keep in mind.”

I think this poem could be an ars poetica for Tate’s poems, a response to “Why do you write that way?”  I can imagine more than one thing that might have prompted it: Maybe he was actually gardening.  Maybe someone was trying to persuade him to try it.  Maybe he saw a neighbor gardening and thought, why would anyone do that?  Maybe the revery began with glimpsing packets of seeds in the hardware store. Maybe he stepped on a worm.   However it began, it’s clear that “Jim” is someone for whom nothing is simple and straightforward.  The title starts with an impossibility–defining gardening.  And as the poem goes on, the speaker sees right through the veneer of daily life to the dangers the rest of us try to ignore.  And sees through himself, to his obsessiveness.  As a poet, Tate constantly questions the very nature of reality, and so does Jim.  They share a high sense of the absurd, and find it in the most ordinary things.  Whatever the seed was for the poem, it fell on the fertile soil of Tate’s imagination and metaphysics: Question everything.  Take nothing for granted.  That’s an approach that leads to terrific poems, but seriously complicates daily life.











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  • Reply Elizabeth Brown April 25, 2023 at 3:50 pm

    I love these poems, and your comments! I was particularly struck with Body, by Alice Oswald. It starts so mysteriously: “…the dead were settling in under their mud roof” –I don’t know who the dead are, or how to think of them, and slowly, clues: “but that badger”–still, though, is the badger on a roof of dead people? I don’t know how to think of it until I get to: “and missed the sight of his own corpse falling like a suitcase toward him/with the grin like an opened zip” and the next line, the one you highlight: “(as I found him this morning). Then, I am brought into focus, and realize this is the narrator’s starting point, and it all makes sense –the image, and the narrator’s imaginings arising from it. I am not sure I understand the brackets, though, perhaps to create a sense of falling? To try to recreate the space of falling, between death and life, that last scramble of his “bindweed will”? As if we are suspended there, seeing and feeling it for ourselves as if in “a broken jug for one backwards moment….”

    • Reply Sharon April 25, 2023 at 10:25 pm

      Thanks for this, Elizabeth. I find that poem haunting and beautiful. I think that parentheses is there because it’s an interruption, to call attention to the shift in perspective.

      • Reply Jackie Craven April 26, 2023 at 5:42 am

        I’m reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s fondness for parentheses— the reflective self-questioning, often a shift to an alternate perspective. Thank you, Sharon… I attended several prompt-fueled generative workshops this spring, and was feeling down on myself for consistently producing schlock.

        • Reply Sharon April 26, 2023 at 7:36 am

          Ah, yes, Bishop’s parentheses. And Heather McHugh’s. I can’t see how using prompts from someone else will help build craft and lead to better poems.

  • Reply Elizabeth Brown April 26, 2023 at 10:47 am

    Agree with Sharon and Jackie about poetry prompts! Occasionally they shake me loose and I create something unexpected–but not often. Also, yes, good thoughts about the parentheses! But the brackets … are those not in the original poem? I see them in the Ginsburg, too–are they just placeholders to represent blank space? A formatting element/challenge? these: ]]

    • Reply Sharon April 26, 2023 at 10:51 am

      Thanks. Oh, the brackets–I should have mentioned that in the post. I used it for formatting. I can only indent individual lines if I double space. If I single space, I have to add something like brackets or it indents the whole thing. Sorry I forgot to say that.

  • Reply Rolly Kent April 26, 2023 at 3:19 pm

    The Tate poem reminds me of the Leonard Cohen song, “Going Home” which starts off with “I love to speak with Leonard/ He’s a sportsman and a shepherd.” I suppose the “prompt” for the Cohen song was something like, ‘What would happen if I wrote about myself in the third person?’ It’s not exactly fair to compare a poem with a song that is not only sung instead of spoken (though Cohen’s pretty much speaking-singing) and also has intruments and a backup singer, but it makes me think about how I can get the drama of song into my poems, or the suggestion of something haunting, inhabiting a poem the way those keyboard notes sound at the end of “Going Home.” (The song is readily available to hear online.) I like the surprise of the Oswold poem—How will I tell it, once I find where to start? She seems to opt for a sort of feverish approach. In the Cohen song, there’s the pleasant shock, as in the Tate poem, of hearing Cohen talk about this guy, the sportsman and shepherd, who is also Leonard Cohen. If I am going to use some kind of prompt to get a poem going, I want that bone to be buried deep enough no one else finds it and surprise seems like a force that can conceal the trick.

    • Reply Sharon April 26, 2023 at 3:22 pm

      Thanks. What do you mean by trick?

      • Reply Rolly Kent April 27, 2023 at 1:57 pm

        I meant, first, the artifice of using a prompt to get a poem going, like Tate addressing himself as Jim instead of using I, you, or he. It creates a surprise since we know it’s James Tate writing the poem. More largely I meant the magic that makes things both appear and disappear in a poem.

        • Reply Sharon April 28, 2023 at 6:41 pm

          Oh, yeah, magic. I’m wary of the word “trick.” But not of the word artifice–I wish more people understood that art is artifice, that it’s a carefully constructed illusion, now a report of what “actually happened.” I always use the example of a magician sawing a woman in half. Creating the illusion that he’s done that.

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