New to using prompts? Take a look at these notes on how to use writing prompts. Otherwise, jump right in!
GO GET SOME INSPIRATION –>
For this poetry prompt to help you write a love poem to a word, start by reading “Lover” by Ada Limón and give some thought to what you like/admire.
My affection for this poem starts with how Limón manages to write what reads to me as a pandemic poem* — as many of us have tried! — without mentioning the pandemic at all. She adeptly describes feelings I recognize as the despair and haze of lengthy social-distancing practices and lock down:
- “nothing, nothing is funny”
- “an oblivion-is-coming sort of way”
- “this gray waiting”
- “I trust the world to come back”
Limón’s instinct here is brilliant: the pandemic can’t claim sole ownership of those ideas about the world. As much as I hate to say so, there are and will always be plenty of reasons to despair. If Limón is in fact writing a pandemic poem, she wisely limits those references to subtle gestures, extending the shelf life of this poem. The poem is vaguely set in our current pandemic moment, but it isn’t about the pandemic.
The poem also isn’t about the narrator’s lover/s. It’s not really about lovers at all. Instead, it’s about the word lover. It would be tempting to go straight into the bedroom and write about sex in a poem titled “Lover,” but Limón resists this, too. She uses adjacent words (like pleasure, release and ravaged) to keep us squarely in the context (and subtext) of the word but stays away from more obvious — and in this case salacious — associations.
In fawning over this poem, I’ve talked a lot about restraint. Even the poem’s form shows a kind of restraint. Yes, couplets are a smart, romantic form for a poem titled “Lover,” but they work even harder than that. Like all forms, the couplets create a container for the subject: They establish some ground rules. They say, to me, “This poem isn’t going to be messy.” The couplets also establish trust. They tell me its narrator is in control and can be trusted. And so when she says, “I could // squeal with the idea of blissful release, oh lover, / what a word, what a world,” I know she’s not actually carried away by the sentiment of the word or the poem. I could squeal.
The suggestion of giddiness there (but not giddiness itself) is a master class in going only as far as the poem requires. Limón does this not only with restraint around her subject (the word lover) but also with tone: “Lover” is bedfellows with humor (it doesn’t take itself too seriously), but it resists straight up mockery or slapstick.
We’re all aware of the sappy stereotypes of love poems. They’re overly sentimental, for example. They use flowery language and cliché. In “Lover,” Limón cleverly nods to — but does not succumb to — those pitfalls. And that’s the magic for me in this poem. It’s fair to say that restraint and control aren’t really love poem words, and they’re certainly not standard love affair words, either. (Think all-in. Think overcome by passion. Think head-over-heels.) But of course it’s also true that restraint and control can be part of consensual play between lovers. It’s a spectacular accomplishment to navigate both the baggage of the word lover and the baggage of love poetry itself.
NOW CHOOSE YOUR WORD AND START WRITING –>
- Free write/brainstorm about your word. Follow Limón’s lead and resist the temptation to get into the word’s meaning. Focus instead on the word itself: How does it look on the page? How does it sound? How it it used? Also consider the word’s reputation. (There’s a lot of energy for me in this specific part of “Lover”: “long forgotten and maligned / for all its gross tenderness, a joke told in a sun beam…”) Does your word have a history you can use in your poem? Include on your list images and words in the periphery of your word that you can sprinkle throughout the poem as Limón does here: “the world walking in, ready to be ravaged.” Even the plain word excited — “I am strangely // excited for the word lover to come back” — is in service of this poem.
- Make note of pitfalls or stereotypes that may be connected to your word and fight the urge to go down those paths. Perhaps it would help to make certain items off limits.
- Open your poem with an ordinary scene or conversation and see if you can find a bridge from that moment to something in your free write/brainstorm/list.
ANOTHER OPTION –>
As an alternative to writing a love poem to a word, let a single letter get you going, as Parker Hobson does in Brought to You by the Letter S.
IMPORTANT NOTE –>
Do not copy the poem that inspired this writing prompt. It’s a good idea when you harvest material from these exercises to either credit their inspiration (i.e. make a note at the top of your poem, like after Ada Limón’s “Lover”) or remove the scaffolding provided by the example and keep only the material you crafted. In other words: make it your own.
Be sure to let me know if you draft a poem or other piece in response to this poetry prompt about about a word you love. I’d love to read it! You can find past poetry prompts here, including writing prompts from prior years.
*I still encourage you to write a pandemic poem and have a prompt for that! See #22 in my 30 prompts for 2021 NAPOWRIMO.