My life revolves around lists. As soon as I arrive at my desk in the morning, I check the list I made at the beginning of the week. If it’s Friday, I hope to see a bunch of completed tasks which I’ve been able to check off: “prep for tutoring,” “write review,” “what the heck’s wrong with my website,” “submit.” I write my lists in a 200-page, 99-cent, wide-ruled composition book, which usually lasts about a year. I save my list books and occasionally go through them, noticing that, for example, tasks from 2017 have still not been checked off or that a certain task—i.e., “make new lead magnet”—remains, from week to week, undone.
A list is not just a way to manage your life. It’s also a way to write poems. I use list-making often; in fact, at least half of my poems started as lists. Writing lists is a great way to wake up a sluggish brain, especially one that seems resistant to sudden inspiration (mid-winter doldrums, anyone?) You can make lists of literally anything: words, sounds, flavors, colors, things that make you happy, sad, or angry, seasons, planets, places you’ve visited, places you’d like to visit, and on and on and on.
Making lists is an effective way to break out of writer’s block. One of my tried-and-true methods is to go through the work of a poet I admire and make lists of random lines from their poems. For example, while writing a poem I titled “Love Poem to Winter,” I wrote down these lines from poems I was reading at the time:
Big in our winter blood / Hear me, stranger? / our clamorous poverty / I was right to want you / the language of a lost tribe
God bless the Ground! / suspended aperture / go home / their soreness like an intimacy
one patch of sunlight moving / mistake in hand
“Intimacy” and “winter” made it into the poem. Writing the lines helped me concentrate, get into the mood of being right here, in the middle of winter, and appreciate the season without wishing it were over. At least, for a little while!
An ancient form of the list poem, the blazon, was originally intended to praise a woman’s finer qualities, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. Surrealist poet Andre Breton’s famous blazon, “Free Union,” written in 1931, contains lines like “My wife whose wrists are matches / Whose fingers are raffles holding the ace of hearts / Whose fingers are fresh cut hay.”
And these are my vices:
impatience, bad temper, wine…
…and not being Buddhist
enough to let insects live in my house
In “My Boyfriend,” Guthrie lists “His Exterior:”
a spinal column like a suspension bridge
ribs like a bookcase
a sternum like gum
shoulder blades like kitchen tables
a chest like a stuffed animal
And “His Interior:”
saliva like a rotating sprinkler
tonsils like action figures
stomach like professional wrestling
trachea like pirate radio
throat like a bold headline
These list poems are made up of similes, but you can make lists like those in “Howl,” or “Leaves of Grass,” or Ted Berrigan’s “10 Things I Do Every Day,” which ends with the following stanza:
see my friends
have a Pepsi
Making lists can lead to list poems, but not always. Most of my poems that result from writing lists aren’t list poems, like “Love Letter to Winter.”
I invite you to see where the list poem takes you.