Diary of a Poet

The Power of the List

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.”

Cecilia Woloch’s Blazon and Fireflies are also examples of the list poem, as is My Boyfriend by Camille Guthrie. From Fireflies: 

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:

read books
see my friends
get pissed-off
have a Pepsi 
disappear

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. 

10 replies »

  1. I was actually just reviewing my weekly to do list as I found my way here. Bob Ross might call this a happy accident! Thanks for an interesting piece and a new way to think about writing!

  2. Fascinating! I am a list person as well, but I have never thought to turn one into a poem (or song lyrics). What a wonderful idea, thank you.

  3. I just started receiving your newsletter and I’m glad I subscribed! I could relate so much to your use of lists to write poems. I have done the same thing with many of my poems, but I mostly use single words, rather than phrases. I call it my “word bank.” I begin with a topic and then do an internet search, amassing synonyms, adjectives, nouns, people, etc. that all relate to the topic. As you say, it’s an amazing way to jog the creative process into action.

    I enjoyed reading your poetry reviews, too. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  4. Wonderful post, Erica! Lists have a magical way of making us focus on the important priorities and today, tomorrow and yesterdays!
    Thanks so much for sharing this!! Would love to hear your take on keep a Word Bank for seeds and gems of inspiration (idea from the book – Poemcrazy)
    😊🎁🌹

  5. I just started receiving your newsletter and I’m glad I subscribed! I could relate so much to your use of lists to write poems. I have done the same thing with many of my poems, but I mostly use single words, rather than phrases. I call it my “word bank.” I begin with a topic and then do an internet search, amassing synonyms, adjectives, nouns, people, etc. that all relate to the topic. As you say, it’s an amazing way to jog the creative process into action.

    I enjoyed reading your poetry reviews, too. I’m looking forward to reading more.

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