Poetry Prompt: Write, Replace, Repeat

By Grant Clauser

In his Journal of the of Fictive Life (1965), former US Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov writes in one section about the struggle of getting started on a new work, but concludes “What a great weight one adds to the heart by simply writing ‘It was a fine summer morning.’”

While I can’t remember the whole passage (I stumbled upon the above sentence online), it strikes me as good advice to offset what Maxine Kumin calls “the terror of the first line.” I and many other poets have spent innumerable hours staring at an empty page (paper or pixels) waiting for the first words to squirm awkwardly from the ooze. Sometimes that happens. Often it doesn’t, which is why we need to try some other tricks to push through the inertia. I’m thinking of kayaking right now (daydreaming actually). The first dip of the paddle can be the hardest one because you’re not moving. You need to fight the water’s grip on the boat, and physic’s grip on reality, before one motion becomes forward movement. Dip and repeat. Dip and repeat.

So, back to Nemerov’s summer morning. Here’s a first dip that’s worked for me.

Simply write out the simplest, easy, statement you can, much like the above.

It was a fine summer morning.

Then, write it again, replacing one word for another, but to force the mind into movement substitute a verb for a noun, an object for a person, or turn it into a simile… until you feel the boat gliding across the surface. Don’t be afraid to get weird. Only then can you let go, point the bow somewhere and keep paddling.

She was a fine summer morning.

She laughed like a fine summer morning.

She laughed like the summer rain

against the tent, mosquitos bursting

between our bodies while down

in the valley the river rose over

the road making an island of us

Etc. You get the idea. The point being that the mind, the part that takes one experience and transforms it into another, sometimes needs a push, like a friend on the shore giving your kayak a shove before you figure out the stroke that will keep you moving. Dip and repeat. Dip and repeat.

Grant Clauser is the author of five books including Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (winner of the Codhill Press Poetry Prize), Reckless Constellations, and The Magicians Handbook. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Cortland Review, Tar River Poetry, The Literary Review and others. He works as an editor and teaches at Rosemont College.