Ordinary Genius: Entering Poetry

The other day I stumbled onto an old Google Talk conversation with a friend, from about a year ago. The conversation went something like this:

Friend: I lurked at the Tweetspeak Twitter party last night. 

Me: I can’t do the Tweetspeak. Too confusing.

Friend: I was lost. I’m too literal.

Me: L.L. tagged me on Facebook to come but I was busy that night. Lucky me. [smiley face] Poetry is nonsense. And cryptic.

Had anyone suggested that within months I would not only begin to write that cryptic nonsense we call poetry—in the privacy of my dark basement office, but also out in the light of day—posting poetry on my blog, incorporating poetry into my work as a claims adjuster, and even contributing to a poetry site, we both would have laughed all the way into the next week.

No one would dare suggest I would have a growing collection of volumes overflowing with such cryptic nonsense by the likes of Pablo Neruda, Dylan Thomas, Adrienne Rich, Leonard Cohen and even our own Twitter poetry party host L.L. Barkat on my desk.

That would be its own kind of nonsense.

But it’s true. Here I am—proof that it could happen.

It just takes starting, and sometimes, a light nudge from someone who knows a little better than you.

We’re spending the next four weeks with Kim Addonizio and her book, Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within. Addonizio tell us that it’s okay to “dare to be a beginner—unsure and clumsy at first, but having a good time and doing your best to learn.” She tells the story of taking trapeze lessons and, despite the dread of climbing a tiny ladder into the sky and falling face-first into the net, discovering she loved the flight.

Once I was there, my mind was completely focused. There was too much energy running through me, too much concentration on whatever trick I was learning, to allow anything else into my head. It was complete presence, and that is addicting. Trapeze was beautiful for its own sake, whether or not I ever performed for anyone besides my instructor and other students. It was skill and grace and daring, and it was thrilling.

With as little as half an hour a day, a notebook, and some poems for “company and inspiration,” Addonizio promises we could begin to do this thing.

One way she suggests she suggests is to begin with a short sentence (a whole poem can feel like too much sometimes) which may even contain “all the qualities of a poem—a quick, perfectly executed brushstroke that surprises and delights, that’s full of mystery and meaning, and set to a rhythm that sings.” This form, invented by poet Allen Ginsberg and featured at AmericanSentences.com, is a single sentence of seventeen syllables.

I played around with American Sentences while shivering in the bleachers during a crisp fall night of Friday night football:

The leaves turned their jackets inside out, unzipping in the autumn wind. 

It’s hard to score when the ball wants the arms of the wrong colored jersey.

How can two people stand so close yet not hear a word the other says?

Eating ice cream is not the best way to work down a blistering chill.

Addonizio provides several prompts to start a poem—using a first or last line from another poem, “falling in love” with the first object you see, writing from a memory or writing to the future. I played with the prompt, “Start from Language,” taking six nouns, five verbs and three adjectives from another poem and adding other words as needed to create a new poem. (I was also supposed to match the rhythm of the original poem, but I neglected to read all the directions first.)

Here’s the result, drawn from A Thousand Acres of Light by Maurya Simon, which was featured earlier this year in Every Day Poems:

In the heavy silences of night
the glittering calligraphies unravel
under the weather.
Like wanderers who walk
and walk and walk
they neither spell
nor unspell,
keep company
with the silky ache 
they are pressed
to lose. 


Now it’s your turn. Where did you begin this week? Was there a prompt or two you particularly enjoyed? Perhaps you’d share your poem(s) in the comment box. If you post at your own blog, please include the link in the comments as well as we can share with you.

And to help you plan for the coming weeks:

September 26: Part I: Entering Poetry (through Chapter 4)
October 3: Part I: Entering Poetry (Chapters 5-10)
October 10: Part II: Inner and Outer Worlds
October 17: Part III: The Poem’s Progress
October 23: Part IV: Toward Mastery

Photo by Les Haines, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist


Purchase The Novelist, by L.L. Barkat now!


  1. says

    I’m so glad you got mixed up in this poetry thing.

    P.S. I’m hoping for a chilly football game. So far, ice cream is exactly what’s called for when it’s 96 degrees at a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.

      • L. L. Barkat says

        yes, yes. Lucky you.

        Are you know for your luckiness?

        Because it seems to have brought you around through the back door, where the diehard partiers were waiting for you to show up. I’m quite sure Maureen had saved you a seat on the deck. And Nancy had a glass of wine waiting 😉

    • says

      Really, less than a year. A year ago this week I was snickering at my friends who were in the “poetry workshop” at Laity Lodge. L.L. and her powers of persuasion still had a ways to go with me. :)

      As for the sentences, I just started with the sentence about whatever image, then tweaked it to fit the 17-syllable parameters. Not surprising, I was usually too long. :)Having to find a more compact way to say it was a great exercise.

  2. says


    The Walk

    There is a charming little man
    Who loves to take me walking through the garden of my memories.
    And he points to golden sunsets
    and sunrises the color of Jonagold apples….
    He begs me pick a basket full of prolific wistfulness.
    But I refuse
    I will not hold his hand however much he beckons
    For it is a sad enough fact that I uncloak my royalty and agree to walk with him at all.
    He whimpers when I leave him, walk unfinished
    For he knows that I have seen beneath his charm
    And have returned to Father’s House.

    • says

      Can American sentences be unpatriotic, Glynn? They weren’t so hard once I got the first one out of my system. And it was actually sort of a relief not to have to write a whole poem.

      Your poem from Frost is wonderful.

  3. Nancy says

    I must be slow :) … am still wrestling with the American sentences, which seem to fragment into haiku. Here’s one attempt that made its way into a somewhat-complete sentence (in that it has a noun followed by a verb):

    It’s a duet—that plane’s rumbled bass, this tenor of winded leaves.

    • says

      Not slow at all, Nancy. And if you’re getting Haiki out of the deal, run with it. The real goal is to be writing poetry, right? (I pretty much stink at Haiku.)

      And I love that sentence. Try a couple more. :)

  4. says

    Lyla, WOW! It’s astounding and encouraging that you only started a year ago! I thought I was the only newbie! And your American sentences are gorgeous. Really. I’ve long been a writer, but like you, I said the two kinds of writing I’d never do were novels or poetry. I didn’t get poetry and didn’t want to. Until last November when I stumbled upon John Blase’s blog – his post that day “The Envy of Angels,” turned my world upside down. I stared at the computer screen for a long while, tears flowing. His ability to tell a story simply using beautiful, elegant words moved me to try to do the same. Shortly after (in January)I found Every Day Poems. I’ve been blessed all around. I’m loving Ordinary Genius, but I’ve not written anything yet. I’m too busy putting together my new journal to show me to myself.

    P.S. the tectonic plates will shift if I ever try my hand at fiction

    • says

      Blase’s stuff is something else.

      Careful, Leah, or you’ll have those plates shifting. :) I’d like to say I’ve learned to never say never, but I also know that some of the best decisions I’ve ever made have come after fierce resistance. Poetry is one of those.

      Enjoy putting that journal together — and we’re spending a second week on this section (the second half for next week) so you have plenty of time to catch up. Just a little time each day, right? Look forward to seeing some lines from you. :)

  5. says

    I heard there’s a place in New York City that gives trapeze lessons, which I have been thinking about. I’m sure it could yield enough lessons and metaphors to last a lifetime.

      • says

        tweeted it. I figured that I maybe should stop ignoring the collage tasks! So it was admittedly fun to cut and glue, and revealing to hunt and choose. The hardest part for me was leaving out things that represented OTHER people, albeit important people, in my life.

    • says

      I’m so impressed that you’ve taken on the journal challenge, Donna! I have a friend who’s daughter makes gorgeous journals and I have a few stockpiled so pulled one out for my poetry notes.

      I’ll go looking for the photo of yours on Twitter!

  6. says

    Here I am, better late than never! I’m in the 2nd week of a 10-week writing class that is taking a lot of time, so I may not be able to participate here at the level I’d like, but I will participate as much as I can!

    I started the book a few weeks ago and played around with writing some American sentences:

    (1) On her first trip to the City, her mom taught her to notice black skin.

    (2) Conspiracy of surprise, he’s in the dark falling for tricks of light.

    (3) “I don’t know” is what I say when I fear a truth seeking its way out.

    (4) Too late, she realized she’d traded her escape plan for more mileage.

    Hoping to explore at least one or two other techniques in the next few days. Thanks for this forum…this is fun!

  7. says

    An American Sentence, dedicated to Fluffy who makes me laugh every day!

    Tongue prints found on my set aside dish….
    (I should have inspected the SPOON!!!)

  8. Sandy C says

    I don’t see the party door so I’m carving one with the canape knife.

    (Pleased ta meetcha…)

    I’m distilling days into page lines, beating hindsight into foresight.
    If nothing else, I’m learning appreciation for colorful ink.

    Your voice-note is an advance team, prepping my ears to receive content.
    Let me adjust the gain, and squelch the static for clear understanding.

    Attempts to fit the form were met with low chuckles from my inner bard.
    Kicking out the slats seems to be his own particular specialty.

    (My Americans seem to travel mostly in pairs, fraternal twins.)

  9. Donna says

    The rhythm of American Sentences has gotten stuck in my brain. This morning I found a poem in my candle but I ran out of syllables and still had thoughts. Then it hit me… WAIT, DO WHAT SANDY DID… PAIR OFF. So I did.

    Flame fights in bondage to the wick and this tug of war goes on all night.

    Wax consumed in the battle… ’til nothing remains but one string charred black.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *