Exercise: 20 Little Poetry Projects

(An exercise by Jim Simmerman, taken from The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell, eds. Will post some recent strangeness later.)

Give each project at least one line. You should open the poem with the first project, and close it with the last, but otherwise use the projects in whatever order you like. Do all twenty. Let different ones be in different voices. Don’t take things too seriously.

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use one example of synaesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use a piece of false cause-and-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…”
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but finally makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

The ones go best that let go, over and over, of whatever one thought to mean. Simmerman comments:

I created this exercise for my beginning poetry writing students who … seemed to me overly concerned with transparently logical structures, themes, and modes of development at the expense of free-for-all wackiness, inventive play, and the sheer oddities of language itself.

I created the exercise in about half an hour, simply listing, in no particular order, a lot of little sillinesses I had seen and liked, or had not seen but thought I would have liked, in poems here and there.

Here’s a poem by Simmerman that completes the twenty projects in order.

Moon Go Away, I Don’t Love You No More

  1. Morning comes on like a wink in the dark.
  2. It’s me it’s winking at.
  3. Mock light lolls in the boughs of the pines.
    Dead air numbs my hands.
    A bluejay jabbers like nobody’s business.
    Woodsmoke comes spelunking my nostrils
    and tastes like burned toast where it rests on my tongue.
  4. Morning tastes the way a rock felt
    kissing me on the eye:
  5. a kiss thrown by Randy Shellhourse
    on the Jacksonville, Arkansas, Little League field
    because we were that bored in 1965.
  6. We weren’t that bored in 1965.
  7. Dogs ran amuck in the yards of the poor,
    and music spilled out of every window
    though none of us could dance.
  8. None of us could do the Frug, the Dirty Dog
  9. because we were small and wore small hats.
  10. Moon go away, I don’t love you no more
  11. was the only song we knew by heart.
  12. The dull crayons of sex and meanness
    scribbled all over our thoughts.
  13. We were about as happy as headstones.
  14. We fell through the sidewalk
    and changed colour at night.
  15. Little Darry was there to scuff through it all,
  16. so that today, tomorrow, the day after that
    he will walk backward among the orphaned trees
  17. and toy rocks that lead him
    nowhere I could ever track
    till he’s so far away, so lost
  18. I’ll have to forget him to know where he’s gone.
  19. la grave poullet du soir est toujours avec moi
  20. even as the sky opens for business,
    even as shadows kick off their shoes,
    even as this torrent of clean morning light
    comes flooding down and over it all.

Examples from my students’ poems here and here.

Published by


I write draw teach blog in and from the Pacific Northwest of America.

20 thoughts on “Exercise: 20 Little Poetry Projects”

    1. Yep. A couple of the synaesthesia lines in JM’s examples are dubious too. But these are cues, not constraints, at least as I use them teaching. So if you get a decent line out of it, and no one gets hurt …


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s