It’s been a delightful poeming month, an unexpected gift to this summer. I’ve been both reading and writing poetry again and loving it.
Part of this is due to my reading “at” a couple of great poetry resources, one old and one new-to-me (more on these in another post). But part of it has just been a wonderful rekindling of a perennial love of words. I find myself wanting to pick them up and marvel over them like gemstones, wherever I happen to encounter them – in good prose or in poetry.
One way I can tell I’m in good poeming season (besides the bouquet of poems blooming in my journal) is because I’m relaxing with some wordplay exercises. While word play can refer to any sort of playing with words, I tend to use it as a heading in my notebook for a particular kind of writing exercise I started doing many years ago and return to whenever I’m feeling particularly playful with language.
I don’t think this is an exercise I picked up anywhere in particular, although I may have patched it together from dribs and drabs of other writing exercises and prompts. Still I’ve honed it over the years, finding new ways to relax into it each time I do it. It doesn’t have an exact set of rules. I basically know what to expect when I go into the exercise, but one of the fun parts is that I never really know what to expect, because it always leads to such creative and varied results.
Here are some of the parameters for the wordplay exercise as I’ve developed it.
- Start with culling a list of words from a book or any other bit of writing. This will be your resource list. Your list can come from almost any type of book or article – in fact, it can be fun to experiment with different kinds of resources. I’ve pulled my list from magazines, history books, poetry anthologies, and nature field guides. You could try it with a favorite novel or a science text book. Sticking with one book is usually my favorite way to do the exercise, both because it limits my choices and because it delights me to see what a vast array of words you can find in almost any resource. Poetry anthologies or collections are, of course, some of the best for dipping into, since poets tend to use such concrete and evocative language.
- Set a limit for how many words you list. This can be any kind of limit – a “page’s worth” (however you decide to write them on the page), a certain number of words, a number of words within a given time frame, or a number of columns of words. I like to write my lists in long columns down the page.
- Try not to be too conscious of which words you’re choosing. This sounds harder than it is, because once you’re in the groove of choosing words, you’ll see how easy the choices are – it’s like picking fruit from branches. When I say “try not to be too conscious,” I mean don’t go looking for words with common sounds, or a set number of verbs or nouns or adjectives. But don’t worry or be surprised if you find yourself clustering around certain types of sounds or words. Let your pen write down whatever words your eye falls on most naturally. Pick the word up mentally and let it roll around your brain. If it feels good, jot it down; if it doesn’t resonate with you in that moment, skip it and move on. If you find a word that you really like but find yourself wanting to jot it in a different form, that’s OK too. Recently I came upon the word “boisterously” but decided to drop the “ly” and tuck away “boisterous” as an adjective. You can always go back and ad the “ly” later when you’re using it, or change it in some other way.
- If it helps to prime your creativity, capture your words in colorful felt tip markers or crayons, or alternate different colored ballpoints – one word in blue, another in red, black, or green.
- Occasionally, a poem may begin to form (chomping at the bit!) as you’re making your list. If that happens, go ahead and run with it first thing.
- More than likely, however, you will find yourself pausing for breath once you’ve compiled the list, pleased just to sit there and look at it for a minute. Like other things you collect, words can be beautiful in and of themselves, each one as different and unique as shells or wildflowers. Let yourself enjoy the collection.
- Get ready to play! This is where I have to confess the guidelines break down a bit. I don’t have a single approach to how I play with the list beyond this: I begin to put words in groups (clusters, bevies, strings) on the page. Sometimes I do this on the actual page where I wrote the list, letting the words dance in the margins. Sometimes I do it on a facing page. Sometimes I go for groupings via sight features and sometimes by sound. Although there isn’t any set way to do this, here are a few possibilities you might try to get started:
(a) Read through the entire list, either silently or out loud, and let yourself notice repeating sounds. Did you gravitate toward a lot of words that all started with the same letter? Put them together. Did you happen to collect a lot of words that major in long “i”s or short “a”s or long “o”s? Let them gather together and see what happens.
(b) Group words by form. Let your nouns huddle in one place, or divide them into concrete nouns and more abstract ones. Encourage your adjectives to hang out together and marshal your verbs into one force. Notice if you had a tendency to go for certain forms like “ing” endings or plurals. Anything that makes these words kin is game for a grouping strategy.
(c) Begin to put together adjectives with nouns, even if they don’t seem to make logical sense. Turn adjectives into nouns and vice versa. Silent can become silence and kindness can morph into kind. Yes, you could end up with some trite expressions – in my wordplay session earlier today, I did this and stumbled upon both golden silence and natural kinship (I think our brains are sometimes wired to make the obvious connections) but push yourself and put words together willy-nilly, whether they look like they belong together or not. You will end up with some combinations you would never have come up with except in playful mode: relentless world, secret father, obstinate rain.
(d) Look for rhymes. Sometimes you won’t actually find any that occur naturally in your list, but you’ll find words that want you to find rhymes for them. My collection of “ing” words netted me the following: living, bleeding, glowing, meeting, which felt like they were begging for a quatrain.
Once you’ve spent a while playing with the words of your list, grouping them and re-grouping them, you will probably find poems or poem lines start to come. The end goal of the exercise, for me at any rate, is not usually a whole poem draft – though sometimes I end up with one. More often than not, I come up with what I call “snippets” – potential lines of poems, stanzas that might be built into something interesting later, or even just a series of images that I can come back to.
Here’s example of a snippet I wrote in today’s wordplay exercise:
the broken wing of
the boisterous bird
left him earthbound
but his music
in an echoing chant
through the bones
through the woods
One of the best parts of this exercise is that it helps me to approach poetry from a different place: not just a playful place, but one in which form takes precedence. Actually it’s not even form taking precedence, but the words themselves. The words lead me into the poem, rather than an idea I want to convey or even an image I feel compelled to describe. Those are fine places to begin with in poetry, but sometimes I need to get back to words themselves. The wordplay exercise shakes me loose from the typical ways I approach the writing of a poem and pulls me into the music of language.