April 14, 2020
List poems have an off-hand quality, as though they’re not even poems but casual jottings like a grocery or birthday list. That makes them particularly accessible and welcoming for readers to enter, and their unassuming quality keeps them from feeling intimidating to write, too. If you’re new to poetry, you might consider starting here.
One of my favorite list poems is “The Car,” by Raymond Carver, a writer known best for his short stories but who, in the last years of his life, penned some poetry beauties. All but the last two lines of his poem begin with the words, “The car.” “The car I picked peaches for… The car with a cracked block…” Read the poem at the link here.
At first, I thought the poem was about a single car because he refers to it as the car. But after looking closely, I began to see that the poem is actually about several cars, perhaps all the cars Carver ever owned.
Humor is welcome in poetry, and Carver makes us laugh with his lines about a child throwing up in the car and then about his doing so also. Poetry also welcomes the impossible: “The car that left the restaurant without paying.” Obviously, a car can only leave the scene with a driver at the wheel, so who skipped on the bill?
Carver’s poem tells us a lot—not only about one or multiple vehicles—but about himself. It appears he drove a few beaters in his day, and that made me remember my own first cars, how funky they were, and the time I got stuck on a narrow, windy highway late at night in a car that would go no farther. That’s what good poems do; they invite readers in so that we may get a peek at ourselves, the people we know, and our lives.
Start by making a list of subjects you know or wonder about, something as basic as a car or your favorite season, or all the places you’ve traveled to by train, a list of your dreams or nightmares, and then choose one for your first list poem.
Write down everything you can think of about that topic without thought to structuring a poem, just grab any and every idea. Your initial list will, likely, include more items than will make it into the final poem. You could try writing about “the cat” or “the dream” and, like Raymond Carver did, make it appear, at least initially, to be about only a single cat, just one dream.
In My Shouting, Shattered, Whispering Voice: A Guide to Writing Poetry & Speaking Your Truth, I say, “To make such a list into a poem, take it from being random to being considered.” To do that, find an entry point, an item on the list that feels most accessible and welcoming, one you’re most curious about and begin building the poem there.
You might, as I did some years ago, write a list poem comprised of the rules you grew up with. My poem “Clean Underwear,” from my collection Territory of Wind, is called that because when I was a child, my mother worried that if I were in an accident and taken by ambulance to a hospital, it would be embarrassing (to her) if it were discovered my underwear wasn’t clean.
My poem began by my jotting down every spoken and unspoken rule I could remember, those spoken by my parents, “Do not drink from public water fountains,” something my father often said, plus the unsaid implications of such rules, “We are never that thirsty.” And “You say, ‘How do you do?’/ because you have been raised well,/ and answer ‘Fine, thank you,’ because you are fine, thank you.’ The poem builds by listing rules that had the greatest implication, and concludes with my mother’s admonishment that I not marry so that “You will not make a mistake as drastic as the one/ you mother made by marrying your father/ and bearing the children she didn’t want/ and then drinking herself to death.”
I found it worked well to blend the spoken with the unspoken. As I usually am when I get to the end of the first draft of a poem, I was surprised by what I wrote, by the shock of it. How do you know when you get to the end of a poem, when it holds all that it needs to? It’s like a door shuts behind you, with that finality, not a slam, maybe just a soft closing. Then I put the thing away for a few days or a week. That allows me to return to it anew, as though I were only its reader, not its writer, so that what’s missing becomes obvious as well as what I may have overstated.
Lastly, from my recent anthology Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience , is Alberto Rios’ poem, “The Border: A Double Sonnet.” Like Carver beginning the lines of his poem with the words “The car,” Ríos begins his with “The border.” “The border is a belt that is too tight, holding things up but making it hard to breathe.” You might also write a poem beginning with those words or think of a well-known place and write about it. I might choose Santa Cruz, the city I lived in for many years:
“Santa Cruz where the redwood trees enclosed me for many years.
Santa Cruz and the maze I walked through often
till a man was found in its center hanging from a noose.
The city where my parents’ voices still reverberate, and so I stay away.”
More about Raymond Carver
More about Alberto Ríos
Patrice Vecchione is the author of the poetry book, My Shouting, Shattered, Whispering Voice, available here. Patrice offers some rather surprising rules for writing, including 25 writing inspirations.