Poetry Tow Truck 1: First Words

“Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past.  Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go.”  ~Brooks Atkinson

Happy New Year, everyone, and welcome to the first Poetry Tow Truck post. As the new year begins, I always try to find new ways to work more writing into my crazy, wonderful life. Hopefully these posts, coming to you once a week, will help you do the same. Please feel free to leave a link in the comments to anything you may create from the exercises – I would love to know how they are working for you.

First Words – An Exercise for the First Day of the Year

Other writers can often be our best inspiration. This exercise will require a short poem of 10-20 lines or a quote of 10-20 words. Let’s consider the first line of the Atkinson quote above as our example.

Take the individual words of the quote (or the first words of each poem line) and write them vertically down the page. Then create a new draft using these first words as guideposts to draw you through the poem. (I have included a draft below – first words from the quote are in bold print.)

Drop the party dress around your ankles, let it pool in

the purple light of almost-dawn. This may be your

last opportunity. Every January, you promise that this

year will be different, better – you pour yourself

into another mold, become viscous and malleable,

the past you nearly unrecognizable. Your old tongue is

silent, stuck to the roof of your new mouth. This is

limbo, this first day, learning how to manage the hands

of a stranger, these unfamiliar desires. You just want

the chance to emerge from the confinement of your

past. The smallest of insects is allowed even that.

This exercise forces connections and gives an inherent cohesion to the draft, and it can be completed in just a few minutes. And, since all writers have a bank of poems and quotes that they love, this little exercise can be perfect for those times when a long session of writing isn’t possible. You could even do a series of these based on quotes or poems from the same author.  The possibilities are endless. So give it a try – and let me know how it goes!


28 thoughts on “Poetry Tow Truck 1: First Words

  1. Love this and will try it. I have a question about attribution. If you use a line by another writer, how do you credit the writer? Is it done when you publish, in a contributor’s note? Might it work sometimes as an epigraph, for readers to find at the top and then again along the left margin? With a very famous quotation, one might let it stand, I suppose, unattributed… I’m always concerned about this and have worried about it when following prompts or assignments to imbed a line or write a collage poem. Have tried various things, including italics. I welcome any advice.

    • Good questions, Kathleen. I guess that, since I have never had the poem stand exactly with that line at the left margin after revision, I haven’t really been concerned about it. Published found poems often list the source at the end of the poem as attribution. With this prompt, if the poem remained in its original format (with the line complete down the left margin), I would think that attribution would be in order, whether it be in an endnote or an epigraph. There are only two poems I’ve written from this prompt that I’ve ever submitted, but one line was Biblical and one was a public domain Christmas carol, so I haven’t had to worry about this issue.

      If you try the second version of the prompt, which is to use the first words of each line of a poem, then the words are seemingly random and no attribution would be necessary. For instance, instead of writing “Do not go gentle into that good night” down the left margin, you could use the first words of several lines of that poem: “Do, old, rage, though, because, do, good, their, rage.”

      Hope this is helpful – anyone else care to weigh in?

  2. You could use the first line as an epigraph, or say “after whoever the author is” after your title.

    Having done this prompt with Donna Last week, it was a rewarding exercise. I adapted it to use phrases intead of just separate words. For example, I had the phrase “the women” in the line I chose, and instead of separating them into two lines, I left them together. I did the same for other article/noun or preposition/object phrases.

    I liked the poem I got out of it, and will do another this week! Thanks for the kickoff to 52 new poems this year, Donna!

  3. Hi … I love this idea! Just used your quote … fun to just write and not edit for a change.

    Drop the pretense,
    the strain of emoting.
    Last act, same play.
    Year after year, the heroine falls
    into the hero’s arms at midnight.
    The New Year’s kiss seals the deal.
    Silent petitioners bargain with gods.
    Limbo, heaven, hell, we’d gamble all
    of it for one moment on stage with
    the ghost of New Year’s

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  5. I enjoyed this prompt, and I also used the same quote. Here’s my result – note that due to formatting, the longer lines may break up the “first word” pattern:

    Drop a mouse into a poem, Collins says, and watch
    the direction it takes, scuttling along the wainscoting, looking for a
    last crumb from dinner, leftovers of the old
    year forgotten in the haze of hangovers. Bring it out
    into the sun and let it loose. Shield your eyes from
    the glare of a shiny unused year. If you’re
    silent, you’ll hear the hum of machinery, the day caught in
    limbo between what has been and will be. The mouse, meanwhile, free
    of your hold on its tail, skitters through
    the frozen grass. It doesn’t bother with details like
    past, present, future. It just knows what is, and it’s going there.

    • I love the fact that you have a double reference now- the quote and the allusion to the Collins poem. I would like to take the same attitude as the mouse this year. Happy New Year – and enjoy your Florida conference, although I’ll miss seeing you in Cape May.

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