February 16, 2008

How To

Our February writing prompt asks you to write a poem that instructs by explaining how to do something, and also gives advice.

Most of us have trouble separating the two in our everyday lives. Ask me how to create a blog, and I will surely go beyond the practical, instructional steps and start giving advice.

I knew when I chose Wendell Berry's poem "How To Be A Poet" that it wasn't a perfect example of what I was asking in the prompt, but I like the poem. (We used another Berry poem in 2006 for a prompt on contentment.)

He says
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
which is good practical how to, but he also says things like
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
and that is something else - not even advice.

On the site prompt I mentioned Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" as also being a list poem of observations, and that both look at something from different points of view. Maybe I'm wrong about that last part. Perhaps, the Berry poem is all one point of view.

I knew that "how to be a poet" would be too limiting a prompt and perhaps there's already too much out there on how to read a poem, and how to write a poem. (see below) So I ask that you try a poem that instructs by explaining how to do something, and also gives advice. Feel free to choose topics poetic (How To Write A Sonnet) or not (How To Sharpen A Knife) or at the further end of practicality (How To Separate; How To Be; How To Tell Her). Use the how to as part of your title in some way (My Mother Tells Me How To Fix My Marriage).

More sites to inspire your how-to thoughts or muddle your mind:

This portrait of Wendell Berry is from the "Americans Who Tell the Truth" project. This collection of portraits & quotes was painted by Robert Shetterly.

Americans Who Tell The Truth is also a book of the first fifty portraits in this series printed in beautiful color with short biographies and an essay by Robert Shetterly about the intent of the project. The book is suitable for all ages, but its target audience is middle and high school. They have published a free curriculum on this website for teachers to be able to teach American history through the lives of these people.

Help support this project.

The quote from Berry on the portrait reads:

“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful.”


  1. Here's another classic of the genre from Philip Booth, coming from another angle:

    How to See Deer

    Forget roadside crossings.
    Go nowhere with guns.
    Go elsewhere your own way,

    lonely and wanting. Or
    stay and be early:
    next to deep woods

    inhabit old orchards.
    All clearings promise.
    Sunrise is good,

    and fog before sun.
    Expect nothing always;
    find your luck slowly.

    Wait out the windfall.
    Take your good time
    to learn to read ferns;

    make like a turtle:
    downhill toward slow water.
    Instructed by heron,

    drink the pure silence.
    Be compassed by wind.
    If you quiver like aspen

    trust your quick nature:
    let your ear teach you
    which way to listen.

    You’ve come to assume
    protective color; now
    colors reform to

    new shapes in your eye.
    You’ve learned by now
    to wait without waiting;

    as if it were dusk
    look into light falling:
    in deep relief

    things even out. Be
    careless of nothing. See
    what you see.

  2. Any chance you can give us another week with this prompt? Lately there is a big lag time between when poems are due and when they are actually put up on the new poems section. We all realize you are very busy but most of us are too. This prompt is a pretty short turnaround time.

  3. Anon,

    Total agreement on the erratic time factors of late, but in an attempt to get the prompts back on track, I'll stick to the deadline this month.

    There were a decent number of submissions and the March & April prompts are ready to go.