Guest Blog Posts

How to Write List Poems – guest post by Rob Carney

It might be self-defeating to say this, but you should know it going in: My poet friend Jesse Parent has a list poem about why he doesn’t like List Poems. That’s pretty funny, and it shows you that not everyone is into this form. But I am, and I think it’s the writer’s fault rather than the form’s fault if the audience feels like listening is some kind of endurance test, or that turning the page pronto would be preferable to reading.

How do you avoid that?

One thing to do—not a rule but not for nothing—is to keep your list poems short. Ten is a nice round number; that’s what worked for the Commandments. But deciding on the total in your lists is up to you. Everything is up to you, really. Still, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that will probably work and help you to craft something a lot more successful than not.

One is that by #3 on your list, you should be writing totally off the subject. In fact, it’s this stuff—things that seem less to the purpose—that your readers will care about most.

Another thing is to make your listed items vary in length. People like curves, even when they’re doing some long-distance driving. That’s why northbound on I-5 is awful for hundreds of miles through Central California (unending and straight enough to put you in a coma) but pretty nice when you’re driving through the Siskiyous, especially if there are some elk down-slope, grazing away and ignoring you.

And another thing—the last one—is to come back again before the end. As in, your list has wandered off to look around and looked great doing it, but now it’s time to return to the supposed project suggested by the title and #s 1 and 2. I’m saying, re-engage with the beginning. And do it by #8 if you can so that #s 9 and 10 can be short declarations, authoritative statements, final words.

To demonstrate, this is one of my own list poems. It’s from my book 88 Maps (Lost Horse Press 2015), and even Jesse likes this one. I hope you’ll write your own list poem and that someone likes yours too.

Listen to “Suggestions for Urban Renewal” on Terrain.org.

Suggestions for Urban Renewal:

      1. A No Umbrellas ordinance. Instead of poking holes in the rain, people would have to wear hats.
      2. Let’s take away hats while we’re at it, make everyone risk being sexy. A woman with gray-sky eyes, for instance . . . hair darker, the ends of it curling.
      3. One rainy day on Grafton Street, I waited out the weather drinking tea. This was Dublin, so I needed a second pot. Then a third with a girl who’d noticed my accent.
      4. A short walk from there to the National Gallery. We outran the next burst of rain: Kandinsky; Chagall, of course; the Renaissance in marble; and her face still flushed from the cold and the running, a drop she hadn’t yet blinked from her lashes . . .
      5. then she showed me—I didn’t even know he had a brother—a room full of paintings by Jack Yeats.
      6. They were amazing,
      7. like rain at night on a metal roof. Or watching a storm from a wide front porch. Or
      8. maybe just red umbrellas, some color to contrast the overcast.
      9. A retail anchor’s not the answer.
      10. A new Target’s not where people fall in love.

Rob Carney is the author of seven books of poems, most recently The Last Tiger Is Somewhere (Unsolicited Press 2020), Facts and Figures (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle 2020), and The Book of Sharks (Black Lawrence Press 2018), which was a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Book Award. In 2014 he received the Robinson Jeffers/Tor House Foundation Award for Poetry. His work has appeared in Cave Wall, The American Journal of Poetry, Sugar House Review, and many others. He’s a Professor of English at Utah Valley University and writes a regular feature called “Old Roads, New Stories” for Terrain.org.


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3 replies »

  1. I like that list PROSE PIECE about urban renewal. It’s petty, I know, arguing about the definition of types of writing, but I can’t forget my students’ desperate question: what is the difference between prose and poetry? My answer (a poem’s right margin is jagged) was flippant but maybe somewhat helpful. Here’s how I’d answer today: a poem is a kind of writing that is organized by lines and stanzas and preconceived costraints like rhyme, meter, etc. Poetry is form, not content. I’d call the list “piece” posted above poetic prose (if anyone cares).

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation! If I were to define poetry vs. prose, I’d say it’s whether or not poetic devices are used and that may or may not include form, or rather, even prose has a form. Prose poems are some of my favorites to be sure, as is lyrical prose in fiction and non-fiction.

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