Poetry Prompts: Reverse that Ending and Rev Up the Chiasms

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Backflip Poetry Prompt: Imagination’s Reversal Strategy

Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course with me knows how much I dislike “prompts.” I have read very few poems written by assignment that have the necessary duende to stand on their own feet.

However, the allusion in Cornelius Eady’s poem “Sherbet,” in The Best of Crazyhorse, to Langston Hughes’s poem about Harlem led me to consider the following prompt: end a poem with the same word that a famous poem concludes with, except you Frame it in the negative. Eady ends his poem with “explode,” except that it is framed as “can’t …. explode.”

A similar approach is to consider any statement, especially at the end of a poem, for the possibility of extending into a chiasm. One obvious example is the ending of James Tate’s “The Lost Pilot.” This is not a matter of “inspiration,” I tell my students, who are almost always unfamiliar with this rhetorical construction. One must simply grow into the discipline of asking oneself if such a reversal is possible, and does it nurture the negative capability of the poem’s endeavor.

The Best of Crazyhorse: Thirty Years of Poetry and Fiction, edited by David Jauss (Fayetteville, Arkansas: The University of Arkansas Press, 1990). Eady’s poem can be found on pages 131 through 133.