Poets Online Archive
Didactic Poetry
March 2007

In the poem "How to Live" by Charles Harper Webb (from his book Amplified Dog), we begin with an epigraph that is a line from a poem by Sharon Olds: "I don't know how to live." We can read Webb's poem as a response to her. Advice on how to live.

It's also a list poem, a form that has often been used. It's a form that I believe many readers and writers dismiss as too easy or less "poetic."  It's a form teachers use with students to get them into writing poetry because it is easy.

Then, what makes a list go beyond list to poem? It's worth noting that Webb has a book of prose poems, Hot Popsicles, and that form deals with the same question. If you read other poems by Webb, you know that it's not a question about his ability to write poetry.

The poem has a structure of 5 line stanzas, but the stanza breaks seem arbitrary. Even the line breaks seem to be controlled more by the physical length of the line than by a meter or syllabication.  Do you find it full of figurative language?

There are literary moments in his advice - "Read Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Kafka, Shakespeare, Twain." - followed by "Collect Uncle Scrooge comics." One theme that does run through the advice is contrast - "Don't think TV characters talk to you; that's crazy. Don't be too sane."  and  "Work hard. Loaf easily."

I have long been a believer in the ars poetica all-poems-are-about-poetry school of reading. Can we look at this poem as not only advice for living but as advice to poets? Should poets try forms that go against their own sense of what is poetry?

At Poets Online, we have gone down the advice path before: advice to poets, and advice to poets in a poetic form, good advice gone bad, so we don't need to try that again.

So, let us try a list poem, but let us make it more challenging. It will be one that would be considered didactic poetry, and let us add rhyme in the way of several poetic games. (More on this on the Poets Online blog.) 

Didactic poetry gives instruction (often moral instruction), so your poem should instruct. Your working set of rhymes (in the way of bouts-rimes) is: surprise/rise, white/bright, mind/behind, rock/lock, head/bed, share/hair, way/day, place/embrace. You may use them in any order or scheme. You don't need to use all of them, but it does suggest a line limit of 16 lines (yes, there are ways around that - internal rhyme is one possibility). There are 8 couplets suggested; use 7 and you have a sonnet form. I have created a box for your poem. Decorate it in any way you please.

Charles Harper Webb's book Amplified Dog won the Saltman Prize for Poetry and was published in 2006 by Red Hen Press. He is also  the author of Liver, Reading the Water, and his book of prose poems, Hot Popsicles, was published in 2005. He directs Creative Writing at California State University, Long Beach.

There's more about the site, poetry and an archive of poems and prompts, as well as your comments and things ars poetica at the PoetsOnline Blog.


Do not consider it a surprise, dear,
for you must rise early,
go to a  river and be cleansed on

Atonement Day where you will
crawl  your way to the altar
of sacrifice.

Wash your dirty hands white, then stand
and glow bright in the sun for seven
times seventy days until

repentance is made. Bring guilt offerings
to share,  shave off your hair before dark.
Don’t ever look back.

Darling, your hairline recedes anyway.

Find my holy place where you will
embrace penance and lie prostrate
forty days and nights.

Smash your idol with a rock, place the blood on
a lock of my hair and burn it as a pleasing aroma.
Let the begging begin.

Leave other goddesses behind, etch “monogamy”
on your mind. Sacrifice 10 bulls, two male lambs
without defect.

Claim not righteousness on your part,
rather circumcise your heart. It is
the final requirement, my love.

Place an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil
at the foot of my bed, lift your head
towards heaven then

take hold of my hand and enter my promised land of
milk and honey. Read to me
a poem from Song of Solomon.

Leigh MacKelvey

I've done my share of stupid things since coming to this place.
Cutting my hair short, starting the argument, breaking the embrace.
So, it's no surprise that I'm calling you again at the breaking of a new day,
thinking you might rise half-minded from sleep and answer that way.
No anger in your head, nothing of last night in your mind,
a time paradox, your bed whirling one solar circle behind.

Pamela Milne


You have to live not knowing the way,
Not knowing what will come each day.
You have to live with strength of mind,
Being able to put the past behind.
But you cannot live in black and white,
Expecting the world to always be bright.
There will come a time when you will need a rock
And you will have to put your heart on lock.
Take some time to clear your head
But do not confine your life to bed.
Open your heart and take time to share.
Release your lock. Let down your hair.
Your inner strength, it will surprise,
As you feel your spirit rise.
Do not struggle to find your place.
Love, forgive, release, embrace.

Angel Reid


Where you first place your hand,
will determine the embrace.

The sex that I've had in my head
will never match what I've had in bed.

Three morning moments that we share:
the kiss, the laugh, my hand in your hair.

For the poet and reader, there must be surprise,
the lines, like bread dough, best left to rise.

To attempt to understand the mind of God:
little to learn, much to leave behind.

You cannot force entry to a heart with the smash of a rock.
You cannot guard it with any manmade lock.

Ken Ronkowitz


Come, come here now and find a way
to calm the stories in your head.
Quietly meditate an hour each day.
Practice mindful breathing before bed.

Here you will learn to calm the wandering mind.
Let the breath slowly fall, then rise—rise
again and again, the quiet now behind
your thoughts no longer a surprise.

Come, come here now, return to this place.
Listen closely to what is said. The white
full moon rises and waits to embrace
each of us, making the darkness bright.

A strong March wind dishevels your hair.
Feel it fully. Then come with us and share.

Mary Kendall


Don't follow me—-I've already lost my way—-
but I seem to remember it’s important to wear white
(even then there are rules: the weather and such, Labor Day).
Forget about winning. We're talking survival. Any bright
ideas about getting ahead, about how you might win, place,
or show might just get you whacked. Now, I don't mind
telling you the world is full of bullshit (one must embrace
one’s inner bullshit if one doesn't want to land on one’s behind.
I’ve embraced mine—-I'll be the first to say that bullshit rocks).
But I was trying to help, now wasn't I, trying hard to share
some hard-won wisdom, some pain-forged key to all the locks
on the doors to your survival. Well, I can add that hair
is over-rated. Nothing good ever comes from a surprise.
The best thing you can hope for is a little head
and a larger hat. The moon will sink. The sun will rise.
The safest place to watch them both is buried in your bed.

R.G. Evans


Never greet a new dawn while still in bed,
with old bad dreams embedded in your mind.
Brush out the tangles, make a fountain-head
of faucets. Check mirrors for what’s behind.
Adjust the fine antennas of your hair,
get ready for the news, both black and white.
Each robber-crow has raucous song to share.
Expect that darkness patterns into bright.
Begrudge no fallen logs along the way,
and leave the cabin door without a lock.
Come back with shadows for the close of day.
Exchange for every loaf of bread a rock.
And when the guest comes, expecting a surprise,
have faith the yeast will make the granite rise.

Taylor Graham

back to home page