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December 2018

There are a lot more places online and in books to find writing prompts than there were when Poets Online first appeared in 1998. What we hoped to offer with the website was not just a prompt and a model poem, but the possibility to publish your response to the prompt online. Twenty years ago, putting your poem online did not really count as being "published" in the eyes of journals and other print publications. That has changed. First publishing a poem on many online journals (Poets Online included) counts as publication. And a number of new and established magazines and journals have become accepted as respected online publishers. (Narrative and Mudlark are examples.)

Poets & Writers Magazine  (PW) offers prompts. Diane Lockward offers a prompt and craft section in her monthly newsletter, and has published three craft books full of poetry prompts.

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk...
writes Frank O’Hara at the start of one of his lunch poems, “A Step Away From Them.” So often, we miss out on the potential for inspiration from our daily routines, passing muses on morning commutes, lunch breaks, or evening strolls. T. PW suggested as a prompt that you go out into your neighborhood with no set destination, carrying a notepad, and invent background narratives, involve your senses, and record sounds and overheard phrases. For your poem, start with the time of day (“It’s eight in the morning,” or “It’s my lunch hour,” or “It’s midnight”) and take the reader through the streets with you.

Leslie Schwartz wrote at PW that “Mary Oliver used to walk in the woods with a notebook. Walking so inspired her that she kept pens in the trees so if an idea or thought came to her, she’d be able to stop and write it down. Like Mary Oliver, my inspiration almost always occurs while I am walking, not while I am sitting at a stodgy old desk in my messy office where the enemies of thought—phones and computers—lie in wait to distract me. It is while walking that most of my writing takes place. Something about being on the trail in the early morning with the hawks, the owls, and coyotes inspires me. "

Oliver's prose poem "How I Go to the Woods" describes that walking.

This month, we ask you to literally go for a walk in your neighborhood, be it suburban or urban streets, or the nearby park or woods, in search of the figurative. Observe. Take notes. Treat it like a mini version of a walkabout or spirit walk, and perhaps you will find your spirit animal, guide or poetic inspiration.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


This afternoon my Dog my Muse and I
walk in chilly December sun through woods
where leaves have gathered their fall
in rain-damp mats under oak, and new
winter grass is carpet-tall where Black Phoebe
perches on a garden post, where in summer
I found Black Bear scat; disappeared now.
I wonder if its scent carries with flight
of the flycatcher into Liveoak’s blue shadow.
On our walks the Muse muses, and her
only answer is the poem, its lucent darkness.

Taylor Graham


Live someplace long enough
And it becomes a cemetery
Houses occupied by strangers
Squatting on the bones
Of Margaret’s cancer, Nancy’s stroke
The ghosts of Olshens moved to Massachusetts

New owners greet me
As I make my way along the Street
Dog less now for years
Past the Zombie, now restored and occupied
The bridge repaired
The soon to be abandoned school
Past the synagogue and church
Eyeing each other across the street
More warily today than yesterday

I turn into the hibernating park
Wrapped in a silk cocoon
But for the creek
That boils black
Between ice littered banks
A pair of Mallards forage
In frigid pools
Oblivious to snowball toting boys
Girls welded to their cell phones
The Black Lab, chasing snowballs
Launched by a young couple
Still smitten with life … and each other

The wooden bridge
Arches its back over dark water
A feral cat, unwilling to get wet
Just beyond, two crows quarrel
Over a dead squirrel
Winter’s gift to hungry beaks

Minutes later, I am on the street again
Passing houses festooned with Christmas lights
Landing strips for Santa Clause
One more turn and I am home
Safe inside and reassured
The neighborhood …
Changed, but still familiar ground
A Touchstone in these troubled times

Frank Kelly


If my TV hadn’t been stolen,
I wouldn’t be out here,
Walking through my development
Needing a break from reading Boswell’s JOHNSON.

The only other person out is a young woman
Jogging on the other side of the street,
Who I only see when she enters the cone of light beneath a street lamp
That operates by a movement sensor.

In that pulse of light, I see how tall and athletic she is,
How the sweat outlines her small high breasts;
How her long leg muscles are corded like those of a dedicated runner.
Just as she is about to leave her light

The one I’m under turns on
And she is momentarily startled,
Then she smiles and picks up her pace.
I’d like to think that my watching didn’t scare her,

But I know that with my grey hair and paunch,
Even if I seemed a threat, it would be her decision
To either outrun or outpunch me,
As I make my way into the dark.

Ron Yazinski


Every day
Up this hill
And down again
Or sometimes I go
Down and up again
Since I live in the middle.
I have lived here in the middle
For eight years? Ok. so maybe I don't
Poke my nose out every day and I do go away

                                                  [I live here]
On vacation every now and then, so let's say 350 x 8 =
Almost 3,000 ? [I'm very bad at maths] and every time, I swear
I see something new! Some little chimney pot I never saw before
Or a red roof that's caught the sun! Or a funny pattern in the sidewalk -
Sometimes even in the asphalt! Of course the seasons and the time of day
Aid in all this magic. [Trees naked and dressed are as unmistakably different
As you are naked and dressed! ] Rain and fog kick in as well. But I will know it's time
To go when I no longer find one tiny perfect moment in my travels. Daily routine? Nano Nirvana!
Timea Deinhardt


That spring Venice was ours - at least our little part of it
Early in the season before the multitudes arrived
There was still a chill in the air
but not so cold that you couldn’t spend most days walking about
from one sestiere or neighborhood to another

Our apartment was steps from the canal, close to shops big and small
though I preferred the small ones
selling not clothing or leather or pottery or jewels but rather the local stores
Bakeries and fruit and vegetable shops filled with chocolate, breads and cheeses

Like mice up and down the vias, calli and campi we traveled over the most glorious maze with treats at every end and in between
It was Easter season and the windows held the most beautiful displays of edibles
–they drew me in the way no handbag or pair of shoes ever could

We brought groceries back to our apartment like children with new toys
The Mona Lisa paled beside the strawberries I’d found – perfectly red and whole and unbruised
I photographed them along with the floating artichokes, fresh figs and colorfully wrapped candies in wooden crates

I never felt the discomfort of the cobbled streets or the press of others around me
I was one with them- swallowed up in the most wonderful of ways
- in the romance of their language; the culture of the ancestors and ancients
Streets and sidewalks were one; we were all pedestrians -
aside from the street cleaners, vaporetto captains and gandolieri

I was smitten- enchanted by all of it – the people, the weathered buildings, the chipped paint, the small simple rectangular street signs, the iron balconies, the small brick churches; the swaying rainbow of garments on clotheslines
And the window boxes with ivy and early blooms -where sometimes I’d catch a scent of herbs as we passed
below terraced gardens on our way to a local eatery where children played soccer in the courtyard and an old well sat in the center, shuttered and ignored

Back outside again evening fell as we tried to recall our steps home
Street lights playing upon the canal below each bridge we crossed
Searching for the familiar unfamiliar somehow certain of our footsteps
Upon stones, upon water, upon foundations of wood
whose trees were felled more than a millennium ago
We walked

Terri J. Guttilla


I walk to the post office almost every day. I start off believing I will count my steps.
Soon, after the number eighteen or nineteen I have forgotten the goal. There is a
new spider web hung between a twist of brambles and tiny footprints in the new
garden bed. A place of perennials, asleep for the winter. Again I start counting, I
come upon a black glove flattened in the road, then a flock of turkeys. I think
maybe I should count them but they run in circles and I can’t tell them from one
another. I stop to pick up acorns, I wonder if the tree they came from was a red oak.
The leaves on the ground are the color of a lion’s eyes, they crunch when I step.
The bare trees are laced sticks. I could never count these or the squirrels that call
them home. The post office isn’t far from my house, maybe four hundred plus steps,
but I doubt I’ll ever know for sure. And over there a nest I hadn’t seen before.

Patty Joslyn


This stroll along the
street of wan dreams
brings things into
focus that
are better left blurry.

Blind trees reach out
to caress what they can’t
see, and the face of the
laughs at their frustrations.

My hands are
powerless to stop the
sidewalk from retching
dead leaves into the air.

I am steps from the
door of my favorite cafe
but know I can’t enter
because the river rushes
between me and the door.

I will be walking
down this street for
an undetermined time
until the face of the
river floats in my bed.

And when that time comes
the trees will gain sight
and dead leaves will spew
themselves through my door
and joy will finally arrive
as planned.

R. Bremner


I walk, and so, therefore, I am,
   since walking’s what separates us

from those that fly, or creep, or swim—
   two legs to raise us from the dust.

We’ve walked for eons, out of Eden
   twice, so I’m told, to span the globe,

so walking’s what defines us, then,
   more than what’s dreamt in frontal lobe.

We take our first steps when we’re born
   and pace in anguish when we wait,

then march as one to drum and horn
   and rush to battle to our fate.
Aristotle walked to sift the truth
while students, stumbling, paced beside,

and Dante walked a sacred path
   to glimpse a vision sin did hide.

I walked for years to work and school,
   home and back again, round and round,

to learn and cease to be the fool—
paradise lost, and, again, found.

We walk, amble, run, trudge, jog, and hop
   from place to place, from here to there,

until our journeys end, and walking stops.

Robert Miller