(My dog, Clover, is waiting. To pounce? To roll in the snow? To perceive a rabbit or herd of deer?)
I am not a poet by nature, which is to say that while I am quite fond of images and metaphors, I have always gravitated toward story and narration.
Yet throughout the pandemic, lines from poems I once studied have entered my head on a regular basis. I like the brevity. I like the potency that comes from a short form. In the past few months, I’ve been thinking about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, specifically, his poem “I am waiting.”
I view Ferlinghetti’s poem as a list poem, a rant poem, and a protest poem. For me, a list poem is just that – a list. Like a to-do list, or a list of groceries, or a list of grievances. That last list type is where the “rant” or “protest” comes in. Ferlinghetti does it well with his repeated line, “I am waiting…” because we sense his frustration, his impatience, his implied desire for change, although many of the lines are humorous.
For this impromptu writing exercise, I encourage you to take a listen to Ferlinghetti’s poem, for which I’m attaching a link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2JvdcbkgtY
- Pick one of the following phrases to be the anchor phrase for your list or rant:
- I am hoping…
- I am wondering…
- I am trying…
- I am struggling…
- I am longing…
- You may also fashion your own phrase for repetition, but please allow me to give you a tip on what to look for in such a phrase. Ferlinghetti’s poem works because when we repeat the phrase “I am waiting,” we get two short unaccented syllables – “I” and “am” – followed by a long stress – “wait” and then the shorter “ing.” That is why choosing a phrase like “I am hoping,” or “I am trying” mimics the syllabic stress of Ferlinghetti’s repeated phrase but gives you some of your own artistic choices.
- Set a timer for somewhere between ten and twenty minutes.
- Begin writing the repeated phrase, completing the sentence however you like. Note that for each item, once you begin to move past whatever “ing” verb you’ve chosen to explore, try to be as detailed as possible in each item you are discussing. What are you hoping for, specifically – describe it in a concrete way. What are you struggling with, specifically? Try to depict it with an example so the reader can really comprehend it. I find it interesting to mix the levels of specificity, like working in small scale with something minute from your own life, and then working on something more global.
- As you begin to write the list items with the repeated line you’ve chosen, see if you like it better in a chunky, paragraph format (prose) or in free verse (non-rhyming, non-metric lines of poetry). Since I am a writer who favors prose, I’ve gotten excited in the last decade about the prose poem versus the lyric micro-essay.
- I will be honest and admit that I complete this kind of exercise most often to de-stress rather than a way to make art.
Interesting Tidbit: I use Ferlinghetti as a model here because his “I am Waiting” poem came into my head quite frequently in 2020. But lots of writers use this repeated phrase device. Most notably, Martin Luther King uses it in his “I Have a Dream” speech, but Maya Angelou uses it in some of her poetry as well. I will admit, too, that as an English major in college, I learned a great deal about literary devices, and I still have my dog-eared copy of Sound and Sense by Lawrence Perrine, but my brain didn’t log the concept of “anaphora” until the last few years. It’s a beautiful word, anaphora, that simply refers to the use of repeated phrases to provide structure.