This article is broken into two parts: a preview of how to write list poetry and some examples of list poems. Incorporated into the text are offsite links to other people’s writing, but to read my list poems, feel free to scroll down the page. Yes, I know this is promoho, but these are why I’m able to talk about list poetry. *Hint: the last “vacation” one is the best. Writing list poems isn’t just for poets. Flash and CNF writers can use it as a way to generate ideas for mosaic flash or Hermit Crab essay writing — or to clear a block. It’s a powerful way to build material.
Writing List Poems
Writing list poetry is a great way to jumpstart your poetry writing. Use it to generate creative material or organize and refine it into finished works. Lists can be as short as a couple of words or extended into more descriptive passages or complete thoughts like a Zuihitsu. List poems, also called catalog or inventory poems, can be simple inventories of objects or events, or contained, tiny vignettes that refer to larger unshared stories. They may also spring from organic, subconscious connections you make as you write.
One of the powers inherent in list poem writing is in the disconnects that can happen between lines. When writing lined poetry, even in free verse, we tend to worry about transitions, flow, line breaks, structure, and narratives. Reducing the creative process to itemized lists frees the mind from these constraints, opening up a space for unexpected free associations or “barely connections.”
Constraints in List Poem Writing
There are no hard rules for writing list poems, but setting your own constraints can help you ease into the writing process. Poet Rob Carney suggests limiting list poems to ten items as a workable constraint in his guest post on Trish Hopkin’s site. I too respond to this number, and it’s a good fit for the average attention span (think about the 10 Ways To blog posts), I’ve also written much longer list-type poems, including a vacation diary written over several days and an abecedarian list or Zuihitsuish-type poem (scroll down for examples). Note that the Carney article has some good suggestions for relating your list items.
Lead-in Words for List Poems
Joe Brainard’s cult classic book, I Remember, while not strictly considered a “poem” is a short book of diary-like memory entries, each beginning with “I remember,” which is a powerful phrase for culling material from memory. I often use this when I’m feeling blocked and it produces some useful writing fodder.
Many writers have written list poems beginning with “because” which makes the poem an explanation for something. Major Jackson wrote a wonderful one, “Why I Write Poetry,” which explains just that. It was published in Ploughshares. Find it on Project Muse. Ellen Bass also published a list-type poem titled, simply, “Because” with more expanded “explanations” in which the “because” repetition is used to drive the poem. In “Soulwork,” Tracy K. Smith uses “one’s” in a restricted repetition bursting with tension from the variance of soul tasks in each line.
So using repetitive words to trigger memories or a poem purpose is one way to write a list poem, but restricting a list to an array of short descriptions of objects is another. What can an object refer to outside of itself and how might an object engage with time? Many writers have written about things/objects in grief, as those of us who go through it are usually confronted with the possessions of the departed. It’s powerful stuff.
One of my favorite list poems, which has been used as a springboard by many other poets, is by Ted Berrigan, “People Who Died.” It is a fairly straightforward list of people he knew, the dates they died, and the cause of death. Despite its simplicity, it packs a powerful punch.
More Creative Ways to Use Lists
List poems need not be limited to a single list. Multiple lists can converse with each other, or a list may be incorporated into a longer work or different form. I often use them to punctuate a poem or create offset stanzas or fragments, something akin to breaking into song. Feel free to be creative with them. Also, lists may be numbered, bulleted, or begin with emojis or scribbles, but how you choose to display them is as important as the words.
Gratitude lists, which are wonderful to write when you’re feeling depressed, angry, or frustrated, can also be made into list poems (see the examples below).
Using found lists and altering them is yet another fun way to incorporate lists into your writing. Don’t be afraid to get experimental with this. And if you are able to produce a good poem from an actual food or chore list, kudos to you! Actions, objects, inventories, chronologies, grievances, no matter what you start with, list poetry is a fun and differently angled approach to writing.
6 More List Poems
- Let Me Begin Again – Major Jackson
- Abecedarian for the Man Who Claims Birth Control Goes Against Nature – Grace MacNair
- Inventory – Dorothy Parker
- The End of Poetry – Ada Limon
- When I Grow Up I Want To Be a List of Further Possibilities – Chen Chen
- Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude – Ross Gay
Examples of List Poems Written by Koss #CW
While I’ve given links to some poems above, I’ll share some of the work I’ve published below. #CW there may be abuse, grief or suicide triggers in these.
Gratitudes (published in Scissors and Spackle)
deep morning sleep in the black nest
today’s cooler wind singing
grilled onions on a vegetable patty
someone’s prayer-like poems. published
silence. silence. silence. its sound.
someone who loved me for a moment
the dream about the bear across the woods
how congested things eventually crystallize
forgiveness when it comes
Ama’s crinkled fingers
the wind. the wind. the wind.
birds at dawn. they know things.
dark chocolate almond bark breakfast
the beginnings and endings
my booklist i can soon indulge in
the off button
adventures i had in my previous life
adventures before me
the accountant’s ancient horse who cares nothing
the way some things get easier
the word no and its mastery
letting the weather
Desk (published in Hooligan Mag’s Spilled Ink)
- Stapler shacks up with never-charge crystal in the open drawer; names not important; this is gestalt on my desk
- Random numbers, 0-77; anyone can guess
- Send me a job order and I inflate
- Three green beer cansy empty; two mason jars for class; plastic spoons—oily and translucent red; memory of vegetables; McDonald’s dollar drinks—erect, yet empty
- M & M’s, peanuts long gone; month-ago Sunday whoopee
- SQL book topped by dom industrial tape gun, everything a sexual-retiree needs
- Glasses no longer work but nerd worthy, the new backup drive failed also
- A dappled jasper skull with healing properties I don’t remember; Cruella’s refuse—once belonged to Max; not a dog in site
- The modem/router probably ate them; no things know the passkey
- Candykiller urban toy glow-in-the-dark in box; Max’s gift before she checked out
- Topped by wax-covered paper clips from the early 70s; Grams: relics of love, but who could tell
- Music I can’t listen to; George Formby if ukulele could redeem itself; those bitch girls who eschewed melody
- The Zen of web design from when coding might be transcendental or sublime or just an occupation unrealized
- Superhero women reside on the top shelf; their waists all too small, but dig their big musculature and tapered ankles; inside asses are kicked and Jack Kirby takes a stab at feminism
- Empty melatonin; a month’s grateful sleep
- The hemp oil salve, not a miracle; citron-scented fraud-in-a-can
- Everything I started and never finished piled on rubberwood; four years before; four years later; before Max; a life does
Things to Do When An Abuser Dies (Published in Hooligan Mag’s Spilled Ink)
- Hunt their bits on the internet and download their pics from when they were living dead and through you.
- That box of pins from the dollar store is loaded.
- Make a bastard collage out of ripped up them. Pin it to the corkboard and decide later. Or wipe your dog’s ass with it right now.
- Burn it or don’t burn it. Curl up in a ball with it wadded in your fists. Be The Raging Baby. Cry or curse them.
- Shit, you don’t have to wait ‘til they’re dead.
- Say some Hail Marys or don’t. Speak in tongues if that feels right. Take your head for a spin. Spew pea soup.
- Admire your own easy grin.
- Drown the photos in a fishbowl. No hurry ‘tho. You’ve your whole life, until you don’t.
- Bless the golden fish, their flowing fins, and their black third eye that sees without judgment. They know what kindness is.
- Ponder aloud how spouse, parents, friends cream all over legacy.com.
- WTF is wrong with them?
- Go out for a coffee in your car. A big seven-dollar latte. You can’t go in and wouldn’t want to. You vacuumed your car and threw out the trash yesterday, so it’s practically a goddamn limo.
- Progress. It’s okay to celebrate. Or just feel what you feel. Nobody’s watching. You’re alone.
- God is on vacation today. All of them. They do that, you’ve noticed.
- Watch the rain bead up on your half-assed waxed window as the gray sky slinks away from the green slow globe—the globe and the glass and the thing that howls.
- Turn on the radio, then immediately turn it off. Music just jitters the grief up from your bowels.
- Maybe that’s okay. Put in your favorite CD. That CCR guy with the nasal voice. He’ll croon your demons out.
- Eat French fries, which you never do.
- Marvel at the nearly yellow splattered by red, a fast-food massacre of sorts.
- You didn’t need the salt anyway. Something’s always missing. Health decisions gone red.
- This could be a productive day. Did the world just get safer or is this just another blip in the terrene?
- You’ll stay in your car instead.
- There was more than one of them and more than one dead.
- When you get home, you might even do an obituary search for fun or just discomfort. Count the creeps to sleep.
- Remember where the gods are not.
- Fuck it, you never confronted them! Too late. The way karma drifts from your grip.
- You’ll just have to level the score in the next world.
- Today’s dead was so nice, not intentionally cruel, just fucked up. Oh, but the damage they wreaked.
- No stations to arrive at, even as the clock stops, you can’t drop anchor on the right side of things. Neither could they.
- Lesson to tuck in your skanky hat: it bleeds and weeps no matter the intention, sadistic or stupid, a gash is a gash.
- Let your skin untwist from its binding into new air. Slough off the musky wraps. They were never yours. Let the stench weep from your pores.
- Invert the sun into your alien eyes as everything goes orange.
- Feel your lungs contract. Exhale the swarms of bees and let your blood rush through the wires.
- Who or how many are better off?
- Just let the body moil in this lightsome world. It was nearly driven from itself.
- (One is a [whole] number. So is one less. Or two.)
Love Song for a Friend (Published in Scissors and Spackle)
- Lit up each time you flashed your heart-shaped mouth and skein of largish teeth, your skin was so creamy and your boyish jaw curved like another smile, or echo
- Tried to understand your streaming red and yellow environmental fabric art the university grounds crew ripped from the trees—I understood their meanness
- Impressed you made ten bucks an hour delivering pizza from your cream Honda (that was a lot of money then)
- Didn’t stare at your mangled arm, eaten by the misplaced mailbox, but I wanted to and always imagined how it must have hurt
- Still share your stories: Vermont, your rustic lesbian moms, the commune school where you all streaked on parents day . . . You were so different from me . . .
- Loved your tangled black hair that looked so weird on occasion when you combed it
- No one had your swagger—ass-in, pelvis first, like you were packing in those badass motorcycle boots paired with a Navajo-striped woven coat
- Didn’t have sex with you when you were trashed and felt me up at the party You were with the coke dealer then who told everyone he was hung
- Didn’t have sex with you when your roommates instigated an orgy (you drove me home)
- Didn’t have sex with you when you dropped your clothes to the cement and dove into the pool after we broke into the Arbor Hills Club
- Didn’t have sex with you when I held you and you were so drunk your eyes closed as you stroked my cheek—we fell asleep, you in my arms
- I was waiting for the right sober moment, and then all the moments passed, but do know this was respect and with the deepest regret
- What I’d do to you if you were still here
10 Things to Remember ‘Bout Me When I’m Dead (Another Version of this Published in Rat’s Ass Review)
- I was a victim more than once, but said no and no and no; I’m the craggy boxing bitch, staggering through the bloodstream. Dig my damn red lace-up boots, I wore them just for you.
- There is no obvious winning, but the living is getting back up until you don’t.
- Defense mechanisms, only a few: if someone fucks me over, I immediately forget their name; this one only improves with age.
- Tend to face the world so raw and open, some call me intolerable and over-intense; I’m a one-speed train with a lion for an engine and a cast-iron cannonball for a head. Fortunately, I’m also withdrawn and frequently tired.
- I once traded shirts with someone in the middle of a busy intersection in Ann Arbor during Art Fair. Afterward, we scaled a fence into a construction site and drank beer in a bulldozer claw.
- I made some beautiful things during this embodiment—sublime turnings from the fallen box elder, some wistful paintings for the dead museum— people liked or hated, a few poems that got the same reaction; I’m, therefore, immortal, so don’t miss me. I’m around in your basements and dresser drawers—and staring back atcha from the thrift shop walls and the musty bookstore shelves. You might have to work a bit—look at the table of contents, not the spine. I’ll surprise you maybe.
- They called me “Stone” when I played ball; I pitched. No one could shake me, they said. I threw up in private. Secretly, I hated team sports. Could handle tennis, with the opponent safely positioned on the other side of the net. Skirts gave me the shits.
- Made my grandparents Easter baskets from age nine until they died. Saw grams through her last eight years.
- As a child, I ate garlic to ward off my vampiric parents. I still eat garlic. Can’t hurt.
- I dug karate too including kicking dudes’ asses—but quit because the power of it made me uncomfortable; I’ve always been a bit at odds with me. It wasn’t the real world anyway.
Through the Body’s Bramble (Published in Feral Poetry)
Arcing over geography and a sea I can no longer bear: the abject abstraction of loss. A body aches.
Beautiful things of spring: touch a dark cord: blessings tethered just below the frost line and its filmy iris.
Counting anniversaries: forgetting eleven each month. The body slows, slumbers towards the next shock.
Deep below the crust, magnetic poles torque us like puppets. Humans flicker like ice flames along the planes.
Earth has its own plan: we are its moments. It bursts on with or without our grieving. A red-winged blackbird lies dead beneath the pine. A truck trailer bangs along the road: everything a roaring motion.
Fire too, tangos with air in a bedazzling splendor, then fizzles to ash, returning to air for a final dance.
Grief, like Earth and planets, has its own course, sifting through the body, a bitter lung-clog, it slogs through the body’s bramble.
Hours, not ours, mark each failure, not a forward motion, but synthetic stops in Akasha. Another form of human waste. Insert the battery. Press the start. Run ‘til you can’t.
Intimacy, incremental or instantaneous: also immeasurable. Star bursts along a thin-edged continuum.
Jagged lifeline / worn off my palm? The fortune-teller held the back of my hand for a moment. Said she couldn’t find it. Another medium said I’d live to be really old. I’ll take an average.
Katzenjammer Kidz, one with the sky for a forehead, race across a cartoon landscape, filled with four-color, moiré-esque hope. What did Grandma’s child-mind find there?
Love is a phantasm. A conjuring. A written thing. A memory. A once-burning. A retina receives through its cones. We are moving particulates floating in the vitreum. Between here and there.
Managing life in pandemic: Alone. Jobless. Without you. The deer ate my garden. Every tomato plant. I wander in dirt-stained socks. You should be building fences and mowing the yard. Each cold night is a new marker. Each hot one, a British memory-ache. I don’t miss your pigeons one bit, incidentally.
Nothing is the place we met. Companions in the abyss. Nothing was your God on a shitty day. A clean, well-lit nothing, Hemingway wrote. Nada-nada in chorus. His nothing has stayed with me like a tick.
Open your throat, your Gemini heart, your windows. Let out the burning and I’ll watch. Keep my mouth shut. Do something right. Take something back. Stop fucking up. You’ll be alive.
Pioneers of grief. Each of us, in turn. If we miss this passage, we might be lucky fucks.
Queer grief has its own rainbow flavors. When suicide. Curtains rain down. Doors close. The phone does not ring. No blips on the cell. Three brass monkeys cover their orifices in turn. Grateful for this nothing space in which I self-actuate, like in those self-help books. Amazing Gays: a popular gospel we sing.
Ribs: Adam, insecure, pretended to birth Eve. Male persuasion. Denial. Suspended disbelief. And just ouch! Who penned this one? Pandemic: another what-the-fuck moment. Your mask is infringing on my rights, said the Adam to the blues. Who owns the air, by the way? Is this negotiable? “Creation” is political, as are N95s. I know you, Max, would’ve masked. You were so sensical, except when you weren’t. Our births, too, were political acts we owned. We birthed ourselves, didn’t we? As if we could write our own stories. Then you took yourself out. Like you knew.
Shiver, lilies, like your first morning has come: planted for Grandma near a porch long gone. You know how short a day is. Yet you return every year, even without my love, an encore to the drooping peonies, whose fragrance still overwhelms me. The deer didn’t eat you.
Tell me something I don’t know. Anything.
Undergarments: I should have stolen yours, but only took what was given. Thank you for washing our clothes. They hung on wood racks in your home like tired ghosts when you died.
Vixen and a contradiction. Fishnets. Birkenstocks. Nihilist. Catholic. Hitchhiking to your own twin cosmos. I love you, Max. I miss every bit of you.
Wuthering Heights, your gift to me, lies pristine next to my bed. I finger your inscription and feel you near. Your favorite book. I bought a used one and tore out each page, one by one.
X-rayed hares with wounded hearts spilled from your pen onto Bronte’s mess. What might we understand in the inking and movements of our hands, where we conjure our gods through our wounds? I’m sorry, but I cannot like this book.
Yarrow grows wild along the road: tea for grief or skin treatments. If I could only distinguish it from Queen Anne’s lace. You used to listen to the music on a skincare YouTube to go to sleep. You were so funny, Max. Happy about people improving their complexions. Tomorrow I will find some yarrow and steep tea and drink you. There’s much to be lost and found in the ditches and weeds.
Z—do you count the protons in a single nucleus? Or just let them be? Can you hear the small sound in its spinning?
11-Month Post-Suicide Vacation Poem (Published in Isacoustic)
- Aspheric wide angle on the browned forest floor
- Cabin musty of smells hanging
- Harley women warped on wall poster—30s—both long dead
- Man with short brush cut and beach-ball belly / fanny-packed in stars and stripes feigns straightness along the shoreline as his girl becomes one with driftwood
- Dogs couldn’t pee there
- Mammals couldn’t walk there
- I was tolerated but paid no money to get in
- I’m only partially a mammal and then, barely
- I should really have a garage sale when I get out of here
- Broken snowshoes make nice wall décor
- Soggy pretend barbecued chicken paired with flaccid yam fries
- I fucked you in my dream on invitation only
- Ophelia photo in cabin a bad idea
- Ophelia photo anywhere a bad idea
- Nothing happens for the best, so stop saying it
- Anne Sexton comforted me when you died; she looked so YouTube-happy talking about death, smiling
- Suicide is the ultimate jilting—really
- The frogs all start singing at the same moment
- In Australia, the cane toads fuck each other dead as jeeps drive over them
- Some things countries should never import: cane toads, ladybugs, Americans, Budweiser
- There were other possible endings to our story
- A choice is a fiction
- You people won’t break me
- Cashier dripped nose onto my grocery bag
- Lately, I only dream in written words others write
- Memory is pine-resin sticky
- Memory does not stick
- You said you loved me
- Freckles, just a smattering
- A whole galaxy, gone
- You should be here with me
- You should be somewhere
- I should too, be a somewhere-thing
- A magpie sits on the lampshade
- Even if it isn’t a magpie, I make it so
- Crow, on the light switch cover too
- The light won’t glow behind the magpie-crow shade: opacity
- I talk to you even more now that you’re gone
- I hope you’re getting some rest over there
- I still worry about you finding me attractive or not
- Humans look better in clothes
- There’s no one here to keep you alive
- Someone else drives your car now
- Inner self
- Inner tubes
- Yellow weeds grow out of sand, browning flowers, no assists
- Sun beats smooth like a skin drum
- Her short black dress sways opposite her skeleton
- A man runs up the sand, catches up, and wraps around her
- Mine, says the hand, the hand on the handy wrap man
- Her white skin shocks through black straps dropping
- Beach lovers, silent picture
- July is our anniversary
- Some July A previous July Better We met
- Some August you die
- Some August you will always die
- Flies are still biting my legs
- They will die for a bite as I slap absent-mindedly
- Their lives tiny
Day 5 What Remains?
- Sketched a map of your lavender in the fire rings, so when I’m old, I’ll find them
- Why is that woman traveling alone
- Not happiness, something underneath the sand
- I can’t believe you forgot your body
- The horse-headed boy gallops back and forth along the platform
- The old dyke at the rock shop was cold—does she think no one knows
- I should feel happy for the beach lovers but don’t
- A Mexican-American woman transformed her life with tomatoes
- She saved her suicidal friend with beaches, free ones, and screened-in porches
- I wish we had gone to the beach like we intended
- Wish you had known her
- Wish I had known her
- That couples’ footprints along the shoreline look like one, yeah like that Jesus-God story
- Those straight people do get carried and carried away the Christians
- Men are gods
- I found two shells, two halves of us, I thought, then lost them in the sand
- Took a picture first
- Thought a lot about twos when I knew you, splitting everything like a child learning to share
- You were splitting, away
- Snake emerging from the water is only a stick
- I’m a tape recorder Eyes Windows Camera Obscura
- My house is a head