Here’s a prompt from Diane Lockward’s April 2018 newsletter.
Poem & Prompt
This month's model poem is by Nancy Chen Long. The poem is from her book, Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017).
What Some Things Are Worth According to Her Grandfather
Any job worth doing is worth doing right.
And any right worth having is worth
a fight. Remember, though, fighting
like cats and dogs is for the birds, while a bird
in the BBQ pit is worth two in the bush.
And any bush worth beating around
is worth its weight in glitter, even though
all that glitters is not worth a penny.
Gee, how many times have I told you,
a penny for your thoughts—
well that’s just worth bull (but not the kind
of bull that goes off half-cocked
like a gun in a china shop.) Speaking of shopping,
shopping is therapy but only if you learn to say no,
because no one’s island is worth a stick in your eye.
A stick in your eye, ya say? Don’t forget:
An eye for an eye pulls the whole world up by the roots.
And everyone knows the root of all evil has no secrets.
Besides, a secret’s only worth keeping
if it’s as pretty as a picture, since a picture sells
a thousand stories, and a good story makes the world
blow up. Surely, what goes up must be worth
double time and time is money, so take that fork
in the wall. Yes, walls have ears, but no voice
to spill the beans. And a hill of beans
is just one thing after another. But another needle
in the haystack, well, now that’s worth a second look.
Of course, what looks and quacks like a duck
is the wrong man for the job! And we all know
any job worth doing is worth doing right.
Titles matter as this one illustrates. It’s quirky and therefore quickly grabs the reader’s attention. It also sets a direction for the poem and gives purpose to its list; the title helps the poem make sense.
I love the dexterity and the playfulness of this poem. I love its cleverness and its humor. It consists of a list of pieces of advice given to the speaker by her grandfather. These items are expressed as common expressions, maxims, and cliches, all refurbished by being misquoted and combined with other expressions.
Notice what Long does with repetition. First off, she takes one word from the title—“worth”—and repeats it in line 1’s expression: “Any job worth doing is worth doing right.” That same word then appears twice in line 2 and is repeated numerous times thereafter. Almost every stanza repeats some word twice, e.g., stanza 2 repeats “bird,” stanza 3 repeats “bush,” and so on. The poet also often repeats a word from one stanza in the next, e.g., “penny” appears in stanza 4, then again in stanza 5. Repetition continues throughout the poem. Sometimes it’s just one word that gets repeated; sometimes it’s an entire phrase as in stanza 8 where we have “because no one’s island is worth a stick in your eye. / A stick in your eye, ya say?”
Notice the slang “ya say” in the preceding quotation and the earlier “Gee” of stanza 5. This casual diction is augmented by the use of parentheses, a dash, and an exclamation point. Small matters, but they contribute to a distinctive voice.
Long also uses rhyme effectively. Notice how stanza 1 is braided into the second stanza with the rhyme of “right” and “fight.” Such rhymes weave their way throughout the poem. Another rhyming device is near rhymes, e.g., well, bull, pulls, all, sells, wall, spill, hill. Scattered throughout the poem, these words make a lovely series of echoes.
Finally, notice the last stanza: “And we all know / any job worth doing is worth doing right.” Thus, the poet returns to the beginning of the poem, completing a nice circle.
For your own list poem, come up with a title similar to Long’s.
The Facts of Life According to His Gym Teacher
My Mother Tells Me What Matters
Father’s Life Lessons Freely Offered
My Twin’s Cranky List of Complaints
Before you begin your draft, compile a list of common expressions. Here are some possibilities to choose from but feel free to supplement with others.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
What goes up must come down.
Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Nip this in the bud.
Spare the rod, spoil the child.
A stitch in time saves nine.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
Kill the chicken to scare the monkey.
Dumb as a box of rocks.
Like a warm biscuit on a Sunday morning.
The elephant in the room.
Begin your draft, as Long does, with a common expression consisting of one sentence. Include in that sentence one word from your title. Remember to repeat that word throughout your poem.
Continue with your next expression and fuse it with another. You may or may not repeat and change some of the expressions as you go on.
Use some of the other techniques of repetition used by Long. Try repeating a word from one stanza in the next stanza. Try repeating a word twice in one line or in a stanza. Try repeating an entire phrase.
Join some stanzas with rhyme, taking a word from one stanza and rhyming it in the next, not necessarily at line endings. Also include some near rhymes and weave them throughout the poem.
Insert some colloquial words at the beginnings of sentences. Or you might go in the opposite direction and use formal, eloquent utterances.
End your poem with a repetition of your poem’s first line.