Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Poetry prompt: The pleasures of randomness

I get a little stalled sometimes, poetically. That’s when I like to invent little prompts for myself, just to give the imagination a shake and to make some new connections. That’s what poetry is to me—forging connections between unexpected ideas. It’s why a metaphor is the perfect building block for the art form.

I enjoyed the little exercise I played around with last night as I was poking around the Internet, looking at this and that. Because Google gives such a surprising and sometimes funny list of options when you punch in a few keywords, I decided to go exploring and see what came up, then write down the list.

My friend Heidi told me that she got a fun list when looking for a name for her child. She punched in “Is it legal to name your child …,” and Google helpfully offered options like “Lucifer,” “Hitler,” “Anonymous,” “God.” That is enough of a poetry prompt right there—the idea of a poem from the perspective of a person who wants to name her child “God” fires my curiosity. But these lists are little poems on their own, and I found them fun to play around with.

Actually, in trying to replicate Heidi’s results, I just typed in the phrase “Is it legal.” The results were pretty funny. “Is it legal to own a sloth? Is it legal to own a fox in Missouri? Is it legal to open carry in Missouri? Is it legal to own a wolf? To own an owl?” I like picturing someone rambling through the Show-Me State, a rifle strapped to his shoulder, and various leashes attached to a sloth, fox, wolf, and fluttering owl. I guess the sloth would set the pace, and as he inched along, he would totally piss off the rest of the crew.

That’s what I’m talking about—the imaginative possibilities of randomness. Randomness has the advantage of ameliorating calculation—and a calculated poem is seldom a surprising one.

I’ve seen this Google search strategy used for humorous purposes before, and I’m sure I’m not the first poet to see the artistic potential here, but the results probably vary a bit from user to user, and it’s fun to play with ordering. At the end of this post is the poem I came up with—there’s no rewording, other than the creative decision to occasionally remove the original word strand (mostly for sonic reasons), and there is limited reordering.

Incidentally, it’s fair to ask: What is the role of the poet in a piece like this? I suppose the answer is that I spotted the poem. Out of all the words the average person encounters in a day—and I found a source that calculated that figure at 54,000 (the number is probably much higher for avid readers)—I saw the potential for a poem in these particular words.

I have no doubt that poetry enriches our experiences and makes us more avid observers of the world. If you have a good poetry prompt to share—especially one that relies upon random connections—I’d love to see it in the comment section!

Suggestions from Google

would a person explode in space
choke on Saturn
choke on mars
choke on Jupiter
choke in the atmosphere on earth

should a person with shingles go to work
should a person with shingles be isolated
should a person upgrade to windows 10
should a person shower daily

will I die if I eat chipotle
will I die if I drink multipurpose oil
will I die if I have hiv
if I eat mold
if I drink bleach

how long will I live if I choose to stop dialysis
smoke a pack a day
don’t eat

do most mothers breastfeed
do most mothers work

what should I do if my child has a fever
has the croup
is breathing fast
is being bullied

how can I keep my child from his father
how can I keep my child from getting lice
how can I keep my child from getting sick
how can I keep my child from becoming an atheist

what should I do if I can’t sleep
have the flu
have the concussion
have a fever
what should I do if I lost my social security card

will I am
will I get married
will I see you again
will I ever be good enough

how can I save myself from depression
black magic
how can I save myself from hell

why should I save myself for marriage
why should I save myself

is there a man
is there a man in the moon
is there a man of steel
is there a man period
is there a man in that couch

I don’t want to go
I don’t want to work
I don’t want to do anything
I don’t want to be
I don’t want to live on this planet anymore


  1. Wow -- that's so cool. Love it.

  2. Do you know about the Google Poetics project? lol