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Writing 201: Water

Today, let’s write a poem about water. And/or a haiku. And/or use a simile.

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Your prompt: water

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A murky puddle or a glistening lake. Amniotic fluid or your grandfather’s glass of Seltzer. A bath, a hose, an oasis. Let’s start this course with a poetic homage to H2O: today’s word prompt is water.

In case you missed it, here’s a welcome message we published in the lead-up to the course, with tips and helpful resources for all course takers.

Today’s form: haiku

Haiku at a glance:

  • A tradtional Japanese form, now popular around the world.
  • Three lines of verse containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively.

Looking for a more formal challenge? The first poetic form we explore in Writing 201 is the sashimi of poetry, 17 syllables into which we fold the essence of sound and meaning: haiku.

The structure of haiku is preset for you: three lines containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively:

The first line goes here.

The second one is longer.

Then it’s short again.

But the form’s simplicity belies its creative potential, as well as its artistic challenge: to say something meaningful and moving in such a limited space.

Looking for some inspiration by example? The Haiku Society of America’s website offers enormous collections of haiku.

Of course, if you feel that one haiku cannot contain what you wish to express in today’s poem, feel free to branch out a little. Write a sequence of haiku. Combine haiku with its meatier cousin, tanka, which follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern. Or write a three-stanza poem, with the first and last stanzas shorter than the middle one.

Today’s device: simile

simile (pronounced SEE-me-lee), like its name suggests, makes a connection or introduces the idea of similarity between two concepts that aren’t intrinsically connected, leaving an interesting mental image in its wake. It’s a fancy name for saying that cake is like poison, or that a baby’s wails are as loud as thunder. If you’re up for it, include a simile in your poem today.

Make sure the things you compare are conceptually different enough. Don’t compare apples to oranges: compare apples to planets, or animals, or sounds.

The main requirement for a simile is to be explicit: it’s a tell-don’t-show kind of device that allows you to state that X is like Y.

What makes a good simile? Opinions vary, of course, but there’s a lot to be said for balance. Bring together two ideas that are already very close, and it’s just boring:

This pearl is shiny like a diamond.

Force into proximity two concepts that share very little terrain, and you risk making no sense at all (though the risk might pay off sometime):

This diamond is shiny like uncle Moe’s glass eye that I just took out of saline solution.

Link two things that don’t normally go together, but whose connection makes sense in the context of your work, and you might be on to something. Thanks, Rihanna / Sia:

We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky.*

A simile can be as short as “black as coal” and as elaborate as full-blown mini-stories. It’s up to you, really: be creative. Try out a few alternatives. See what works.

* Fair warning: I will rely on pop lyrics for examples very, very frequently in assignments to come.

Photo by Keoni Cabral (CC BY 2.0)

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