That's the question I asked my poetry partner, Chris Valentine, when she suggested that we each write one and share them. I'd never heard of a list poem. Perhaps you haven't either. It seems simple enough. Stop, look, and listen to something and make a list of what you see or hear. Of course it could be smell, feel, or taste also. Just make a list of things that are in the same place, are opposites, are associated with each other. Could even be names on signs, items in the paper, headlines, whatever. Just gather a list.
The Teacher's & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, which Chris sent to help cure my ignorance, has this to say about the List Poem.
The list poem (also called the "catalog poem") is a very old form of poetry. It consists of an itemization of things or events. List poems can be of any length, rhymed or unrhymed. The original purpose of this descriptive, repetitive verse was often functional.
In my case its function was to get me unstuck. I seemed to have run through all the ideas I had for poems and figured I was finished as a poet. A one shot wonder whose one shot left some wondering. So I took Chris's challenge—there's a reason I call her "the wise one."
I volunteer at the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora and we have about a thousand acres of prairie with all the usual grasses, wildflowers, prickly pair cactus, cottonwoods, willows in the creek, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, bull snakes, desert cottontails, 13-lined ground squirrels, pronghorn (antelope if you'd like), red-tailed hawks, Swainson's hawks, ferruginous hawks, kestrels, bald eagles, golden eagles, mourning doves, horned larks, great-horned owls, and coyotes. Hey, there's a list I could use. I wrote it down first, so dibs on the list.
I went out to the Center and hiked on one of the main trails, Soddie Road. It heads north past a cattle guard through the short-grass prairie, comes within 15 yards of East Tollgate Creek about a half mile in, then continues north up along a ridge away from the creek to a spot where the sounds of civilization fade away. First, I stopped by the creek, took out my notebook, and recorded the sounds there. Then I moved on and sat in the grass as I got halfway up the ridge and recorded the sounds there. That was my list, sounds, not sights.
When I got home, I went through my notes and started a poem. It went through several, I should say lots, of revisions. As a matter of fact I thought I was finished with it and discovered it might be better if I removed myself from the poem and just wrote about the sounds. I saved a copy of the original poem and then renamed the file and the poem and revised it to remove myself from it. Well, I am in the poem toward the end, but only sort of tangentially, I think, commenting on what I've heard and its effect on me.
Here it is:
Sounds Of A Prairie Morning
Near the edge of the trail crickets sing for mates.
A meadowlark trills from a mullein stalk.
A grasshopper cruises past, clacking
its way above the grass. A painted lady
flutters by, but her song and wings
are too quiet for human ears.
The low drone of traffic on the highway
a mile away, the sound of human frenzy,
bleeds into the quiet of the prairie.
A pair of Canada geese fly over,
wind whispering in their wings. They call
to make sure the other is still there.
Mourning doves fly up out of the grass,
their wings squeaking softly as they lift.
A goldfinch flies past chirping cheerily.
In a field of thistles by the creek, crickets
are so loud they drowned the crunch of boots,
the gliding whistle of airliners sliding
into the Denver airport, and the growl
of feeder planes climbing to Pueblo,
Albuquerque, and Santa Fe.
What a cacophony of song. I prefer
the voices of the two or three crickets
who sing softly here where I sit, and
other prairie sounds that calm me,
the breeze in my ear,
its whisper in the grass,
the melody of a vesper sparrow,
the whiney call of a red-tailed hawk
high in the blue morning.
These sounds of nature quiet my soul,
remind me of my need for solitude,
remind me of my need to listen
for my peace and spiritual renewal.
"Sounds of a Prairie Morning" was published in The Weekly Avocet.
I think next issue, I'll talk about some other things that show up in our lives we can use as prompts to help get unstuck.