Time for Poetry: Playing with Words

Our focus for this assignment was wordplay. Taking some ideas from this wonderful site, PBS’ ”Fooling with Words,” with Bill Moyers, my Creative Writing class examined the interesting uses of language in which poets regularly and necessarily engage.

Poetry requires an economy of language that other forms of writing don’t demand.  Every word matters; any one word can turn the entire piece.

First, we examined the wordplay in several poems.  When I was able to find a video of the poets reading his or her work, we enjoyed those.  See “Come, Celebrate with Me” by Lucille Clifton and “Jump, Mama” by Kurtis Lamkin.

After this examination, I wanted students to write poems that played with words.  I asked each student to make a list of his or her favorite and least favorite words.   For the record, I despise the word “moist,” but really, who doesn’t?

At first, the list was mostly full of adjectives, and many of the words were abstract.  I didn’t anticipate this, but now I think this is natural for developing writers: they tend to rely primarily on adjectives to do the work of description and elaboration. Nouns and verbs are the power behind strong writing; I would contend that the verb is the engine of the sentence.

In an effort to add more powerful words to the list, after I collected words from the lists they had written in their notebooks, I grouped the words according to parts of speech. We then began filling in the categories where we had fewer words: nouns and verbs.

Here is the list we generated. I had each student copy the class list into the writer’s notebook. This is from my notebook:


When we were satisfied that our list was long enough, I asked the students to create a poem from the word list.  The instructions were something like this:

1.  Mark at least five words from the class word list that you can use in a poem.

2. Optional: Add a few words that you didn’t share from your personal list.

3. Optional: Use more or even all of the words from the class list to create your poem.

4. Create a poem based on the words you have chosen.

As you can see, I marked several more than five words from the list.  I started with only five, I promise, but I got a bit carried away.

To create a poem, I first organized the list of words into phrases, a task that was made easier by grouping the words into parts of speech.  In the bottom corner of the picture of the list of words, you can see my phrase brainstorming.  Here they are:

1. superior kaleidoscope

2. pungent trinkets

3. subjugate the spatula

4. majestic peasant

5. breathe the spectrum of serendipity

Here is my poem, unrevised.

I, the majestic peasant

breathe the spectrum of serendipity

as I dream

of superior kaleidoscopes

and pungent trinkets

that smirk

as they

subjugate the spatula

who, flabbergasted.

escapes the labyrinth,


their melancholy.


My students did not join me in trying to use all the words from the list; they more or less followed the directions, choosing five words from the class list, possibly adding a few of their own words.  They tended to gravitate toward the adjectives, but I did notice more incorporation of verbs.  This exercise lasted less than 30 minutes, so there was no time to revise our initial attempts.

I realized how much I enjoy the unexpected when using words in poetry.  As I was completing this exercise for myself, I came to a realization about sound devices and figurative language in poetry that analysis has never given me: putting words together for the sake of how they sound or for the surprise of the phrase is simply delightful.  This experience of reveling in language is something different from writing prose.

I think I will revise this poem somehow.  It’s fun as it is, but I’m not satisfied that it’s finished. As my students begin collecting their poetry for a portfolio, I’m excited to do the same.


  1. “subjugate the spatula” I think you have an opportunity for a thrilling piece of prose from this line alone! I love moving back and forth between poetry and prose. I’m always surprised by the connections formed through the act of playing with form. Now, I’m inspired to collect powerful words–verbs in particular–from poems to see what I can come up with.


    1. Thanks Audrey! I really liked that line as well. I do think this exercise, at least for me, was probably more valuable in generating ideas for more writing than it was in actually creating a satisfying poetry. It’s like Billy Collins says, “The trouble with poetry is that it leads to the writing of more poetry.” Or something like that.


  2. I like the exercise, but that’s such a touch list of words. If words were building blocks, maybe five of those on the list have right angles. The others are such odd shapes, sure to slide apart if you try to stack them.

    Take, instead, the lexicon from “Come, Celebrate with Me” and “Jump, Mama.” As a list of words, the only thing that would stand out is a bit of slang. It’s not the words. It’s what they do.

    An interesting follow-up exercise could start with a paragraph or two from a newspaper article. Not many adjectives to find, but lots of nouns and careful verbs. Use those words (or maybe a sentence or phrase taken directly from the article) and describe a scene or an activity, using the same amount of space on the page.


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