I believe in making a list, both as a good way to get a poem started, and as a form in itself. Especially in times like these, when our rattled brains struggle to sustain concentration, a list takes the pressure off. Often, as a warm up, I will ask beginning poetry students to make a list of everything they have brought with them to class. Items have included everything from half a sesame bagel to a father’s last words, from track spikes to irrational delight. My point is that a good list gathers together the mundane and the memorable into something that feels like actual lived life. As the struggles of social distancing suggest, we are relationship-seeking creatures. Lists gather items into new relationships, connect ideas, experiences, and emotions both big and small, thereby making a container for new connections, contradictions and surprises. List poems can also suggest new relationships between seemingly unrelated things. Sometime I start my own writing day with a list of words I like just for the way they sound. For years, I have borrowed (stolen?) an exercise from the poet Linda Gregg’s essay The Art of Finding (It’s great! Look it up.) In it, she asks her own students to practice writing down six things that they have seen that day—not significant things, just things, and in doing so learn to pay better attention.
One of my favorite list poems is Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.”
Use this poem as a model for your own list poem with the same title. If you want, begin as Hikmet does, with today’s date, and the phrase “I am sitting…” Don’t worry about being poetic, or about all the parts of the poem fitting together. Focus on specificity and variety—a mix of the concrete and abstract, the permanent and fleeting. Write for 15-20 minutes. Keep your pen moving. Don’t read or edit it until the time is done.
Things I didn’t know I loved
by Maddie Kennedy ’19
I am sitting here, alone, not quite on Constance, not quite on the banks of the river, on some steps made seats. A front promises to come, stillness hovers everywhere, the trees join me in hoping for rain. Across the river, enough people to fill a house pass, not all at once, not together. I never knew I liked crowdedness, or at least I didn’t know to miss it yet, the cramped sound of other feet hitting pavement, of birds and fathers and mothers and dogs sharing here with me. I don’t think I like missing them, here, where it feels still quiet.
I don’t think I knew how to like strangers as I do now, eagerly, readily, with the blind trust of a relationship indefinitely at six feet. Can I trust that they are trying, like me, that they are home loving those that they love? I know everybody is baking bread, just like me, I know that each day, some child waves at another from the window of a car.
I know there was a band playing, safely, together and distant, in Roosevelt Park this evening. The grass is growing long, it itches at my ankles, we step carefully to avoid hills of ants. Castanets click a beat, I put my arms around my partner, and as we spin, I wonder if any of these strangers would dance with us. I know to love this moment, the itch and all, I know that I love twirling here together. Two geese join the bachata, flying overhead towards the water, as the sun sets. I know—or I think I know—those people would have joined, had we asked. There are so many I want to join us.
I know I now love this place, the shifting knowing of each house on every street, the remembering which porch swing I admire most, which dogs barking from fences crave attention and which need distance. One window down, a stream of rainbow folded hearts fade from too much time in the sun. The skin on my back matches them, pink-red from riding too far yesterday. Just like my mother would want, the woman I love won’t let me go to bed before she covers the burns with aloe vera, taking off the spines, waiting until it oozes, coating me with the sticky-sweet-sticky layer before we sleep.
Tomorrow, we will walk to the river, walk down Constance, sit and watch everyone around us watching something once more. Someone will swat away a gnat. The sun will set, the sky going pink over a deserted beer factory, she will hold my hand. I didn’t know I loved all of this, I don’t know if I do, but we are sitting watching the world wait for a return, hoping one day it comes.
Jenny Browne, MFA, is an English professor and author of four poetry collections, most recently a volume of new and selected poems. She was the 2018 Poet Laureate of the State of Texas and the Distinguished Fulbright Scholar in Creative Writing at Queens University, Belfast Northern Ireland in Spring 2020.
Maddie Kennedy is a 2019 Trinity graduate and Texas native. When she's not writing poems or walking around her neighborhood, she works in the nonprofit world in San Antonio.