In his poetry column, A.S. Maulucci says word games and thinking outside of the box can be a helpful way to get the most out of your poetry.

Writing poetry can be an enormously fun way to play with language. Fiddling with words can be very silly or very sophisticated. Or it can be both at the same time. The author of “Alice in Wonderland” was a highly advanced mathematician who fell in love with word games. In “Father William” and “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” he wrote wickedly funny parodies of didactic Victorian verse. He also went to great and quite delightful lengths to create neologisms such as “chortle,” “frumious” and “burbled” for his nonsensical poem “The Jabberwocky.” At first, it may strike you as totally bizarre to begin a poem with “ ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” but if you examine this work carefully, you will see it has a weird logic and a strange meaning all its own.

Lewis Carroll may have put a great deal of thought into his playful poems, but you don’t need to do that in order to have fun with your poetry. I doubt the American poet Ogden Nash, famous for writing such immortal silliness as “candy is dandy but liquor is quicker,” spent much time pondering those lines or designing complex patterns for his verse. But you may wish to write poems that require more thought, such as those that have a puzzle-like format. (Incidentally, do you know some of the biblical Psalms use the Hebrew alphabet in an acrostic pattern?)

If you’re the kind of person who likes to create within a structured framework, I recommend two formats at the opposite ends of the poetic spectrum: the limerick and the sestina. Each form is challenging in its own way. The naughty limerick is considered hopelessly lowbrow, but not all limericks have to be naughty. The Italian sestina uses a device of six words repeated in rotation to end the six lines of each of six stanzas. Choosing just the right words is the key to a successful sestina. For more about each of these forms, see the excellent book by Paul Fussell, “Poetic Meter & Poetic Form.” Googling each poetic form will bring up some useful Web sites.

If you’d prefer to just play with words without contemplating much regarding structure or meaning, there are some exercises you can try purely for pleasure. I’ve used all of these as prompts in my writing classes and students generally love them.

I stumbled upon the first one while visiting London. My traveling companion and I were enjoying a pint in a pub off Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury at the time, so I facetiously refer to it as “The London Pub Exercise.” Its more formal designation, however, is “Poems in Pairs.” Spontaneously, I wrote a line on a napkin and passed it to my friend. He read it, wrote a second line and passed it back to me. I added a third line and returned it to him. The game continued until we finished our first round of beer. I’ve used it hundred of times in workshops (the beer isn’t mandatory, though it will add to the fun) and I’m always amazed at some of the results. If the partners are well matched, the poem they create together is usually quite cohesive and stylistically consistent.

Here’s another one: Borrow an opening line from a published poem. Select one that is especially odd or very suggestive. The poems of Thomas Lux have some very unusual beginnings that may spark your imagination. Edgar Allen Poe’s poems will also work well.

You might also try writing a poem incorporating words that are highly evocative, i.e., words that are pre-loaded with rich and powerful cultural meanings. Mysterious and supercharged words such as portal, heaven, beauty, eternity, love, spirit, death, horse and apocalypse will act as “starter seeds.” These words have archetypal associations that fertilize creativity on a subconscious level. For a simpler version of this exercise, open the dictionary 5 times at random, scan the page, and write down the first word that looks interesting. Use these five words in a poem.

This playful way of writing poetry — in addition to being fun (which is its own reward) — can be a kind of basic training for composing more serious work. Dylan Thomas (“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”) revealed he wrote most of his poems with a mental template by which he could visualize the entire poem and arrange where certain key words would fit into the overall pattern for maximum effect. I’m certain many other poets have discovered and applied these playful methods for getting poems started, though they may be abashed to admit it.

Norwich Bulletin

A. S. Maulucci is the author of “100 Love Sonnets” and other books. Read his poetry at www.greentigerproductions.com