Poets Online Archive
I can divide and define the "how to" poems I've read in many ways, but for this writing prompt I want to examine a type that gives both instruction and advice.
Let's look at a non-poetic example first. I could give you a how to on grow tomatoes in your garden that might include the requirements of soil, sun and water. I could also give you advice on how to choose a type of tomato or what method I prefer for staking the plants.
Is this what Wendell Berry's poem "How To Be A Poet" is doing? He says, "Make a place to sit down./ Sit down. Be quiet," which is good practical how to, but "There are no unsacred places;/ there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places," is something else.
In a way, his poem reminds me a bit of Wallace Stevens"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Both collect a list of observations, and both look at something from different points of view.
How to be a poet is too limiting. Google that phrase and you come up with plenty of advice. You also find lots of related how to's on how to read a poem, and how to write a poem. This prompt is wider. Write a poem that instructs by explaining how to do something, and gives advice. You might still choose topics poetic (How To Write A Sonnet) or not (How To Sharpen A Knife) or at the further end of practicality (How To Separate; How To Be; How To Tell Her). Use the how to as part of your title in some way (My Mother Tells Me How To Fix My Marriage).
There's more information about this prompt and previous ones, and the opportunity to post your own comments on the Poets Online Blog.
HOW TO SIT WITH SOMEONE WHO’S DYING
Remember that you are dying too -
Don’t say much if there’s not much to say,
Let death do its work on you.
HOW TO LEARN TO FLY
Not that my methods will work for you, but
I stood out on the sidewalk on a calm, clear day.
From up there, my focus grew and was lost.
I didn't want to come back,
HOW TO FIND THE FARM
His village is on the map.
HOW TO BE HAPPY
First, find people
Margaret A. Dukes
A Rondel for What My Women’s Bible Study Group Advised Me to Do
First, pray to the old gods, and then obey.
Each sipped a cup of herbal tea, the clay
HOW TO GET WHERE YOU'RE GOING
Take a train.
I want to follow this after I walk way from my home station.
I won't get lost.
HOW TO SIT AND LET IT COME
Lean the car seat back,
Sit and watch.
Sit and watch.
Now, put the seat up and back straight.
Breathe in, and out, again, and again...
Sit still and wait.
HOW TO GET LOST
Use old tools - astrolabes and sextants - and
He was born in 1934 in Newcastle, Kentucky and farms the land along the Kentucky River that his family has worked for two centuries.
Wendell Berry is best known for his nature poetry, novels of the rural past, and essays about environmental responsibility. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Kentucky and has taught at Stanford and NYU. He returned to the University of Kentucky from 1964 -1977 and then left to devote his time fully to writing.
He often writes about the need to live in harmony with nature or perish. A writer of great conscience, he is the author of The Unsettling of America.
In a 1999 essay, "The Failure of War," he asks:
”How many deaths of other people’s children are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent and (supposedly) at peace? To that question I answer: None . . . Don’t kill any children for my benefit.”
Portrait of Wendell Berry from "Americans Who Tell the Truth" -
The quote from Berry on the portrait reads: