Poetry Contest

Among the pleasures of teaching at Amherst last semester was discovering that my “Writing Poetry” class contained students of chemistry, art history, computer science and music theory right alongside the more expected English majors. This broad-minded, lively crew took up the challenges of reading and writing poetry with considerable goodwill, intelligence and curiosity. So, it’s a delight to honor that spirit, as well as the College’s deep association with poets and poetry, on this new page. 

Poets often set themselves a writing challenge—a crown of sonnets, a translation of Du Fu, 12 lines without adjectives. One of the great benefits of doing so is that arbitrary rules can push a writer into new poetic territory, helping to create what all good poems must work their way toward: a discovery. In Frost’s famous phrasing, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” A set of requirements, however strange, can become the doorway to surprise. 

Poetry Contest

Your Challenge

Write a poem that uses all six words below in the course of its exploration and discovery. Any form, style, mood or subject matter is welcome. 

1. Plunge 

From Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain.” I return to Dickinson again and again for her startling mixture of mystery and clarity. In this poem, even (or especially) the commas and dashes are mysterious, yet I feel sure that I understand exactly the sensation she describes.

2. Knuckle 

From Robert Frost’s “To Earthward.” I love the way this clunky word interrupts the poem’s stretched out, sensual lines. It seems so out of place at first (“knuckle” is a decidedly unsexy word for a love poem), but it ends up anticipating the poem’s turns and revelations. 

3. Commotion 

From “The Writer,” by Richard Wilbur ’42, a wonderful poem about the trouble of putting words on paper. Over the course of the poem, the “commotion” shifts, first describing the sounds of a typewriter, then encompassing the motions of a trapped starling and eventually the movement of the mind. 

4. X-Ray 

From “Another April,” by James Merrill ’47. So many phrases from this eight-line wonder have stayed with me over the years. Whenever I watch lightning through a window, I think of the line “Young storm, this house is yours.”

5. Boogaloo 

From Vievee Francis’s poem “Say it, Say it Anyway You Can.” This prose poem begins, “He hit her in the back of the head. Truth—finds its own coarse measure,” and it never lets up. It’s a child’s memory, a grown-up daughter’s lament, a portrait of a family and, somehow, it’s a dance. Francis was part of a recent symposium at Amherst’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry.

6. Lure 

From “Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain’s Muse,” by Elizabeth Knapp ’96. I’m drawn to the exuberant mix of tones in Knapp’s excellent Self-Portrait series. The language is cerebral and sexy, romantic and punk. 

Your Challenge:

Write a poem that incorporates all six words.  Each of the six words comes from a poet associated with Amherst as a neighbor, professor, visitor, graduate or friend. Each quarter in this space, we’ll present a different contest in the spirit of the liberal arts. 

Send it, with your name, to magazine@amherst.edu with “Contest” in the subject line, or to Amherst Magazine, Box 5000, Amherst MA 01002. Kapur will pick her favorite, and that winning poem will be published in our next issue.