“there was an old man from Nantucket …”

Ahoy there, mateys! It’s Week 13 here at Library Life Hack and we’re setting sail on a wacky adventure with the English language. I’m learning to write poetry with the help of Jack Prelutsky, American Children’s Poet Laureate.

April marks the start of National Poetry Month, and this seemed like a great way to celebrate. Last April, I set out to write a poem on Facebook — one line each day — using a box of those funny little poetry fridge magnets. Each day, I pulled out twenty magnets at random and challenged myself to use at least seven of them in the next line of the poem.

I soon figured out that this rigid little rule made for a pretty disjointed narrative. One of my cousins commented that the poem sounded like “the lyrics from the lost Doors album”, which eventually became the title. The finished product could have been called interesting, provided that your definition of “interesting” is “sounds like it was written by someone who has been abusing hallucinogens for a long time”. In case you think I’m being modest, here it is in full:


But it’s a brand new April, and I’m picking up the pen again. This time, though, I got smart and looked for some professional guidance. Since I couldn’t find books designed to teach adults how to write poetry, I went looking in the children’s department of my home library.

Jack Prelutsky is a best-selling children’s poet and his book “Pizza, Pigs and Poetry” looked like a lot of fun. Prelutsky’s poems are interwoven with stories about his childhood (he grew up in the Bronx) and twenty different tips designed to get you writing. Here’s a smattering of my exercises. Most of it is written about my editorial assistant, Jack the Cat:

Tip #11
Write a Haiku

Jack has a few peculiar habits. For example, as soon as he’s finished using his catbox, he takes a victory lap around the house, running pell-mell through the rooms. Then he comes to an abrupt halt and calmly starts to groom. This seemed like the perfect subject for a haiku:

jack the cat
small feet dash about
my litterbox warrior
triumphant again

Tip #17
Write From An Unusual Point of View

This was a good one. I wrote from the point of view of my car. (While you’re reading it, you can imagine it has a really whiny voice — like C3PO from the Star Wars movies.)

PT Cruiser’s Lament
Foolish woman, forever riding my clutch.
Who taught her to drive?
I mean, really.
Lets my radiator leak for months;
And don’t get me started on my spark plugs.
You’d think she had a phobia of car washes.
And her taste in music!
I cannot imagine what other drivers think
When she pulls up alongside them,
Screeching the opening song from
“Jesus Christ Superstar”.
Her only saving grace
Is that she was smart enough
To find a good mechanic.

Tip #16
Start With a Single Word and Construct a Poem With Rhyming Words

Of course, I started with “cat”.

Jack the Cat
I have a cat.
His name is Jack.
He likes to snack,
So he’s a little bit fat.
I think Jack should wear a hat
But he’d rather steal my yoga mat.
Jack’s teeth chatter
When he sees a bird.
It doesn’t matter
That the bird is outside, and hasn’t heard.
If you sit with my cat,
Whose name is Jack;
And give him a pat
On his little back,
He will be your friend.

(Don’t you like how I gave the poem a surprise ending with a word that doesn’t rhyme?)

I hope I’m adequately conveying how much fun this has been. Really, it’s a silly, creative hoot.

Putting on Serious Shoes
Now libraries are, of course, not all about static resources like books, CDs and DVDs. They also offer programs. On April 12, my home library is hosting an “Evening of Poetry”, starring real poets giving real readings — and offering open mike time for poets who want to just give it a go. So … having had some fun writing terrible off-the-cuff practice poetry, I’m challenging myself to try and create a reasonably good poem with my favourite line out of the “Lyrics from the Lost Doors Album”:

“Open empty deep green smoke
& paint that absurd soft picture to me.”

It always sounded to my ears like a jazz club in 1920’s Paris.

I can only hope that they don’t throw things. Or throw up.

And I’ll keep you posted.

The Numbers
Now, as silly and fun as all of this has been, people do pay real money to be taught how to write poetry. And having been through Jack Prelutsky’s book, I think it would make a perfectly terrific first poetry course for an adult. The twenty exercises (disguised as tips) would unleash the creative spark in any of us.

For example, Metro College in my hometown of Edmonton offers a six-week, 12-lesson online poetry course for $139. I checked out the syllabus and it doesn’t look nearly as comprehensive as “Pizza, Pigs and Poetry”. I also think that the book is infinitely more practical, with a “get down to it” approach — as opposed to a lot of theory.

“Pizza, Pigs and Poetry” is not available on amazon.ca, but it’s priced at $17.10 on chapters.indigo.ca. Add to that the $139 you’ve saved by learning poetry from Jack Prelutsky and this week’s life hack is worth $156.10. Cha-ching!

Here’s the scoop on this week’s book:

Pizza Pigs And Poetry:
How to Write a Poem
Written by Jack Prelutsky
Published by Harper Collins
Released Feb 14, 2008
ISBN 0061434493

And Here’s a Challenge for You
Thank you for reading all the way down here. Here’s your reward, faithful reader!

A haiku is a poem with exactly seventeen syllables. They’re fast and easy to write, so I’ll challenge you to take the most unlikely topic you can think of and write a haiku about it — in ten minutes or less. I bet you can do it. In fact, if you do it and post it in the comments below, I’ll send the first person who posts a haiku their very own copy of “Pizza, Pigs and Poetry”.

And that’s it! Join us next week, when we investigate whether or not it’s possible to life hack French pastry.

And if you’re interested in seeing what other people are doing to celebrate National Poetry Month, check out napowrimo.net. Have a great week!

P.S. Update on the now-infamous Week 8 sweater: I finished the front! That means the two biggest pieces are done. Next up are the sleeves – stay tuned.


5 thoughts on ““there was an old man from Nantucket …”

  1. If in doubt, ask a Librarian! Use the subject heading Poetry — Authorship and you’ll find several adult books on how to write poetry, although Prelutsky seems to have steered you in the “write” direction. Great job on Friday Sally! I love dark and twisted writing, not to mention The Doors.


  2. I loved your poem too! And I missed you at the end so I couldn’t tell you my story. Years ago, my brother came to my house and wrote “Hit The True Gorgeous Sausage Car” on my fridge with my magnet poetry. It’s there to this day. If I need to laugh, all I have to do is say those six words. I’m laughing now!

    Kimmy Beach


    • Kimmy, I’m honoured to find you commenting on my blog! Thank you very much. The story is great — I’m laughing too. (And wondering why “sausage” never turned up in my magnet set …)

      I put links to your site and Shawna’s on the follow-up page to this post — you can find it under “Check-Backs”. Thanks again!


  3. Pingback: My Favourite Edmonton Blogs - I Heart Edmonton

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