Saturday, July 26, 2014

Prompt #193 – “Ing” and the Passive Voice

One of the things I tell poets in my workshop groups is that it’s a good idea to avoid using “ing” words. This, of course, isn’t a blanket “rule” to be applied in every case, and it can all get a bit grammatical and technical, but it’s good to be aware of things that can weaken an otherwise good poem.

The past tense refers to things that happened in the past. To make the past tense of regular verbs, “ed” is added to the infinitive, as in “I asked her a question.” The present participle refers to things that are still happening. To create the present participle, “ing” is added to the infinitive, as in “I am asking her a question.” A third option, and one that often works well in a poem, would be to simply bring everything into the immediate moment with “I ask her a question.”

So, the “ing” verb form may be used as a present participle. It may also be used as a gerund, or sometimes as an independent noun or adjective. That is, “ing” is used to form both gerunds and present participles of verbs. When “ing” forms are used as verbs, adjectives or adverbs, they are usually called present participles. When they are used like nouns, they are usually called gerunds.

Too technical? Yes, one might make a meal of the grammar, but it’s the practical application that counts, so here are examples of how you might want to edit “ing” words into forms that will be effective in writing poetry:

“Ing” Form: I was walking through the forest
“Ing-less” Form: I walk through the forest.

“Ing” Form: I am teaching the class.
“Ing-less” Form: I teach the class.

And, here are examples of changing from the passive voice to the active voice:

Active: The professor teaches the students.
Passive: The students are being taught by their professor.        

Active: The John paid the bill.
Passive: The bill has been paid by John.                

Active: I have placed an order for a new computer.
Passive: An order for a new computer has been placed by me.

Active: He has completed done his work.
Passive: His work has been completed by him.

Active: She has written a story.
Passive: A story has been written by her.

Active: My neighbors have built a Tudor-style house.
Passive: A Tudor-style house has been built by my neighbors.

So, in a nutshell (pardon the cliché), avoid overusing participles and gerunds; use them sparingly and only when they add a certain dynamism or a sense of “ongoingness” to a poem. And … work toward using the active rather than the passive voice in your poems.


1. Take a look at the following poem. It’s one I wrote many years ago and which appeared in my book Chosen Ghosts. Like many poems from the past, I look at it now and think of various ways in which I can make it a better poem than it is.

East Canada Creek

A creek-side trail in early spring,
the rocks and the water,
a narrow footbridge crossing from here to there…

I’m listening to the creek
as it tumbles and slides over moss-softened stones,
as it gurgles and lisps past one turning and another
and another. Such music!
I feel it like a dancer, with my whole body,
with every muscle on edge, especially my heart.
I’m humming Respighi and Schubert’s C Major.
I’m rubbing my hands in the bank’s wet clay,
coloring my forehead and chin, like a Celt, with its red.
I’m splashing in current up to my knees,
hooting and howling and chasing water striders.
I’m stretching my arms and my legs
and leaping with a deer into the thicket.
I’m walking through aisles lined with lupine,
with bloodroot and trillium.
I’m kneeling to pray where ferns uncurl into mist.
I’m sitting under the pines with my legs drawn up,
my elbows on my knees, my chin in my hands,
saved by the sorrows I love and this wildness,
so brilliant, so flawlessly clear.

2. Now, edit the poem by changing all the “ing” words to the simple present tense. Create an active voice (and get rid of some words and details if you think there are too many).

Here’s a quick revision (but don’t look at it until you’ve finished your own):

East Canada Creek                                               

A creek-side trail in early spring,
                 the rocks and the water,
                        a narrow footbridge crossing
                                    from here to there…

I listen to the creek as it tumbles and slides
over moss-softened stones, as it gurgles and
lisps past one turning and another. Such music!
I feel it like a dancer, with my whole body,
with every muscle on edge, especially my heart.
I hum Respighi and Schubert’s C Major, rub my
hands in the bank’s wet clay, and color my
forehead and chin, like a Celt, with its red. I
splash in current up to my knees, and chase
water striders. I stretch my arms and my legs
and leap with a deer into the thicket where I
walk through aisles lined with lupine, with
bloodroot and trillium. I kneel to pray where
ferns uncurl into mist and sit under pines with
my legs drawn up, elbows on my knees, chin
in my hands, saved by the sorrows I love and
this wildness—so brilliant, so flawlessly clear.

3. Extend the exercise and write a poem in which you use the passive voice and include several verbs with “ing” endings.
4. Then, edit the poem to remove most (if not all) of the “ing” endings, and switch to the active voice.

5. An alternative might be to take a look your own previously written poems and edit out unnecessary “ing” endings (and change to the active voice in cases where you used the passive voice). 


1. Words that end in “ing,” such as gerunds, can interfere with the flow of a poem and encumber a poem's music. Musically (or metrically) speaking, the addition of the extra syllable (“ing”) might take the place of another word that might add to the poems meaning or affect. Importantly, the extra (“ing” syllable applied to a word used to evoke emotion becomes a kind of stumbling block that causes the verb to lose some of its punch.

2. The crux of the issue is that “ing” endings can lead to passivization in a poem when an active voice and immediacy can buttress the poem’s power. Often a simple present tense works best and can add the power of immediacy to a poem.


See Above

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Prompt #192 – In, Above, Beyond: Prepositional Phrases in Poetry

One of the things you’ll hear in poetry workshops is to “cut the clutter” and that too many prepositional phrases can weaken a poem. In poetry, we usually try to eliminate prepositional phrases whenever we can. For example, why write “members of the group” when we can write more simply “group members?”

A preposition shows the relationship between a noun or pronoun and other words in a sentence. The combination of a preposition and a noun phrase is called a prepositional phrase.

Prepositions usually convey these relationships: agency (by); comparison (like, as); direction (to, toward, through); place (at, by, within, beside, on); possession (of); purpose (for); source (from, out of); and time (at, before, on, during).

The combination of a preposition and a noun phrase is called a prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition, its object (usually a noun or a pronoun), and any modifiers of the object:

preposition + noun, pronoun, gerund, or clause

preposition + modifier(s) + noun, pronoun, gerund, or clause

Assuming that you’re familiar with prepositional phrases ... and ... without getting into a long grammar lesson, let’s reverse the rule and write poems comprised mainly of prepositional phrases.


1. Come up with a subject and see how many prepositional phrases you can write that pertain to your subject.

2. Begin putting your phrases into sentences that describe or somehow explain something about your subject.

3. Each line should begin with a prepositional phrase and should include 3-5 additional words.

4. Your poem should contain several prepositional phrases. The challenge is to make some sense of things within your poem—not just a list of unrelated prepositional phrases.

5. Now, and here’s the part about practical application and your writing: look at several poems you’ve written previously and circle the prepositional phrases. Are they all necessary? Can you edit any out?


1. A prepositional phrase often appears after the word it modifies:

 A bird from my neighbor’s aviary flew into my back yard.

2. Like adverbs, prepositional phrases that modify verbs can also be found at the beginning or end of a sentence:  

In the afternoon, a bird flew into my yard.

A bird flew into my yard in the afternoon.

3. Here are some commonly used prepositions for you to work with:

instead of


At the Amusement Park

At the amusement park,
beyond the pine trees,
within the crowds,
under the roller coaster,
inside the fortuneteller’s tent,
in the house of mirrors,
over the first grief of loss
but still missing you.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Prompt #191 – Writing the Day, One Ronka at a Time by Guest Blogger Kenneth Ronkowitz

I’m happy to introduce you to this week’s guest blogger, Ken Ronkowitz, and to a form of poem called the ronka that he invented. I recently read with Ken at a group reading for The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, and his poem, based on a prompt that called for a poem to be composed of clichés, really blew me away because it was so much more than just clichés—there were meaning and purpose and a strong sense of craftsmanship that made the clichés feel strangely right.

In addition to being a poet with publications in a wide range of journals and anthologies, Ken has worked a social media coordinator for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), has been an instructor at Montclair State University, and an instructor in humanities and professional and technical communications at New Jersey Institute of Technology. His interests range from teaching, instructional design, and curriculum development to web design, blogging, and media design and management.

From Ken:

This year I wanted to take on a daily writing practice with my poetry. It’s not an original New Year’s resolution. William Stafford is the poet who inspired me the most. He wrote every day of his life from 1950 to 1993. Not everything he wrote was a poem. His 20,000 pages of daily writings include early morning meditations, poems, dream records, aphorisms, and other “visits to the unconscious.” 

I do write every day, but not always poetry, so the resolution was to do a daily poem. Stafford did go through a period when that was also his goal. When he was asked how he was able to produce a poem every morning, he replied, “I lower my standards.” I like that answer, but, while the phrase has a negative connotation, Stafford meant that he allowed himself some bad poems knowing that with daily writing there will be eventually be some good work. I wanted to impose some form on myself each day and I thought using a short form might make the project more likely to succeed. I love haiku, tanka, and other short forms, but I ended up creating my own form for this project.

   Finding a photo of her 

   from that summer when we were fifteen 
   that hot day behind the beach house 
   her bare shoulders, back, arms and legs—
   when I suddenly realized she’s a woman 
   and it startled me. It startled me.

I call my form the ronka—obviously a somewhat egotistical play on the Japanese tanka form. To read more about tanka, click here.

For my invented form, a ronka contains 5 lines, each having 7 words without concern for syllables. It’s important to know that many Westerners consider haiku to be 5, 7, and 5 lines counted by syllables, but, the Japanese language has no syllables, and applying syllables to Japanese forms of poetry has always been a Western convention. So … no syllable counts for the ronka.

Letters Loved

Old letters from lovers, not love letters,
but timelines of relationships like plot diagrams—
conflicts, turning points, resolutions, conclusions, mostly tragedies.
Why do I save them? No sequels.
Dangerous tinder to have around. Best burned.

As with traditional tanka, I decided to have no rhyme. (Even accidental rhymes were considered faults in a tanka.) I also decided to use the haiku principle of show rather than tell. For example, to indicate spring by mentioning cherry blossoms rather than stating the season. I started the year trying not to include myself or people as frequently as we do in Western poetry, those have crept into the poems. I have even added a few footnotes and links to poems.

Fathers and Sons

Sons grow up and leave their fathers
to become fathers and perhaps have sons.
Child is the father of the man,
said another poet, his heart leaping up.
Five days of rain, then, a rainbow.

We are just past mid-year and I have maintained by daily poem practice without great difficulty. I post them online at Writing the Day and each observation of the day is categorized as being from the outside world or inside the world of dwellings or the mind. I write at all times of the day, but most poems seem to come at the end of the day. (I also set a daily 10 pm reminder on my phone about posting a poem.) A non-poet might think that writing 35 words a day is not much of a challenge, but poets will understand that I frequently don’t write much faster than a word-per-minute. I also post an image (my own or borrowed) with each poem. Some poems are ars poetica or poems about poetry or writing.

Firefly Revision

Basho considered a Kikaku haiku as cruel:
A red firefly / tear off its wings –
a pepper.  A pepper / give it wings –
   a red firefly, was Basho’s simple change.
   Revision as a Buddhist act of kindness.


No, writing poetry is more like carving
wood and taking away, finding the heart
hidden inside, paring, using point and blade.
The danger comes from the dull knife.
The soft inside will be thrown away.

Some are observations on a particular day, such as this one from the Friday the 13th in June:

The Thirteenth

A thirteenth day that is a Friday.
A full moon to complete a triad
of  strange correlation without any real causation.
We look carefully for signs and connections—
find clockwork regularity; serendipity in the moments. 

The blog I post to has a “tag cloud” feature, and I tag each ronka with a few keywords that describe the poem. It is interesting to me to see what words occur most frequently: birds, time, the moon and tea have all been things that I seem to return to this year. Titles have become another way of adding a line to the poem, though I still limit myself to seven words there too.

I’m Not an Actor in Hollywood 

But I want a body and stunt double.
I want better lighting. No high definition.
More scenes and lines, 20 against 20,
gross points on profits, hand and footprints,
a star on the Walk of Fame. 

There are lots of books and websites to find poetic inspiration through writing prompts. I have been doing a monthly one at Poets Online since 1998. Adele has provided almost 200 well-defined prompts here already. My fellow New Jersey poets, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Diane Lockward have excellent craft books with prompts—Writing Poetry To Save Your Life and The Crafty Poet, respectively. William Stafford and Stephen Dunning’s Getting the Knack is a book I bought when I started teaching and I still dip into for inspiration. Daily practices have a long history as paths of transformation spiritually, physically and for learning a craft. Perhaps, meditation and prayer will be your spiritual practice. Perhaps, yoga, tai chi or running is your physical practice. You might even combine them—kinhin is walking meditation. Consider a daily writing practice, whether it be poetry, a field guide from nature, a garden journal, one page of that long-intended novel. Disciplines of the mind are a good way to a healthy brain!

Thanks so much for sharing with us, Ken!

Ken’s advice to write something every day is a suggestion I share (although I don’t always manage to write every day). For those of you who would like to try writing a ronka, some guidelines and tips follow.

1. Decide on a subject for your ronka.
2. Compose your poem in five lines—each line must contain 7 words (no more, no less).
3. Don’t be concerned with syllables, only the number of words in each of your five lines.
4. Avoid rhyming (although alliteration, assonance, and anaphora are okay to create a sense of music in your poem).
5. Instead of just telling about your subject, include things that suggest, for example, the season or time of year.
6. Work through imagery to create meaning and an emotional center.
7. Think of a title (maybe drawn from a line or phrase in your ronka)—the title may or may not be severn words long.
8. Make room for some silences in your ronka (caesuras), and remember that sometimes the most important part of a poem is what’s left unsaid.
9. Remember that meaning should never be subordinate to form, and compose carefully with your focus on what you mean (what you want to say).
10. Resist the urge to finish a poem by tying it up in a neat little package. Your dismount should bring the poem to closure in a meaningful and memorable way.

Be sure to visit Ken’s website
and its companion blog

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All

I'm so happy to share the news that a publication date of  December 7, 2014 has been set for my new book, a collection of 53 prose poems! The book is already available for generously discounted pre-orders at and is up on my publisher's website Welcome Rain Publishers.

After taking this holiday weekend off (4th of July weekend), I'm going to begin the process of final tweaking and editing. So ... I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, here in the U.S. and abroad, and there will be a new prompt for you next Saturday.

Here's the book trailer!

From the Publisher's Website

"Intensely focused, compressed, and sharp-edged, these prose poems by Adele Kenny take the spiritual journey into heightened awareness of experience, place, and identity. Deliberate fragments, the language of dreams, and an occasional nod to the surreal combine with Kenny’s signature elements of striking imagery, lyrical precision, and compelling immediacy to inform an enhanced vision of the ways in which the interior life intersects with the outside world. These poems startle, surprise, and tell us things about ourselves that we didn’t know."

ISBN: 9781566493963
80 Pages