Celebration and honor are two touchstones of the poetic tradition. With April’s National Poetry Month approaching, let’s write a poem in honor of another poem, and another poet.
Say hello to the golden shovel.
The golden shovel is a contemporary poetic form that follows a set of rules invented by the acclaimed poet Terrance Hayes in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, the former poet laureate and the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize. When Mr. Hayes created his poem, “The Golden Shovel,” originally published in his 2010 collection “Lighthead,” it was inspired by Brooks’s classic, and the name of his form came from her poem’s epigraph, “The Pool Players./Seven at the Golden Shovel.” Mr. Hayes’s created his poetic form in honor of a poet he deeply respects, and also in honor of something he does in many of his poems, play.
Poetry is very much about play. That is the joy of writing a poem and of being a poet. As Brooks herself once said: “Words can do wonderful things. They pound, purr. They can urge, they can wheedle, whip, whine. They can sing, sass, singe.”
Poets are always celebrating one another, as all poems are really inspired by other poems. You are going to do the same thing: Use what has come before you as inspiration to create your own golden shovel. In doing so, you too, are honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, one line at a time.
So, what exactly is the golden shovel?
It’s a poem that takes a line from another poem or text (often a Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, but not always) and uses each word in that line as the end of a line in the poem. For this poem, you will be using a headline from the newspaper as your line.
In honor of this poetic form, think about focusing your poem on the notion of “celebration” or “honor.” What do you celebrate in your life? What do you honor?
Here’s how to do it:
Be Picky. Search the paper for a headline of five or more words that speaks to you; you might cut out a few, so that you have options. Each word in the headline will be the final word of a line in your poem, so the length of your composition is dictated by the headline you choose.
Examine. Spread your headlines out before you and examine them. Which ones have the most potential? When you look at them, can you already imagine where those end words might take you? Pick one.
Credit. Be sure to write down the author of the article your headline came from, as well as the date of the issue. You will need to give credit to that writer at the bottom of your poem. (The poem above is drawn from an article by Jason Zinoman in the March 14 print edition of The New York Times.)
Layout. Cut out your words and place them on a piece of paper at the end of each line in the order in which they originally appeared, following the pattern in the poem above.
Write. You are ready to write or type your poem (you might want to do this on scratch paper). Each line must end with your end word, but your actual sentence can flow over into the next line, though the final word of each line should feel like some kind of ending. In the poem above, for example, the first line ends with “aching,” which corresponds to the first word of the selected headline. See if you can include a simile, a metaphor or maybe some imagery to evoke the five senses. Do you want your poem to “pound” or “purr” on the page? Then, focus on sound and musicality. Have fun with this.
Ta-Da! Write in your poem (or print it out and place each of your end words with its line). Congratulations, you’ve written a golden shovel. If the form intrigues you, check out “The Golden Shovel Anthology,” published by the University of Arkansas Press.