Poetry prompts

Created by Joseph Coelho

Discover 10 unique ideas for writing your own poetry. Will you be inspired to write a rhyme about eating a cheese sandwich, or make up your own wacky limericks?

1. The History of an Apple Pie

Have a look at the wonderful History of an Apple Pie. This is a brilliant example of a form of poetry called an abercedarius (or an alphabet poem). Quite simply an alphabet poem is a 26-line poem with each line starting with each letter of the alphabet.

The genius of The History of an Apple Pie is that it focuses the whole poem on an apple pie and the various characters that interact with it. Notice also how every sentence ends with ‘it’, providing a sort of repetitive rhyme and expectation as we move through the poem.

Page from The History of an Apple Pie, an alphabet rhyme. The text reads 'A apple pie, B bit it, C cried for it, D danced for it'
The History of an Apple Pie, Public Domain.

My challenge to you is to write your own abercedarius based around a different item of food of your choosing. Maybe it’s a lamb chop! Or a cup cake, or perhaps a cup of tea.

Just like The History of an Apple Pie, think about who has interacted with this item of food. Will you start with its creation? If so, who made it? If it’s meat, where was it reared? If it’s a vegetable, where was it grown? Maybe you follow the food all the way through the process of being eaten and digested (I’ll leave it to you to decide where you stop! It could get messy!)

The important thing is to have fun and to be as imaginative or as zany as you like. Maybe you will follow the example of The History of an Apple Pie and simply show us the characters that come into contact with the food. Maybe you’ll end every sentence with the same word, or maybe you’ll make it rhyme with different words.

Take note of the lists of rhyming words further into ‘The History of an Apple Pie’: words like ‘bad’, ‘sad’ and ‘mad’. Could you use some of these words to make your abercedarius rhyme? Maybe you’ll make every other line rhyme like this…

‘The History of a Cheese Sandwich’
A ate a bit of it
B bawled for a crumb
C Cried for a tiny bit
D dented it with his thumb...

Remember there is no right or wrong way to do it, just have fun. Good luck.

2. A moment in time

Some of the best poems describe a single moment in time. Grace Nichols’s lovely ‘Granny Granny Please Comb My Hair’ takes the simple act of hair being brushed and creates a beautiful poem that many of us can relate to, especially when we think of someone brushing our hair and getting snagged on a knot.

Typescript of 'Granny granny please comb my hair' by Grace Nichols
Typescript draft of 'Granny Granny Please Comb My Hair' by Grace Nichols © Grace Nichols. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Have a go at writing a poem about a single moment in time. Think of something you don’t like doing: it could be the washing up or brushing your teeth, or taking the rubbish out. See how much you can explore of this little moment. Will you address the poem to someone like Nichols does? Will you reveal how you feel about this moment?

3. Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense

I’ve long been a huge fan of Edward Lear’s wacky, crazy poems. The ones on offer here are brilliant examples of limericks.

Edward Lear's Old Man of Ewell limerick. In the illustration a man stands on a chair, dropping mice into a bowl of gruel
Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense, Public Domain.

A limerick is a five-line poem with a set rhyme scheme. The way they have been presented in Lear’s original book makes the form a bit harder to notice, so I shall recreate one of the poems here…

Line 1 There was an Old Person of Ewell,
Line 2 Who chiefly subsisted on gruel;
Line 3 But to make it more nice,
Line 4 He inserted some mice,
Line 5 Which refreshed that Old Person of Ewell.

Set out like this it’s much easier to see the ‘rules’ of a limerick…

Rule 1 – Line 1 introduces a person from a particular place.
Rule 2 – Line 1 rhymes with line 2 and line 5.
Rule 3 – Line 3 rhymes with Line 4 (these lines are also shorter than the rest)
Rule 4 – A limerick is often very funny.*
(*there are a few other rules too. If you really want to do a perfect limerick, check out my book How To Write Poems which will reveal the secrets of syllable counting!)

Writing your own limerick is easy. First of all decide where your character is from, try and make it a place which is easy to rhyme, try out a few place names and see how many rhymes you can find for each one that comes to mind. Here are some to get you started…

Chelsea – Bee, tea, sea, key, fee
Liverpool – tool, fool, wool, cool
Leeds – beads, seeds, reeds, needs, weeds
Aberdeen – bean, teen, seen, keen, lean, mean
New York – Pork, fork, talk, cork, stork.

Once you have chosen your place, you can start…

Line 1 – There was a young man from Chelsea

Ok, you have a great start. Now you have to tell us something strange about your character. Remember that Line 2 rhymes with Line 1.

Line 1There was a young man from Chelsea
Line 2who tried to swallow the North Sea!

Lines 3 and 4 have a new rhyme and give us more information about the funny predicament the character finds themselves in, and these lines are shorter than the rest…

Line 1There was a young man from Chelsea,
Line 2who tried to swallow the North Sea!
Line 3 – He gulped every last drip
Line 4 – and one cruising ship!

Notice how I included a crazy surprise… he drank a cruise ship! Now for the final line, Line 5, which has to rhyme with Lines 1 and 2. To make things easier for yourself you can do what Lear does and repeat the place name to get your rhyme…

Line 5 – That thirsty young man from Chelsea!

But you could also use a different end word, as long as it rhymes…

Line 1There was a young man from Chelsea,
Line 2who tried to swallow the North Sea!
Line 3 – He gulped every last drip
Line 4 – and one cruising ship!
Line 5 – From now on he’ll only drink hot tea!

Good luck writing your limerick, but be careful. They can get a little bit addictive and before you know it you’ll find yourself writing all sorts of hilarious poems, just like Edward Lear.

4. Sing A Song

Looking at Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (a 276-year-old book of nursery rhymes), there is a description of ‘Naughty boys bak’d in a pye (pie)’.

Sing a song of sixpence nursery rhyme
Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song- Book, Public Domain.

Can you write a poem about what these naughty boys did to be punished so terribly? Is their punishment connected to their crime? Did they steal a pie? Did they ruin a pie recipe? Did they make their own disgusting pie and make others sick? Have fun with your poem, naughty characters are always the best to write!

5. Tiny poems for tiny books

Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book is tiny and so the poems have to be very short. My challenge to you is to write three tiny rhyming poems for the modern age.

Tommy Thumb's Song Book, a book of nursery rhymes, pictured in a pair of hands. The book is tiny. The page is open on the rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock
Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song- Book, Public Domain.

Instead of clocks and mice, your poem should involve…

A mobile phone
A games console
A drone.

6. Sun-Gazer woman

Grace Nichols’s poem ‘Moon-Gazer’ tells us to ‘Beware! Beware! / of Moon-gazer man.’

Typescript of Moon-Gazer by Grace Nichols
Typescript draft of 'Moon Gazer' by Grace Nichols © Grace Nichols. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

But what about Sun-gazer woman? Can you write a poem about her? Do we need to beware her? How is she different from Moon-gazer man? What are her main features? Is there anything we must never do near her?

7. Cosmic dancing

In her brilliant poem ‘Cosmic Disco’ Grace Nichols describes the movement of the stars as a dance.

Typescript of Cosmic Disco by Grace Nichols
Typescript draft of 'Cosmic Disco' by Grace Nichols © Grace Nichols. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Can you borrow that idea and describe the movement of raindrops in a storm as a dance? Or the fall of snow as a dance? Or the sparkling of rainbow colours as a dance? Think of all your favourite dance moves and see if you can get those words into your poem.

8. Work that poem

‘A poem develops over stages. You will need to revise it, polish it, make it better. Make it into the shining spirit of your idea’.

Manuscript note by James Berry saying 'a poem develops over stages'
Manuscript note by James Berry. © Estate of James Berry. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

This quote by James Berry brilliantly describes the process of writing. Writing is a process and your poem will get better and better the more you work it.

Take a poem you have already written (maybe from one of the exercises above), get hold of a different coloured pen and start to:

delete any words you don’t like,
try to swap three words for alternatives you have found in a thesaurus,
have a go at adding some more describing words,
see if you can change the order of any words.

Play with the words in your poem. Let it look messy. When you have played and are happy, write it out in neat and read it out loud!

9. Hey diddle, diddle

Look at the brilliant variations in the illustrations for ‘Hey diddle, diddle.’ Choose one of the illustrations and write your own poem that would work with that picture.

Illustration by Randolph Caldecott of a cow dancing next to a cat with a fiddle. Other farmyard animals dance nearby.
Randolph Caldecott's Picture Books: Hey Diddle Diddle. Public Domain.
Illustration of the Hey diddle diddle rhyme in collage
Satoshi Kitamura’s illustation for 'Hey diddle diddle' from Over the Hills and Far Away: A treasury of nursery rhymes from around the world © Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children's Books. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Looking at Randolph Caldecott’s illustration you might end up writing a poem about a cow talking to a fiddling cat at a party on a farm.

Looking at Satoshi Kitamura’s illustration might lead you to write a poem in the voice of the dish holding the spoon.

Look at what the illustration you have chosen focuses on and use that as your inspiration for your poem.

10. A Book of Practical DOGS!

T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats has a brilliant title that invites intrigue and wonder.

Orange front cover for T S Eliot's Book of Practical Cats, showing cats up a ladder
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T S Eliot © Estate of T. S. Eliot and reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

But! I wonder what poems would be inside a book of Practical DOGS!

Could you write some of those poems? What is a practical dog? Think of all the different breeds of dogs, think of all the ways dogs help us: from mountain rescue, to guide dogs for the blind, to just being great companions and family members. Give your dogs names and characters, give them flaws and personalities.

For more poetry writing tips check out Joseph’s website www.thepoetryofjosephcoelho.com

Read more

Photograph portrait of Joseph Coelho inside an illustrated picture frame. To the right of the picture frame are illustrations of pencils, painbrushes, a pencil sharpener with shavings, paint palettes and an eraser. These are on a white background

Interview with Joseph Coelho

‘We know that nothing else can quite get across how we are feeling like a poem can.’ Discover poetry memories and insights from Joseph Coelho, plus five brilliant tips for budding poets.

Collage illustration of the Hey Diddle Diddle nursery rhyme, showing a cat playing a fiddle

Go deeper: Poetry for children

Nursery rhymes, ditties and songs – rhymes and poetry have a way of sticking in your head! What makes them so memorable? And how do you write a good one yourself?

Typescript of the poem Cosmic Disco by Grace Nichols

Themed book list: Poetry

Explore nursery rhymes, nonsense and children’s poetry including works by Edward Lear, James Berry, Grace Nichols and John Agard.