The List Poem
List poems can be a great way of approaching your writing, building up a bank of ideas and expanding on them to draw out the poem within. When tackling a list poem think about the relationship between the items on the list and the order in which they appear. Remember a poem needs surprise so think about how you reveal the concept, the pace and rhythm of the items and the final unveiling at the end of the poem. Here’s an example from Jill Munro.
A Catalogue of Phobias
For my mother
Thalassophobia – Fear of the ocean – hers. The wave-crashed girl, tumbled
like balled seaweed, gasping in glass light.
Coulrophobia – Fear of clowns – mine. Her badly-blown glass clowns,
dressing table-mounted, moving nightly, circus mouths
gurning as she feathered off the motes.
Ornithophobia – Fear of birds – mine. The owl portending
death, the chimneyed crow, omens she handed me, claws embedded.
Grandpa’s budgies, hair-winging, feather flaps of tail scraps, ocean blue.
Catoptrophobia – Fear of mirrors – mine. The budgies again, reflecting.
Vehophobia – Fear of cars – hers. She tried but failed to master it
when she steered my dual-control father into a ditch.
Koumpounophobia – Fear of buttons – mine. The rattle of her battered Mackies
Petticoat Tail Shortbread tin, the blistering silver shine of school
Didaskaleinophobia – Fear of school – mine. PE shorts, Sparrow Legs, PE shorts,
Sparrow Legs, notes off games, notes off school, repeat.
Disposophobia – Fear of throwing things away – hers. Towers of empty envelopes, contents
filed in drawers, the security of paper mountains building.
Lassiochemusophobia – Fear of losing keys – hers. The triple check they jingle in her bag
before, during, after slow progress down the hall.
Anthrophobia – Fear of flowers – mine. She’s planted dad’s ashes in a flowerpot
with a rose. I will inherit him, blight and all.
Necrophobia – Fear of death – mine. When she’s no longer here, will all fears
be taken with her?
Metrophobia – Fear of poetry – mine. Just write it, write it, write it!
The starting point for this poem was my mother (the subject of a number of my poems as she slides further into dementia) and a few phobias that have dogged her life. These interested me in their origins – from fear of swimming/water to birds and the omens attached to them. I had previously written a poem about a boy scared of buttons, being attracted by the weird and wonderful etymology of the descriptive words for phobias. I then further researched these which was an interesting exercise; the poem could have been much longer, there are innumerable phobias out there. I was also interested in the dynamic of how phobias can be passed from one person to another (and the other person creating their own, new phobias!). This allowed me to expand the poem until it became a kind of dialogue about two people’s phobias (some fictional). It is a straight list poem but I hope it’s an interesting one that raises questions the reader has to answer. There have been various titles during the course of its creation – from ‘A Background of Phobias’ to ‘A History of Phobias’ but I believe the ‘Catalogue’ title is a better fit for the list poem format.