Somewhere short of Charleston, at 39,000 feet

I realized how high I had been in Costa Rica

Where life was suspended in a tantalizing dream

An amazing dream that I never wanted to wake from

To stay in the baking sun at the Cape of Sails

and move at such a pace

That I would see every creature and be worthy of her seeing me.



Ben Franske

It’s not Keats, but it’s not dreadful and what’s great is that it was written by seven friends as they flew home from vacation.  It’s a group poem and this particular group produced seven poems that all began with the words “Somewhere short of Charleston at 39,000 feet.”

Perhaps you, your friends and family might just break out of charades or cards and undertake the joyful and often hilarious activity of writing group poems during this long weekend.

If you have never written a group poem (for our purposes a group can be as small as two or as large as two dozen), you have missed one of the great pleasures of being with other people.  Writing group poetry can be surprising or scandalous, touching or provocative, serene or chaotic.  To a large extent, it depends on the group and how many rebels are in it.

If you are doing this with a partner, the simplest way to write a poem together is to decide on a first line (this can come from a book, or from your imagination), write it down and then pass the paper back and forth taking turns writing one line each until a pre-determined number of lines is reached.   This works if you break a large group into teams of two as well.  Give every team the same first line and the same number of lines to write.  You can make this a little more competitive by allowing only 60 seconds per person before the paper has to be switched.

A little more complicated, but very, very interesting is the group poem game where you give everyone in the group a piece of paper and pen and have each person write the same first line on the top of the page (if you are very organized, you can have sheets of paper with first lines already on them).  The person who starts writes the second line then passes the paper to the person on her right.  That person writes a third line and passes the paper to the person on her right.  There will be many pieces of paper being passed and when the penultimate line has been completed the paper is passed again with the direction to everyone to write the poem’s last line.

If you have 12 people, try writing 12-line poems.  After that write some six-line poems.  Start with silly first lines sometimes.  Use the name of someone famous in a line that starts another of your poems.  It all works.

In all cases when writing poems with other people, be it one other person or in a large group, there are three simple rules.  First, you must read what has gone before.  Second, you must either write a line that keeps the sense of the poem going or a line that derails it completely but relates in some way, using a word or image that has come before.  And last you must all agree to read all the poems produced in any round aloud.  It’s better if you mix the poems up before you do this so you protect the anonymity of your guests.

Why not try it this weekend.  We don’t make claims that what you’ll produce will be worthy of anthologizing, but we do promise you’ll create a memory of the night when you and everyone around you tapped into their inner poet and began the summer in a new and joyful way.

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  • Millicent May 27, 2011 at 9:10 am

    What a great idea! And the group poem could be tied to the holiday weekend, with a theme of lost soldiers or family members who served in the millitary; perhaps the group poem could tell a story about family members in WW II or everyone could share a line about Uncle Ray or Uncle Phil (for example) and how they found each other on an aircraft carrier right after Pearl Harbor even though one worked in the bowels of the ship in the navy and the other was a marine. A tribute poem that also captures family history for this Memorial day.