The Chain Poem —

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September 19, 2016 by Ray Yanek


Last Friday I took a chance and posted a short poem I wrote as an example for my high school Creative Writing class. I was happy to find that I didn’t melt or otherwise fade off out into oblivion.  It was called a chain poem and I got the idea from here at the National Writing Project website.

If you’re a teacher or a writer, I would highly recommend giving it a try, especially if you need something fun for your students or invigorating for your own creativity.

Basically what you do is, as a class, generate a list of words.  I gave the students a topic word–in this case it was ‘mirror’ (a second word was ‘window’ and a third was ‘autumn”)–and the students jotted down whatever words that came to mind regarding that specific word.  They were free to freely associate.

I then went around the room, picking people quickly and at random and had them yell out one of the words until we had about 8 to 10 words on the list, or in the chain.

For “window” our list included these words:








This activity also provides a great opportunity to work on word strength and vividness and the students actually picked this up on their own.  When the students, for example, saw the word ‘cold’ on the list for autumn more than a few demanded that we go with ‘chilly’ and a couple of other students wanted the word ‘brisk’ so I threw them both on the list.  

The next step then is to write the poem.  The students were required to use all the words in the chain and the words had to appear in the poem in the order that they appeared on the list.  Other than that, there really aren’t any rules.  They were to simply create.

I’ve also found that this is a great exercise for teaching conciseness in writing as well.  In order to get the chain word to work in the lines, a lot of students were creating these really long, winding constructions, so we spent a lot of time working on revising those constructions in order to say as much as possible in as few words as possible.

I also added in a little twist when we did the ‘autumn’ poem.  After we put the list on the board the students were still required to use those words in the chain, but they could not title the poem autumn or in anyway refer to the season.  The students were forced to think out of the box and I was surprised–really surprised–with the creative ways they dealt with the prompt.

Also, I’ve been involved with online writer’s groups have created similar word lists as starting points for short fiction.

So either give it a try with your students or try it yourself if your creativity needs a little boost!


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