Article for Students

The Image List

Starting with images rather than words can help show an experience, instead of telling it.
Photo of post-it notes of assorted colors sticking on a whiteboard.

Whether you’re writing a poem for the first time in your life or working on your tenth award-winning book, starting a new poem is often an intimidating and daunting task. “What am I supposed to write about!?”—this is the question that often stops writers before they start. The exercise that follows, which I call the “Image List,” is one I’ve used in every class I’ve ever taught, from graduate-level courses to elementary school classes. It’s also a process that I use when I’m starting a new poem or feel as though I’ve run out of ideas.

One thing: this is a timed exercise. It’s important to stick to the time limits because this writing exercise is based on the idea that your first thought might be your best thought.


In five minutes, make a list of at least fifty objects that are important to you. Remember, these are objects that are important to you—they don’t need to sound special or “poetic.” For example, your list might include things such as “the grass by our fence, Dad’s boots, the old woodstove in our living room,” to use a few examples from my own image list. There are no right or wrong objects to include on this list. Everyone is going to have a very different list containing a wide range of objects. The key to this exercise is to keep from overthinking—make a list of whatever comes to mind first. Keep your pen moving (or your fingers typing) until you’ve reached five minutes. Once you get started you’ll quickly see that you can generate far more than fifty objects.


Now that you have these fifty objects in your mind, it’s time to make a second list. Take ten minutes to list the first twenty memories that you associate with the objects on your list. These memories don’t need to be elaborate; think of these as notes to yourself. Your list might look something like this:

  • Visiting my mom in the hospital
  • Noticing the way the rain sounded against my window the night I got in trouble with the cops
  • Listening to Chopin for the first time

And so on. Again, there is no right or wrong way to make this list. Everyone is going to have different memories. Some memories might be serious, some might be funny, and some might seem very ordinary. Again, the key to this list is to write down anything and everything that comes to mind. After all, there is no subject too ordinary, too outrageously funny, or too serious for a poem.


For the third and final list, select two memories from the list of memories you just made. For each memory, make a list of as many sensory details as you can think of. Remember, a sensory detail is a detail that pertains to how something looks, feels, tastes, sounds, or smells.

Combine all three lists, and you have what I call an image list, a blueprint that contains everything you’ll need for making a poem. The image list is full of things you know, full of things you have a personal connection to, and full of sensory details. Just as important, the image list is devoid of abstractions and generalities. Abstractions and generalities can often feel vague, unconvincing, and unimportant to a reader, whereas the contents on the image list will feel personal, intimate, and convincing. The more a writer can show an experience, the more the reader will sympathize and understand it. The contents on the image list can be used to make a small poem, such as one of Buson’s great haiku, or a large, detail-stuffed epic such as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

To see how this exercise can be used, check out the following poems, each of which use the kinds of details and plain language that you’d find on an image list: “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” by Nâzim Hikmet; “Nostalgic Catalogue,” by Garrett Hongo; “Getting It Right,” by Matthew Dickman; “We Went Out to Make Hay,” by Stephan Torre; “To a Friend,” by Zubair Ahmed; and “Inventory” by Günter Eich.

This essay was originally published in Open the Door: How to Excite Young People about Poetry (2013), a co-publication of the Poetry Foundation and McSweeney's Publishing, edited by Dorothea Lasky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan.
Originally Published: December 14th, 2015

Michael McGriff was born and raised in Coos Bay, Oregon. He earned his BA at the University of Oregon and his MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener fellow. His collections of poetry include the chapbook Choke (2006) and the full-length collections Dismantling the...