Skip to content

Weekly Prompt: Borrowed Headlines

2010 August 6

A man-moth? (Image from a 2007 hoax).

This week’s prompt is inspired by the story behind Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “The Man-moth,” whose concept (and title) were derived from a newspaper’s misspelling of the word “mammoth.”  While reflecting on the poem in a 1962 piece, Bishop mused,

“I’ve forgotten what it was that was supposed to be “mammoth.” But the misprint seemed meant for me. An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for a moment.”

In “The Man-moth,” Bishop allows the content of the newspaper’s article to be subsumed by the wonderful strangeness of the misprint’s language.  She excavates the question of what a man-moth might be, and builds an alternative universe around the idea.  We are given a portrait of a subway-dwelling creature that is all eyes and all secrets, to whom the bustle of the surface world is threatening, but who finds comfort in the racing and lurching of the subway trains:

“Then he returns
to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly.
The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.”

I am interested in the idea of what might be done with borrowed and revivified language of this sort.  The newspaper-based exercise that I’ve delineated below is only one place to start, but I imagine that one could also get equally interesting results with another type of source: copy from internet advertisements, perhaps?  the names of dishes on menus?  informational text from a museum, zoo, or aquarium exhibit?  The possibilities are pretty well endless.

Prompt: write a poem that takes, as its title, a headline or article title that has been borrowed from a newspaper.  What fresh or alternative meanings might be excavated or derived from the headline’s syntax?  Feel free to tweak (splice, loop, embellish) or even completely ignore the article’s actual contents.

If you’re looking for a place to start out, here are some titles of New York Times articles that I recently came across, which I thought might make for interesting titles of poems:

Eight Million Bodies in the Naked City
Two New Paths to the Dream: Regeneration
Illinois: Invader Carp May Have Been At Home
What the River Dragged In
The Senate’s Important Lunch Date
Broadway and the Mosque

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS