Let’s Make a List

4-5 Minute Read

Aren’t lists wonderful? They come puffing along each morning, little engines of productivity, each one fuelled by the promise of staying on track and getting things done. And as someone not gifted in the dark arts of organization and time management, I can’t help but love where they take me. It’s a bit like having a ticket that you show yourself throughout the day, proof that you’ve been places, done things, and that at the end of it all, you’ve earned the right to ride out the evening on the couch.

But the wonders of lists don’t stop there. They can fuel our creative lives, too. Apart from their role in the rituals of the day, lists are also a tidy literary form, one that’s fun to play with and relatively easy to populate.

Even casual readers of poetry will have, at one time or another, encountered a poem that’s not so different from the sort of list that might accompany us to the grocery store. Stack enough items thoughtfully on the page, give yourself the freedom to explore how they relate and diverge from each other, and chances are, you’ll have something interesting on your hands. And who’s to say we can’t think of it as a poem? Free from the connective tissue we so often insist upon, a list can be wonderfully fragmentary, and all more suggestive for being so.

In a creative writing workshop, lists can also be liberating, as students frequently expect poetry to convey some sort of emotion. While I doubt that his poems are still taught as enthusiastically as they once were in public schools, William Wordsworth’s idea that poetry should consist of emotion recollected in tranquility still holds surprising sway over a good many aspiring writers.

Lists can help students break free from this Wordsworthian prescription, as they unfold in neither the past nor the present, require no personal pronouns, and are ill equipped to work through any of a number of Romantic tendencies. Instead, lists are decidedly contemporary: they pick up everyday items and hold them together, while still making room for any number of oddities that might creep in.

For all of these reasons, lists are worth playing with and getting to know as a literary form. Whether you’re interested in writing poems, or you think you’d like to slip a list into a work of fiction, give this exercise a try and see where it takes you.

Getting Started

In the first part of this exercise, choose of one of these titles, and then write a list to go with it:

Things You Shouldn’t Stuff in a Turkey

What I Buried in a Time Capsule When I was Thirteen

A Christmas List for My Least Favourite Co-Worker

The First Things They’ll Find After The Next Ice Age

Things You Can Probably Buy at Costco

Soon-To-Be Obsolete

What I Lost at the Mall

Packing for the End of Time

Lipsticks That Should (and May Already) Exist

Yoga Poses for Shape Shifters 

Paint Colours of the Year

Never Have I Ever

Everyday Words I Can’t Pronounce

Five Phrases I Regret Texting

Overheard on the Bus

Storm Cancellations


Now that you’re warmed up, come up with your own premise for a list, and then populate it as best you can.

One Last Thing

Canadian poetry offers no shortage of wonderful lists. Suzanne Buffam and Damian Rogers are certainly among of our very best contemporary list makers, but anyone lucky enough to find Michael Ondaatje’s Elimination Dance in a used bookstore is also in for a dazzling read. Once you go looking for lists, in fact, you’re likely to see them everywhere.

Looking Back

Our world really is rich with litanies. And how wonderful, too, that even the most mundane things can still surprise and enlighten us, provided we’re willing to give them our full attention.



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