So today in my poetry class, my teacher brought up a really interesting point about writing poetry. He said that you don't really write about stuff, that poems aren't really about anything, but that poetry comes from whatever subconscious things are laying around inside.
He made a distinction between our emotional, instinctual "lizard" brain, or "id" if you will, and our more intellectual problem-solving brain, and said that when you give your brain a problem to solve or an experiment to work with, the subconscious, poetic stuff of the lizard brain will come out. That's why prompts are so useful--the intellectual brain is kept busy trying to write with a certain form (like a sestina, for instance) or left trying to write a poem only using certain words, or stuff like that, and while that part of the brain is tackling that, the creativity of the id can flow. (In fact this is probably why poetry therapy works so well--poetry therapists give their clients prompts to write with as well, like starting a poem using an existing line to start with, or choosing a part of an existing poem that resonates with them and jumping off from there.)
When I was walking back to my dorm room, I thought about all the times I had ever managed to write successful poetry. And I realized that while I've had moments where inspiration had spontaneously come to me, that hasn't happened too often and those moments have been far and in between. More likely what has happened is that poems have come from little challenges I've consciously or subconsciously given myself, like "write about the dress your friend gave you to figure out why you don't feel you deserve it" or "freewrite by the lake because it's pretty there and you feel like writing" or "write as many haikus as you can" or "write sentences that all begin with the same letter, and go through the alphabet that way" (that last one came about when I REALLY wanted to write but had some writer's block. It yielded some pretty wild stuff). What I'm trying to say is that most of the time that I've ever written a successful poem, it came more from me actually assigning myself a writing task than it did from pure inspiration.
I'm not saying that spontaneous inspiration doesn't exist, but it is rare. Now I know why all my teachers have always pushed prompts and forms on us: because if we challenge ourselves, if we give ourselves a task to do, the actual writing will come forth. So go ahead, if you've ever wanted to try to write a sestina, or if you've ever asked yourself a silly question like "what would it be like to fly out the window and bounce off the trees" or "I wonder what music is on the ipods of the American Idol judges" or if you've been carrying some conflicting or confusing or just painful or strong emotions around, take any of it and treat it as a task or challenge to yourself, and work it out through writing. I know that's what I'll try to do as a poet from now on.