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Golden Shovel Poetic Form

The golden shovel poetic form uses lines from another author’s poetry. Each word of those lines ends one line of a new poem.

It is a contemporary poetic form that was pioneered by Terrance Hayes. It has become popular in recent years after Hayes published his poem ‘The Golden Shovel’ in Lighthead. The collection appeared in 2010 and won the National Book Award. The poem takes its form from the lines of Gwendolyn BrooksWe Real Cool,’ one of the author’s best-known poems (and one of her shortest).

Golden Shovel pronunciation: gohl-dehn shuv-uhl

Golden Shovel Poetic Form Explained


Definition of The Golden Shovel Poetic Form

The golden shovel poetic form is a way of writing poetry while paying homage to an author or a literary work that the poet is interested in. In ‘The Golden Shovel,’ the first example of the form, by Terrance Hayes, he uses ‘We Real Cool.’ He took every line of the poem and used each word to end a line of his own poem. Brooks’ poem begins with the line:

We real cool.

Hayes took this line and used “we,” “real,” and “cool” to end the first three lines of ‘The Golden Shovel.’ The first lines of his poem read:

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we

cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.

For some poets, using only the first line is enough. But, with Hayes’ original example, he uses the entirety of Brooks’ poem, repeating it twice, in order to get his poem to the length he wanted.

How to Write a Golden Shovel Poem

In order to write a golden shovel poem, there are a few steps you have to follow.

  1. Choose a poem that you’re inspired by or interested in. This should be a piece that’s compelling for one reason or another and that you’re happy to reference in an epigraph before the piece begins. If you choose a piece with a  great deal of historical importance, you should be aware that that may affect the way readers interpret your work.
  2. Decide whether you want to write a long or short poem. This is going to inform your choice in regard to how many lines of source material you’re going to use.
  3. Choose one or more lines from the poem. Your choice, again, depends on how long you want your poem to be and how much of the original you want to include. If you choose one line that has ten words, your poem is going to be ten lines long. If you choose two lines that total forty words, your poem is going to be forty lines long.
  4. Begin composing your poem, ending every line with one word from the excerpt you’ve chosen. For example, if you chose the first line from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven,’ you’d be working with the following line: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.” The first line of your poem needs to end with “once,” the second with “upon,” the third with “a,” and so on.
  5. When you read your finished poem, you should also be able to read the original line of inspiration down the right-hand side of the page.
  6. Make sure to note at the beginning of your poem that it was written: “After Edgar Allan Poe” or whoever your author of choice was. Since you took a line from another’s poem, it’s important to acknowledge that fact.

When composing your golden shovel poem, it’s important to remember that your piece doesn’t have to be on the same subject as the original. You can write about whatever you want. It could or could not connect to the line you took inspiration from. But, it’s important to remember that if you choose something like ‘The Raven’ and then write about something strikingly different, readers might find themselves confused or lead in a wrong direction in regard to the interpretation of the work.

Example of Golden Shovel Poem

The Golden Shovel by Terrance Hayes

The Golden Shovel’ by Terrance Hayes is the best-known and most commonly read example of the golden shovel form. The poem was inspired by Brooks ‘We Real Cool’ and uses the entire poem twice. The piece is divided into two parts, taking place a decade apart. Each part of the poem uses all the words from ‘We Real Cool’ once. Here are a few lines:

Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we

used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.

The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We

watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.

He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.

Here, readers can find “we sing sin” and “We thin gin,” two lines from ‘We Real Cool’ at the end of Hayes’ verse.

Why Do Poets Write Golden Shovel Poems?

Poets write golden shovel poems when they want to acknowledge a source of inspiration. If you love the work of a particular author, says Edna St. Vincent Millay, you might want to show how her work has affected you by writing a golden shovel poem. Alternatively, a poet might choose this form because their interested in a single line of a poet’s work and want to include it, in a creative way, within their own.

FAQs

Why is it called a golden shovel poem?

The golden shovel poetic form is named for the original poem that used the technique, ‘The Golden Shovel’ by Terrance Hayes. The phrase “the golden shovel” came from Gwendolyn Books’ poem ‘We Real Cool’ and the line “Seven at the Golden shovel.” Since it was published in 2010, the poem has inspired other writers to try out the poetic form.

What is ‘The Golden Shovel’ by Terrance Hayes about?

The poem is filled with abstract images that convey a vision of life that becomes less coherent as the poem goes on. The first part takes place in 1981 and includes recollections of the speaker’s childhood. The second occurs ten years later in a tented city where he sings with its inhabitants.

Why is the golden shovel poetic form important?

The golden shovel poetic form important because it has inspired hundreds of poems in the same vein. It’s incredibly creative and captured the attention of some of the world’s best poets, including Billy Collins and Rita Dove. They, too, chose to write poems in this same form, furthering its impact.

What are the characteristics of the golden shovel poetic form?

A golden shovel poem includes all the words from at least one line of another poem. These appear at the end of each new line, alluding to the original poem but speaking on a different topic.


  • Acrostic: a piece of writing in which letters form words or messages. The “acrostic” is most commonly associated with poetry.
  • Concrete Poem: also sometimes known as visual poetry or shape poetry.
  • Diamante Poetry: a popular poetic form that is made up of seven lines. They are formatted into the shape of a diamond and used to compare two opposites.
  • Found Poetry: a type of poem that’s created using someone else’s words, phrases, or structure.
  • Limerick: a humorous poem that follows a fixed structure of five lines and a rhyme scheme of AABBA.
  • Slam Poetry: also known as spoken word poetry, is typically performed at what is known as a “poetry slam.”


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