Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone!
My sincerest best wishes to all of you during this season of light, love, and peace!

for an excellent article on Christmas poems.
Also on this site are Christmas poems 
that you can access by clicking on the titles in the left sidebar.

And here's T. S. Eliot's brilliant but little-known poem 
"The Cultivation of Christmas Trees."

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees

By T. S. Eliot

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish -- which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to the children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By 'eightieth' meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

The next prompt will be posted on January 1, 2011.
In the meantime, I wish you joy!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Poetry Prompt #36 – A Letter to Santa

I'm sure many of you are familiar with the famous "Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus" letter written in 1897 in reply to eight year-old Virginia O'Hanlon's query about whether or not Santa Claus is real (Yes, Virginia - Letter and Reply). I recently read the letter again and thought it might be fun to write letters to Santa this week.

For this prompt, traditional letter format is fine (prose poem style), but you may wish to refine into stanzas once your ideas and images are in place. There are many possibilities: your slant may be serious, humorous, or even satirical (just be wary of seasonal clichés and sentimentalizations). 

Here are a few ideas:

1. Start with a simple "Dear Santa" and write your letter.

2. Typically, a letter to Santa is filled with requests for tangibles, but you may want to ask for things like love, peace, friendship, or forgiveness. You may want to write about a single gift you'd like ("All I Want for Christmas Is __________").

3. Write a letter to Santa from a perspective other than your own (a celebrity, a political figure, a sports person, the earth, something from nature, someone no longer living, an animal).

4. Another option is to write a letter from Santa. Just as the Virginia O'Hanlon story involves a letter and a reply, you might want to write a letter to Santa and his reply to you.

5. How have you been "naughty or nice?" Write a letter poem about your own "behavior," a letter to someone who has treated you badly, or a letter to someone who has treated you well. 

6. If writing a letter doesn't appeal to you, you  might consider writing a poem about this section of the reply to Virginia's 1897 letter. How does this passage speak to you?: “Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Poetry Prompt #35 – Parody: The Night Before Christmas

Parody is the imitation of another work, writer, or genre. In poetry, parody is often about burlesquing serious verse for comic or satirical effect. This week, we're going to write parodies of Clement C. Moore's famous poem "The Night Before Christmas" (originally titled "A Visit from Saint Nicholas"). 

To begin, read Moore's "The Night Before Christmas."

Now sample some parodies of the poem. Note how the parodies imitate the style and form of the original but use different language and meaning to alter the text.

Next, think of the content you'd like your poem to contain. Theme? Idea? Think about the examples you read and consider other possibilities. Here are just a few:

The Night Before Christmas (from a Pet's Point of View)
A Mother's/Father's Night Before Christmas
A Poetry Reading the Night Before Christmas
A (Profession Here, Teacher's, Lawyer's, Poet's, Policeman's) Night Before Christmas
A (Person's Name Here) Night before Christmas (This Version is about a Particular Person)
The Night Before _________________(Not Christmas, Anything You Wish)

When you've got an idea in mind, begin writing. You should, of course, model your work after the the original while addressing a completely different subject matter. If the Moore poem is longer than you'd like your parody to be, simply write something shorter. Be sure to follow the rhythm and rhyme schemes of the original poem – that is, maintain the sense of music that Moore created. Allusions to Moore's poem are great to include.

Something that I've done over the years is to write "Night Before Christmas" poems for friends and family members. I print and frame them and give them as gifts – they're fun to write (especially humorous versions), a great way to make friends and family members smile, and an amusing way to share poetry.

Have fun with this! As always, you're invited to post your poems as comments (finished or in draft form) for other blog readers to enjoy.

Thursday, December 9, 2010 is a great online anthology edited by Mark Thalman that features dozens of poets' most popular or favorite poems. By invitation only, the poems are presented with short bios, photos, and links to books. Each poet's page concludes with a writer's tip or a comment from the poet. Visually beautiful, the site includes Linda Pastan, Marge Piercy, Tess Gallagher, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Alicia Ostriker, Diane Lockward,  Edwin Romond, and many others. I'm honored to be among them.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Poetry Prompt #34 – Gifts

During this season of giving, many of us are thinking about gifts of one kind or another. Have you ever thought about what gifts mean, why we give them, how giving and receiving gifts makes us feel? This week, let's write about gifts.

Here are some suggestions:

1. What is the most special gift you've ever received? Was the gift something tangible, or was it a spiritual gift? Write a poem about it.

2. What is the most special gift you've ever given? Write a poem about it.

3. Write a "gift" poem addressed to someone special. (Think about gifting your poem to the person who inspired it.)

4. Write a poem about a simple gift with a large meaning.

5. Write a poem about the spiritual gifts of Chanukah or Christmas.

6. Memories can be metaphorical gifts. Read "At Christmas Time," a poem about "Christmases past." Does the poem "speak" to you? If so, try using it as a model for a poem of your own.

7. If you could give a gift to the world, what would it be? Write a poem about this gift. (Alternatively, what gift would you give to someone in your life, someone in need, a special friend?)

8. Read Sara Teasdale's "The Gift." Have you ever given a similar gift that you might write about?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Poetry Prompt #33 – A Poem about Poetry

Thanksgiving weekend, Chanukah (beginning on December 2), and Christmas preparations in full swing will make this a busy week for many of us.  I thought that instead of a typical prompt I'd share one of Marianne Moore's most famous poems  – something to think about – a poem about poetry. Of course, if you do have time to write this week, how about writing your own poem about poetry?

By Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful. When they become so derivative as to become
   the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand: the bat
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to 

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician--
      nor is it valid
         to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
      a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
      result is not poetry,
   nor till the poets among us can be
     "literalists of
      the imagination"--above
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness and
      that which is on the other hand
         genuine, you are interested in poetry.

From Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse, edited by Alfred Kreymborg.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Poetry Prompt #32 - The Kyrielle

O Lord that lends me life,

Lend me a heart replete with thankfulness.

– William Shakespeare 

For this prompt, in keeping with the Thanksgiving holiday this week, let's write a Kyrielle-type poem in which thankfulness is expressed. Once very popular, the Kyrielle originated in France, dates to the Middle Ages, and takes its name from kyrie (a litany in the Catholic Mass). Many hymn lyrics were written in this form, but content is not limited to religious subjects. A traditional Kyrielle is often short, octosyllabic (each lines contains eight syllables), and is typically presented in four-line stanzas. A traditional Kyrielle also contains a refrain (a repeated line, phrase, or word) at the end of each stanza. The most widely cited Kyrielle is "A Lenten Hymn" by Thomas Campion.

Here's a format that may be helpful:

1. Begin by thinking about things for which you're grateful. Think in terms of particulars and details – not ideas, but specifics (i.e. not love, but an example of love that you've known; not friendship, but a particular friend).

2. Think of places in which you've been especially thankful (the "geography of thanks"). Think of the people who were part of the story.

3. Write a few ideas for "thankful" refrains (repeated line, phrase, or word) before you begin writing the poem.

4. Write a quatrain (four-line stanza) about a particular thing for which you're thankful. Each line should contain eight syllables. If you wish, you may create a rhyme scheme. The last line, phrase, or word in your first stanza will become your refrain.

5. Repeat step 4 as many times as you wish. Don't forget that each quatrain (four-line stanza) will end with the same line, phrase, or word. You may write your Kyrielle about one thing for which you're grateful, or each quatrain may be about individual things that have inspired your gratitude.

Remember that with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not "drive" your poem.   If the form begins to feel forced or unwieldy, you may switch to something less deliberate (i.e., free verse, prose poem). 

My sincerest best wishes to all for a blessed and happy thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Poetry Prompt #31 - No Place Like Home

In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy only had to click her ruby heels three times while repeating, “There’s no place like home,” and there she was, back in Kansas. Going home may not be quite that easy for the rest of us, but poetry can be the way we click our heels to get there. Quite often, the journey is healing.

In poetry, home has been written as the “brick and mortar” of actual places, as memories, and as  imagined places. Home has also represented relationships: failed relationships, for example, as in  C. P. Cavafy's "The Afternoon Sun."

Home is also an effective backdrop for the pain of loss, as in 

A “home poem” may be about a place once shared with people who are no longer living, as in W. S. Merwin's "A Single Autumn."

Poems about home may recall the furnishings and people of a particular place and remember how a certain home felt, as in Gerald Stern's "The Dancing."

Houses may figure in the imagery for poems about people as in Mark Strand's

Home poems may also be about giving up or selling a home or about moving from one home to another, as in Ruth Stone's "The Cabbage."

For this prompt, let's write a poem about home. Here are some things to think about:

1. What memories do you have of a childhood home? 

2. Is there a place you’ve lived that was special to you? 

3. What happiness have you found in a particular home? What sadness? 

4. Is there anyone with whom you once shared a home and now miss? 

5. Can you think of something in your life for which “home” may be a metaphor? 

6. Is there a particular object (piece of furniture, painting, lamp, etc.) that evokes the feeling of a former home for you? 

7. How has a place you’ve lived been a “castle” for you? 

8. Is there a “haunted House” in your history (a home that haunts you in some way)? 

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Favorite Poem Project

This amazing project was founded by 39th US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky
and "is dedicated to celebrating, documenting, 
and encouraging poetry in Americans' lives."

The readings are wonderful.
Please check out the site when you have some time to relax and listen 
to individuals reading and speaking about poems they love.

Info about the project here:

(click on the photos)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Poetry Prompt #30 – On the Clothesline

Interestingly, there are also numerous stories about poets and clothing. For example, Randall Jarell traded ties with colleague Robert Watson, gloves and scarves with his wife Mary, and jackets and hats with his friend Peter Taylor; and when James Laughlin first met Ezra Pound, he wrote in terms of clothing, “There came Ezra, dressed to the nines in his velvet jacket, pants with equestrian seat, his cowboy hat, swinging his silverheaded cane .…” 

You guessed it! This week’s prompt is about clothing, and here are some options for you to try:

1. Take a “field trip” and visit an op shop (used clothing store). Walk up and down the aisles and think about the clothes you see. Choose a piece of clothing that you are especially drawn to or repelled by. Buy it and take it home. Use this piece of clothing as your inspiration for a poem (a poem about who wore the article of clothing, about what happened to someone who wore the clothing, etc.).

2. Write a poem about a favorite piece of clothing or about an article of clothing that has or had special significance for you.

3. Think about someone from your past, and note his or her clothing in a poem.

4. Think about articles of clothing as metaphors and try writing a poem in which you use clothing (one article of clothing or several) to represent something else.

5. In dreams, it is said that clothing represents two things: the way we would like the world to see us and the way we’re afraid the world sees us. Dreaming about clothing may also represent our attitudes about ourselves and about others. Write a "dream poem" in which clothing figures in your imagery, or write a poem about the way you are seen, or would like to be seen, by others.

6. Think about your clothesline (even if you use a dryer, imagine a clothes line that you might use). What’s hanging on that line? Write a poem about your clothesline (what laundry would you hang out to dry – actual or metaphorical). 

7. Take a humorous approach to clothing and write a funny “clothes poem” (i.e., “Ode to Underwear”). 

8. Mark Twain wrote, "The finest clothing made is a person's skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this." Do you remember the Hans Christian Anderson story about the emperor's new clothes? You can read it here: "The Emperor's New Suit." Was there ever a time when you felt figuratively naked in a crowd of people? Write a poem about that time, a poem about a time when you were afraid to speak up because you thought others would think you “stupid,” or a poem about how your clothes define you or reflect who you are.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Poetry Prompt #29 – Took from a Book

This week’s prompt is an exercise in “found inspiration” that borrows incentive from reading materials that you have at home. Take any book from your shelf (or any magazine that you’ve saved), and open it randomly. Read whatever you find on that page. As you read, create a list of 10-12 words and/or phrases from the text. After you’ve created your list, think about the words and phrases you’ve chosen. Consider:

1. Are there any possible relationships among the words?  Do they suggest a tone or mood?
2. Do any jog your memory to a specific time, place, or person? 
3. Does a particular word or phrase speak to your muse? 
4. Do any of the words suggest a “tale” that you might want to tell in a poem? 
5. Is there a hint of the fantastic in the words you’ve chosen, something that you might work into a surreal-style poem? (Read some surrealist poems by André Breton, Paul Éluard, and Charles Simic.) 

Now try to write a poem in which you use some of the words and phrases from your list. Remember that you don’t have to use all the words you selected (although you certainly may if you wish). Another approach to this prompt is to choose words and phrases from a poem or story by a writer whose work you admire. For example, here are some interesting words from “The Harvest Bow” by Seamus Heaney: harvest, silence, trust, throwaway, the unsaid, golden loops, evening, blue smoke, burnished, passage, warm. 

Keep in mind that your poem may use a few words “borrowed” from another source, but the content should be uniquely your own.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Poetry Prompt #28 – Masks

With Halloween just around the corner, this week seems a great time to write about masks. Anyone who has dressed up for Halloween knows how transforming masks can be, how they provide a sense of escape, and how they offer a freeing quality that allows you to be someone other than yourself or, perhaps, who you really are. 

In literature, the persona poem derives from a Greek word that means “mask” and is a poem in which the poet figuratively dons a mask and writes from the fictional “I” of another viewpoint. This prompt, however, goes in a different direction. For our poetic purposes this week, let’s consider the metaphorical masks we wear and why we wear them. (Remember: masks may be anything that disguises or conceals – physical disguises, facial expressions, attitudes, and behaviors).

Most people wear “comfort masks” at times as protection from judgments, to guard their real feelings from others, to gain social or business positions, and to generally feel safe (i.e., people in emotional pain may mask their distress with smiles, and unhappy children may wear the masks of class clowns or bullies). What masks have you worn?


What metaphorical mask do you wear most often? What does it hide? Write a poem about this.
What “comfort mask” do you wear to guard your real feelings from others? Can you write about a time when you wore a “mask” for emotional protection? 
How are you like the Phantom of the Opera? What emotional scars do you hide behind a figurative “Phantom” mask? Write a poem about this.
Write a poem about a time, place, social gathering or other situation in which you would have liked to wear an actual mask.

Write a poem about a memorable Halloween (read Catherine Doty’s “Living Room” from her book Momentum: Click Here and Scroll Down)
Write a poem about the best or scariest Halloween mask you’ve ever had or seen (your own or someone else’s).

A few examples for you to enjoy:

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Poetry Prompt #27 – I Wish I May, I Wish I Might

When we were children, wishes were part of our immediate reality, and believing that our wishes would come true was easy: “star light, star bright, first star I see tonight; I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.” Things change as we grow up, but we always have wishes, and that’s what this prompt is about.

Here are some “wish poem” ideas:

1. A poem based on a wish for more time with someone (recall the words in Jim Croce’s song: “If I could make days last forever / If words could make wishes come true / I'd save every day like a treasure and then, / Again, I would spend them with you.”).

2. A poem based on a wish to see or spend time with someone you lost touch with years ago.

3. A poem based on a wish to see/talk to someone no longer living.

4. A poem based on a wish you had as a child.

5. A poem based on a wish to be a child again.

6. A poem based on a wish that was realized and lost.

7. A poem based on a wish you know will never come true.

8. A poem based on the old caveat: “Be careful what you wish for….”

As an adjunct to this prompt, you might try incorporating anaphora. Anaphora is a kind of parallelism that happens when single words or whole phrases are repeated at the beginning of lines. Shakespeare was fond of anaphora and used it often (in “Sonnet No.66,” he began ten lines with the word “and”). Anaphora can give a sense of litany to a poem and can create a driving rhythm that intensifies a poem’s emotion. In this prompt, perhaps you can use anaphora to intensify the meaning and implications of your wish.

A classic wish poem: 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Poetry Prompt #26 – Mini-Memoir

Legend has it that when asked to write a story in six words, Ernest Hemingway responded, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Think about it – what do these six words suggest to you?  A while back, Smith Magazine challenged writers to tell their life stories in exactly six words, and both famous and not-so-famous writers responded. (Click Here to Read New Yorker ArticleThe idea is inarguably “gimmicky,” but the concept is interesting, and for this prompt we’re going to do something similar. Rather than using six words to tell our life stories, we’re going to use a dozen to create mini-memoir poems (snippets of personal experience). 

Here's your challenge: tell your “story” in exactly twelve words; organize your poem in a way that uses space effectively (like dance or sculpture); pay particular attention to sound (alliteration, assonance), punctuation, imagery, and mood; experiment with interesting syntax and inventive diction. Titles don’t figure in the word count, so use your titles to convey meaning. Make every word count! 

This is an exercise in compression; it’s also an exercise in learning how to use nuance in your poems and how to convey a “story” without telling the reader everything. 

Here are five examples from one of my workshop groups.


How that day
the wind:

changed –

so unprepared
for his suicide …

Whimmy, she
said. Whimmy – 
her back 
turned to me
as she left.


The wages of sin –
“Last Judgment” –
what that long 
wall means …


Just this 
before you 

I did not 
(despite what 
they said).


This, always, when 
          I remember you –
               that day’s color
                    and your eyes …