Saturday, December 10, 2016

Prompt #270 – Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus

Over a hundred years ago, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York’s Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial on Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps. I've read Virginia's letter and Francis Church's reply every year during December for many years. I hope it will touch your heart as much as it always touches mine.


The Editorial

    DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
    Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
    Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
    Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

    VIRGINIA O’HANLON.
    115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.

    VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

    Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

    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. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

    You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

    No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.


_______________________________________________

The first poem I ever had published was a letter to Santa that I wrote in December of 1956 (I had just turned 8 years old and still believed in Santa Claus). My poem was published in the Grover Cleveland Elementary School newspaper. Happily, my mom saved all those early writings, and I have an original copy of the newspaper.

Your prompt for this week is to write a letter to Santa in which you list the things that you wish for. These needn’t be material things!You may also consider writing about what you believe or need to believe.

Suggestions:

1. Think in terms of non-material gifts you’d like to receive. (For example: spiritual well-being, healing from (and cures for) illnesses, an end to homelessness and hunger, peace in the world.)

2. Think about your family members and friends. What would you most like for them?

3. Is there a relationship in your life that needs healing? What would you ask for in terms of that relationship.

4. What about our world? What would you ask for?

5. Is there something you want or need to believe? How would you ask for that belief?

Tips:

1. Observe the usual caveats: avoid the passive voice, eliminate “ing” endings wherever you can, don’t use too many adjectives.

2. Use more one-syllable words than multi-syllable words in your last couple of lines (think in terms of strong verbs and no superfluous language).

3. Try (minimal) repetition from another part of the poem—sometimes this can work very well.

4. Try to link the end of your poem to the beginning but not overtly—and don’t over-write.

5.  Write beyond the last line, then go back and find the last line hidden in what you’ve written.

6. Leave your reader something to reflect upon.

7. Point toward something broader than the obvious content of your poem.

8. You may want to try a prose poem  or to use letter format. Here's a letter from Santa Claus that Mark Twain wrote for his daughter Susie:

 
Mark Twain's Letter from Santa Claus
Written for His Daughter Susie


Palace of St. Nicholas
In the Moon
Christmas Morning

MY DEAR SUSIE CLEMENS:

I have received and read all the letters which you and your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother and your nurses; I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands--for although you did not use any characters that are in grown peoples' alphabet, you used the characters that all children in all lands on earth and in the twinkling stars use; and as all my subjects in the moon are children and use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your and your baby sister's jagged and fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother and the nurses, for I am a foreigner and cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you and the baby ordered in your own letters—I went down your chimney at midnight when you were asleep and delivered them all myself—and kissed both of you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice mannered, and about the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letter which you dictated there were some words which I could not make out for certain, and one or two small orders which I could not fill because we ran out of stock. Our last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls has just gone to a very poor little child in the North Star away up, in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your mama can show you that star and you will say: "Little Snow Flake," (for that is the child's name) "I'm glad you got that furniture, for you need it more than I." That is, you must write that, with your own hand, and Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it she wouldn't hear you. Make your letter light and thin, for the distance is great and the postage very heavy.

There was a word or two in your mama's letter which I couldn't be certain of. I took it to be "a trunk full of doll's clothes." Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o'clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody and I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen doorbell rings, George must be blindfolded and sent to open the door. Then he must go back to the dining room or the china closet and take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tiptoe and not speak—otherwise he will die someday. Then you must go up to the nursery and stand on a chair or the nurse's bed and put your car to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen and when I whistle through it you must speak in the tube and say, "Welcome, Santa Claus!" Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not. If you say it was, I shall ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color and then you must tell me every single thing in detail which you want the trunk to contain. Then when I say "Good-by and a merry Christmas to my little Susie Clemens," you must say "Good-by, good old Santa Claus, I thank you very much and please tell that little Snow Flake I will look at her star tonight and she must look down here—I will be right in the west bay window; and every fine night I will look at her star and say, 'I know somebody up there and like her, too.' " Then you must go down into the library and make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, and everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon and get those things and in a few minutes I will come down the chimney that belongs to the fireplace that is in the hall—if it is a trunk you want—because I couldn't get such a thing as a trunk down the nursery chimney, you know.

People may talk if they want, until they hear my footsteps in the hall. Then you tell them to keep quiet a little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my footsteps at all—so you may go now and then and peep through the dining-room doors, and by and by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the drawing room-for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall, you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven't time to do such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag—else he will die someday. You must watch George and not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave a stain on the marble, George must not holystone it away. Leave it there always in memory of my visit; and whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty and somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus's boot made on the marble, what will you say, little sweetheart?

Good-by for a few minutes, till I come down to the world and ring the kitchen doorbell.

Your loving SANTA CLAUS
Whom people sometimes call "The Man in the Moon"




Saturday, December 3, 2016

Prormpt #269 – The Enduring Appeal of Holiday Poems



Holiday poems and stories have an enduring appeal, and most of you are familiar with Charles Dickens’s story about Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.

With this prompt, we’re going to do some variations on the past, present, and future theme, and you’ll need to think about your own past, present, and future Christmases, Chanukahs, Kwanzaas, or other annual winter-season celebrations.

Note: Did you know that Nobel Laureate, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was so taken with Christmas that he wrote a Christmas poem every year (now collected in his book Nativity Poems)? Click Here to Order

Here’s an example:

Star of the Nativity
By Joseph Brodsky (December 1987)

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.
 

And here’s one of my all-time favorite winter holiday poems:

Are We Done Yet?
By Gail Fishman Gerwin (from Dear Kinfolk)
 
When my daughter was four
we lit the Chanukah candles
on the wedding-present menorah
atop the Lane record cabinet,
our first purchase as a married couple.

In our new home we could peer
out the window at the house below,
where the Todds’ Christmas tree
in their den blazed lights of every
color, reflected by glossy ornaments,
all leading to a star on top that seemed
to descend directly from Heaven.

We chanted our prayers,

Barukh atah Adonai,
Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam,

allowed Karen to hold the
shamash, the service candle,
for her first time, hustled Katey
to the other side of the room
lest she set her pajamas aflame.

Our ritual complete, we gifted
the girls—a doll, a book, a toy
schoolhouse—sang songs
from preschool (only a hundred
sixty-four dollars for an entire year,
reads the bill I unearthed in the
basement as I rummaged through
that crowded cavern where we
store our past).

Dinner, I told everyone, the greasy

latkes already burning at the edges
as they sat in oil on the new gold
General Electric range.

Wait, Mommy, I have a question,
Karen said, what’s that in the window
over there? It’s a Christmas tree, I told her.

Why don’t we have a Christmas tree?
Because we’re Jewish, I said. She wanted

to know then, before eating brisket
cut into small pieces so she wouldn’t
choke, before crunching the latkes,
now on the edge of soggy,

           When will we be finished being Jewish?
 
Suggestions:

1. Write about a holiday from your past (dig deeply into family memories).
2. Write a poem in which you compare winter holidays of the past, present, and/or future.
3. Write about seasonal ghosts that haunt you.
4. Write about people from your past who are no longer with you and how that impacts your present holiday season; or, write about one special person with whom you always associate the winter holidays.
5. Write about aspects of winter holiday traditions that remain part of your annual celebrations.
6. Write about the faith and/or cultural aspects of your winter holidays.
7. Write about one unforgettable winter holiday.
8. Write about holiday food treats and how they sweeten your memories.
9. Write about a holiday song that replays in your mind because of its associations (or, write your own words to a Christmas carol or other winter holiday song).
10. Write a poem based on an old Christmas, Hanukkah, or other winter holiday photograph.
11. Write about a historical holiday-time event.
12. Write about a winter holiday yet to come. You might consider a fantasy poem with a futuristic sensibility.

Tips:

1. Keep in mind that holiday literature can be tricky—be sure to sidestep the pitfalls of sentimentality, schmaltziness, nostalgia, and clichés. 
2. Work toward fresh and original language, figures of speech, and an integrated whole of language, form, and meaning.
3. Show through examples and imagery—don’t simply tell.
4. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).
5. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too). 
6. Think about your poem, what it reveals about being human, and how your readers may relate to it.

Additional Examples: 
 


Saturday, November 26, 2016

An Advent Reflection by Guest Blogger Joe Weil


This week’s guest blogger is Joe Weil, an old and dear friend whom I met at Barron Arts Center in 1981. Winner of the 2013 Working People’s Poetry Competition (Partisan Press), Joe is the author of several full-length books of poetry and chapbooks. Widely published and a noted performer, he appeared in Bill Moyer’s PBS documentary, “Fooling With Words” and has been featured in the New York Times and in notable quotes for the New Yorker. He is currently a lecturer at Binghamton University. Husband, father, poet, musician, composer, performer, and teacher, Joe and his wife, the poet Emily Vogel, live in upstate New York with their children Clare and Gabriel (Gabriel, whose birthday is December 9th, is my godson). Joe's most recent poetry collection is A Night in Duluth.



Joe’s faith, which has always been an integral part of his poetry, is eloquently expressed in this Advent reflection that brings art and spirituality together in prose and poetry that speak to this very special time of year. 

I first posted this reflection a few years ago, and thought this Advent (which begins tomorrow) 
would be a nice time to revisit it. Thank you, Joe, for sharing with us!
 ______________________________


From Joe Weil

An Advent Reflection

In one of my poems I called it “that dark season where poverty is blessed.” Or something like that. It is literally the season of early darkness, of least hours of light, though the sun is closer now, and if, like me, you are a watcher, you will note it is a purer light on those days when it is cold and the air is clean and clear. The leaves have all fallen. We can see decay and smell the mulch everywhere. The rocks on my way through the Delaware water gap are my favorite grey. I always joke with Emily that I can close my eyes and hear the black bears snoring in their dens of fallen oaks or small caves and crevices. As we drive through the Gap to go to one of our readings, I say: “There’s bear up there.”

The bears have gone to sleep—not a true hibernation, but a modified shutting down of vital signs. On days of false spring they may even wake for a few hours. They are like us in this respect: dozing, depressed in the sense of low energy. The message of Advent is: Shemah! Listen. Hear the weak pulse of life flowing where the water is too swift to freeze. Observe the pin oaks that do not relinquish all their leaves, and the pines, and the boughs trembling because a squirrel has just leapt from shade into shade. Christ is coming. Christ does not come in the obvious place or the obvious light. He is not in Jerusalem in mid summer. He is in the midst of darkness and poverty. He comes to say: there is nowhere, not even in all this seeming death that I do not abide—and abide more richly with my grace. Or as I think my poem on Advent says: “Despair more deeply into joy.”

Because of my faith, my life is still tied to the seasons. This wintering cannot mean less to me. I am awake each night to the stars, and to the rocks. I know what it means to be alone, even in the midst of my family, and to feel the full madness and beauty of the song “Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel.” They don’t sing it very often in my church anymore because we have become this manically cheerlessly “cheerful” country that treats any deep and beautiful sadness as if it had cooties. They sing these inferior songs that have none of the truth of Advent. It is a dark season. Our hearts are broken. We hunker down and long for something that will console us in our exile from joy. “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the son of God appears. Rejoice! Rejoice! Oh Israel. To thee shall come Emanuel.”

Rejoice does not mean cheer up. It means to hear the trickle of water still rushing in the stream. It means to be the thrush in Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush:” Joy unlimited (a joy of which Hardy is unaware). It means to intuit Bethlehem—that nowhere town—and to believe in the deep cave of one’s being that something good, something to redeem us can abide there—in the dark, not in spite of it. To see Bethlehem and know its worth is the whole of Advent: this little place of poverty, this nothing town in the shadow of Jerusalem. If we were going to quote Williams: “this star that shines alone in the sunrise towards which it lends no part.” It is the light lit from within that the world can not teach us to see. Grace is there. It is what Whitman meant when he said he preferred the air to its perfumed distillation:

“The atmosphere is not a perfume ... it has no taste of the distillation.... it is odorless. it is for my mouth forever... I am in love with it,/ I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked./ I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

This is a great poet defining his own Bethlehem—the little place where poverty, where the not distilled and free air of the naked and visible is blessed.

So, for me, Advent is a season of being ambushed by grace. I stay watchful and yet am ambushed. I am alert yet am taken unaware. God shows me my blindness. God grants me the dark I need to know what light I have dismissed. Today my wife is getting the lights and I am hanging them. When I was little, I loved the way the cold air gave the lights a halo. I was made for it as Walt suggests. I am still mad for it. My poem “Christmas 1977” was written when my mom had been dead almost a year, and we all thought it was going to be a terrible Christmas, but our love and mutual grief made it one of the best Christmas Eves I ever had:


Christmas 1977
By Joe Weil

Here, where it is always Bethlehem
grimy and grieved—a slum lord’s kind of town,
I watch old Mrs. Suarez string her lights
against the common vespers of despair.

I watch her nimbly snub the cold night’s air,
thwarting a fall into the snow ball bush
beside which Mary calmly stomps the skull
of Satan. Look! Her lights are coming on.

Blue with white specks where the paint has chipped
and yellow, green, all rising to full glow
big gumdrop lights draped from post to post,
haloed where their heat meets the cold.

And something in me tears or has been torn
a long, long time though I have read Rimbaud,
and have been known to chew on my own spleen
and spend an evening jesting at such a God.

Something in me tears and will not mend.
Take up this broken hymn and sing it there
for Mrs. Suarez wobbly and infirm,
who, soon, will be too old to climb her chair.
For her I hang this broken Christmas hymn—
here, where it is always Bethlehem.

___________________________________
 
 This Week's Prompt

For your prompt this week, write a poem (using Joe's poem as inspiration) about a particular Christmas or any other winter holiday that holds a particular place in your memory.  If you observe the Advent season, try writing about this time of year.

___________________________________
  
Note: Below is one of Joe’s best-loved Christmas-season poems, the title poem from his book Painting the Christmas Trees (Texas Review Press, Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved). 

Painting The Christmas Trees
By Joe Weil

In my odyssey of dead end jobs,
cursed by whatever gods
do not console,
I end up
at a place that makes
fake Christmas trees:
thousands!
some pink, some blue,
one that revolves ever so slowly
to the strains of Silent Night.

Sometimes, out of sheer despair,
I rev up its RPMs
and send it spinning
wildly through space—
Dorothy Hamill
disguised as a Balsam fir.
I run a machine
that spits paint
onto wire boughs,
each length of bough a different shade—
color coded—so that America will know
which end fits where.

This is spray paint of which I speak—
no ventilation, no safety masks,
lots of poor folk speaking various broken tongues,
a guy from Poland with a ruptured disk
lifting fifty pound boxes of
defective parts,
a Haitian
so damaged by police “interrogation”
he flinches when you
raise your arm too suddenly near,

and all of us hating the job,
knowing it’s meaningless,
yet singing, cursing, telling jokes,
unentitled to anything but joy,
the lurid, unreasonable joy
that sometimes overwhelms you even in a hole like this.

It’s a joy rulers
mistake for proof of “The Human Spirit.”
I tell you it is Kali,
the great destroyer,
her voice singing amidst butchery and hate.
It is Rachel the inconsolable
weeping for her children.
It goes both over and under
“The Human Spirit.”
It is my father
crying in his sleep
because he works
twelve hour shifts six days a week
and can’t make rent.

It is one hundred and ten degrees
in the land of fake Christmas trees.
It is Blanca Ramirez keeling over pregnant
sans green card.
It is a nation that has
spiritualized shopping,
not knowing how many lost
to the greater good of retail. It is Marta the packer
rubbing her crippled hands with
Lourdes water and hot chilies.
It is bad pay and worse diet and
the minds of our children
turned on the wheel of sorrow—

no language to leech it from the blood,
no words to draw it out—
a fake Christmas tree spinning wildly in the brain,
and who can stop it, who
unless grief grows a hand
and writes the poem?


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Prompt #268 – Remember and Give Thanks

Thanksgiving will take place this coming week and is a day set aside here in the United States (other countries have similar days) to remember and give thanks—it's a time when families and friends gather, a celebration of sharing, community, and gratitude.

For this prompt, I invite you to write a poem about something for which you are grateful. It’s so easy to fall into the habit of grumbling about what we don’t have, miss, need, etc., that this is a great time to take a step back and acknowledge the gifts and blessings that we have in our lives. Instead of focusing on deficits, let’s focus on abundances.

A form that lends itself to this prompt is the kyrielle. Once very popular, the kyrielle originated in France, dates to the Middle Ages, and takes its name from kyrie (found in many Christian liturgies). Many hymn lyrics were written in this form, but kyrielle content is not limited to religious subjects. A traditional kyrielle is often short, octosyllabic (each line 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.

Guidelines:

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. You may want to use this refrain in your 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. You may write about one thing for which you're grateful, or each quatrain may be about individual things that have inspired your gratitude.

Tips:

1. 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).

2. There is no limit to the number of stanzas a kyrielle may have, but three is the generally accepted minimum. So … your poem should be at least three stanzas long.

3. Try to work with a rhyme scheme —a good way to exercise your poetic muscles. However, if rhyming isn’t your thing, go with what works best for you.

4. The kyrielle is exceptionally versatile, and you can have a lot of fun experimenting with this prompt. Just keep in mind that the theme and tone of your poems should be thankfulness.

5. If the kyrielle doesn’t appeal to you, feel free to write your “thankful” poem in any form that you wish!


Example:

Kyrielle by John Payne (1842-1916)

A lark in the mesh of the tangled vine,
A bee that drowns in the flower-cup's wine,
A fly in sunshine,--such is the man.
All things must end, as all began.

A little pain, a little pleasure,
A little heaping up of treasure;
Then no more gazing upon the sun.
All things must end that have begun.

Where is the time for hope or doubt?
A puff of the wind, and life is out;
A turn of the wheel, and rest is won.
All things must end that have begun.

Golden morning and purple night,
Life that fails with the failing light;
Death is the only deathless one.
All things must end that have begun.

Ending waits on the brief beginning;
Is the prize worth the stress of winning?
E'en in the dawning day is done.
All things must end that have begun.

Weary waiting and weary striving,
Glad out setting and sad arriving;
What is it worth when the goal is won?
All things must end that have begun.

Speedily fades the morning glitter;
Love grows irksome and wine grows bitter.
Two are parted from what was one.
All things must end that have begun.

Toil and pain and the evening rest;
Joy is weary and sleep is best;
Fair and softly the day is done.
All things must end that have begun.

Poems about Thankfulness and Thanksgiving:

“Te Deum” by Charles Reznikoff

“Thanks” by W. S. Merwin
https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/thanks

“When Giving Is All We Have” by Alberto Ríos (audio)

“Thanksgiving Letter from Harry” by Carl Dennis
https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/thanksgiving-letter-harry 

“Thanksgiving Day” by Lydia Maria Child
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43942