It’s that time of year again! Autumn and Halloween! Time for colorful leaves, pumpkins, a special crispness in the air, as well as ghosts, goblins, ghouls, a touch of suspense, a bit of mystery, and poems to fit the occasion! Located on the calendar between autumn and winter, harvest and scarcity, Halloween is associated with early festivals and traditions, especially the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). Samhain, the Celtic New Year, was celebrated on November 1st.
Because Halloween falls on the 31st and is coming up soon, I thought I’d post two Halloween prompts for you to enjoy this week and next.
BTW, did you know that the poet John Keats was born on Halloween in 1795? His last poem is an untitled, eight-line fragment that seems chillingly well-suited to Halloween:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
It’s widely believed that Halloween was influenced by western European harvest festivals with roots in earlier traditions, especially the Celtic Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). Samhain, the Celtic New Year, was celebrated on November 1st. According to the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress, the Celts gathered around bonfires lit to honor the dead. At Samhain, the Celts believed that the wall between worlds was at its thinnest and that the ghosts of the dead could re-enter the material world to mingle with the living. At Samhain, the Celts sacrificed animals and wore costumes (most probably animal skins). They also wore masks or colored their faces to confuse faeries, demons, and human spirits that were thought to walk among them.
As Christianity began to replace earlier religions, the feast of All Saint’s was moved to November 1st, making the night before All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. Originally celebrated on May 13th from 609 AD, the date of All Saints’ was changed by Pope Gregory IV in 835 AD to November 1st, the same day as Samhain. All Saints’ was followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd and, by the end of the 12th century, these days together became Holy Days of Obligation—days in the Church’s calendar set aside to honor the saints and to pray for the souls of the recently departed. Related traditions included groups of poor people and children who went ”souling” from door to door on All Saints’/All Souls’ to beg for traditional soul cakes (mentioned by Shakespeare in The Two Gentleman of Verona when Speed accuses his master of puling [whimpering] like a beggar at Hallowmas). In return for the soul cakes, the beggars promised to pray for the households’ dead. “Souling” is very likely the older tradition from which today’s trick or treating evolved. Click Here for a Soul Cake Recipe
Halloween history notwithstanding, how about writing a poem that “remembers” an autumn or Halloween time in your life? That is, a “historical” poem based on your own history.
1. Touch base with an autumn or Halloween memory, think in terms of a narrative poem (one that tells a story), and let the memory guide your poem.
2. Be sure to evoke a mood or tone that’s compatible with your subject.
3. Imagine that you are an object of Halloween lawn décor. What would you be? Why would you choose to be that?
4. Autumn may also be an alternative subject that powers your poem. Create imagery that expresses autumn.
1. Avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs.
2. Create a tone or mood that appropriate to your subject. Remember that the verbs you choose will give your poem momentum and a sense of trajectory.
3. As you develop your poem, move away from the obvious and work toward deeper meanings.
4. Work to engage your readers by using precise imagery and by layering meaning through similes, metaphors, and sound value.
“Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern” by David McCord
“Theme in Yellow” by Carl Sandburg
And … by way of sharing, here’s a Halloween prose poem from my book, A Lightness, a Thirst, Or Nothing at All.
Trick-or-treaters come to the door repeatedly—little ones early, older kids into the night until she runs out of candy and turns off the outside lights. The wall between worlds is thin (aura over aura—stars flicker and flinch). The woman buttons her coat, checks her reflection in the mirror, and stands cheek to glass (eye on her own eye, its abstract edge). She leaves the house (empty house that we all become)—shadows shaped to the trees, crows in the high branches.