Saturday, November 17, 2018

Prompt #327 – Give Thanks in a Poem

Gratitude is a developmental emotion, and books have been written on its psychology. Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” There are times in our lives when we feel more Grinch than grateful, especially when the stresses of every day living gather momentum and all but overwhelm us. However, acknowledging and expressing our gratitude can have a beneficial effect on our lives, relationships, and work.

Here in the U.S., Thanksgiving will be celebrated this coming week on Thursday, November 22nd. Our Thanksgiving has a long history beginning in 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is considered the first Thanksgiving celebration. For over 200 years, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. In 1827, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale began a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln set the last Thursday in November as the official day for a national Thanksgiving observance. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week, and in 1941 Roosevelt signed a bill that designated the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

What are you grateful for? This week let’s write about a specific thing for which we’re grateful. A French proverb tells us, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.” Our first step in writing this week will be to remember—to look into our memories and to identify a single thing for which we’re especially grateful.


1. Make a list of things for which you’re thankful.

2. Choose one item from the list.

3. Free write about the item you chose.

4. Look at your free write and select images and details for your poem.

5. Draft your poem.

6. As you write, think about the reasons for your gratitude and show (without telling) what those feelings mean.

7. 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).

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

9. Try writing a Kyrielle. 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.

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

B. 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, but rhyme isn't required. The last line, phrase, or word in your first stanza will become your refrain.

C. Repeat step B 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.

D. 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). 

10. Whatever form of poem you choose to write, dig deeply to reach beyond the specifics of your personal experience to the underlying universal subject with which your readers will identify.

Note: You might address or dedicate your poem to a person for whom you're thankful, or you might go to the flip side and write about a challenging time (or a time of adversity) that somehow led you to feelings of gratefulness (my mom used to say that good always comes from bad).

1. Always be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements. Images aren’t about abstractions or philosophical musings. Rather, they evoke the meaning and truth of human experiences in perceptible and “actual” terms.

2. Avoid lofty language and literary affectation. Neither big words nor literary pretensions lend themselves well to effective imagery. The “wow factor” in most poems lies in language that is unexpected and deceptively simple.

3. Watch out for clichés. Examine your poem carefully and note any phrases or lines that seem familiar or general. 
4. Think in terms of similes, metaphors, and other types of figurative language. W. H. Auden wrote: [A poem] “must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.”Look for the universal meaning of your poem.
5. Don’t be clever or cutesy. Let your images and use of language evolve organically with just the right amount of tweaking.
6. Be wary of “overkill.” Too many or over-written images can be tedious if not mind-numbing. When asked how many images a mid-sized poem should contain, my answer is always the same: if you look at poem you’re writing and only find five great lines, then the poem should only be five lines long; in the same way, if you look at a poem you’re working on and only find a single brilliant image, then the poem should only contain a single image. 
7. Keep in mind that sometimes lines and images we love aren’t quite “right” for the poem in which we’ve placed them. When this happens, be prepared to sacrifice an image you love for the sake of the poem. The poem (and your readers) will be grateful.

"Thanks" by W. S. Merwin 

"Te Deum" by Charles Reznikoff

"Thanksgiving Letter from Harry" by Carl Dennis 

"The Thanksgivings" by Harriet Maxwell Converse

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