For many years, I've revisited the story of Virginia O'Hanlon and her letter to the editor of the Sun at some point during this time of year, and I'm happy to revisit it with you again here on the blog.It's one of those magical Christmas stories that never fails to warm my heart. There are several prompts for poems that follow, as well as a letter written by Mark Twain to his daughter.
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.
I am 8 years old.
Some of my
little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
Twain's Letter from Santa Claus
for His Daughter Susie
Palace of St. Nicholas
In the Moon
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
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"
Forgive me for shamelessly prompting my new book, but I'm so happy to share the news that it's been published! Wind Over Stones is a collection of prose poems based on
various artists' paintings, and my publisher (John Weber, owner of Welcome Rain Publishing) has included QR codes so that
readers can look at the paintings online while they're reading. I hope
you'll consider buying a copy for yourself or for holiday giving.
ekphrastic prose poems in this collection were inspired by various artists’
paintings. A unique feature of the book is the inclusion QR codes for each of
the paintings. Using their smart phones or mobile devices and a free QR code
scanning application, readers can view the paintings while they are reading the
From the Back Cover:
These prose poems continue Adele
Kenny's reflections on the spiritual condition of being. Despite loss and
change, she looks into the dark without flinching and finds light among the
shadows. Using ekphrasis as a rhetorical device and combined with Kenny's
signature elements of technical proficiency, hauntingly lucid imagery, and
compelling immediacy, these poems filter and record experience in startling
ways as they journey across aging's inevitable arc. Hardwired by Kenny's
understanding of the human spirit, these poems offer us insights into the
healing power of attention and awareness.
"Compressed and brilliant in their philosophical and
imagistic scintillations, the prose poems in Adele Kenny’sWind
Over Stonesare of one piece in both voice
and intensity of gaze. Through each artwork she has chosen as her
lens, she seems to be saying, If we look hard enough and long enough,
and with just the right slant of light, we can see through these paintings into
ourselves. Her vision embodies, without presumption, the knowledge
that, as John Muir told us, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we
find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Kenny tells us, “This
kind of purity comes to us without intention—in ordinary things that are
anything but ordinary….” She paints it for us herself: “A flurry of bats
becomes the Milky Way, and we make no pretense of understanding the infinite
(deep inside us), our need to become nothing before we unname ourselves and
disappear.” Everything is connected, and through the language of fairytale,
examination, and prayer—the same language, after all—each of Kenny’s poems is a
gem in a garland of gems."
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
Keenly, without blinking, through
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.
Holiday poems and stories have an
lasting appeal, they take us back to childhood, they remember things not always
present in our minds, and they can make us laugh or cry. 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. For this
prompt, we’re going to do some variations on the past, present, and future
theme, and you’ll need to think about your past, present, and future
Christmases, Chanukahs, Kwanzaas, or other annual winter-season celebrations.
And here’s one of my all-time
favorite winter holiday poems, written by my late friend and fellow poet, Gail
Gerwin (from her book Dear Kinfolk):
Are We Done Yet?
By Gail Fishman
When my daughter
we lit the
atop the Lane
purchase as a married couple.
In our new home
we could peer
out the window
at the house below,
where the Todds’
in their den
blazed lights of every
by glossy ornaments,
all leading to a
star on top that seemed
directly from Heaven.
We chanted our
allowed Karen to
for her first
time, hustled Katey
to the other
side of the room
lest she set her
complete, we gifted
doll, a book, a toy
(only a hundred
dollars for an entire year,
reads the bill I
unearthed in the
basement as I
cavern where we
store our past).
Dinner, I told
everyone, the greasy
burning at the edges
as they sat in
oil on the new gold
Wait, Mommy, I
have a question,
what’s that in the window
over there? It’s
a Christmas tree, I told her.
Why don’t we
have a Christmas tree?
Jewish, I said. She wanted
to know then,
before eating brisket
cut into small
pieces so she wouldn’t
crunching the latkes,
now on the edge
When will we be
finished being Jewish?
1. Write about a holiday about
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
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
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, Chanukah, or other winter holiday photograph
11. Write about a historical
12. Write about a winter holiday
yet to come. You might consider a fantasy poem with a futuristic sensibility.
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
3. Be sure to 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
5. Be on the lookout for
prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles, conjunctions, and
unnecessary adjectives too).
6. Think about your poem. What it
reveals about being human? Is there a message larger than your memory or
subject? How might your readers relate to your poem?
Here in the U.S.,
Thanksgiving will be celebrated on Thursday, November 28th, which
just happens to be my birthday this year. I can remember how excited I was as a
child when the two special days coincided. These days, I think more about the
things for which I’m thankful.
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. That feast lasted three days and, according to attendee Edward Winslow, it was 90 Native
Americans and 53 Pilgrims participated. 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.
In Canada, Thanksgiving (sometimes
called Canadian Thanksgiving to distinguish it from the American holiday) is an
annual Canadian holiday that occurs on the second Monday in October to
celebrate the harvest and other blessings of the past year.
Other countries that celebrate Thanksgiving include
Germany (a Harvest Thanksgiving Festival in early October), Grenada (on October
25th), Korea (in late September or early October), Japan on November
23rd), Liberia (on the first Thursday of November), and Norfolk
Island located east of Australia (during the 1800s, an American trader brought
the feasting tradition to Norfolk Island, and the custom has been continued).
Cicero said, “Gratitude is
not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Gratitude
is a developmental emotion, and books have been written on the psychology of
gratitude. 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.
A French proverb tells us,
“Gratitude is the heart’s memory.” Our first step in writing for this prompt will
be to remember—to look into our memories and to identify a single thing for
which we’re especially grateful.
Make a list of things for which
Choose one item from the list.
Free write about the item you
Review your free write and select
images and details for your poem.
Draft your poem.
As you write, think about the
reasons for your gratitude and show (without telling) what those feelings
Erato, Muse of Poetry by Sir Edward John Poynter, 1870
My Muse is fickle – she takes three-martini lunches and
heads to the south of France for months at a time – which means that I don’t
write as often as I’d like. My "fickle muse" has become a bit of a joke for me, but I do sometimes reflect upon where poems originate, how they develop, and what their various sources of inspiration might be. Have
you ever thought about what drives you to write poems? Is there a clear moment of inspiration? Do you begin with an image or two? Does something sensory generate an idea for a poem? Is memory a deciding factor in some of your poems?
In Greek mythology, the Muses, in ancient
μοῦσαι (hai moũsai), were minor
goddesses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, believed to
inspire music, song, dance, and poetry. At some point, nine Muses were assigned
to specific arts: Kalliope, epic poetry; Kleio, history; Ourania, astronomy;
Thaleia, comedy; Melpomene, tragedy; Polyhymnia, religious hymns; Erato, erotic
poetry; Euterpe, lyric poetry; and Terpsikhore, choral song and dance. On
Mount Helicon, home to the Muses, were two sacred springs: the Aganippe
and the Hippocrene. The Hippocrene spring (Ἱππου κρήνης) was considered a
source of poetic inspiration (Tennyson referred to it in his poem “Ode to a
Nightengale,” and Longfellow mentions it in “Goblet of Life”).
little pre-ramble introduces an inspiration poem for this week’s
prompt: William Stafford’s “When I Met My Muse.”
When I Met My
I glanced at her and took my glasses
off – they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. "I am your own
way of looking at things," she said. "When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation." And I took her hand.
The key notion of this poem is one of self-awareness and our ability
to express individual ways of seeing things. Stafford speaks to the importance
of accepting who we most truly are. To live with your Muse, then, is to
live comfortably with yourself.
Before writing, let’s “muse” this
week on what inspires us. What inspires you
to write poetry? What’s your Muse like? Is she ever-present or does she favor
three martini lunches and long vacations in the south of France? In what kind
of surroundings or landscapes do you find your Hippocrene spring? When you
first started writing poetry, what inspired you? What inspires you now? Is
there a person or place from which you draw inspiration? An emotion? Are you
inspired by other poets? A particular poet? Is there a spiritual “place” to
which you return repeatedly for inspiration?
Let your musings and Stafford’s poem
serve as inspiration for this week’s poem. Take the cues from your Muse and
choose one of the following:
1. Write a poem about your Muse
(serious or funny).
2. Write a poem about your
“Hippocrene Spring” (your best source of inspiration – one to which you return
often in your poems: memory, experience, faith, relationships, etc.).
3. Ray Bradbury wrote, “In a
lifetime we stuff ourselves with sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures
of people, animals, landscapes, events, large and small. We stuff ourselves
with these impressions and experiences and our reaction to them. These are the
stuffs, the foods, on which The Muse grows.” Write a poem about the ways in
which you “feed” your Muse.
4. Write a poem about living
comfortably (or uncomfortably) with yourself.
A while back, I posted a prompt about wearing masks. With
Halloween just around the corner, this seems a great time to revisit that idea and to write about
masks, both literal and metaphorical. 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, to be who
you really are.
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, let’s consider the kinds of masks we
wear and why we wear them. (Remember: masks may be anything
that disguises or conceals—physical features, facial expressions, attitudes,
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. People in emotional pain may mask their distress with smiles, and
unhappy children may wear the masks of class clowns or bullies. In many cases,
people who suffer from depression will deliberately seem to be happy or
optimistic; similarly, people who suffer from anxiety will create an illusion
of being relaxed or at ease. This kind of deliberate mask-wearing is a kind of
protection, but it can be very lonely.
What masks have you worn?
What metaphorical mask do you wear most often? What does it hide? Write a poem
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”
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.