Saturday, August 29, 2020

Prompt #359 - Letter Poems

This prompt was originally posted as Prompt #40, when the blog was fairly new, and I thought something like this would be interesting to revisit right now. I’ve changed it a bit and added a couple of ideas, relating the prompt to our current place in history.

How often do we write letters these days? That is, real letters, not emails or texts? Can a letter become a poem? Let's experiment with writing a poem/letter. The form will be similar to that of a letter (salutation, body of the letter, closing). The body of the work may be stichic (one long stanza) or may be comprised of several stanzas. You can address the letter to yourself or to someone else, and you can write about anything you choose.


1. What things might you say if were to write a letter to yourself or to someone else about what’s going on in our world right now? Jot down some ideas, or free write for a while.

2. Confront yourself. 

3. Confront something that troubles you. 

4. Write a letter about the Covid-19 pandemic. Your letter poem doesn’t have to be about the pandemic, but it’s something so uppermost in our minds at this point in time that you might find it “therapeutic” to write a letter about it. You might write a letter to yourself about your feelings, fears, anxieties. Alternatively, you might write a letter to a friend or family member, or to someone you know who contracted the virus or to someone who didn’t survive it. You might write to someone in the medical profession who has risked his or her health and life to care for Covid patients.

6. Write from the future (looking back at yourself and our times as they are now).  

7. Let your feelings guide the direction of the poem, but don’t write only about your feelings. Be sure to include things that show rather than tell how about this place in history (sheltering in place, social distancing, wearing masks).

8. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings, and be sure to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

9. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

10. As you write your letter poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

11. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

12. Keep in mind that overstatement and the obvious should be avoided when it comes to writing poetry.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Prompt #358 – One with All Being

We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. 
It is a way of bitter suffering. 
But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, 
for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. 
And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, 
yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, 
for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being. 

—Herman Hesse

I recently came across the Herman Hesse quote above, and it really resonated for me when applied to the Covid pandemic and all the other stressful and unsettling things that are going on in our world. I’m reminded of current terms and catch phrases such as “social distancing,” “quarantine,” “sheltering in place,” “self-isolating at home,” and “being alone together.”

As human beings, we are social by nature—creatures of community and companionship. As we experience the varying degrees of being alone dictated by this virus, it may be a good thing to think in terms of our "aloneness" and how it can lead to ultimate oneness with each other and all that there is. 

Alone and lonely are both adjectives, but they have different meanings. A person is alone when he or she is by himself or herself. A person is lonely when he or she feels isolated, abandoned and, therefore, sad. “Alone” refers to a state of solitude, rather than the emotion that “loneliness” suggests. Loneliness can sometimes feel like a kind of existential angst. Writers like Sartre, Camus, and Kafka have written novels about this feeling and what it tells us about being human. There is also an abundance of poetry about it. 

During this pandemic, we are often more alone than we are accustomed to being as we work from home, attend classes online, are unable to safely socialize with colleagues and friends, and cannot gather in large groups. It’s important for us to differentiate between loneliness and being alone, although, understandably, during stressful times like these, it is completely possible to be both lonely and alone at the same time.


Hopefully, in writing about being lonely and/or alone, we can use our poems and shared experiences to show that we are not utterly different and are still part of humankind's universal community.
Guidelines & Tips

1. Does the opening quote touch you in any special way? What does it mean to you (how do you understand this quote)? Is there a spiritual aspect expressed in the quote that speaks to you?

2. Can you apply the quote to your personal life and what’s going on in the world today—the Covid pandemic?

3. During the past several challenging months, when being alone in some manner and to some degree has become part of our daily lives, how has being alone affected you and your loved ones?

4. If you’ve been feeling stressed out, depressed, and lonely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. We’re all feeling the effects of social isolation. What are some ways in which we can combat these feelings (telephone calls, emails, texting, Zoom gatherings, other electronic methods of bringing people together virtually)?

5. Start by making a list or doing a free write about how being alone and/or loneliness makes you feel.

6. Using your list or free write, begin writing a poem about loneliness, solitude, or any aspect of the Covid Pandemic that has forced you into more time alone, and greater introspection than ever before.

7. Craft your poem carefully, not overburdening it with too many details and by not overtly using words like “loneliness,” “solitude,” or “being alone.”

8. Try to keep your poem short (under 40 lines) or perhaps a short prose poem.

9. Don’t include anything that’s not absolutely essential to the poem.

10. Try to evoke feelings of loneliness by showing, not telling. You may wish to relate a specific incident (narrative poem) or you may prefer to be more general. Either way, remember to be unique in your choice of language and figures of speech.

11. Avoid over-use of adjectives.

12. Be wary of becoming maudlin or over-stating sentiment.


The Solitude of Night
By Li Bai
(Translated by Shigeyoshi Obata)

It was at a wine party—
I lay in a drowse, knowing it not.
The blown flowers fell and filled my lap.
When I arose, still drunken,
The birds had all gone to their nests,
And there remained but few of my comrades.
I went along the river—alone in the moonlight.

Source: The Works of Li Po The Chinese Poet (EP Dutton & Company, 1921)

Flood: Years of Solitude
By Dionisio D. Martinez

To the one who sets a second place at the table anyway.
To the one at the back of the empty bus.
To the ones who name each piece of stained glass projected on a white wall.
To anyone convinced that a monologue is a conversation with the past.
To the one who loses with the deck he marked.
To those who are destined to inherit the meek.
To us.

The Loneliness One Dare Not Sound
By Emily Dickinson

The Loneliness One dare not sound—
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size—
The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see—
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny—
The Horror not to be surveyed—
But skirted in the Dark—
With Consciousness suspended—
And Being under Lock—

And this pandemic specific poem by friend and fellow poet Jane Ebihara (originally published in Frost Meadow Review “Pandemic Poetry,” August 10, 2020).
April 2020
By Jane Ebihara

                        eliminate all non-essential travel stay six feet away from others wear
                        a mask in public stay home stay home the virus doesn’t move we do
                        stay home wash your hands stay home wash your hands don’t touch
                        your face
                        stay home

from home—
our sanctuaries and cells—
we long for the ordinary
          a haircut  a gathering  the gym  a carwash  a night out  an embrace

I stand at the window looking out
                      looking out

in April wind
a long abandoned nest
no bigger than a teacup 
clings to the dogwood

a male cardinal at the feeder lifts
seeds to the beak of his mate
three turkey vultures swoop low
cast shadows on the lawn

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Prompt #357 – Silence in Which Another Voice May Speak

During these troubled and stressful times, I often hear the word prayer, perhaps more often in conversation than usual. People talk about praying for a Covid vaccine, for an end to civil unrest, an end to racism, and for peace within our country and around the world. I often see on social media, people offering to pray for one another for specific concerns. As member of the Secular Franciscan Order (formerly the Third Order of St. Francis) for almost 30 years, prayer is an integral part of my everyday life.

Regardless of your own spiritual association (church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other), I thought about you this week and about what prayer might mean to you.

Years ago, Fr. Alex Pinto (who celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination last year, and who has been my guide and inspiration for 30 years) taught me that there are essentially four types of prayer.

Prayers of Praise—when we acknowledge the greatness of the Divine Presence and declare the glory of that Presence.

Prayers of Thanksgiving—when we express our gratitude to Divinity for gifts and blessings we have received.

Prayers of Petition—when we present our special needs before the Divine Presence and ask for assistance.

Prayers of Contrition—when we ask the Divine Presence’s forgiveness for things we have done wrong.

Fr. Alex

Fr. Alex also taught that just as there are different types of prayer, there also exist different forms of prayer. The three most common are conversation, meditation, and contemplation. Conversation generally comes to us more easily; meditation and contemplation, especially, require more practice and perseverance.

Conversation – when we open our hearts to whatever deity we embrace and speak to that deity in thought and word.

Meditation – when we explore the presence of deity with our minds, bringing both deity and our needs into focus.

Contemplation – when we explore and enjoy our deity relationship with our minds, hearts, and spirits, often without conscious thoughts or words; a state of heightened and mystical awareness of the Infinite Being.

I recently came across two poems by Pulitzer Prizewinner Mary Oliver that seemed especially appropriate to our place in history. Although the poems are not traditional prayers, they possess a quality of prayer that resonated for me and which I hope will be meaningful for you. These poems originate in moments, embrace the natural world, and have an organic character that reminds me of spontaneous prayer. 

Oliver once said of prayer: "I think one thing is that prayer has become more useful, interesting, fruitful, and ... almost involuntary in my life. And when I talk about prayer, I mean really ... what Rumi says in that wonderful line, ‘there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.’ I'm not theological, specifically, I might pick a flower for Shiva as well as say the hundredth [psalm]."

Mary Oliver


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

(Acknowledgment: “Praying” by Mary Oliver, from Thirst © Beacon Press, 2007)

I Happened To Be Standing

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

(Acknowledgment: "I Happened to be Standing" by Mary Oliver, from Devotions © Penguin Press, 2017.)

Click Here and Scroll to Sound Clip (red arrow) 
to Hear Mary Oliver Read "I Happened to be Standing"

Guidelines and Tips:

1. Whether you’re a “praying person” or not and whether or not you belong to an organized faith, it may be that you will find a measure of spiritual comfort in writing a poem that is, in some way, like a prayer.  Accordingly, the challenge for this prompt is to write a prayer poem. Before writing anything, read the Mary Oliver poems a couple of times and think about how she achieved something prayerful in them.

2. Next, spend some time thinking about the things that are going on in our country and in our world today.

3. What would you most like to change?

4. Look at the natural world around you and think about the beauty that exists in nature despite humanity’s failings and frailties.

5. Start writing by making a list of things for which you’d like to pray, or a list of things for which you already pray. Alternatively, you might find it helpful to start out with a prayer free write instead of a list. Your poem may be addressed to a particular deity or it may be addressed to a person.

6. Remember that your prayer poem does not have to be “religious.” What you’re working toward should be something spiritual but not necessarily based on the tenets of any religious tradition or thinking. This is not a restriction—your poem can be religious if you wish!

7. Allow yourself the freedom to write whatever you feel deeply.

8. Most importantly, be honest and sincere. Let yourself find the silence Mary Oliver wrote about—the silence in which another voice can speak.

9. You can bring your poem to closure with a simple “amen” if you wish, but that’s not necessary. (Amen is commonly used after a prayer or creed. It is spoken to express solemn ratification or agreement. It means “it is so” or “so it be” [so be it] and is derived a from a Hebrew word (see below) that means “certainty,” “truth,” and “verily.”  

10. In its simplest definition, prayer is a “conversation between the one who is praying and the one to whom the prayer is addressed.” Keep your poem simple. There are no definitive rules about content or format. Simply write whatever your heart tells you to write.


I pray that each of you will stay safe and be well.