Thursday, December 15, 2011

Write a Christmas Poem (16 Christmas poem prompts)

The God who speaks planets, suns and galaxies into existence becomes a fertilized egg in a woman's womb. It's what we celebrate at Christmas. How it fires our imaginations and challenges our pens! Which poet hasn't tried writing at least one Christmas poem? Some attempt to write a new one every year.

But there's a problem with that. For in spite of the Christmas story's mind-bending beginning, its cast of colorful characters, unlikely setting and gripping plot line, it's been around for 2000+ years. By now it's as familiar as a cliché. With the body of Christmas writing that has collected over the centuries, isn't there a possibility—even a likelihood—that someone will have already had our Christmas thoughts and written them? How then can we keep our writing from being second-hand? How can we write engagingly and freshly about Christmas?

As I struggled with writing this year's Christmas poem, I decided to look for ways to think about Christmas that might yield new ideas. I've come up with 16 Christmas poem prompts along with examples where I could find them. Some of these ideas I've already tried. Others have me itching to get pen onto paper!

1. Christmas Character
Focus on one character from the Christmas story. Prepare to write by rereading the Christmas story (Matthew 1 & 2; Luke 2).  Imagine your character’s back-story, home, and family. Then retell the story or arrive at some truth about Christmas from that individual’s point of view.
Jan Wood, in her poem “Chosen” talks about Mary:

among women
not for your wide hips
or easy stride
when so many others
would have nursed
and cuddled
deity…          (Read all of "Chosen.")

2. Magnified Christmas Moment
Choose a moment in time from the Christmas story and explore it fully.
Claudia Burney puts a magnifying glass on the moment of Mary’s encounter with God as His chosen in her poem, "May It Be Done:"

Fear not,
    but tell no one.

    You are now
    a bearer of the holy.

    Sit, pondering

    There is no shadow
    in My Light,
    above the face
    of your womb waters…
               (Read all of "May It Be Done.")

3. Modern Setting
Imagine a Christmas character or some of the story events in a modern setting. You’ll need to use your imagination and give yourself permission take some poetic license to write this poem.

4. Christmas Symbol
Choose a Christmas symbol (star, bell, poinsettia, manger, gift) and write a lyric poem examining it in depth. This may involve doing some of the research explained in  October’s column.
Jennifer Zolper’s poem “Star” is such a poem:

God didn’t mean to torment the astrologers.
He would fulfill the promise,
Send the shimmering Guide at
precisely the right moment.
But then, as ever, their seeing was as dark
as a moonless night.
How many eyes winked and squinted
Imagined holy stars that weren’t
Each rhinestone of Orion’s belt was suspect…
           (Read all of "Star.")

5. Christmas Symbol Personalized
Write a poem about what a particular Christmas symbol or object means to you. Chris Green expresses how he feels about seasonal tree markets:
    Christmas trees lined like war refugees,
    a fallen army made to stand in their greens.
    Cut down at the foot, on their last leg,

    they pull themselves up, arms raised.
    We drop them like wood;
    tied, they are driven through the streets…
              (Read all of "Christmas Tree Lots.")

6. Unlikely Character or Setting

Combine the season of Christmas with an unlikely character or setting; for example, Christmas for the single person, the homeless person, the immigrant etc.; Christmas in a nursing home, prison, hospital etc.

Utmost featured a Christmas poem contest a few years ago with just such a stipulation. I wrote “Menno Home Christmas” for it.

Best Christmases were long ago and far away.
Weihnacht? But all is wet and green; there is no snow.
“Good morning, Mrs. Rempel, how are you today?”
At breakfast munch the toast while carols play…
sang that one in a pageant once and stole the show;
best Christmases were long ago and far away.
          (Read all of "Menno Home Christmas.")
 7. Sad Christmas Poem
Though the Christmas season is usually a joyous time, for some it is a time of sadness, regrets, even desperation. Write a sad Christmas poem.
Fran Howell’s “Christmas Lights” is a good example. It begins:

A thin denim jacket shelters shoulders
slumped against darkness
arctic air squeezes
through broken zipper
temporarily reverses the sign
"Out of Work, Please Help!"
          (Read all of "Christmas Lights.")

8. Childhood Christmas
Write about Christmases from your childhood. Start gathering material by writing lists and word clusters. Focus on particulars and include sensual detail—sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch. You may decide to write your memories in prose first. Later distill what you’ve written into a poem.  Here are some of my memories—from my poem, "Bonding"—of unwrapping a Christmas doll:
…Carefully I deliver her
from the store-womb
undo each twist tie and rubber band
till she is free
and I can hug
her soft stuffed body…
          (Read all of "Bonding.")

9. Poignant Moment
Think back to a Christmas moment that was especially poignant—perhaps a moment of epiphany, when you understood something significant about Christmas. Charles van Gorkom brings us such a moment in “Christmas Prayer”:
…I remember long ago
on Harry Road
in a shed on Christmas night
I sat among sheep
with an oil lamp—
leaned sitting in the hay
against a fat sleeping ewe–
          (Read all of "Christmas Prayer.")

10. Christmas Reflections
Reflect on what Christmas means to you presently. Again use lists and word webs to gather your thoughts. Choose one of the things from your list and elaborate in a poem, or make your poem a list of things.
Mary Lou Cornish reflects:
I cannot write about a manger
without thinking of a cross.
When angels are glad-singing,
joy-bringing, I hear
desperate joy-robbing,
cries from a crowd dispirited
at the de-souling
of the incarnate God.
          (Read all of "I Cannot Write About a Manger.")

11. Christmas Specialist
Write about some aspect of the Christmas story from a specialist’s point of view. Are you a carpenter (Joseph), a farmer (shepherd), a hotelier (innkeeper), or a  civil servant (tax collector)?
Physician Darlene Moore-Berg’s poem “Embryology” takes the idea of how babies are formed in utero and writes about this aspect of the incarnation.
A subtle thing
one simple moment to the next
a rhythm, a pulsatile beat
and the heart of God
takes on a mortal cadence.
In a dark, muffled womb
four chambers form- room
to comprehend the flow
of human blood...
          (Read all of "Embryology.")

12. Christmas Acrostic

Choose a Christmas word (STAR, BELL, MANGER, ANGEL) or phrase and write an acrostic poem. Colin Marshall’s poem won an internet Christmas acrostic poem contest in 2007. Notice how it flows, so that the words beginning each line (which start with the required letters) feel natural, even inevitable.
When autumn trees have shed their last
In encore to summer past,
Silent nights grow longer still,
Harbinger to winters chill.
          (Read all of "Wishing You A Merry Christmas.")

13. Christmas Tune Lyrics
With the tune of a familiar Christmas carol or song in mind, write a poem as a set of new lyrics.

14. Model Poem
Choose a poem you love for whatever reason—rhythm, rhyme scheme, emotional tone—and write a Christmas poem patterned on it.

To do this, you may first want to analyze the model poem to discover what’s going on in it. Scan it and determine the rhyme scheme. You may decide not to follow it precisely, but it’s good to start out by being familiar with its construction.
One year, using “The Kye-Song of St. Bride” as a model, I composed “Christmas Echoes”:
Generous Christmas carries
Rare and radiant gift:
Gold, myrrh and frankincense begin
But thanks fall short, to our chagrin,
For Godhead wrapped in baby’s skin
Radiant, rare
Holy gift.
          (Read all of "Christmas Echoes.")

15. Ekphrastic Christmas Poem
Write a Christmas poem inspired by a painting, photograph or other visual work of art. John Dreyer’s poem was inspired by Frederico Barocci’s painting “Madonna and Child with Saint Joseph and the Infant Baptist” from the National Gallery in London.
Herod's recent butchery is passed away
in the Baraccio Madonna's blue sky morning;
Salome's request macabre and
Pilate's washing of his hands are
cowardices yet to come.
For now, her nephew's
teasing of the cat
distracts the nursing child
from her breast.
          (Read all of "Madonna's Blue Sky Morning.")

16. Christmas Poem That Isn’t
Write a Christmas poem in the form of some other kind of communication, an email, text message, postcard or news report for example. Here are some lines from my poem “Christmas Cake,” written in the form of a recipe:
November or early December’s the time
to start on this year’s Christmas cake
Pour several cups of sweet anticipation into a large bowl
– the first snowfall when we hauled out the Christmas records
– all the dolls in the Sears catalogue
– paint smells from the basement
Cut in a pound of cold reality
– the year I worked nights and slept through
– the first Christmas without Daddy
– the one I broke my wrist
and cream these ingredients.
          (Read all of "Christmas Cake.")

Now it’s your turn. Choose one of the prompts above to guide you. Combine the ingredients of the wonderful Christmas story with your unique experience and point-of-view. This meld of Christmas old and Christmas you is one sure way to create new Christmas poems—poems unlike any that have been written in all the years since God incarnate came to Bethlehem.

(This article was first published as a Poets Classroom article on Utmost Christian Writers, December 2008.)


Janet said...

Since I've read this I so wanted to write a Christmas poem. I just attempted, then realized I did use some of the greatest 'second-hand' lines ever written!

The wonder of Christmas is a difficult subject to capture fully in mere word, but oh, it seems we must try.

Thank-you for posting this, Violet. I always look forward to your wisdom and experience that you share.

violet said...

Thank you, Janet! I am having the same problem of feeling like I want to write a Christmas poem, but despairing because I have no original thoughts! I have used some of the techniques I described to get poems in other years, but so far this year, nothing! I must get to work on my 2011 Christmas poem...