Once upon a midnight dreary Pilgrims, feeling cold and weary Asked, "How best to sing hosana For all that corn and all that manna?" When suddenly a voice-on-high said, "Sacrifice a feathered biped!"
"I know it's not literature," I say to my husband, "but I haven't started with the Pilgrims in years. How do you like it? After all, it's my swan song."
"Keep trying," he says. "We're not even at Trenton yet. It will be midnight before we get to New York."
It's that time of year again, although it hardly seems possible. Or, as I wrote in my Thanksgiving 1985 poem: Can it be twelve months have passed Since this gathering gathered last?
We are heading, in dense Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving traffic, for my sister and brother-in-law's spacious and gracious loft in far downtown Manhattan -- site of the annual feast. I sit with notebook, pen and flashlight, struggling. Norman drives. His annual responsibility is to select, purchase and tote the wine. Easy and enjoyable. Eight bottles of Nuits St. Georges, packed jiggle-proof, are in a box in the trunk. My assignment is to write and read the Thanksgiving poem. I am my four-generation family's semiretired poet laureate. The honor was handed down to me by my mother, who -- from my earliest memory -- would rise from her seat at dessert time to honor significant family occasions with a few snappy quatrains. She has always been my softest critic.
"My mother will like it," I say.
"Why does it always rain on the New Jersey Turnpike on the night before Thanksgiving?" Norman replies.
"I thought I'd try a refrain: High above the subway's clatter, High above the traffic's roar Let's rejoice as we grow fatter Let us pass our plates for more.
He scowls at the foggy night. "Nice."
"I'm putting it in after the last few verses -- when I talk about the food and who's there this year and how Emily has grown and Mom and Angela's birthdays."
When I was a child my mother used to ask me to "compose" a poem. Now she calls a few days before Thanksgiving with some pretend inquiry, and then the nudge, "Have you written your poem?" Actually, "composing" is the better word. As the dictionary says, "putting two or more elements together." The elements that must be combined in the Thanksgiving poem each year are:
A greetings to the regulars, with mention of any special guests.
A reference to the fact that this is an annual event we all look forward to.
Thanks to Reyna and Ed, my sister and brother-in-law, who host the event with great charm, warmth and culinary skill.
Congratulations to my mother (Gertrude) and my niece (Angela), who have late November birthdays we celebrate on Thanksgiving.
Acknowledgements of any happy events that have occurred since last Thanksgiving -- a graduation, an honor, a birth, a wedding. No unhappy events allowed.
Comments on the quality and the abundance of the food can be integrated with thanks to the host and hostess. For example, Reyna, a lawyer, may get a tortured compliment on her expertise with torts and tarts. That part is easy: da da da da Rey and Ed da da da da sumptuously fed or da da da da Ed and Rey da da da Thanksgiving Day,
The poems get pretty lengthy. One year I attempted a Thanksgiving sonnet, but it was too constraining. When I reached the 14th line I hadn't even mentioned the sweet potatoes with marshmallows, much less gooseberry tarts. Pilgrims are optional.
Of course, when you're covering the same subjects and the same cast of characters year after year the rhymes become increasingly predictable. After all, how many things can you rhyme with "cranberry sauce"? (Answer: "Banbury Cross," which doesn't make much sense.). It was two years ago, when we were already at the Cherry Hill exit and I was still trying to rhyme something with "Angela and Gertrude" or "Gertrude and Angela", that I decided our family needed a new poet laureate. Poets burn out. Time to pass the torch. But although I number among my children and their spouses a Harvard English major and three professional writers, they all turned me down. My sister, however, has a daughter -- the very same Angela -- who is charming, dauntless, witty, smart, and working toward a PhD in English. She cheerfully agreed to write last year's poem. I suggested she might include something about Emily, the youngest member of the family, then aged 18 months.
I gave her some hints. " 'Emily' rhymes with 'plain to see' or 'we all agree.' " Take it from there, Angela!
And she did.
She wrote a Thanksgiving poem that was a parody of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." Never thought of that. Twenty-four adoring relatives and friends, dazed after oysters, wild mushroom soup, turkey with chestnut dressing, giblet gravy, braised onions, baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mashed white potatoes with celery root, chunky cranberry sauce, smooth cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, gooseberry tarts and birthday cake sat back in their chairs and began tapping their feet in anticipatory iambic pentameter as she started to read:
We're not the hollow men, slash, women
We are the stuffed men, slash, women
Stomachs filled with turkey, Alas!
No room for gooseberry tarts.
"Interesting," said Aunt Hazel.
Between the wine
And the turkey
Falls Nana's birthday
For ours is the holiday
Between the stuffing
And the onions
Between the gooseberry
And the pumpkin
And the speeches
Falls Angela's birthday
And Emily is here.
"Original," said my mother's urbane cousin Essie.
This is the way the meal ends
This is the way the meal ends
This is the way the meal ends
Not with a bang
But with a contented sigh. There was a moment's silence.
"You're going to be the smartest college professor ever," said my mother.
The torch had been passed. But last week, on the way to work on the Red Line, I began to feel a little wistful. I took out a pad and scribbled a few lines beginning with the observation that, well, here we are -- so happy to be together again -- and although another year has passed and we now range from 2 1/2 to 83:
Da da da, it's plain to see,
No one has aged except Emily I telephoned Angela. "Have you written your Thanksgiving poem?" I asked.
"Auntie," she asked urgently, "could you do it just one more year? I'm miles behind on my work."
I tried to help her. "Let me give you an opening. You could comment on the fact that it hardly seems possible a year has passed since last Thanksgiving. You could say something like, "it's plain to see, no one has aged except Emily." And, of course, there are always the Pilgrims."
"I thought I'd do Yeats this year, a parody of 'Sailing to Byzantium.' The problem is, I have two exams. Just one more year? Please?"
As we near the Holland Tunnel, an immobile rope of cars, rear lights glowing like jewels in the foggy dark, curves out from the entrance. Norman groans.
"You know, I think having a year off has really helped me a whole lot," I say. "Of course, everyone will be disappointed that Angela is skipping a year already. Isn't it great to have one member of the kids' generation who likes to write poetry? I really should say something about that in the last stanza. If only I could think of a word to rhyme with Angela." Elinor Horwitz is a free-lance writer and an editor at Defenders of Wildlife.