The Wish List

Gather round the fire as Young Poets Network launches a festive new short poem challenge themed around wish lists…

Image of a wrapped gift held by hands on the tabke

The gift-giving season is nigh! As the nights creep in earlier and earlier, here at Poetry Towers we’re all looking forward to sharing food, presents and frivolity with our nearest and dearest.

We’re asking young writers across the world to send in short poems inspired by wish lists, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, another gift-giving festival, or none at all.

Maybe you’d write about something you’d love to receive as a gift – describe your dream streamlined bike, the collection of poems you’ve had your eye on all year, the electric whisk you need to complete your kitchen utensil set.

While perhaps not something you’d want to wake up to on Christmas morning, Roger McGough’s short poem in celebration of the humble fish and chip supper is quite lovely.

Vinegar / sometimes / i feel like a priest / in a fish & chip queue / quietly thinking / as the vinegar runs though / how nice it would be / to buy supper for two
‘Vinegar’ by Roger McGough, in Collected Poems, p. 43.

 The poem is short and sweet (or sour, perhaps?), and the handful of end-rhymes (‘queue’, ‘through’ and ‘two’), like strings over wrapping paper, help to tie the piece together. It’s almost an ode to fish and chips. Lovely.

Odes are poems addressed to a particular subject, often praising or describing something. Apart from an ode, the obvious poetic form you might use for this wish list challenge is a list poem. This is exactly what it sounds like – a poetic list! Sharon Olds uniquely combines these two forms in her ‘Spoon Ode’.

… spoon of egg, spoon of egg race,
spoon of dish, spoon of ran away with,
spoon of ran away with and came back, spoon of never came back,
spoon of silver, spoon of gold,
spoon of milk, spoon of Saturn …

 from ‘Spoon Ode’ by Sharon Olds

Olds plays with the different associations we have with spoons. She moves from egg-and-spoon races, through the nursery rhyme of the dish running away with the spoon, to the idea of being ‘born with a silver spoon in your mouth’, and makes us look again at this unassuming object. In your wish list poem, you might do something similar, and explore all the different ideas we have associated with the thing you most want: socks, books, a new double bass…

Image of four spoons, heaped with different ingredients: cinnamon, salt, and two other colourful condiments

Of course, your wish list might not be about something you can hold. Read Frank O’Hara’s heartfelt love poem ‘Having a Coke with You’. While not a wish list as such, the poem definitely expresses a sense of longing that you might want to explore in your own work when responding to this theme.

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary

from ‘Having a Coke with You’ by Frank O’Hara

The details in this poem lend it its warmth. The speaker has considered times spent in each one of the holiday destinations ‘San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne’, and knows that sharing a soft drink with their loved one trumps all these. The reader can tell that each one of these proper nouns carries lovely memories with it.

Note how O’Hara also uses repetition to lull us into sharing his nostalgia. The ‘partly because’ at the start of each line adds to the speaker’s reminiscing, as each new memory occurs to them. Lovely.

Image of a rack of coca cola bottles

Your wish list doesn’t have to be as warm and fuzzy as these poems, however. Read American poet Chen Chen’s list poem ‘When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities’. It’s a poetic list of everything the speaker wants to be, but there’s something conflicted and troubled about what that speaker claims to want.

… To be, in my spare time,
America for my uncle, who wants to be China

for me. To be a country of trafficless roads
& a sports car for my aunt, who likes to go

fast. To be a cyclone
of laughter when my parents say

their new coworker is like that, they can tell
because he wears pink socks, see, you don’t, so you can’t, 

can’t be one of them. To be the one
my parents raised me to be…

from ‘When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities’ by Chen Chen

Chen wraps some very complex issues to do with identity and family in beautifully clever language. What does it really mean to ‘be … America for my uncle’? Does the speaker want to lose their own ‘Chinese’-ness so that they can represent ‘America’ (whatever that really means) to their uncle? Why? And why in their ‘spare time’ only? Chen prompts so many questions, perhaps highlighting how there are no real answers when it comes to questions of identity.

When you’re reading the poem, listen carefully to the tone of the speaker’s wanting ‘To be a cyclone / of laughter’ when their parents try to tell them that they ‘can’t’ be ‘like that’. Chen’s speaker wants to be able to laugh off their discomfort and distress… well, they claim to want to. But when people say hurtful things, what we really want is for them to stop. At the same time, the speaker wishes ‘To be the one / my parents raised me to be’ – a feeling that many readers can empathise with. If we read the poem as a wish list, it’s certainly not a straightforward one.

Image of a father holding a child's hand walking through an autumnal forest

Frank O’Hara has another good poem on a similar theme, more directly titled ‘Homosexuality’, in which he wants to love who he wants to love, and be wanted by someone else. And on a very different but similarly intangible note, Alice Walker has a great short poem on the world we want which might give you some ideas about your own wish list.

You might otherwise take inspiration from Judith Viorst’s witty poem ‘Mother Doesn’t Want a Dog’, and write about what you or someone else doesn’t want:

Mother doesn’t want a dog.
Mother says they smell,
And never sit when you say sit,
Or even when you yell.

from ‘Mother Doesn’t Want a Dog’ by Judith Viorst

Viorst carries on in this manner, listing the reasons why ‘Mother doesn’t want a dog’. The even rhyme and rhythm of the poem makes the piece feel like a nursery rhyme, and the speaker sound like a young child. This lulls the reader into a false sense of security, so the twist at the end is even more surprising and funny:

Mother doesn’t want a dog.
She’s making a mistake.
Because, more than a dog, I think
She will not want this snake.

Image of bare trees in winter

You may wish to write from a totally different perspective from your own. Take inspiration from Ian McMillan’s poem, ‘The Game: Christmas Day, 1914’ about the British and German soldiers who stopped fighting for a glimmer of peacetime on Christmas Day to play a game of football. The poem is partly about what the soldiers feel they can realistically want within the confines of their role in the war. All these soldiers must really want is an end to the war, lending a second meaning to the game’s ‘extra time’:

… A ball flies in the air like a moon
Kicked through the morning mist.
All these boys want to have today
Is a generous amount of extra time. …

from ‘The Game: Christmas Day, 1914’ by Ian McMillan

Or maybe, like Rob Auton, you’d like to write a spin on the idea of a wish list itself. In Rob Auton’s poem, Father Christmas leaves him a wish list. Have a listen now:

It begins, “I knew if I achieved sleep, my reward would come in the shape of Father Christmas having been. This year, I woke up to find I’d received a letter from Father Christmas…”

It’s really a poem about keeping in good mental health. It’s a wonderful piece, and might inspire you to play with the idea of a wish list in innovative new ways yourself.

The challenge

Write us a short poem (up to 25 lines) inspired by the idea of a wish list. You can take inspiration from any of the poems or ideas from above, or go your own way completely with this challenge. You can use a list poem, an ode, a different form, or free form. Be creative with your 25 lines (or fewer). Don’t be afraid of super short poems either! Find tips on short poems in one of our previous challenges.

Remember: you don’t have to write a straight poem saying ‘I want X Y Z’. Take inspiration wherever you find it. It also doesn’t have to be festive. But we do like festivities.

Prizes

Winning poets will have their poems published on Young Poets Network and receive an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook. Plus, we’ll send all published entrants a random poetry book to add to their hoard of presents this winter.

How to enter

This challenge is open to all poets up to the age of 25, based anywhere in the world. You can send a poem written down, or a performance poem as a video or as an audio file. Send as many poems as you like. The deadline for all entries is Monday 1 January 2018, and your poem must not exceed 25 lines (this 25 line limit does not apply to the title, breaks between stanzas, epigraphs etc. – just the body of the actual poem itself).

If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poems to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with your name, date of birth, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘Wish list challenge’. By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Do note that you reserve the right to refuse to give information about you as an entrant, and any information you do give will not affect your chances of winning.

Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

When you enter, we will add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list – please let us know if you’d rather we didn’t.

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