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Writing for the Occasion!
Copyright©2008 by Dick Hayes

If we lived in the early Hebrew, Greek and Roman worlds, we would respect poets as honored members of our community with a duty to provide verse for public occasions. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey celebrate early Greek triumphs and tragedy. Anglo Saxon works such as Beowulf were composed for public entertainment. Elegies were written for funerals and songs for social events. In England we still recall this social purpose in the appointment of the Poet Laureate—as indeed does Utmost Christian Writers Foundation.

Today, it seems that poetry has withdrawn into the cloister of literature, not often involved with the ordinary life of average people. This is a shame and does our profession no favors. I believe poets have almost a sacred duty to provide verse for all occasions both sad and joyful. Believers and non-believers mingle at many celebratory and commemorative events. Our words in poetry can be used at these events as part of our witness for Jesus.

Events that come to mind for recognition in poetry include birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, baptisms and funerals. I'm sure you can think of many more.

I have chosen to illustrate this article with reference to the occasion of a Funeral. This is primarily because I have written a number of memorial pieces recently, which have been well received.

The Elegy

"Elegy" is from the Greek elegos, a reflection on the death of someone or on a sorrow, generally a form of lyric poetry.

The poet has a role of comforter when a death occurs. The poet captures feelings and emotions and concentrates them to convey with great power an insight. Prose, with its extended approach, cannot compare—in power—with poetry. On these occasions, a deep emotional response can assist grieving. If the poet cannot help in this way, who can?    

I have included three poems I have written for funerals. In each instance, I knew the subject personally and the verses have been read in the presence of very large Christian congregations (on one occasion over 400). The reception was gratifying and moving. To see someone weep when they read your work is truly worth the emotional effort of pouring in your love and affection for the deceased.  

Although my analysis is more about content than style I will briefly cover that aspect. All three poems follow strict iambic pentameter. The first is in blank verse, the second two are both rhyming sonnets. I find the iambic pentameter most congenial to solemnity and it has as excellent pedigree in heroic and serious classical English tradition (for example see Milton’s Lycidas)   

However, there is no hard and fast rule, if free verse works for you and that is your forte, then stay in your comfort zone. To approach this topic you should be concentrating on content, feeling and reaching your audience.   

First Example

To start, here is a verse called "DW," named after a minister called David Weatherly. 


Who, with a bashful, half reluctant step
departing from the quiet lands of Kent,
where he had first received his gracious Lord
and gave his love to Europe’s destitute:
engaged to face a stiff and sterner test
amidst the tumult of a Northern Town.

Master of wood—alike his own soul’s master
who had won his first affection. Better friend
was never found, nor walked in goodness more
than he—no strike or strength to any blow—
first in defence, if one dismayed was struck
and last to blame, when sorrow laid him low.

Have we not seen him dance—in his mind’s eye
one step only from the brink of Heaven,
hungry for release to rend the curtain
of this dull inanimate condition;
but turning back to weep, he held our hand 
weak as a child—and double blessed because.

Constraint removed at length—he too has passed
far from his native land and from this world
to meet the Saviour. Look! He strides once more, 
greeting this one and that who loved him well:
cries out and leaps, runs up, his strength regained
bows his dear head and sinking to his knee
receives the prize for which he laboured long
and gains the kiss he so desired to share.

Notice the thematic development which I use in all three poems. In this first one, the length allows for a fuller exposition. Here are the component parts. 

Lines 1- 6 Introduction to the deceased.  
Lines 7-18 Distinctive character of the deceased.
Lines 19-26 The victory of faith and consummation in Heaven.    

In my approach, the first section is intended to capture the audience's attention. The second is to reflect the sympathetic and distinctive and carry the listener into their best memories. It is gentler and slower in its use of language. The third section aims to lift them suddenly right out of those reflections and present Christ as the center, thus translating sorrow into exultant joy. The key here, I think, is to change the tone and speed up the verse with stronger words thus helping to establish faith and hope.    

Note that the subject (DW) enters into an immediate personal interview with the Lord in the sudden relaxing of the movement of the verse in the closing couplet. This closure reminds the hearers that all is now complete and the soul is safe.

Here is a second example. This is a orthodox Shakespearean sonnet.

Second Example

Requiem for a Retiring Soul

And so, my old dear friend, the battle’s won.
Hard was the labour and a price was paid.
Your quiet progress, now the race is done,
shines all the brighter for the effort made.
So nature lost her hold, withdrew her hand;
the vessel broken and the spirit fled.
Ask not, ‘What was accomplished?’ Let us stand    
and shout aloud: ‘This one was born in God!’
‘This one was born for God!’ No loss to leave  
this wearing world—for Jesus bid him come.  
To those who weep—weep on—but do not grieve: 
for he who ran ahead—got safely home.
Now gone his doubts, once shy to own his part,
For Heaven knew and loved his tender heart.

Again the thematic development

Lines 1 Introduction to the deceased.  
Lines 2-6 Distinctive character of the deceased.
Lines 7-14 The victory of faith and consummation in Heaven.    

As before, note the comfort of the subject having got safely home, despite being a prey to doubts in this life. 

Finally, a very recent item written in March 2008. I was gratified not only to read this in the church service, but requested to do so again at the crematorium. 

Third Example

Ruth Wilson
Our sorrow mixed with joy, again we come,     
our thoughts constrained: for few and quick the years,     
since of her dear departed spouse we spoke    
and her full part in their congenial home.   
And now, we bring an offering of tears
but not as those who have no living hope. 
For all may find in Jesus guardian love, 
as she, the radiance of his kindly light.
(A light sufficient for our fleeting days)   
And though diffuse below, not so above:
where holy and consuming fires bright,    
reflect the depth of God’s renewing gaze. 
There, Ruth; maid servant, faithful and discreet,     
attends, adoring at her master’s feet!

Again note the thematic development. 

Lines 1-4 Introduction to the deceased.  
Lines 5-12 Distinctive character of the deceased.
Lines 13-14 The victory of faith and consummation in Heaven.    

In the closing couplet the subject here is likened to Ruth who lay at Boaz's feet (Book of Ruth ch 3). The closure is that of the labourer entering into the reward.

Not Just for Funerals

For most of us, marriages and anniversaries are the main opportunities to present a celebratory poem. Husbands should write for their wives and wives for husbands. Parents for children. Sometimes church affairs can be celebrated. The secret here, as always, is to avoid sentimentality and clichés. Take care to read and study the Utmost archives and articles to get a feeling for the originality needed.

Be Sensitive to Feedback

Remember, that when you commit your work to public scrutiny, your strength or weakness will be evident by the completion of the first line and what you don’t want is to embarrass friends and family. We can avoid the awkward, "thank you and now lets move on," by getting a few people to read our work first and consider any criticisms. If people don’t like your contribution, take the hint and withdraw, then continue to work at your craft and try again when you know you have improved.

Don’t forget that you should always humbly submit your work to the immediate family or organizers and not strive for its inclusion—let them read and reflect. If they find some delight, they will only be too willing to allot you a place in the arrangements. This has been my experience.

Now here is a celebration sonnet written for my wife on our 20th anniversary (we’ve just passed our 31st) I also read a section at my daughter’s wedding. Noticed the intimacy implied in the seeming little things. We should strive to make the simple and familiar special, without straining for effect. 

A Wedding Anniversary

Suppose the tale of our years were told,
how first we motored through the dusk and damp:
those headlight bends that blazed with fleeting gold,
the mad three pointed turn and there was Heaves
untended by the welcome of a lamp.
And with our cases braved the new night cold
skirting the banks and drifts of autumn leaves—
nervous you squeezed my hand—how warm to hold.
December was that month, and still it lends
remembrance of a quiet company,
where in God’s presence and before our friends:
declaring loudly what we were to be,
how love and time would settle constancy
as fair beginning leads to richer ends!

Should you read your own work?

I have read my own poems, at times, and sometimes I have had my work read by others. I feel poets—as in the Greek and Latin days—should, if possible, read their own work, as they best understand the emphasis of every word so carefully put together. Remember that feeling must be carried in the voice which forms the word and part of the writer’s creativity arises from feeling the subject.      

You may have guessed that I am\was close to all those featured in the poems presented here. I don’t know if it is possible to write for an unknown person, unless some very famous celebrity, whose doings are part of a nation’s life. Again the yardstick is originality and intimacy and if you can achieve this consistently I don’t see why, with enough research, you can’t write for strangers.

Finally, I have found that in "writing for the occasion" I have in turn been moved by the response of all those who heard the pieces. Indeed this has been the best gift I could give to the many friends and family. After the event, I have received numerous thanks and some requests for copies.    

You can be the bearer of both comfort and hope and joy. So why not try writing for the occasion!

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2008 by Dick Hayes
Dick Hayes is a poet living and writing in Liverpool, England