Haikus are easy/But sometimes they don't make any sense/Refrigerator
November 23, 2010 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Poetry recommendations for a a forced Thanksgiving dinner reading?

My lovely quasi-sister-in-law has unilaterally declared a new Thanksgiving tradition this year, and we are now all expected to recite a poem at Thanksgiving dinner. My strong suspicion is that most people aren't terribly enthusiastic about this task, but everyone's willing to humor her this once.

I love poetry and don't mind public speaking in the slightest, but I'm really not looking forward to this, and I have no idea what I should be reading. I don't think it has to be explicitly Thanksgiving-themed, and any overtly sermonizing or religious poems would almost certainly fall horribly flat. Ideally, it would be short, possibly funny, and family friendly without being horrifically cheesy or cliched, since they're a fairly cultured and educated bunch, but I can't seem to find anything to fit the bill.
posted by Diagonalize to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My very favorite poem of all time is by Mason Williams.


Look at them hors d'oeuvres,
Ain't they sweet?
Little piece of cheese,
Little piece of meat.
posted by Madamina at 9:30 AM on November 23, 2010 [13 favorites]

do you speak any other languages well enough to recite a poem in that tongue? I would personally do Catullus' #13 which is sort of kind of vaguely relevant. I know this is very passive-aggressive and obnoxious, but so is required poetic performance.
posted by supermedusa at 9:31 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Perhaps the ending this American Indian prayer of thanks giving:

To All these Peoples, I give Thanks for all the Gifts and Help
I get in My Life Each and Every Day.

For ALL These Reasons and for LIFE Itself, I GIVE MY THANKS !

posted by Joe Beese at 9:33 AM on November 23, 2010

Limericks are your friend here. You will never be asked to recite poetry at a family dinner again.
posted by punchtothehead at 9:34 AM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

If this were me and I liked my sister-in-law I'd just lump it, go for something short, have a little "this is why this is important to me" explanation, choose it, say it and never think about it again [either with dread or with grump or whatever]. The easiest way to make this non-obtrusive is to have it take up very little of your active mental processes. I'd go for something very very simple. This one is a little religious but if your family leans that way it might be fine and I like the message.
What We Need Is Here

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
posted by jessamyn at 9:34 AM on November 23, 2010 [9 favorites]

How about the first verse of "Some Little Bug"?

In these days of indigestion it is oftentimes a question
As to what to eat and what to leave alone.
Every microbe and bacillus has a different way to kill us
And in time they all will claim us for their own.
There are germs of every kind in every food that you can find
In the market or upon the bill of fare.
Drinking water's just as risky as the so-called "deadly" whiskey
And it's often a mistake to breathe the air.

(Yes, the idea is completely stolen from an episode of Boardwalk Empire.)
posted by griphus at 9:37 AM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Quick Trip, by the always incredible Shel Silverstein.

“We’ve been caught by the quick-digesting Gink,
And now we are dodgin’ his teeth…
And now we are restin’ in his intestine,
And now we’re back out on the street.”

Just to remind everyone of the fleeting nature of dinner.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:40 AM on November 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I'd been joking with my boyfriend that I should start reciting Beowulf in Old English, and then she'd never ask us to do this again, but she really is a lovely and wonderful person, and I'm trying hard to curb my naturally passive-aggressive urges this time around.

This is a markedly non-religious group, so even if the poem doesn't have an explicit religious message, I think if the overall tone leans strongly in that direction, I don't think it's going to go over well.
posted by Diagonalize at 9:42 AM on November 23, 2010

Try using poetryfoundation.org's poetry tool. You can search by topic and I think there is a Holiday section as well.

Alternatively you could recite some really awful poem that makes everyone uncomfortable and perhaps this tradition will die a slow, merciful death.
posted by madred at 9:42 AM on November 23, 2010

Oops. That's me. Always a comment late and an idea short.
posted by madred at 9:45 AM on November 23, 2010

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don't make sense
Thanksgiving dinner

(the original has 'Refrigerator' in place of 'Thanksgiving dinner')
posted by Grither at 9:47 AM on November 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Music is a type of poetry. Perhaps a serious reading of one of the verses of Bad Romance would be in order? Bonus points if you can keep them guessing until you hit the refrain.
posted by sbutler at 9:48 AM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Why not do a selection of works from the famous poems rewritten as limericks thread?
posted by elizardbits at 9:48 AM on November 23, 2010

Or go all out, and do something nice and long like Paul Revere's Ride or Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, pointedly looking at her and holding her gaze the whole awkwardly long time, to emphasize that this newly declared tradition is not appreciated by all.

At some point, pause as if you're done, wait for the spattered applause, and then dive right into the second half, still staring her right in the eye.

Slowly crushing a dinner roll in your hands as if wringing someone's neck is optional.
posted by xedrik at 9:55 AM on November 23, 2010

It's not his best work, but Everybody's favorite satirist has a little-known Thanksgiving song that could qualify as an appropriately goofy poem. Lyrics here.
posted by bookgirl18 at 9:56 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't believe nobody has suggested bart Simpson's immortal contribution to saying grace at the table: "Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub, yay God!"

Which is what I offer up when I am required to recite poetry in exchange for hospitality.

However, should you wish to play nicely, I suggest Nothing Gold Can Stay as a brief but seasonal selection:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

--Robert Frost
posted by DarlingBri at 9:59 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by jrishel at 10:00 AM on November 23, 2010

Am I the only one who'd want to read Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg?

This is what I'd read. But I'm evil:

Point of View
Thanksgiving dinner's sad and thankless
Christmas dinner's dark and blue
When you stop and try to see it
From the turkey's point of view.

Sunday dinner isn't sunny
Easter feasts are just bad luck
When you see it from the viewpoint
Of a chicken or a duck.

Oh how I once loved tuna salad
Pork and lobsters, lamb chops too
'Til I stopped and looked at dinner
From the dinner's point of view.

-- Shel Silverstein
posted by Gucky at 10:01 AM on November 23, 2010

This Stephen Foster tune might fit the bill.
Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh Hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.


Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more.


posted by The White Hat at 10:10 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I absolutely think Shel Silverstein is where you need to go with this one.
posted by SMPA at 10:11 AM on November 23, 2010

Two suggestions, both of them long but entertaining and meant for reciting (or reading aloud).

1) The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert W. Service

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

There's men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,
And I turned my head -- and there watching him was the lady that's known as Lou.

His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,
Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.
The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,
So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands -- my God! but that man could play.

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? --
Then you've a haunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.

And hunger not of the belly kind, that's banished with bacon and beans,
But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;
For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;
But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman's love --
A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true --
(God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, -- the lady that's known as Lou).

Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;
But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear;
That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil's lie;
That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.
'Twas the crowning cry of a heart's despair, and it thrilled you through and through --
"I guess I'll make it a spread misere", said Dangerous Dan McGrew.

The music almost died away. . .then it burst like a pent-up flood;
And it seemed to say, "Repay, repay", and my eyes were blind with blood.
The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash,
And the lust awoke to kill, to kill. . . then the music stopped with a crash,
And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way;
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And "Boys," says he, "you don't know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke they're true,
That one of you is a hound of hell. . .and that one is Dan McGrew."

Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark,
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that's known as Lou.

These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
They say the stranger was crazed with "hooch", and I'm not denying it's so.
I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two --
The woman that kissed him and -- pinched his poke -- was the lady that's known as Lou.
posted by adgnyc at 10:15 AM on November 23, 2010

Isn't there a great William S. Burroughs prose poem explicitly about Thanksgiving?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:16 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

2) The Aged Aged Man by Lewis Carroll

I'll tell thee everything I can;
There's little to relate.
I saw an aged aged man,
A-sitting on a gate.
"Who are you, aged man?" I said,
"And how is it you live?"
And his answer trickled through my head
Like water through a sieve.

He said, "I look for butterflies
That sleep among the wheat:
I make them into mutton-pies,
And sell them in the street.
I sell them unto men," he said,
"Who sail on stormy seas;
And that's the way I get my bread—
A trifle; if you please."

But I was thinking of a plan
To dye one's whiskers green,
And always use so large a fan
That they could not be seen.
So, having no reply to give
To what the old man said,
I cried, "Come, tell me how you live!"
And thumped him on the head.

His accents mild took up the tale:
He said, "I go my ways,
And when I find a mountain-rill,
I set it in a blaze;
And thence they make a stuff they call
Rowland's Macassar-Oil—
Yet twopence-halfpenny is all
They give me for my toil."

But I was thinking of a way
To feed oneself on batter,
And so go on from day to day
Getting a little fatter.
I shook him well from side to side,
Until his face was blue:
"Come, tell me how you live," I cried,
"And what it is you do!"

He said, "I hunt for haddocks' eyes
Among the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat buttons
In the silent night.
And these I do not sell for gold
Or coin of silvery shine,
But for a copper halfpenny,
And that will purchase nine.

"I sometimes dig for buttered rolls,
Or set limed twigs for crabs;
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of hansom-cabs.
And that's the way" (he gave a wink)
"By which I get my wealth—
And very gladly will I drink
Your Honour's noble health."

I heard him then, for I had just
Completed my design
To keep the Menai bridge from rust
By boiling it in wine.
I thanked him much for telling me
The way he got his wealth,
But chiefly for his wish that he
Might drink my noble health.

And now, if e'er by chance I put
My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe,
Or if I drop upon my toe
A very heavy weight,
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know—
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo—
That summer evening long ago
A-sitting on a gate.
posted by adgnyc at 10:16 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Shel Silverstein is also pretty darn good.
posted by adgnyc at 10:17 AM on November 23, 2010

Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad:
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra just for you.

Optional: "Let's eat!"
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 10:26 AM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Shel Silverstein is always welcome at our Thanksgiving table, where my Aunt Glenda (who does NOT wish to be called Glenda the Good Witch, OK?) likes to impose little exercises in compulsory merriment. Here's my Thanksgiving poem, which I got from a clipping (wish I could do better on the source, but maybe it's from National Lampoon?):

Yes ma'am, no ma'am, thank you ma'am, please
Open up the turkey butt and fork out the peas

My nephew laughed so hard one year he could barely speak the second line. This extremely low level of childishness is an acquired taste, obviously. My mother would turn over in her grave if she heard us reciting it, or saw her sister permitting it.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 10:51 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

something short and sweet:

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

- Ogden Nash

or longer (but not too long...)

The Poet’s Occasional Alternative
by Grace Paley

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper

the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor

everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it many friends
will say why in the world did you
make only one

this does not happen with poems

because of unreportable
sadness I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership I do not
want to wait a week a year a
generation for the right
consumer to come along
posted by vespabelle at 10:54 AM on November 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Here is Burroughs reading the poem Dee Xtrovert was talking about. It is the poem I have always wanted to recite at Thanksgiving dinner.

A Thanksgiving Prayer
posted by catastropher at 11:31 AM on November 23, 2010

Marge Piercy "What's That Smell in the Kitchen?"
posted by theora55 at 12:01 PM on November 23, 2010

If you decide to go the Robert Service route, do The Cremation of Sam McGEE:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ‘taint being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows—O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
Then I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked;” . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

(PS....this poem actually has a great deal to do with me winding up married to my Ralph, but that is a story for another day.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:46 PM on November 23, 2010

Bugs in a Bowl, by David Budbill, makes a nice Thanksgiving poem:

Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:
We're just like bugs in a bowl. All day going around never leaving their bowl.
I say, That's right! Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.
Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.
Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
Cry, moan, feel sorry for yourself.
Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.
Say, Hey, how you doin'?
Say, Nice Bowl!
posted by Killick at 12:54 PM on November 23, 2010

I like the ol' chestnut that substitutes as a grace: "Good bread, good meat, good god, let's eat!"
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:18 PM on November 23, 2010

Ogden Nash -- The Adventures of Isabel

(Fun for the whole family!)
posted by prettypretty at 4:21 PM on November 23, 2010

Oh, oh, how about Vogon poetry from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?! As I recall, it was such a powerful weapon that their enemies would run screaming from a recitation:

"Oh freddled gruntbuggly
thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee,
my foonting turlingdromes.
And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon,
see if I don't!"
posted by LauraJ at 8:39 PM on November 23, 2010

Recite this:
Beans, beans, the musical fruit,
the more you eat, the less you are
like Pythagoras, philosopher of Samos,
that sunny isle of the eastern Aegean.
Less like Pythagoras, famous Samian
of antiquity, who forbade his followers
to consume or even touch the bean,
perhaps because he saw the bean akin
to the human soul, or because the bean
resembled -- do not look -- our genitalia,
or perhaps because the bean becomes the fart.
We are not sure. But beans... beans...
the more you eat, the less you are
like Pythagoras of sunny Samos was,
Pythagoros, who was, presumably,
zero percent bean when he perished,
trapped between an angry mob
and a rolling field of beans.
And then dig in to a plate of beans.
posted by pracowity at 12:25 AM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse, by Billy Collins:

I pick an orange from a wicker basket
and place it on the table
to represent the sun.
Then down at the other end
a blue and white marble
becomes the earth
and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.

I get a glass from a cabinet,
open a bottle of wine,
then I sit in a ladder-back chair,
a benevolent god presiding
over a miniature creation myth,

and I begin to sing
a homemade canticle of thanks
for this perfect little arrangement,
for not making the earth too hot or cold
not making it spin too fast or slow

so that the grove of orange trees
and the owl become possible,
not to mention the rolling wave,
the play of clouds, geese in flight,
and the Z of lightning on a dark lake.

Then I fill my glass again
and give thanks for the trout,
the oak, and the yellow feather,

singing the room full of shadows,
as sun and earth and moon
circle one another in their impeccable orbits
and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.
posted by kristi at 11:28 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

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