Poets Online Archive
From Grimm & Other Fairy Tales
July 2007

Our July prompt had us taking a plot, characters, title, & theme (or as much as you need) from one of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales and transforming it for your own purposes. (Though we allowed other fairy tales, but there's a lot of material in those strange tales from Jacob & Wilhelm.)

As a model, we use Peter Murphy's poem "The Stubborn Child" from his book of the same name which was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize. The poem has its inspiration in the Grimm's tale by that name.

The original story is a creepfest in itself. Try reading this one to a kid before he goes to sleep.


Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him and let him become sick.

No doctor could cure him, and in a short time, he lay on his deathbed.

After he was lowered into his grave and was covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out.

So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.

   from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Jack Zipes, translator, 1987

Of the poem's genesis, Peter says:

"I had a deprived childhood in that I never read a fairy tale till I was in my late 30's, and when I did, I fell in love with the surreal, violent and familiar families portrayed by the Brothers Grimm. This was not Disney. This was Cinderella's evil stepsisters lopping off their heels to squeeze their fat feet into that impossibly tight glass slipper. Perverse entertainment till I came across "The Stubborn Child," perhaps the shortest Grimm tale. "Damn," I thought. "That's my childhood!" And it was, so I proceeded to write 40 or 50 drafts trying to get it right. Somewhere in this frenzy, I realized my own stubborn child was asleep in the next room, and that's when the poem found its ending and its shape, the transformation of the speaker from abused child to wounded father, trying, perhaps too hard, not to repeat the mistakes made on him.

Many stubborn children of all ages inhabit my book Stubborn Child as the poems branch away from my childhood and adolescence to the students who taught me for 30 years in Atlantic City, to other stubborn children, friends and family, who ghost the adult years of my life. "

Peter's poem has the child emerge from the grave, live on, have a daughter to pray over and protect. He resurrects the willful child who is more than stubborn, and who still loves his mother who he knows loves him. It's a story of transformation, as is the poem a transformation from the original.

If you want to try the prompt yourself, you can check a book of the tales, or Google a Grimm title that you know, but a good site to start with is SurLaLuneFairyTales.com. It includes tales that we are all familiar with like "Goldilocks and the 3 Bears", and ones I had never read, like "The Girl Without Hands". The tales there are all annotated, so you get some good background information that might well serve as your inspiration. There's a list of the Grimm tales on Wikipedia too.

Peter E. Murphy is the author of Stubborn Child (Jane Street Press, NY, 2005), a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize.  His poems and essays have appeared in The American Book Review, The Atlanta Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Commonweal, Cortland Review, The Journal, The Shakespeare Quarterly, Witness, World Order, and elsewhere.

Peter taught for many years at Atlantic City High School, and since retiring has focused on professional development programs in writing for educators. He is the founder/director of Murphy Writing Seminars, LLC.

He has received fellowships for writing and teaching from The Atlantic Center for the Arts, The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, Yaddo, The Folger Shakespeare Library, and the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars.

For many poets in the northeast, Peter is also known for creating the very popular Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, a retreat for poets & writers held annually in Cape May, NJ.  He also maintains the Poetry NJ group site at Yahoo! which lists readings and poetry event in and around the NJ/NY/PA area.

There's more information about this prompt, Peter Murphy and the Brothers Grimm, plus the opportunity to post your own comments about all this on the Poets Online Blog.



If all you learn in one year is dog-talk,
and all you learn in the next is bird-song,
and all in the third year is frog-lament,
of course no one will understand you.
You’ll be thrown out of the house of that
old generation, humankind. You’ll be
disinherited and wandering among the wild
creatures, the forest-folk who keep
their own words for the treasure of this
green ensorceled world: fields
before the fall of asphalt, rivers
bearing silver snow-melt and no sludge,
air without the combusted stain
of progress. If only you could teach
the rest of mankind a single one
of those three tongues.

Taylor Graham


Sobbing, the young
man pleaded with his executioner.
Professed his love for a woman,
and promised his sincerity
in positions of greatness.
Pretensions of grandeur
and a love for a monarchy.

But nothing can surpass
the might of black clouds...
And cloaked in black, Death
will snuff you out.
Wax will no longer liquefy,
create smooth, melt-less
icicles to drip and meander.

The liquid solidifies no longer,
and lights of life fade to black,
black of nights and his woven linen.
No leniency from Death will come,
even if you are known to him...
Because Death lies in wait for number thirteen,
and takes you as his god-son.

Becki Newell


rolls off a rock and a chunk of broken concrete
with the toe of his boot and bends to lift a rusted sheet

of metal with ungloved hands, eyes blinded
by the midday sun. His fingers probe the dank shadows

for the squirm of ribbonous snakes, the braided knot
unraveling at his touch beneath the angled tent of steel,

its heavy edge grooving his palm, one knee nobly planted
in a patch of rank weeds studded with scrap,

the insect trill rising from fields of Queen Anne's lace,
the trickle of a stream at the bottom of a gully

strewn with rubbish under a frayed canopy of maple,
oak, and pine. Rapunzel-like, the tresses fall,

inviting him to explore their texture, to feel in his fingers,
his nose, again, the luxuriant loam, to inhale the redolence

each strand extrudes—electric cables twisting the height
of the weathered tower like tendrils. Above his head,

the bright window at whose sill the enchanted world
is plaited into being, flung down for him to climb.

Steve Smith

After “The Silver Hands” by Grimm

Stumbling through the woods every thicket whips scars
Against my face: crimson hieroglyphs
He grunts as he binds my arms
sets my feet upon empty road
I wear a veil
Carry funeral orchids
He did it to me: Oh father.

The hind’s eyes and tongue in a silver basin by the bed
A nightstand covered in a waxen sheen of moonlight
I offer my hands back to Queen Mother
She turned her face away, bade me keep my cold sculptures
I walked out again
To the woman in white
The house was a barren respite
The baby called sorrowful
Cried all the time.

He has darkened the door and held my pinkened hand in his
He has opened his eyes to the miracle of me
We stood before cynical kingdoms in ceremony
I don’t want him
No I will not touch him anymore
(the skin on my hands stretched fine over vein)
He is a pawn of the devil and I
Will move my jaw through this orchard
Will take up my broom in the dooryard
Watch the moon impaled on the tree
take my sorrowful child and go.

Patty Tomsky

“When the moon came they set out, but they found no crumbs,
for the many thousands of birds which fly about in the woods and fields had picked them all up.”

Childhood locked
closed like a music box,
its little dancer
silenced and still.

Home now as remote
and remorseless
as stars lurking
beyond branches
they stalled there.
Moonlight teased, twirling
through dry leaves
on the unmarked paths

Lauren Cerruto


Not because of some birth defect or accident,
but because her stupid father made a pact with the Devil
and he doesn't even know it until his wife tells him.

This miller, to save himself, is told by the Devil
to cut off his own child's hands.

"My child, if I do not cut off both thine hands,
the devil will carry me away,
and in my terror I have promised to do it.
Help me in my need, and forgive me the harm I do thee."

That's bad enough, but when she replies
"Dear father, do with me what you will, I am your child."
Thereupon she laid down both her hands, and let them be cut off.

I had to stop reading.

Did she get them back? Did the Devil win?
I can not tell you.
I am still there with this stupid father,
this foolish daughter,
of the Brothers Diabolos,
and I am in this room full of ghosts
watching me write
who are whispering to me
that this is their story
as my hands go dead cold
and stop moving.

Pamela Milne

after Grimm

She lay in her glass coffin
Tucked in tight with visions
Of a man brave
And of a love to set her free.

She lay in her glass prison
With a fragile heart
Splinters of ice creeping into the warm places
Bottles of smoke trapped on shelves above her,
Blue, purple, flaming orange.

“Kiss me!” she cried
“Kiss me and make my visions come alive.
Wake me from a spell of darkness
And whole kingdoms will be yours.”

The brave man complied
And kissed her with the depth of a thousand years.
His kiss shattered glass, shattered time.
Bottles broke
Vapors rose.
Out of small places a giant castle appeared
Houses, farms, villages
Stretched out for the magic of love.
Blue smoke rushed out of glittering shards,
Changed itself into living men,
Lost lovers she could finally release
Fragile lovers who encased her in glass,
Pretty transparent things,
That blew away with the wind.

Cecly Placenti


I am the one
who puts oatmeal on the list
so that we will not have a morning
without porridge.

I am the one who cooks it
stirring its volcano bubbles
from gruel to a thick
predictable pudding.

I am the one who dishes it
into bowls -- large, medium, small
then calls the family
to the table.

I am the one who shows baby
how to cool it by blowing on his spoon
and the one who gives him a sip of milk
when he wails, "It's still too hot!"

I am the one who interrupts his crying,
"Let's go for a walk,"
the one who distracts his hungry whining
with dandelion greens and wild strawberries.

I am the one who says,
"You're probably right,"
when Papa grumbles, "Surely the porridge
is cool by now."

I am the one who sees wet footprints
on the front porch
grass tracked
into the house.

I am the one who notices
bowls have been moved
one empty, chairs shuffled
one broken!

I am the one to follow the footprints
up the stairs past two rumpled beds
and see in the third

I am the one scandalized
with Mrs. Locks. What kind of mother
allows her kid
that much freedom?

And I am the one tempted
to tie Baby Bear
down with my apron
when, after Goldie has jumped

out the window
and run away,
he begs, "Can I look for her?
I want to play."

Violet Nesdoly


Reading Grimm I chance upon this tale
which seems to be the original
guy-meets-Saint Peter-at-the-Pearly-Gates
joke setup.

A tailor arrives at the gate and Saint Peter refuses him entrance.
Seems that he had stolen some clothing
but mostly it was because God had forbidden Peter
to admit anyone while he was off walking in the garden
with everyone in heaven but Peter.
So, I'm thinking Peter is not in a good mood right then.

The poor tailor begs, but all he has to wait for God to come back from his walk.
He wanders around and finds the throne where God sits to see
everything going on on Earth.

Who could resist. He sits.
It's better than TV or the movies,
neither of which he had ever seen,
but you get the point.
He sees an old woman steal two veils while doing laundry,
and he knows she's not getting past Peter either.
He's on the throne and he's feeling the part,
so he throws a golden stool down at her.

God comes back right then. Go figure.
He says,
"If I was so merciless
Heaven would be empty,
because I would have thrown everything here to Earth!"

Of course, the tailor gets kicked out of heaven.
And there's no punchline, no laugh,
because we do fear that in his anger
he will throw down his scourges on us.

Charles Michaels


So I told him what I could recall:
that I was in a dark wood,
lost but not fearful.
I thought there was a trail back,
some signs left behind to guide me -

like Hansel alone, with no Gretel.

Too dark to see things discarded
in my journey to this present
or perhaps someone else had taken them
and found home before me -

maybe that's where Gretel was now.
She has abandoned me.

Let's talk about that, he said
Tell me about Gretel.

Ken Ronkowitz



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