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Once Upon a Time   

June 2020

I wasn't a big fan of fairy tales as a child and I didn't read many of them to my own children. They can be pretty cruel and violent. 

When I was a college student, a book by Bruno Bettelheim, a 20th century child psychologist, was very popular in literature and education classes. That book is The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, a study of fairy tales and their universal importance in understanding childhood development. His examples include "The Three Little Pigs,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” Bettelheim admits that the tales are often cruel that they do help teach lessons about finding meaning for one’s life.

This prompt asks for a poem that tries one of these four paths: based on a fairy tale, based on characters appearing in those tales, a new fairy tale, or a poem using the conventions of fairy tales. 

We offer four sample poems to get you started.

"Girl Without Hands" by Margaret Atwood is directly inspired by a Brothers Grimm's fairy tale.

"Mermaid Song" by Kim Addonizio finds a fairy tale character lying on her sofa.

Alicia Ostriker's poem "Utopian" is about a fairy tale world created by a child that the poet needs to interpret. 

"From the Country Notebooks" by Geffrey Davis uses some fairy tale conventions - including "once upon a time" and some of that violence, but the tale is very real.

Though we think of fairy tales are meant for children as a way to help them solve problems such as separation anxiety, oedipal conflict, and sibling rivalries, your poem will probably be meant for adults.


For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Once upon a time, girls didn't get a bikini wax
and a Brazilian wax was a foreign country.
The bikini version did the front and sides
hiding what would be visible in a swimsuit.
Everyone used surf wax on their board
so that the top wasn't too slick to stand on.
They still sell the "Sex Wax" brand
which I was too embarrassed to buy back then
and too smart to buy now.
I suppose we can make a connection
between the two waxing rituals.

This afternoon I saw two girls
doing a sex wax on their boards.
They probably have done a Brazilian too,
removing front, sides, back and everything in between,
taking them back to being younger girls.
I have no desire to go back.

Tonight there is big waxing Moon over the beach,
which means it is growing rather than being cut.
I'm in my old phase now
orbiting these younger mermaids,
riding waves that only seem endless.

Lianna Wright

after the Brothers Grimm

Once a girl walked the path to her garden –
the way ragged from overgrown mowing,
weeds fading into summer but still alive
with thorns, and one graceful blue-purple
flower, a candelabra radiating small goblets
of bloom. Something dark was drinking
from one goblet, lace-black wings and long
proboscis perfectly fitted to the flower’s
fluted petals, finding its secret depths.
The girl wanted to be that insect
whose name she didn’t know. She wanted
to wear its wings, divine its secrets.
Didn’t she love the soft fur and delicate
feather of every living-being who
visited her garden? She wanted to learn
their languages and sing along with
the bird calling from an oak tree. She’d
be princess of her land, queen and friend
to creatures known in English as “beast.” She
longed to become wings inside the petals.

Taylor Graham

inspired by "The Wolf & the Fox"

At first, they thought
It was a harmless stray
Looking for attention
So they offered it some scraps

Then, when it did some tricks
Wagged its fluffy tail
And begged
They let it in

Before you knew it
It was chasing birds, terrorizing cats
Sleeping on the couch
Breaking precious artifacts

Attempts to reign it in
Met with rebuke
Those that loved the wolf
Refused to see the truth

They fed it from the table
Even when it growled and bit
Howled and threw a fit
They thought it cute

Confused hearts, poisoned minds
A house neglected, left to rot
Over time
A, once strong, family torn apart

And then, one night, it gorged itself
On grandma's chocolate cake
By the time they realized what it had done
It was ... alas ... too late

Frank Kelly

For Chance, my grandson

There lived long ago a Laughing Gator,
Florida’s prankster instigator.
Resembling Darth Vader
He never brought danger;
Kids were never safer
Than nearby Allie, the Laughing Gator.

Allie was hatched near a water hazard
Where he learned the importance of laughter.
When golfers sliced a shot
His Mom swam to the spot.
As the golfer reached in,
Firm in her toothy grin
Was slobbered the dimpled white ball he sought.

Allie then moved to a home of his own,
A retention pond near the edge of town.
Proudly swimming in style,
As silent as a smile,
Till splashin’ and scarin’
Big fish and blue heron
Before sunning on his own private isle.

Kids laughed when water shot from his nostrils,
When snorting for fun, this living fossil.
Just a friendly fellow,
His tail smacking hello
In the warm clear water
When the children offered
His favorite meal, bags of marshmallows.

Once, another gator, tired of guppies,
Came sneaking up on a small boy’s puppy.
As his jaws opened wide
Allie slammed in his side;
With his powerful snout
Knocked him over and out
All night, Allie laughed as the bully cried.

Special was Allie, the Laughing Gator,
Florida’s trickster instigator.
Resembling Darth Vader,
He never caused danger,
This fun-loving neighbor.
How we miss Allie, the Laughing Gator.

Ron Yazinski

Dedicated to Toni Calise Santiago

In a castle in New Jersey
A princess who loved to eat peas with ghee
told her new prince
Darling, your memory at best
has taken a permanent rest
of the promise you made
only one, only one, you gave
then reneged—

I would be happy with glee
if we live in a fairer land
and be free
of the oligarch
and townsfolk who threaten to
“the hell up”!
In a castle without a hair

My prince, you said
I will rescue thee
from the tenets
of the GOP
You said
you had the key
we would flee
live happily

far, far away
from bushwhacked
thereafter, I could speak and write my poetry.

So alone, in a warm carriage that travels on skis
to the shiny, new municipality
where all the cable news is

Now, ever after
I can speak and write my poetry.

Lisa Salerno Honecker

(After Tennyson, sort of)

Oh when the world was young and fire-breathed
Dragons roamed the earth, there was a great
And righteous king who ruled a vast domain.
A mounted knight with sun-bright arms could ride
With rainbow-colored silken banners high
And seek for months to see the sweep of land
From east to west and north to south that safe
Beneath that royal’s firm and goodly rule
Lay green and rich with game and forests thick.
Therein did live a happy, thriving folk
Who farmed the fruitful soil and grazed their flocks
Across the verdant plains.

Throughout this land
There lived a clan of noble warrior lords
Who swore fealty to the mighty king.
From crenelated castles, vigilant
They daily rode to battle evil rogues,
To kill marauding dragons breathing fire
And keep this steadfast people free from dread.

A strong and many-towered castle stood
Above this blessed land. Within its halls
The king held court in chambers elegant
With tapestries of gold and silver threads,
Inlays of exotic woods, ivory and gems,
And lofty ceilings hung with honors, shields
And coats of arms from all the lords who swore
Allegiance to this worthy king; where many
Sumptuous feasts and glittering balls were held
For gentlemen and ladies clothed in silks
And fine brocades. Graceful and bejeweled they danced,
Savored sweet confections and discoursed until
The castle cocks arose to crow the dawn.

A princess fair with shining golden hair
In whose eyes, like lavender pools of enchantment,
A man could drown, never wishing to see
Any other light than the incandescence
Of her loveliness, was the treasured daughter of the clement king
And his comely wife, the queen. This princess fair
Presided over every ball and social whirl
Radiant in shimmering gowns and lustrous gems
Attended by a coquetry of vibrant maids,
All courted by the sons and nephews of the warrior lords.

All knights of high lineage, handsome and bold,
Strong at arms in tournaments, they vied
For the hand of the princess fair with all the arts
Of chivalry, yearning songs and verse, artful
Gifts and heartfelt vows of fidelity.
None moved her heart, she declined them all.

Her father, the gracious king, sent chargé d’affaires
To kingdoms far and wide to ask their princes
To attend the princess fair and plead their troth.
None pleased her.

It came to pass
One sunny day the princess fair played
On the castle lawn with her golden ball, a gift
Most precious from her father, the estimable king,
When suddenly the priceless ball slipped from her hand
And rolled across the castle lawn into
A pond.

“Woe is me. Woe is me.”
The princess fair exclaimed. “I’ve lost my golden ball.
What shall I do? What shall I do?” she cried.

“Don’t cry fair princess,” a voice
Called out. “I will save your ball.”

It was the small green frog who lived
Beside the castle pond. He dove beneath
The water dark and found the golden ball.
The princess fair was overjoyed to have
Her precious ball returned and promised to the frog,
“Whatever in my kingdom you desire is yours as thanks
For your heroic deed.”

“Oh princess fair,
Oh princess fair, please have pity on me.
My life is lived in this damp place, no warmth
Or cheer is mine. For just one night I beg
To sleep within the castle walls where heated
Hearths drive out the baneful chill and damp.”
Compassion moved the princess fair. She wept
At frog’s unhappy fate and pledged to ease
His plight. She took him from his clammy pond reclining
On a shimmery satin pillow, resplendent as a prince
And bore him to the castle and placed him near the heated
Hearth in her royal bedchamber to spend his promised
Night. As it happened, this was not a simple frog
Residing in his natural state. In ages past
A wicked witch bewitched a noble prince
For thwarting her evil will and made him a frog
To live beside the castle pond until
An act of tenderness and love annulled the spell.
And so, upon the morn, the princess fair
Awoke to find, not the frog but the handsome
Prince beside her, with shining golden hair
And steely blue eyes to make a maiden weak
With desire. Forever after her mother,
The comely queen, never believed this tale.

Marv Lurie


Or so they say, at least in Grimm
it’s always three—three feathers blown upon
the wind gain Dumbkin the crown, the boy who
studied fear thrice tries to make his flesh crawl
before he wins the king’s daughter, a magic
spindle, shuttle, and needle win her prince
for an orphan in a small forest cottage.

And, of course, the Father and Son were not
enough, the Holy Spirit thrown in to
complete the holy trinity, to crown
Dante’s paradise, make the creation
perfect—or so it seems to believers.

But three strikes and you’re out in baseball,
three witches portend evil in Macbeth,
three Fates spin a man’s life, and cut it short,
three times round the walls of Troy runs Hektor
before fleet-footed Achilles strikes him down,
and three strikes on a match and you’re dead,
so three is never to be trusted—no.

Launching an incandescent bullet out
the singer strikes a chord, tells his tale,
and thrice he keens of magic, love, and loss,
and thrice the world echoes three, times three,
times three—fairy tales blown on the wind.

Robert Miller


I’ve no tiara
or fancy canopied bed
only a demonic mattress
I call it Henry VIII
I’m sure it’s trying to kill me
No comfy bed of nails this
with its sharp twigs and prickly straw
the likes of razors
A scratchy, lumpy, pest-ridden beast
Its cries - deafening and unrelenting
The devil’s machinery within
simmers to an evil hiss
once I settle in
To submit - no; to endure - yes
another sleepless night of torment

It behaves itself around others
but the dog knows better; they always do
Gaslighted by Posturepedic? Call 1-800-MATTRES
Leave off the last “s” for your sanity
or ..... stepmother
Care to trade in that single girl's single for a kingly king?
- A sly offer
met with a foolish reply

But even fools have their limits
In the garage – dad’s electric saw
waiting - alive, revved, and ready
My own Excalibur
Scorpions and rattlers be damned
Slashing strikes from top to bottom
Gashes like gaping mouths appeared
Wild shrieks bellowed from within
I tore and pulled
as foam entrails spilled forth
Crazed but determined I continued on
Searching, searching until I found it -
One small pea

Angry, green, and dimpled
All face and no body
A living raging emoji
Its mouth pulled back into a snarl
On the nightstand, the old King James
I brought it down
King against king
The pea remained unscathed
I grabbed the brandy (also on the nightstand)
Doused in a torrent of 80 proof
the pea tottered and rolled
I snatched it up
Down into the bottle it went
A green cherry on an alcoholic float

I gave it a good shake then set to work
I baked while the pea stewed
Once thoroughly soused (the pea)
into the waiting pie it went
Meek as mincemeat
Off we went

She opened the door
Her height almost its equal
Her eyes a colorless blue
Feral, narrowed, and fixed
Her smile Grinch meets Cheshire Cat
She looked down at me
Prey in the crosshairs
of an expert hunter

“Ahhh, father’s princess,
you’re pale - not sleeping well?
Still pining for dearly departed dad?”
I thrust the pie into her hands

The pea was awakening
Unable to resist its power
she dug in with both hands
devouring it in big slurpy bites
Red stains upon her hands
Globs of fruit and flesh on her face
The pea raged from within
She continued eating
both pie and plate
Glass chards crunched under splintering teeth,
red ribboned gums and mangled lips

As evil fed upon evil
I did not stay
to watch or listen
In my ear buds
Patsy Cline’s “Who’s Sorry Now”
Neither princess
Nor prisoner I
All with no prince
or fairy godmother in sight
I rode off into the night
in my shining Uber
leaving Henry to his bride
and she to her just deserts
Creator and creature
together again, ‘til..

The Bloody End

Terri J. Guttilla

(Inspired by two lines in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel)

I wear my green hat,
My green coat and pants,
Pull my green boots onto my feet.
Then I paint my face green
And don my green gloves
And finally stride out to meet...
A heron.

Deep in the marshes
I find me a spot
Where I crouch down and make like a frog.
I might be among reeds,
In shallows, or in mud,
Or I'll pose and I'll wait on a log...
For a heron.

A gnome all in green,
Crouched just the right way,
Is a frog, to the casual and unwary.
This shape-shifting skill
Is rare in our kind
And rarer still in the leprechaun and faerie.

I'm still, but alert,
For an eagle or hawk
Could ruin my plans - and my jacket.
My target is a wader,
Careful and quiet,
Though to my ears, he still makes a racket.

A heron appears,
Sidles up close to me,
Makes a grab, quite expecting a snack.
I'm too fast, I roll over,
And shin up his beak,
And nut him. He's out cold, on his back.

Now for the potion -
I stashed it nearby
In my blow-gun, all loaded and ready.
A puff up each nostril
(The heron's, not mine)
And hold the beak in my hands, nice and steady.
The heron.

Now I just wait,
Right in front of the bird,
While the potion, and concussion, work their magic.
It's vital he sees me
Before anyone else!
Seeing another before me will be tragic.

The sun's almost set
When he opens one eye -
Must have nutted him harder than I meant.
He gazes upon me
And my work here is done;
The changes I've wrought are permanent.

Now he thinks I'm his Mum
And he'll serve me for life -
My transport, my messenger, my friend.
Not much goes on
In that tiny, feathered brain,
But we're together now. Together. 'Till the end.
My Heron.

Robert Best