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December 2017

A pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) is a traveler. Literally, it is one who has come from afar and commonly it is someone who is on a journey to a holy place. Though we generally think of this as a physical journey, often on foot, to some place of special significance, it can also be other kinds of "journeys."
A pilgrimage is that journey. At one time, these were always long trips made to some sacred place. But distances can be covered more quickly today, and the journey can be a metaphorical one and the destination can be into someone's own beliefs.

There are many places that pilgrims have made their way to for many years: the Holy Land, Lumbini, Kumbh Mela, The Temple Mount and Mecca. There are also places less well known tat individual make pilgrimages to for their own reasons: to the place where they were born or where they grew up, or where there father or mother lived, a poet's home or...

I know that people also make pilgrimages to a place but really it is to a thing - the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C., a manuscript, a grave site.

One of the best known books about a pilgrim is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. It is an old text (1678) and a difficult read for most modern readers.

The book is presented as a dream sequence told by an omniscient narrator. The allegory's protagonist is Christian, an everyman. His pilgrimage takes him from his hometown, the "City of Destruction" ("this world"), to the "Celestial City" ("that which is to come" - Heaven) atop Mount Zion.

To end 2017, we will write pilgrimage poems this month, and by pilgrimage we mean a journey to a special place or thing, spiritual, if not religious.

Our model poem is "Pilgrimage" by Natasha Trethewey, which is about a journey to Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Her poem incorporates the themes of time, history, and memory as are presented in the first half of her book Native Guard.

A kind of pilgrimage that I have made over the years is to the birthplaces, homes and graves of writers. I can't quite explain what I expect to find in these places, but I really enjoy being in the actual places where writers I admire did their work.

My first pilgrimage was to the grave site of Stephen Crane. I was born in the same city as Crane. I liked his stories and I liked his simple poems a lot when I was a very young poet. His life was short and tragic. He is buried not far from where I grew up. I went there. I made a gravestone rubbing. I took a photo of myself at his grave.

I didn't feel his presence there. No ghosts. No mystical experiences. But in some way, it did change how I thought about him and writing. I've never written a poem about that pilgrimage. I haven't determined, even after all these years, exactly what I want to say about it. 

When I spent a week in a poetry workshop in Provincetown on Cape Cod, a few of us in the group wanted to make a pilgrimage to the house - really, the garden - of poet Stanley Kunitz.

We had heard about the garden. We knew it entered into some of his poems. We asked some locals who either protected his privacy, had never heard of him, or gave us rather cryptic directions. But we found it.

His home was modest. A grey shingled cottage on a small hill in the east end. The garden was terraced, built on what was originally a dune that he fertilized with compost and seaweed to have actual soil. As a gardener myself, I felt this connection to him and his poem.

We didn't see Stanley and didn't knock or intrude, but it was great to see it.

I eventually met Stanley a few times at poetry readings at the Dodge Poetry Festivals and in Paterson, New Jersey.  Later, I would find the book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, and also read articles about other Kunitz pilgrims, and I would reread his poems looking for garden references.

If you decide to journey the more traditional religious path in your poem, you can look to some older poems - perhaps, George Herbert's "The Pilgrimage," or a more modern poet traveling to an ancient place, such as in "Different Ways to Pray" by Naomi Shihab Nye.  Here is an excerpt from her poem:

Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.
While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes. 

Religious or not, journey by foot, car or in the imagination, a pilgrimage - this was our prompt for December 2017.

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


He wants to see, again, the place you used to live
so many years – your home, a lofted plan he built
by hand. A steep dirt road, that at the end would give
a clearing among trees, and lupine like a quilt
in May. So much has changed, as life so often does.
The ponderosa that stood sentinel is dead –
bark beetles killed it. What is now is not what was.
He wants to see it now. You don’t. You want instead
the memory sheltered on a ridgetop far from town;
a drive of many windings of the road
to top a sunny summit then go plunging down
into the dark of canyon; river like a goad,
its rush and pull; its pulse; and then another turn,
the scattered lights of cabins, dark familiar hills
forever climbing higher. At the end, the burn
of lamplight at a window in a wall that now serves
as home to someone else. The house that isn’t yours,
that has no stately ponderosa standing guard,
but everything shut tight. You never locked the doors!
In dream you visit. Going there would be too hard.

Taylor Graham


Nothing is more American than leaving.
Every generation is laced with Pilgrim blood,
The feeling that something’s wrong here
And our father’s gods are embarrassingly absurd.

And so we go,
As Twain left, ending up in the East where people pay dearly for laughs;
Or Kerouac, On the Road,
Bumming cigarettes and looking for the ultimate fix;

Or Persig driving his Zen to the coast;
Or Dylan on the never-ending tour to make this land his land,
Because a man needs fresh dust beneath his boots to give them traction,
Or he’ll end up like Woody Guthrie, trembling in a bed.

The purpose of sacred things is to hold you back.
Fortunately, nothing here is sacred.
Think of Ambrose Bierce,
Written out, angered out, weakened by petulance, off to Mexico

To piss in the fountain of youth, never to be seen again.
When that age comes,
When the idea of evolution is all that comforts us,
With its assurance that the nothing we are

Is a metaphor for the universe that asks nothing of us,
We can either be the terror of the St. Francis Nursing Home,
Bullying to get the best rocker on the veranda,
Or we can be true to our American hearts, and go.

Ron Yazinski


The flags are still flying at Manassas,
The soldiers lying row on row,
The fields and trees are green as ever
Above the stones laid long ago.

Like every battlefield in history,
Like every cause once understood,
The sappy mists of time and mystery
Have hallowed ground that ran with blood.

Gore and carnage, smoke and fire,
Are hallmarks of the human race,
From Marathon to Aleppo, from Cannae
To Hiroshima, in every site and place.

And all the flags and pious words
Cannot undo, cannot erase,
The screams and terror that were felt here
In this hallowed, holy place.

Robert Miller


A pilgrim should be walking.
100 miles. 500 miles. 1000 miles.
No car rides. No trains or planes.
Bicycle or horse? Possibly.

I started on the trail at the trail's end.
That what the map shows, but
since that is nearer to my home,
I see it as the beginning.

The plan: walk to the other beginning.
14 days. 150 miles. Time to think.
Campfires. Sunrises. Sunsets. Solitude.
In my end is my beginning.

When you don't have an end in mind,
the pilgrimage is to arrive at a new start.
You shed along the way. Lighten your load.
2 weeks later: naked at dawn in a stream.

Pamela Milne


It is not my feet that bleed
From the long journey
Not my neck that burns
From days beneath a blazing Sun
It is my soul
Scorched to cinders
Crisp as air in late October
My cluttered mind
Minutia swept aside
Bare walls exposed

I sit amid a pile of open boxes
In an attic one floor up
But miles down
Buried deep beneath
The crushing weight of years
Tombs unsealed by chance
Memories once mummified
Embarrassed by their nakedness
Secrets revealed
For no apparent purpose

I came looking for … I can’t remember what
Am unprepared for what I found instead
Yet riveted … unable to ignore
These Holy relics
Of an all too ordinary life

Frank Kelly


One benefit of the Europass
Is being totally independent
To get on or off a train impulsively
So there was Heilbrunn
Between Munich and Heidelberg.
Heilbrunn, from which my name
Halperin is derived.
I thought I might find something there,
As I walked down a long platform
Towards a huge black clock
With dots as minutes on the dial
Among commuters coming home
Ready to go through ticket control
Nothing remarkable there and then.

Every thing looked post war modern.
Did I expect it to have the old?
What could I say to my family?
Could I say it was nothing?
Was that what they would want?
Only my name had German roots
But it was the time when TV was big
On roots or bites of twigs or pieces of string.
Was there a Halperin
In the Heilbrunn phone book?
That was my brief pilgrimage
To a town twenty generations back
Where I might have lived
Now there is no one to greet
Only feeling this is a cold thought
Only a step in an unknown trip

Edward Halperin