Occasional Poems

“Occasional” is not just a word whose spelling I must check every time. Two C’s, two N’s?

There is actually a type of poem called an “occasional poem.” Many of you know that already, but you may not know that I’m a big fan. In fact, I love reading and writing occasional poems.

But let’s clear away confusion first. An “occasional poem” is not what a half-hearted writer produces once in a while. A writer writes every day. An “occasional poem” is written for specific occasions, ones that matter, like births, deaths, weddings, national and international celebrations, commemorations, tragedies, and other events of political, social, economic, historical, and cultural significance.

Occasional poems interest me because such poems are hard to do well. The immediacy of occasions seems to generate some bad lines, so a heightened awareness and respect for the particular and the eternal moment is required. Such a balance is difficult and challenging.

From Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” to Frank O’Hara’s “Poem [Lana Turner Has Collapsed],” to  Raymond Carver’s “Poem on My Birthday, July 2,” to the magnificent torrent of poems addressing the events of September 11, 2001 (mine is “The Flying Flag” in Lāhaina Noon), the occasional poem has a significant attraction.

If we are supposed to be awake and aware of our lives in the continuous present moment we call “now,” then occasional poems allow a focus on the immediacy of our existence. The occasion demands that we view the present moment through all we are, what we’ve become as a result of  all the moments now past. Focused on an occasion, we often see, and can say, more than we think, expect, or know. The lens of the present is hard and clear. In the occasion, we celebrate the meaning in now.

Eric Shaffer