Sunday essay: Christmas poetry – a reflection

Sunday essay TAGG 1 1
Sunday essay TAGG 1 1

Poets are drawn to the time between seasons and to the time when both death and life, endings and beginnings, merge into each other and confuse us. It’s no surprise then, that Christmas is often written about.

I see finches blown by a gale from the roof of my house onto the road outside this window. They crouch there on the sand facing into the wind, hoping not to be tossed again into the wild air.

From haiku masters to romantic bohemians, poets pay attention to the seasons. Often poets are drawn towards the time between seasons, the time when both death and life, endings and beginnings, merge into each other and confuse us. Christmas, too, has its seasonal place deep in winter or deep in summer when the old year fades and a new one beckons. It seems fitting that we celebrate the birth of a famous baby at this time, a baby born in poverty as the story goes, born under a star that promised celestial light for everyone – but only through an ultimate sacrifice.

Birth and death are entangled here too.

New York poet, Marianne Moore, expressed her dislike for the holiday in her poem, Christmas. Carl Van Vechten

No surprise, then, that poets write so much about Christmas. At this time of year there seems to be nothing but Christmas to think about. Streets are festooned with it. Airwaves, the internet, televisions and the Google logo have all gone christmasy on us. The beauty and delicacy of the Christmas story become in our consumerist hands a recipe for crassness and sentimentality. No surprise that poets might be sickened by it and be drawn to try to rescue it.

The mid 20th century New York poet, Marianne Moore might have been a grump, but she had good reason. “I, too, dislike it,” she wrote in her famous poem, Christmas. She went on to say, as we know,

there are things that are important beyond all this tinsel.
Celebrating it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine.

In seeking that place of the genuine she wished, enigmatically and unforgettably, for a Christmas of “imaginary elves with real noses on them”.

So many of our poets have suffered Christmases that go like nightmares through them. T.S. Eliot put himself into the shoes (slippers?) of one of those Three Wise Men and reported,

There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
After that, there could be no easy return to the usual Kingdoms and their old dispensations.

We do need the poets to bring us back to awareness of Christmas as a time of change, after which nothing can ever be the same again. We long for these kinds of moments and dread them, and that’s why we drain Christmas of its bitter truth. When the poor jaundiced Philip Larkin put himself into the rough cloaks of those shepherds on a hillside on Christmas Eve, he made them speak of the troubles this birth brought to them and all the poor to come:

They fuck you up, those holy saviours.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They light you up with promised favours,
and add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By Holy fools and raving prophets
Who prayed for every bush to burn
and took the coins from shepherds’ pockets.
Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the neon scenes of nativity in the suburbs.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, possibly one of the most original poets to write in English, was also a poet of the seasons, of nature, of the times when change comes upon the world, when everything is doubtful, dappled, rung upon the rippling of dawn-drawn light or down-dropped dusk. His Christmas was a lighter one, a more celestial celebration, but no less desperate than other poets when it comes to making Christmas a deeper shade of Christmas. He too has his famous Christmas poem, much loved and much recited along the streets of bright-lit scenes of nativity after nativity in our city’s Christmas suburbs:

Glory be to Christmas for wrapped-up things—
For cellophane pocked parcels ribboned as a matron’s corset;
Toppling over angels, young pine trees bucketed; stippled lights
In neon windows sungstrung on star hung boulevards that bring
The red-eyed tourists in to see reindeers run a red nosed orbit,
Dazzled, dim, stable birthed blessedness. Praise Him—and all the little mites.

This fascination with the paradox of a saviour born in the muck of a stable to a teenage mother who was wise beyond her years, the fable-like arrival of a criminal who was a king, the oxymoronic wanderings of a carpenter-philosopher and someone called Santa coming in late on the scene like a bear from the woods, continues down into the late 20th century via that American grandfather of the bizarre, John Ashbery:

This Christmas is concerned with packaging on a soulful level.
Look at it waving to you from a department store window
Where gadgets fidget with tinsel and stardust. You have it
And you miss it. It is here and always gone. You love each other.
The angel is plastic because it wants to be you, and cannot.
What’s a soulful level? It is plastic and other things,
Bringing boxes, piles of them, into play. Play?
Well, actually, jingles, yes, but I consider playing jingles
A deeper winter thing, a dreamed soul-pattern,
As in the divisions of grace these long December nights
Without whiskey. Star-suspended. And before you know
It gets to be Christmas here in the fog and tatters of types of writers.

We don’t need to know what this means to know what this means. Famously Ashbery described Christmas as “unknown quantities”. It is enough to know he said this; and what it meant and whether he meant it, are merely questions outside the question of the structure and architecture of reality. The point here is that poets have not been able to keep away from Christmas, from its world changing moment on the cusp of a year that will be gone forever and a new one not yet invented.

We know Santa actually did lean in Frank O’Hara’s open window one Christmas Eve and Frank scribbled down his conversation with the great man (O’Hara being only the second poet ever to have a conversation with Santa), who said to him,

I like your poetry. I see a lot
on my rounds and you’re okay. You may
not be the greatest thing on earth, but
you’re different.

Frank O’Hara scribbled down his conversation with Santa, who appeared at his window one Christmas Eve.

That was enough for Frank — he asked Santa in to stay a while and talk some more. But Santa said that others were calling him. He didn’t say exactly who these others were, so Frank was able to leave a mystery at the end of that tiny poem in his brain.

The last word on Christmas must be given to Elizabeth Bishop, that perfectionist of privacy and sublime poetry. Her Christmas poem was almost lost more than once, and if it had been it would have been (Write it!) a disaster. You know it well, I am sure, but I will reproduce the whole poem here nevertheless. I know no one sings the whole of the national anthem. The beginning seems to stand for the rest of it perfectly well, but somehow this anthem of a villanelle refuses to have even one part of it lost to implication or intuition:

The art of Christmas giving isn’t hard to master;
so many boxes filled and wrapped with intent
to be posted, or tossed across a room faster.
Give something every Christmas despite a flutter
of your heart at money badly spent.
The art of Christmas giving isn’t hard to master.
Then practice wrapping faster, tossing faster:
aunts and uncles, siblings and others you meant
to placate with baubles, ignore the disaster.
I gave my mother’s watch away once or twice, or
did I offer it, with my house, for rent?
The art of Christmas is sometimes hard to master.
I gave away something pretty once, and some pasta
got from Italy, two gingers and a continent
-al sausage or two. I miss them, what a disaster.
Even giving Christmas the boot (what a gesture,
I loved it) is still some kind of giving it is evident.
The art of Christmas giving isn’t hard to master
though it may look like (take that) someone’s cruel laughter.

Christmas is the ritual we succumb to at the same time as we rebel against it in our souls. The poets know this and have said it better than any of us could have. Yet they have no answers, only these ironic questions they perfect on our behalf as we swing from one way of being to another, always hoping everything will change this time.

I see heavy clouds draped across the horizon out there. Crows complain about something in the air. The wind is at rest out behind the hills, camping quietly by itself, waiting for a sign.

This essay was written by Kevin Brophy [Professor of Creative writing, University of Melbourne]

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