Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Poems 2016

Last year, I wrote a post about this time wherein I selected four contrasting poems about Christmas. It was well received, so I thought I might try again this year. In hunting around, I found four poems, which all happen to have been written in the 20th Century. Each in its own way, addresses a feeling of being alienated, out of place, and ambivalent about the future and the season. Earlier this month, I posted some Christmas carols that fit with this feeling that has troubled me about the times we live in, and particularly the way so many people - including ones I know - have ended up tying themselves in theological and moral knots trying to excuse what they once condemned, and explain why “love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t apply to people like immigrants and low income people. These poems are much more personal than the carols, particular the three first ones. The fourth takes the feeling and makes it global and aspirational. 

I have many times bemoaned the fact that poetry appears to be very much out of style these days. Certainly, I have friends who appreciate it, but many more roll their eyes. This is a shame, because it is in poetry (as in music) that the inexpressible is expressed. By not saying things bluntly and literally, but through allusion, rhythm, metaphor, and elision and other poetic devices, we ultimately paint a more accurate portrait of truth.

I’ll start with Ogden Nash, who I quoted last year as well. I ran across this one in the collection I reviewed recently, The Private Dining Room, and thought it fit with the theme.

I have lived most of my life (except for a brief few months as a toddler) in California. Most of that has been in fairly warm places, where it may freeze occasionally, but there isn’t really “weather,” the way the songs tend to describe Christmas. Nash was born in New York, but lived in Savannah for a while as a kid, and must have remembered the strange feeling of Christmas time in a warm place.

Merry Christmas You-All
Who Forgot Savannah?
by Ogden Nash

The men who draws the Christmas cards, dear,
They must have igloos in their yards, dear.
They lives in Labrador or Maine, dear.
They all knows how to harness reindeer.
They puts on snowshoes and galoshes,
And breaks the ice before they washes.

The men who write the Christmas rhymes,
They all inhabit frigid climes.
Their roofs is fluffy, I have heared,
With snow like Santa Claus’s beard.
Icicles decorate their nose,
And chilblains nips their mistletoes.

I loves the artists and the bards
Who makes the pretty Christmas cards,
I loves their winter scenes and such,
But still I thinks they don’t know much,
For Christmas wanders back and forth
And travels South as well as North.

I’m glad our Christmas sun arises
On buttercups and butterflieses,
Our Christmas carol sounds as sweet
As if our ears was raw with sleet,
Our hearts is gay with Christmas mirth
Like on the colder parts of earth,
So cross the Mason-Dixon Line
And be my Christmas Valentine.

I imagine my friends who reside in the Southern Hemisphere experience even more dissonance than I do, with Christmas falling in summer.

Nash points out, however, that Christmas spirit isn’t about the externals, but about what is in our hearts.

The next poem is by T. S. Eliot, whose poetry I have come to appreciate much more in my 30s and now 40s than I ever did when I was a teen. I wrote about the Four Quartets, which seem to be as relevant to the times we find ourselves in as they were at the start of World War Two, when they were written.

“Journey Of The Magi” was written in 1927, as part of a series of poems titled Ariel Poems, by various poets, illustrated, and published as a series. Eliot had just converted to Anglo-Catholic Christianity (yes, I had to look that one up), and had begun to write poems with a more religious theme. This poem was one of them.

What is fascinating is that this one, despite being about Christmas, is every bit as bleak as “The Hollow Men,” another poem that seems more timely than ever. The mage, reflecting on the journey remembers not the joy of the meeting nor the hope. Instead, he considers the hardship of the journey itself, and the growing dread as he realizes that the world has irrevocably changed, and he has lost his bearings. As others have pointed out, the narrator of this poem has a lot in common with that of “The Hollow Men.”

Other interesting things about the poem are the multiple allusions to biblical themes and motifs. The white horse (of Revelation), the three trees on a hill, pieces of silver, wineskins, leaves on the lintel. The first five lines come (adapted) from an Elizabethan era sermon, and Eliot deliberately refers to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” as well. With Eliot, it is hard to find any picture that isn’t symbolic, so I am sure I have missed a few more.

I read this poem some years ago, and remember being struck by the juxtaposition of birth and death, with the fear of change, and the inability to adapt. This too seems pertinent to our times, when both political and religious leaders preach the return to the injustices of the past as the path to utopia. The world has changed, and things can never be the same again, no matter how much the rules of the old systems wish to ignore the change. Just as paganism, superstition, and polytheism were unable to maintain their power after that first Christmas, so too feminism, the Enlightenment view of human rights, and the age of science have changed things. The genie will not go back in the bottle, and all the wishing in the world won’t change that.

So too, the response to Christ by the reactionaries came in two forms. For those taking the aggressive approach, the solution was “crucify him.” For the magi as Eliot portrays them, it is the passive wish for their own death.

I myself find resonance with two ideas here. First is that I too feel as if the world has shifted beneath my feet. The world that I grew up in, the post Civil Rights Movement era, in which nearly everyone I knew at least paid lip service to racial equality and treated women with respect is gone. The KKK is back with a vengeance, and apparently you can brag about sexually assaulting women without consequence - particularly from religious people, who will give you a free pass if you are in their political party.

But the other one is one of hope, that even in the dark hour, when a birth and a death look so very much alike, a singular event, one that came as a surprise to everyone, even those who expected it, could change the world in profound ways. “Peace on earth, goodwill to men, on whom His favor rests” isn’t just something we sing, but an idea that can - and will - continue to change the world.  

Journey Of The Magi 
by T. S. Eliot
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? 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.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.                       

I have mentioned a few times that Robert Frost is my favorite poet (although not by a large margin). I discovered him in my childhood, and every time I read something he wrote, I am again amazed by his skill and depth of thought. (If you want to read my posts on him, they are here and here.)

“Christmas Trees” is one I was not that familiar with, but discovered in looking for Christmas poems in general. Frost was a master of the long-form, blank verse narrative poem, and this is an excellent example.

Christmas Trees
by Robert Frost
(A Christmas Circular Letter)

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
“There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”

                                                    “You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north. He said, “A thousand.”

“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”

He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

It’s just a few lines long, and yet, Frost brings a whole world to light. The narrator has his moral dilemma, his moment of hesitation in the light of possible gain. One is left with the discomfiting feeling that had the price been higher, he might (despite his protest) have given in. And that would have been a shame to him and a disappointment to us.

Frost also contrasts the city values with the country values - at least those of his time. Things have changed a heck of a lot since this was written. Now, I am far more likely to find someone from the small town or country who things that conservation is a crock and that everything should be for sale. (In fact, this election is a great example of that. It isn’t the party of the cities that wants to privatize everything it can and put a price on everything else…) As Frost pointedly notes, it isn’t the country landowner who profits - it’s the middlemen.

I love that the narrator realizes just how rich he is, to have a thousand of his own Christmas trees. My favorite lines are these:

A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.

It is a fantastic paradox: three cents more to give away than sell. It seems backwards, but he realizes that the three cents wouldn’t enrich, but impoverish him.

In an era when so many seem to have embraced “winning” and “dealmaking” as virtues, and seem poised to gut as much of the public sector (that is, what we all own together for the good of society), Frost stands as a contrast. He is alienated from from the “everything is for sale” ethic. Though he is tempted, he stands firm. I am reminded of a poem by Wordsworth, who likewise loved nature and sought mutual benefit over blind pursuit of profit.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Frost’s poem thus is one of both alienation and hope. There are those left who will not bow the knee to this god.

The final poem is by Maya Angelou, who I didn’t really discover until I was an adult. Even now, I am not as familiar with her works as I should be - something I hope to remedy. (Blame my bias against moderns. My natural tendency is to go with classics, whether music or literature.) Anyway, I ran across this poem, and thought it a good one to finish with. It is a marvelously hopeful poem, one where hope and peace can overcome hate and strife.

Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem
by Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

There are two lines in particular that I love. The first is this:

Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

This is the hope that we need, one that can and indeed will overcome the hate which has been breeding in the dark corners of our nation and is now flaunting its political triumph. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The second line is this one:

It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

Not just the absence of war. Not just the absence of conflict and hatred. No, true peace, which is a harmony of spirit. I think this is what those of my acquaintance that don’t get the Black Lives Matter movement are missing. It can’t just be some vague “I don’t hate you” that is needed, it is an actual harmony of spirit where we experience the pain and fear and devastation of others rather than dismissing or ignoring it. True peace requires security and safety as well. I am reminded again of what my pastor has said many times about marriage. It isn’t enough to avoid divorce (the absence of war, if you will): one must build a marriage, a “harmony of spirit,” as Angelou puts it. And peace with our fellow man requires this as well. Indeed, I believe my own faith requires it. “Love your neighbor” is more than just “don’t harm your neighbor” - although that is included. (And is one that so many seem to have forgotten.) Love, as with peace, requires building that harmony of spirit, and unity of purpose.

This Christmas, whether we feel the chill of a winter’s snow or not, regardless of our anxiety about a changed and changing world, may we avoid selling what is irreplaceable for a piece of silver, but instead seek that true peace on earth, and good will toward men, particularly those outside of our tribe.