The Frip has chosen six of the best and most Christmassy poems for your delight and delectation – poems by Louis MacNeice, e.e. cummings, Benjamin Zephaniah, James Arthur, Allison Joseph and Jane Kenyon
The best Christmases involve a generous dump of snow, and you can’t mention snow in a room full of poets without someone quoting a line or two from Louis MacNeice’s classic poem ‘Snow’. First published in 1935, this poem celebrates how vast, diverse and mysterious the world is, and examines the nature of our existence.
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
The poem ‘[little tree]’ by e.e. cummings looks, at first reading, to be a child’s response to decorating a Christmas tree. But it’s not as simple as that. The tree has been cut when taken from the forest so is not “safe and tight” but dying. Alongside the innocence and joy of the child is an ambivalence, an understanding which we as adults have of what underpins the delight of the child, and sadness for what lies at the other side of the transaction.
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem ‘Talking Turkeys’ is an old family favourite and we can’t help including it here. It’s gently political, and stridently joyful, and best read aloud.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don’t eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate, an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I’m on your side.
I got lots of friends who are turkeys
An all of dem fear christmas time,
Dey wanna enjoy it, dey say humans destroyed it
An humans are out of dere mind,
Yeah, I got lots of friends who are turkeys
Dey all hav a right to a life,
Not to be caged up an genetically made up
By any farmer an his wife.
Turkeys just wanna play reggae
Turkeys just wanna hip-hop
Can yu imagine a nice young turkey saying,
‘I cannot wait for de chop’,
Turkeys like getting presents, dey wanna watch christmas TV,
Turkeys hav brains an turkeys feel pain
In many ways like yu an me.
I once knew a turkey called…Turkey
He said “Benji explain to me please,
Who put de turkey in christmas
An what happens to christmas trees?”,
I said “I am not too sure turkey
But it’s nothing to do wid Christ Mass
Humans get greedy an waste more dan need be
An business men mek loadsa cash’.
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
Invite dem indoors fe sum greens
Let dem eat cake an let dem partake
In a plate of organic grown beans,
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
An spare dem de cut of de knife,
Join Turkeys United an dey’ll be delighted
An yu will mek new friends ‘FOR LIFE’.
James Arthur’s poem ‘Model-Train Display at Christmas in a Shopping Mall Food Court’ is Christmas all over – the snow, the candy canes, the reindeer – but beneath the glitzy display there’s so much more going on. The light in the “blow mold Virgin Mary, illuminated from within” is artificial; the passengers in the train go round and round on the same track and can’t escape their predictable and familiar destination; and Christmas Eve is “bearing down” like a wolf on the fold or some monster about to give birth. The kids watching the model-train display have a kind of innocence at the start, but the poem has swerved us all into darker territory.
Model-Train Display at Christmas in a Shopping Mall Food Court
These kids watching so intently
on every side of the display
must love the feeling of being gigantic:
of having a giant’s power
over this little world of snow, where buttons
lift and lower
the railway’s crossing gate, or switch the track,
or make the bent wire topped with a toy helicopter
turn and turn
like a sped-up sunflower. A steam engine
draws coal tender, passenger cars, and a gleaming caboose
out from the mountain tunnel,
through a forest of spruce and pine, over the trestle bridge,
to come down near the old silver mine.
Maybe all Christmases
are haunted by Christmases long gone:
old songs, old customs, people who loved you
and who’ve died. Within a family
sometimes even the smallest disagreements
can turn, and grow unkind.
The train’s imaginary passengers,
looking outward from inside,
are steaming toward the one town they could be going to:
the town they have just left,
where everything is local
and nothing is to scale. One church, one skating rink,
one place to buy a saw.
A single hook-and-ladder truck
and one officer of the law. Maybe in another valley
it’s early spring
and the thick air is redolent of chimney smoke and rain,
but here the diner’s always open
so you can always get a meal. Or go down to the drive-in
looking for a fight. Or stay up
all night, so tormented by desire, you can hardly think.
Beyond the edges of the model-train display, the food court
is abuzz. Gingerbread and candy canes
surround a blow mold Virgin Mary, illuminated from within;
a grapevine reindeer
has been hung with sticks of cinnamon. One by one, kids
get pulled away
from the model trains: Christmas Eve is bearing down,
and many chores remain undone.
But for every child who leaves, another child appears.
The great pagan pine
catches and throws back wave on wave of light,
like a king-size chandelier, announcing
that the jingle hop has begun,
and the drummer boy
still has nothing to offer the son of God
but the sound of one small drum.
In an interview with Long River Review Allison Joseph talks about the Santa in the poem ‘The Black Santa’. She says, “I looked at the photo of him, and I think I made him look a little sickly looking. I went back and looked at him and thought: Hmm, Black Santa doesn’t look too bad! But I swear to this day that he either smoked too much or drank too much or both. But hey, it’s a department store Santa job, I probably would do the same.” We like the way the poem opens up the possibility for Santa to be any colour for any child, and shows the power of a child’s imagination when it hasn’t been circumscribed or limited.
The Black Santa
I remember sitting on his bony lap,
fake beard slumping off his face,
his breath reeking sweetly of alcohol,
a scent I didn’t yet know at five.
And I didn’t know that Santa
was supposed to be fat, white, merry—
not shaky and thin like this
department store Santa who listened
as I reeled off that year’s list:
a child’s oven I’d burn my fingers on,
a mini record player of gaudy plastic
I’d drag from room to room
by its precarious orange handle,
an Etch-a-Sketch I’d ruin by twisting
its dials too hard—my requests
as solemn as prayer, fervid, fueled
by too many hours of television,
too many commercials filled
with noisy children elated
by the latest game or toy.
I bet none of them
ever sat on the lap of a Santa
who didn’t ho-ho-ho in jolly mirth,
whose sunken red eyes peered
out from under his oversized wig
and red velveteen cap, his teeth yellow,
long fingers tinged with yellow.
I did not find it strange
to call this man Santa,
to whisper my childish whispers
into his ear, to pull on his sleeve
to let him know I really deserved
all that I’d asked for. I posed
for an instant photo with him,
a woolen cap over my crooked braids,
mittens sewn to my coat sleeves.
No one could have convinced me
this Santa couldn’t slide down
any chimney, though his belly
didn’t fill his suit, and his hands
trembled, just a bit, as he lifted
me from his lap. No one could
have told me that a pink-cheeked
pale-skinned Santa was the only Santa
to worship, to beg for toys and candy.
I wouldn’t have believed them,
wouldn’t have believed anyone
who’d tell me Santa couldn’t look
like me: brown eyes, face, skin.
Time to wave goodbye to Christmas with our last poem, ‘Taking Down the Tree’ by Jane Kenyon. And it’s all about light, at this dark time of the year, dark at four, only half a moon, and the sparkling Christmas lights and decorations being packed away in their various boxes. Kenyon plunges us into the darkness of the season, but her words also bring a kind of strength as she faces it. ” If it’s darkness / we’re having, let it be extravagant.” Oh yes.
Taking Down the Tree
“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.
The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.
With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.
By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.