Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Three Wise Poems and a Seasonal Star (Letter)

'Tis the season. To be jolly. To be over-indulgent. But also, to be reflective.  Peace-filled. And what better way to succeed in the latter than a few well-chosen poems?

Christmas is the ideal subject matter for poetry and poetry is the ideal medium for conveying the ethereal feel of Christmas. One of my favourite Christmas memories consists of watching a TV programme on Christmas poems, with some well-known actors reciting  a few festive favourites to montages of snow, brightly-lit shopping districts and tinsel and trees. 

So I thought I'd try to replicate that somewhat here by including some of my favourite Christmas poems. (And very wise ones too, as all poems are of course.) All following the star of inspiration that this time of year provides and encapsulating the stardust-like magic of the season. And all based on the Christmas star motif and the wise men, strangely enough.

TS Eliot's The Journey of the Magi of course, is a classic, a poem about redemption and the search for something more in the midst of all the flippancies of modern life, 'I should be glad of another death'. UA Fanthorpe's BC:AD is a simple but stunning meditation on the season, 'walking haphazard by starlight' - aren't we all haphazardly stumbling around at this time of year? And then a favourite poet of mine, Alice Oswald's Various Portents. I adore this poem. I love the variety of it, the repetition, the emphasis, the whole wide-ranging vision,  how it speeds along, stop-starts frequently and then slows towards the end, towards the epiphany-quiet moment that we're all steering for, the winds 'blowing the stars towards them, bringing snow'. Read it and feel the tingles of recognition as some stars blow towards you.

And lastly, the star letter. In 1897, a young girl, Virginia, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Sun, asking if there really was a Santa Clause. And the answer she received was the now infamous line: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Words that, everytime you hear them, cause a swelling up and a warm glowing of something, something that I like to refer to as belief. What the essence of the letter contains. And the essence of the season.

Happy Christmas to all my followers, readers and randomers. Thank you for taking the time out from all the madness, mayhem and materialism of the season and dropping by to read some poetry and inhale a frankincense, myrhh and golden breath of what the season is all about. 

Seasons Greetings, 

~ Siobhán.

BC:AD - UA Fanthorpe

This was the moment when Before
turned into After, and the future's
uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing

happened. Only dull peace
sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans

could find nothing better to do
than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment

when a few farm workers and three
members of an obscure Persian sect
walked haphazard by starlight straight
into the kingdom of heaven.

Journey of the Magi - TS Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long 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 when 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 dirty 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 wineskins.
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.

Various Portents  - Alice Oswald
Various stars. Various kings.
Various sunsets, signs, cursory insights.

Many minute attentions, many knowledgeable watchers,
Much cold, much overbearing darkness.

Various long midwinter Glooms.
Various Solitary and Terrible stars.
Many Frosty Nights, many previously Unseen Sky-flowers.
Many people setting out (some of them kings) all clutching at stars.

More than one North star, more than one South star.
Several billion elliptical galaxies, bubble nebulae, binary systems.
Various dust lanes, various routes through varying thickness of Dark,
Many tunnels into deep space, minds going back and forth.

Many visions, many digitally enhanced heavens,
All kinds of glistenings being gathered into telescopes:
Fireworks, gasworks, white-streaked works of Dusk,
Works of wonder and or water, snowflakes, stars of frost …

Various dazed astronomers dilating their eyes,
Various astronauts setting out into laughterless earthlessness,
Various 5,000-year-old moon maps,
Various blindmen feeling across the heavens in Braille.

Various gods making beautiful works in bronze,
Brooches, crowns, triangles, cups and chains,
Various crucifixes, all sorts of nightsky necklaces.
Many Wise Men remarking the irregular weather.

Many exile energies, many low-voiced followers,
Watchers of whisps of various glowing spindles,
Soothsayers, hunters in the High Country of the Zodiac,
Seafarers tossing, tied to a star…

Various people coming home (some of them kings). Various headlights.

Two or three children standing or sitting on the low wall.
Various winds, the Sea Wind, the sound-laden Winds of Evening
Blowing the stars towards them, bringing snow.

Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. 

*More Christmas Poems: Christmas - John Betjeman  
'Twas the Night Before Christmas 

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