Although they typically hate to admit it, poets love Christmas. If you don’t believe me, go and ask one. I challenge you to invite one of your local poets out to a convenient pub, cafe or other hostelry, ply them with a cold or hot beverage and raise the subject of Christmas. (I have to admit, you’re on your own in this part of the task. I have been calling for a National Register of poets for a decade now, but the Poetry Society have rejected the notion out of hand, informing me that it sounds ‘a bit creepy’. Even so, I have long felt that we could do with a better identifier of one’s local poet than a preference for full-length skirts, crushed velvet smoking jackets or corduroy trousers). Go ahead, interrogate away. I venture that it will not take too many beverages and/or gentle prods of the upper arm area with the eraser end of your HB pencil for them to concede that however hard-nosed or issue-driven their oeuvre, Christmas is a boon to the jobbing poet.
There are, of course those poets who actively enjoy Christmas. They are the type who are breathlessly enthusiastic about dropping the odd robin, star or mince pie into a piece on the Ravages of Winter, just to show that one can add a few flourishes of joy to the frigid gloom. Of course, these poets must exercise caution, lest they be shanghaied by a ganger working for a Christmas Card Publisher, or worse, the Novel and Inspirational New Carols department of the Church of England. I almost became a victim of this villainous creed once. I was on a sight-seeing tour of Coventry Cathedral when I saw a group of churchmen smiling menacingly. Luckily, I have a talent for mime, did my best Jacob Epstein Gloomy Archangel and was able to escape by the Vestry.
Then there are the gritty realist poets who are happy to follow Dylan Thomas into the dank world of the working-class Christmas. This can be very effective, if used judiciously. I would always advise the avoidance of lines such as; ‘We were so poor that Christmas/we couldn’t afford a poem/we made do with warmed-over doggerel/left over from the Harvest Festival’. I won’t tell you who wrote that, but he is currently the Poet Laureate.
You would expect the more rational, secular or scientific poets to shun the whole concept of Christmas, but in my experience they cannot help themselves. Get a lab-resident-lyricist thinking about stars and Christmas for any length of time and they’ll be describing photons whizzing thither from the Event Horizon before you can say ‘Professor Brian Cox’. Before too many stanzas have passed, those same photons are striking the retinas of a number of Magi, who proceed to tack their camels to the East, becoming suddenly obsessed with slumbering infants in stable furniture.
I believe I know what you are thinking, dear reader. Did any of this week’s clutch of Pitshanger Poets take up the cudgels of a proper Christmas poem? Well, let’s see, shall we?
Doig Simmonds launched into a fine piece concerning the alien character of that toad work to many people of the world, who differentiate between what one is obliged to do (work) and what one just does in order to just be. John Hurley presented us with a short history of the long road to peace in Northern Ireland, with the hope that we do not have to re-learn how to mend fences in the near future. David Erdos pulled a powerful biographical piece from his knapsack, this one telling the story of the benighted Antonin Artaud, rescued from an asylum by Arthur Adamov. Beautifully narrative but never prosaic. Michael Harris neatly body-swerved the Christmas poem, avoiding a reference to mistletoe with a neat piece of misdirection to his teacher Miss Stilletto. However, his was a double poem and part deux referred to a friend of his, known as the holy spirit. A hint at Christmas? Roger Beckett is thinking beyond the General Election (and how did it turn out? I seem to have missed the news) to a parliament to come, one ruled by the arts. Alan Chambers certainly did take up those cudgels, with a Christmas Card-shaped collection of three riddles with a wild, seasonal flavour. Anne Furneaux returned to her childhood, for another episode from her toybox, this time the doll with the china face, broken and restored.
Daphne Gloag did bring us a seasonal poem, but which season? Her Completion Of the Seasons neatly refers to Autumn, but we thought from this end of the year. Owen Gallagher told us another tale of old Glasgow, and in an echo of Doig’s poem, taking a perspective on work. Bernice Wolfenden tells us she has not written many poems, but she has taken it upon herself to tackle a sestina, with a challenging theme – her own health – along with a challenging form in this wry, humorous work. Pat Francis has been thinking about the Borough’s Workhouses in this sharp look at the men who set themselves up as the Guardians of the Poor in Victorian Britain. Finally, Peter Francis brought us a Christmas poem by any other name, with a neat reference to the Holdfast, a tree brought into the house at the end of the year.
Our roll-call of this week’s Pitshanger Poets would not be a complete without mention of Niall Cassidy, a talented and valued veteran of the group who left these shores to return home to Ireland not long ago. The poets would all like thank Niall for the Christmas card and the welcome contribution. There will always be a welcome if you find yourself in Ealing on a Tuesday evening, Niall.
When all is said and done, however we like to like to imagine we are capable of exercising free will, poets, like all carbon-based life forms love a compelling event, and Christmas is right up there with the best of them. My advice to the writers in my learned audience is to relax and go with it. Christmas is very much an ideal, one it is nigh-on impossible to realise, except in the form of a poem. Just be thankful that it is not your job to write about every Royal Wedding, Funeral and de-Fenestration as it happens, on pain of having the Sack ration reduced should the few lines not move the nation to tears the following morning. ‘Lines written on Prince Andrew confirming his name and address to the judge in His Majesty’s first appearance at the Old Bailey’ cannot be long away I suspect.
Merry Christmas, and if you have been, thank you for reading.