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Getting and spending we lay waste our powers
Many a Christmas carol has been spoiled by slick, oversweetened arrangement, piped into a mall to stimulate more panic buying. Christmas poems, read in a quiet moment to ourselves, are harder (though not impossible of course) to commodify. They are something of an antidote. As a member of Muzak’s marketing department remarked, quoted in a New Yorker article a year or two back, “Our biggest competitor is silence.”
Last night we attended the Festival of Nine Carols and Lessons (it sounds ancient, but is a relatively recent invention) at the Anglican church of St. Paul’s in downtown Athens. Our 3-year old son even managed to sit/squirm through about eight of them. I’ve been thinking it would be neat to have a service like that with poems–or maybe incorporate poems into the songs and readings. I’m curious what poems our bloggers or readers would include in such a poetry service. I think it would work best as a mix of obvious old favorites and lesser known gems, from various periods.
December 25, with its pagan roots and non-existent Biblical grounds, was imposed by the people on the Church rather than the other way around. (Indeed, despite the current keep-Christmas-special campaigns, there was a time when many protestants in the US refused to celebrate it at all as pagan-Catholic). If Easter is all about mystery, miracles, the supernatural, the divine (all rather hard to wrap the mind around), the Christmas story is on a more human and earthly plane: taxation, the crush of travellers, a young mother in labor, innkeepers, stables, shepherds. Maybe that is why it appeals so much to poets.
This is one of my favorite Christmas poems, by George Mackay Brown. (I first encountered it in The Oxford Book of COntemporary Verse 1945-1980, edited by DJ Enright.) I love it’s vernacular verve (“bleeze”!), and how it gets the whole story in through the eyes of the gate-keeper, who has seen it all:
The Keeper of the MIdnight Gate
What are all the hillman wanting
Around the alehouse door,
The old one carrying a new lamb?
Drink, likely, and women.
Too cold for them up on the hill
With stars snapping their silver fingers.
They’ve left a boy
To keep the door of the fold, I hope.
What are you? Come closer, maskers.
Melchior. Caspar. Balthazzar.
No names like that hereabout.
O thank you sir!
Pass on, Daffodil-face, Ebony-face, Nut-face.
Go in peace
With your foreign stinks and the one clang in your sack.
No bite or blanket in that inn, Lady
Unless you’re loaded.
Pass on, man. There might be a corner. I know she’s done in.
Her furnace mouth
Keeps the ox warm.
The publican’s fire is the bleeze of gold in his till.
Yes, colonel, the following village women
As far as I know
Have been brought to bed this past week
Or are ripe to the bursting
Or may be in their sweet pains tonight–
Rachel, Tamar, Deborah,
Sara, Jemima, Judith.
Hooves and swords.
An angel, are you?
Mister, let me tell you
Want no comic-singers in the town this winter.
What are those shadows
There, at the fire’s edge, with guitars?
I did not think
Angels stank and had holes in their sleeves.
All right, go through, vagrants.
Say, if you’re challenged
You came in by another road.
Worms are feasting
Round the fire at the heart of the earth tonight,
You can have this crumb from my sandwich.
This cold night
You’d be better in the silver cage of the merchant.