Alicia’s post in tribute to Edward Thomas’s “The Owl” moved me. Especially so since it came after a terrible experience in a shopping outlet. My four-year-old and I were looking for snow boots and while we shared a sandwich in a packed food court I realized that I was only just starting to hear the pounding music in the backdrop: Christmas carols set to frenzied electronic beats.
My favorite carol this year has been O Holy Night. It's the music that makes the carol, and I've had fun dowloading different versions of it to compare. How to sing the words "Fall on your knees:" with soaring sternness like Bing Crosby, or hushed reverence like Josh Groban? You can chart a Melisma-meter with the versions on offer by Avril LaVigne, LeAnn Rimes, and Cristina Aguilera.
Steve Burt’s quote from Wallace Stevens’s letters (in Alicia's comments section) also sent me to its source. One of the reasons to go back to a favorite poet’s letters—and Stevens never disappoints in this regard—is to confirm to oneself how uncannily history repeats itself. Or to realize maybe that it’s not history repeating itself, exactly, but our sentiments about history, our relation to it, that remains glumly constant. I had to smile, rereading a passage that I might have written on a sour day:

In painting, as in poetry, theory moves very rapidly and things that are revelations today are obsolete tomorrow, like the things on one’s plate at dinner. Then, too, I rather resent professional modernism the way one resents an excessively fashionable woman. At the Museum of Modern Art they cultivate the idea that everything is the nuts: the stairs, the windows, the arrangement of the walls. After about an hour of it you say the hell with it. Is all this really hard thinking, really high feeling or is it a lot of nobodies running after a few somebodies? … But on the whole New York was a lemon. Instead of staying for dinner, I took an early train and got as much out of the ride home as out of anything. It made a long pleasant evening and, as I was tired and satisfied to sit and look out, it was as agreeable as anything that had happened to me all summer. (September 9, 1949)

And this, written a couple of weeks prior to the letter Steve quoted from:

Let me wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year even though it is difficult under the heavy weight of contemporary politics to feel very merry or very happy about anything. But I suppose that what Christmas really means, morally, is that we have to take hold of ourselves when things are at their worst and at least pretend that they are as good as they are ever going to be which, after all, may be true. (December 15, 1950)

Which brings me back to “O Holy Night.” It’s the music that makes the carol (like Alicia, I prefer modal and minor-key tunes) but within this passage is a particularly good conjunction of mood and music, the enactment of an awakening (funny how badly this scans without the music!):
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

What does it mean that “the soul felt its worth?” What’s the “it” here—the world or the soul? Does it matter?
It’s a constant, this sentiment of a “weary world” (and here I think of Hopkins’s and Wordsworth’s sonnets, with their emphases on “spent” and “spending”—like Christmas). Stevens felt it; I feel it; the carol speaks to it, though it is not easy to accept even a holiday from it.
I don’t know if “O Holy Night” was one of the songs odiously spun into electronica for us mall-shoppers—I think I deliberately blocked the memory of that epiphany—but after half a lifetime of hearing this carol in the background of countless Christmas situations, I only heard it—heard “and the soul felt its worth”—when I sang it. I don’t usually sing. But to be social, I can fake it (e.g., innumerable “Happy Birthdays”). So, I sang. The physical act of singing through a musical enactment of weariness and awakening had a profound effect, for that moment. Song lyrics can be instrumental. (Pun notwithstanding.) In their self-sufficiency, poems must work much harder to dissolve much weariness.

Originally Published: December 17th, 2007

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

  1. December 17, 2007

    Isn't the notable quality of the (first) Stevens passage here that – and I say this as someone happy to declare Stevens one of three or four very favorite poets – he was totally, utterly wrong? Not that any museum has ever had a flawless collection, or that art has some objective measure. These are qualities a museum-goer had best be able to screen for, or stay home. You go out, and you make specific judgments. So we might ask a specific question, about the actual museum and date in question. To put it delicately: MoMA in 1949 – are you fucking kidding me? Is there a place and time where his sentiment could have been more foolish? I'd trade a week of most anything for that hour.
    On that day at least, WS was just sort of a prick with reactionary tastes, fending off the shock of an extraordinary artistic moment, willfully blind to what was still exploding under his feet. If one finds oneself sharing such sour sentiments, one should be rather careful about who in the scene is the lemon.

  2. December 17, 2007
     Don Share

    Fending off the shock sounds right - not quite what you'd expect from one "desiring the exhilarations of changes,"is it?

  3. December 19, 2007
     Danielle Chapman

    Jane, From the quote it seems that Stevens is talking about the atmosphere that has been created around the art, rather than the art itself. Though he doesn't sound terribly impressed by the art either, what really seems to get him down is the pretentiousness of the place--where a fashionable display of art is more important than the actual works. If, in 1949, the MoMA was anything like it is now, I know exactly what he means. However, I suppose he could be referring to "stairs and windows and walls" that were in the paintings and sculptures. If you're aware of what works, specifically, he means, could you share that info with us? (A google search turned up little more than your post.)