Thursday, December 27, 2007

FAMOUS POETS GO DOWN IN FLAMES

Why do modern poets have such a difficult time writing about Christmas? Take a look at this fragment of a poem (below) by Auden (Most of the poems are represented by fragments to save space...you're not missing much, believe me).



The "ingression" of love? The "abiding crag" is "on" forgiveness?? Did Auden even think about this when he wrote it? What a shabby effort!




"Little silent Christmas tree/ you are so little/ you are more like a flower/...were you very sorry to come away?" Ugh! It (above) sounds like the something the big, dumb, dog in the Screwy Squirrel cartoon would have said! E.E. Cummings wrote this turkey!





This one (above) is slightly better than the others, maybe because Eliot was a believing Christian, but it has some pretty clunky parts. What is this about the the camels being "galled, sore-footed and refractory?" Why the academic language? The idea of poetry as a celebration of common feeling is lost here.
Modern Christmas poems are often downright depressing. No "Jingle Bells" or "Deck the Halls" for us. Here's part of one by James Dickey. It makes me want to commit suicide. Modern poets are a sad lot, maybe that's why I seldom read them.
Older Christmas poems, especially the ones that double as song lyrics, are much more to my liking: "Away in a manger, no crib for a bed/ the Little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head." Why can't our poets write something simple and elegant like that? Imagine if Auden had written "Away in a Manger:" "Stuck here in an ingressing manger/ The man-god thrust his head on the abiding crag."
It must really gall modern poets that the most popular Christmas poem is still the happy one written by Clement Moore 140 years ago:
Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse."

The mouse is not "galled, sore-footed and refractory." He's just a mouse.


By the way, while I was looking for a picture to illustrate this post I stumbled on this (below) picture of the Nativity by Rubens. Here's a detail...


It's an unusual picture because Christ is portrayed as playful and Mary is positively jovial, as she must have been sometimes. It's a touching picture even though the right side seems to be making a different point than the left side. The colors and rendering are nothing less than masterful.




27 comments:

Steve Schnier said...

Here's a Christmas poem that I wrote about 10 years ago...

The Lodger

This is a true story. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine…
T’was a night in December,
In the year of our Lord,
Eighteen Eighty-Eight,
While terror haunted the streets of our town,
The unwary met a grim fate.
The footsteps of doom,
Rang down cobblestone streets,
Through snow and through sleet and through rain,
As lone newsboy shouted to rare passersby,
“Old Jackie has Stricken Again!”

Inside of the cozy Lamb and Scythe Inn,
The cry of the newsboy rang out.
But on that night, my dears,
The poor guests and the staff,
Were riddled with worry and doubt.
A mysterious lodger,
Had moved in - up the stair.
He reeked of evil and fear.
He dressed like no other,
With filth-matted hair.
You were wary, when he drew near.

Agnes the barmaid,
a rare beauty ‘tis told,
Held their attention fast,
As she told how The Stranger arrived,
At the Inn, a few nights past.
She told them how he appeared at the door,
In robes that were filthy and tattered,
But she had no spare room,
Just a chamber up stairs…
It was quiet – was all that it mattered.

He dragged a large sack,
To the top of the stair,
Refusing the food and drink offered.
Then reached into his pouch,
And plucked a gold coin,
Which Agnes put into the coffers.

The pub-goers listened in dread silent awe,
As the barmaid spun her dark tale.
Then, sensing a look of fear in her eyes,
They spun ‘round and saw Lodger pale.
He emerged from the shadows,
Descended the stairs.
Then he stood - clad in red cloak and hat,
He nodded a silent ‘good evening’ to all,
Then left. That seemed to be that.
Seizing her chance, Barmaid summoned her daring,
And lead a group up to his room.
Pushing the old wooden door aside,
They ventured on into the gloom.
The room, it was dark – and cluttered with things…
With almost no room for a bed.
And that’s where she found - the in-fernal list,
With all their names written in red.

The names thus inscribed,
Caught in Agnes’ throat…
Could he be the “Jackie” they fear?
For at this dark hour,
With no one about,
The question: Did he lurk near?

Down cobblestone streets
He stalked through the night.
Peering through window and curtain.
Then he would pause,
To add to his list.
Then a “check” - just to make certain…
Later that night – he returned to the Inn.
The jovial room now drawn quiet.
He stole up the stair
Paused and gave them a wink
That quite nearly started a riot.

The pub-goers summoned the Constables near.
The mob charged the stairs in their wake.
Lanterns, torches and pitchforks were waved.
And one bore an old wooden rake.
They’d pound down - that locked door.
There’d be no escape.
They’d capture the fiend, sure that night!
It’s four stories down to the cold streets below.
He won’t put up - much of a fight!

The door wouldn’t open. They beat it again.
The hinges, they rattled and clattered.
But finally under the pounding onslaught,
The wood crumbled and splintered and shattered.

Oh! The room, it was empty.
The desk, it was bare.
The window was open,
But He wasn’t there.

The mob turned,
They searched,
They scoured the room,
Searching for clues,
The “What”, “When”, “Why” and “Whom”.

Then candlelight fell up-on his dread note.
They folded it open,
To read, what he wrote:
A line down the middle,
Dividing it twice.
Into two portions,
The Naughty and Nice..

Then a shivering breeze,
Blew in through the room.
Brought a sound from outside,
Had he fall’n to his DOOM?
They looked down from the window,
To the dark streets below,
Searching where his old body had fallen.
Then much to their shock,
Heard a cheery ‘Hello”,
Couldn’t see from where he was callin’.

Then Agnes the Barmaid,
Looked on – not in fear!
For he rode in a sleigh,
Pulled by tiny reindeer.
As he soared through the night,
Above old London-town,
A shower of bright gifts,
Came a-tumble-ing down!
A doll and a horse,
And a train and a toy,
A nice gift for every,
Good girl and good boy.
For there ‘bove the snow,
Covered rooftops he’d jingle.
He waved and he laughed,
He was old man Kris Kringle!

This is a true story. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine…

And so, Agnes the Barmaid,
Swept out the dark room.
She opened the windows,
To dispel the gloom.
But while cleaning the chamber,
Dear girl got a fright,
When she opened a cupboard,
And found him that night!

Old Saint Nick, he lept up,
Chased on down - to the streets.
For the Lodger had mugged him,
And stolen the treats.
As he soared through the air,
Screamed with evil delight:
Merry Christmas to all,
And to all a good night!

Michael Sporn said...

The galled camels are sore-footed. Though I suppose they could have been gall-footed too.

Lyrics have gone the way of the English language. Sleigh bells ring are you listening? Everything is so direct that subjects and verbs aren't important anymore, nevermind the gall-footed adjectives.

Another fine post. Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

reminded me of this article, whats happened to language?

Anonymous said...

When James Dickey worked in advertising, he wrote the immortal slogan "Raid kills bugs dead."

Jenny said...

O ho!
You've just given away your inspiration for the poem you had Percy Dovetonsils say in that old TIny Toons episode--you even had the "big dumb dog" from Corny Concerto in the scene as well:
"Oh little flower! You are so little! I will kiss your little stem!" EE Cummings, eh?
; )
(The reason I remember this is that I did the character layout drawings for that scene, and for that reason will never forget it-it's seared into my memory.)
So many of the lyrics of the great Christmas carols are lovely poems. I always thought that's what they were meant to be, poems-set to music, but stand alone poetry also.

Chris S. said...

I never understood why the poetry of word-snobs is considered more meaningful or poignant when most of the population would need to take a college course to understand them. As you proved with "The Night Before Christmas," less can really be more! Just because someone has a stellar vocabulary doesn't necessarily mean they have anything wonderful to say. Hell, Seuss will always be a genius to me and half his words aren't even words!

Great post!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Steve: Wow! An interesting and moody poem! Nice work!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: Nice to be reminded of Orwell's essay on language. I do use some of the costructions he warns against because they allow me to write faster. If I were writing to publish I'd be more careful but blogs are just for fun.

Michael: Ouch! I misquoted again! It's a universal law that when you get on your high horse and criticize someone else's language, that you'll make some linguistic mistake yourself.

Anon: Dickey did that Raid line!? That's beautiful!

Jenny: Amazing! I didn't consciously lift that line but it might have been in the back of my mind when I wrote that Dovetonsils scene. I'm so glad that you remember working on that! Those were fun times!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Chris: I think I accidentally deleted your comment! Sorry about that!

Anonymous said...

While we're on poets slumming in advertising, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the slogan "We keep you clean in Aberdeen."

Tom Minton

It was great seeing you at the union party, Eddie!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Tom: It was great seeing you! The conversation outside the main room was so interesting that I never made it inside!

Daniel Aguilar said...

I think that the modern poets wrote crismas poems of this sad and bad way it´s "because" they didn´t know the microwave and they cannot burn fast their chrismas tree.
They just felt or feel interesed by Jack The Ripper.

Sure.
Happy nuevo año Sr. Eddie-Eduardo.

Anonymous said...

Eddie I have absolutely zero problem with your writing! I linked to the Orwell article because I thought it made similar points to your post

Ross Irving said...

Let me see if I'm getting this.

Because of the vocabulary some of these poets have used in their Christmas poems, it can distance some readers because words like refractory and galled don't seem right for a poem like this, right?

That doesn't mean you have to use third grader words in a Christmas poem, you're just saying to use words that are more warm and inviting, and not so depressing.

I hope I'm getting the gist of what you mean, Eddie.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: I was grateful for the article, and I never thought of it as a criticism of my writing. I'm just very self-critical and it doesn't take much to get me thinking about my mistakes.

I.D.R.C. said...

I don't care for those formally-educated, ivory tower blabber-poems, especially not when they are written by a pretentious, expatriated scone-butterer like Eliot.

Ross Irving said...

Dear anonymous, whoever you are,

Thank you SO MUCH for posting the link to this essay by George Orwell.

That was an incredible insight as to how language can get too complicated and wordy.

More people in our nation need to read this essay so they can make better judgments based on what we read.

Some people think the media is manipulated, I say we're just not interpreting it in the right way.

I like this essay so much that I'm going to post about it on my blog!

Thad K said...

Whoa, I'm usually a fan of what I read by Cummings, but that was feeble and simple-minded. Thanks for sharing.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Well, I go to pet your monkey
I get a face full of claws
I ask who's in the fireplace
And you tell me Santa Claus
The milkman comes in
He's wearing a derby hat
Then you ask why I don't live here
Honey, how come you have to ask me that?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

IDRC: "Scone-butterer!?" That's a terrific metaphor! Eliot isn't always like that, though.

Thad: I like all the poets I put up here, they just didn't have a feel for this subject. The horrible truth about poetry is that you have to do a lot of bad poems in order to come up with the occassional good one. You just need to have the wisdom not to let anyone see the bad ones.

Kali: Ah, Dylan!

Anonymous said...

It wasn't Dickey who wrote "Raid Kills Bugs Dead." It's attributed to another ad poet Lew Welch. Another poet who worked in ads in Hart Crane. It's said he wrote "Sherwin Williams Paints Covers the Earth." Dickey had the Coke account in Atlanta. It's said he wrote, "It's the Real Thing." As for sad Christmas poems, bring them on. I really enjoyed this selection. They've never bothered me. They somehow poetically balance the wonderful fluff that pop culture mostly gives us. My favorite has always been the lyric by Joni Mitchell," It's coming on Christmas/They're cutting down trees/putting up reindeer/singing songs of joy and piece/I wish I had a river I could skate away on." I love to sing this and "Snoopy's Christmas" in alternating chorus waves.

Parker said...

Happy New Year, uncle Eddie!

Thad K said...

Hey Eddie,
Unrelated but awhile back you commented on the garish color in a Thelma Witmer BG for a Donald Duck... Here's a restoration picture of it, as it just came out on the great new Donald set. Left is the one you posted, right is the new one.

Weirdo said...

Uncle Eddie, do you know how to upload YouTube videos on here?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Thad: Wow! Thanks for linking to that! It's hard to believe that the restored picture is really the same as the orange one. They're so different! Are you sure they're not from two different sequences?

If they are the same picture then it's shocking that film can age that way. This picture should be seen by all professional restorers and serious fans.

Anon: Thanks for bringing that up! "Sherwin Williams covers the Earth" and Coke is the real thing" are both brilliant slogans. If Dickey thought of those then he really earned his pay. I'm delighted to see that poets can have this kind of impact on advertising.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Weirdo: I'm not sure what you mean. I post YouTube videos here all the time because they're so easy to transfer. All you have to do is copy and paste the embedding code into the Blogger html box where you type your message.

I'm dying to upload my own videos both to this site and to YouTube but I have to figure out how to do it first.

jaynee said...

Hiya Eddie. I agree, not one of Auden's best, but had to stick up for him: The "abiding crag" is not "on" forgiveness - The "emphasis" is.