For actors, “never work with children or animals” is excellent advice. For poets, “never write a poem about Christmas” should carry equal weight.
In the same way that, come the festive season, one’s most unhappy colleague or relative gets pressured into a Santa Claus outfit, December is the time when the most desperate of poets squeeze their talents into festive verse. The below poems – like the Christmas pudding sweater or Santa Claus pair of pants – are gifts that really should never have been given.
1. The Christmas Robin
Robert Graves’ The Christmas Robin (1975) is an example of a poem in which the writer’s desire to be poetic dooms the piece to absurdity. Walking down a snowy lane, lovers who had, apparently “velveted our love with fantasy” come across the unassuming little bird while walking “down a long vista-row of Christmas trees.”
In direct contrast to the happiness of the couple’s approaching grandchildren, the apocalyptically-minded narrator realises that:
He knew better, did the Christmas robin –
The murderous robin with his breast aglow
and legs apart, in a spade-handle perched:
He prophesied more snow, and worse than snow.
Apart from raising the question of whether a robin can cross its legs, Graves seems to feel that Christmas is less a time for giving than a time for paranoid musings and excruciating metaphor.
2. Jesus Awake
American confessional poet Anne Sexton’s Jesus Awake (1972) places her saviour in a surreal landscape, quite some distance from Bethlehem. The poem opens:
It was the year of the
How To Sex Book
The Sensuous Man and Woman were frolicking
But Jesus was fasting.
As the poet wanders through a fraught emotional landscape she eventually comes across Jesus.
He was shrouded in gold like nausea …
His sex was sewn onto him like a medal.
Hmm … feeling Christmassy? Increasingly pornographic as the poem rolls on, Sexton’s obsessions project themselves onto a saviour who somehow appears “like a great house / with no people, / no plans”.
And here, mercifully, the poem ends.
3. The Christmas Goose
William McGonnegal’s famously bad poetry didn’t spare Christmas a visit. His 1878 poem The Christmas Goose is a tale that anticipates the most pedestrian of open mic poetry and rap. The piece opens when the evil Mr Smiggs buys a goose for Christmas, only to have it stolen.
But a policeman captur’d the naughty boy,
And gave the goose to Smiggs,
And said he was greatly bother’d
By a set of juvenile prigs.
Happily, the starving child is thrown into jail and the festive season returns to normal. The poem ends with the glorious sentiment:
No matter how the poor are clothed,
Or if they starve at home,
We’ll drink our wine, and eat our goose,
Aye, and pick it to the bone.
Despite its obvious shortcomings, this hoary old clunker is arguably the verse best suited to appear on the new US president-elect’s Christmas card.
4. A Song for England
The penultimate poem in this rogues’ gallery is not included because of its dreadful style, but for its fabulously miserable sentiments. Crisply written, efficiently delivered, and cheerfully glum, Andrew Salkey’s A Song for England (1992) doesn’t need Jesus or robins or thieving children to upset the world. All it takes is the weather. The poem runs:
An’a so de rain a-fall
An’a so de snow a-rain
An’a so de fog a-fall
An’a so de sun a-fail
An’a so de seasons mix
An’a so de bag-o-tricks
But a so me understan’
De misery o’ de Englishman.
Ho, ho, ho! Perhaps this wonderful poem should be Britain’s real national anthem.
5. The Christmas Truce
Carol Ann Duffy’s popular The Christmas Truce reveals just how fond the public are of Christmas turkeys, for this is an extremely well-stuffed bird. It is a poem about the famous First World War Christmas truce between Britain and Germany.
Duffy – in my view, the Celine Dion of British poetry – is unstinting in her use of obvious metaphor. “The moon, like a medal, hung in the cold, clear sky” is swiftly followed by “silence spread and touched each man like a hand”. The obvious cliché – “a lone bird sang” – watches over this scene of poetic desolation.
Duffy tosses in a robin for colour and some German phrases to show that she’s thinking about how dreadful things were for – you’ve guessed it – both “Tommy” and “Fritz”. The day, however, is described as “marvellous, festive” and the dead as “blessed”. As an exercise in sentimentality and cliché, it is a magnificent achievement; as a lesson in how not to write poetry, it is a rare and bountiful Christmas gift.