Christmas poems of comfort and joy… and heartache

20 Dec 2012 @ 8.41 am
| News

Our writers have sparkled this Christmas. Photograph: The Ice Factor
YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley enjoys poems which explore the mixed emotions of the season

Snowed under with Christmas poems, I’ve chosen my favourite six and hope you like them. You will have to wait till the end of the blog (no peeking) to find out which reader will be getting an extra present to put under the tree. I love books for Christmas – you can pretend you’re totally absorbed and respond to any suggestions of washing up with a kind of distracted ‘Mmm?’ without taking your eyes off the page.

Can’t start without an update on Strictly though. Well, who’d have thought it? Lisa Riley out. Now it’s anybody’s guess who will win the coveted trophy. I’m going to stop pouring my money down the drain as I’ve just no idea. I’ve a soft spot for Louis but Kimberley is pretty amazing (even if she does have a voice like a corn crake) and Denise simply floats. Dani is great too. Hope you didn’t buy tickets for the opening night of the Barbican panto.

The Barbican’s a lovely venue, isn’t it? My Christmas started properly with the Kate Rusby concert last week. Like being in a pub in the West Riding only with more people. While Shepherds Watched sung to On Ilkley Moor Bar T’at takes some beating. I might give the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols a miss in case I sing the wrong words and get asked to leave.

There were some really lovely poems this time. I was particularly sorry to have to leave out poems by Bill Fitzsimons, John Atkinson and Julie Corbett. For anyone who missed out this time, do try again. In some cases it came down to the odd typo or a kind of first draft feeling about a poem or simply that it was too similar in subject or form to another poem which I wanted to include.

I was pleased, though, to find I’d chosen some new names this time as well as a couple by excellent writers we’ve published before. It’s good to feel we are reaching new readers and also establishing a dialogue with writers who send something in each time. I love to read your comments. Do please write something at the end of the blog if you particularly like a poem or if you have a question. It’s nice to get a conversation going.

Right. These will be in no particular order. Oh yes they will! Alphabetical. The fairest way, I think.

Archaeopteryx by Simon Currie

This fall on compacted ice
finds me spread-eagled,
arms that may be wings
pinioned across the road,
the pattern of knitted gloves,
one stuck at each wing-tip,
impressed as primitive feathers:
a sudden extinction.
Not being Archaeopteryx,
I can pick myself up,
step bird-like to safety
of thistle fused with grass
and snow along the verge,
to leave behind a conundrum,
etched on unyielding ice
that does not mean to melt.

I liked this image of the writer as Archaeopteryx (the oldest known bird – isn’t Google a wonderful thing) with his outstretched arms in an ice fall and even the pattern of his knitted gloves leaving their imprint a bit like a fossil. Indeed, Simon seems in the poem to be made painfully aware in this helpless state of ‘a sudden extinction’ though, thankfully he makes his way in one piece to the verge ‘leaving behind a conundrum’. A lot of people found themselves in the same predicament in West Yorkshire only last week.

Ghost of Christmas Future by Kat Dale

Never mind those previous occupants,
considering how they lived and loved,
and did they hang a holly wreath, 
sing carols by gaslight round the piano
and light real candles on a real tree.
What I want to know is whether
in some distant time of yet to come
the lady of the house - because it always
comes down to the female, no matter 
how many times he stands and smiles 
and says what can I do to help? - 
will stuff the turkey, sprouts and 
BOGOF supermarket brawl,
bypass last posting date and 
last chance bin collection, 
leave socks and talc unsellotaped, 
tell crackers what she really thinks  
and wonder if there just might be
another meaning to it all?

A nice rant from Kat Dale who hasn’t sent us a poem before. I liked the nod in the direction of Charles Dickens (whose A Christmas Carol has been entertaining freezing audiences in York recently and what better place for it?)

It’s an angry/witty poem looking at Christmas past, rejecting our rose-tinted view of it, Christmas present in which the writer is trapped in an annual hell of doing all the real graft, and looking forward to a possible Christmas future when the lady of the house will swear at the crackers and rediscover the real meaning of the festival. I think it captures rather nicely the Bah Humbug view which many of us find ourselves having some sympathy with in the stresses of the pre-Christmas preparations.

Winter boasting in Rosedale by Hilary Jenkins

I thought it had been a terrible winter, down to minus 15
one night, and the deepest, softest snow I’ve ever seen –
a neighbour had to pull my car out with his digger,
after a fortnight in a drift, and me down to my last tin of beans.

Ah but last year was much worse, said the man at the bar,
the snow fell longer, colder, the roads so thick with ice
we had to leave our cars a mile away, where they were scooped up
by snow ploughs clearing the Castleton road.

You’ve forgotten how bad it was the year before,
said his friend raising his glass, when the snow started falling
in October and went on till Easter. And the electricity
was off for days on end. Now then, you don’t know the half of it,

said an even older man, the worst was before your time,
when the first snow fell in September, bringing down the wires,
blocking the roads, cutting the phones and the electric too,
so that even the pumps stopped, and we had to bring in snow

to melt over our open fires. Now that went on for weeks.
Imagine, no Christmas. (I shook my head, I couldn’t.) Nay, said his Dad
hold on, when I were a lad, each year, the whole dale were
cut off for months at a time, the king could die, the world go to war

and we’d know nothing of it. The drifts too deep
even to walk to the next dale. We’d be eating turnips like t'sheep.
And then we’d eat t'sheep, your grandma joking it’d be us next.

Unsurprisingly, given the weather in recent weeks, snow was a major theme this month and Hilary Jenkins’ beautiful poem about people in Rosedale boasting about the worst winters they have known was a witty take on the subject. I love the way Hilary gives us glimpses of the reality of life in the depths of North Yorkshire in winter with all its hardships and perils while also showing us the local people, their stoicism and inventiveness and neighbourliness but also their revelling in spinning a good yarn. There is so much in this masterfully handled free verse piece to admire, not least its quiet humour. I think the people in the pub would see the funny side…

Christmas Eve by Will Kemp

I loll back on the sofa, taking in carols from King’s, 
a dark blue glow filling its embroidered windows,
while Sibylle makes a stollenbrot in the kitchen.   
No thoughts on work, just wonder at the choristers   
as The First Nowell ascends those pillars branching 
across the ceiling intricate as a cavalier’s shirt. 
Shortly the Ghost of Christmas Past will show me 
that figure hoping for a girl in a Sexy Santa number
despite facing yet another year of personal ads, 
but now I raise a glass of sherry to my late mother   
who must have had a word with an angel to ensure
I didn’t skive out of that conference where we met,

and can look forward to waking up tomorrow 
rather than facing another Christmas on my own. 

Will Kemp also sent a very delicate poem about snow but I have chosen this one instead for its tenderness and lightness of touch. Dickens makes an appearance here too, as do the choristers at King’s College. Will shows us a familiar, cosy scene most of us will recognise and relate to, with the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of Christmas.

But he does more than this. It is a very personal poem, a love poem of sorts and it addresses the loneliness of the single at this time of year, the way a familiar carol can transport us back into the past and bring back both painful and loving experiences. I like the positive note and the everyday language (‘skive’, ‘loll’, ‘personal ads’) as well as the elegant form of the poem and its unobtrusive but very effective images (‘embroidered windows’, ‘those pillars branching/ across the ceiling intricate as a cavalier’s shirt’) A lovely poem.

The Christmas Candle by Laurie Prime

"It's not beautiful" he said, in a proud shy way, 
and "take care when you burn it, for it may go astray.
But I made it myself, from beginning to end, 
a present for you, who have been my friend."
So I picked up the candle, in amber and gold, 
and I said it was lovely, a joy to behold.
And then in the way of friends when they chat, 
the topic was shifted to this, and then that.
And yet all the while in my mind I could see
Tom, in the midst of creation, for me.
And my heart was as warm as the flame lit for cheer
On the best Christmas present that I got that year.

I love this. Laurie Prime is another new name to me. More, more, more, Laurie. I love the simply told narrative and the apparently effortless way you handle metre and rhyme. The rhythm is beautiful in that hypnotic way that the best sonnets have. Of course, like the hand-made candle, it is not perfect (not sure about ‘a joy to behold’ which is a cliché and probably not something you would actually say these days) but I’m sounding like Craig finding a reason to give someone a niggardly 9 so I’ll shut up.

A couple of little suggestions. Try removing ‘for’ in line two and ‘that’ in the last line. It’s best even in a sonnet to use the natural rhythms of speech. The reader will then make the line right. What makes the poem for me, apart from the loveliness of the form, is the affection behind it and the way that gift is valued for what it represents.

Christmas Poem by Grace Clarke

Christmas lights brighten the streets,
Loved up couples drink mulled wine,
I've not got a boyfriend.
Until December I didn't mind.

I've no one to share mince pies with,
No one to buy me a scarf,
No one to drink the Whiskey,
I left for Santa on the hearth.

The songs, the adverts, the films,
Tell me to sit this Christmas out,
You can't be happy on your own,
And that's what it's all about.

Well I don't think that's fair,
I looked the numbers up online,
Single people out weigh the couples,
At this moment in time. 

So I won't spend a fortune,
On presents for a man,
Who if I'm really honest,
I'd hate by the end of Jan.

I love this one too. It is cheeky in a spirited Bridget Jones kind of way. A different take on Will’s theme of loneliness for the single at Christmas which the festivities seem to make worse somehow. The simple rhymes work in the way that Wendy Cope’s wry Christmas poems work. In fact this form lends itself to comic verse and the snag with it can be when people use the same form for more serious subject matter and it ends up sounding like light verse if you’re not careful or very skilled.

This one, though, is perfectly judged and the writer gets away with slight wobbles in the rhythm here and there because of its wit and inventiveness. A strong, independent voice and a very likeable one. Good poem.

As always, a big thank you for sharing your poems with me, whether they appear here or not. I loved reading them all. As Brucie would say ‘Keeeeep writing’.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy and creative New Year. Keep your eyes peeled for an exciting new writing opportunity which I will be announcing here in early January.

And the prize? It goes to (cue for long agonising silence for dramatic effect) Hilary Jenkins. Let me have your postal address, Hilary, and with luck it will make it through those snow drifts.

Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.