Wednesday Dec. 23, 2015

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A Christmas Poem

Christmas is a place, like Jackson Hole, where we all
To meet once a year. It has water, and grass for
All the fur traders can come in. We visited the place
As children, but we never heard the good stories.

Those stories only get told in the big tents, late
At night, when a trapper who has been caught
In his own trap, held down in icy water, talks; and a
With a ponytail and a limp comes in from the edge of
the fire.

As children, we knew there was more to it —
Why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
Wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
Near tears nor why the stars came down so close,

Why so much was lost. Those men and women
Who had died in wars started by others,
Did they come that night? Is that why the Christmas
Trembled just before we opened the presents?

There was something about angels. Angels we
Have heard on high Sweetly singing o’er
The plain. The angels were certain. But we could not
Be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.

"A Christmas Poem” by Robert Bly from Morning Poems. © Harper Perennial, 1998. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1823 that the holiday poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel in New York. In recent years, there has been considerable debate as to the authorship. According to tradition, it was written by the poet and professor Clement Clarke Moore, who was struck with his vision of St. Nicholas while he was out on a snowy sleigh ride. He is said to have used a local Dutch handyman as his model for St. Nick. The reindeer names included Dunder and Blixem, the local Dutch words for thunder and lightning, although they were eventually changed to the German Donder and Blitzen.

It’s the birthday of poet Robert Bly (books by this author), born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). A beautiful high school teacher taught him to appreciate poetry, but he didn’t start writing seriously until he joined the Navy after high school. There he befriended a man named Eisy Eisenstein — the first person he had ever met who wrote poems. After the Navy, he spent a year at St. Olaf College on the GI Bill. He said: “A woman my age wrote poetry; I fell in love with her, and I wrote a poem to her. I had the strangest sensation. I felt something in the poem I hadn’t intended to put there. It was as if ‘someone else was with me.’” He transferred to Harvard and applied to work as an editor for the literary magazine, the Harvard Advocate. When the staff interviewed him for a position, he responded with a long, detailed critique of American poetry since 1910. The staff seemed unimpressed, but they accepted him anyway. One day a new student board member turned up, a poet a year younger than Bly named Donald Hall. They became best friends.

After Bly left Harvard, he decided that he didn’t want to teach at a university — he was inspired by his idol, William Carlos Williams, and also by Wallace Stevens, neither of whom was a career professor. So he returned home to his family’s farm in western Minnesota and began to write. Since he was so far away from a literary community, he wrote frequent long letters to his friends and peers: Donald Hall, Tomas Tranströmer, Galway Kinnell, Louis Simpson, and others. Bly and Hall exchanged letters twice a week for decades, with a rule that they had to respond to each other within 48 hours.

Today is the birthday of British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (1955) (books by this author). Duffy was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but grew up in Staffordshire, England. She began writing poetry when she was 11 years old, and it was her greatest passion as a teenager. “I’d be in my leather miniskirt and boots up to here,” she once said. “I’d finish work, get paid and would buy 10 cigarettes, a bottle of Hirondelle rosé and a new poetry book, and that would be the rest of my Saturday.” She used to copy out her favorite poems longhand in a notebook. “It was that very physical act that led me to become a writer. It was quite an intimate experience of poetry, and that’s what I’d like us to go back to now with children,” she said. These days, she inspires teenage poets just as she was once inspired; her poems are studied in Britain’s schools. She’s known for treating complicated subjects in an accessible way. “I’m not interested, as a poet, in words like ‘plash’ — Seamus Heaney words, interesting words,” she said. “I like to use simple words, but in a complicated way.”

Duffy was named Britain’s poet laureate in 2009; she’s the first female poet, the first Scot, and the first openly gay person to serve in that role. In the press conference following her appointment, she said: “Poetry matters to people in this country; poetry is a place we can go to for comfort, celebration, when we’re in love, when we’re bereaved, and sometimes for events that happen to us as a nation. Poetry comes from the imagination, from memories, from experience, from events both personal and public, so I will be following the truth of that and I will write whatever needs to be written.”

Her prize-winning poetry collections include Standing Female Nude (1985), Selling Manhattan (1987), Mean Time (1993), and Rapture (2005). She’s also a playwright, and her plays include Take My Husband (1982), Little Women, Big Boys (1986), and Casanova (2007).

It’s the birthday of American editor, literary critic, and poet Harriet Monroe (books by this author), born in Chicago (1860). In 1912, Monroe founded Poetry Magazine, which played an important role in the development of modern poetry. Monroe championed the early work of Wallace Stevens, H.D., Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot.

It’s the birthday of Norman Maclean (books by this author), born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902). He was a fisherman, firefighter, scholar, and teacher, but it is as the author of his autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It, that he is best known. Just as he described in his book, Maclean grew up at the junction of two great trout rivers in Missoula, Montana, in a family that didn’t draw a clear line between religion and fly-fishing. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and his rowdy younger brother, Paul, like the sibling in the book, was in fact murdered under mysterious circumstances. Maclean did not publish the story of his last summer with his brother until he was in his 70s, but after it appeared in 1976, it very quickly became a classic of American literature.

After A River Runs Through It, Maclean wrote about a Montana wildfire that had claimed the lives of 13 firemen and smokejumpers decades before. Part mystery, part investigation, and part autobiography, Young Men and Fire (1992) would be Maclean’s final book, posthumously published two years after his death in 1990.

A River Runs Through It begins: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®