Stocking Stuffers

Advice and insight from a professional poet.

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I wanted to read a poem to my gathered family before our Christmas meal. Could you recommend several? What would your top five Christmas poems be?
— Already-Frazzled-Preparer-of-a-Christmas-Feast

I guess it would be totally lame to cite my favorite Christmas poem (“A Visit From St. Nicholas”—“’Twas the night before Christmas”), but that’s a really good one, very entertaining if you will have little ones at your table. My other top poems are below:

Emily Dickinson writes a good one (of course, right?):

Before the ice is in the pools —
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow —

Before the fields have finished —
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder —
Will arrive to me!

The poem goes on in two more quatrains, but it gets a little inaccessible, so I would stop there. “Christmas 1963” by Joseph Enzweiler is also one of my favorites. It will remind your family to be grateful for all they have:

Because we wanted much that year
and had little. Because the winter phone
for days stayed silent that would call
our father back to work, and he
kept silent too with our mother,
fearfully proud before us.

Because I was young that morning
in gray light untouched on the rug
and our gifts were so few, propped
along the furniture, for a second
my heart fell, then saw how large
they made the spaces between them

to take the place of less. Because
the curtained sun rose brightly
on our discarded paper and the things
themselves, these forty years,
have grown too small to see, the emptiness
measured out remains the gift,

fills the whole room now, that whole year
out across the snowy lawn. Because
a drop of shame burned quietly
in the province of love. Because
|we had little that year
and were given much.

“Messiah” by Mark Doty is also one of my favorites, and you needn’t have ever seen a performance of Handel’s Messiah to appreciate it. It’s long, linearly speaking, so I’ve only written out the latter part, but it’s a wonderful poem in its entirety:

   Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,

   might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
quickened, now,

by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.

And why not read the first stanza from “Christ’s Nativity” by Henry Vaughn? It’s sonically rich and captures what Christmas is all about. What I would do is place a poem at each person’s plate at the dinner table, and before dinner have each person read their poem (or stick in a prayer if you’re religiously persuaded) aloud. I stole that idea from my family tradition, but I don’t think it’s a secret, and I think that’s a great way to celebrate Christmas, or any holiday. Just adjust your poems accordingly.

 

What is a good way to meet get a date in a non-traditional way?
— CTP McPherson, Dalton, Georgia

I’m not quite sure what you mean by non-traditional way, CTP McPherson, but I’ll give you a few options, all of which are pretty basic and can be spruced up to add various degrees of humor/romance/morbidity etc.

1. Write a poem for a singles ad and ask for responses also in verse.

2. Join a volunteer organization where you would spend a lot of time in an impoverished country. A lot of people meet and fall in love in Peace Corps service, for example, because they work so closely together, overcoming challenges and bonding in a special way.

3. Camp out in front of your local convenience store and write poems to attractive people and see who positively responds. Poet Scott Poole met his wife by writing her a poem because she was pretty, and I bet you could do the same thing.

But in my understanding, I think a good way to meet someone in a non-traditional way is to meet someone outside a traditional matchmaking setting, meaning not in a bar, on Match.com, or at a singles club. I think the best place to meet someone non-traditionally would be in a place of flux, like in an airport or on a crowded street, somewhere where people are going to there, from there, where only the awesome randomness of life is the force that brings together two human beings.

 

Here’s my question: how does a poet come to terms with turning 29 — the last year of her 20s?! This poet wants to know.
— Mary K., Cambridge, Massachusetts

Oh my, turning 29 is hard, and especially if your age isn’t accompanied by the expected essentials of adulthood: a career that offers medical or dental insurance, a retirement plan, a car, a mortgage. You start thinking about your younger cousin and her three kids and wondering what you’re doing with your life. But Mary K., the great thing about turning 29 means that you, as a poet, have written more poems. You have used your talent to try to make sense of this world, or make someone laugh, or move someone in some way, in more cases on your 29th birthday than on your 28th birthday, and I can’t think of a better reason than that to celebrate.

Let’s be conservative and say you write 10 poems a year. So that’s 10 multiplied by 29 which is 290, minus the age you were when you started writing poems multiplied by the 10 poems you didn’t write, and maybe you started when you were 20, so that’s 200. That’s 290 – 200. That’s 90 poems! And you’ve probably written more than that, which means you have nearly 100 poems. Or maybe you’ve written less than that, but that still means that you have nearly 50 poems, which is just amazing.

And that’s just the beginning. As you age, you become more prolific, more focused, more intent on getting your voice out there because your so much closer to death — and that terrifies you, really — it’s really quite terrifying when you think about it. So you write more poems. By the time you’re 35, you’re writing 50 poems a year and that number will keep increasing exponentially with your age, as will the quality of your poems. Then you’ll retire and have more time to write more poems, as Bill Knott recently did. Here’s one that you in particular may find apropos:

Extinguishable

birthdays you bend and blow
out a candle in a skull

it’s always just one candle
but each year one more

skull is added to the table
which by now is plus full

and that makes this ritual
more impossible each year

each year as you approach
that crowd of past selves

somewhere down there
in all those bone sockets

the annual candle waiting
glares and dares you to find it

Woah! I’m glad Bill Knott is still writing. So, I hope that having more poems with help you come to terms with being 29. And Mary K., live in the moment — you’re not finished with your 20s yet. • 18 December 2008

 

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.

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