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Slayton: Classic Christmas Poems

12/23/09 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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(HOST) Commentator Tom Slayton has been re-reading some of his favorite Christmas poetry. Here's a brief selection of excerpts...

(SLAYTON) Probably more bad poetry has been written about Christmas than about any other subject.  The holiday’s built-in load of sugarplums and sentiment unfortunately encourages too many would-be poets to share their latest, grandest sickly-sweet thoughts.

But there is plenty of good Christmas poetry also, poetry that looks at the darkness of the season as well as its light, poetry that probes the deep mystery that lives at the heart of Christmas.

The best of these poems don’t give us answers. They ask uncomfortable questions - or challenge our conventional Yuletide assumptions, or look closely at a holiday that purports to be Christian - but has a side that is deeply pagan.

Carl Sandburg’s poem "Star Silver" asks a profound question about the haunting story - the Nativity - that is at the heart of the Christian holiday. Sandburg asks:

"...The vagabond Mother of Christ
And the vagabond men of wisdom
All in a barn on a winter night...
Why does the story never wear out?"

Good question. It’s a story that has as much to do with the inner recesses of the human heart as with the actual facts of Jesus’ birth. But it’s a deep and compelling story nonetheless, and the Oxford Book of Christmas Poems - which I recommend - contains contains several versions, plus poems on other aspects of Christmas as well.

There’s the gritty realism of T.S. Eliot’s poem "The Magi," which makes us consider what the journey of the three kings might actually have been like in the cold of a desert winter. And Ted Hughes’ "Minstrel’s Song" that catches the awe - and perhaps the terror - of a lad who wakes up and sees the great Star of Bethlehem moving down the road toward him.

Thomas Hardy’s wonderful poem "The Oxen" considers the old English folk belief that the common animals of the farm would kneel in adoration on Christmas eve.

"So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years!" Hardy writes,
"... yet I feel if someone said, on Christmas Eve
Come, see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder comb,
Our childhood used to know
I should go with him in the gloom
Hoping it might be so."

Not all Christmas poems areas deep or questioning. Dylan Thomas’ wonderful long prose poem, "A Child’s Christmas in Wales," simply regales us with wit and humor and vivid anecdotes from Thomas’ youth. And there is the delightful music and imagery of Clement Clark Moore’s traditional verse "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

There are so many more poems, good poems that can renew the wonder of Christmas for us all. Let me leave you with this short but timely seasonal message, "Advice from Poor Robin’s Almanack":

"Now that the time has come wherein
Our Savior Christ was born,
The larder’s full of beef and pork,
The granary’s full of corn.
As God hath plenty to thee sent,
Take comfort of thy labors,
And let it never thee repent
To feed thy needy neighbors."
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