Dec. 23, 2004

A Christmas Poem

by Robert Bly

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Poem: : "A Christmas Poem" by Robert Bly, from Morning Poems © Harper Perennial. Reprinted with permission.

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 angles were certain. But we could not
Be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of author Norman Maclean, born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902) and raised in Missoula, Montana. His famous autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It (1976), begins, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."

The final line reads, "I am haunted by waters."

It was on this day in 1823 that we were given "A Visit From St. Nicholas." The poem, often referred to by its first line, "'Twas the night before Christmas," has been a subject of controversy over the past few years, as questions have been raised about its true author. The poem was first published anonymously in upstate New York, in the Troy Sentinel, and remained without attribution for thirteen years. Finally it was credited to Clement Clarke Moore, a New York City professor. The poem appeared in an anthology of Moore's work, and later in his life, he was known to write out copies in long hand when asked to do so.

Moore as the author wasn't questioned until the year 2000, when a scholar from Vassar named Don Foster published a defense of a different author—a different New Yorker, of Dutch descent, named Henry Livingston, Jr. Foster's was a convincing argument. One of its main points was about two of Santa's reindeer, which, when the poem was first published, were named Dunder and Blixem—the Dutch words for "thunder" and "lightning."

It was in "A Visit From St. Nicholas" that we first met all of Santa's reindeer. It was also the first time we heard Santa described as fat and jolly. Before 1823, he was described as much thinner, and as a disciplinarian of children.

It's the birthday of two great poets and champions of poetry, Harriet Monroe, born in Chicago (1860), and Robert Bly, born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). Both were responsible for magazines that introduced American readers to great poets—Monroe's Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (first published in 1912) and Bly's The Fifties (first published in 1958, later called The Sixties, and then The Seventies).

Harriet Monroe's Poetry, which she produced with foreign editor Ezra Pound, was responsible for the little-magazine movement in America. She paid and encouraged poets, including modern, new verse poets. She is the reason we know such writers as Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Sherwood Anderson, Rupert Brooke, Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, and William Carlos Williams. It was Monroe who first published T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Monroe said: "The people must grant a hearing to the best poets they have, else they will never have better."

Robert Bly is probably best known for his non-fiction best-seller Iron John: A Book About Men (1990). He was inspired to start The Fifties around 1956, while he was in Norway on a Fulbright Fellowship. His job was to translate old and new Norwegian poetry into English, and in an Oslo library he discovered "powerful" poetry by writers from Peru, Germany, Sweden, and Italy. He argued that the new critics in America were blind to material outside the English language. So back in Minnesota, to cause trouble, he started The Fifties with his friend Bill Duffy, a teacher.

The first issue was published in 1958 in Pine Island, Minnesota. They paid $1 for each magazine printed, and charged 50 cents. On the back cover, Bly and Duffy listed the foreign poets they intended to translate, and the inside of the front cover read, "The editors of this magazine think that most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned." They paid $25 to place an ad for submissions in Poetry magazine, and infuriated people who submitted old-fashioned poems with rejection letters that said things like: "This [card] entitles you to buy the new book of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as soon as it is published" and "Your poems are like ice cream that has melted when the refrigerator got turned off" and "These poems remind me of false teeth."

In The Fifties, Bly and Duffy published poems by Gary Snyder and David Ignatow, Paul Celan and Juan Ramón Jim&ecacute;nez. They started a small press, publishing their own poems and the poems of writers they admired. They translated Georg Trakl and were interested in translating Boris Pasternak, Russian author of the great novel Doctor Zhivago (first translated to English in 1958), but received a letter from Pasternak thanking them for their interest, but warning them that his work was too out-of-date.

When they were ready to publish a volume of Pablo Neruda's poems, they wrote him, offering $150 for permission. Neruda responded: "I know your Press very well. You were the first ones who printed my brother, Cesar Vallejo. Certainly you may publish my poems. I only have one request: that you send the $150 directly to a bookseller [he mentioned] in Barcelona. I owe him a lot of money. Yours, Pablo Neruda."

Bly is the author of more than 30 books of his own poetry, including Silence In The Snowy Fields (1962) and The Light Around The Body (1967), which won the National Book Award for poetry in 1968. He has translated poems by German, Scandinavian, Spanish and Latin-American writers, and by the 15th century Indian mystic, Kabir.

Robert Bly, who said, "I know a lot of men who are healthier at age fifty than they have ever been before, because a lot of their fear is gone.

And he said, "By the time a man is 35 he knows that the images of the right man, the tough man, the true man which he received in high school do not work in life."

It's the birthday of novelist Donna Tartt, born in Greenwood, Mississippi (1963). Tartt's first novel, The Secret History (1992), was begun while she was a student at Bennington College and published when she was 28. The book earned her near-instant celebrity, so Tartt received a lot of press about the ten-year delay in the release of her second novel, The Little Friend (2002). He response: "I can't write quickly. Working on something over a long period gives a sense of richness that you can't fake."

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




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