Dec. 26, 2005

A Christmas Poem

by Robert Bly

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Poem: "A Christmas Poem" by Robert Bly from Morning Poems. © Harper Collins. 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 angels were certain. But we could not
Be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and scholar Thomas Gray, born in London (1716). He wrote most of his early poems in Latin, and he's remembered for one of the few poems he wrote in English called "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751), which is considered one of the greatest poems of the English language.

"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" begins,
"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
     The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
   The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
     And leaves the world to darkness and to me."

It's the birthday of columnist Doris Lilly, born in South Pasadena, California (1926). She wrote society columns for the New York Post and the New York Daily Mirror, writing mostly about celebrities. She wrote the book was How to Marry a Millionaire (1951).

Lilly is believed to be the one of the women who served as inspiration for Holly Golighty, the character in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.

It's the birthday of author Henry Miller, born in New York City (1891). He wanted to be a writer from a very young age, but didn't commit himself to writing as a career until he was 32 years old. He married a taxi-dancer named June Mansfield Smith who read Dostoyevsky and Proust, and who encouraged Miller to quit his job and devote himself to writing. He wrote dozens of stories and articles, but when none was accepted for publication he took to printing them himself and selling them door to door and in restaurants and night clubs.

He ended up in Paris in the 1930s. He moved from hotel to hotel, stayed with friends, and begged on the street to get money for food. At one point he was eating oatmeal three times a day so he could survive on as little money as possible. In 1931, he wrote in a letter, "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive." Finally, a friend took him in and allowed him to write in his apartment all day in return for cooking dinner and keeping the fire stoked.

Miller was forty years old when he began writing Tropic of Cancer, which was basically a fictional memoir of his own life at the time. He filled the book with scenes of poverty, sex and squalor. Tropic of Cancer was published in Paris in 1934 and it was praised by important literary figures like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But it was banned in the United States along with Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring. Grove Press finally published Tropic of Cancer in the U.S. in 1961, but the book was charged with obscenity and it went through more than sixty court cases. In 1964 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the book's publication. The case effectively ended censorship on the basis of obscenity in the U.S.

It is the birthday of humorist David Sedaris, born near Binghamton, New York (1956). He is best known for his collections of personal essays Naked (1997) and Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000). Sedaris is one of six children and he spent most of his childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. His father, Lou, worked for IBM and his mother, Sharon, was a homemaker. Sedaris had Tourette's syndrome as a child but it was never formally diagnosed.

Sedaris worked many odd jobs, including a dishwasher, an apple-picker, and a writing instructor. While living in Chicago he made a living by painting apartments and squirrel-proofing houses. The job he liked most was being a housekeeper because it allowed him to keep up with his favorite soap operas.

For most of his life Sedaris had kept a diary in which he documented at least one incident from every day of his life. When he moved to Chicago to attend the Art Institute, he began reading from his diary in front of audiences. His readings became so popular that he caught the attention of National Public Radio, and in 1991 he gave his first reading on the air, "The Santaland Diaries," a true story about his job as an elf at a Macy's department store one Christmas season.

Sedaris soon signed a contract with a major publisher and his collections of essays Barrel Fever (1994) and Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) became best-sellers. But even after he had become a successful writer Sedaris kept his job cleaning apartments for a long time. He said, "I can only write when it's dark, so basically, my whole day is spent waiting for it to get dark. Cleaning apartments gives me something to do when I get up. Otherwise, I'd feel like a bum."

His most recent book is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004).

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




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