Dec. 20, 2006

Advent 1955

by John Betjeman

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Advent 1955" by John Betjeman, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Advent 1955

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver-pale.
The world seems traveling into space,
And traveling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound —
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out 'Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.'
    And how, in fact, do we prepare
For the great day that waits us there —
The twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards. And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know —
They'd sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much.
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.
We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell'd go extremely well.
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defense is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax.
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
"The time draws near the birth of Christ',
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago.
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Hortense Calisher, (books by this author) born in Manhattan (1911). Though she has written several novels, she's best known for the many short stories she published in The New Yorker magazine, most of which are compiled in The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (1975).

Her father was a wealthy manufacturer of fine soaps and perfumes who didn't get married and have children until he was in his fifties. Calisher said, "[My father] made it plain ... that we children, as latecomers and intensely craved ones, [were] glamorously special." She had a luxurious childhood, surrounded by a huge extended family as well as art and books and music.

Many of her most anthologized stories are based on her childhood. She once said, "A happy childhood can't be cured. Mine'll hang around my neck like a rainbow, that's all, instead of a noose."

Her most recent book is Tattoo for a Slave, which came out in 2004.

It's the birthday of the poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros, (books by this author) born in Chicago in 1954. When she was growing up, her Mexican-born father would often have bouts of nostalgia for the home country, and he would force the whole family to go back there for a few months.

She went on to college, and she later said she was lucky to be a girl, because her father didn't care what she studied. He just expected her to meet her husband. So she was free to study an impractical subject like English. She kept writing, and one of her professors encouraged her to apply to the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

But once Cisneros got there, she felt totally out of place. She said, "My classmates were from the best schools in the country. They had been bred as fine hothouse flowers. I was a yellow weed among the city's cracks." One day, her class was given an exercise to think about the houses they'd grown up in. Cisneros's family had only owned one house, an ugly red bungalow. Listening to her classmates describe their childhood homes, she realized that she had grown up in a completely different world. She said, " It was not until this moment when I separated myself, when I considered myself truly distinct, that my writing acquired a voice. ... That's when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn't write about."

Cisneros immediately began writing short pieces in the voice of a girl named Esperanza Cordero growing up in the barrio, who wants more than anything to live in a real house. And that became Cisneros's first novel, The House on Mango Street, which didn't receive much attention when it came out in 1983. But when it was republished in 1991, it made Sandra Cisneros one of the most popular Latina authors in America. Her most recent novel, Carmelo, came out in 2003.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show