06 January 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/2

One of the ways I delight people during the holidays is by explaining why Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a horrible song. Another is by explaining that the twelve days of Christmas do not start on the 12th or the 13th of December, but actually start the day after Christmas and end on 6 January, also called Little Christmas, Epiphany, The Feast of the Three Kings (or the Three Wise Men), and . . . Twelfth Night. So, since today is 6 January, here is a poem for Twelfth Night, and the end of the holiday season, by American poet Phyllis McGinley.

Twelfth Night

Down from the window take the withered holly.
Feed the torn tissue to the literal blaze.
Now, now at last are come the melancholy
Anticlimactic days.

Here in the light of morning, hard, unvarnished,
Let us with haste dismantle the tired tree
Of ornaments, a trifle chipped and tarnished,
Pretend we do not see

How all the rooms seem shabbier and meaner
And the tired house a little less than snug.
Fold up the tinsel. Run the vacuum cleaner
Over the littered rug.

Nothing is left. The postman passes by, now,
Bearing no gifts, no kind or seasonal word.
The icebox yields no wing, no nibbled thigh, now,
From any holiday bird.

Sharp in the streets the north wind plagues its betters
While Christmas snow to gutters is consigned.
Nothing remains except the thank-you letters,
Most tedious to the mind,

And the gilt gadget (duplicated) which is
Marked for exchange at Abercrombie-Fitch's.

Phyllis McGinley

I should probably point out that before it became known for marketing heavily branded clothing to teenagers by using homoerotic prep school fantasies, Abercrombie Fitch was known as an elite purveyor of outdoor and sporting equipment to would-be Teddy Roosevelts in the northeastern part of the United States. That information is going to tell you a lot about the place, time, and social level of the speaker (the use earlier of the word "icebox" for what we now usually call a "refrigerator" is also going to tell you that this is a mid-twentieth century poem – the copyright date is 1940, if you want to be exact – but it doesn't say as much about the place and social level; the use of tinsel on the tree is also going to indicate that this poem was written decades ago).

I love that she simply refers to the duplicated item as a gilt "gadget" – no specifics about what exactly it is or what it's used for; it's just a gadget. And it's gilt, which makes it fancy. And she, or maybe her husband, received two of them, so it's the kind of useless but "nice" item from a high-quality store that you'd give as a gift when you had an obligation to give but no real idea of what to give. The joy of receiving has turned into just another errand to run.

This is a woman who runs a lot of errands. The speaker's perspective is that of a home-maker; she is observant of the wear-and-tear on the Christmas ornaments, of how shabby the rooms look when stripped of their holiday finery, of the need to run the vacuum cleaner over the rug, of what leftovers remain to be disposed of. She is one of the women who keeps the social life of her family running (the thank-you letters: it is unclear whether she needs to write them, or whether she is receiving them, or both, but they are the obligatory social end of the gift exchanges). As such she has a realistic sense of what everyday life is like; another type of poet (another type of person) might have wanted to leave the decorations up, stretch the snug seasonal joys out as long as she could, maybe even into spring; but the speaker here looks at things in the "hard, unvarnished" morning light and sees that holiday time is over: the holly is withered, the tissue is torn, the tree is tired. In fact once the holidays are over she seems eager to move on; "the light of morning" implies that she is getting a fresh start, almost as if the holidays were a bender; she wants to take the tree down "with haste"; and I take "feed the torn tissue to the literal blaze" to mean that she had metaphorically already told the tissue/wrapping paper to go to blazes.

Yet she also misses Christmas once it's passed; the house emptied of decoration is described as "tired," just as the tree is, and the emptied rooms seem "shabbier and meaner" and "a little less than snug"; something "we" (presumably the speaker and her family, or maybe just her spouse) go back to pretending they do not see: how much can you realistically do about life's shabbiness, except enjoy the occasional holiday, however shabby it in turn becomes? The spirit of the holidays is recognized as something special, not part of everyday life; it's not only that the postman bears no gifts, he also has no "kind or seasonal word." The harsh winter weather certainly continues, as the north winds  keep blowing, and the little treats in the icebox are gone. The mood is wistful, but of resigned, slightly regretful, acceptance. The days are melancholy, and mostly a lot of work followed by the let-down feeling of the anticlimactic, but that's how life usually is. This seems like a very adult poem to me, perhaps because of my usual wish to keep the ornaments up as long as possible. The regular rhymes and rhythm help give us the sense of an order and structure proper to the speaker's way of seeing the world, though the cleverness of such rhymes as holly/melancholy and which is/Abercrombie-Fitch's adds some sparkle to the routine.

I took this from Christmas Poems, edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy, though I have corrected a typo in the fourth line (my copy has "anticlimatic" instead of anticlimactic). I will now put that volume away, with the tree and the stockings and the nativity scene, until . . . well, it'll be sooner than we think, won't it?


Civic Center said...

I hate Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for completely irrational reasons. What are yours?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Mine are completely rational. Click the link and all shall be explained.