Saturday, December 12, 2009

Musing about The Holiday Poem Process

Well, the Christmas poem is complete. While it's something I enjoy and feel very good about doing (for myself and for the two or three of you, my six loyal fans, who engage the Holiday the way we do in my house), it's become (or I have made it) a bit more challenging in recent years.

First, there's the act of crafting. With all due respect to the 83 emails I've received since Thanksgiving containing 30-couplet rhymes restating "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day*" presented in curlicue reds and greens, they're really, really bad poems. Forgive me, Lord, for passing judgment during the season, but it's the truth. To receive decent marks as a poem, a work must have an awareness of its structure and deploy some element of craft. Rhyme is one, of course. But rhyme with haphazard meter, without awareness of other elements of sound, with no sense of pattern... is distracting and lazy. Or, more likely, it's an attempt at a poem by someone who's never read a poem. I don't enjoy this. I don't choose to create anything like it.

Next there's the selection of subject. While subject is (truly) infinite, it's hard to imagine connecting potholes, or the Yankees, or health care reform to the Christmas season (though some have tried on that last point, to poor effect). Frequent offenders are shopping, decorating, and travel; the Gospels make their appearance in there, of course. In my own Christmas poem history, I've taken as my source material shopping (badly), events/scenes at my church (mixed effect), my children (OK), and Bible verse (better). There's a balance between personal investment and objectivity that you need to find in a poem that tends toward the sentimental.

Then there's theme. I accept that poems in general need not have themes (and certainly not "messages"), but it seems to me that an occasional poem is the exception, that a poem attached to an event needs somehow to be part of the purpose or presentation of that event. The most frequent themes I've seen in the couplet parade are "slow down at Christmas" and paraphrasings of the Ghost of Christmas Present introducing the children beneath his robe**. It's easy, too, to turn to a child's experience of Christmas and apply it to the adult world. I've been writing these poems for a number of years. I want to find something fresh to say.

A branch of theme argument is tone - I do not choose to be a Scrooge, and it is my choice to stay close to the religious spirit of the holiday. This excludes some themes, I know, but it's consistent with my approach to the Holiday, and it's how I want to approach the work.

Finally, and this is a limitation I choose to impose, there's accessibility. This annual is a work I compose specifically to reach the broadest audience, which includes reaching friends who don't read poetry. These are folks I don't expect to take an interest in my work as a rule, who are on my email distribution list only because they want to encourage me, or are friends of my mother, or some such. I value the energy these people lend my artistic effort, and I want them to experience the Christmas poem in a way they might enjoy. Am I a sell-out? I dunno. But you wouldn't write a love poem to someone in a language they don't speak and still expect them to fall into your arms, would you?

In a nutshell, I'm trying to write something that maintains sufficient poetic craft to satisfy myself but offers enough dangling threads to engage a wide audience spanning secular and religious, artists and skeptics, young and old, deeply loved family and the friends-of-friends-of-friends.

It'll be here in a few days. Please drop by so you can tell me how I did. In the meantime, the American Academy of Poets can keep your sleigh's engine idling.

* - which, by the way, was a Longfellow poem before it was a carol. In case you were interested.
** - if you didn't get this reference, which many of the emailers wouldn't have either, go read "A Christmas Carol" - the original - immediately. Watching the Alistair Sim movie version will do in a pinch.

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