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The Twelve Poems of Christmas Volume 4 by Carol Ann Duffy (editor) (Candlestick Press, 2012)

December's Book Club saw us celebrate and reflect on Christmas and New Year with The Twelve Poems of Christmas Volume 4, edited by Carol Ann Duffy and published by Candlestick Press.

Jenny Swann, Editor at Candlestick Press, kindly provided us with an introduction on the thinking behind their Christmas poetry pamphlets series:

"It was a chance meeting between Carol Ann Duffy and myself in 2009, the day after she had been to Buckingham Palace to be officially appointed as Poet Laureate, that led to the creation of our first Christmas poetry pamphlet, The Twelve Poems of Christmas, in 2009.  She asked whether Candlestick Press (which had then been running for a year) would like her to pick some Christmas poems for us, to which the answer was a simple and resounding "Yes please!" So she chose twelve poems, and read some of them out on Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4, and the series was launched.  In truth, that first pamphlet was not initially intended as the first of many but after its huge success, Carol Ann agreed that it would be a great idea to bring one out each year of her ten-year laureateship.  So this year's pamphlet is the fourth in that series, and the poems, as always, are a real mixture and all of them very powerful, brilliant works.  This year, Carol Ann has written a new poem herself for the pamphlet and there is another poem that has never before been published - by Caroline Cook, who is virtually unpublished.  

More generally, we hope that this little series of Christmas poems will introduce readers to poets and/or poems they might not have come across before and, with luck, whet their appetite.  The choices are all Carol Ann's, not Candlestick Press', though we send her any 'candidates' that we think she should look at.  She is a brilliant anthologist, making sure that the moods change and the poems are widely different in their appeal.  Once she has sent us the poems, we put them into a running order ourselves.
I suppose the big dream behind this little series is that people will start a new tradition for Christmas, of sharing poems around, reading them to each other as surely as they tuck into their mince pies.  As we see it, no stocking is complete without our Christmas poetry pamphlet poking out of the top!  In fact, this seems to be quietly happening of its own accord - we now have quite a band of loyal followers who buy the Christmas pamphlets every year (we have totally sold out of the first volume and have almost none of the second one left).  People tell us that they get them out with the Christmas decorations each year, which makes us indescribably happy!"

We began the book club by listening to Esther Morgan reading "Among Women" track 35 on her Poetry Archive CD (reference and loan copies are held at the Poetry Library), a poem about the Annunciation, but in Morgan's version, when the angel visits Mary is not at home...

We then looked closesly at the following 4 poems:

1. Various Portents by Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald was born in 1966 and studied Classics at Oxford. On the back cover of her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, she says that reading Homer made her want to become a gardener. After training as one, she worked at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and now lives in Devon. She has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize four times, winning in 2002 for Dart. She has also won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial  Prize, a Hawthornden Fellowship, A Cholmondeley Award and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.

This poem is from her collection Woods, etc published in 2005.

1. Could this poem have been called "Various Omens"?
2. Do you like the repetition of the word "various" throughout the poem?  (The word "many" is used a lot too.)  What effect does this create in the poem?  Do you get overwhelmed by it all?
3. Does the mix of archaic and modern language work?
4. Is this poem just about the three king's following a star?  Would it even be possible for them to follow a star in the world described in this poem?
5. The last stanza of the poem seems more personal, I think the 2 or 3 children could be the poet's own children.  Do you find this last stanza, particularly the last line, positive or negative?

2. Snow by Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice was an Irish poet and playwright, born in 1907. Despite his association with young politically engaged British writers like Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, and  Christopher Isherwood, MacNeice appears to have been mistrustful of political programs and philosophical systems. He was quite candid about the ambiguities of his political attitudes. "My sympathies are Left," he wrote. "But not in my heart or my guts."

He lived the majority of his adult life in London but frequently returned to the landscapes of his childhood, and took great pride in his Irish heritage. He died of pneumonia on September 3, 1963, just before the publication of his last book of poems, The Burning Perch. He was 55 years old.

1. What is the effect in the poem of using "world" without a preceding article i.e. "the world", "a world"?
2. Is there more than glass between the snow and the huge roses?
3. Michael Longley in his introduction to a MacNeice selection states that the poet "saw poetry as an antidote to slogans and fixed ideas".  Can we agree or disagree on the strength of "Snow"?
4.  "Soundlessly collateral and incompatible"; some readers have found a violence in the poem, and political references (Britain's role in Ireland, the political situation in Europe in the mid 1930s). Is it possible to read too much into a poem?
Visit the Poetry Library's Magazines site to read an article by Olivia Cole published in Magma 23 Summer 2002 where she discusses the different interpretations of this poem:

3. New Year Behind the Asylum by David Constantine

David Constantine was born in 1944 in Salford, Lancashire. He lectured in German at Durham and Oxford from 1969 to 2000, and until this year was co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation.  His writing includes works of criticism,  translation, short fiction, a novel and several collections of poetry.

1. "the clocks in the square where the normal people stood?" Who are the "normal" people in this poem?
2. In the poem the asylum inmates are "like the animals, so glad and shy like overgrown children..."  How does this description work for you?
3. Would this poem work as a prose poem i.e. without stanzas, as one block of text?

4. The Misletoe Bride by Carol Ann Duffy

The last poem we're going to look closely at is Carol Ann Duffy's contribution to the collection.
Carol Ann Duffy probably needs no introduction.  She is a Scottish poet, playwright and freelance writer and was born in Glasgow in 1955. She is the Professor of Contemporary Poetry at the Manchester Metropolitan University and was appointed Britain's Poet Laureate in 2009. She has published numerous poetry collections, anthologies, plays and books for children, and has won the T.S. Eliot Prize for her collection Rapture in 2005, and was shortlisted last year for her collection The Bees.

This is a brand new poem, specially written for the collection.

1. Has anyone heard this story before, or something similar?
2. With quite spare language Carol Ann Duffy is able to say a lot in this poem.  Do you get an impression of the new bride just from the words "bored / with dancing, skipped from the castle hall"?
3. What do you think was going through the groom's mind when he couldn't find his new bride?
4. Do you like the poems final image?  (The green mistletoe in the white bones of the bride's hand.) Did it take you by surprise?
5. Is this a horror story?  Is a Christmas pamphlet the place for a gothic tragedy?

General concluding questions:
1. The way this year's pamphlet is structured, there is an informal chronology, i.e. from the Annunciation through to the New Year.  Do you think anything is gained by that?
2. Is there a poem from the pamphlet we've not looked at that you'd like to recommend to the rest of the group?
3. Does anyone have a favourite Christmas or winter poem they'd like to recommend to the group?

We were planning to end the book club by playing a sung version of "Ring Out, Wild Bells" by Tennyson but unfortunately our computer crashed but here is the recording:
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria's reign and remains one of the most popular British poets.  "Ring Out, Wild Bells" was published in 1850, the year he was appointed Poet Laureate, it forms part of In Memoriam, Tennyson's elegy to Arthur Henry Hallam, his sister's fiancé who died at the age of twenty-two.  This poem is recited annually at the national New Year's Eve celebration in Sweden by actor and singer Jan Malmsjö, who has recited the poem since 31 December 2001.

Other books about Christmas in the Poetry Library collection:

1.  The big book of Christmas : poems, plays, carols and things to make and do -- London : Macmillan Children's Books, 2005. (Book) Child anthology

2.  The Bloomsbury book of Christmas poems -- London: Bloomsbury Plc. : Bloomsbury, 1998. (Book) Child anthology

3.  Christmas carols : complete verses -- New York: Dover : Dover Publications, 1992. (Book) Child anthology

4.  Christmas Day / DURCAN, PAUL. / British Broadcasting Corporation. -- London : Harvill Press, 1997. (Cassette) Adult collection

5.  Christmas in Wales / Roberts, Dewi (introduction). -- Bridgend : Seren Books, 1998. (Book) Adult anthology

6.  Christmas is coming: favourite Christmas rhymes to read and sing again and again -- London : Scholastic Children's Books, 2001. (Book) Child anthology

7.  Christmas please! one hundred poems for the festive season -- London: Phoenix : Phoenix, 2000. (Book) Adult anthology

8.  Christmas steps : new rhymes for the season / O'LEARY, MARY ANN. -- Kibworth : Matador, 2012. (Book) Child collection

9.  The Christmas truce / DUFFY, CAROL ANN. -- London : Picador, 2011. (Book) Adult collection

10.  The cultivation of Christmas trees / ELIOT, T. S. -- London : Faber and Faber, 1954. (Pamphlet) Adult collection

11.  The Faber book of Christmas -- London : Faber and Faber, 1996. (Book) Adult anthology

12.  Fatso in the red suit / SWEENEY, MATTHEW. -- London : Faber and Faber, 1995. (Book) Child collection

13.  Festo : in festo nativitatis / MARRIAGE, ALWYN. -- South Pool, Nr Kingsbridge : Oversteps Books, 2012. (Book) Adult collection

14.  The gift of a lamb : a shepherds' tale of the first Christmas told as a verse -play / CAUSLEY, CHARLES. -- London Robson, 1978. (Book) Adult collection

15.  Helping with enquiries : poems for Christmas and beyond / BARTHOLOMEW-BIGGS, MICHAEL. -- London : Crossgrain, 2005. (Book) Adult collection

16.  The jolly Christmas postman / AHLBERG, JANET ; AHLBERG, ALLAN. -- London : William Heinemann, 1991. (Book) Child collection

17.  Mrs Scrooge / DUFFY, CAROL ANN. -- London : Picador, 2009. (Book) Adult collection

18.  The Oxford Treasury of Christmas Poems -- Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999. (Book) Child anthology

19.  Poems for christmas [compact disc] / Live Canon [readers]. / Live Canon. -- [S.l. : s.n., n.d.]. (Compact disc) Adult anthology

20.  The Usborne book of Christmas poems / Taplin, Sam (introduction). -- London : Usborne Publishing, 2009. (Book) Child anthology



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