Happy new year! Well, I did get all my fifty-two poets read this year (fifty-three collections in fact, given that I read two by Saul Williams earlier on), but I am late posting my final thoughts. Never mind: the reading’s been the important bit!
In fact, I broke the rules again for this one. I’d already read all of U.A. Fanthorpe‘s fantastic Christmas Poems, but I wanted to read something that was seasonal, and I didn’t have any luck finding a collection by a single poet (rather than an anthology) that was Christmas-themed. This is a collection of all the poems Fanthorpe has written to send out with Christmas cards over the years, and it inspired me to do the same, on first reading it five years ago – I’ve managed to write four Christmas-card greetings since then.
It’s a totally brilliant collection: Fanthorpe writes with such startling originality about what could be a very tired cast of angels, wise men, Mary and Joseph, Jesus. But they’re all fresh and new, often hilarious and frequently wrenchingly poignant. And most impressively of all, she manages to convey a profound message in a very direct and simple way: these aren’t silly, throwaway fripperies, but they are resolutely readable. In her introduction, Fanthorpe says
The disadvantage of Christmas is that the captive audience includes the widest possible age-range, from toddlers who are just learning to read to great-grandparents who are likely to ring up and ask precisely what line three means. The words should be accessible to all ages, because that’s what we feel is needed for a universal message. But it’s unnervingly easy to be too simple and sentimental, or too hard and intellectual.
Knowing the truth of this last line from my own experience, I am all the more admiring of this collection: I would love to be able to write with a simplicity that’s infused with such deep meaning. The smallness and the unexpected nature of the Christmas message of the incarnation comes across so powerfully in every piece.
It’s ridiculously hard to choose favourites from this, just as it’s hard not to read them out loud to whoever’s sitting next to you on the sofa when you’re reading them (being on holiday, I didn’t read this on the tube to work). I won’t list them, as it would probably be three-quarters of the contents. And I can’t definitively say this is my favourite one of all, but it’s definitely in the top ten – ‘I am Joseph’:
I am Joseph, carpenter,
Of David’s kingly line,
I wanted an heir; discovered
My wife’s son wasn’t mine.
I am an obstinate lover,
Loved Mary for better or worse.
Wouldn’t stop loving when I found
Someone Else came first.
Mine was the likeness I hoped for
When the first-born man-child came.
But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t
Even choose his name.
I am Joseph, who wanted
To teach my own boy how to live.
My lesson to my foster son:
Endure. Love. Give.