Poems for Dark December

This Advent season, my husband and I are reading through poet-priest Malcolm Guite‘s book Waiting on the Word, which offers a poem a day from classic or contemporary poets accompanied by Guite’s reflections.

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We started yesterday for December 1 and it is exactly what we need right now. I don’t really know how to explain it other than I think art/poetry offers a balm for our aching hearts.

The Glance by George Herbert

When first thy sweet and gracious eye
Vouchsaf’d ev’n in the midst of youth and night
To look upon me, who before did lie
Weltring in sinne;
I felt a sugred strange delight,
Passing all cordials made by any art,
Bedew, embalme, and overrunne my heart
And take it in.

Since that time many a bitter storm
My soul hath felt, ev’n able to destroy,
Had the malicious and ill-meaning harm
His swing and sway:
But still thy sweet originall joy
Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul,
And surging griefs, when they grew bold, controll
And got the day.

If thy first glance so powerfull be,
A mirth but open’d and seal’d up again;
What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see
Thy full-ey’d love!
When thou shalt look us out of pain,
And one aspect of thine spend in delight
More then a thousand sunnes disburse in light
In heavn’ above.

Guite opens his reflections on this poem for December 1 with the question:

“What might this moving and mysterious little poem have to offer us as we come to dark December and begin our Advent journey together?”

That phrase “as we come to dark December” has stuck with me. Indeed, it feels dark and heavy. For those of us in Vancouver, we haven’t seen the sun for two months. I normally don’t mind the rain but it has definitely affected me this time. And recent world events add a lot of darkness to our lives, leaving us uncertain, afraid, and confused about the future.

I don’t know if this is why I’m feeling less ready and excited for the Christmas season than usual, but I do find myself struggling to embrace it. Reading that someone else called this month “dark December” made me realize that I am not alone in feeling this way. And so I have offered up a found poem in response to George Herbert’s, that is true of how I am feeling and may be true for you too.

Poem for Dark December by Charlene Kwiatkowski

We are tired
The days are dark and long
The sky is a faucet that refuses to shut off
There is no twinkling of stars

Many a bitter storm our souls have felt
but we are in the season where the soul felt its worth
—because he appeared.
His sweet and gracious eye looked upon us
from the wood of a manger to the wood of a cross

Our hearts overrun with surging griefs
A thrill of hope seems farther away
We are waiting on many things
We are a weary world

Open the mirth that has been long sealed
Look us out of pain
We are desperate for your full-eyed love
Desperate to delight again.

The Poet’s Eye

If there is one Shakespeare play in my opinion that’s overdone and maybe I’ll be so bold as to say overrated, it would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since the word “summer” is found in its title, I suppose that gives theatre companies the justification they need to perform this play ad nauseam during their summer programming. I think I’ve seen at least three versions of this play—including one opera (never again)—and that’s enough for me. If I make it to Bard on the Beach this summer, fortunately there are other options available like Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because it’s not really comedy and not really tragedy. Not so black and white. Critics don’t know what to do with a grey play.

A Midsummer Night's DreamNevertheless, I recently listened to a lecture on a passage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite who teaches at the University of Cambridge in England. We analyzed some lines from the play where Shakespeare defines the poet’s art through the mouth of Theseus who thinks he is dismissing “these antique fables” and “fairy toys”, but in protesting so strongly against poetry, actually gives a pretty convincing defense of the art. As Dr. Guite said, “He’s sawing off the very branch he’s sitting on.” Have a look:

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman: the lover, all is frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,

That if it would apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

The poet glances from heaven to earth and earth to heaven—both axes are included, so it’s not an either/or but a both/and. The poet observes and writes everything from the mundane to the sublime, and his power lies in connecting these two axes: the earthly to the heavenly, the ordinary to the extraordinary, the prosaic to the divine, the known to the unknown, the visible to the invisible. The poet finds a form—through “the pen”—to make what is unknown known. He gives the unknown “a local habitation and a name.” (note that Shakespeare doesn’t say what is non-existent but what is unknown, meaning that just because we don’t know or understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist).

Anyway, Dr. Guite made an interesting point that all art/all imagination is essentially concerned with this task: of connecting earth to heaven and heaven to earth (or whatever adjectives that can be substituted to represent these dichotomies), and art fails when it fails to connect these two axes (and yes, art can fail—think of kitschy art or a bad story you’ve read or a terrible song on the radio.)

This lecture made me rethink why I really like certain art. I don’t want to go crazy analyzing why I resonate with certain stories or paintings or whatever it may be more than others, but it’s an interesting thought to consider: Is it because this story/painting/poem/song somehow connected these two axes for me? Did it make the unknown or the inexpressible, or what I felt but didn’t know somebody else felt, or what I wanted to say but didn’t have words for, known?

Two examples for me:

The music of Matthew Perryman Jones that I’ve written about before.

Victory Lap” by George Saunders. This was a surprising one. It’s the first short story in his book Tenth of December. The cover art is a stark contrast between black and white, but his stories inhabit that beautiful, fragile grey line between them.

I was blown away after reading “Victory Lap.” It’s exquisite, especially the ending. They both needed to save each other.