After George

383px-George_HerbertSo. Reading some poets is a dangerous business as they can drag your style to something closer to theirs. This week I was reading a review of a biography of George Herbert, not even a book of his poems, just a review. There was one poem quoted, but it was enough to ensnare me.

The first couplet erupted almost immediately, and the second – which rounds off the thought – came in the shower soon after (the shower can be a very good place for poetry, there’s something about concentrating on the physical sensations that lets the mind go a-wandering).

The central conceit – and George Herbert was one for conceits – is that our knowledge is like a bubble. As we learn something the bubble gets bigger, but at the same time, the boundry to the fluid of the non-known also gets bigger. That’s enough chat: here’s the Herbertised quatrain:

With every extra thing I know
so doth the great circumference grow
and thus each fact that I am shown
doth also swell the great unknown.


Reflecting on A Christmas Garland

So. I posted the last sonnet in the Christmas Garland sequence a couple of days ago, which means it must be time to reflect upon the experience of writing. (I have also reposted the whole sequence in the right order.)

I started the first sonnet on 23th December and posted it on 24th December for the 25th. That gave me a safety margin of one day. I thought I might need it, and on 2nd January, as I was back at work, I slipped and only managed the first half of the sonnet. When I started I was worried the pressure of writing a regular series would mess up the holiday. There was a bit of pressure, but it also gave me a focus, something I could turn to, and prevented the holiday being a mindless bloat, punctuated by the occasional walk.

I didn’t have a plan for the subjects: Christmas, obviously, but beyond that, nothing. I knew there would be shepherds, some angels, wise men, Mary, Joseph, a baby. Quite how they would be connected, or what the balance would be was absolutely unknown, they just unfolded from day to day.

The most difficult thing was the garland. Sonnets are designed to conclude: that is part of their appeal. It is at best contrary (bloody-minded might be more accurate) to string them together; finishing one sonnet in a way that could be a starting point for another one was tricky. There are several endings that didn’t get used simply because they couldn’t be a starting off point for another sonnet.

The worst point – predictably – was the last sonnet, which I began already knowing the first and last lines. It didn’t help that the final line evoked a modern setting, while the first line was firmly in the first century (BC or AD depending on whose chronology you go with). The experience wasn’t quite as bad as writing a paradelle, but still had something of the same mental twistiness.

What else did I find?

  • I think I have doubled my lifetime output of sonnets over the last fortnight. That can only be a good thing.
  • I have remembered why I don’t write sonnets very often: finding sets of four reasonable rhymes which make sense and fit with the subject. There were some low points: sonnet V – wight; a word but very much archaic: sonnet VI – hoary; again, archaic.
  • The temptation to let rhyme triumph over word order and sense. I want to keep as natural a word-order as possible, but even so, to my shame, the force of rhyme led me to a few unpleasant things, mainly complex tenses. Verb participles, particularly past participles or conditional ones, are a way of keeping the word order reasonable while getting the rhyme. Sonnet VI is bad for that (and while I am on that one, I am not overly keen on leathern house instead of tent). This is something which comes up in folk songs (Froggy he did ride).
  • Going a bit deeper, it forced me to engage with the Christmas story across Christmas. That is a big plus.

A Christmas Garland – XII: 5 January 2015

Their tears come first, drawn by relief and joy,
and then the questions: ‘what if this is wrong?
You seem, beg pardon, poor.’ ‘The angel song,
that drew the shepherds to the new-born boy
and Gabriel’s announcement?’ They deploy
the royal, priestly gifts borne for so long
and kneeling worship with the angel throng.
What other can they do except enjoy?

Jerusalem runs rumour like a cold:
a king, legitimate, of David’s line?
The tyrant sends militias in; they’re told
to cull the toddlers. Outwardly, all’s fine.
Was Herod waiting by the telephone?
Were there reporters clumped, but each alone?

A Christmas Garland – XI: 4 January 2015

They brought the gifts of frankincense and myrrh
and rode uncertain down the village street
unsure of who it was they had to meet,
and when they met, just how it should occur,
what protocols they had to follow, were
they to find the greatest king. They greet
a man with adze in hand and sawdust feet,
no trace of silver, satin, silk or fur.

And somehow, inexplicably, the star
which they have followed over desert miles,
points out or signs that this is where they are
supposed to be. They ask the man, he smiles
and leads them home, to find a little boy.
Their tears come first, drawn by relief and joy.

A Christmas Garland – X: 3 January 2015

The retinue of magi found their way
from Babylon or Susa: we don’t know
what they saw in the star that made them go,
although the ever-easy course was stay
to watch the stars, interpret what they say,
pass on the news to others; let the flow
of action carry others, just lie low.
What did they see that made them ride away?

Did Daniel, magus-head of Babylon
bequeath the college some of what he heard,
so that the sacred knowledge would live on,
in preparation for the infant word.
And if not Daniel, then some hidden spur:
they brought their gifts of frankincense and myrrh.

A Christmas Garland – IX: 2 January 2015

The infant grew with every passing year.
His mother tends and nurtures, cares and feeds,
providing all a growing infant needs.
The seasons roll, he crawls, he walks: her dear
makes sounds for mother, father, which come clear
as month turns into month. A year recedes,
the boy laps up the stories of God’s deeds.
He helps his father with the wood. He’s near.

Has Mary quite forgotten all she heard
from magi, angels, shepherds, Gabriel?
Has filled-up life wiped out what had occurred,
and has the old man’s warning gone as well?
Or does she sometimes pause, rethink the day
The retinue of magi found their way.

A Christmas Garland – VIII: 1 January 2015

Her only answer was “I’ll play my part.
The Lord, he launched salvation years ago
the ship has sailed to far to have my ‘no’
deflect its course. And ‘yes’, a mother’s heart
is all times open to the dark world’s dart
whatever child she bore? A child will grow,
will try the world to finish high or low;
so how can I say ‘stop’ when he says ‘start’?”

She clutch her infant tightly in her cloak
then kissed him, stroked the fine down on his face.
Her boy was safe and she would not provoke
the future, but protect him in a place
of blessing, safe from every threat or fear.
The infant grew with every passing year.