Tag Archives: festo

Song of the sentimental cow, the cynical sheep and the stubborn donkey

As it has been published in various places, including in my last collection, festo: celebrating winter and Christmas, some of you will have read or heard this poem before; but putting it up as a blog seems an appropriate way to wish you all a very happy Christmas.

festo front cover

Off we go to the stable to meet some of the animals.

Microsoft Word - Cow, sheep and donkey.doc

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Celebrations at the Poetry Society

Anyone who knows me will realise that admin and AGMs aren’t my cup of tea; so you will no doubt be a little surprised to hear that I had a very jolly time at the Poetry Society’s AGM earlier this week.

The venue for the evening was Keats House in Hampstead Heath. This is the house where John Keats HouseKeats lived between 1818 and 1820, and where he fell in love with the girl next door – Fanny Brawne. He wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ here, though I suspect it’s many years now since a nightingale ventured this far into North London. The house is now a museum, dedicated both to the memory of Keats, and also to poetry in general, so it was entirely fitting that the Poetry Society should hold its AGM there.

We were welcomed with wine and nibbles, then Sir Stephen Irwin, the Chair of the Poetry Society, gave a very positive report of the last year at the society. It is no secret that the Poetry Society went through a rough patch a couple of years ago, but over the last year, the dedication, hard work, fortitude and good humour of the staff have pulled the society through and brought it back to full strength. All the staff are once again in place, and what  a lovely lot of people they are! The Director, Judith Palmer, who has done so much to bring the society through its difficulties, gave a report of recent activity, and the long list of events and work with young people was impressive.

With the business behind us, we replenished our glasses and then moved on to the poetry reading. Three of us had been invited to read, with an emphasis on celebration to set us thinking about the festive season ahead: R V Bailey, Dannie Abse and me.

Rosie at Poetry SocietyRosie read first, starting with a few general poems before moving on to some of her Christmas poems, which she described, with wry humour, as ‘gloomy’. One of these,  ‘At Maison Miller’, is credentials-fullin the voice of an elderly woman at the hairdresser’s trying hard to be enthusiastic about going to stay with her family for Christmas and knowing she is going to end up feeling sad and lonely. Several of the poems Rosie read, including this one, were in Credentials, the collection of her poems published by Oversteps last year.

Reading at Poetry SocietyI read next, and like Rosie I began with some new pieces, festo front coverfollowed by several of the poems from my collection festo: celebrating winter and Christmas. I thoroughly enjoyed reading to this packed audience of poets who responded with such fantastic warmth and enthusiasm.

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When I was a student I went to hear Dannie Abse reading his work and remember being impressed that a practising doctor could at the same time make a name for himself as a poet. Little did I know that this same poet would be writing and performing his poetry many years later, or that I would enjoy the enormous privilege of reading with him at the celebration of his ninetieth birthday.

Dannie has lost none of his dynamism and charm, and his voice is as strong as ever. It was very fitting that after Rosie and I had been presented with huge bouquets of beautiful flowers, the lights were lowered and a birthday cake, twinkling with candles, was brought to the front for Dannie to blow out the candles before the cake was cut and shared with everyone present. As ‘the icing on the cake’ of the evening, it has to be reported that the cake was delicious.

Thank you to all at the Poetry Society for organising such a happy occasion; and thanks to the lovely audience who made it all so worthwhile. And once again, many happy returns to Dannie Abse on his ninetieth birthday.

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On the sending and receiving of Christmas cards

I enjoy sending and receiving Christmas cards, and can cope with quite a wide variety of tastes in the ones I receive. I particularly enjoy the home-made ones, and some people clearly put a great deal of effort and skill into producing their own cards. I also appreciate receiving news from old friends from whom I hear only once a year, in those much-derided Christmas letters.

However, many years ago I found I couldn’t find any cards to send that actually expressed what I wanted to say about Christmas. I love the visual arts, but found that all the beautiful pictures of the nativity, the sages from the east, the shepherds and angels, didn’t actually express the deeper truth of incarnation for me. They decorated or embellished the Christmas story, rather than going to the heart of it. The one exception to this is portrayals of the Annunciation, because in those it often seems as though the artist is struggling to express the inexpressible – a task familiar to the poet.

John Donne 120Hugh and I therefore started to design our own cards. Some of these used words, such as short biblical texts or, more usually, a few lines from one of the great poets. In this one we chose some of the beautiful words from John Donne’s sonnet, Annunciation. As you can see, the Annunciation theme resonates with me in both the visual and the literary arts.

Others leapt out into symbolism that I found meaningful, but which I know puzzled some of our friends and family members. My own very favourite one, in particular, was simply a beautiful gold circle which expressed my thoughts about God perfectly. I’m afraid to report, however, that on that occasion my mother thought we’d taken leave of our senses. Unfortunately we don’t seem to have saved one of these cards in our rough and ready filing system, but I’m sure you can picture it.

This one extended that idea into an image of humanity and divinity meeting in the incarnation.

Circle 120

These two were less challenging in terms of their theology  holy 120   God with us, 80

Gradually it became clear that if I wanted a Christmas card to express something significant to me, I had to write a poem that actually said what I wanted it to say. So the tradition of writing a poem each year for our Christmas card began.

Snowflake 160

This early one, Snowflake, was set painstakingly using lettraset. The poem was written years ago, but still seems to be popular.

Then there was this very short one, spiraling out into the world:  In the beginning 120

Years passed, and the number of Christmas or winter poems increased. Some were serious and reflective, others were light and humorous. There have been several Christmas trees and snowy offerings, reflections on the nativity, including talking animals gathered around the manger and even, following the great Christmas Day Bible reading, one entitled Logos.

Soft as a feather 120A couple of years ago we used a poem of mine called Soft as a feather falling. I wanted a line of white feathers to go down the side of the card, so we set off on a wild goose chase to find a source of feathers. Eventually we discovered a friendly duck farmer who was only too pleased to give us bagfuls of white feathers. As we didn’t want to risk spreading avian ‘flu around the country, we microwaved them before sticking the onto the cards. This worked well, except that it made the kitchen rather smelly for a few hours.

When Anne Born, who was Managing Editor of Oversteps Books, invited me to submit a poetry collection in 2007, I included a couple of my Christmas poems (Touching Earth). Anne later suggested that I should put a collection of these specific poems together in a separate collection. That was put on the back burner when Anne became ill and persuaded me to take over the management of Oversteps from her.

This year I decided to follow Anne’s suggestion, and festo was published a few months ago. The past few months have consequently seen a fairly hectic schedule of poetry readings, and it’s been great to include quite a number of poems from the new book as I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country.

front cover snapshot smallerPlenty of these other poems are included in festo.
Apparently some of our friends and family members
have collected our Christmas poems as they’ve appeared,
so they won’t necessarily be needing to buy the book –
though actually there are also quite a few poems in it that
haven’t been used as cards.        

About half of our Christmas cards are now being sent by email. This is something of a green initiative in terms of saving paper and ink, but also ensures that the cards arrive quickly, and it allows us to include links to web pages and blogs. If it really is the poem that people enjoy, rather than grappling with the problem of where to hang their Christmas cards, then presumably this will be welcomed. If anyone who has received an e-version this year would prefer a paper copy next year, please let us know.

Then, of course, I had to sit down and write a new poem for this year’s card.