New poems for carols curated by Carol Ann Duffy, from the Guardian poetry blog. Something different in Christmas poetry. A number of other poetry e-mags and sites generally come up with or republish past Christmas collections of seasonal standbys and old faves.
Carol Ann Duffy introduces sparkling new poems for carols, from, among others, Fleur Adcock, John Agard, Gillian Clarke, Maura Dooley, Ian Duhig, Ruth Fainlight, James Harpur, Frieda Hughes, Jackie Kay, Michael Longley, Grace Nichols, Sean O'Brien, Alice Oswald, Brian Patten, Michael Symmons Roberts and Kit Wright
That beautiful carol 'In the Bleak Midwinter' is based on a poem written by Christina Rossetti in response to a commission from the magazine Scribner's Monthly for a Christmas poem in 1872. One hopes they paid well. The lines of one of my predecessors as poet laureate, the Irish poet Nahum Tate, are on our lips still when we sing the lyrics of 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night', written by him in 1703 – though usually changed to 'washed their socks' by most school-children.
Carols, according to the 1928 edition of The Oxford Book of Carols, are 'simple, hilarious, popular and modern'. They are a kind of folk song where direct poetry and accessible music eagerly meet. The oldest of our carols date from the 15th century and 'give voice to the common emotions of healthy people in language that can be understood'. I hope that by this time next year some of these sparkling new poems for carols will have been set to music. On behalf of all the poets here to you, their readers, I wish you a very happy Christmas. Carol Ann Duffy.
The Bee Carol, Carol Ann Duffy
Silently on Christmas Eve,the turn of midnight's key;all the garden locked in ice –a silver frieze –except the winter cluster of the bees.Flightless now and shivering,around their Queen they cling;every bee a gift of heat;she will not freezewithin the winter cluster of the bees.Bring me for my Christmas gifta single golden jar;let me taste the sweetness there,but honey leaveto feed the winter cluster of the bees.Come with me on Christmas Eveto see the silent hive –trembling stars cloistered above –and then believe,bless the winter cluster of the bees.
Carol, Fleur Adcock
Carry the child at ease in the womb,lulled in a cradle of bone and sinew:a winter child with an escort of songbirds;a summer child for a winter home.Carry the child content in your arms.Carry the child high on your shoulders,tall as a candle: a radiant torch,a solar-powered lamp to light a dark room.Call the child to be dandled with rhymes,livened with drum-talk, cuddled and calmedwith flutes and fiddles, anthems and psalmody.Welcome the child with a sky full of chimes.
Hark, John Agard
Drink up the mull till you're fullDon't mince on the piesIt's the season to gourmandizeStock up on the stockingsCrack up with the crackersThe chimney looks the sameBut Santa's gotten fatterTime to be recklessWith the turkey in your trolleyFeel free to be leglessIn front of the tellyNow with the innards fully filledSpare a thought for tender words –Peace. Share. Goodwill.
Carol of the Birds, Gillian Clarke
Winter sun is cold and low,mew the kite and crake the crow,bird of flame, bird of shadow,ballad of blood on snow.Owls are calling llw, llw, llw,, hullabaloo.KyrieSmall birds come without a sound,starving to the feeding ground,till the robin with his woundcarols the ice-bound land.Noctua, hibou, gwdihw,Owl's lullaby – who? who? who?The story tells of pain and blood,the troubles of a restless world,a star that lights the snowy fields,towards a newborn child.Owls are calling llw, llw, llw,, hullabaloo,Kyrienoctua, hibou, gwdihw,lullaby – who? who? who?
Mumbai Kissmiss, Imtiaz Dharker
Of course! Who is not knowing this,that after Happy Diwali comes Merry Kissmiss!Impossible to miss, when allovermumbai,Matharpacady to A to Z Market, rooftopsare dancing in chorusand alloverskyis fully full with paper stars.Hear! Horns are telling at midnight on every street,happy happy happy! We know very wellto make good festival, and Saint Santa isour honoured guest in Taj Hotel.We are not forgetting.And allovermumbai alloverskyis fully full with paper stars.See! Tree is shining and snow (cotton-wool but looks good, no?) Small child alsoface is shining, licking icing, thismust be what snow tastes likeunder the paper stars.And allovermumbai alloverskyis fully full with paper stars.
Midwinter Song, Maura Dooley
Snow flies fierce across the landas cardboard doors unfold,a star shines clear on bitterness,on lack and want and cold.An old tale tells of spite's true cost,how greed's full rhyme is need.The City's rime is piss and frost,icesharp in word and deed.A robin's breast, a berry bright,is dimmed by falling night,could starlight melt a frozen heart,a baby make all right?The oldest story's for the newest face,a fire in winter or a moment's grace.
Advent for Daisy Milo, by Antony Dunn
O little child, o child to comeknocking at the world's door, for whom,still, your small universe of wombis all there is to know, strike dumbthe voices of our worldly gloom;no room, no room, no room.O little child, make good the sumof human love. Of every crumbcreate a thousand shares. Presumethis much, at least, that there's one homefrom which the answer will not come,no room, no room, no room.
In Winter's House, Jane Draycott
In winter's house there's a roomthat's pale and still as mist in a fieldwhile outside in the street every gate's shut firm,every face as cold as steel.In winter's house there's a bedthat is spread with frost and feathers, that gleamsin the half-light like rain in a disused yardor a pearl in a choked-up stream.In winter's house there's a childasleep in a dream of light that grows outof the dark, a flame you can hold in your handlike a flower or a torch on the street.In winter's house there's a talethat's told of a great chandelier in a garden,of fire that catches and travels for miles,of all gates and windows wide open.In winter's house there's a flamebeing dreamt by a child in the night,in the small quiet house at the turn in the lanewhere the darkness gives way to light.
The Passion of the Holly, (air: The Sans Day Carol), Ian Duhig
We're the Sans Day carollers who call once a year;if we're sans bread and sans brass, we are not sans care,for the coming of Jesus, born poor to be kingand the passion of the holly at Christmas we sing.O the holly bore a berry as white as a bone,for we sing of one new life but many more goneso we sing for those grieving as all theirs who died,whether Christian or not at this cold Christmastide.But the holly bore a berry as green as new grass,as Our Lady bore Jesus who died on the cross,and if summer seems laid in the sepulchre's night,there's no dark hold so strong it's not broken by light.When the holly bore a berry as black as a mine,we lit thirty-three candles like Christ's years, a sign;for poor miners give daylight their living to make,and some sacrificied more when the holly wore black.Now the holly bears a berry as Christ's blood it's red,for the Christ-child means good that can rise from the dead;and much sharper than holly was Jesus' crown,and yet he was raised up and Lord Satan cast down.O our holly and its berry were soon turned to dust,as were we who in singing and kindness put trust;and yet though we sing now to you from the grave,you can hear us because we are singing of love.
What Ails Thee, Santa? Ruth Fainlight
Oh what can ail thee, Santa Claus,woebegone instead of jolly?In fact we think you look almostoff your trolley.Oh what can ail thee, Santa Claus?You have a job, though times are hard,in this well-heated shopping mall.Thank your lucky stars.
So stretch a smile across your face,get back into Santa's grotto,check your beard is still in place,then coax that toddler
toward your lap, to hotly breatheinto your ear her present-list.She slides off, happy. The next seemsmore suspicious –but you win him over. Morning,afternoon, it doesn't matter.Still another month to Christmas.What ails thee, Santa?
Carol, Ann Gray
We sit down together at Christmas,we toast those who cannot be there,throughout the laughter and plentywe all know there's one empty chair.There's frost on the grass in the orchardwhere songbirds have gathered their choir,snow colours the hawthorn, the holly,we've heaped up the logs on the fire.Those that we love may be fighting,in countries where we've never been,where it freezes at night in the mountains,we wish they could be here to seethere's frost on the grass in the orchard,where songbirds have gathered their choir,snow colours the hawthorn, the holly,we've heaped up the logs on the fire.There are those who may have had childrenwho'll have families now of their own,they'll phone when they're carving the turkeybut their old folk will still feel alone,though there's frost on the grass in the orchardwhere songbirds have gathered their choir,snow colours the hawthorn, the holly,we've heaped up the logs on the fire.There are some who can't think about Christmas,It's a picture they've seen on a tin.There's no table, no family, no plenty,they're always outside looking in.There's frost on the grass in the orchardwhere songbirds have gathered their choir,snow colours the hawthorn, the holly,we've heaped up the logs on the fire.Let's open our hearts then, this Christmas,look out for those who're alone,Lay one extra place at the table,throw open the doors of our home,because there's frost on the grass in the orchardwhere songbirds have gathered their choir,snow colours the hawthorn, the holly,and we've heaped up the logs on the fire.
Carol, James Harpur
The falcon flew from dark to darkdrew silver from the Northern Starand headed for the crinkled hills,the rivers, lakes and waterfallsto find the source of light on earththe source of light on earth.And as three weary pilgrim kingslooked up and saw his glittering wingsthe falcon saw a darkened towna stable glowing like a crownand knew that he had found the truththat he had found the truth.The falcon hovered like a starhis wings spun out a spirit firethat drew the kings inside the shed:the child asleep in his straw bedwas dreaming of a silver birdwas dreaming of a bird.His task now done, the falcon rosea spark ablaze with joyful news;he lit the stars, he lit the moonthen vanished in the arc of sunthat dawned beyond the Southern Crossbeyond the Southern Cross.
Happy Christmas, Frieda Hughes
At Halloween the Christmas baublesAlready decorate the stores,Ignoring guilt as high as corbelsShoppers stalk the shopping floors.The birth of Christ is pushed asideNot aided by the fear his nameMight irritate the shopping publicAnd distract their shopping aim.But there is no gift worth moreThan our company – it's given freeTo those we love, more precious thanAny gift beneath a Christmas tree.
Maw Broon's Jings! Bells! Jackie Kay
Speeding thru the snaw,on ma one guid wooden tray,doon Glebe Street I go,greetin' hauf the way.Bun on big heid stings,body warmer awfie ticht –but whit a nicht to wheep and wheesht!A bag-pipe blast the nicht!Och Jings, ma belle, Jings ma belle,Jings Jings a' day lang!Aw whit a scream it is to see,Paw's lang face as I tear awaon ma one guid wooden tray.The snaw bricht in the moon licht;the stars daeing a merry jig;and Maw Broon's pretty infra-dig,Aw Jings, bairns; Jings twins,Jings Jings a' the way,Och get yer ain happy haggis,Steam yer ain clootie dumpling!I'm aff tae hae ma ain day.Gie me peace and nae nativity!Ho, ho, ho! Michty me –in ma one guid wooden tray.I've had it up tae here.Christmas dinner every year.It's me that peals the tatties.Me that fries the stovies.It's time to break awa.I'm sorry Paw. Sorry Hen.Wull I no be back again?Crivens, mibbe no, ye ken.Och Jings, ma belle, Jings, ma belleJings Jings a' day lang.Aw, whit a scream it is to see,Paw's soor face as I tear awaon ma one guid wooden tray.
Christmas Tree for Jacob, Michael Longley
You are my second grandson, Christmas-born.I put on specs to read your face. WhisperingSweet nothings to your glistening eyelids,Am I outspoken compared with you? You sleepWhile I carry you to our elderly beech.Your forefinger twitches inside its mitten.Do you feel at home in my aching crook?There will be room beneath your fontanelFor this branchy diagram of winter.I take you back indoors to the Christmas tree.Dangling for you among the fairy lightsAre the zodiac's animals and people.
Carol, Lachlan Mackinnon
The power to annihilateOur public and our private fateIs sleeping in a manger.Be you sage or shepherd, stranger,Lean close, then leave before he wakesAnd his clear gaze clear judgment makesOn all your works and days,The little terror, born to raiseThe dead and, yes, the living dead,The bled by bankers, the unfed,And every mortal soulThat labours for its daily doleOf pittance from the pitilessUnceasing rasp of dailiness,That shivers like a childWhen the nocturnal wind goes wildAbout the outhouse and the thingsLeft out to dry. An angel singsAnd all of us are hushedBy something that will not be rushed,The sweetness pure as heather honey,The fortune never told in money,This little scrap will bring.Yes, you have heard an angel sing:Now go you, you have seen enoughTo carry this good news through roughTerrain to careworn days,New angels, with unending praise.
song for the longest night (dig the stillness), Paula Meehan
my old friendstill holdingat the endof a needleor a guntoo much dopeor not enoughthe shadow on the wallthe swinging ropelet's take the old roadout of townwe'll stop by the woodsdo you remember?we went there as kidsthere's a fire path upto a ring of standing stoneswe could lay thereunder starsour eyes open widepinpricks in the nighttrace our mortal fateacross the glittering chartwe could sleepthere at the heartthe moon waxing fullthe deepest dreamless sleepand wake at first lightto a new spangled yearlook backalong the trailour trackmarksin the snowthe falling snow
Christmas Hero, Grace Nichols
Let the Yuletide jump-up begin.What you having? Wine? Rum? Gin?The more we are togetherthe merrier we will feel the weather.So come in your glad rags – go with the flow.Good tidings hiding under the mistletoe.Welcome, welcome one and all.Just follow the holly around the hall.Outside Jack-Frost might be nippingbut inside hot as carnivalO guess who's coming ever gallant through the snow?Yes, Robin Redbreast my Christmas card hero.So let's make a toast to our special guest,who warms us all with the flame of his chest.
Carol, To the tune of "In the Bleak Midwinter" by Sean O'Brien
Darling, look, it's snowing. We should make them pay,The idle herd who spoil the view by getting in the way.Soon we shall have altered the meaning of "estate"When all these charvers line up on the wrong side of the gate.They don't just want an orange, they want a bag of nuts –I should bloody coco. Let them live on cuts.Let them dine on cardboard, lie down in a ditch.Will they never listen? Jesus loves the rich.Whip them through the parish, close the work-house door.Oh let us be realistic: all they are is poor,And therefore not quite human – nothing left to sell.Merry Christmas, darling, and the rest can go to Hell.Oh, the snow keeps falling, and the cold is cruel.There's a thought – why don't we use the poor for fuel?Stack them up like firewood, burn them in the street,So when my love's in Knightsbridge she may warm her feet.
Slowed Down Blackbird, Alice Oswald
Blackbird fretting in the frozen hedgeIn the first Slow-fall of the year when windStuck in a Slow-drift lags behindThe twilight's trailing edgeThree inches underfootThe Slow is settling Stillness is afloatLast chorister holding the longest noteLost in a Storm of Falling Slow he singsAs if engrossed by inward awkward thingsThe tick tick tick of leavesKeeps losing time the Bleak Sky barely breathesAll evening long a Slow-cloud drips and grievesThree inches underfootThe Slow is settling Stillness is afloatLast chorister holding the longest noteLost in a Storm of Falling Slow he sings:In the New Year the wind will blowThe world be shaken the shadows growBut on this Slowy night nothing but SlowWhich if it lasts nothing will be but Now
Why Is the Mute Swan Singing? Brian Patten
How calm the snow, how white it is,How clear and pure the air,How perfectly each little flakeIlluminates the atmosphere.Why is the old fox smiling,Trotting through the snow?What is the rabbit dreamingIn the warren deep below?Why is the mute swan singing?Why is the wren so bold?Why are the wild geese stayingAnd the spider weaving gold?How calm the snow! how white it is!How clear and pure the air!How perfectly each little flakeIlluminates the atmosphere!Why are the black crows cawing,That were once so numb with cold?From amongst the ice-flecked branchesWhat can they see unfold?Why are they so excitedOn such a winter's night?And why is the stable glowingWith such translucent light?The kingfisher shakes off rainbows,The river stops mid-flow,Buried in the owl's bloodIs something they all know.
Annunciation after Fra Angelico, Robin Robertson
He has come from the garden, leavingno shadow, no footprint in the dew.She bows to him, slightly, armscrossed over, shielding herself.He bends one knee, folding his handsbelow his chest, to mirror hers.They hold each other's gazeat the point of balance: everythingstreaming towards this moment,streaming away.A word will set the seedof life and death,the over-shadowing of this girlby a feathered dark.But not yet: not quite yet.How will she remember the silenceof that endless moment?Or the end, when it all began –the first of seven joysbefore the seven sorrows?She will remember the aftersongbecause she is only human.One dayshe'll wake with wings, or wakeand find them gone
Grace at Christmas, Jean Sprackland
Not only for the way the whiskyflames in the glass and thaws the blood;not only for the rattle of hailstonesdown the chimney and doused by fire;not just for the way the brand-new ring,slipped cool on a finger, flushes with life;or the warmth of the bed, and the warmth of another,when streetlamps are spinning snow outside.But also for the good, true cold,shocking us back to all our senses:the broken-off star of ice in the hand,the sting of the wind and the quickening heart.For the splintering light, and the frost in our voices,striking, and making the strung air ring;December cold with its wilder gifts –for when are we more alive than now?
The Midwife's Carol, Michael Symmons Roberts
Deserts freeze and oceans glaze,The polar sun turns blue,Then on winter's whitened pageA single star prints through.New-made maker, helpless king,Born to joy and suffering,Our rescuer, our child,Our rescuer, our child.I haul my catch into the world,I shake him into breath,His cry, so clear it splits the skies,Could wake a man from death.He cries for milk who gave it taste,He aches for touch of skin,Yet he spun every human hair,And ushered love begin.I count his fingers, wipehis eyes,Then whisper in each ear.I wrap him in my thickest shawl,Bound tight to keep him here.My hands have cradled many heads,Cut countless cords and cauls,But never held eternityWithin such fragile walls.The maker of all worlds is made,Infinity becalms,From speed of light to feet of clay,My saviour in my arms.
An Angel So Eager, Jeffrey Wainwright
An angel sang in a holly treeA holly treeCan you see?An angel sang in a holly treeOn a cloudy Christmas morning.I'm bored with heaven the angel sangThe angel sangThe garden rangI'm bored with heaven the angel sangCan I share your human Christmas?I'll help you set the tree up straightThen fly to the topAnd shimmer atopI'll help you set the tree up straightAnd get those lights a-working.I'll smile when I'm in the checkout queueAnd take my cueTo say thanking youI'll smile when I'm in the checkout queueSo the girl won't feel so weary.I'll write all your Christmas cardsChristmas cardsBest regardsI'll write all your Christmas cardsAnd none shall be forgotten.To each mall and square a choir I'll bringA choir I'll bringAnd how we'll singTo each mall and square a choir I'll bringAnd gently unplug the muzak.All the arguments of who and whereAre they coming here?Are we going there?All the arguments of who and whereI'll charm away in a jiffy.I'll peel the sprouts and baste the birdUndeterredWhatever the birdI'll peel the sprouts and baste the birdAnd set the pudding flaming.I'll help the teens put up with it allPut up with it allCrackers and allI'll help the teens put up with it allSo they can grin and bear it.I'll take some soup and Christmas pieChristmas pieBest you can buyI'll take some soup and Christmas pieTo those who're on their uppers.I'll fold my wings on the tired childThe tearful childThe lonely childI'll fold my wings on the tired childSo they'll sleep through till morning.But Twelfth Night I must fly downAnd leave your treeAnd leave you beThe Twelfth Night I must fly downAnd these are the words I'm leaving.It's not so easy to live as you doLive as you doLive as you doAnd that's why I'll come back to youFor you'll always need a Christmas.
Holly (It's the female holly that bears the berries), Susan Wicks
November, and you see her everywhere,a thousand eyes, a rushof red in hedges. She's awake,alight, a burning bush,a burning bush.December, and you cut her, bring her in.You bind her to a wreath.You twist and bend her tender branchesback until they meet,until they meet.Against the glass she shivers in the windtill Christmas. She adornseach house. Her satin ribbon liftsand shreds itself on thorns,itself on thorns.On Christmas Day she stands on tiptoe twigunwilting through the steamwhile someone stoops to light a matchand pluck her from the flame,her from the flame.And then she's over, all her burning lifeis shrivelled, berries dryas clotted blood, her leaves like knives.So clear her all away,her all away.Her sisters, softer now with frost and rain,feed birds between the treesand wait for creamy blossom, sun,the buzzing of the bees,zing of the bees.
Carol, Kit Wright
When Man AnthropomorphicGave all the creatures speech,And Music-makers OrphicEnchantment lent to each,They made a game of magicWithin their children's reach.It seemed the human thing to do:They never thought that it was true.And when the catastrophicObtruded on their days,They shaped a philosophicAccount for their malaise:They harmonised the tragicIn lots of different ways.It seemed the human thing to do:They never thought that it was true.And when they sought exemptionFrom Death's unswerving law,As agent of redemptionThey laid a child in straw,The son of their Oppressor,To cherish and adore.It seemed the human thing to do:They never thought that it was true.But when the world about themFilled with such whopping liesThey could not fail to doubt them,They found, to their surprise,The tale of their Redresser,They viewed with different eyes.Compared to all the other stuff,The tale was more than true enough.