When Ken Russell’s TV film on Richard Strauss appeared earlier this year, The Times and the BBC were flooded with vicious protests about its left wing distortions, its wilful misinterpretation of the facts. Fair enough. But a week later the BBC showed a film based on the life of Chopin which was even more startling in its approach, and not one note of protest was sounded anywhere. Why? Because this was an old Hollywood film, with Cornel Wilde as Chopin and Merle Oberon as Georges Sand, and the distortion this time was comfortable, romantic and cotton wool. The tragedy of homely art is that nobody is ever shocked by it, or even notices it.
Thus it is often said that verse never sells today, despite the fact that between now and Christmas many millions of people will buy pieces of verse printed artistically on the inside of cards, decorated with homely pictures on the front. They will send these poems to other people, will receive others in return, read them and put them on their mantelpieces. What they will not see, unless they care to cut this piece out and hang it up, is any kind of critical appreciation.
Let me start with this anonymous poem, decorated with a robin:
Here’s a Christmas greeting
Sincerely to express
The good old wish
The best of health
And lasting happiness.
Dr Leavis might object, and I think he would be right, that the language is a trifle care-worn, though the neat way in which the poet has avoided a split infinitive in the second line is commendable, as is the unexpected fourth line which adds asymmetry. It is the picture of the robin which adds surprise – the robin being a bird, as Robert Ardrey will tell you, of unrivalled savagery at this time of the year – and turns the whole thing into a cruel satire.
Another example occurs in a poem entitled “To sister and her husband”:
When glistening snow has blanketed
Every stately pine
And Jack Frost has painted windows
With a lacy gay design…
…which goes on to say that when all this has happened, the sender will wish them a Happy Christmas. In other words, not in a month of Sundays. More pungent satire in this rhyme:
Though this greeting travels
Many miles to you
It holds all the feeling
Any card could do.
A smack in the face for any discerning poetry lover. Even the concept of verse itself comes in for some scrutiny, as on the card which bears this explanatory note – Verse: Christmas Greetings and best wishes for a Happy New Year. Verse? I have slaved over this message for hours and still found no rhyme or scansion. But it does serve as an introduction to the stylised language used by the band of nameless poets, in which Christmas can be either merry or happy, but New Year only happy, in which joy comes only at Christmas and wishes only at the New Year, and which, for some unknown reason demands that the more religious the picture on the front, the more restrained and classical the message inside. These strict conventions mean that when they are departed from, the impact is all the stronger. Take this:
May your house be
Filled with laughter
And bright with
And may the bells of happiness
Ring in a glad New Year.
When you get to bells of happiness, you think at once ‘But this means he can’t say Happy New Year - what can he possibly think of instead?’ Chancing this arm, he writes glad and a beautiful new phrase is born: “Glad New Year.” And ignoring the image of bells of happiness completely, he has had the courage to use a picture of fruit and port glasses on the front. I liked this vey much though not as much as: “May you have a Merry Christmas and an especially Happy New Year” with its overtones of disillusionment at Yuletide, or “Wishing you all the joys of the festive season and the best of luck in the coming new year,” which extends the pessimism into 1971. Even this does not touch the lurking despair of:
It’s now Happy Christmas
And that’s a fine reason
To greet and to wish you
The Joys of the season.
Fine reason indeed. Small wonder that surrealism and anarchic humour have crept into this genre, with such greetings as “Happy Holly Days” or “Merry Kiss Much”, and messages like “Drink as much as you like at Christmas – I hear the early Christians got stoned too!” With my own eyes I have seen Santa Claus depicted generally as an elderly Don Juan or even hippophage – “I don’t think Santa Claus will be around this year, because I asked him how his reindeer were and he said ‘Delicious!’ “ Even social satire creeps in, with a piece entitled “From our house to your house,” and a sarcastic left wing thing called “Merry Christmas Boss! From one of the team.”
Enough to show that this branch of literature is flourishing well enough on its own without academic encouragement. The only danger I see is the ever-present one of American infiltration, and I would like to print the following incomprehensible poem as a warning of the dangers:
It’s a shame we’re not together
So that we could spend the day
Visiting with each other
In the old familiar way.
Sure would be fun, but since we can’t
The next best thing to do
Is send this “Merry Christmas” greeting
Across the miles to you.
Punch Christmas Number December 1970