A few years back I wrote a blog post about Robert Frost’s “Christmas Cards.” Frost’s cards—chapbooks, more accurately—were first issued in 1929, and then annually from 1934-1962. While Frost was the first Consultant in Poetry or Poet Laureate to embrace a literary Christmastime tradition, he was not the last.
In 1962, the year Frost’s final Christmas chapbook was published, Joseph Brodsky—U.S. Poet Laureate during 1991-92—wrote the first of his so-called “Nativity poems,” the beginning of a Christmastime tradition for Brodsky. As Brodsky himself explained about the poems, “Ever since I took to writing poems seriously—more or less seriously—I’ve tried to write a poem for every Christmas—as a sort of birthday greeting.” Brodsky’s tradition extended through his Laureateship and continued until 1995, the year before he died. The poems, written in Russian, were eventually collected in 2001 and published, with English translations, under the title Nativity Poems.
The content of Brodsky’s Nativity poems vary—some are about Christmas, while others may better be considered poems set during Christmas. The one Christmas poem Brodsky wrote during his term as Poet Laureate, “Presepio” (the Italian word for a nativity scene), is an example of the former. Fittingly enough, the poem was translated into English by another former Laureate, Richard Wilbur. In the poem, a person—referred to as “you”—looks at a small Nativity set with “toy figures made of clay.” Though the Nativity scene in Bethlehem “was of greater size”:
Now you are huge compared to them, and high
beyond their ken. Like a midnight passerby
who finds a pane of some small hut aglow,
you peer from the cosmos at this little show.
The poem plays with notions of time and space, at the end zooming out to a more expansive view in which the “you,” the observer of the scene, “half wishes to . . . / step into/ a different galaxy, in whose wastes there shine / more lights than there are sands in Palestine” (Nativity Poems, pp. 83, 85).
While Brodsky may be the U.S. Poet Laureate with the most prolific Christmas-themed literary output, other Laureates also have written poems, short stories, and books about Christmas, or else set during Christmas. Here are a few examples of their work in case you’re looking for some holiday reading options:
- Robert Penn Warren’s short story “Christmas Gift“;
- Richard Wilbur’s poem “A Christmas Hymn“;
- Howard Nemerov’s poems “Christmas Morning”; “The Night Before Christmas”; and “A Christmas Storm”;
- Billy Collins’s “Christmas Sparrow”;
- Louise Glück’s “The Magi” and “Nativity Poem”;
- Donald Hall’s poems “Christmas Eve in Whitneyville,” “A Carol,” and “Christmas party at the South Danbury Church”; short story “Christmas Snow”; and book Christmas at Eagle Pond;
- W. S. Merwin’s “Carol of the Three Kings”;
- Ted Kooser’s “Christmas Mail“;
- Natasha Trethewey’s “Blond”; and
- Charles Wright’s “Christmas East of the Blue Ridge.”
Do you have a favorite Christmas poem or Christmas-themed literary work, Laureate-authored or otherwise? Let us know in the comments below!