On Poetry: Finding the spirit of holiness

I know, I know, not all of us are Christians. The poet himself was Jewish. But it seems like this poem, this story, opens itself to multiple cultures. The story of waiting for something wonderful to happen. Of buying gifts that seem “mediocre” in comparison to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the wise men brought. The story of being out there, buying our gifts, when the local situation doesn’t feel at all like that Great Story. There’s certainly no beast, no crib, and no Mary with a halo around her head.

Brodksy starts the third stanza with the single word, “Emptiness.” Yet the amazing thing is that somehow the mere thought of this sense of emptiness “brings forth a light as if out of nowhere.” The evil King Herod reigns, right? Yet the stronger he is, the more certain the wonder. To me, that’s the amazing heart of this poem. There is, as the poet says, a constant relationship. In the heart of darkness, we decorate. We push tables together and have a feast together.

There’s no demand in this story, at first, for some trigger for this event, such as a star. Nothing is particularly perfect. Things are pretty awful. Herod drinks. People are scared, women hide their children. We don’t even know what we’re looking for by way of a sacred birth. But in the “thick mist” of darkness, there is a shape in a shawl. It is both a newborn and it is “Spirit that’s Holy/ in your self you discover.” Then you look up, and “it’s right there: a star.”

In other words, it seems, it may be that we cause the star to appear when we discover the spirit of holiness in ourselves. We’re all magi, or wise men and women, in that sense.

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was persecuted in his native Soviet Union — thrown in a mental institution for five years, among other things. He migrated to the U.S. and has been praised as one of our finest poets. In 1972, he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He mostly wrote in Russian and translated his own poems into English.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, Brodsky said, "Language and, presumably, literature are more ancient and inevitable, more durable than any form of social organization ... The real danger for a writer is not so much the possibility (and often the certainty) of persecution on the part of the state, as it is the possibility of finding oneself mesmerized by the state's features which, whether monstrous or undergoing changes for the better, are always temporary."

We readers can be transfixed and transformed by what’s eternal in poems. Maybe we grow bolder because we see that our most private anguishes and joys are not ours alone.

Thank you, readers of this column, for another year of enjoying with me some of the best poems I know.

December 24, 1971

For V.S.

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.

At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.

Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,

is the cause of a human assault-wave

by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:

each one his own king, his own camel.

Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,

caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.

Reek of vodka and resin and cod,

orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.

Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway

toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

And the bearers of moderate gifts

leap on buses and jam all the doorways,

disappear into courtyards that gape,

though they know that there’s nothing inside there:

not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,

round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that

brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.

Herod reigns but the stronger he is,

the more sure, the more certain the wonder.

In the constancy of this relation

is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,

for its coming push tables together.

No demand for a star for a while,

but a sort of good will touched with grace

can be seen in all men from afar,

and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding

chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.

Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.

He who comes is a mystery: features

are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may

not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

But when drafts through the doorway disperse

the thick mist of the hours of darkness

and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,

both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy

in your self you discover; you stare

skyward, and it’s right there:

a star.

— Joseph Brodsky

I know, I know, not all of us are Christians. The poet himself was Jewish. But it seems like this poem, this story, opens itself to multiple cultures. The story of waiting for something wonderful to happen. Of buying gifts that seem “mediocre” in comparison to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the wise men brought. The story of being out there, buying our gifts, when the local situation doesn’t feel at all like that Great Story. There’s certainly no beast, no crib, and no Mary with a halo around her head.

Brodksy starts the third stanza with the single word, “Emptiness.” Yet the amazing thing is that somehow the mere thought of this sense of emptiness “brings forth a light as if out of nowhere.” The evil King Herod reigns, right? Yet the stronger he is, the more certain the wonder. To me, that’s the amazing heart of this poem. There is, as the poet says, a constant relationship. In the heart of darkness, we decorate. We push tables together and have a feast together.

There’s no demand in this story, at first, for some trigger for this event, such as a star. Nothing is particularly perfect. Things are pretty awful. Herod drinks. People are scared, women hide their children. We don’t even know what we’re looking for by way of a sacred birth. But in the “thick mist” of darkness, there is a shape in a shawl. It is both a newborn and it is “Spirit that’s Holy/ in your self you discover.” Then you look up, and “it’s right there: a star.”

In other words, it seems, it may be that we cause the star to appear when we discover the spirit of holiness in ourselves. We’re all magi, or wise men and women, in that sense.

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was persecuted in his native Soviet Union—thrown in a mental institution for five years, among other things. He migrated to the U.S. and has been praised as one of our finest poets. In 1972, he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He mostly wrote in Russian and translated his own poems into English.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, Brodsky said, "Language and, presumably, literature are more ancient and inevitable, more durable than any form of social organization. . . . The real danger for a writer is not so much the possibility (and often the certainty) of persecution on the part of the state, as it is the possibility of finding oneself mesmerized by the state's features which, whether monstrous or undergoing changes for the better, are always temporary."

We readers can be transfixed and transformed by what’s eternal in poems. Maybe we grow bolder because we see that our most private anguishes and joys are not ours alone.

Thank you, readers of this column, for another year of enjoying with me some of the best poems I know.

December 24, 1971

For V.S.

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.

At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.

Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,

is the cause of a human assault-wave

by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:

each one his own king, his own camel.

[SPACE BREAK]

Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,

caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.

Reek of vodka and resin and cod,

orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.

Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway

toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

[SPACE BREAK]

And the bearers of moderate gifts

leap on buses and jam all the doorways,

disappear into courtyards that gape,

though they know that there’s nothing inside there:

not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,

round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

[SPACE BREAK]

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that

brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.

Herod reigns but the stronger he is,

the more sure, the more certain the wonder.

In the constancy of this relation

is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

[SPACE BREAK]

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,

for its coming push tables together.

No demand for a star for a while,

but a sort of good will touched with grace

can be seen in all men from afar,

and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

[SPACE BREAK]

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding

chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.

Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.

He who comes is a mystery: features

are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may

not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

[SPACE BREAK]

But when drafts through the doorway disperse

the thick mist of the hours of darkness

and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,

both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy

in your self you discover; you stare

skyward, and it’s right there: [DROP DOWN ONE SPACE AND INDENT NEXT LINE]

a star.

--Joseph Brodsky

I know, I know, not all of us are Christians. The poet himself was Jewish. But it seems like this poem, this story, opens itself to multiple cultures. The story of waiting for something wonderful to happen. Of buying gifts that seem “mediocre” in comparison to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the wise men brought. The story of being out there, buying our gifts, when the local situation doesn’t feel at all like that Great Story. There’s certainly no beast, no crib, and no Mary with a halo around her head.

Brodksy starts the third stanza with the single word, “Emptiness.” Yet the amazing thing is that somehow the mere thought of this sense of emptiness “brings forth a light as if out of nowhere.” The evil King Herod reigns, right? Yet the stronger he is, the more certain the wonder. To me, that’s the amazing heart of this poem. There is, as the poet says, a constant relationship. In the heart of darkness, we decorate. We push tables together and have a feast together.

There’s no demand in this story, at first, for some trigger for this event, such as a star. Nothing is particularly perfect. Things are pretty awful. Herod drinks. People are scared, women hide their children. We don’t even know what we’re looking for by way of a sacred birth. But in the “thick mist” of darkness, there is a shape in a shawl. It is both a newborn and it is “Spirit that’s Holy/ in your self you discover.” Then you look up, and “it’s right there: a star.”

In other words, it seems, it may be that we cause the star to appear when we discover the spirit of holiness in ourselves. We’re all magi, or wise men and women, in that sense.

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was persecuted in his native Soviet Union—thrown in a mental institution for five years, among other things. He migrated to the U.S. and has been praised as one of our finest poets. In 1972, he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He mostly wrote in Russian and translated his own poems into English.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, Brodsky said, "Language and, presumably, literature are more ancient and inevitable, more durable than any form of social organization. . . . The real danger for a writer is not so much the possibility (and often the certainty) of persecution on the part of the state, as it is the possibility of finding oneself mesmerized by the state's features which, whether monstrous or undergoing changes for the better, are always temporary."

We readers can be transfixed and transformed by what’s eternal in poems. Maybe we grow bolder because we see that our most private anguishes and joys are not ours alone.

Thank you, readers of this column, for another year of enjoying with me some of the best poems I know.