Weekend Poem: Toward the Winter Solstice by Timothy Steele

A few words about the Christmas theme choice for today’s poem. Religious persuasions aside, this is the most popular celebration or observance across the Western world (and a not-insignificant observance in other parts of the world). And, like many such celebrations that have endured through the centuries, Christmas today is an rich amalgamation of different traditions from many diverse cultures. Even modern commerce has given us various rituals to add to the Christmas cornucopia. So, for most of us, whether we indulge in some or all of the specific traditions and rituals or whether we see the time as simply an opportunity to get much-needed rest and re-connect with friends and family members, Christmas is a regular part of our lives each year.

Let’s start an introduction to the poet before we get into the commentary about the poem because, for this particular work, it is important to understand the poet’s approach to his art.

Today’s poem is by a contemporary award-winning poet, academic and scholar, Timothy Steele, who the LA Times once described as “a radical by being a traditionalist”. What the writer of that article, Larry Gordon, was referring to is how Steele has been a leading proponent for meter and rhyme. Steele is credited for having given contributed in a significant way to the New Formalist movement in poetry – a return to metrical traditions.

Yet, the poet is not opposed to free verse. Rather, he believes that, as the modernist poets of the 20th century moved towards vers libre, we lost some of the beauty and complexity that came from metrical verse. He is also the first to admit that it isn’t quite as simply explained because a lot of the traditions related to meter and rhyme are also found in free verse – see his seminal and controversial book, ‘Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter‘ and his follow-up, ‘All The Fun’s In How You Say A Thing: An Explanation Of Meter & Versification‘. He summed it up well in this Cortland Review interview:

I have no quarrel at all with a pluralism of poetic styles. It’s just that metrical tradition is the trunk of the great tree of poetry. The variant forms, such as free verse and syllabics, have their beauties, but they’re branches. We aren’t going to have a branch—any branch—if we cut down the trunk. In writing Missing Measures and All the Fun, I wanted to persuade people to turn off the chain saw. Don’t cut down the tree.

Of course, there is a danger when a poet is mainly identified with a particular style. People miss the substance due to the emphasis on style. Critics focus on technique versus content. This kind of approach short-changes poets like Steele, who deliver style and substance, technique and content, music and meaning, with great skill.

And, what we often miss is how meter features so strongly in the music that we enjoy. Some of the most-loved singer-songwriters and rappers have used iambic forms with great success. “Form”, after all, is a means to an end. What matters is how we use it to communicate exactly what we wish or need to.

It is a bit daunting to do an appreciation of a poem by a poet who is also a formidable expert in the art of poetry. But, as regular Storyacious readers know, the weekend poem commentary here is typically based on appreciation and interpretation rather than technical analysis.

Having studied, taught and lived in California for many years, Steele considers himself a Californian writer now, although he was born and grew up in Vermont – close enough to Frost and Dickinson country. Indeed, there is something Frostian in his nature-related poems. However, California, more so than New England, features prominently in many works, including this one. The poem is about the narrator/poet decorating a birch tree in his yard for Christmas. And, as with most of his poems, Steele uses this act of doing something very regular and normal to explore what this time of year means to all of us. With, I might add, an acute sympathy that never degenerates into sentimentality or nostalgia (which happens so often with poems about Christmas, don’t you think?) And, while there are Biblical images or allusions here, it is not a religious poem, as you will soon see.

In the first stanza, Steele sets the stage. He’s on the roof one story high, trying to get lights onto a neighboring tree. There is a hint of Christ-like imagery in both the “looking down” that he describes as well as the cord of lights being wound on the birch’s crown. It brings to mind Christ on the cross, looking down, with the crown of thorns around his head. While this isn’t a religious poem as such, it is interesting that Steele chose to open with this particular image.

With the second stanza, he describes how he makes adjustments on advice and feedback from passing friends. To me, this alludes to how the traditions and rituals of Christmas have been adjusted or have evolved based on inputs from other cultures, as I had mentioned earlier. And, I especially love this next bit:

Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days.

Whatever our faith or beliefs, this time of year is for all – to be interpreted and enjoyed as we choose. And, the last two lines there tell us why. We celebrate together so that we may feel less sad about the unstoppable passage of time. Aren’t all celebrations at least partly about that? To pause and appreciate what we have because we know that nothing is meant to last? Even those who observe Christmas strictly as part of their religious faith are doing so to celebrate and give thanks for the birth and short life of Jesus.

The third stanza references his hometown, Los Angeles, and the present-day world of commerce (the first reference to UPS vans in poetry that I’ve come across anyway) and, with an interesting contrast, is also filled with ancient Biblical imagery. The package-carrying vans are equated to the Biblical Magi (the three Wise Men) who arrived at the stables, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. And, the images of things rising that Steele evokes – “fallen leaves / Are gaily resurrected in their wake / The desert lifts a full moon from the east” – are allegorical in their reference to a Christ-like resurrection and renewal. But, as earlier, he shows a deft, light touch with his religious allusions. Once he has called to the reader’s mind the Magi, stables and resurrection, he does this very clever thing where, instead of shepherds tending sheep or Christ tending to his flock, he shows us present-day valets tending to flocks of vehicles.

With the fourth stanza, Steele is more direct and obvious with his Biblical references, but, never heavy-handed. So, he shows us the ubiquitous Los Angeles fan palms standing out in the evening dusk that remind him of a Middle Eastern oasis. He takes the Middle Eastern allusion further and describes his house as a possible caravansary (an inn for travelers) and how the tree, with its decorations like necklaces or encircling loops, represents a welcome that is inclusive of all colors – “ceintures of green, yellow, blue, and red”. In addition to reminding us gently to be more inclusive in our celebrations, this is also an acknowledgement of the main reason that we decorate our houses during festivals such as Christmas – the age-old tradition that transcends cultural boundaries and is meant to welcome visitors, regardless of their color, caste or creed, to join in with the celebrations. [I’ve always appreciated this particular similarity with the Indian festival of Diwali, which also uses many colors and house decorations to invite visitors to join in.]

In the final stanza, Steele muses on the star of Bethlehem itself, which was said to have guided the Magi to baby Jesus. Rather than focusing on the magical or mythical aspects, he turns to one of the several scientific explanations – a possible planetary conjunction created by the crossing of Jupiter and Saturn (this was first raised by Kepler in the early-17th century and, then, by Kaufmanis in the 20th century).

Whatever that astronomical event was, Steele tells us that, in looking up to the skies this time of year, he is comforted that the changes that occur from passing of time do not necessarily mean loss. Even in those ancient times, the winter solstice happened, as it does every year this time in December, when the sun is at its highest elevation relative to Earth and, astrologically, moves into this tenth division or area of the tropical zodiac known as Capricorn. And, even though that Christ Star, that star of the East, came and went all those centuries ago, new stars continued to be born. The reference to the origins of the new stars in the swirling gases of the Orion Nebula gives them an almost fantastical aspect, something to be gazed upon and paid attention to.

I find this to be a very profound and hopeful ending to a poem which started with a very simple image of a man on a roof putting up Christmas lights on a tree. To remember that things change, even die, but nothing is ever really lost because new births are always taking place, often unexpectedly and out of a seeming nothingness.

Toward the Winter Solstice

Although the roof is just a story high,
It dizzies me a little to look down.
I lariat-twirl the cord of Christmas lights
And cast it to the weeping birch’s crown;
A dowel into which I’ve screwed a hook
Enables me to reach, lift, drape, and twine
The cord among the boughs so that the bulbs
Will accent the tree’s elegant design.

Friends, passing home from work or shopping, pause
And call up commendations or critiques.
I make adjustments. Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days.

Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake;
The desert lifts a full moon from the east
And issues a dry Santa Ana breeze,
And valets at chic restaurants will soon
Be tending flocks of cars and SUVs.

And as the neighborhoods sink into dusk
The fan palms scattered all across town stand
More calmly prominent, and this place seems
A vast oasis in the Holy Land.
This house might be a caravansary,
The tree a kind of cordial fountainhead
Of welcome, looped and decked with necklaces
And ceintures of green, yellow, blue, and red.

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

– From ‘Toward the Winter Solstice: New Poems‘ (2006) by Timothy Steele

Some Links:

Timothy Steele’s Website

Video of a Reading

A Profile

A Brief Autobiography

A Statement

– Poems at Poetry Foundation and Poem Hunter

– Reviews at L A Times, Tennessee Quarterly, Stanford Alumni Magazine, The Raintown Review

– Interviews at Cortland Review, Rattle and Able Muse

Advertisements

Please share your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s