Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Pausing on Christmas Eve

Back in the old days, when the senior members of the P&PC office staff were growing up in small-town Ohio, it was customary to give what we then called the mailman a Christmas gift—usually a little bit of walking around money left in the mailbox in the way of a tip to acknowledge how neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night had stayed him from the swift completion of his appointed rounds during the preceding year. This was undoubtedly an extension of, and eventually became a companion practice to, tipping the newspaper boy who, dating back to the 1700s, used New Year poems called carriers' addresses to remind readers in a more polite way than John Cusak's nemesis in Better Off Dead to, well, shell out some change. In whatever poetic style they took, such poems usually concluded with a reminder in one form or another of the social obligation to remember the poorest member of the newspaper staff. "[D]oubtless he is poor, and you / And I tonight can something do / To make his Christmas bright," concludes one long poem from 1897 about a newspaper staff sharing their life stories with each other on Christmas Eve and eventually emptying out their pockets for "the little lad" who "deserves it." (For a great archive of carriers' addresses and accompanying essays, btw, check out the online collection at Brown University's Center for Digital Scholarship.)

As the holiday card pictured here indicates, the tipping of postal carriers was also accom- panied by poetry, though it was not as directly purposed to reminding people to fork over some dough as carriers' addresses were. Here, on the left inside panel, the Reverend John Holland of WLS Radio—Holland led the Little Brown Church of the Air for twenty-two years beginning in 1933 and also published eight books including John Holland's Scrapbook of poems and other quotable morsels—is pictured reading at a microphone, the ostensible text of his broadcast printed above. And the right inside panel pictures a Christmas tree with a slit cut into it just wide enough to accommodate and anchor a folded bill (as pictured above) and maybe even a silver dollar. Here's the poem Holland is "reading":

The bells that chime at Christmas time
Bring gladness and good cheer;
Their joy was meant for sacrament
To last throughout the year.
To make the day a time for play,
And then, next day forget,
Is but to stage a sacrilege
And fill life with regret.

Only as love, sent from above,
Abides throughout our days,
Can we begin to enter in
To joy that always stays.
So let's extend the praise we send,
To God on Christmas night,
All through the year, to calm our fear,
And crown our heart's delight.

"Christmas all the Year" is a funky little poem—and not just because it starts with a line that appears to have been cribbed from an advertisement that appeared in the Roswell Daily Record on Christmas Eve in 1928 ("The bells that chime / At Christmas time / Wish you what's fine — / As in Auld Lang Syne"), or because the P&PC interns can't turn up any record of it via Google Books or a general Google search. No, we at P&PC think it's a funky little poem because of how it alternates between (on the one hand) very readable, easily-consumed, sing-songy passages without caesurae (pauses or stops in the middle of the line signaled in prosodic notation by a "//," as in the example shown above) and (on the other hand) passages in which caesurae are extremely prominent, not only interrupting the poem's established rhythm and drastically changing the syntactic style, but interrupting that rhythm almost gratuitously. Do we need the commas around "next day forget" in line six, for example? Not at all. Do we need them around "to calm our fear" in the penultimate line? Nope. Heck, we could even make an argument that the poem's other, more reasonably-used caesura (middle of line nine, the first line of stanza two) could be eliminated without hardly anyone noticing.

So—to use language appro- priate to the holiday and the purpose of the greeting card alike—what gives? Why all these apparently extraneous commas? Why all these unnecessary pauses? It is possible, we suppose, to argue that these are simply marks of poor writing that, intentionally or unintentionally, give "Christmas all the Year" a folksy, amateur quality entirely consistent with WLS Radio, which was known as "The Prairie Farmer Station." That is, just as President George W. Bush cultivated a down-home, aw-shucksness in his unique, uh, vernacular to purposely dim the sheen of his Yale education and thus blend in with the folk, so "Christmas all the Year" might be said to be professionally written greeting card verse in drag.

We think there's a more elegant explanation than that one, however. Almost the entire logic of the card—why not call it the card's poetics?—is geared toward the act of insertion: on the cover, the mailman is putting Christmas gifts into the mailbox; John Holland is broadcasting into your home where the Christmas tree is set up (can't you just imagine the radio in the corner?); and, of course, a dollar is supposed to go into the slot in the card. Given all of this, we'd propose that all of the gratuitous comma usage in "Christmas all the Year" also enacts this very logic at the level of language, where the commas give the appearance of phrases that have been "inserted" into the text as well. That is, via those commas, readers experience on a linguistic plane the very activity the card as a whole is designed to motivate. If at the same time one takes a moment to reflect—shall we say pause?—on the meaning of Christmas and how Christmas shouldn't, as the poem explains, be a one day break but should "last throughout the year," all the better. 

Indeed, the Rev. John Holland has bigger fish to fry than just the delivery of a buck to the mailman or a stack of Christmas gifts to loved ones, for all of this insertion ultimately tropes the spiritual conversion Holland is calling for—one in which, via "love, sent from above," we ourselves "enter in / To joy that always stays." It's no coincidence that that line is the only enjambed line of the entire stanza; when it comes to entering into God's love, neither Holland—outlined in white and glowing like the Christmas tree on the facing panel—nor "Christmas all the Year" is gonna go fooling around with gratuitously used commas and other pauses. Sermon complete. Now can we finally open up those gifts under the tree?