Finding a memorable contemporary poem about Christmas is a lot like discovering a jaw-dropping piece of Christmas music. In other words, the task is nearly impossible. I’m a softy, it’s true, but my tolerance for sentimental goo is as low as a cockroach in a crawl-space.
I’d been searching for the perfect Christmas Sunday Poem for nearly a month when I encountered Mark Doty’s “Messiah (Christmas Portions).” Humor is a good buffer against the pitfalls of sentimentality, and believe me, these pitfalls are plentiful when it comes to angels, yule logs, and the birth of Christ. (This is the reason I also fell in love with Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s poems about Christmas, which were featured here two weeks ago: they are surprising, irreverent, and totally unexpected.)
“Readers want to participate in the process of discovery,” Doty explained in an interview on the Leonard Lopate show, and as a writer, Doty excels at bringing his readers along with him as he moves from uncertainty to recognition, from curiosity to revelation.
“We long to connect,” Doty once said, but “we fear that if we do, our freedom and individuality will disappear.” “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” is all about this tension between individualism and community. The skeptical narrator slowly lets down his guard, and in the process, experiences insights that are both humorous and moving.
“Messiah (Christmas Portions)” is one many notable poems in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems. The collection was awarded the National Book Award for poetry and lauded for both its emotional range and skillful exploration of beauty. As the Poetry Foundation notes, with his “emphasis on beauty Doty brings an attention to the particular, and a deep engagement with the world. Or, as Elizabeth Lund put it in the Christian Science Monitor, ‘Mark Doty holds a magnifying glass to his subjects. He uses language as a way to highlight a moment, elevate it, and unearth hidden depth and meaning. Fire to Fire…illustrates how he has done this over the past 20 years.'”
“Poetry is a vessel for the expression of subjectivity unlike any other,” Doty remarked in an interview in the Cortland Review.
“A good poem bears the stamp of individual character in a way that seems to usher us into the unmistakably idiosyncratic perceptual style of the writer. I think we’re hungry for singularity, for those aspects of self that aren’t commodifiable, can’t be marketed. In an age marked by homogenization, by the manipulation of desire on a global level…poetry may represent the resolutely specific experience. The dominant art forms of our day—film, video, architecture—are collaborative arts; they require a team of makers. Poems are always made alone, somewhere out on the edge of things, and if they succeed they are saturated with the texture of the uniquely felt life.”
Today, I’m sharing two video versions of “Messiah (Christmas Portions).” The first is of Mark Doty reading at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival. This version of the poem is funnier, and I like the fact that we can laugh along with the audience. The second version, produced by PBS NewsHour, intercuts Doty’s reading with his own thoughts on the poem, as well as scenes from a local community performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Enjoy and Merry Christmas!
About Mark Doty
Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2008. His eight books of poems include School of the Arts, Source, and My Alexandria. He has also published four volumes of nonfiction prose: Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Heaven’s Coast, Firebird, and Dog Years, which was a New York Times bestseller in 2007. The Art of Description, a handbook for writers, appeared in 2011.
Doty’s poems have appeared in many magazines including The Atlantic Monthly, The London Review of Books, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The New Yorker. Widely anthologized, his poems appear in The Norton Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry and many other collections.
Doty’s work has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Whiting Writers Award, two Lambda Literary Awards and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. He is the only American poet to have received the T.S. Eliot Prize in the U.K., and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill and Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Foundations, and from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Doty lives in New York City and on the east end of Long Island. He is Professor/Writer in Residence at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Two new books are forthcoming, both from W.W. Norton: What Is the Grass, a prose meditation on Walt Whitman and the ecstatic, and Deep Lane, a new volume of poems.
You can explore Mark’s work further by visiting his website.
An Update on the Gwarlingo Membership Drive
Thanks to all of the readers who have contributed to the Gwarlingo Membership Drive. Instead of selling out to advertisers, I’m “selling out” to my readers instead! 70+ Gwarlingo readers have contributed so far and just over $5300 of the $15,000 goal has been raised.
This week, I mailed out Rachel Perry Welty’s artist book, 24/7, to ten lucky Gwarlingo donors (see the photos below).
The interactive Member Profiles available to donors who give $50 are more are proving to be popular, and because Welty’s artist book sold out so quickly, I have added a new perk for $100 donors–a limited edition catalog by Margaret Lanzetta. If you haven’t donated yet, you can check out my video and all of the member rewards here on the Gwarlingo site.
Stay up on the latest poetry, books, and art news by having Gwarlingo delivered to your email inbox. It’s easy and free! You can also follow Gwarlingo on Twitter and Facebook. You can browse all of the Gwarlingo Sunday Poets in the new Sunday Poem Index.
Looking for the perfect gift? The Gwarlingo bookstore has an assortment of book titles on my personal recommendation list, including poetry, fiction, art and photography books, and more. A portion of your purchases benefit Gwarlingo. You can also make purchases from your favorite independent bookstore through IndieBound. A percentage of your purchases made through this link also benefit Gwarlingo.
“Messiah (Christmas Portions)” © Mark Doty. The poem originally appeared in Sweet Machine, and was also published in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems. Videos courtesy the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the PBS NewsHour. “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” was shared with permission from the author.