The talk in the air has been more apocalyptic than festive today—it still amuses me that people who could not find the Mayan civilization on a map or name one true fact about the Mayans (up to and including how to spell “Mayan”) are pretty sure that the Mayan calendar is of serious relevance to their lives—but it’s the last Friday before Christmas, a holiday I celebrate, at least, and one I always like to acknowledge with a poem. There’s a lot of Christmas poetry out there, much of it soppingly sentimental, and while that has its time and place I suppose, I like to choose something more interesting or challenging. With that in mind, I offer today a poem from 1925 (in Pulitzer terms, that’s reaching all the way back to So Big by Edna Ferber, for those of you who’ve been around the blog that long) that I read earlier this month and felt it gave me plenty to chew on. It’s a short verse by the great Edwin Arlington Robinson, probably more famous for his depictions of the ennui and angst of modern life in such poems as “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy“, both of which I taught every year like clockwork, and both of which I really love. This little poem, though, is new to me: this is “Karma”—
“Christmas was in the air and all was well
With him, but for a few confusing flaws
In divers of God’s images. Because
A friend of his would neither buy nor sell,
Was he to answer for the axe that fell?
He pondered; and the reason for it was,
Partly, a slowly freezing Santa Claus
Upon the corner, with his beard and bell.
Acknowledging an improvident surprise,
He magnified a fancy that he wished
The friend whom he had wrecked were here again.
Not sure of that, he found a compromise;
And from the fullness of his heart he fished
A dime for Jesus who had died for men.”
Robinson denies us, as is his custom, much comfort in the coziness of human relations, but what reaches me about this poem is how despite Robinson’s pessimism there is something bright shining deep down between the lines. Here we have our unnamed protagonist—a man, perhaps much like us, pleased with himself and his life more or less, happy enough in the convivial air of Christmas and looking forward to the holiday. Somewhere at the back of his mind he mulls over a friend whose business dealings are in some way intertwined with his, but he tries to detach himself from the affair. I get the sense that he “doth protest too much” as he suggests internally that he can’t really be blamed for the consequences of his friend’s choices. Robinson frames the line to make it clear to us that he’s more morally responsible than he wants to admit. The man thinks of this as a flaw in God’s image (that is, humanity)—but is it a flaw in his friend? In the cruel world that can bring someone down so low? Or in himself?
Into this situation the image of Santa Claus is imposed, and he’s a little out of his element, isn’t he? Santa is usually a jolly soul, associated with warm steam rising from a mug of something good, fresh-baked cookies, and the like. But here all we get is that he’s “slowly freezing”, and yet somehow he gets the attention of our “hero”. This executes the turn (that’s right folks, another sonnet—I love the various ways we get to see poets build little octets and sestets that fit together this neatly) and with it something rises in the man’s heart. He envisions the sudden appearance of his friend, a man just brought down by “improvident surprise”, and the possibility of saving him from the wreck. Is this sincere? Or only a “fancy”, as Robinson somewhat glibly puts it? Maybe I have more optimism than Robinson wants to allow, but I see something real at the heart of this sorry scene—like the poem’s central character, how often we wish in retrospect that some action of ours could have been different. We tell ourselves later, after the event, the critical moment where our choice could have made a difference in someone’s life, that we really wish we could go back and help them. We imagine the happy accident that crosses our path with theirs again, and in our minds we see ourselves doing the right thing this time—extending that mercy to the outcast, that charity to the friendless, that risked offer to the hand likely to turn us away out of pride or fear. Like the poem’s figure, we maybe are only kidding ourselves, building an image of a better self in our head that will let us sleep at night. Maybe.
I only know that even the almost comically weak sacrifice that closes the poem has the power to move me. Yes, Robinson’s eye is probably more than half-scornful at that dime cast into the red pot—so cheap an offer to the absent friend we have ruined, so failing a gesture at the figure of Jesus implicit behind the “Saint” in the Saint Nicholas costume, the “Salvation” in the Salvation Army bell. And yet, to quote another literary figure, “so shines a good deed in a weary world”, even the most trivial of good deeds in the face of a world we ourselves make more weary with our faults and our foibles. There’s something tiny but hopeful in its possibility at the end of this poem, I think, because that man casting a thin dime away from himself is acknowledging something about himself and the world as he does—the notion that there are wounds we must give of ourselves to heal, that on some level we are obligated to each other and that, in Western society at least, we choose this time of year when the nights are longest and the winds are coldest to remember humanity. Not just the warmth of those people we draw closest to us in love, either, but the shadows at the edges of our vision, the cold bodies who may not last this winter out if we do not help. So the cheapness of that dime is galling, yes, pitiful in its inadequacy in the face of human need. But it’s also where we all must start, especially those of us as hardened by the world and as shielded from pain by our cynicism as the figures in all of Robinson’s poetry. So I offer the poem today as something to start our thinking about gratitude and giving, about how we see ourselves and who we really are, about what modernity has made of us modern folk and about what we must build in each other. Apart from all the significance Christmas holds for the Christian on a religious level, I think its value and its worth for a society of people unconnected with the church is that its art does turn our heads to thoughts like this each December. May they work on us, and may we work them out in our own lives, and the lives of others.