1st December 2000 at 00:00
THE YOUNG OXFORD BOOK OF CHRISTMAS POEMS. By Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark. Oxford University Press. pound;12.99 hbk. pound;8.99 pbk.

How many variations can there be, sacred or secular, on this familiar annual theme? An infinite number, you would think. So the surprises in this plentiful and engaging book are fewer than they might be, yet there are some. Of course, the infant Jesus (star, shepherds, kings, manger and all) has a fair enough share of the verses, but the tale is also told from the view of donkey, innkeeper, Joseph (good versions of Joseph) or chance observer who had no idea what he was witnessing.

See too John Mole's skilful "The Other Shepherd", who, old and tired, prefers to sleep while the others race off after the star. And why not? What do we make of Mole's final comment: "Tired men prefer sleep to a great wonder"?

Other matters that rouse the muse are childhood memories (plenty of these), gifts and cards. Some writers, John Walsh especially, give thought to the tree - cut down, wonderfully decorated, then cast out - there's no replanting. Well, it happens . . .

Most of the contributors are, technically speaking, "modern". Their work here is not, usually, memorable. What can hold the reader is the subject, or with luck, an occasional phrase or image. These can stay in a reader's mind, prompting efforts to read further or even to try out the curious craft for him or herself.

And the images are plenty. A few poems stay as a whole in themselves. "Sandy's Letter to Santa Claus" by Irene Rawnsley is not a great item, but its coherence and detail are attractive.

Then there's history. John Mole's "The Other Shepherd" has a place here. But the most memorable poem is surely U A Fanthorpe's "BC: AD". It's even worth learning by heart. And Benjamin Zephaniah's splendid "Talking Turkey", a wild plea for making a friend of this noble bird, not a dinner, must not pass without a mention.

The anthologists have not neglected the acknowledged great. Their entries appear in due context. T S Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" is for the adventurous. John Betjeman's "Christmas", one of two poems selected, is somewhat long and pontifical. R S Thomas's "Hill Christmas" ("They came over the snow") is stunning in more senses than one. Robert Graves is welcome always - so is Blake, and, needless to say, John Clare. But the Auden poem "Well, so that is that" is complex and difficult. Best choice of all is R L Stevenson's moving narrative poem "Christmas at Sea".

Turning the pages again, I wish I had space to list or quote from the poems that make this book inviting and pleasurable. They are many. Open it anywhere and you will quickly make your own discoveries.


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