Bright Lights In The Long Dark – some Yuletide thoughts

Writing, particularly writing poetry, is an unpredictable thing. When you let your imagination off its leash so that it can flood you with images or drown you in patterns or wash you away with emotions, you can never tell where you’ll end up.

I started this post intending it to be a light piece of Yuletide cheer to help me beat back the gloom of these winter solstice days when darkness rules for longer than the light. I thought about the places in the mountains and the North countries where they hold fire ceremonies either now or at the spring equinox to remind themselves that light is possible, that winter cannot last forever and that summer will come again.

I began by looking for poems about the winter solstice, to give me food for thought. I found ‘The Shortest Day’ by Susan Cooper and I thought, ‘That’s perfect. That sums up what I wanted to say and it makes me smile. I can add an image and the post will be almost done.’ Here’s the poem shown against an image from Liestal’s Chienbäse.

So the shortest day came, and the year died, 
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world 
Came people singing, dancing, 
To drive the dark away. 
They lighted candles in the winter trees; 
They hung their homes with evergreen; 
They burned beseeching fires all night long 
To keep the year alive,
 And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake 
They shouted, reveling. 
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them 
Echoing behind us—Listen!! 
All the long echoes sing the same delight, 
This shortest day, 
As promise wakens in the sleeping land: 
They carol, feast, give thanks, 
And dearly love their friends, 
And hope for peace. 
And so do we, here, now, 
This year and every year. 
Welcome Yule! 

I should probably have stopped there but I’m a restless poetry reader and my eye fell on a very different poem, ‘To Know The Dark’ by Wendell Berry. Read it and see what you think.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. 
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
 and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, 
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. 

I found it to be a spooky, slightly ambiguous poem. One of those pieces where I can feel the power but where the power is unsettling. On the surface, it seems like a poem about acceptance. But there seems to be more to it than that. To me, this poem felt a bit like the voice of the Winter Solstice.

I still didn’t have the sense to leave well enough alone. I decided not just to offer up these two poems as counterpoints but to write something of my own.

What came out is not a festive, up-beat, isn’t-Yule-cool? kind of thing. Please feel free to skip it if that’s what you’re looking for.

The poem I wrote is a little grim and not what I expected to write but it was clearly what some part of me wanted to say.

So here is ‘When Darkness Sings’. Make of it what you will.

The young rage against the dark
For depriving them of light
And put their faith in fire and flame
To bring back the day after the longest night.

The old listen to the song that darkness sings
Through the limbs of snow-shrouded trees
and hear not a lament but a lullaby 
offering sweet release.

For half the world is darkness
And not all of life is light.

When fire and flame are embers
And what you seek is rest
Darkness reaches for you
As an honoured guest.

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