Poetry Review: “Christmas Party at South Danbury Church” by Donald Hall

(photo by m.a.h. hinton)

(photo by m.a.h. hinton)

I have not gone to many poetry readings. Those few I have attend have left me cold… bothered invariably by the demeanor of the poet or of the audience.

Poetry should be read aloud, but poets and audiences should be matched carefully. Only those who know the poet for the bag-of-gas he or she truly is, should be allowed in the audience. There should be no hero worship. And only poets who truly know their limitations should be allowed to read. There is no place for arrogance in poetry, for strutting-pomposity and cock-of-the-walk dramatics.

As I think back on the few poetry readings I have attended, only one came close to meeting this ideal. It was Donald Hall reading at The Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul, a bookstore now long gone.

Hall is a complete writer. As a prose writer, there is no one who writes better occasional essays or who writes better about poetry and the writing life. As a poet he is very good. He is not in the pantheon of great late 20th century poets (Heaney, Hughes, etc…) but he is very good and has written some poems that we could call “great.”

“Christmas Party at South Danbury Church” is a perfect poem for Christmas.


Christmas Party at South Danbury Church
December twenty-first
we gather at the white Church festooned
red and green, the tree flashing
green-red lights beside the altar.
After the children of Sunday School
recite Scripture, sing songs,
and scrape out solos,
they retire to dress for the finale,
to perform the pageant
again: Mary and Joseph kneeling
cradleside, Three Kings,
shepherds and shepherdesses. Their garments
are bathrobes with mothholes,
cut down from the Church’s ancestors.
Standing short and long,
they stare in all directions for mothers,
sisters and brothers,
giggling and waving in recognition,
and at the South Danbury
Church, a moment before Santa
arrives with her ho-hos
and bags of popcorn, in the half-dark
of whole silence, God
enters the world as a newborn again.


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

in the half-dark
of whole silence, God
enters the world as a newborn again.

In these lines, Hall expresses…  in the way that only poetry can… the mystery of the Incarnation, a mystery the church celebrates and wonders-at each year. All the tomes of theology in the world cannot convey what the simple words of “Silent Night” can, what these lines by Hall can. That is the true power of art.

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