How often does a poem generate the pleasurable momentum of a well-told anecdote or short story? Frost and Robinson could pull it off, but not many since. There’s something shameful about telling good stories, judging from most of the recent poems we read (and most of the stories, come to think of it), which is peculiar because stories, telling them and listening to them, are primal human acts. They entertain us and help make sense of the world, and most everyone outside of the nation's English departments enjoys them.
In the car I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Sleigh Ride,” the Leroy Anderson warhorse. She recorded it in 1960 for her album Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. I love Christmas music, popular and sacred, but never paid much attention to “Sleigh Ride” which always sounded prefabricated. The words are by Mitchell Parrish, best known for his lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust,” and they give Johnny Mercer nothing to worry about:
“Outside the snow is falling
And friends are calling 'Yoo-hoo.'
Come on, it's lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you.”
But I listened to the words as Fitzgerald sang. Her voice is my favorite among female singers -- the directness of delivery, the purity of diction, the cool absence of histrionics, the sense of song as superior speech. At her best, Fitzgerald convinces and even makes mediocre lyrics sound convincing. For a few minutes in the car, on a chilly gray morning, I listened to a song about songs -- “gliding along with a song,” “sing a chorus or two,” “We'll be singing the songs / We love to sing without a single stop” -- and about courtship and a postwar vision of Americana. There’s a narrative implied and I had never heard it before. Who is this mysterious Farmer Gray? Such are the thoughts of an under-caffeinated listener on his way to work.
That night, in the December issue of The New Criterion, I read “Home for the Holidays,” a seasonal poem in the form of a shaggy-dog story, by Michael Spence. I started reading and continued because I wanted to know where he was headed: What happens next? By the end of the poem’s 70th line, I'd been absorbed into another world – a good sign of a good story – and the meaning of the title, another tired Christmas cliché, was comically transformed. As Parrish writes at the end of his holiday poem:
“These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives.”