Poetry Sunday: “Yuletide,” by Hilary Sideris

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I like poems that surprise me, and this one did. I’d been trolling the internet for poems that felt right for the season and was getting concerned that if I read one more poem mentioning mistletoe or the Christ child in the manger, I might blow my proverbial eggnog, or at the very least have to avoid the online world until the holiday season had passed. Then I found “Yuletide.”

When studying poetry we focus quite a bit on titles. And endings. And everything in between—right? But titles occupy a special spot in poets’ hearts, for they often—especially in this clickbait era—determine whether a poem will be read at all. Even before the internet, poem titles were important, not just in deciding what to read from a table of contents, but also to readers who enjoy sampling from a poetry book by leafing through its pages until a poem—often by title—catches their eye.

Titles are important, if not as hooks to draw readers in in the same way that journalists use a lede, at least as thresholds that must be crossed to get into the poem. And though there are exceptions—Emily Dickinson famously did not use titles—the best poems generally make strategic use of their titles to augment, subvert, or otherwise advance the work done in the poem itself. James Wright’s titles, virtual poems unto themselves, are case studies on point: “As I Step Over A Puddle At The End Of Winter, I Think Of An Ancient Chinese Governor,” “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” and of course, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” That third title, from what is perhaps Wright’s best-known poem, feels languid and listless, a dramatic contrast to (but great setup for) the poem’s last, short, urgent exclamation: “I have wasted my life.”

In grad school I was taught that that titles offer opportunities that should not be overlooked, and the best ones do “heavy lifting.” Some function as the poem’s first line, others as the top of a frame completed by its last line. Titles can convey vital scene-setting or time-period information that otherwise cannot be shoehorned into the poem. Yeats’s “Easter of 1916” tells us, before the poem begins, that it concerns a particular time, place, and event (Ireland’s Easter Rebellion). Titles can also do more than relate to or describe something in a poem—they can invoke its very essence, as in Akhmatova’s “Requiem.” Yeats was another poet who understood the power of titles, and some of his give away the plot up front (“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”) while others are inscrutable (“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”), at least until the poem is read. Titles can function seriously or ironically as in Gerald Stern’s manifestly non-sonnety “Sonnets.” Sometimes, like in today’s poem, they offer the quality of surprise.

Titles can also set—or upset in this case—tone. They are a poem’s “first impression,” and how we remember most literary works, how we find them again. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser says titles are the “first exposure [a reader] has, and you want to make a good impression.” Or not—some titles clearly are not out to do that. I agree that they offer the first chance to make an impression but would add they also offer the chance to make a last impression, because many readers tend to go back to the title again after they have finished a poem; some people even view titles as the “functional last line” of a poem. I’d also quibble with the adjective “good.” Yes, titles are the first chance to make an impression. But it doesn’t have to be a “good” one, unless you define “good” as “not boring.”

Titles often do provide clues as what a poem is about, and they can be handy for relaying information, such as the time or place in which a poem is set, or, as in Neruda’s Everyday Odes, like “Ode to My Socks,” what inspired or occasioned the poem. But they are also the beginning of the contract between poet and reader, so it is generally a good idea not to build expectations in the title that the poem does not fulfill. A happy exception is today’s poem, setting up an expectation (of a schmaltzy “Christmas poem”) that it does not fulfill—and that, reader, is the whole point.

WikiHow tells us here how to do everything nowadays, so it’s no surprise that it has an entry for how to write a good poem title, offering three tips: 1. Use keywords and details in the poem; 2. Refer to the poem’s tone or content; and 3. Keep the title short and catchy (unless you are James Wright). Okay, I added that last parenthetical, but you get the point—rules, especially in poetry writing, can take you only so far. Under that first tip, the article advises looking for words (or images) that recur and seeing if any work as a title—or, choosing synonyms or homonyms for those words, or even antonyms. Another strategy is using the name or names of characters who live in the poem, or the name of the place, season, or even mood in which the poem happens. Trust me, there are an awful lot of poems called “Melancholy” or “Autumn” out there—I’ve written a few. Use of a refrain or other repeated element for a title is a time-vetted strategy, as is repeating the title in the poem’s last line to create ring construction.

WikiHow’s second tip advises choosing a title that reflects the tone of the poem as a whole, but it can also work to choose one at utter odds with that tone, as in Langston Hughes’s “Life is Fine.” The final tip essentially boils down to formatting and the advice to “keep the title short and catchy.” Short works (unless you are James Wright) and catchy is generally good because both attributes command readers’ attention and help in later recall. An example of a great title that embodies qualities is Melissa Stein’s “Want Me” in her newest (and very wonderful) collection, Terrible Blooms (Copper Canyon 2018). Because of its injunctive mood, that title literally grabs us and makes us do something. And what it makes us do has distinct erotic connotations that only bolster the title’s appeal.

Writers are increasingly using poem titles as a way to bind poetry collections as a whole, something seen in Terrence Hayes’s astonishing new book, American Sonnets for my Once and Future Assassin (Penguin 2018), where every poem begins with that phrase, like “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous]” and “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison].” This device is used to wonderful effect in Dean Rader’s Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a book whose poem titles (e.g., “Apocryphal Self-Portrait”) often contain the word “self-portrait.”

Strong titles use memorable language, and often language embodying action or tension, even oxymoron. “Rape Joke” by Patricia Lockwood comes to mind, two words I’d never have thought to put together but that work very effectively to cue the heavy irony that pervades that powerful poem. All the Light We Cannot See is a book of fiction, but its inherent oppositions make it one of my favorite titles of all time; another is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. People generally counsel avoiding cliché in titles (unless the cliché is the point), and come down in favor of words or phrases with double or multiple meanings. Action words can make great titles (Snow Falling on Cedars, Things Fall Apart), along with titles that put things at stake (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), or evoke a powerful myth or symbol (Leda and the Swan). Character names, particularly in persona poems like Frank Bidarts’s “Herbert White” and Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” can be effective, as can be quirky titles like Philip Dyck’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A title is a threshold, reader, but that does not mean that it needs to be easy to cross. All it needs to do is make you want to cross. Sometimes it’s low and easy to surmount, sometimes it requires more effort, and sometimes, it is designed to trip you on the way in. Today’s title does that. When I saw “Yuletide” I thought something along the lines of “Oh no, not another poem crammed with nostalgia and holiday platitudes,” but that expectation was, mercifully, thwarted in the reading of the poem.

One result “Yuletide” works is that it made me think harder about the title than I might otherwise have done. What the heck is “yuletide” anyway? It reminds me of a kenning, that Nordic device (like “whale road” used to describe the sea) that jams two nouns together to make a third, descriptive and evocative word. “Yule” evokes Christmas, of course, specifically the Ye Olde English Christmas of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “A Christmas Carol.” I am guessing “tide” refers to tidings, as in “Tidings of Comfort and Joy.” But it also brings to mind the idea of tides and an overflowing. Go here for an interesting article about the etymology of ”yuletide.” In any event, “yuletide” makes us think at first that we are going to get news of Christmas—a sort of holiday card. And if you do think that, reader, you are wrong.

The tone does clue us into the poem’s time frame and setting, seemingly a holiday party, which we get from that “little black dress” and “raised a glass.” However, “Yuletide’s” festive, Dickensian Christmas tone gets blown up almost immediately with the words “Swedish / translator.” We are taken aback, but in a good way that—here is the crux—makes us want to keep reading. The poem does this again and again, saying things and then blowing them up. For example, “I liked her, half / smashed in a little black / dress” sounds flirtatious, but any expectations we have about that are dashed when we learn later that the Swedish translator stole the speaker’s future husband.

Line breaks are one way the poem accomplishes its project of setting up, then thwarting reader expectations. We assume “raised a glass” describes a holiday toast until we read on to learn that the glass was raised “to bash the man.” In the next line we learn that the bashing victim is the speaker’s former boyfriend, the one she’d “soon take back” and, in another next-line reversal, would eventually “marry.” It is not until the poem’s very last two lines that we fully understand the title and its deep irony, “This time / of year I think of her” lacing the treacle of Dean Martin’s holiday song with sharp, bracing wit. It’s the rum in the eggnog, reader, and it’s wonderful.

The poem is only 12 lines and 44 words long, very short free-verse lines that together make up a single sentence, but it is like flash fiction, a mini-novel, telling the classic love-triangle story. By the end we understand that the speaker attended a holiday party also attended by her former boyfriend and by the woman, that there is a dramatic scene with the man and woman, and that sometime after the party the speaker winds up marrying the man. We get a wealth of information about the “other woman”: she is bright (“translator”), exotic, sexy (“Swedish”), and elegant (“little black dress”)—in other words, a triple threat. We also understand that the boyfriend has done something—met with the speaker, maybe?—that inspires the Swedish translator’s volcanic rage. All that is in the past, viewed from a present in which the speaker and man wind up the winners of the love lottery. The short lines held in a single sentence convey urgency and speed in a kind of action equivalent of the classic lyric, capturing the experience of a single moment in time.

The poem’s lines  break across expected grammatical pauses to introduce secondary meanings, sometimes in ironic contrast with the actual meaning of the complete grammatical phrase. Consider the first four:

She was a Swedish
translator whose name

I don’t remember,
but I liked her, half

“She was a Swedish,” read by itself, conjures stock associations that come with “Swedish”—blond, sexy, and strong—but these are undercut completely by the word “translator” that follows; a “Swedish” person evokes something very different from a “Swedish translator.” “Whose name” makes us think we are going to hear the woman’s name, but the next line, “I don’t remember,” subverts this expectation. “But I liked her, half” reads like “I half-liked her,” changed in the next line when we realized that the adjective “half” actually relates to “smashed” to tells us that the Swedish woman was drunk. This setting up and then overturning of expectations is something that happens, line to line, all through the poem.

Diction is plainspoken and simple, composed entirely of one-syllable words except for “Swedish,” “translator,” “marry,” and “macho,” contributing to the sense of brevity and speed that characterizes the poem as a whole. Words are chosen carefully for their effect. The Poet’s Note tells us that the poem is based on an actual event in which the Swedish translator was really Turkish filmmaker. Just think about how the poem would change, and what would be lost, if Sideris had not made that change. “Bash” is one of those inherently funny words that introduces an element of slapstick into the scene. The poem’s ending is interesting, and the thing that ultimately explains its title. “Yuletide” describes a very particular “time of year,” as the speaker evokes not the clichés we associate with holidays but something much more personal, authentic, and even painful. The poem’s concept, then, provides its own antidote to the saccharin holiday associations of the title. In spite of myself, I was hooked by it, then was drawn in by the breathless, energetic style offering a fresh take on an old story of love, loss, and redemption. In the end, I felt surprise, delight, and wisdom, the hallmarks of a great poem.

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