My Turn: Snow, poetry and peace on earth

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, December 25, 2015 1:02am
  • Opinion

It snowed last night. Enough for the tree tops and boughs to glisten under this morning’s pale blue sky. All is calm in this perfect winter postcard, just like the Christmas Eves I used to know. And I dream of this peaceful feeling lasting beyond all the next mornings’ light.

There’s certainly a lot more to the holiday season than snowy images. But for some reason my Christmas memories wouldn’t be the same without recalling the quiet beauty of a landscape decorated with freshly fallen snow.

Maybe that’s why the Bing Crosby version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” has always been one of my favorite carols. First performed in 1941, it’s also happens to be the bestselling song ever recorded.

All of Berlin’s “songs sound as fresh today as when they were written,” Stephen Holden wrote in a 1987 New York Times tribute to the Russian-born American composer. And he described White Christmas as evoking “a pure childlike longing for roots, home and childhood — that goes way beyond the greeting imagery.”

Nostalgia is a curious thing. It’s the sentimental first layer of the past that covers up all sorts of memories we’d rather not visit. Snow itself can act in a similar idyllic manner by temporarily covering the hard edges of the world outside. And the way it absorbs surrounding noises helps fulfill the “all is calm, all is bright” promises of Christmas Day.

Fresh snow isn’t just a holiday blessing. It can evoke a charming sense of peace almost anytime. Alexandra Indira Sanyal felt it one day in February 2003 while a foot of snow was falling in Boston. The second grader stayed home from school and wrote a simple poem about it.

“Snow so fluffy and soft.

I like to run and jump into it.

It leads to peace and love.

Snow stops war

and fights

that lead to killing.

So snow, come today.”

While Boston was snowed under, Sam Hamill was busy organizing the Poetry Against the War movement. The American poet had been invited to the White House by First Lady Laura Bush to participate in a symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice.” It was supposed to celebrate the works of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. But the event was canceled when word of the poet’s protest reached the White House.

“I am asking every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country,” Hamill had written to his friends and colleagues. He might have been hearing John F. Kennedy’s praise for poets when the president honored Robert Frost more than 50 years go.

“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” Kennedy said. “When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement.”

Young Sanyal was certainly not in the same class as Frost. But the child did touch Hamill’s nostalgic wish for all to be forever calm. He included her untitled poem into the anthology he presented to the White House on the day the symposium had been scheduled.

Of course, neither snow nor poetry stopped the invasion of Iraq. It was worth trying though because poetic words of peace and calm made a difference once before. Even though it lasted just a day, the famous Christmas Truce of World War I began with German soldiers singing from their trenches “stille nacht … heilige nacht.”

Ryan Harvey is a British veteran from the Iraq war who honored those soldiers with a song titled “The Christmas Truce.” In the last stanza he asks us to imagine four question facing them that night, the last one which has meaning for us all a century later.

“You don’t fight, we won’t fight

Will this courage last past Christmas night?

And what will they say in hundred years?

When they look back on what happened here?

What are we gonna do come the morning light?”

May we all experience this white Christmas as merry and bright. And in the dawn of the days to come, may we find courage from the poets who speak out in hopes of creating a lasting peace on earth.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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