Julie Blake: Turkeys Just Want to Have Fun?

Every autumn at Poetry By Heart we have fun creating our Festive Poe-Tree, a digital anthology of poems – classic, contemporary and diverse – arranged in the shape of a Christmas tree with 24 little doors as in an advent calendar. From 1-24 December a door is unlocked each day and children and young people can open it to find a festive poem. It’s completely free for everyone to share and enjoy at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk

The Poetry By Heart Festive Poe-Tree is for children and young people aged 7 to 18. For the younger children there is plenty of Christmas magic, for the older pupils Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ and Frank Horne’s ‘Kid Stuff’ offer perspectives more in tune with adolescent questioning. Langston Hughes’s Christmas poems have been largely ignored by anthologists but they are some of the best and we’ve included the delightfully modern ‘On a Pallet of Straw’ and quietly traditional ‘The Carol of the Brown King’. 

Frank Horne and Langston Hughes were twentieth century African-American poets writing with and against the grain of conventional Christmas tropes. We’ve included poems by contemporary black British poets Benjamin Zephaniah and Valerie Bloom that also go with and against the grain but in a very particular way: through giving voice to the turkey’s perception of Christmas. If there were a battle of the poems between Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘Talking Turkey’ and the old classic ‘The Night Before Christmas’, amongst children ‘Talking Turkey’ would surely win. ‘Baffled Turkey’ by Valerie Bloom is less well-known but equally funny and joyful.

Talking turkey poems are not, however, a uniquely modern phenomenon. In 1914, the African-American poet Paul Dunbar published Speakin’ O’ Christmas and Other Christmas and Special Poems. This features ‘Soliloquy of a Turkey’ in which a turkey notes the suspicious behaviour of its keepers and takes action to avoid an obvious fate, the comedy tempered by a visceral sense of mortal danger and the necessity of fleeing. There is a parallel sense of the atrocities of white history here. We won’t include the poem on the Poetry By Heart Festive PoeTree because it includes offensive references by the turkey to its black keepers. No doubt Paul Dunbar intended all kinds of comic inversions but they don’t work now. It’s a shame as children might otherwise have enjoyed this historical antecedent to the talking turkey poems they so love.

In a comic manner, talking turkey poems invite us to look at Christmas differently and to hear a different perspective within an otherwise very dominant discourse of ‘tradition’. We’ve tried to change the perspective in other ways too. So many Christmas poems for children envision a multitude of presents, tables weighed down with food and happy families in secure homes. It’s not going to be like that for an awful lot of children. By way of counter-balance we’ve included Holly McNish’s ‘You Do Not Need a Chimney for Santa Clause to Come’ and in the context of war in Europe our opening poem, Berlie Doherty’s beautiful ‘The Sky is Black Tonight’, ends with the word peace three times. 

We hope you will find poems in this collection to enjoy and share with children and young people. We’d love to hear from you if you’d like to make a recording of one of this year’s poems to go into the digital Festive Poe-Tree, if you have other poem recommendations, or if you might collaborate with us next year on a competition for new Christmas poems. Get in touch via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.  Find out more about Poetry By Heart at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk

Julie Blake

Dr Julie Blake, FEA, FRSL(Hon), co-directs Poetry By Heart. She researches and writes about the history of poetry for children, creates digital and print anthologies of poems for children and young people, teaches poetry pedagogy and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry in the school English curriculum. Get in touch via julie@poetrybyheart.org.uk