Questions for reading groups about


The Twelve Poems of Christmas, Volume Four.

Every year that she is Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy selects twelve Christmas poems for Candlestick Press.

This little series of Christmas poetry pamphlets is the perfect choice for book groups wanting to end their year on an exciting and festive note. As quite a lot of reading groups tend to concentrate on fiction rather than poetry, not least because readers of novels do not always feel very confident about discussing poetry, these pamphlets of twelve poems form a perfect introduction to poetry and discussions of it, since they have a common theme – Christmas and the New Year – and each poem can be discussed either on its own merits or as it fits into the mini-anthology as a whole.

Participants can also bring along a poem about Christmas that is their own favourite. Below are some questions that could be used by book/reading groups as the basis for their discussions.

Some general questions


Do you like the chosen poems? 

Any favourites in particular, and why?  Any you particularly dislike, and why? 

Do you find all of the poems easy to understand, or are there any that you have struggled with?  Did the struggle annoy or intrigue you? 

Have you come across all of these poets before and if not, are there any that you might want to follow up, read more of? 

Does it spoil your reading of these twelve poems that some of them may not be up your street?  Or have you found that you just read the mini-anthology cover to cover and loved all the poems?


The way this year’s pamphlet is structured, there is an informal chronology, ie from the Annunciation through to the New Year.  Do you think anything is gained by that?  Can you think of other ways of structuring such an anthology?  Eg by alphabetical order of poet?  Do you like the way the anthology’s moods change?  Do  you like the balance between short and longer poems, serious and entertaining?  Do you think children would get anything from any of the poems, if so which ones?  Do you think all the poems would in fact be of interest to children? 


Do you like the range of different styles?  Some of the poems rhyme, some don’t.  As you look at each poem, perhaps you might like to discuss the structure the poet has used and think whether you feel it works? eg from Ogden Nash’s rhyming verses, the rhyme in the Siegfried Sassoon poem and the Ruth Pitter through Alice Oswald’s use of repetition and then Esther Morgan, where there are different sorts of controls to create the effect she is after.


One of the things that is most fascinating about comparing notes with other people is how different everyone’s taste is, and our understanding of poems likewise differs.  There are poets that some of us ‘get’ that leave others cold, and vice versa.  Moreover, sometimes a poet can leave you cold for years and then, when you come back to them, you find that you now ‘get’ them.  If you were putting a Christmas poetry mini-anthology together, would you use any or all of the poems in this year’s selection or quite different ones?


Have you found it worthwhile reading these poems and discussing them, even those poems you didn’t feel were for you?


Some specific questions about each poem


Among Women by Esther Morgan

A very atmospheric poem.  Do you like it?   Often the atmosphere of a poem is the most memorable aspect of it (for example, Walter de la Mare’s classic, The Listeners).  Do you feel you have got to the bottom of this poem?  Do you think this poem has a bottom to get to?  What are you left with after reading this poem?    


Various Portents by Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald’s poem is absolutely huge in its scope; it’s like a searchlight. Do you like this poem and if so what is it that appeals to you?

Are there any particular lines, ideas or images that grab you?  This poem suggests so much in so many directions all at once.


Camels of the Kings by Leslie Norris

This poem is so much fun, telling the Christmas story from the perspective of the kings’ camels, who are accustomed to rather more service and fuss than they found in Bethlehem.  Do you know any other of Leslie Norris’ poems?  Arguably, this poem is about the ideas of humility and revelation surrounding the Christmas story.  Would you agree?


Snow by Louis MacNeice

Take the last line – “There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.” It begs the question, “What, then?”  Any thoughts?


The Boy who laughed at Santa Claus

Would you describe this as a children’s poem?  Is there such a thing as a children’s poem?


December Stillness by Siegfried Sassoon

Although this is not strictly a sonnet (for a start, it only has twelve lines, not fourteen) it somehow feels like a sonnet.  Would you agree?  Where does the sense of movement forward come from, in the poem?  The poem feels like a journey in itself.


Year Ending by Caroline Cook

This is such an original poem.  Is it a nature poem?  The word “tranced” at the start of the line bang in the middle of the poem seems to flick a switch in the poem and also changes the sound of it; “traced” would have teamed up with “rakish” but “tranced” attaches itself to the word “charged” in the line below, like a cobweb catching on a thorny hedge .


Planting Mistletoe by Ruth Pitter

This is a mysterious, magical, glowing poem.  It reads in part like a gardening manual, and is also a spell, an incantation.  What do you make of it?  


New Year Behind the Asylum by David Constantine

This poem is absolutely brilliant, yet can be quite uncomfortable to read aloud.  It is so powerful, so devastating and so full of compassion and humanity.   What are your own thoughts?  Have you found it difficult to read aloud?


The Year’s Midnight by Gillian Clarke

Like some of the other poems in this selection, this poem seems to straddle lots of different ideas – historic, biblical, environmental.  Above all, it is so beautiful.   Do you find its tone optimistic? Pessimistic?


‘Ring out, wild bells’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

This poem comes from the sequence In Memoriam, that Tennyson wrote in memory of a close friend who had died suddenly, when young.  So in fact the poem is partly about trying to overcome grieving; the poet is looking to the new year to help him get over his loss.  Though it is about a lot else besides.  It’s one of those poems that you think you know well and suddenly realise just how much more is in there than you had ever realised, and why it stands out as so extraordinary.


The Mistletoe Bride by Carol Ann Duffy

This is a new poem written specifically to be the last poem in this year’s pamphlet.  It has the most wonderfully Blue-beardy, gothic echoes.  If you think about the colours, or absence of colours, in the poem, do you think that is one reason why the ending is so clever and vivid?  What are the other reasons that make the ending so effective?



kindly provided by Candlestick Press