Sunday, 4 January 2015

Magi Vagantes - A poem for Epiphany

I thought it would be fun to post a poem for Epiphany. I wrote this poem over the past couple of weeks. Horror of horrors, it's a sestina! (If you don't know the form, more info here.) I've never attempted a sestina before (and, if I'm honest, I'll probably never try one again!).

This sestina's genesis lies in a conversation I had recently with Michael Symmons Roberts about 'form' and its problems and opportunities. He compared writing poetry to the work of a composer. He suggested that, as poets, if we're serious about 'making' and 'craft' we should be open to the varieties of form. Just as a musical composer will explore all forms and avenues during her/his formation, so should the poet. We should 'practice the scales' and be cognisant with all the forms, even if we cannot ultimately 'own' them.

Form imposes limits. Certain possibilities are revealed and some cut off. Michael challenged me to work more seriously with form. As a lyric poet often trapped in what Helena Nelson calls 'Contem Po' this is a proper challenge.

I wrote the following as a 'serious joke'. That is, I thought I'd take Michael's points seriously, but try a form I'd never normally even consider, for the lols.

Given that sestinas are part of the troubadour singing tradition, I found myself writing what is effective a folk tale, with lots of folk-style song references. I can't pretend it's great, even by the standards of sestinas (Which ain't everyone's cup of tea and which may even be a 'dead' form), but as an exercise it was exhilarating. Have fun! And have a 'revealing' Epiphany!

Magi Vagantes

A bone, God wot! Sticks in my throat —
Without I have a draught of cornie ale,
Nappy and stale, my life lies in great waste.’ – Old Drinking Carol

In the version I heard they weren’t kings,
but beggars drawn by the rumour of drink,
the chance to warm their feet for a night.
And for gifts? They carried nowt,
but herpes and fleas and armfuls of rags,
singing Tosse the Pot and divers filthy tunes

while the good tried to sleep. Dance tunes
fiddled through the faded city of kings,
courtesy of The Guising Company of Rags,
as the old lags – desperate to score a drink –
rattled tavern and church door, turned up nowt.
(For who really welcomes sots at night?)

But beggars have hymns to Old Mother Night,
and so they sang, Send sack and merrie tunes!
Send comfort, ever wild and free! For nowt
in this vile lyfe, O Mother of Kings,
compares to thee! Grant skinfulles of drink,
send your star, your bright son, The Prince of Rags!

For when your world's been turned to rags,
what’s left but a cup of comfort at night,
a fire and some grog to drink?
It’s no sin to be cheered by bawdy tunes,
to search in grubby places for kings,
knowing that palaces promise nowt.

Did they find the place where those with nowt
receive robes of grace, raiment for wet rags?
You judge. They found fire worthy of kings,
a family hiding out for the night,
and The Company sang divers raucous tunes
and all took turns to hold the kid. To drink

in the blaze from his eyes, the fiery drink
which fixes stars to the blackened nowt
of the skies, calls forth angel tunes,
makes you forget you’ll only ever wear rags.
Tells you if life offers you nowt, but ice and night
sometimes in song you’re warmer than kings.

In the version I heard they were beggars in rags
mumming tunes for drink in the night,
pockets full of nowt, richer than kings.


  1. I did enjoy this, following the rhyme through its intricate pattern and appreciating a very different interpretation of the Magi story.

  2. Perpetua I'm glad you enjoyed this so-called trashy poem. It is at its best insulting and at its worst blasphemy.

    1. Anonymous, you're welcome to your opinion as I am to mine. I think the Jesus who actively sought out the outcast and unclean would not be offended by it.