The Christmas Ogress

We would visit the old river valley again,

Seam of silver below black mountains,

our dream of a time

when people lived simply,

at peace with the landscape,

walking and working there.

In the dark of winter, in the festival of light,

Even the old women wore crowns

Flaming like flowers. .

At night, at dusk when the light fails and the fire is low.

we long to travel there.

Yuletide stripped of our disappointment, our city sophistication.

And yet… if the stories are true,

There lives also Gryla, rarely seen.

Screaming down from her cave

above the icy mists.


Flying high out of the smoke and fire,

Flying high over the lava fields,

Comes Gryla, in the shape of an eagle,

From her eyrie in the mountains

She strikes down to the little towns in the river valley

Consumed with a hunger she knows not, assuaged by nothing except…


Scolded, the children stand by the fire,

round eyed at the tale,

Slap still stinging on their bare legs.


Gryla, Gryla, Gryla

Oh then comes Gryla

Gorging on their innocent delicacy.


Wikipedia tells us that Grýla was not directly linked to Christmas until the 17th century and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening”. In the folktales, Gryla can detect children who are misbehaving year-round and at Christmas time, she comes down from the mountains to search nearby towns and devour naughty children for whom she has an insatiable appetite. The legends comment that there is never a shortage of food for Gryla.

My route to Gryla, whom I did not know before, was a thought-journey to the North – via Radio 3 Northern Lights themed programmes which also took  me to Tanya Tagaq’s extraordinary voice and the soundtrack to Nanook of the North, which brilliantly evoked the strangeness and vastness of the inuit landscape.

But also to another soundtrack – composed by Valgeir Sigurdsson – called Draumalandith.  Written post the Icelandic financial collapse, it is a critical and creative response to a sense that everything was going wrong in modern society.  In the sleeve notes to the CD, Andri Snaer Magnason writes:

“The book Dreamland was written during a time in Icelandic society when dissidents gained power in the fields of privatisation, energy and foreign affairs.  The revolution was a quiet one, a ‘peaceful’ one, and many considered it to be sensible and furthermore, inevitable.  …. When the world at large seemed to be moving towards new technology, new methods of communication and generally a more environmentally friendly mentality, the Icelandic government decided to invite companies and corporations of questionable reputation to come to Iceland, to take advantage of – and eventually destroy – manyh of the country’s most valuable resources.”

“Flying over the Fljotsdalur waterfalls that are no longer there, a solitary viola is our guide, and we can sense the threat…. We fly over the sand pyramids on Vatnajokull, in the direction of an area that is to be destroyed because of a short-term gold rush.  The shrill brass tones resonate and contrast with the heavy, impenetrable silence. “

The first track  – which I like so much – is called Grylukvaedi.  I found a website that gave the Icelandic lyrics and used Google to translate them – with some very obvious failures to give acceptable English translations. The poem I am in the process of making is not a translation, therefore, but takes off from a very faulty translation, further very faultily interpreted by me, also, I am sure, before taking me off into my own thoughts.   Partly about the wholesale destructiveness of humanity, it is also particularly about its manifestation not just in our wars and corporate ravishing of the land and its peoples, but also in what we are doing to perpetuate that when we frighten children with tales of being eaten by ogres if they don’t behave.  A story that became attached to Yule, that precursor of Christmas. Our own modern version is that ‘Santa’ won’t bring any presents to naughty children  (and many European Yule stories are anything but stories of generosity and love). And yet we  maintain a perhaps idealised – fantasy-nostalgia of a simpler, more ‘natural’ past where people were happier – a Christmastime of family jollity and togetherness.  But life was and is harsh for many if not most, and people were harsh in how they faced it, and taught, beforce, their children that harshness.

So to my mind, there was always Gryla, in even the most paradisal of imagined worlds. We conjure those ideal worlds – our Edens from which we know we have banished ourselves – as flowers of light in our darkness, desperately fragile, falteringly hopeful. Ever to be treasured and sheltered from the icy blasts.

And perhaps I am saying that Gryla is always part of us and part of what we are and what we fear – the ravening, destructive part of ourselves that pitilessly (but rationalised as necessary) brings childish innocence to an end.  And in the music I heard our sorrow for our own part in destroying it, and our sorrow for its part in our own loss. Hardest of all to think about is the satisfaction we feel – Gryla’s lust in her cruelty;   something that we do not easily allow ourselves to know – hence the ‘it’s for your own good’ excuses we make. Fracking is good for our economy, for example.

And, on another plane, Gryla is imagined as a woman – the dark fears of woman as an elemental force of destruction – the perversity of eating her own children, consuming the future and its resources – that stalks the deepest imaginations of humans all over the world. Life giver and life destroyer.



There it is – poem by Jayne Cortez


And if we don’t fight

if we don’t resist

if we don’t organize and unify and

get the power to control our own lives

Then we will wear

the exaggerated look of captivity

the stylized look of submission

the bizarre look of suicide

the dehumanized look of fear

and the decomposed look of repression

forever and ever and ever

And there it is



Where in the world does poetry belong? Rogan Wolf

By roganwolf April 7th, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

I run a project called “Poems for…” It  offers poem-posters free of charge for public display. Many of the poems are bilingual, with over fifty different languages represented so far.  The poems go far and wide – to schools and libraries and healthcare waiting rooms.

I have just remembered a piece I wrote as the introduction to my very first report on the project. It contains some general thoughts on the role of poetry in a society where, once their schooldays are past, most people barely ever read a poem – yet often look for one when a funeral has to be organised or during a love affair. I think the piece still holds good, even though it was written ages ago.

For the project has been running since before the Millenium. During that time, it has had many funders and much support, the earliest from the UK Poetry Society when Chris Meade was its Director. It was thus the Poetry Society who received this first report, written in 1999. Here is the introduction, very slightly revised.

“This project [then called “Poems for the Waiting Room”] takes place against a background in which poetry as an art form appears to have regained a popularity and acceptance it has lacked since Edwardian times.

Obviously this cannot be said without qualification. Publishers continue to find poetry books hard to sell. The Oxford University Press caused a stir a few years ago by closing down its poetry list.

And yet some poetry sells enormously. Ted Hughes’s poetry is neither easy nor comfortable. But his last publications before he died were bestsellers.

Here are some other random indicators for poetry’s renewed place in people’s lives : the evident popularity of the BBC programme “Poetry Please” ; the success and huge influence of “Poems on the Underground,” which has spread to bus services and even to telephone booths, and in different versions has been developed in cities across the world ; that astonishing issue of ‘The Guardian’ in the the middle of the First Gulf War, when a photograph of a lorry driver burnt to death in the desert appeared in the news pages, with a long new poem by Tony Harrison underneath ;  the research industry which recently seemed to gather round poetry in more than one university, evaluating its “therapeutic” benefits, and from time to time attracting a flood of correspondence from social workers, counsellors and similar care workers, many of them already using poetry extensively in their work, unsung and on their own account ; the wide range of organisations that now take people on as Poet in Residence and – more subjectively – the impression one has that an interest in reading and writing poetry no longer requires one to take cover in some “arty” coterie or secret isolated self, so that in more and more places and situations, there seems a new openness to poetry, perhaps even a hunger for what it can offer. Only a few years ago, the very subject caused embarrassment almost everywhere outside the class-room. Not now. No longer does poetry need be mumbled. For some reason it has re-joined the language of the main-street.

It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that even though the public appears largely unwilling to buy it in book form, in other media poetry has begun to live and flourish again. Perhaps it is looking for a new home, a new form of delivery.

The reasons for this resurgence of poetry as an art of the mainstream can only be guessed at.

I should like to present some of my own ideas here, since I think they are relevant to the “Poems for the Waiting Room” project. Inevitably the ideas overlap, but I shall try to set them out as distinct items.

First, poetry is a way of making sense of our surroundings, our emotions and how we live. Not from the detached point of view of the laboratory technician. But from the perspective of the ordinary person in the human feeling middle of it all, struggling through. Our ability to comprehend and find sufficiently meaningful our lives and environment is essential for health and well-being. But this has surely never been harder to achieve. For human beings everywhere the familiar is dissolving around us at faster and faster rate, and traditional frameworks and explanations no longer satisfy the vast majority. So, at some level, all of us are left detached and groping. And perhaps as a symptom of that lostness, people have turned again to poetry.

But this puts poetry in an impossible position. It cannot offer explanations as such. It cannot be a philosophy or religion. Nor, in my opinion, can it “heal” in the way a treatment heals a particular condition.

But what it can do is offer words from an ordinary human place that give shape and meaning to a common human experience. In this sense it can make sense of things, serving both to validate and to bridge, both to affirm and articulate a private emotional human experience and to create a link between people who can identify with that experience. Thus, not a cure as such, but an antidote. Not a prescription, but a tapping into an essential human process, holding us together in the human community.

Secondly, at the end of the second millennium, the average individual’s experience of self is radically different from that of any previous time. In our age as never before, we have to be continuously conscious of ourselves as members of the limitless multitude, the whole of fragile Earth’s population, the vast TV audience, the rush-hour hordes, the “Market,” the Electorate. Even while the adverts cajole us to “get away”, treat ourselves, celebrate and pamper our particularity and uniqueness, we live much of our lives and are addressed on all sides as objects en masse, recipients of one manipulative “spin” after another, customers, passengers, blank figures in the crowd. The human race has never loomed larger or more potent ; at the same time and even despite the Internet, the human individual has perhaps never felt smaller or more meaningless.

Again, this is surely relevant to poetry and its resurgence. For, of all the arts, poetry is perhaps the most purely individual, and in finding and marshalling public words and resonant meaning for inner and private experience, it reminds us of, and can sometimes perhaps restore us to, the largeness and centrality of the individual human self. Furthermore, if the poem’s any good, it talks direct and open-hearted, whole person to whole person, I to Thou. It’s not a slick sales-patter, some overhanging cloud you have to peer behind or defend yourself against. It talks a true language. It is naked and searching for you.

Which leads to the third and final suggestion. For the last few years politicians and philosophers have been talking much about Community, the need for mutual belonging, for the feeling and experience that there is a circle you belong to wider than your own. It can perhaps be said that the present Labour Government owes some of the strength of its position to the widespread yearning for a greater sense of social cohesiveness, in contrast to the furious materialism and anarchic self-interest of the previous two decades.

In some strange way I believe that here too poetry has found a role. For not only does a good poem add to a sense of individual significance, it adds to a sense of connection between people, and not just between writer and reader but between everyone ; in the very act of getting through and speaking to people, it affirms our commonality at the deepest emotional level. In this sense poetry renews community every time it is recited, breaking down our separateness and desolation. So here too the present renewed interest in poetry perhaps reflects a wider yearning, in this case for connectedness.

Other suggestions and explanations can be made and have been. What is common to the three offered here is that, assuming we are right that poetry is experiencing a renewed importance in our cultural and social life, it is doing so as a symptom of human neediness in times of enormous change and strain. It is tempting to think of poetry as some sort of cure. But this I think would be presumptuous. While I personally believe poetry actually can make things happen (pace WH Auden), at least in the sphere of the inner person, and certainly I think it can act helpfully and healingly, I hesitate to lay claims for poetry it cannot meet. Poetry can make waiting rooms more human. But it won’t turn them into treatment rooms or rescue us from the predicaments of our time.

I would like to pass on and offer a few brief reflections on the waiting room.

It is a truism that the pace of modern life is frantic. The waiting room is one place in the world where all of us at some point are going to have to pause for a while, like it or not. Whatever use we find for our normal franticness, it will not help us here.

Another feature of the waiting room is that for many of us it is a place which reinforces our sense of essential powerlessness. It is the antechamber of a system we have resorted to, in whose hands we will be helpless, but whose powers we need. Our normal routines and defences have proved insufficient. We are here to some degree as supplicants.

Furthermore, it is an impersonal place. Not just a room full of strangers, it is a room representing an organisation and a discipline whose approach to the individual is likely to take little account of him/her as a whole person, with  a familiar name and a unique history. The average health waiting room leads to a surgery where you are likely to be addressed and treated in terms of immediate presenting symptoms, of groupings, of categories.

So the waiting room is a profoundly democratic place. Like aging and death, it levels us. It is a place of tension and anxiety but also of human potential, in which people have a chance to reflect and be enriched. And it’s a place that could do with the human touch.

I would now like to make a point or two about the Health services I work with and where this project has been piloted and where it mostly belongs. (On the other hand, what about railway and airport waiting rooms ? What about sitting rooms in old people’s homes ? What about private sitting rooms ?). In my experience health services of all kinds are profoundly under stress, as a result not just of the demands on them – the quantity of those demands and often the intractable and scarcely bearable quality of those demands ; not just the inadequate resources, low pay, low morale, the “culture of blame” increasingly referred to by cautious politicians ; not just the unsure ethic of care which has not yet recovered from Thatcherism and remains shaky and uncertain ground from which to work. All of these things and maybe more combine to make centres of social and health care often rather difficult to approach and difficult to work with on a new idea. This is not in any way an accusatory statement, not is it an attempt to create an alibi to explain the delays there have unquestionably been in this project. It is simply to record the fact that workers of all kinds dealing on a day to day basis with much distress, inundated at the same time with continuous changes of policy in a climate of top-down management directives, waiting for disaster and to be pounced on by disaster-hungry reporters, tend increasingly to look out on the world outside their walls with dread and suspicion. Defences are up and responses are slow. A project to do with putting poetry up and about may well come as a delightful relief and opportunity for generous action and a human touch, but it is unlikely to be put on the top of an overcrowded action priority list. And, just possibly, in touching on emotions that people – to get by – cannot allow themselves to feel, it may actually be unwelcome.

I would conclude this piece with a brief personal statement. I believe my enthusiasm for the “Poems for the Waiting Room” project is two-fold – that it truly democratises poetry, bringing it to a place where at some point every man, woman and child has to pause ; and that it can help to humanise an impersonal space in which people can feel particularly lost and at sea.

My chief concern for the project is that there’s a danger we shall expect too much of it, that the yearning its initial success surely represents is for something greater than poetry can possibly satisfy. It is essential that we continue to choose the poems with great care for their accessibility and applicability. But even if we do, and manage to resist the temptation to put poetry up on every blank public wall, or use it to fill every possible moment of communal quiet, it is possible that the spiritual yearning from which poetry is presently benefiting, will soon move on. There is an opportunity here to make warm and honest human language count, perhaps as never before. But it is an opportunity not to be grabbed. We must grasp it, yes – but carefully, feelingly, sparingly.”


More from Rogan and ‘Poems for….” here: and  and  a ten-minute film made of Rogan performing in the Large Meeting Hall of the Friend’s House last year.