Off the Northway: Spa City man behind tradition of holiday verse

Inventing one couplet is pretty easy, once you get the hang of it. A full-page poem’s worth is hard.

Hail newspaper readers, you fair lot

Holiday’s here, ready or not

A Yuletide angel whispers to me:

“Is it Brake Light City in Colonie?”

Maybe the style of verse — if not the talent for it — seems familiar. It’s my knock-off of the annual “Greetings Friends” poem that appeared in a Christmas-season issue of The New Yorker magazine for many years, one of periodical literature’s cheeriest traditions.

The page-long poem — revived in recent years by New Yorker writer and editor Roger Angell — is a work of light verse that tosses about generous-spirited shout-outs to contemporary figures from high and low culture, show biz, world royalty, news and politics, even sports.

Straighter paths and a year of growin’

To Tiger Woods and Lindsay Lohan!

Inventing one couplet like that is pretty easy, once you get the hang of it. A full-page poem’s worth is hard. Doing it every year is impossible, you’d think.

Yet a Saratoga Springs native, Frank Sullivan, did just that. He wrote The New Yorker’s first “Greetings Friends” in 1932 and kept it up each year until 1974 — an astonishing feat of literary longevity in my book.

Sullivan was a humorist of exceptional talent who wrote books like “Broccoli and Old Lace” and “A Rock in Every Snowball.” He was a regular New Yorker contributor, and he may have been at his sweetest and kindest at Christmas.

Consider this, from 1960, written just weeks after John Kennedy had edged Richard Nixon in a nasty election, while Dwight Eisenhower was headed for the showers after eight underestimated years in the Oval Office:

From every sporting Democrat

Good Christmas thoughts to Dick and Pat;

For Ike and Mamie, rousing cheers,

And health and peace in coming years …

Can we civilians muster such compassion for the partisans of either party amid today’s surpassingly mean-spirited squabbling?

Sullivan was born in 1892 on the East Side, out near the track. He went off to Cornell. He then worked briefly for the Saratogian, was drafted during World War I and after his discharge from the army landed in New York, making a reputation writing for the dailies and then The New Yorker and other magazines.

Sullivan returned to Saratoga Springs in the 1960s, still cranking out humorous essays and poems and not being averse to a good time with friends at a hotel bar. The lifelong bachelor died in 1976.

The one-liner “This is either a forgery or a damned clever original!” is attributed to him.

Sullivan also created Mr. Arbuthnot, The Cliche Expert, who might have said: “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if this Christmas column doesn’t move at a snail’s pace. Readers really need to be shopping and wrapping.”

So do I. Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, readers, whichever you prefer. And Happy New Year, too.

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