Fortunately, they can also bring — the parties having ended — time to read. And for those situations — in which we have complex feelings but no hard knowledge — humans have devised poetry, an art form representing attitudes, states of mind, forms of not knowing, “this not being sure, this careless / Preparing” (John Ashbery), “the clear expression of mixed feelings” (W.H. Auden).
The famous Poetry Project in Lower Manhattan, based at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, holds a marathon poetry reading on New Year’s Day, when over 100 experimental and countercultural poets stand up and read their work for several minutes apiece: The whole thing takes at least 10 hours, with spoken-word artists and pop groups joining more traditionally minded creators of verse.
But you don’t have to get onstage, much less visit New York, to find poems that greet the New Year. Other than Burns’s song, the most famous (and the most pessimistic) poem in English to do so is probably Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” written for the end of the 19th century, looking forward (accurately, alas) to an age of total war. Hardy stops at “a coppice gate” in rural England on the night of Dec. 31. He’s out for a walk to calm his fears, but he fails. Instead, he looks up at the night sky and sees nothing that can cheer him: “Every spirit upon Earth / Seemed fervourless as I.” He might — so sad are the prospects for the year to come — be seeing “the Century’s corpse,” with “the wind / His death-lament.”
Then he listens again: Beyond and over the wind, as the year turns, the poet hears one thrush, putting a sense of the future, or possibility, into fragile birdsong. That darkling thrush (“darkling” is archaic English for “at night” or “at twilight”) seems to sing about “some blessed hope, whereof he knew / But I was unaware.”
Hardy cannot know what gives the bird hope, since the bird is not singing in English, nor in any human tongue; but he can imagine that hope exists. This song of the unseen suggests for Hardy what any new year could suggest for us: Whatever we know is coming, whatever we see, there’s always the chance of something extra, something more.
Hardy — a thoroughgoing political liberal used to political defeat — sometimes said that he wrote about worst cases so we could appreciate what we have.
A more optimistic poem for the new year — and, as of 2020, a Twitter favorite — is Lucille Clifton’s “I am running into a new year.”
Clifton valued simplicity and valued African American everyday speech so highly that her work was consistently underrated by white critics (myself very much included) in her lifetime. She saw the oncoming year as a way to hold on to earlier versions of herself and to “let go / of what I said to myself / about myself / when I was sixteen and/ twenty-six and thirty-six.” The new year works for Clifton almost as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur work for Jews. It’s an opportunity to address uncertainty, by making resolutions and by seeking absolution. Clifton concludes, with a trio of first-person verbs: “I beg what I love and / I leave to forgive me.”
The late W.S. Merwin (U.S. poet laureate in 2010) gained attention for melancholy and timely poems about ecocatastrophe. (One of his first and best is even entitled “For the Anniversary of My Death.”)
Even Merwin, though, could use the new year as an occasion for hope, for reminding himself that few things are fixed, that the probable is rarely the inevitable: “[O]ur hopes such as they are,” he concluded in his poem “To the New Year,” remain “invisible before us / untouched and still possible.” The poem gains more power when you see it beside its double, Merwin’s bittersweet “To the Parting Year”: “Already we cannot imagine / where you are,” the poet tells the vanished time. “What we remember of love is starlight.”
Any or all of these poems could leave us looking up at the night sky, as January begins, and thinking we might be okay. Yet, not all the poems we can read for the new year have such glowing resolutions. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Brazil, January 1, 1502” remembers the arrival of European explorers and soldiers in that country, “each out to catch an Indian for himself.” That new year brought nothing but grief to the indigenous peoples of what was called the New World. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Boston Hymn,” which he read in Boston Music Hall on Jan. 1, 1863, addresses the subject of the Civil War, speaking in the voice of a just God:
Pay ransom to the owner,And fill the bag to the brim.Who is the owner?The slave is owner,And ever was. Pay him.
But we don’t have to go all the way back to the Civil War to find poets who dread, as well as hail, the start of January. Composed in unfashionable, un-modern rhymed couplets, Auden’s long poem “New Year Letter” addressed the terrifying turn from 1939 to 1940, from the coming of war to its unmistakable presence, as “a scrambling decade ends.” “Where to serve and when and how? / None escapes these options now.” Much of the poem instructs Auden’s friends and Auden’s audience and Auden himself to slow down, take a long view and try not to panic: “Time can moderate his tone / When talking to a man alone.”
Trying to help us keep our options open, looking back on his own choices, the Auden of “New Year Letter” rebuked himself for having tried to tell other people how to live and what to do. “Time and again,” he had: “Adopted what I would disown, / The preacher’s loose immodest tone.” If he felt culpable, though, so could we all: The more we read history, the more we attend to current events, the more (he might now add) each of us drives or flies or turns the thermostat up or puts carbon into the air, “our equipment all the time / Extends the area of the crime / Until the guilt is everywhere.” The disillusion, and the anxiety, that came to Auden with daylight on New Year’s Day filter in near the end of his long poem:
Delighted with their takings, barsAre closing under fading stars;The revelers go home to changeBack into something far more strange,The tightened self in which they mayWalk safely through their bothered day,With formal purpose up and downThe crowded fatalistic town.
A style you might expect to make things crystal clear instead, for this poet, identified the uncertainty that came with him into a new decade. Such poems as these — and others yet to be composed — might help us, in 2020, live with our own uncertainties, too.