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John Lundberg

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Poets Find Hope In The New Year

Posted: 01/03/10 10:57 AM ET

We could certainly use a fresh start. It's hard to fathom how much optimism was in the air a year ago at the inauguration. This January, as I watch Obama's health care plan limp forward and get weaker by the day, and feel the recession lingering like the slush on the Brooklyn sidewalks, I find myself missing Aretha Franklin's hat.

Cue the New Year, when even a man as famously dour as Thomas Hardy can find inspiration. In his poem "The Darkling Thrush," he looks solemnly out at the end of the 19th Century. And though to him "The land's sharp features seemed to be/ The Century's corpse outleant" (geesh), there is a hopeful note:

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Alfred Tennyson, too, found hope in the New Year in his great (and sad) poem "In Memoriam," which mourned the death of his good friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Given the context, the phrase "Let him go" has a powerful double meaning.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Today's poets have continued the tradition. In her poem "New Year's Day," Kim Addonizio finds a blessing where few would think to look for it:

Today I want
to resolve nothing.

I only want to walk
a little longer in the cold

blessing of the rain,
and lift my face to it.

And Margaret Avison in her deftly written "New Year's Poem," finds a new appreciation for home and her own space:

Gentle and just pleasure
It is, being human, to have won from space
This unchill, habitable interior
Which mirrors quietly the light
Of the snow, and the new year.

The New Year spurs Philip Appleman to find beauty in an unlikely event in "To the Garbage Collectors in Bloomington, Indiana, the First Pickup of the New Year":

O garbage men,
the New Year greets you like the Old;
after this first run you too may rest
in beds like great warm aproned laps
and know that people everywhere have faith:
putting from them all things of this world,
they confidently bide your second coming.

And finally, Susan Elizabeth Howe's New Year's optimism is undeterred by some bad news from a fortune cookie. Here's an excerpt from "Your Luck Is About to Change":

Ominous inscrutable Chinese news
to get just before Christmas,
considering my reasonable health,
marriage spicy as moo-goo-gai-pan,
career running like a not-too-old Chevrolet.
Not bad, considering what can go wrong:
the bony finger of Uncle Sam
might point out my husband,
my own national guard,
and set him in Afghanistan;
my boss could take a personal interest;
the pain in my left knee could spread to my right.
Still, as the old year tips into the new,
I insist on the infant hope, gooing and kicking
his legs in the air. I won't give in...

May you, too, "insist on the infant hope" this New Year. And if any of your gloomy friends ask why you're smiling so much, just tell them it's tradition.