starting over

Jan 7, 2021 poetry appreciation

I’m half Scottish but I’m also half Sassenach, and I’ve never really “got” the whole Hogmanay frenzy. New Year’s Eve has often felt tainted with melancholy for me, in a sub-Larkin ‘Death [is] a whole year nearer now‘ sort of a way. This year, though, when surely most of us are hoping for better things to come, I feel really drawn to this poem, the beautiful ‘New Year’s‘ by Dana Gioia. See what you make of it.

In the first stanza Gioia acknowledges that New Year is a time when we can be prone to melancholy, to feeling the sense of time and life passing: ‘This is the feast of our mortality,/ The most mundane and human holiday’. I love the notion of seeing it as the ‘feast’ of our mortality, though: the word implies recognition, honouring, marking, perhaps even celebrating the shortness as well as the beauty of life. This is the truth, and it’s better faced. The imagery in the second and third stanzas recognises how difficult it can be to live in the moment and be present to life: it’s hard to ‘skim’ that ‘palm of water’ and even as you do it ‘leak[s]’. That the river is ‘swift [and] silent’ suggests both how quickly life goes and that it’s easy not to register it if we’re consumed by the bustle and noise of daily living.

In recognising the brevity of life and the challenge of living it fully these first three stanzas are a sort of counterbalance to the final stanza, and prevent its imagery from seeming saccharine or simplisitic. That last stanza acknowledges how human it is to want a fresh start, and reminds us that time stretching ahead of us is always in some sense unwritten. For New Year’s Eve is a fulcrum, a point of balance: the year turns, and this is the moment at which an entire next year lies ahead, ‘uncrossed’, unwasted. The imagery of the beautiful, unblemished snowfield captures this sense of potential: the moment before anything has happened, when anything can still happen. There is an uplift, a rush of pleasure and possibility, in recognising this. How wonderful.

Particularly this year, perhaps, this sense of possibility is so precious. We can’t waste tomorrow, and it may be different from—better than—today. That’s such a good though to take into 2021.

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