New Year’s Eve holds a lot of promises. Whether you’re hoping to complete your resolutions and hoping for big changes, or just going about business as usual, January 1st marks the beginning of something. The start of a new calendar year, new bills, new paychecks, another school year, birthdays to celebrate.
We are hopeful on December 31, but there is no magic in the clock striking 12. We wake up in the morning the same as we were the day before—with our own bodies, our experiences and our thoughts. There’s no harm in seeing January 1 with fresh eyes, but we must be the agents of change in our lives.
The holidays are a busy for me, between family events and eating leftover food, it’s difficult to find a time to write. But writers learn sooner or later that we can improve by simply reading more. If you’ve seen my “Tranquil Tuesday” posts in the past, you won’t be surprised that I found a poem to bring in the new year. “To the new year” by W.S. Merwin embodies that beautiful feeling of hope that reminds us what is possible, despite what happened the day or year before.
To the New Year
by W.S. Merwin
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
What makes you, you?
People tend to compare themselves to others at different stages of their lives. Sometimes these comparisons can help us set goals and find confidence in our identity. You might have seen yourself in a parental figure or a celebrity. But have you ever felt like lion at heart or a graceful fish in the water? Has your soul felt as one with a leaf falling slowly from its tree in autumn or have you found yourself ingrained in the cobblestones of a city?
That’s the spirit of Paean to Place by Lorine Niedecker: We see ourselves in others, like family, and also in our surroundings. I read Niedecker’s work for the first time as a college freshman, and sometime during that class I copied some of my favorite lines into a notebook. Unfortunately after almost a decade after “discovering” this writer, I’ve never seen anyone share her work. You can read the entire poem here.
—————FishfowlfloodWater lily mudMy lifein the leaves and on waterMy mother and Ibornin swale and swamp and swornto waterMy fatherthru marsh fogsculled downfrom high groundsaw her face
Looking back to the past for help
“Paean to Place” centers around a woman who we learn several things about almost immediately. She was from an area constantly flooded by water. She grew up poor. Her parents are dead.
It is written in the past tense so I always read it as the narrator looking back at her life. She is not only remembering things, but recounting her story in order to accept who she is. I’m pretty sure of this as I get to the last stanza. Read it on your own and let me know if you agree.
So she’s a product of her surroundings? Yes, but more than that. She finds that herself and her parents can be described in reference to the water or the creatures living around it. Things that help her construct an identity and figure out what’s important.
Up in the sky and in the water, she was surrounded by birds that she knew by their official names: Plovers, sora rails, canvasbacks, woodcocks. She remembered all of their sounds (even wishing in one line, that her mother could hear them). At one point the girl considers herself a “solitary plover”. Like the marsh birds, she had a unique song and one outfit. She wore it as long as the birds kept their feathers. (Apparently seven years). But as much as the girl wants to be like them, ultimately it’s the wings that really set them apart. Her feathered neighbors had more freedom to leave the marsh in which they resided. This is pretty sad, given that within the first few stanzas she reveals her parents dreams: “that their daughter/ might go high/ on land/ to learn.Niedecker’s narrator does not have feathers but “a pencil/for a wing-bone.” Words are what carry her out of her difficult world. This is the line that really resonated with me. (Please leave your sarcastic gasps for the end of the show. I’m sure that other writers and lovers of words will feel the same.)
—————You with sea water runningin your veins sit down in waterExpect the long-stemmed bluespeedwell to renewitselfIt seems that the girl, now a woman, left her home in an effort to escape the water and the flooding. She’s different now. But when she returns to visit her parents’ graves, the narrator finds herself a part of it all again.Though she tried to be a bird and fly away, it’s not the wings that were missing. Her identity was shaped like the water lillies, irises and speedwells that spread around her. Ordinary flowers grew toward light and pleasant conditions, but these survived flooding and grow on top of graves. She had just grown roots in one place for so long, but that was okay.The water haunted her but it also renewed her, and gave her life.————–O my floating lifeDo not save lovefor thingsThrow thingsto the flood————–It’s not easy to figure out what defines us. For me, like in Niedecker’s poem, there’s always been a small battle going on to accept things that have shaped me for better or worse. Those things can feed us and help us grow instead of keeping us down.
So what would you say has shaped you? Is it something that holds you back or helps you forward?
During the week, some of you get an early start for work or whatever else you have in store for the day. A poem like this one by Campbell McGrath reminds me that there’s someone — whether human or animal — who’s up at the same time, getting ready for another day. It makes me feel better, but of course a large cup of coffee helps as well.
You can also read the poem and find out about the author here.
On a side note: Tranquil Tuesday has become a project for me to discover new poems, so I would love to hear suggestions for poems that you enjoy. If you’ve written something you think would be a good fit, I’d love to feature it as well.
Feel free to share your suggestions in a comment below or on Facebook.
Hope everyone’s week is off to a good start.
You know that feeling when you say a word over and over again, and all of a sudden it’s no longer understandable? It becomes an alien word that’s void of all previous meaning. This is actually called semantic satiation — your brain becomes so overwhelmed by words that it has to digest and start over.
With that phenomena in mind, I think it also roughly covers what reading poetry feels like. I’ve heard so many people say that they don’t like poetry. Poems can be intimidating when you can’t translate the meaning, can’t relate to it or find it difficult to read (for a great example, Google: e.e. cumming’s “falling leaf”).
When I read “Tear It Down” by Jack Gilbert, it felt like the perfect poem to share. It’s literally easy on the eyes, with sentences and punctuation. (I think that’s a real poetry standard).
If anything gives you pause, I’d bet it’s around the first few lines when it sounds like Gilbert is repeating words just for the fun of it. Is it semantic satiation in a poem? You’re hearing the words but not getting the meaning.
I want to say that is exactly the point (and I’m sorry!). What the poem tells you comes true. In the first line: “We find out the heart only by dismantling what / the heart knows” and later on in a different way: “We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.” By repeating what might sound like nonsense, unfiltered out of the poet’s mind, is really showing you that you have to “tear down” what you’re meant to think or feel and create your own meaning.
Tear It Down by Jack Gilbert
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.
I would argue that the reasons that people avoid poetry is exactly the reason to read poems such as this one by Gilbert. Because the poem makes you think twice, the possibilities of its meaning become endless. Although the meaning might be about
If you’re interested in Gilbert’s view on poetry and writing, here’s a great interview in The Paris Review.
What’s your take on this poem? Comments are open under the post.
James Schuyler, ‘Past is Past’Imagine this poem as a self-contained moment — like pretending time is still when you gaze at an old photo. “Salute” freezes you for several lines and then pushes you right out of the memory . You realize the past is gone. You cherish it and you move on.If you flip through the works of James Schuyler, you may get the sense that you are reading an artist’s diary. The lines jump around and the poems have different degrees of length and power. “Salute” is the first poem in an post-humously arranged anthology of the lifelong New Yorker’s work.
Much of Schuyler’s work is reflective. There are themes of life and death, the passage of time, and many times he mixes pastoral images with city settings. He writes candidly about pain, loss and dealing with mental illness.
This poem frequently pops into my mind, especially when I reminisce. I stop to smell the flowers and remind myself to move on with a literary “salute.” I think that James Schuyler (considered an original “New York School poet”) is highly underrated and not read enough. Luckily, I was introduced to his work in a college class dedicated to New York City’s poets.
If you have some time, he is worth a read (I have this anthology, with an intro by poet John Ashbery). If you have a lot more time, I’d suggest reading a bit about New York School poets and Schuyler’s life. It should only add layers of history and emotion to his words.
What did you think of “Salute”? What poem would you have featured? Your thoughts, suggestions and comments are welcome!
“The Great Wave” by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai
The ocean’s waves pulse
pulse against my body.
The water is cold and unapologetic.
You sit on the sand and gaze
gaze at shells that might be treasure.
You are sure that they are gold.
I try to float
float over the waves and back to shore.
(I don’t know how to swim).With each move I sinksink under ages of salt.I’ll collect your oysters on the way down.You let the water carry
carry broken shells to your feet.The tide pulls me away.My voice is silence
silence when you finally notice the expanse.
- Cancionilla del primer deseo
En la mañana verde,quería ser corazón.Corazón.Y en la tarde maduraquería ser ruiseñor.Ruiseñor.Alma,ponte color de naranja.Alma,ponte color de amorEn la mañana viva,yo quería ser yo.Corazón.Y en la tarde caídaquería ser mi voz.Ruiseñor.¡Alma,ponte color naranja!¡Alma,ponte color de amor!———————————-
Ditty of the First Wish
(translated by The Line Break blog)In the green morning,I want to be a heart.A heart.And in the mature afternoon,I want to be a nightingale.A nightingale.(Soul,transform to orange.Soul,become the color of love.)In the ripe morningI want to be me.A heart.And in the late night,I want to be my voice.A nightingale.Soul,[transform] to orange!Soul,become the color of love!Federico García Lorca