Yesterday, I swam a bit in my melancholy, offering up a poem by Linda Pastan on the juxtaposition of beginnings and endings: specifically, death and the New Year. This was a good thing for me to do for me—heaven only knows if it worked for anyone else (judging by the comments, it did for my good friend Paul Hamann: thanks, Paul!). But I did leave it feeling that neither Linda nor I had really gotten it right, despite our best efforts. And then today I was directed by happy chance to a poem by former Poet Laureate (and 2-time Pulitzer winner) Richard Wilbur entitled “Year’s End”, and the work gives in almost excruciatingly gorgeous fashion the words both Pastan and I did not quite find yesterday. Without further ado, for this year’s end (and the next year’s beginning), “Year’s End” by Richard Wilbur:
Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.
I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.
There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii
The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.
These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.
For me, Wilbur captures with seemingly effortless beauty the bittersweetness of these thresholds in a way I marvel at. (And in end-rhyme that is perfectly understated. There’s a reason he’s a Laureate and we’re not, my friends.) Poetry should do this to us—open up words for the feelings we cannot frame, and push us to see something marvelous in our own lives. The hushed, almost inaudible phrases with which he describes the glow in our houses—the “gathered light”, the “shapen atmosphere”—awake in me a realization of the comfort of being in a home, wherever that is. Wilbur is dancing down paths Robert Frost knew well, which is part of what I love about the poem, since it’s clearly an homage to Frost’s view of the world but also clearly original and not remotely imitative of Frost’s structures (the ones I know, at least).
The description of the frozen leaves alone, a sight I know very well (I imagine most of us do), brought me up short with wonder at his phrasing. I mean, come on—“graved on the dark in gestures of descent”? What Muse did this guy bewitch to win these words, and where can I get her number? And the thing about the poem that inspires perhaps the most elation, for me, is the way he ties these homely visions—the snow-filled streets, the living-room lamps, the leaves dancing in ice—to the grand motions of time. To the ashen figures of Pompeii, the creatures of lost worlds adrift in unmelting snows, the fossils locked for epochs beneath the soil. We become part of something greater as Wilbur links image to image with a steady hand and a bright eye. He knows where he is going.
I’m still wrestling with the last stanza, but in this case I think it’s because it’s saying exactly what I want to say for myself, and I’m still figuring out how to do that. Portions of it (“more time, more time”) feel like last words, and others (“the sudden ends of time must give us pause”) like a benediction. Mostly I’m struck with the tension he is winding between the first and last stanzas—the way the new year’s bells do battle with the “settlement of snow”. He’s doing good work, whatever it is he’s doing. I’ll be pondering this one a while.