Poetry Friday: Another new year’s poem (Or, I have got to get out of 1942 and move on with my life)

So, here we are, another Friday passing and I’m still mired in Ellen Glasgow, and out of poems I’m familiar with for 1942.  I need both to find some more good 1942 poems and to finish that novel.  Anyhow, so as not to leave your weekend unpoemed, I thought I’d pull out another poem about the new year—last year I posted two, after all, so why not again here to acknowledge 2012’s passing and 2013’s arrival?  This is a poem by a poet previously unfamiliar to me—Kenneth Patchen, who wrote this verse entitled “At the New Year” in 1939.  I share it with somewhat reduced commentary (in comparison with my usual musings) and a pledge that I’ll spend the time I’m saving trying to read further through my current Pulitzer novel.  Anyway, here it is—Kenneth Patchen’s “At the New Year”:

“In the shape of this night, in the still fall
of snow, Father
In all that is cold and tiny, these little birds
and children
In everything that moves tonight, the trolleys
and the lovers, Father
In the great hush of country, in the ugly noise
of our cities
In this deep throw of stars, in those trenches
where the dead are, Father
In all the wide land waiting, and in the liners
out on the black water
In all that has been said bravely, in all that is
mean anywhere in the world, Father
In all that is good and lovely, in every house
where shame and hatred are
In the name of those who wait, in the sound
of angry voices, Father
Before the bells ring, before this little point in time
has rushed us on
Before this clean moment has gone, before this night
turns to face tomorrow, Father
There is this high singing in the air
Forever this sorrowful human face in eternity’s window
And there are other bells that we would ring, Father
Other bells that we would ring.”

Some brief thoughts to share—I like the rhythm of the first 3/4 of the poem, the long string of phrases that feel like a breath drawing in more and more and more until at last the air comes forcing out in one long statement at the end.  I like the expanse of those in-breaths in part because they feel almost liturgical and sacred as they stack on each other, the prayer offered for everything from “these little birds” to “the deep throw of stars” (love that phrase) to “the sound of angry voices”, as incongruous as some of those negative images are in this context.  I also like how the poem juxtaposes two very different moods and purposes—the whole poem seems to be building to make a request of the “Father” (God, I think we can safely presume from context?) and yet no request ever comes.  Rather than seeking the Father to do something—to hallow these humble places, to dwell in these empty spaces, to be or to act in any way—the poem’s purpose in the end is revelatory, not intercessory.  It is a declaration to the Father—in all of these things of earth, and before anything else comes to interrupt or distract us, we hear the high singing and the sorrow of the human race, and we say that “there are other bells that we would ring”.  What bells are these?  Why do we speak of them?  I have my own theories.  I think the speaker is being bolder than the phrases may suggest—that what is being hinted at is that we don’t want just another new year, but something world-altering, a turning that overturns something about the cities and fields that are familiar to us.  Just how apocalyptic this vision might be, or how radical the poem’s underlying message is, I don’t think I can fully say.  But it gets me thinking, and I hope it gets a few of you thinking also.

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One comment on “Poetry Friday: Another new year’s poem (Or, I have got to get out of 1942 and move on with my life)

  1. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for pointing out the breathing in the first part of the poem. I like it. Then, there is something about those bells – I have heard them before.

    Yes, they are in Tennyson’s portion of In Memoriam which relates to the New Year:

    Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
    The flying cloud, the frosty light:
    The year is dying in the night;
    Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

    Tennyson’s bells are wild but musical; they affirm Tennyson’s belief in possibilities: “Ring out the old/ ring in the new.” Both sets of bells mark an entirely artificial transition from one year to another, “this little point in time.” Patchen didn’t choose this point any more than Tennyson. Yet, while Tennyson seems to turn the future over to unnamed forces to “ring out the darkness in the land,” Patchen suggests we may have some responsibility for what happens, for “the other bells that we would ring.”

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