Maybe poets are just unhappy people

Arts on Sunday

There is no human experience that has not been dealt with in literature.  Poetry from its primordial beginnings in ritual, myth and cosmic function tackled real human existence.  The phenomenon of New Year is just one of these issues, and wide and varied are the poems that have been produced to either celebrate or mark the New Year in Western literature.

There are two considerations here, one is that the focus will be on Western poetry, and the other is that while in all cultures the New Year is heralded with great celebrations, many notable poems in English may hardly be regarded as celebrating the New Year, and are more associated with the opposite.   These poems focus the New Year with a Janus-headed approach, looking both forward and backward at the same time, so that the beginning of a new year is hardly countenanced without also acknowledging the end of an old year, and that is where one finds the antithesis of celebration.

It has already been observed in our previous references to New Year poems that there are several written, composed, published and performed to ring in the year in merry fashion, but that the best of them do much more than that.  They do not simply proclaim the season and describe its celebration; they do much more. They often link the season to some important human condition, sometimes to some grave human condition, and a seasonal poem may really be using the season as a base from which to talk about something else that concerns the poet or that seriously affects human existence.  And that is why most of them are not celebratory at all.

Thomas Hardy

That is generally the nature of the best and most memorable seasonal poems, and it is what makes them so much more interesting.  For example, the famous poem that was made into an even more famous song, I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sings of the joyous bells and the atmosphere of Christmas, but it is not celebrating the season at all.  It is more about the death and destruction of the American Civil War, so that the chimes of merriment and good cheer are turned into the tolling of mournful gongs reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s brooding poem The Bells.  So devastating is the ironic twist that when the poem was put to music to become a Christmas song, the verses referring to the toll of the war were omitted.

Another example may be found in the best, most profound and most enduring poem of the season ever written: TS Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi.  Actually it is so profound, enquiring and long lasting that perhaps it is not a seasonal poem at all.  Eliot creates a persona who is one of the Three Wise Men who visited and took gifts for Jesus at his nativity in Bethlehem.  He is not a Christian, and has grave doubts that he was witnessing the significant birth of a great king and saviour of mankind.  He gives a most unflattering description of his journey, was not impressed by what he saw and wondered whether he was experiencing “a birth or a death”.  In fact Eliot mixes images of the nativity with several images of the crucifixion.  Yet the greatness of the poem, the fantastic skill of the poet, is how he makes the Magi uneasy years afterwards, dissatisfied with the old dispensation in his own kingdom, glad to see its “death” and welcoming the change that has come over him and his people after the “birth” that was so unimpressive, but that had brought such change to his life.

TS Eliot

To continue – another of the deep poets, WH Auden, remarks on “the old masters” who “were never wrong” in their continual treatment of the human condition.  He could have been talking about Robert Burns who was one of those old masters.  By far the greatest, best known, most widely performed and most celebrated New Year poem is Auld Lang Syne published by Burns in 1778.  Virtually everyone everywhere in the world sings this song on New Year’s Eve to the point where it has become a ritual at midnight to celebrate the New Year.  Most who sing it recite the wrong words and certainly do not understanding the depths of its real meaning.  It is a drinking song and a love song based on a traditional oral poem collected by Burns in rural Scotland and refined without changing its original Scots language.

But its finest quality, its pièce de résistance, is its rootedness in an expression of human bonding in spite of the separation of time and distance.  It celebrates a drink in a pub (typical New Year’s Eve activity) but is much more about “a cup of kindness” than one of ale.  It is about preserving human links and remembering the things that brought people together in spite of the passage of one year into another.  It is not about “old acquaintance being forgot” but about the timelessness of the bonding and about never forgetting them “for auld lang syne”.

That poem, like most of the worthwhile ones, dwells more on the passing of the year than on the dawn of a new one.  In this regard, yet another work by one of “the old masters” is a part of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s long poem In Memoriam, (1849) which is known to highlight the New Year season but focuses the passing of a year and is really a poem about death.  In these verses Tennyson mourns the loss of his close friend AH Hallam and goes off into ruminating on the dying of the old year as he remembers his friend.  Yet this is counted among the celebrated New Year poems, written in the Victorian era but sustaining interest into the present time.

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

Then there are the works of Thomas Hardy who moved over from the Victorian into modern English fiction and poetry.  Fittingly, one of his great poems was written on December 31, 1900 to mark the turn of the century, so it is both a New Year’s poem and a New Century poem “celebrating” the coming of the 20th cantury.  Celebrating?  Hardly likely.  Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush describes the snow-covered stark, wintry landscape of England as looking like “the century’s corpse outleant,” the death of the 19th century on the morning of the 20th century surrounded by gloom, skeletal images and discouragement.  It was common among early twentieth century poets to take a dim view of the state of mankind and the frailty, directionlessness and doom of humanity.  Interestingly, it was this unflattering vision that actually propelled the emergence of a new wave of modern and modernist poetry, led by TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, WB Yeats and others who followed.

Lord Kitchener

This new modernist approach to poetry was announced by Eliot’s The Wasteland in 1922, (the greatest and most influential poem of the twentieth century). Actually though, Hardy did have a glimmer of hope in The Darkling Thrush, because he described the furious and persistent singing of a bird who “threw” his song “against the gathering gloom” as if he could see some hope and positive sign in the bleak and deathly surroundings.  But the poet confessed that whatever it was that the bird found to sing so enthusiastically about, he “was unaware” of.

Hardy wrote another poem, New Years Eve (1906) a few years later, which this time questions God’s creation of a new year – “And what’s the good of it?”  Pertinently, as a novelist, he was controversial and reputed to be somewhat pessimistic.  Such novels as Jude The Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native and Tess of The D’Urbervilles attest to a deterministic, tragic outlook.  It is a similar tone that he brings to his New Year poem which matches the state of mankind with the demise of a year.

To these may be added other works by such “old masters” as DH Lawrence (New Year’s Night, 1917) as well as Victorian feminist Christina Rosetti or more recent poets such as Emily Dickenson who attach their works dedicated to the old and new years to other deeper personal or social concerns.

But what of Caribbean poets?  Do we find more forward-looking pieces among them?  A few have indeed produced seasonal poems – Mark McWatt and Derek Walcott, for example, but, like the others, they are not exactly in the business of joyous celebration of new prosperous times.  Their works are tied into more complex preoccupations.

There is, however, an old classic which belongs to the region’s celebrated oral poetry.  It is a renowned calypso by Lord Kitchener, Mooma Mooma singing of Christmas Trinidad style with the famous words “Drink a rum an a puncha crema, drink a rum / Mama drink if yu drinkin / Drink a rum an a puncha crema, drink a rum”.  But somehow, despite the superficial merriment, this one too has a forlorn, distant undercurrent of loneliness and desolation.  The persona is in exile in London trying to whip up the spirit of Christmas as remembered in the Caribbean.  He writes to his mother: “Mooma Mooma / I have invited Jamaica…” and he lists other West Indian nationals whom he calls to help him celebrate and recreate a lost atmosphere.  The feel is that everything is at a distance, evidenced in the letter to a mother who is all the way back in Trinidad while the persona tells her he is “over here in the Mother Country.”  That might have been Kitchener’s own experience during the time he spent in England.

The best New Year and seasonal poems are like that.  Not so celebratory, more the antithesis of merriment, harking back to the demise of the past year and dwelling on the depths of the angst of suffering humanity.  They are simply incapable of toasting the New Year.

Or maybe poets are just unhappy people.

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