Monday, January 1, 2024

At the Turning of the Year

Solely by happenstance, this observation surfaced out of my memory during the past week: "The future's uncertain and the end is always near."  An unexpected message for the New Year?  And who might be the source of this thought?  Perhaps Schopenhauer or Leopardi, those cheerful, happy-go-lucky characters?  Or, further back in time, should we look to Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius?  And what of the poets?  For instance, one might imagine Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, or R. S. Thomas arriving at such a conclusion.  (Although I do think that all three of them have been unfairly and inaccurately caricatured as hopeless pessimists.)

The answer is: "None of the above."  Instead, as a member of the baby boom generation (born during the first term of the Eisenhower administration), I am proud to report that Jim Morrison and The Doors permanently planted this unforgettable line in my brain around 1970 or so.  The source (as many of you no doubt already know) is "Roadhouse Blues" from the album (which is what we called those circular vinyl artifacts back then) Morrison Hotel.  And a fine album it was, and remains.  But, have no fear, I don't intend to embark upon one of those by now tiresome baby boomer paeans to the wondrous music of my youth.  (Well, it was wondrous.)

I will, however, say this: "After all, it's true.  The future's uncertain and the end is always near.  And, although it is a truism -- the substance of which has been repeated many times in many ways over many centuries -- there is a certain frisson in having it suddenly arrive near the end of "Roadhouse Blues."  You never know in what guise Beauty and Truth will present themselves.  Be grateful for small and unexpected gifts."

Having listened to "Roadhouse Blues" numerous times this past week, I found myself remembering a lovely poem (which has appeared here in the past):

                         Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)

"Garramor Bay" in turn led me to this (which has also appeared here on more than one occasion):

            Out There

Do they ever meet out there,
The dolphins I counted,
The otter I wait for?
I should have spent my life
Listening to the waves.

Michael Longley, The Ghost Orchid (Jonathan Cape 1995).

"Roadhouse Blues," followed by "Garramor Bay," followed by "Out There": such has been the turning of the year for me.  

Happy New Year, dear readers!

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Road to Grassington" (1971)


hart said...

Here is a beautiful song for New Years by Jennifer Cutting called The Turning Year

Esther said...

And now for the form of Happy New Year that is used once the year has turned—Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

Thomas Parker said...

The poems you shared, with their wave imagery and intimations of the end, immediately made me think of another: "Staring at the Sea on the Day of the Death of Another" by May Swenson:

The long body of the water fills its hollow,
slowly rolls upon its side,
and in the swaddlings of the waves,
their shadowed hollows falling forward with the tide,

like folds of Grecian garments molded to cling
around some classic immemorial marble thing,
I see the vanished bodies of friends who have died.

Each form is furled into its hollow,
white in the dark curl,
the sea as a mausoleum, with countless shelves,
cradling the prone effigies of our unearthly selves,

some of the hollows empty, long niches in the tide.
One of them is mine
and gliding forward, gaping wide.

Dark? Depressing? Grim? Hopeless? I don't find it so. It has that rare virtue, truth. I do not know when my wave will reach me, but until it does I will live all the better for knowing that it is coming.

2024 is here whether we're ready or not. I feel completely confident in predicting that it will be disastrous in ways that we both can foresee and in ways that will completely blindside us. (Mostly that second bit.) That's just the way the world is. Your mention of Thomas Hardy brought to mind his response to those who accused him of unwarranted pessimism:

"It must be obvious that there is a higher characteristic of philosophy than pessimism, or than meliorism, or even than the optimism of these critics — which is truth. Existence is either ordered in a certain way, or it is not so ordered, and conjectures which harmonize best with experience are removed above all comparison with other conjectures which do not harmonize."

No rational person could disagree. But still every day the sun will shine, the rain will fall, flowers will grow, children will be born and laugh and play games and learn to walk and talk and sing and read, people will meet and fall in love and commit to stand by each other for life (and many will fail at that but many will succeed, many more than you would think by reading the popular press), people will be kind and compassionate and will help to lift and carry those who fall, and it will all happen no matter what transient fool occupies the White House. (I mean that description as no insult, being a transient fool myself.)

So, happy new year indeed! We would all do well to hold onto the things that can make it truly happy, for the waves are coming.

John Maruskin said...

R.S. Thomas. I don't know enough about him to speak to the pessimist accusation, but I did, at the New Year, dip into my commonplace book to read "Arrival," and "The Bright Field," (which I copied from your blog) two of my poetic guide lights.

catching this
one truth by surprise
that there is everything to look forward to.


It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of a lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

--The Bright Field

Wonderful. Happy New Year

Stephen Pentz said...

hart: I apologize for the delay in responding to your sharing of the song by Ms. Cutting (and the Ocean Orchestra). Thank you. And, as always, thank you very much for visiting. Best wishes for the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: As I said in my response to your comment on my "Christmastide" post, my delay in responding to your comments means that I have lost the opportunity to properly wish you either "yoi otoshi wo" or "akemashite omedetou gozaimasu." But I do wish you all the best in the coming year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your comment. Thank you very much for sharing the poem by May Swenson (which is new to me), and for your fine meditation on how to approach a new year. I have never read any of Swenson's poetry, but reading this poem makes me want to look into it. I agree with your view of the poem: she is simply stating the truth.

Your quotation from Hardy about "truth" being "a higher characteristic of philosophy" than pessimism, optimism, or any other "-ism" is perfect. (A nice coincidence with respect to Hardy's further comment about "conjectures which harmonize best with experience": just this morning I read this from Hardy's preface to Poems of the Past and the Present (1901): "Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change." "Chance and change" brings to mind the phrase "Change and chancefulness" from his poem "The Temporary the All." )

I concur with your thoughts about what 2024 may bring us, and about life and how to approach it, given its "change and chancefulness."

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for your long-time presence here. Best wishes in the coming year.

Mark Granier said...

I came across your blog when googling to confirm that I'd remembered correctly that couplet by Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Derek Mahon:

(Nothing at all, a footfall on the road,
yet more mysterious than guide or god.)

Good to see that it resonated for someone else.

Happy new year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: I completely agree with your thoughts about R. S. Thomas, and your quotes from "The Bright Field" and "Arrival" are perfect examples to support your point. As you say: "Wonderful." "The Bright Field" is my favorite Thomas poem, and "Arrival" is certainly among my top five. This is why I included the parenthetical disclaimer in the first paragraph of the post about Thomas (along with Hardy and Larkin) as being "unfairly and inaccurately caricatured as hopeless pessimists." He had a brittle and grumpy side, but the beauty is always there, as the lines you quote demonstrate.

I also think of "Abersoch," "The River," "Return" (a companion of sorts to "The River"), "Llananno," and "A Blackbird Singing," all of which have appeared in the blog over the years. This is not an exhaustive list of the beauty one finds in Thomas. For instance, this also comes to mind (another chapter in Thomas's waiting upon God):


Some ask the world
and are diminished
in the receiving
of it. You gave me

only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.

A belated "Happy New Year" to you as well. I wish you all the best in the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Granier: I'm pleased you found your way here. Thank you for your comment. It is a lovely couplet, isn't it? (Both Jaccottet's original and Mahon's translation.) Upon first reading Mahon's two lines, I knew I wouldn't forget them. Like you, I am happy to discover that they "resonated for someone else."

About a week before I received your comment, Mahon's "The Mayo Tao" had come to mind for some unknown reason. (Not the entire poem: my memory is not that good!) I suspect you are familiar with the poem. Having "Nothing at all, a footfall on the road . . ." arrive out of the blue in your comment a week later was a nice coincidence. "The nearest shop is four miles away./When I walk there/through the shambles of the morning/for tea and firelighters,/the mountain paces me/in a snow-lit silence." ("The Mayo Tao")

(A side-note. As he was wont to do, Mahon tinkered with the poem. It began as a prose poem (titled "A Hermit") in 1975 in The Snow Party. It was first called "The Mayo Tao" in 1979 in Poems: 1962-1978, and the prose poem form was abandoned in favor of seven lovely stanzas with lines of varying indentations. In the Collected Poems of 1999, the title "The Mayo Tao" was retained, but the text was reduced to three stanzas, with no line indentations. I greatly prefer the 1979 version, which is quoted above. That version appeared here in a post on March 18, 2020: just as we were entering life with COVID. The poem seemed appropriate.)

Again, I'm happy you found your way here. I hope you will return. Best wishes for the New Year. (The idea of a New Year brings to mind the closing lines of "The Mayo Tao": "I have been working for years/on a four-line poem/about the life of a leaf./I think it may come out right this winter.")