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Come what may: poetry for the new year

Come what may: poetry for the new year

In a recent online search, I came across “Good Riddance, But Now What?” by that master of light verse, Ogden Nash: 

Come, children, gather round my knee;

Something is about to be.

Tonight’s December thirty-first,

Something is about to burst.

The clock is crouching, dark and small,

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Like a time bomb in the hall.

Hark! It’s midnight, children dear.

Duck! Here comes another year. 

Given the wars raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, our upcoming primaries and presidential races that are likely to make MMA matches look like child’s play, and our ongoing culture wars, Nash’s poem should give us all pause. Most of us may be happy to wave a heartfelt good-bye to 2023, at least in its public manifestations, and look with expectation, as is our wont, to better times. As Tennyson writes in his poem of the New Year, “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” we’re hoping to “ring out the false and ring in the true”:  

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in. 

All well and good, but suppose that fuller minstrel never shows up? Suppose the turn of the calendar page comes not with the ringing of glad bells but with foghorns and klaxons?

Whenever disaster strikes, and on whatever stage large or small — more inflation and shortages, a job lost, the death of a loved one — hard times demand resilience and courage if we are to carry on. If we need reinforcements, we can often draw on friends and family members for this strength. Literature, film, and podcasts can also offer inspiration and solace. In biographies, histories and novels, we can read the stories of others who have triumphed over catastrophe and loss. In movies ranging from “Cinderella Man” to “A Quiet Place,” we receive examples of men and women who battle the odds and win their fight, and the Internet is replete with podcasts aimed at encouraging our inner warrior.

And then there’s poetry.

If we’re looking for words to rouse our spirit of fortitude and grit, poetry possesses one advantage over these other genres: concision. It comes as a flash of lightning on the page, a thought as stark and memorable as a solitary winter tree. Here we’ll look at three of these poems.

When William Ernest Henley was just 16, doctors were forced to amputate his left leg. Over ten years later, when they thought the right leg also required amputation, he sought medical treatment elsewhere, and after several surgeries on his foot, the leg was saved. From this came “Invictus,” his poem on the stoicism and the endurance of pain and suffering, which ends “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Known best for her poem “Solitude,” which I recommend, Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “The Things That Count” recommends the old virtues as shield and sword against trouble and sorrow:

But it is the doing of old things,

Small acts that are just and right;

And doing them over and over again, no matter what others say;

In smiling at fate, when you want to cry, and in keeping at work

when you want to play—

Dear, those are the things that count. 

You might also enjoy Wilcox’s “Will,” which echoes Henley’s sentiments, and her poem “The Year,” which is excellent New Year’s fare, with its emphasis on the rhythms of time and change.

 A favorite of mine is Peter Dale Wimbrow’s “The Man in the Glass,” originally titled “The Guy in the Glass.” Here he urges on us that old axiom from Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Here’s the beginning:   

When you get what you want in your struggle for self

And the world makes you king for a day,

Just go to the mirror and look at yourself

And see what that man has to say.

For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife

Whose judgment upon you must pass;

The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life

Is the one staring back from the glass. 

You can find these poems online. If these don’t work for you, you can search online for “poems about courage and strength, where you’ll find classics like Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” a valuable poem for the young in particular, and more contemporary verse like Maya Angelou’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” Take them as you might take a medicine, or better yet, as a vitamin, when you’re lost and afraid, and looking for the spiritual energy to face down adversity. As a powerful aid to these poems, you can listen to some renditions of them on YouTube. Particularly well-done are those put out by Redfrost Motivation.

And if you’re looking for New Year’s poems in general, words to welcome January, once again just search online.

Here’s hoping for the best of the New Year for all you readers.

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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