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Good Letters

Some years ago, I slipped into my Christmas cards a copy of Denise Levertov’s poem “For the New Year, 1981,” which begins:

I have a small grain of hope—
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I liked Levertov’s image for the smallness of her hope—not at all the raucous tone of “Happy New Year!” which we shout gleefully at midnight on December 31. Levertov’s hope is tiny, while it soundlessly “gleams” like a “crystal.”

This year I poked around in my poetry shelves, looking for other images of what the new year might bring. As some emerged, I thought I’d put them into conversation with Levertov’s poem. First I found W.S. Merwin’s “To the New Year,” which also begins by evoking a hushed quiet as he addresses the new year directly:

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you

Merwin’s hope, like Levertov’s, is small, tentative:

and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

But Levertov’s hope is not invisible. In fact, she continues developing her image of hope as a grain of crystal. She “breaks off” a fragment of this grain to send to her readers, then begs them:

Please take this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.

Despite her tiniest of tiny hopes for the new year, she still offers a “grain of a grain” of it—because, paradoxically, giving away a bit of her hope will keep it from shrinking.

While Levertov looks ahead to the new year, other poets, standing at this point between old and new, look back. Naomi Shihab Nye has great fun doing this in “Burning the Old Year.” She plays with her burning metaphor:

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

This delightful list makes me wonder what of my own past year is flammable: grocery lists, of course; hair salon appointments; daily walks; false starts for Good Letters posts…

Richard Wilbur, in “Year’s End,” looks back more somberly:

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.

I love what Wilbur does here with the tapestry image, though these lines (from near the poem’s end) pack in a lot of complexity. The alliteration of “fray into the future” ties our future to something old and tattered; we’re frayed (unraveled). We’re also “rarely wrought,” and these two alliterated words reverberate with multiple meanings: we’re “wrought” as in created or perhaps as in worked up, agitated; “rarely” as in seldom or perhaps as in exceptionally. Yet in afterthought—in a sort of overwrought emotion recollected in tranquility—we’re no longer frayed and agitated: because afterthought is imaged here as tapestries. And tapestries’ threads aren’t frayed, but are woven into a work of art. Wilbur’s year’s end “gives us pause” indeed.

Levertov’s next move in “For the New Year, 1981” gives us pause as well. After offering us her “grain of a grain of hope,” she does something that changes the poem’s direction in two ways:

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

First, the reader is asked to act: to share her fragment of hope, as the poem’s speaker has already shared hers. But then the reason given for sharing is surprising: only this way will the reader’s own hope grow. And with that image, the poem’s core metaphor transmutes—because crystals don’t grow; living things do.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,
like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots…

Ah! Dividing her hope draws the poet seamlessly into the dividing of flowers, which we do every spring. We do it because the flowers won’t thrive unless their roots are divided—and also because it’s fun to share the newly divided clumps with neighbors. (Levertov was in fact a consummate gardener. I once lived a few blocks from her home and would always pause in awe when walking past her front yard’s spectacular English garden.)

Another poet who images new growth in natural terms is Muriel Rukeyser, in these lines from “Elegy in Joy”:

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the
seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.

Images of seeds and flowers always take me to Pattiann Rogers’s poetry, which caresses the natural world as no other contemporary poet’s work does. I think, for instance, of “From a simple vanilla vortex come voices of the faithful,” which ends with this verse:

Remember, it is into the vortex
of the white orchid of V. planiforia
(from which comes the vanilla bean
and its sensual oils), it is upon the soft
fluted lips of that flower and into the deep
funnel of its elaborate spread that the truly
devout servant must place ears, mouth,
tongue, fingers, so as to receive fully
into the vortex of the soul all messages
of transcendence inherent to that hallowed space.

These last two lines are trademark Rogers: in her poetry she glides simultaneously through nature’s minutiae and above them in a transcendent realm.

A longing for the grace brought by transcendence also comes through in some poems that stand at the point between old year and new. Take these lines from Christina Rossetti’s “Old and New Year Ditties”:

New Year met me somewhat sad:
Old Year leaves me tired,
Stripped of favourite things I had
Baulked of much desired:
Yet farther on my road to-day
God willing, farther on my way.

New Year coming on apace
What have you to give me?
Bring you scathe, or bring you grace,
Face me with an honest face…

Rossetti isn’t sure whether the new year will bring grace. But Levertov is, as long as we share our fragment of hope. Here’s the full ending of “For the New Year, 1981”:

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source—
clumsy and earth-covered—
of grace.

May all of us be blessed with a shared grace in the new year.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Read more about Peggy Rosenthal.

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