Congratulations to Carol Ann Duffy who was made a Dame in the New Year's Honours List. It is well-deserved, rewarding the tireless energy of England's first female poet laureate in writing and promoting poetry. She fulfils her role as the public voice of contemporary poetry well. Her generous response was: "We have many wonderful poets in this country and it is a privilege to represent them."
One of the sections in Carol Ann Duffy’s collection The Bees is entitled “What will you do now with the gift of your left life?” That quotation is to me a goad, a challenge, an encouragement for my writing life. Interrogative rather than resolute. Although taken from the last line of “Snow” it is a sentence that can stand alone, as Stephen Raw’s fine calligraphic rendering of the words shows.
I’ve chosen four New Year poems - by William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, David Constantine and Liz Lochhead. “Burning the Christmas greens” by William Carlos Williams has long been a favourite of mine. It shows how imagination can transform an apparently trivial task into a poem of ritual and renewal, full of colour. I think of it every year when I take down the decorations on Twelfth Night.
Sylvia Plath’s delicate “New Year on Dartmoor” is addressed to her toddler daughter on a day when ice coated everything. It ends “You are too new to want the world in a glass hat”. It is beautifully performed on youtube by Giga Gray of Radio Theatre Group.
By contrast David Constantine’s “New Year behind the asylum” is enigmatic and disturbing. The poet and his companion (for whom the asylum seems to have a mysterious attraction) wander out into the fields, beyond the sound of the town’s “bells and cheerful hooters”, and hear the asylum inhabitants “singing or sobbing their hearts out for the New Year”. “He gripped me fast and kissed my hair / ... I’m sure that what he meant was this: / That I should know how much love would be needed.”
But New Year can be a hopeful time too, even if the hopes are short-lived. The Scots Makar, Liz Lochhead, begins “View of Scotland/Love Poem” with her mother sprucing the place up for possible New Year visitors:
“Down on her hands and knees
at ten at night on Hogmanay
my mother still giving it elbowgrease
jiffywaxing the vinolay.”
You can find this poem on the Scottish Poetry Library website – if you google liz lochhead hogmanay it should come up as the first result.
If you are disillusioned by all this New Year palaver here is the epigraph to John Burnside’s “The entering of the New Year” – a quotation from American baseball player, Yogi Berra: “The future isn’t what it used to be”.