Three New Year Poems By Women: The Cusp Of Old And New

New Year champagne girl

The New Year can be a difficult time. Its name is laden with self-important purpose, but we are still in winter, people. The calendar demands we forge ahead in a way our souls may not yet be quite ready for. The seasonal cycles wheel and spin when they’re ready, not when the calendar deems it so.

The energy we are filled with is potential energy, a time of waiting and clearing and readying for new growth. The ground may already have a few new shoots, perhaps a snowdrop or two. However, the ground knows what it is doing. It has the knowing. It is mostly bare, as plants sleep and withhold their sap. They gather themselves, as must we.

Perhaps you are already the new shoots, forging ahead in anticipation of new growth. Good. It is your time. Then again, perhaps you are gathering yourselves.

The following three poems have a deep understanding of that meniscus between old and new, and the eerie sensation of standing on the cusp. You may find them beneficial as an aid to reflection on the New Year and all that it means to you.

The Year (1910) by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?

The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.

We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.

We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.

We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that’s the burden of the year.

The Year by Ella Wilcox is so easy to roll off the tongue and can be committed to memory. It clearly relates to cycles – of life, of emotions, of longest nights and days and the passing of seasons. Nowhere in this poem does it say exactly when the year ends or begins. Cycles are fluid. They are not contestants in a race. Our ebbs and flows do not begin and end with a starting gun or a clearly laid out finish line.

On New Year’s Eve (2011) by Evie Shockley

we make midnight a maquette of the year:
frostlight glinting off snow to solemnize
       the vows we offer to ourselves in near
silence: the competition shimmerwise
       of champagne and chandeliers to attract
laughter and cheers: the glow from the fireplace
       reflecting the burning intra-red pact
between beloveds: we cosset the space
       of a fey hour, anxious gods molding our
hoped-for adams with this temporal clay:
       each of us edacious for shining or
rash enough to think sacrifice will stay
       this fugacious time: while stillness suspends
vitality in balance, as passions
       struggle with passions for sway, the mind wends
towards what’s to come: a callithump of fashions,
       ersatz smiles, crowded days: a bloodless cut
that severs soul from bone: a long aching
       quiet in which we will hear nothing but
the clean crack of our promises breaking.
On New Year’s Eve was first published in Shockley’s poetry anthology The New Black. It presents the brittle hypocrisy of western culture’s approach to New Year hopes, symbolised by a party. Shockley luxuriates in her words to create a dizzyingly bright yet brittle effect, like a tower of spun sugar crashing slowly from the table to the floor. When we make our resolutions, we are “anxious gods” with “ersatz smiles” who “cosset the space of a fey hour”. There is a danger – perhaps even a likelihood – that we will hear “the clean crack of our promises breaking”.
But all is not lost. Beneath our social performance and human frailty lies something deeper. “Stillness suspends vitality in balance”. “A long aching quiet”.
Shockley’s poem is an important one. It is a strong truth. But there are many truths. Let us end with a poem that acknowledges the peril of New Year’s Resolutions, yet explores new hopes.

New Year’s Mourning by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 – 1885)

ONLY a night from old to new!
Only a night, and so much wrought!
The Old Year’s heart all weary grew,
But said: The New Year rest has brought.”
The Old Year’s hopes its heart laid down,
As in a grave; but trusting, said:
“The blossoms of the New Year’s crown
Bloom from the ashes of the dead.”
The Old Year’s heart was full of greed;
With selfishness it longed and ached,
And cried: “I have not half I need.
My thirst is bitter and unslaked.
But to the New Year’s generous hand
All gifts in plenty shall return;
True love it shall understand;
By all y failures it shall learn.
I have been reckless; it shall be
Quiet and calm and pure of life.
I was a slave; it shall go free,
And find sweet pace where I leave strife.”

Only a night from old to new!
Never a night such changes brought.
The Old Year had its work to do;
No New Year miracles are wrought.

Always a night from old to new!
Night and the healing balm of sleep!
Each morn is New Year’s morn come true,
Morn of a festival to keep.
All nights are sacred nights to make
Confession and resolve and prayer;
All days are sacred days to wake
New gladness in the sunny air.
Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.

Oh, this poem. It anthropomorphises the Old and New Year, as was the style in the 19th century (and led to our embracing newer winter folklore traditions like Jack Frost). The first stanza expresses our hopes for New Year, and how our minds are led to believe that a single night can make all the difference. Yes, symbolism is important. There is great value in many people laying intentions for a better year ahead, all on the same day.

But it’s symbolism. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Bad things will happen in the first week of the New Year, because the world is what it is – shadow and light. So many people getting their hearts broken because negativity on New Year’s Day feels so much worse than a low-vibing aspect on any other day of a year that’s been worn in.

Only a night from old to new! / Never a night such changes brought. Helen Hunt Jackson understands the grief that can come with symbolic expectation. Her final stanza offers hope: every sunrise is the start of something new, and sacred intents are never wasted.