James Schuyler’s “Empathy and New Year”

Around New Year’s Eve, I often think of James Schuyler‘s great and moving poem about the turning of the year, “Empathy and New Year” (which first appeared as the opening poem in Schuyler’s 1972 book The Crystal Lithium).

I love how the poem reflects on the allure — and the futility — of New Year’s resolutions (“New Year is nearly here / and who, knowing himself, would /endanger his desires / resolving them / in a formula?”) and how well it nails the peculiar feeling of this time of year (“I can smell that after / Christmas letdown coming like a hound”).

I also love how Schuyler ponders the sound and strangeness of each year’s name (“Nineteen-sixty- / eight: what a lovely name / to give a year”), but — with characteristic mixture of bemusement, irony, wit, and woe — resolves to give the upcoming year a name of his own choosing:

                   Personally
I am going to call
the New Year, Mutt.
Flattering it
will get you nowhere.

He also muses on the pleasures of starting a new year with a great book (“Got coffee and started / reading Darwin … How grand to begin a new / year with a new writer / you really love”), braces himself for the bitter coming cold, and even ends by enjoying a brief moment of clarity and, perhaps, affirmation:

                                             Night
and snow and the threads of life
for once seen as they are,
in ropes like roots.

Here’s to a great 2014, or, “Mutt,” or whatever you’d like to call it.  This is the poem in its entirety:

 

EMPATHY AND NEW YEAR
James Schuyler

A notion like that of empathy inspires
great distrust in us, because it connotes 

a further dose of irrationalism and 
mysticism.
Lévi-Strauss

Whitman took the cars
all the way from Camden
and when he got here
or rather there, said,
“Quit quoting,” and took the next
back, through the Jersey meadows
which were that then. But
what if it is all, “Maya,
illusion?” I
doubt it, though. Men are not
so inventive. Or
few are. Not knowing
a name for something proves nothing. Right
now it isn’t raining, snowing, sleeting, slushing,
yet it is
doing something. As a matter of fact
it is raining snow. Snow
from cold clouds
that melts as it strikes.
To look out a window is to sense
wet feet. Now to infuse
the garage with a subjective state
and can’t make it seem to
even if it is a little like
What the Dentist Saw
a dark gullet with gleams and red.
“You come to me at midnight”
and say, “I can smell that after
Christmas letdown coming like a hound.”
And clarify, “I can smell it
just like a hound does.”
So it came. It’s a shame
expectations are
so often to be counted on.

New Year is nearly here
and who, knowing himself, would
endanger his desires
resolving them
in a formula? After a while
even a wish flashing by
as a thought provokes a
knock on wood so often
a little dish-like place
worn in this desk just holds
a lucky stone inherited
from an unlucky man. Nineteen-sixty-
eight: what a lovely name
to give a year. Even better
than the dogs’: Wert
(“…bird thou never…”)
and Woofy. Personally
I am going to call
the New Year, Mutt.
Flattering it
will get you nowhere.

                  II

Awake at four and heard
a snowplow not rumble—
a huge beast
at its chow and wondered
is it 1968 or 1969?
for a bit. 1968 had
such a familiar sound.
Got coffee and started
reading Darwin: so modest,
so innocent, so pleased at
the surprise that he
should grow up to be him. How
grand to begin a new
year with a new writer
you really love. A snow
shovel scrapes: it’s
twelve hours later
and the sun that came
so late is almost gone:
a few pink minutes and
yet the days get
longer. Coming from the
movies last night snow
had fallen in almost
still air and lay
on all, so all twigs
were emboldened to
make big disclosures.
It felt warm, warm
that is for cold
the way it does
when snow falls without
wind. “A snow picture,” you
said, under the clung-to
elms, “worth painting.” I
said, “The weather operator
said, `Turning tomorrow
to bitter cold.’ ” “Then
the wind will veer round
to the north and blow
all of it down.” Maybe I
thought it will get cold
some other way. You
as usual were right.
It did and has. Night
and snow and the threads of life
for once seen as they are,
in ropes like roots.

Happy new year!

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