Bells We Would Ring: Kenneth Patchen
On Solstice eve I was searching around for a poem to write about for my Hilltown Families column, and feeling really stymied by the challenge of finding something seasonal and uplifting and bright in the wake of the violence at Sandy Hook.
In some ways it would be easier just to grieve, to stop everything and sink down into the darkness. But since many parents are choosing not to discuss what happened with their kids, or at least not to get too deeply into the details (Pokey being one of those), we can’t do that. Instead we are carrying on: working and going to school, baking and wrapping gifts and looking towards the light, even though we feel as if nothing will ever be the same again and in fact, should not be the same, should never, ever be the same again.
So, Pokey gave up on the idea of finding a poem for families, and decided instead on one that’s just for parents. The one I kept coming back to is a poem by Kenneth Patchen, called “At the New Year,” from his Collected Poems of 1939. It’s startling to me how perfectly attuned the poem is to our time, but Patchen was a pacifist and that feels particularly relevant to where we are right now.
What I most appreciate about Patchen’s poem is that it doesn’t shrink from the darkness it describes, we have to go through it, and then, yes, there is the faint light of possibility at the end. But clearly it’s up to us to ring that bell.
As I say in my column, you may want to sub out the idea of “Father” for whatever works for you. When Pokey read it aloud she changed it to “Mother” and that felt just fine. I highly recommend reading it aloud, and crying, and reading it again.
You can read the complete column at Hilltown Families, but I also include the poem here:
At the New Year
In the shape of this night, in the still fall of snow, Father In all that is cold and tiny, these little birds and children In everything that moves tonight, the trolleys and the lovers, Father In the great hush of country, in the ugly noise of our cities In this deep throw of stars, in those trenches where the dead are, Father In all the wide land waiting, and in the liners out on the black water In all that has been said bravely, in all that is mean anywhere in the world, Father In all that is good and lovely, in every house where sham and hatred are In the name of those who wait, in the sound of angry voices, Father Before the bells ring, before this little point in time has rushed us on Before this clean moment has gone, before this night turns to face tomorrow, Father There is this high singing in the air Forever this sorrowful human face in eternity’s window And there are other bells that we would ring, Father Other bells that we would ring.