The sky lowers and the land disappears. A turning wind blankets the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its glittering face. Harsh and brilliant above the fog, riding high behind fast-scudding clouds, it lights the transition between old and new, between one year and the next.
As the hours pass toward midnight, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the Land-of-No-Longer and the Land-of-Yet-to-Be. Perhaps they glimpse a moonlit shard of truth hidden to revelers in the street – this is the way of life. What has been passes away into forgetfulness, even as the yet-to-be stirs toward vitality. Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence, wailing for the grandparents who sigh away into death. Across the farthest reaches of the galaxies, even the least star explodes with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn.
Amid these cycles and rhythms of life, against this backdrop of continual change, our torrent of words flows on, a steady sluicing of syllables. For those who read and especially for those who write, this flow of language brings solace. Like the rivers it resembles, language connects and cleaves, cleanses and comforts, nourishing the growth of creativity along its banks.
And yet we find poets, novelists and essayists – wordsmiths who have stepped into and hesitated around this stream of words – hinting at another truth. The way of life also is the way of words. Words rise and fall as surely as armies or nations. Syllables rearrange themselves, paragraphs take on life, sentences fade away. True to their own rhythms and seasons, turned this way by time and that way by circumstance, words slip away and are lost – out of sight, out of mind, out of imagination.
Standing between last year’s language and next year’s words, T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men whispers of an experience every writer knows:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow…
Within the context of The Hollow Men itself, these words carry particular meaning. But within the context of Eliot’s life and work as a whole, they perfectly communicate an imperfectly understood and uncomfortable truth. Words are not ours to manipulate. We do not own words. We are not their masters. However faded and frayed they may be, no matter how lost to consciousness, no matter how firmly consigned to out-of-the-way corners in the poor cupboards of our mind, words maintain their integrity, and words will have their way.
The shadow of wordlessness that comes upon us from time to time, our sense that language itself has grown as old and tired as the vision of our spent imaginations is rooted in our misunderstanding of words. Confronted by blank pages we fuss and fiddle, attempting to revivify narratives which refuse to be reclaimed. When the turning of the year has come, no formula, no key, no magic phrase, no sturdy discipline or aligning stars will guarantee the continued liveliness of our words. Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, the poet says, and there the matter seems to end.
But of course it does not end, for next year’s words await another voice. There are emerging words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light waiting in the shadows of the coming year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a half-glimpsed moon they are, in fact, our New Year’s words.
Whether we will give them voice remains uncertain. Perhaps we will. Perhaps not. But among those who dared ford the swift-flowing river of words, some were willing to pass on their experience, leaving us guidance for our path.
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres,
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”