The sky clears, a rising wind from the north sending a fog of celebration out to sea. The moon herself rides high and fast between the scudding clouds. This moon called Blue, not blue at all but white, whiter than any snow, shines brilliant and harsh, lighting the transition between old and new as one year gives way to the next.
Standing solitary and moonlit in these ephemeral hours, tangled in this fragile web of no-longer and not-yet, it’s possible to glimpse tokens of a truth hidden to hordes of thoughtless revelers in the street: this is the way of life. What has been passes away into that which was, even as the yet-to-be stirs toward vitality. Armies rise and nations fall. Children squall into existence while parents sigh into death. In the farthest reaches of the galaxies, stars explode with pulsing 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, words sometimes appear to be placid and predictable, flowing from past to future in a steady sluice of syllables controlled by the gatekeepers of meaning.
For those who read and especially for those who write, the thought of such a flow is comforting. Like the rivers it resembles, it cleanses and comforts, nourishing the roots of creativity. And yet it is a poet – one who stepped full into this stream of words – who dares tell us another truth. The way of life also is the way of words, says Eliot. 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.
Brought to stand between last year’s language and next year’s words, another of Eliot’s poems, 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, these words have particular meanings. 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 will have their way.
The shadow of wordlessness that comes upon us from time to time, our sense that language itself has grown old and tired as the vision of a spent imagination is rooted in our misunderstanding of words. Confronted by blank pages we fuss and fiddle, attempting to replicate the past, only to discover the past will not 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: not there, not now. For there are new words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light waiting in the shadows of an emerging year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a blue moon’s light they are, in fact, our new year’s words.
Who will give them voice?