New Year's Poem

The Christmas twigs crispen and needles rattle
Along the window-ledge.
             A solitary pearl
Shed from the necklace spilled at last week’s party
Lies in the suety, snow-luminous plainness
Of morning, on the window-ledge beside them.   
And all the furniture that circled stately
And hospitable when these rooms were brimmed
With perfumes, furs, and black-and-silver
Crisscross of seasonal conversation, lapses
Into its previous largeness.
             I remember   
Anne’s rose-sweet gravity, and the stiff grave
Where cold so little can contain;
I mark the queer delightful skull and crossbones
Starlings and sparrows left, taking the crust,
And the long loop of winter wind
Smoothing its arc from dark Arcturus down
To the bricked corner of the drifted courtyard,
And the still window-ledge.
             Gentle and just pleasure
It is, being human, to have won from space
This unchill, habitable interior
Which mirrors quietly the light
Of the snow, and the new year.

"New Year’s Poem" by Margaret Avison. Reprinted from Always Now: The Collected Poems (in three volumes) by Margaret Avison, by permission of the Porcupine’s Quill. © The Estate of Margaret Avison, 2003.
Source: Always Now: The Collected Poems (The Porcupine's Quill, 2003)

Writing Ideas

  1. Compose a “window poem,” like Avison’s. Position yourself at different windows in a house or other building and write a poem, or series of poems, that likewise note the outside and inside, past and present, of what you see.
  2. Linda Bierds’s poem guide suggests that Avison’s poem “denies no journey.” First, attempt to chart the sight lines in the poem as Bierds does. Then, try writing a poem that mimics Avison’s journeys but in a completely different context or situation (you might try writing a structurally similar poem with opposite contents, for example).

Discussion Questions

  1. The term “window-ledge” appears three times in “New Year’s Poem.” How does the poem explore other thresholds, or zones of contact, between different spaces (inside/outside, or earth/sky) and states (past/present, but also life/death)? How do thresholds echo or complicate the final mirror image in the poem?
  2. Avison’s poem is a good example of free verse. Read the glossary’s definition: how does the poem follow or not follow “the natural rhythms of speech”? If this doesn’t sound or read like speech to you, what kind of language is it? Think about the implications of equating free verse and speech: could you, for example, “translate” Avison’s poem into an actual example of a person speaking? What would the poem look or sound like?

Teaching Tips

  1. Use Avison’s poem to think more deeply as a class about free verse. You might begin your conversation with the second discussion question above: after reading the glossary entry on free verse, ask students to think about how Avison’s poem follows or departs from the criteria. What are the “natural rhythms of speech”? (You might have them do the exercise embedded in the discussion question in pairs or small groups.) After thinking about speech and conversation, turn to the free verse line. A commonplace about free verse is that, without any metrical scheme for guidance, line endings become extra-meaningful. Ask students to test this notion out on Avison’s poem: do her line endings create meaning? What kinds of words do they end on? Do the lines operate as units of sense? What about the “waist lines” as Linda Bierds describes them—what’s special about such irregular spacing? After discussing Avison’s poem in the context of the glossary’s definition of free verse, have your students revise or rewrite the definition.
  2. “New Year’s Poem” is a kind of occasional poem: one written for a particular event or occasion. Have your students research and find other examples of occasional poetry. Ask them to think about the differences between occasional verse: how do poems written for public events differ from Avison’s, which seems to commemorate a purely personal moment? Compare Avison’s poem to other poems written in honor of holidays: what kinds of language do the poems deploy? To what ends? Who does the audience for each poem seem to be and how does that affect the poem’s tone, mood, form, and content? As a final exercise, students might write their own occasional poem, either for a holiday or public event. Ask them to think about the audience as well as the “occasion” to which their own poem will respond.
More Poems by Margaret Avison