A week before the new year began, I was still trying to settle on a resolution. I knew I wasn’t committed enough to losing weight, and I hadn’t saved enough money to resolve anything exciting like traveling the world, so as 2015 came nearer and nearer, I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do differently.
Then I found an old holiday card from a friend. On the front were two little juncos huddled together on a branch; beside them were these words: “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.”
The birds are the artist’s creation, but the words belong to Rainer Maria Rilke. It took me some time to track down their source, but they come from a letter the poet sent his wife Clara in January of 1907. Writing from Italy, Rilke had gone into the street on New Year’s Eve and recorded for his wife all the chaos and noise of Capri: those “long, heavy, wavering voices, calls and series of calls of a primeval natural drunkenness, dull, unconscious, more tolerated than willed, and intermittently, laughter breaking out flamelike and quickly consuming itself.”
The poems became our constellations, and we learned to read them partly by watching how they changed, deepening and becoming more meaningful night after night.
Once home, the poet went to the roof of his house to watch the new year. He then wrote his wife something that reads almost like a prayer: “And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been, full of work that has never been done, full of tasks, claims, and demands; and let us see that we learn to take it without letting fall too much of what it has to bestow upon those who demand of it necessary, serious, and great things.”
A slightly different translation than my friend’s card, but finding it reminded me of when I first read Rilke’s poetry. A roommate of mine had taped all of the Duino Elegies to one of our ceilings. The poems became our constellations, and we learned to read them partly by watching how they changed, deepening and becoming more meaningful night after night. I remembered a few years of my life when poems weren’t just on the ceiling, but in my pockets and on the backs of postcards I sent to friends. There was a time when I felt absolutely ensconced in beautiful, arresting language.
I hadn’t ever stopped reading poetry entirely, but over the years, I had read less and less. My resolution, then, settled in the final hours of the year, was to read more poetry, and I realized in order to do it that I had to go back to that period of my life where I kept poetry all around me. I decided to try to keep four books of poetry around every month: something old and something new, something borrowed and something blue.
For January, then, it was Elizabeth Bishop, Aaron Belz, Carl Phillips, and Mary Karr: Bishop’s Complete Poems, which I’ve cherished for a long time; Belz’s Lovely, Raspberry, which I hadn’t yet read; Phillips’s Riding Westward, which is borrowed from a dear friend; and Karr’s Sinners Welcome, which is as blue as the fullest moon. I kept these four books by my bed so that early in the morning or late at night I could read them. I also brought them in the car, where I had something to read if I was caught in traffic or left waiting. But I’ve also started taking photographs of poems on my smartphone to make backgrounds for my various screens so there’s always a poem nearby. Like having poetry on the ceiling, having poems on my screens has made them more constant companions.
There are other ways of bringing more poetry into your life too: by listening to Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” every day, or by subscribing to the Poetry Foundation’s “Poem of the Day” or the Academy of American Poets’ “Poem-a-Day.” With any of those newsletters, your inbox will have a new piece every day, guaranteeing that your digital nightstand is always full of poetry.
But for me, an email just isn’t enough. The trick is choosing those four new books every month, finding four poets whose voices I want in my head, and renewing my commitment at regular intervals. By making my New Year's resolution into a new resolution every month, I’m also more likely to accomplish it: I’m taking advantage of what researchers call “the fresh start effect,” the natural tendency to evaluate one’s thinking and behavior at specific times, like the new year or one’s birthday.
In their paper “The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior,” researchers Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, and Jason Riis examined how “temporal landmarks” can affect changes in our behavior. They studied Google searches for the word “diet” and found that they peaked at the start of each week, month, and year, just as gym visits at a large university peaked according to the same pattern. Overall, the researchers found that taking advantage of these “new mental accounting periods” can “motivate aspirational behaviors.”
I chose my next four books of poetry last weekend. April may be National Poetry Month, but I’m hoping my resolution lasts for more than just the first four months of the year. By making a series of smaller commitments, I’m hoping the “fresh start effect” takes hold each and every month of 2015.