Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Sophie’s Poem of the Week: ‘Begin’ by Brendan Kennelly

It’s the old cliché: ‘with every ending comes a new beginning’. Never does this ring more true than in freshers week and never have the mixed emotions wound up in change been more simply portrayed than in Brendan Kennelly’s poem ‘Begin’. Kennelly gives us our first poem of the year to assure us that these overwhelming feelings of change are not unique to any of us and in spite of them we will all settle into this new beginning.

We can find this assurance in Kennelly’s speaker whose overwhelmed voice  speaks to all of us who are new to the University and perhaps even those of us who aren’t. The frequent removal of punctuation in sentences often spanning several lines helps craft this voice. For example, in the lines ‘begin to wonder at unknown faces/ at crying birds in the sudden rain/ at branches…’, Kennelly lists prepositional phrases which would usually be separated by commas, divided only by line breaks. This creates rushed speech evoking the sense of bewilderment at the ‘wonder’ and the ‘loneliness’ – at the binary of positive and negative emotion. This contradiction permeates both Kennelly’s language – ‘born in light and dying in the dark’ (born/dying, light/dark); ‘linking the past and future’ (past/future) – and the experience of change.

Kennelly is – through the voice of an all-too-relatable overwhelmed speaker – inviting us to accept that we must endure the struggle to settle in 

As we endure a new beginning ourselves, these antitheses may be all too familiar: the loneliness amidst the togetherness, the excitement battling the nerves, and the anticipation of new friendships grappling with the grief for friendships left behind. Nonetheless, the language of Kennelly’s speaker offers a coping mechanism through this complicated struggle. By reaching to sensory imagery throughout the poem (‘sight’, ‘light’, ‘roar’, ‘rain’, ‘sunlight’, ‘sunny’) he depicts a speaker rooting themself in the concrete so as not to tackle the complexity of their contradictory emotions.

However, as the poet implies, the complexity of a new beginning does not simply result in difficulty. Beyond these knotted emotions which we struggle to untangle is fruitful progress. In fact, in his poem, Kennelly suggests the alienating daze of this initial emotional assault of a new beginning in itself intertwined with a contradiction of its own. For, he suggests, it is perhaps the ‘loneliness… that makes us begin’: without the desire for us to connect in this isolating struggle to make sense of it all we would not be compelled to endure more new beginnings – those of friendships, sports trials, and society socials. Thus, Kennelly is – through the voice of an all-too-relatable overwhelmed speaker – inviting us to accept that we must endure the struggle to settle in.

He also invites his reader to accept they’re neither the first nor last to endure it. Many of the repeated images are cyclical for example the seasons (‘springtime’, ‘flowering’), the day and night (‘morning’, ‘sunlight’), and- perhaps most notably- birds (‘birds’, ‘swans’, ‘seagulls’) which cyclically migrate. Not only is this experience common to all who have come before us, we are not feeling this alone. Kennelly reminds us of this with the constant use of inclusive pronouns (‘we’, ‘us’). We are all experiencing the same feelings, pressures and worries of being in a new place with new people and as Kennelly points out even those who appear contended are not exempt: the happy couple are ‘alone together’.

Seeing it in Kennelly’s poem and the experiences of other freshers helped my own acceptance of what is bound to be a stressful new beginning

Understanding this, seeing it in Kennelly’s poem and the experiences of other freshers helped my own acceptance of what is bound to be a stressful new beginning. But, as we approach week three, the whirlwind is dissipating just as Kennelly predicts: his initial absence of a rhyme scheme, betraying the speakers lack of order and reason, settles into a regular rhythm and rhyme in the final quatrain. We will all find our own rhythm and survive the unsettling uncertainty of change.

It is this message of hope that ends the poem, and the message we should take with us into the rest of our first term. It is therefore the final four lines of ‘Begin’ that we should remind ourselves of as we approach the end of this new beginning and the start of our next: ‘though we live in a world that dreams of ending that always seems about to give in, something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin’.

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