“We’ll sell no wine before its time,” we’re told.
The fat and famous spokesman made it clear,
Each vintage has its period of gold.
(You must assess the pressing and the year.)
So, likewise, for each vintage comes a time
The point past which there’s no return at all.
Decay and oxidation work their crime,
And turn your sweetest nectar into gall.
So come, my dear, what are we waiting for?
Our cellar holds a few more bottles still.
Pick one and brush away the dust before
Time turns its contents back to must — time will.
Cast off our caution and our clothes and pour,
And drink with joy until we’ve had our fill.
My friend and colleague Seth La Tour is a brave soul. He has started a blog “one poem every day,” which is pretty much what it sounds like.
He writes a new poem every day and posts it. Mostly he writes haiku.
I’m not sure I get haiku. By which I mean I really don’t get haiku. It comes from a cultural tradition so different from my own that I hesitate to claim any knowledge.
But, every now and then reading haiku, I get a glimpse of something … a whiff … a hint.
Seth wrote one a few days ago that gave me that twinge:
old, red butter dish/
doing your one job so well/
on the countertop
Something about its directness, its simplicity and its sheer concreteness gave me that feeling I get when I think I have apprehended the best of the haiku from Japan. For me, it’s a little like catching a glimpse of something in peripheral vision. When you look at it directly, it’s gone.
There was a significance in this simple moment. There was “something” the poet perceived and recorded.
I sensed the same sort of thing when experiencing a Japanese Tea Ceremony. It was so simple, yet precise. There was something there. But I couldn’t quite apprehend it. (Then my knees started to ache and I had to stand up.)
We know that haiku master Basho also followed the Way of Tea, so there is clearly a deep connection.
I have tried haiku, but am not satisfied I have the clarity and tranquility required. Here’s one I didn’t burn:
Born into a Roman Catholic family in England when that status alone could get you killed, he stubbornly clung to the faith of his youth … until he didn’t. Then he converted and became an Anglican cleric.
It was said that when he was a young man, “he spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes, and travel.” The rest, I suppose, he spent foolishly.
Today, when hardly anything is forbidden, I find Donne’s 400-year-old love poem quaintly racy–in a wholesome sort of way. I’m not a prude, but I have no patience for literature meant only to shock. When I open a book of verse and see the writer spewing obscenities and graphic descriptions just to show he—or she–can, my immediate reaction is: “Why don’t you try being interesting? Amuse me!”
I enjoy love poems for grown ups. Especially now, having cultivated a marriage through many seasons, I am keenly aware of just how precious love can be. And, having reached a certain age and having witnessed the deaths of parents, brothers, and classmates, I’m not taking anything for granted.
So today, I submit this grown-up love poem for your consideration.
I must give credit where credit is due. I most certainly stole an idea from Donne, when he strung together his series of prepositions in his “Mistress” poem. When I got to certain spot in my own poem, there was really no better way to finish it than to string together a few of Donne’s prepositions.
Late Summer’s Sun
Late summer’s sun has baked the grass to brown.
The days grow shorter with each passing day,
Soon, autumn’s chill will make the leaves fall down.
All of this aching beauty will decay.
And yet I love the shadows’ slanting trace,
The once green grain gone golden in its rows,
And how I love the lines etched in your face.
It’s funny, as love ripens how it grows.
The number of our days we do not know.
No sleeper knows if he will ever wake.
So come, let’s join above, between, below.
My dear, let’s cause our fragile clay to quake.
Let us make love as if it’s our last go.
Let us embrace like dawn will never break.
When love is good and it lasts, it can be tempting to idealize its beginnings.
One piece of insider information: the very first time I saw my wife, she was glowing. I kid you not. Sitting in the second row of a darkened auditorium listening to the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate she was surrounded by a golden aura.
I had a camera, but was so befuddled I failed to get the shot. You might argue I was imagining things, but I don’t think so. I’m not given to visions nor hallucinations. I’ve never witnessed anything like it before or since.
I think it was a special gift for a fellow a bit slow on the uptake, who needed a sign to notice a good thing right under my nose.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
We come now to the winter of our years
(Where did the autumn with its pleasures go?)
Our roof will all too soon be cloaked with snow,
So, come, let’s stoke our fire against the fears.
It seems another life ago, my dear,
That full of grace you pilgrim sat aglow
Enkindled so this prodigal would know
That grace was free and grace was very near.
Midsummer’s eve brought more epiphanies
Of spotless bride adorned, redeemed, in white,
Too ill for customary liberties,
So wan, yet still for these sore eyes a sight.
Then! Over Lake Champlain the full moon sees
A railway sleeper car rock through the night.
He struggled at Oxford, and ultimately left without a degree. He published poems and made great friends, yet held a lifelong grudge against C.S. Lewis from his time at Oxford when Lewis was his teacher. (Lewis reportedly assessed Betjeman as “an idle prig.”
During World War II, he worked for the Ministry of Information and may have been involved in intelligence gathering. One story that has grown up about Betjeman is that he was once targeted for assassination by the Irish Republican Army. But the order was supposedly rescinded when an old IRA man spoke on his behalf because he had been impressed by his poems.
You might say Betjeman was eventually vindicated. He was named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.
His poem is rich with specific detail and is so descriptive, it almost overloads the senses. Betjeman is a reserved Englishman, but he tells you enough to let you know what’s going on.
The Licorice Fields at Pontefract
by John Betjeman
In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened licorice bush
Was blooming round our feet;
Red hair she had and golden skin,
Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d
The strongest legs in Pontefract.
The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
From various black Victorian towers
The Sunday evening bells
Came pealing over dales and hills
And tanneries and silent mills
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.
She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak,
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.