Afternoon in late September
Shows us signs we both can follow,
Shadows where there were no shadows
Days before, encroach on meadows,
Turning brittle brown and yellow.
Six o’clock’s a dying ember
Causing grown men to remember
Another fall’s disturbing echo.
When, unnoticed, fell the first leaves,
Yellow elm leave tired of sunshine?
Who suspected seeing such ease
When the first chill stunned the green vine?
Is embarrassment the reason
Sumac’s crimson hides its poison?
When was foliage last so supine?
Rainy night in mid-October
Brings the icy confirmation —
Twigs encased in shiny coffins
Clenched in cold that never softens.
Even daylight’s ministration
Alters no repose so sober
As the sleep of mid-October,
Sleep of spreading desolation.
Notes: Took a walk this evening and it finally felt cold for the first time. Cold enough to pull this old poem out, dust it off, and trot it out again.
Written years ago and far away, when I lived in a much different climate. My Puget Sound friends and neighbors might find it hard to relate to an autumn that leaves twigs encased in icy coffins, but my friends back in Minnesota understand all too well.
I recall one Halloween when my son and I set out at dusk to trick or treat in Minneapolis. We made our way about two blocks as it began to snow hard, then harder. We almost didn’t make it back home as we trudged through calf-deep drifts.
Autumn has its beauty. “Every leaf is a flower,” is a beautiful sentiment.
But the fall is also one of God’s great metaphors. And that makes it poignant, even as it is achingly beautiful.
September’s sun has come and gone ++++And now the fall is here.
October’s blaze adorns the lawn, ++++The swan song of the year.
The bonfires of my autumns past ++++Burn cool as I recall
The hayride loves that failed to last ++++Beyond the end of fall.
Out on the gridiron battlefield, ++++Where so much toil was paid,
Where cheers and chants once loudly pealed, ++++Now flags and glory fade.
Our friends and kinsmen now are few. ++++Our lovers are all gone.
All those we thought would see us through ++++Cannot be counted on.
When we were young we loved the fall. ++++We loved the leaves aglow.
Knew always we’d have one more fall. ++++Those days, what did we know?
NOTES: Something about autumn makes me want to return to the poems of British poet A.E. Housman.
Housman once said in a lecture that the special function of poetry was “to transfuse emotion–not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer.”
There is something in so many of his poems that vibrates on the same wavelength with the sense of loss I feel when fall arrives. So when the nights began to cool and the leaves began to turn, I picked up my old copy of A Shropshire Ladand relished Housman’s lean, direct, and delicious verse once again.
One of the forms he used was a type of ballad that alternates lines of 8 syllables with lines of 6 syllables. It’s the form Housman used in one of my favorites, Number XXXVI in Shropshire, a poem that opens:
White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies,
That leads me from my love.
It’s a seemingly simple form, but ideal for conveying emotion in a concise, concentrated way. It’s tricky because the lines are so short. There is no room for filler or fluff. I had tried my hand at it before, but neglected it recently.
So, with my emotion fortified by Housman’s verse, and my memory refreshed regarding a potent poetic form, I sat down this week to try my hand at “transfusing emotion.”
I choose to walk the old familiar ways,
To wend ways where I’ve put my foot before,
To gaze anew on views seen other days,
Which, though familiar, never seem to bore.
The changing light and seasons have their ways
Of making old things new: The light-laced hoar,
The first-flush, green-glow, bursting-forth spring days,
The growing tinge of gold we can’t ignore.
Each day, my dear, I choose afresh our trail,
The one we blazed so many years ago,
Eschewing other routes that might avail,
And hewing to the well-worn way we know.
Forsaking novelty need be no jail
With your face bathed in sunset’s golden glow.
Notes: June is a big month for weddings. I know I’ve got an anniversary coming up soon. When people ask me how long I’ve been married, I have to stop and do the math. In the early years it was easy. We took in a young cat a month after our wedding, and so for 20 years I knew we were as married as the cat was old.
But when the cat died I was forced to use other memory tools.
As I was working on this sonnet a couple of years ago, I was reminded of a story poet John Ciardi related about Robert Frost, who at a lecture was asked by a woman in the audience: “Mr. Frost, surely when you write one of your beautiful poems, you are not thinking of technical tricks!”
Frost looked at the woman a while and replied, “I revel in them!”
Ciardi says Frost was like a horse trader who “would pick up an idea and whittle at it until he either wound up with a little whittled shape or a pile of shavings on the floor.”
I felt a little like a horse trader as I was writing this poem. It started with a simple, little idea. I can’t remember ever “whittling” more on a poem before. At first, this one seemed like it just never wanted to happen. I just kept whittling and whittling until something very different began to emerge from where I started.
After what seemed like an eternity, I began to see the tricks of the trade — namely rhythm, diction, image and form — coming together to embody the simple little idea.
This one did not plop, fully formed, into my lap. It was written, re-written, and re-written again. I wrote in on my phone. I copied it out by hand in a notebook. I typed it in Microsoft Word on my laptop. I read it aloud and even recorded a reading of it to hear how it sounded.
I found myself being keenly aware of assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme like never before.
I found myself unconsciously using the same sounds and rhymes over and over again as if I was consciously reinforcing the central idea. Then, I found myself breaking the pattern with lavish, flamboyant word choices in the middle of the poem to demonstrate the message.
I found myself coming around to embracing a metaphor in the final part of the poem. It was an idea that emerged only after the first part of the poem was written.
It may be a pile of shavings. Or it might be a little whittled shape.
One of my literary-minded friends has introduced me to the America poet Hayden Carruth, who lived from 1921 to 2008.
I’m not sure how I could have gone so long and gotten so old without finding him. (Just another example of the gaping holes in my education, I guess.)
Carruth is growing on me.
Like Robert Frost, he moved to the Vermont countryside and learned to how to farm. Carruth’s poems about some of his country neighbors are vivid, precise character sketches that remind me of the country folk I knew in my youth.
Like Frost, Carruth did a bit of teaching to help pay the bills. He was aware of the looming shadow Frost cast over later Vermont poets, and he played with it a bit in some of his poems.
But he seems to be ornerier than Frost. And more down to earth. He seems to be a common man. But a wicked smart, extremely well-read common man.
He dwells at that intersection between classic poets from an earlier age who paid attention to meter and rhyme, and the moderns of the last century, who reveled in the free innovation for the sake of innovation.
His poem, Late Sonnet, written later in his life, is one of his most interesting, I’ve read yet.
by Hayden Carruth
For that the sonnet no doubt was my own true
singing and suchlike other song, for that
I gave it up half cold-heartedly to set
my lines in a fashion that proclaimed its virtue
original in young arrogant artificers who
had not my geniality nor voice and yet
their fashionableness was persuasive to me,–what
shame and sorrow I pay! +++++++++++++++++++++And that I knew
that beautiful hot old man Sidney Bechet
and heard his music often but not what he
was saying, that tone, phrasing, and free play
of feeling mean more than originality,
these being the actual qualities of song.
Nor is it essential to be young.
I read this as the confession of a poet who abandoned the craft he knew in his youth to pursue the fashionable trends of modern style. He contrasts the pretentiousness of modern poets — the “arrogant artificers” — with the pure horn playing of jazzman Sidney Bechet, who — according to Carruth — emphasized feeling over originality.
Carruth developed this idea more fully in an interview published in Contemporary Authors.
“When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry, as we called it then, we still felt beleaguered; modern poetry was still considered outrageous by most of the people in the publishing business and in the reading audience at large.
“We still spoke in terms of the true artists and the philistines. We felt that if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature.
“Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It’s pretty obvious that good writing doesn’t really have very much impact on social events or national events of any kind. We hope that it has individual impact, that readers here and there are made better in some way by reading our work. But it’s a hope; we have no proof.”
Carruth has helped me put my finger on what has bugged me about so much of modern poetry for a long time. I couldn’t quite define it until now. But after reading this, it has come into focus.
In the secular despair of the 20th Century, artists sought to take the place of God, who had been declared dead by the wise men of the age.
As Carruth said, “if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization.”
Cultural restoration through poetry! Moral improvement through exposure to art.
The divine revelation of the Bible had been debunked courtesy of Darwin and Freud and others, faith had been undermined, and the vacuum that was created was seeking to fill itself with the work of artists and poets.
I would submit that this is much too big an assignment for poetry.
Don’t get me wrong. I hold a pretty high view of poetry. It can do a lot. It can inspire, comfort and bless a soul. It can express rich and deep feeling in elevated language. But I think the artistes of the last century reached too far.
My hypothesis is that this poetic overreach was responsible for much mischief — and a lot of unreadable poetry in the 20th Century.
Lest you think I am making this up, Stevens was explicit about his intention to replace God with poetry.
According to Poetry Foundation, Stevens maintained that art was “the new deity in a theologically deficient age. Abstraction is necessary, Stevens declares, because it fosters the sense of mystery necessary to provoke interest and worship from humanity.”
I find Stevens’ abstraction cold and heartless — and frankly boring.
I disagree with his premise and his conclusion. Just because Stevens didn’t believe in God didn’t mean that God was dead. (Please note: this theory is still under construction.)
If God is not dead, then poetry does not need to strive to be something it is not. It does not need to replace divine revelation. Since God is not dead, poetry can slip comfortably back into its proper role.
The poet can cease stop trying to take the place of God and settle back into the role of a human created in the image of God, creating beauty that reflects the beauty of God and his creation. And also telling the truth about the tragedy of how the creation has fallen.
Feel free to check out the blog for some decidedly un-modern poetry…
The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.
But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality —
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.
For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down — they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.
NOTES: It was a mild and beautiful and extended autumn here in the Pacific Northwest, but the rains and winds have returned, knocking most of the remaining leaves off the trees over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Oak trees are not as plentiful here as they are back in the Midwest, where this poem was written some 35 years ago. But if there is an oak around, you can bet it will be hanging onto its leaves long after all the other trees have shed theirs.