Late fall sonnet

Autumn leaves

Falling Leaves Like Lovers

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:  Some of my favorite poems compare the death that comes in the autumn to the end of a love.  Or poems that use the dying natural world when winter approaches as the backdrop for the story.

I think of Robert Frost’s Reluctance, with its heartbreaking line about it being treasonous “to bow and accept the end of a love, or a season.”

Or Thomas Hardy’s Neutral Tones, which uses a frozen landscape as the setting for the realization that a relationship has ended.

Then, there is John Crowe Ransom’s Winter Remembered, with its wonderful image comparing the forsaken lover’s cold fingers to “Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.”

I may never have discovered Ransom had it not been for my 11th grade English teacher,  Paul Hagedorn, back in Marshall, Missouri.  We spent an inordinate amount of time on poetry that year.  The major assignment, as I recall it, was to select an American poet from a lengthy list, and then immerse yourself in the writer’s work, and finally write a paper.

Knowing nothing about most of the choices, I picked John Crowe Ransom solely because I liked the sound of his name.  I got lucky, because I discovered I enjoyed his work.  Had I chosen Wallace Stevens with his difficult, cerebral verse, I probably would have flunked.

Another assignment was to prepare a notebook of our favorite poems.  I remember making daring choices, including song lyrics by such radicals as Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.  Now  that Dylan as been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I consider myself foresighted.

I was fortunate that Mr. Hagedorn approved of my choices.  He was the cool, young teacher back then.  He managed to fan the flames of inspiration and love for poetry.  They smoldered for years, flaming up now and then, and have finally started burning here in this blog.

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New Favorite Poem

My new favorite poem is in this book. It's by Theodore Roethke.

Guys, read this poem to your beloved

Poems get on my list of favorites for different reasons. Some are so sublime they make the list on the first ballot, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty. It may just be the perfect poem, in my humble opinion.

Other poems come along at just the right time, and hit me right where I’m at.  They earn a place on my list by virtue of good timing. Robert Frost’s Reluctance is one example.

Then, there are those poems I wish I had written myself …

I found one of these while on vacation.  Before I left, I threw a battered old collection of poems by Theodore Roethke in my carry-on bag.  I had just picked it up at my local used book store for 3 bucks.  It contains a real gem.

Apparently Roethke’s I Knew a Woman is quite well known.  Apparently, it pops up in anthologies all over the place.  The book’s introduction calls it “one of the most famous poems of our time.”  But thanks to my pitifully spotty education, I had failed to encounter it until now.

For your sake, I’ll copy the whole poem here:

I Knew a Woman

By Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went!  She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees,
Her several parts could keep a full repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for?  To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

What makes me want to have written this poem?

It’s so full of life and love and good humor.  It’s original and clever.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Just take a look at that third line:  Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one.  If that’s not evocative, I don’t know what is!

But the 3 lines that rhyme rake, sake and make, cinch the deal.  The audacious metaphor contained in these lines warms the heart of this old farm boy.

The double meaning of the word rake, as both the farm implement and the profligate, is a wonderful pun.

(At least the poet gets to be the rake, and not the grass! Although he “nibbled meekly,” he gets to have a complementary role in the hay-making. He doesn’t just get mowed down by the sickle.

Another line that jumps off the page:  (She moved in  circles, and those circles moved.)

Then in the last stanza, the poet turns reflective.  He’s aware of his mortality, but grateful for knowing the love of this woman.  It somehow has allowed him a glimpse of eternity.

All in all, this is a wonderful poem to read to your beloved, especially on vacation. I can vouch for it.

I just wish  I had  written it, though!