Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What is "Autumn" Poetry?

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high, we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Where the Summer Poets are almost transfixed with the present, the Autumn Poets seem to distrust it completely. Like the season itself, Autumn Poetry is stuck between the joy and exuberant heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. You get the sense of "anywhere, anytime but here and now" from these poems. Housman's famous poem is a great example of how these poems can turn heroics into grief (or, in other poems, how grief might turn to something braver, something good).


"Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build'

Frost presents a couple after the "inconsolable" death of their child (and their relationship as a consequence). Frost gets right at the theme of loss which is both haunting and hunting and the response is always to be on the look out, always be ready to run. One thing goes wrong and it all goes to rot. The Autumn Poet is aware of this fear and this exhausting vigilance against it (knowing well that the vigilance is almost always for naught).

Remember that poems and poets may cross the somewhat arbitrary boundaries of these "seasons" - Elizabeth Bishop is a "summer poet" here, but her poem "One Art" is every bit an Autumn Poem.

Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

War imagery fits well with Autumn Poetry because of the contrasts between what we would like to believe about patriotism, fighting the "good fight," etc, and the realities of what we know to be true - the death tolls, the carnage, the soldiers hardened so that they are alone with their "feuds and jealousies and sorrows"... a cheap exchange for what they have sacrificed, as Sassoon points out in the last stanza of the poem.

What wars can you incorporate into your poetry?
Does the imagery of war evoke a feeling of sadness? pride? something in between?


As dreary as some of this poetry might seem, I think there is also an endearing amount of hope in humanity that can be found in Autumn Poetry. Even Sassoon and Owen, for all the railing against war and against the deterioration of human compassion, continue to go back to a theme that these humans deserve more, they are made for more.

When we read Phillis Wheatley's "On Being Brought from Africa to America," we might be tempted to pass over it like a sort of "sales pitch" for both the poet and the reader, to believe something contrary to what we might expect. It feels like a sort of denial:
'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
But I think this poem in particular is passed over too easily. Perhaps Autumn Poetry is passed over too easily... is there something else? Is Wheatley really making the sales pitch to her fellow Africans or is she making the sales pitch to the whites (who, after all, were the ones more likely to be reading these words)?

Remember, Christians...
Are the Christians white? black? both? Wheatly's poem seems like a sort of propaganda for slavery, as much as Rupert Brooke's poem "The Soldier" seems like propaganda for war:
If I should die, think only this of me
    That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed
But are both poets making the most of terrible situations? Are they trying to find the light in the darkness? In a way, isn't this what we, as poets, are supposed to do? If we think of poetry as a way of "seeing beyond" or expanding the scope of our understanding, we can acknowledge how poets like Wheatley and Brooke are not so much "selling out" as they are grasping onto an infinite hope in human potential, finding the "hero" in everyone (sort of like Mariah Carey... but different).

Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.
Donald Hall also finds heroism in the everyday (see his fantastic collection "Without"), but I think he is also a great example of an Autumn Poet who embraces emptiness. The poem "Affirmation" seems to be anything but, a sort of weeping lament over loss. However, it revels in what was - "at her strongest and most beautiful" does affirm the dearness of his wife and "in words that pollute thirty years" he indicates that the friendship was pristine. The "emptiness", then, again indicates potential - a knowledge of what is possible, what is achievable. Emptiness is profound, Hall seems to say, only when we know, truly know, what we are missing.

Instead of a poem about something you already miss, why not write a poem about something you have right now - a friend, a lover, a belief - and how you would miss it?
How does your perspective change when you acknowledges, as the write of Ecclesiastes, that all is fleeting?

You were a greenhorn, so fearless,
even foolish, & when I said go,
Henry, you went dancing on a red string
of bullets from that tree line
as it moved from a low cloud
Even if the constellations
Spin and spin and spin
Through their years of cycles,
And the planets wander crazy paths
Without our seeing them together;
Even then, love is its own matter
from "Matter," Irena Praitis (listed under Spring Poets)
I think, sometimes, regret is something that is too easy. Particularly for poets. We want to apologize, say, so we decide that we will write a poem about being sorry - but it's really self-serving; it's more about clearing our conscience than about making the reader feel better. The scope is not broad enough - it's just for the person we hurt... so a reader coming along may not care (they have no reason to distrust us or hate us or feel anything at all for us... so the "apology" is lost).
However, I think longing takes you to the right place (or maybe, the "better" place) - where it is not so much about what you "regret" but what you "wish." Wishing involves a hope for something better; it is not about lamenting what is lost so much as it is about longing for what could have been... and, yes, there is a big difference.
Those who "long for" are like Komunyakaa who is wishing to go back to the moment when he gave a misguided command to a soldier ending in that soldier being killed. Yes it is regret, but it is more. It is not self-centered, it is about that soldier's potential, not the poet's guilt.
Sometimes longing is more like the voice in "Matter" - avoiding regret by wishing for a meaning to come from the situation. It is about the potential of the lesson or the memory more than it is about the regret of the poet.

Have you written about regret? 
How can going back to that poem and working in "longing" make it better? or worse, maybe?
What forms of poetry work well with longing? The Sonnet? Elegy?

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