Thursday, October 16, 2008

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Every morning for about six weeks I've been waking up to Fall. It's been a lovely, glorious fall, and the landscape has been straight out of Keats' ode"To Autumn." When in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence getting my MFA back in the Fall of 1988, our first workshop leader, Joan Larkin, insisted we all memorize this poem. If it had been up to me, I'd have chosen something else. But she wanted it to be something classic, that rhymed. The idea was that it would come to us and inform us throughout our life. Say, in fall.

This was New York City (well, no, the leafy suburbs of Westchester County). I was a much more urban person, and the whole reason I went to Sarah Lawrence was its proximity to New York City. So memorizing a long rural ode from the 19th century wasn't really where my heart or head was at the time. But I did it.

And I knew even then it was going into my short-term memory bank, the one where I'd put all the Bible verses I memorized as an evangelical Christian. The one where I'd put all the scripts of plays I'd memorized in junior high and high school. I'm good at memorization-- just not good at keeping it long term, or accessing it. So it's been astonishing to me that I've woken every morning for six weeks now with the lines right there at the front of my brain:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
close-bosomed friend of the maturing sun.

That's all I have left intact, but it's served me well these mornings. And with it came some intimations (to use a word from fellow Romantic Wordsworth) of other images in the poems-- bees, and plumped gourds, and vines running round eaves, and hay on a threshing floor, though I couldn't put it together.

Here is the complete ode:
To Autumn
by John Keats, 1819/20

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

When I first came to Minnesota, for my year at the Ecumenical Institute, I wrote an autumn sonnet. I do love sonnets, with their tight form of fourteen lines and rhymes. I patterned it after Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 , which is my favorite, and that compares a person in his old age to the late fall just before winter. I'll also say I have this one by heart completely, and it's a function of having taught it. I used to be incredibly impressed with my professors who had poetry by heart, until I started teaching, and realized that after you teach it a few times, it becomes completely a part of you, you just have it by heart. I realized this almost by accident too, when in intro to literature classes or creative writing classes I'd suddenly have a poem there-- not just to say "let's turn to x" but to say it.

My sonnet is not as clever or complex as Shakespeare's. It has a lot of internal rhyme, but doesn't follow the rhyme scheme of a sonnet, just it's logical development (and it's iambic, but not strict pentameter). Still, I like it, and it is its time. I'll put a photo next to it that I took that year on November 5 from my living room window. Yes, this was my view every day.

Minnesota Sonnet
by Susan Sink (2005)

That time of year it is when leaves have turned
and lost their grip on limbs, blown down
an inch deep and brown, covering the bones
of kindling, hidden paths, the season’s varied dead.
The waters set in spiking weeds assert
their true nature as precious stones, amber and jade,
bidding the deer approach for one more drink
before the ice encroaches. Everywhere
the acorn stores of busy, slender, panicked squirrels.
Could this really be winter coming on,
with the sun this bright at noon, the sky this blue?
See what happens in the slant of five o’clock:
the trees, stripped naked, reveal their strength;
the wind bares its teeth and the lake shivers.

I'm wondering today if, as I grew into memorizing poetry as a teacher, I'll grow into this landscape until I can write an ode, not just a sonnet, to autumn. It is absolutely my favorite season. I'm thinking of yesterday, when I walked through a path in the corn rows of the neighboring field. And of course, of squashing Asian beetles and sucking them into the vacuum cleaner to prevent their overrunning the house. There's no lack of material. I wish I didn't work full time so I could write it! We'll see what happens now that I have you, an audience!

(Could I just mention that I've been sending this poem to magazines for three years, and all I really wanted was to put it before an audience some Fall and have people read it. That you, dear reader, have read it now, in its season, makes me very happy!)


Ann Marie said...

For transporting me back to Minnesota for a moment during this special season, thank you.

Idea Chaser said...

Susan, These lines are worth remembering and pulling out for autumns to come:
Could this really be winter coming on,
with the sun this bright at noon, the sky this blue?
See what happens in the slant of five o’clock:
the trees, stripped naked, reveal their strength;
the wind bares its teeth and the lake shivers.