Global Poetry Warming?

By Lisa Russ Spaar

The Roman calendar marked the beginning of the year, and spring, as commencing at the start of March. And right about now on the central East coast, as gritty snow piles at the local shopping center shrink,  and snowdrops and crocuses tremble at the foot of tree trunks, it isn’t premature at least to begin to turn one’s thoughts, if not to love, then to shedding heavy coats and ordering rose canes for the garden and anticipating mornings unshackled by the scraping of ice off the windshield for the privilege of driving in to work.

In its broadest usage, a “season” can be any period of time characterized by a particular activity, phenomenon, or circumstance—hunting season, for instance, or football season, trout season, flu season, theater season, tick season, conference season, mating season. The word “season” comes from the Latin sationsatio, from serere, to sow. Perhaps most commonly, then, season refers to a specific division of the earthly year, determined by changes in weather and the tilt of the planet’s axis in relation to its revolution around the sun. And although meteorological and astronomical seasons are reckoned in a myriad of ways in different parts of the globe, ever since the Societas Meteorologica Palatina defined the seasons in 1780 as groupings of three months, the northern hemisphere has marked four of them, calendrically tied—spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

Poets and poetry have ever been attuned to the seasons, to the stirrings they engender, the possibilities they present or refute. In his journal, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Each season …  gives a tone and hue to my thought. Each annual phenomena is reminiscence and prompting. Our thoughts and sentiments answer to the revolution of the seasons, as two cog-wheels fit into each other.  …  A year is made up of a certain series and number of sensations and thoughts which have their language in nature. Now I am ice, now I am sorrel.”

Emily Dickinson uses the word some 20 times in her verses, and she seemed to be especially fond of spring, calling it “the Period / Express from God.” And who does not know the poetry of the King James translation of Ecclesiastes 3:1:  “To every [thing there is] a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” or Shakespeare’s plays and poems, which are full of songs and references to these turnings of the year:

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.112-119)

Chinese poetry has always been especially beholden to the seasons, as in this poem by Su Ting (670 – 727):

The year is ended, and it only adds to my age
Spring has come, but I must take leave of my home.
Alas, that the trees in this eastern garden,
Without me, will still bear flowers.

Across cultures and time, then, poetries connect with and at times depend upon the transformations signaled by seasonal changes to articulate all sorts of emotional and psychological conditions.  The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard called the seasons “the fundamental mark of memories,” going on to assign them “soul values.”  In a poem called “The Human Seasons,” John Keats writes, “Four seasons fill the measure of the year; / There are four seasons in the mind of man.” After extolling the beauties of spring, summer, and autumn, Keats concludes:  “He has his Winter too of pale misfeature, / Or else he would forego his mortal nature.”  Wallace Stevens presses this point in “The Snow Man.” “One must have a mind of winter,” he claims, in order to behold the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Yet anyone remembering even a few of this past decade’s dramatic seasonal weather events knows that the seasons as we know or understand them are changing (check out for some examples).  Wikipedia reports that “ecologists are increasingly using a six-season model for temperate climate regions that includes pre-spring (prevernal) and late summer (seritonal) as distinct seasons along with the traditional four.” And although we know that changes always are occurring, that change is the norm, and that most “climate forcings,” as the experts call them, happen at a glacial pace, over millennia, each generation must feel itself, at some point, to be the one poised to witness first-hand, in real time, these inevitable eonic disruptions, a conspiracy—ecological, climatological, environmental, political, human—that certainly must eventually alter everything about the earth as we know it.

And so it’s hard for a certain kind of naïve mind at a restless, awakening time of year, not to wonder, for example, what a seasonless world might mean for poets, for poems. Shall I compare thee to a weirdly hot, dry purgatorial spell of days broken by torrential spates of relentless rain whose climactic aberrations may be caused by ozone depletion? Or to the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi wreaking havoc in Western Australia? To devastating eruptions of the earth in New Zealand? Well, maybe yes. Because poetry is about nothing if it’s not about transformation. Never mind that the kind of apocalyptic changes that could occur may make the writing of poems moot. That the seasons have confirmed and perhaps even created human understanding of life’s mutability for poets is undeniable. Here are the last lines from the end of Stanley Kunitz’s beautiful poem “The Layers”:

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Clearly we have our interior weathers, our human seasons, too.

Lisa Russ Spaar, poetry editor for Arts & Academe, is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.

(Photo by Flickr user Andy C.)

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