Week 491: California Hills In August, by Dana Gioia

I relish this poem for its particularity even though, paradoxically, I am not a fan of the kind of weather or landscape it particularizes: personally, during the rare heatwaves we have in this country, I hate ‘the bright stillness of the noon’ that seems to hold one trapped in a suspension of energy and interest and long for the cool of the evening when the infinite possibilities of earth and sky open up again. So yes, I would be just that ‘someone who found/these fields unbearable’, but that doesn’t stop me admiring the skill with which they are evoked, and I guess the truth is, as Gioia suggests, that it all depends what you have grown up with, on that first imprinting of the soul.

California Hills In August

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain —
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

Dana Gioia

Postscipt: If you feel a bit hot and dusty after reading this poem you could always freshen up with a dip into Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’, that includes lines like:

‘Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard….’

And ends

‘…..when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.’

Week 490: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost

Some poems you read, think ‘yes, very nice’, then forget until you come across them again, and some, once met, you live with. For me this is one of the latter. As a teenager I loved to run at night, and one of my courses, a fifteen-miler, took me far out into unlit countryside. One winter night at about the ten mile mark, just where a country lane passed through dense woods on either side, it began to snow, soft feathery flakes whirling down out of a dark sky, tingling on my tongue and carpeting the ground so that it was like running on white moss. I found that I knew Frost’s poem by heart – it is one of those poems it is difficult not to know by heart – and it ran in my head as I ran, making one of those rare magical moments when life and poetry come together in a perfect fit. I was troubled not at all by the suggestion of a final permanent sleep in that closing line – was I not young, and immortal?

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

Week 489: Reference Back, by Philip Larkin

This year sees the centenary of the birth in 1922 of Philip Larkin, surely by any measure one of the best half-dozen English-language poets of the latter part of the twentieth century. Apparently not everyone will be happy to celebrate this, and that is a pity. Certainly there are aspects of Larkin’s character and opinions which are to say the least offputting, yet they infect very little the select body of work that he himself saw fit to publish in his lifetime, and surely it should not be too difficult to throw out the racist bathwater while remaining grateful for the entirely humane babies. This week’s choice begins, fairly characteristically, with some wry reflections on domesticity and filial duty (I take the other person in the poem to be his mother) and then, in an equally characteristic shift of register, takes full flight in the third stanza, attaining effortlessly to that highwater mark of poetry, the precise and hauntingly lyrical expression of a universal truth.

Reference Back

That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.

Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
From my unsatisfactory prime.

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.

Philip Larkin

Week 488: Der Alte Brunnen, by Hans Carossa

I have long loved this lyric by the German poet Hans Carossa (1878-1956) with its slightly mysterious evocation of a starry night, its silence broken only by the plashing of a fountain, and the crunch of footsteps on gravel as a wanderer comes to drink from the fountain’s basin. I’m afraid all I can offer here for the English reader is a fairly literal crib — the language of the poem is not difficult but its structure is very tight, and I did spend quite some time trying to come up with a matching rhyme scheme before deciding that if the poem was to receive true poetic justice, it would have to wait for a better talent than mine.

Der Alte Brunnen

Lösch aus dein Licht und schlaf! Das immer wache
Geplätscher nur vom alten Brunnen tönt.
Wer aber Gast war unter meinem Dache,
Hat sich stets bald an diesen Ton gewöhnt.

Zwar kann es einmal sein, wenn du schon mitten
Im Traume bist, daß Unruh geht ums Haus,
Der Kies beim Brunnen knirscht von harten Tritten,
Das helle Plätschern setzt auf einmal aus,

Und du erwachst, — dann mußt du nicht erschrecken!
Die Sterne stehn vollzählig überm Land,
Und nur ein Wandrer trat ans Marmorbecken,
Der schöpft vom Brunnen mit der hohlen Hand.

Er geht gleich weiter. Und es rauscht wie immer.
O freue dich, du bleibst nicht einsam hier.
Viel Wandrer gehen fern im Sternenschimmer,
Und mancher noch ist auf dem Weg zu dir.

Hans Carossa

The Old Fountain

Put out your light and sleep. The only sound
Is the old fountain’s ever wakeful purl.
Whoever though was guest beneath my roof
Was always soon accustomed to this note.

True, it can happen, when you are in mid-dream
That there will be unrest about the house,
The gravel by the fountain crunch beneath hard footsteps,
The bright purl of the water suddenly cease,

And you will wake – you must not be afraid!
The stars stand in full muster above the land,
Only a wanderer trod to the marble basin,
Who scoops from the fountain with a hollow hand.

He soon goes on his way. And it murmurs as ever.
Oh, but be glad, you’ll not stay lonely here.
Many there are who wander far by starlight,
And many yet are on the way to you.