Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 30, 2006

Reading even a little Japanese poetry in translation reminds us of the cultural importance of the seasons. Evoking an exact time of year and an associated emotion, in a way that makes the tradition fresh, is the poet's goal. For example, the 18th-century writer known as Issa indicates the craving for shelter and companionship as winter comes on: "Deer licking / first frost / from each other's coats."

Yosa Buson, Issa's approximate contemporary, lets shades of white suggest the restlessness and sexual energy of springtime: "White blossoms of the pear / and a woman in moonlight / reading a letter."

Poetry in English has a similar tradition: time's steady, almost imperceptible wheel, detectable in the swallows gathering in the sky and in the slow-dripping cider press of John Keats's "To Autumn"; the sweet liquor of rainwater drenching and awakening April roots in Chaucer's General Prologue to the "Canterbury Tales."

Here are two contemporary poets, one Irish and one American, continuing what may be a universal gesture of poetry, registering a season with details that also present a feeling. Stanley Plumly refers to a world of American summers and a world of losses, with the word "say" meaning both "for example" and the act of naming, in "Say Summer/ For My Mother":

I could give it back to you, perhaps in a season,

say summer. I could give you leaf back, green

grass, sky full of rain, root

that won't dig deeper, the names called out

just before sundown: Linda back, Susy back,


I could give you back supper

on the porch or the room without a breath

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