Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 30, 2006; BW12

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

of fresh air, back the little tears in the heat,

the hot sleep on the kitchen floor,

back the talk in the great dark,

the voices low on the lawn

so the children can't hear,

say summer, say father, say mother:

Ruth and Mary and Esther, names in a book,

names I remember -- I could give you back this name,

and back the breath to say it with --

we all know we'll die of our children --

back the tree bent over the water,

back the sun burning down,

back the witness back each morning.

In a harsh wintry image from his recent book, District & Circle , the Irish poet Seamus Heaney perceives a relic of both harvest and obliteration, a machine that in its seasonal setting embodies the frailty and stubborn courage of human resources:

In Iowa

In Iowa once, among the Mennonites

In a slathering blizzard, conveyed all afternoon

Through sleet-glit pelting hard against the windscreen

And a wiper's strong absolving slumps and flits,

I saw, abandoned in the open gap

Of a field where wilted corn stalks flagged the snow,

A mowing machine. Snow brimmed its iron seat,

Heaped each spoked wheel with a thick white brow,

And took the shine off oil in the black-toothed gears.

Verily I came forth from that wilderness

As one unbaptized who had known darkness

At the third hour and the veil in tatters.

In Iowa once. In the slush and rush and hiss

Not of parted but as of rising waters.

The countless gradations and signs that register the time of year have an enduring human significance, deeply bound up with the art of poetry.

(The translations of haiku by Issa and Buson are from the book "The Essential Haiku," edited by Robert Hass. Ecco. Copyright 1994 by Robert Hass. Stanley Plumly's poem "Say Summer/For My Mother" is from his book "Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems." HarperCollins. Copyright 2000 by Stanley Plumly. Seamus Heaney's poem "In Iowa" is from his book "District & Circle." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright 2006 by Seamus Heaney.)

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