Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Farewell, September. Welcome, October.

For as long as I can remember, October has been my favorite month. But each year I find myself growing fonder and fonder of September. The "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All") of the movement from summer to autumn is wonderful: is it still summer, or have we well and truly arrived in autumn?  For instance, this week the temperatures have been in the 70s in this part of the world, the days bright and brilliant, yet there is an unmistakable thread of coolness in the breeze.  And fallen leaves follow in our footsteps.

Yesterday and today I was delighted to cross paths with two woolly bear caterpillars, banded black-dark orange-black, with four black dots running down the middle of their orange sections, and long white hairs angling out from their black front and back bands.  Both of them were headed toward the dry grasses of the meadows, trees in the distance, with single-minded intent.  I concluded that the two of them, on their missions, are among the most important things in the World.

     September in Great Yarmouth

The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.

Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold —
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.

Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.

The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
'Come in, fifteen, your time is up.'

Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (Oxford University Press 1975).

September puts us in two minds and in two hearts, heart and mind alternating between summer and autumn.  Last weekend, I walked past puddles from a night of rain.  The puddles lay in a long row beneath a line of maples whose boughs are still mostly full.  The dark surface of the water was a beautiful brocade of green leaves and brown leaves, floating in intricate, unrepeatable patterns, full of intimation.

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

Are some of us born with autumnal souls?  As a few long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers may recall, I have often described autumn as the season of bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness.  But it is not a season of sadness or melancholy. True, the line may be a fine one.  But how could such beauty be an occasion of mourning?  And so we welcome October.

          A Day in Autumn

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees' shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn's mirror.  Having looked up
From the day's chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper (Rupert Hart-Davis 1958).

[Update on Friday, October 2.  I published this post on September 30.  I was shocked and greatly saddened to learn this morning that Derek Mahon passed away yesterday.  His poems have appeared here dozens of times over the years.  If I turn my head to the right, I can see a long line of his books on the shelf.  I am at a loss for words.  I will write more at another time.  May he rest in peace.] 

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)


Deborah Vass said...

How wonderful to come across a woolly bear caterpillar! I used to see them often as a child, watchng their purposeful movement with fascination, but sadly I haven't seen one for years. I love the RS Thomas poem and, when I taught English, I would always introduce students to this poem each year, as like it is for you,it is my favourite time of year.

Sam Vega said...

Thank you for two very fine poems there, illustrating in very different ways that little stab of insight we can feel about change and time passing. I'm glad you can appreciate the Derek Mahon poem from across the Atlantic. It seems to me to be so quintessentially English in tone (although Mahon is of course Irish!) that I would have been wary of offering it to Americans. But there is of course a beautiful universality about it, especially in its linking the change of seasons to growing up and maturing. "Fifteen, your time is up", indeed!

And I like the Thomas's idea of saving a little snapshot of beauty or insight against the harder times coming. I once heard a talk by Germaine Greer, in which she spoke of teaching working-class girls to recite poetry by heart. A useless pursuit, thought her more cynical teaching colleagues. But she wanted to give them something to mentally recite and reflect upon when engaged in hard repetitive work in the factory or home.

Thanks again for your offerings. I'm off now to enjoy the cool air and sparkling sunshine in the local fields.

Esther said...

I loved your line about "the two of them, on their missions," being "among the most important things in the world." So beautifully put. May I, like them, head toward the figurative dry grasses and distant trees in my own life with the same "single-minded intent." Your musings on the woolly bear caterpillars bring Thoreau's Walden to mind: "Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails."

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Vass: They are wonderful creatures, aren't they? I usually happen upon a few of them around this time each year, often crossing a path or a sidewalk. I always worry that someone won't see them, and will step on them, so I wait to make sure they make their way successfully into the grass. They are indeed purposeful.

The Thomas poem is lovely, isn't it? It's one of my favorites by him. It's interesting that he didn't include it in his Collected Poems of 1993. (He omitted other poems as well, as I'm sure you know.) It would be nice if it had more exposure, since it shows a side of him different from the commonly-accepted (and not fully accurate) caricature of him as being curmudgeonly and harsh. Although I suppose he did much to cultivate that caricature.

I hope that all is well with you. As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: I'm happy to hear from you again. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the poems. The anecdote from Germaine Greer's talk is lovely, and her idea is a fine one.

By the way, for another poet's version of the portentous boatman's call, please see Gavin Ewart's "Yorkshiremen in Pub Gardens" (which you may already know). It appeared here in my post titled "No Surprise" on July 6, 2015. Ewart's lines are: ". . . and 'Come in, number 80!'/shouts inexorably the man in charge of the boating pool." I first came across the poem in the Christmas 1974 "Poetry Supplement" of the Poetry Book Society, which (interestingly) was compiled by Philip Larkin. As I noted in my post, knowing Larkin, one can understand why he included Ewart's poem in the collection. It's right up his alley.

Again, it's good to hear from you. I hope you are doing well. Yes, "the cool air and sparkling sunshine" are wonderful this time of year, aren't they? Thank you very much for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. It's nice to find that you, Ms. Vass, and I share a fondness for the woolly bears. Your thought about the inspiration and example they provide is lovely, and brings to mind one of Bashõ's haiku about the semi (I'm sure you know it):

The shell of a cicada:
It sang itself
Utterly away.
(Translated by R. H. Blyth)

This goes well together with another of his haiku on the semi (again, I'm sure you know it):

Nothing intimates,
In the voice of the cicada,
How soon it will die.
(Translated by R. H. Blyth)

Thank you for sharing Thoreau's thought: it is quite apt. Particularly so in these times.

As always, thank you for visiting. Take care.

Terra said...

How sad to lose a dear poet. They are precious to us, I was sad when Mary Oliver died, not too long ago. I like your pairing of autumnal paintings and poetry.

Anonymous said...

We've just had three perfect October days here in NYC. Chilly & brilliantly sunny -- "warmer outside than in", as my mother used to say. The chill seems odd when the trees are still lush & green. There are almost no signs of turning color yet in the parks.
Yesterday I read Derek Mahon's obituary in the Times. They ended by quoting "Everything is Going to Be All Right", which I know I've read on First Known. For the next few days I'm going to read one of his sidebar entries every day here. For perspective.

John Ashton said...

It was so sad to hear of the passing of Derek Mahon. I know you have posted many of his poems on your blog. He was one of my favourite poets.

Over the weekend we had very heavy rain, until late on Sunday afternoon when it stopped for a while and I took the opportunity to go out for a walk through a local park. There were a few people walking dogs, otherwise it was peaceful in that way that emphasises the wonderful clarity of birds singing in the trees and as I walked on I noticed how numerous were the crows, jackdaws, magpies and pigeons on the ground searching for food, and then that beautiful moment when after the rain has stopped the sun shines briefly through thick cloud. The grasses are suddenly brightened at their tips as sunlight strikes the raindrops suspended there and the muddy paths shine beneath the trees. I have seen this sight many times before and yet it is never less than astonishing. There is such a stillness and beauty unique to such moments.

Stephen Pentz said...

Terra: Yes, it is sad to lose a poet who has moved us, who has given us beauty. But, of course, we never really lose them, do we? Derek Mahon's poems will always be with us -- at least as long as we are here. Thank you for visiting, and for the kind words about the post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm happy to hear that you are visiting Derek Mahon's poems. It's a fine way to celebrate his life, and to pay tribute to the beauty he gave us. As I said in my response to Terra's comment, we never really lose the poets who leave us (as you know). His poems have been a part of my life for years, and that will never change. I have returned to certain of his poems time and time again, and it is not surprising that "The Mayo Tao" was a poem I turned to, and posted here, back on March 18, just after COVID arrived. Yes, "Everything Is Going to Be All Right" has appeared here before: back in 2012 and 2015 (I just checked). In reading his obituaries in the Irish newspapers, I discovered that it has become quite popular in Ireland this year, found a new life.

How nice that you have had a series of those brilliant autumn days. Well, some things never change. I hope they continue for you. Once again, thank you very much for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: I'm sure we have shared thoughts on his poems on more than one occasion over the years. Very sad news. But, as I said in my responses to the comments by Terra and Susan, we will never lose what he has given us over the years, and will continue to give us in the future. One of the many wonderful things about poets and their poetry.

Thank you very much for the lovely description of your Sunday afternoon. This is why we go out on walks, isn't it? Who knows what will happen? A poem by de la Mare comes to mind (I'm certain you know it well):

That shining moon -- watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.

I hope that all is well with you. Take care.