#61: “Himalayan Balsam” (Anne Stevenson)

If “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” is one of the plainest poems we’ll deal with this semester, Anne Stevenson’s “Himalayan Balsam” is one of the most ornate and difficult. Verbally difficult, I would argue: once one gets past some of the initial verbal difficulties, the poem is not hard to think about, and once one accepts that it’s not going to lead in a linear direction, it’s easy to enjoy. You just have to go where the poem leads, from one association to the next.

Great poetry can include characteristics that would get really low grades on composition papers. “Himalayan Balsam” has some of them: unclear transitions, off-topic digressions, run-on sentences. The poem alternates between love and death (remember, according to Emily Dickinson, the great poetic themes). “It’s not … that death / creates love. More that love knows death.” Why would the speaker have thought that death created love? And how does love know death? Do these ideas jibe with your understanding of either love or death? And how do the verbal illustrations of these ideas (flowers, spiders, young dead animals, housework, cathedrals) speak to love or death – do they extend your knowledge of these things, or do they stretch too far?

“Himalayan Balsam” isn’t afraid to follow its ideas and images wherever they lead. In a sentence from John Keats that I will return to often this semester, Stevenson is possessed of “Negative Capability, […] capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In fact, the closing turn of the poem, where the lover “says ‘yes’ to the coming winter and a summoning odour of balsam” is a kind of poetic embodiment of negative capability – shown, not told – that is far different from anything a social or natural scientist, or a philosopher, might say about the problems of love and death.


13 responses to “#61: “Himalayan Balsam” (Anne Stevenson)

  1. I think that the speaker talks about the idea of death creating love to acknowledge the idea that it may be because of death that we are inclined to love. If people never died and nothing ever went away, then there would be no reason to love or cherish anything. There would never be the possibility of losing anyone or anything, so we would never know that there was anything to cherish having. She then chooses to say that “love knows death” instead of creating it. More or less, it is that we choose to put ourselves out there and allow ourselves to love knowing that it can never last and death is the ultimate inevitability. I was always taught that humans are reactive by nature. But I believe that reacting and doing something in spite of something else are different. I think that people love in spite of death, not as a reaction to it.

    I think that the visual imagery that Stevenson uses illustrate the ideas of love and death very well. The Himalayan Balsam is symbolic of love in general. It grows and blooms into something beautiful, but as part of it’s cycle the blooms have to die. The spiders seem to represent the nature of relationships in general, filled with courtships and deaths, not all of them literal. The death could mean an actual death, or simply the end of the relationship for whatever reason. And we remember these loves and losses in the same way that we would remember the life of some small creature in whose life we tried and failed to intervine in. When the creatures die (and they all ultimately do) it is always a little heartbreaking. And yet, we always move on eventually. The things that we use to comfort ourselves (the tears, cathedrals, etc.) do nothing to actually prevent the loss, and they are useless to creatures other than us. All they do is give us an outlet in which to lose ourselves and cope with the loss easier. But it does not prevent it from happening. It is best to just accept loss for what it is and choose to love anyway.

  2. Initially I was a overwhelmed by this poems crazy transitions and randomness. However, after reading it a second time, I’d have to agree that it is a poem that is easy to enjoy. I especially appreciate how descriptive everything is; from the flowers and the animals to the cooking and the cathedrals. It paints a pretty vivid picture for me. I think death can create love by letting us feel lonely and desiring what we once had. As it was said in class; We sometimes don’t realize we love something until it is gone.
    The strongest message that came across to me was that love is frightening, but yet we still choose to love. Which follows the idea of “Negative Capability”. In a poem entitled “The Risk of Love” by Kris Hydmore love is described as unreliable, not cautious, non-sympathetic, unprejudiced, and unmerciful. “It strikes the strongest of mind and brings them to their knees in one blow.” Yet, we still choose love. I believe it is because lonelinessis far more painful than any risks love my have and because Love simply is worth the risk! I feel that it also what the speaker in this poem is saying.

  3. I think one thing that would prompt the speaker to believe that death creates love is people’s tendencies to romanticize about the past. When people lose a loved one, they only tend to focus on the good things about the individual that passed. No wants to speak ill of the dead and often we come to forget the negative qualities or events that were associated with the departed. Someone in class mentioned that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I believe that statement to be true. I find that I can be angry with someone that is close to me but as time goes by I begin to miss that person and the anger I felt seems to fade away with time. Time fades memories. Time is another issue in this poem I think the speaker is aware that nothing lasts forever. It was discussed in class that the speaker is open to negative experiences and is willing to love again knowing that it will eventually end. The speaker compares the seasons, courtships and their murders. She gives an example of courtship and murder with the Meta segmentata, the female spider that devours her male counterpart at the end of their “courtship.” I wonder whey spiders do that, but I digress.

  4. I think this is a great poem because it is speaking on love and death. When someone loses a love one they experience love and death. I feel that you do not truly miss something or someone until they are gone. A death in a family sometimes brings families closer together. I think that love knows death because we have all experienced love and have lost a loved one. I feel that we turn to love when we are feeling down about something or something bad happens to us. When you are away from somebody for a long time your love for them grows stronger because you are not around that person. For instance a long distance relationship may bring the love for each other closer together. I believe that it is in our nature to love one another. It is our nature to love someone regardless if we are happy with that person or mad at that person. I believe the statement when someone says, “I will forgive but never forget”, is us forgiving the person and loving them. It is saying i will always love them regardless of what that person did to us.

  5. This is my favorite poem we have discussed so far because although it is difficult to understand at first glance, the simplicity of it afterwards is what caused me to love it. The stanza that stands out to me the most is “Sometimes, shaping bread or scraping potatoes for supper, I have stood in the kitchen, transfixed by what I’d call love, if love were a whiff, a wanting for no particular lover, no child, or baby, or creature. ‘Love, dear love..” The writer explains what love is often related to and then goes on to explain how simple it would be if it were a ‘whiff’ of something and nothing complicated. Perhaps people would not fear it the way they do and more people would know what love was. Currently the emphasis on love can sometimes be scary, the idea of it being nothing more than a whiff would cause it to spread and not linger just as fragrances do. It would simply pass with time.

  6. In the poem, Himalayan Balsam, Anne Stevenson reflects on the true nature of the siamese twins love and grief. She seems to have discovered that they are joined together at the heart and are inseperable. In order to have love, one must be willing to accept grief. Death does not create love, but it measures the depth of the love by the intensity of the grief. When the speaker said,”More that love knows death,” seems to allude to the fact that grief is an expression of love in its final stage. Grief is what acknowledges that love truly did exist. Anne Stevenson’s allusion to the nature of the Himalayan Balsam analyzes the nature of love and grief in the fact that one can’t control love nor grief. Love sprouts, grows, blossoms, and entangles one in its growth knowing that its beauty will exist only for a season. Love that is lost is a ‘fragrance too rich for keeping’ because to dwell on it will make one sick just like too much rich food. On the other hand, loves’
    siamese twin grief helps it to fade away which validates love is ‘too light to remember.’ Love and grief are uncontrollable like the growth of the Himalayan Balsam. One must go where they lead. Love leads to grief, and grief is the healing process that is necessary to lead to love again. Thus, the season and cycle begins anew. The speaker said, “Then I loved you with the usual soft lust of October that says ‘yes’ to the coming winter and a summoning odour of balsam.” The poem is verbally difficult perhaps because the very nature of love and grief are dynamic and erractic.

    • I liked what you said in that love is too light to remember. It’s so hard to remember each and every instance where love has been present because it’s everywhere. Even in hardships, you can find love. You can also forget how much love was given and received because we can only handle love to a certain extent. If you ever find love, all you can do is focus on the moment of love. The strength is continuing to love and remembering how to receive it. If you reflect back on love, how can you get the full nature of love. With grief, you can’t relive the moment when you lost that certain loved one because that’s just how you were feeling at the time. So dealing with both are learning experiences throughout life.

  7. Love knows death is a particular stanza that stands out in my mind. It’s the sweet memory that let’s us know that we have been loved by someone who has experienced both death and love. Either for themselves, or known someone who has genuinely gave love, received it, and died because of it. We will too experience them both in our lifetime. Never do most of us remember loving a spider or some other type of odd animal. Yet oddly enough, what if we were like animals? Unable to communicate love, affection or appreciation for love and death. We don’t know if animals love but we can only search for signs that hint us to certain feelings that come from animals. Like if a baby infant dies or runs away from the mother of a fox, we would be able to see signs of her lost and the care that she had planned to give to her baby. People are similar with a wide range network of thoughts, though people are only more intelligent beings. We respond learning off happenings from love and death and on how to mourn in such a case, but also the natural instinct to recover.

  8. The poem “Himalayan Balsam” begins with the speaker describing his/her ideas of nature. In this description I see an amount of what seem to be contraditions which I believe to be the authors “negative capabilities”. Ironicaly the previouse poem by Robert frost dealt with nature as does this poem. Through reading Frost’s poem I saw the idea that man creates meaning in nature, yet in “Hamalayan Balsam” I believe that through nature the speaker is able to understand true love. ‘Love dear love”. I believe that when the speaker speaks of love he/ she is refering to two different kinds of love, the love which “subtracts us from seasons” and the love that “knows death”. The second type of love is the true love. Love is greater than him/her, it is an all encomposing power that knows no bounds, and from which, everything is born. From this realization the author moves to describe the “long stone sobs of cathedrals”. This is where the true shift of the poem occurs. I believe she sees that men often justify their travesties upon mankind with love, which I think is what is meant by “murder the killer we have to call life and we’d be a bare planet under a dead sun”. After this line the speaker states she “loved” nature. In this line the speaker knows love and and now what she loves responds “yes” not “no”. The speaker is conforted and I sence a small amount of desperation with the way society is, yet a softness which is hopful for the changing of the seasons and the natural way things are,although winter may seem a cold dead time of the year it still releases the SCENT of the balsam. (“transfixed by what I call love, if love were a whif”)

  9. While hearing the poem, “”Himalayan Balsam,” the words that really stood out to me were, “It’s not … that death / creates love. More that love knows death.” Those words caught my attention because I knew they would be something I would want to analyze once I was done hearing the poem. When I took the sentence apart, and after hearing other people’s point of view about this sentence, I understood the speaker to mean that you never know how much you love something until it’s gone. When the speaker says, “…death creates love,” I thought about not necessarily death, but the end of something coming about, making you appreciate it more or love it more. Also, for the outsiders looking in, they are able to see how much someone really loves something or someone once it is gone.

    When the speaker says, “…love knows death,” it made me feel as though all good things come to an end. That no matter how much you love something or someone, one day it will end or they will leave. So in that sense, yes, love does know death, because it does know the end of something.

    Someone already posted an idea stating that when we lose something or someone we remember the good. We would rather focus on the positive than remember all the things we disliked. I think that is another way “death creates love.” The speaker suggests being open to negative experiences and something that really set that idea in stone for me is when she speaks about the flowers and the dead animals. Mostly everyone I know would love to be given flowers or would love to own a pet, but something we do not think about is that one day they both will die, it’s inevitable. But regardless of that fact, for those days, weeks, or years that we have that gift in our possession, it makes it all worth it even when those loves die. So in that sense, when we know something will come to an end and we decide to progress regardless, we are being open to negative experiences and I do not think there is anything wrong with that.

  10. I found the faint connection between flowers and death in this poem to be interesting. It is a common ritual for people to leave flowers at a grave site or to give flowers during a time of mourning. The woman of this poem looks at the flowers and compares them to the fragility of love. They are beautiful but fleeting, just as love and life.

    She makes the connection between live, love, and death. With love comes life, with life, death is eminent, and eminent death knows love. The three come full circle and she acknowledges this as a reason to love. Some believe that since there is no way to escape death, love then is pointless. She comes to realization that she believes otherwise, that love has a point but only if it is aware of death.

    If one were to be oblivious to death or if there were no end to everything that is, then all that is important would lose its meaning. If you only have only one life to live, then you want to spend it doing things you love to do with people you love to be around. Death gives life meaning.

    Take, for instance, the reason most of us attend college; to get into a job we love. The reason it means so much as to spend thousands of dollars and about 4 years of your life to obtain is because you only get one chance at life. Love is the same way, it can be felt for only one moment, but people will spend as long as it takes to get that one moment so that they can know they have truly lived before they have died.

  11. I have to agree with a lot of you in that we don’t realize how much we miss something or truly loved someone or something until it is gone. After the blooms of these beautiful flowers are gone people miss their beautiful Balsams. I feel that this is the speaker’s reason for thinking that death creates love. The example of love using the spiders made me feel otherwise, love creates death. The female spider eats the male after reproducing, its part of their life cycle. For humans, normally we love the person we tend to reproduce with and we know that the infant we are bringing into this world is eventually going to die. Nobody likes to think it but it is a truth we can never escape, it will happen. Yet we still do it, we create death with our love for one another because it is a beautiful thing to experience. Saying this, I believe that love not only knows death but also creates it.

  12. This poem is a rough one. Not only is it hard to read initially, but it is about two things that are tough to comprehend. Love and death are very complicated parts of life, which are intertwined deeply. When you love, you know they will die as well as you. And that feeling is what makes our emotions travel all over the place. It is tough for me to even describe my feelings on both topics. I feel as though death might be a sweet release into the unknown, and when you really love other souls, that sweet release becomes salty and scary… you don’t want to leave. I believe being a loving person and being loved by others can help push off death. Why is it having a dog increases the life expectancy of a human being? Love is the most powerful thing followed by music and death. Many people might put those in a different order but to me love is the royal flush of powers!

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