#15 “To Autumn” (John Keats)

I didn’t plan it this way, but we arrive at John Keats’s “To Autumn” in autumn, with the Texas trees turning brown – though as so often, a spell of warm weather in November has fooled a lot of our flora into “thinking” it’s spring again.

Plants don’t think, I guess, though part of what the great essayist and critic John Ruskin called the “pathetic fallacy” is to imagine non-human nature as thinking and feeling. Keats loved to do that. His bees “think warm days will never cease”; his gnats are “wailful” and they “mourn,” and he personifies Autumn herself as a lazy observer of the change of seasons.

“To Autumn” is a highly “finished” poem. Some might rank it #1 in their Countdown; it has the reputation of being utterly perfect. I have preferred a number of poems with greater tensions, but “To Autumn” might be described as the greatest English poem of a lack of tension. The conflict that gives so many great poems their energy is in abeyance here. All we do in “To Autumn” is wait for the winter to arrive.

Of course, that very anticipation gives the poem its remarkable depth. Though it is simple and perfect, it’s not superficial. Autumn is beautiful because it brings the last of everything. As Maxwell Anderson wrote of autumn, in another context:

But it’s a long, long time
From May to December,
And the days grow short
When you reach September.
When the autumn weather
Turns the leaves to flame,
One hasn’t got time
For the waiting game.

Or, Johnny Mercer, translating a French lyric by Jacques Prevert:

Since you went away, the days grow long,
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song.
But I miss you most of all, my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.

The poem’s tension is provided by its subject, one of the great natural analogues to aging and the looming of death. All Keats has to do is describe it. And he does so with tremendous composure. But underneath that composure, one hears undertones of the resistance to decay that Robert Frost, our constant companion this semester, put so well:

Ah, when to the heart of a man
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?


#16 “One Art” (Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop’s masterpiece, “One Art,” is one of the most frequently reprinted poems of the late 20th century. Its power resides in how it represents rhetoric. Well, let me put that in a more roundabout but clearer way. The poem imagines a situation where a speaker is talking to someone they might lose. They are trying to persuade that someone that losing them isn’t going to be a big deal. They’re so experienced at losing things and people that it’s almost like they’ve practiced up for this one last big loss.

But as Victor Laszlo says to Rick in Casablanca, the speaker sounds “like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart” (or woman, in this case). That’s why I use the word “rhetoric”: rhetoric is meant to persuade or convince, but you don’t have to believe in it to use it. In fact, you might be trying to convince yourself in the process of deploying rhetoric. As Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, “When I fool the people I fear / I fool myself as well.”

The speaker obviously fears losing the person she’s speaking to. But she doesn’t even let on that she’s speaking to a specific person till late in the poem. Till then, “One Art” has been a poem on a general topic, almost like an advice column. “Lose something every day!” sounds like a program that Heloise might advise.

All the while that this chipper advice is being given, the stakes in the losing deepen, till we get to the real crux of the poem: the departure (whether it’s going to happen, or has happened already) of the loved one.

“One Art” is a variation on the form called “villanelle,” where two rhyming lines are introduced in an initial three-line stanza, repeated over and over as the concluding lines of three-line stanzas, and then joined again as the concluding couplet of the poem. Villanelles are standard creative-writing exercises, and a frequent feature of 21st-century collections of poetry by academic poets. But though they demonstrate a high level of technical skill, they are hard to write memorably: the great English examples from the 20th century are “Missing Dates” by William Empson and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. (Neither of those will be in our 64-poem Countdown, though they might make a 128-poem version.)

But “One Art” is not a true villanelle. The entire rhyming lines do not always repeat; only the final rhyme-words do, and there’s considerable variation in the phrasing. As so often, really great poems take a standard form and play with it: suggesting the pattern but then performing a variation on that pattern, much like great jazz.

#17 “Canal Bank Walk” (Patrick Kavanagh)

Patrick Kavanagh’s sonnet “Canal Bank Walk” is, by my reckoning, the greatest sonnet written in English in the past 200 years. It was written after Kavanagh, not at all an old man (about 50, the same age I am now) was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had surgery to remove a lung. He recovered from his illness and its treatment by walking along the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin, pausing to sit on the benches there from time to time.

“Canal Bank Walk” is no more than that in its conception – not even that, because the speaker doesn’t refer to any of the specifics of Kavanagh’s life. The poem’s situation might be that of anyone who needs to “grow with nature again”: any of us, actually.

The poem uses a variable number of syllables in each line, with about five strong stresses in each: it is one of the most confident free variations on the sonnet form that I’ve ever read. And that free variation “enacts” the meaning of the poem. It is about growing free of constraints. It is about vitality overcoming decay, as Emily Dickinson might have put it, and it is astonishingly alive.

The ending of the poem, to me, sums up poetry and in fact the academic humanities. “Arguments that cannot be proven” rarely convince scientists, mathematicians, or philosophers. Nor do they convince the many positivists among us, people who want everything to be measurable and answerable. (For instance, how can I prove that this is exactly the 17th-best short poem in the modern English language?) But human life, both physical and spiritual, exists at its fullest in such “green and blue things.”

#18 “A Postcard from the Volcano” (Wallace Stevens)

Wallace Stevens was the greatest poet/lawyer in American literary history – not that he has a lot of competition. He was exceptionally successful at both professions. You can read more about Wallace Stevens’s life here. Most of his great poems are either a little too long for the Countdown, or a great deal too long for it. But here and there, he wrote masterpieces in a shorter form. “A Postcard from the Volcano” is perhaps his greatest short poem, and one of his most accessible.

“Postcard” takes the long view. A very long view. Dwelling on the past might seem morbid, so Stevens dwells instead on the future. He imagines future children as ignorant of their past as we are ignorant of today’s past. We have seen, in Larkin’s “Arundel Tomb”, that the relics of the long dead can have an inscrutable quality. Stevens looks in the other direction, at those who will look at us when we’re as long dead as the earl and countess in Larkin’s poem.

It’s not just that these future children will be puzzled by our remains or our artifacts, of course. “With our bones / We left much more”: we will leave our language as well as the shape we’ve given the world. And that language, that culture, in fact, will be more persistent than bone, or canvas or film, or brick and mortar.

We are custodians of language. It’s there before us, we use it for a while, and then we pass it along to others who will watch over it in their turn. But we change it somewhat on our watch. Poets change it more than others: or, at least, what they say of things becomes more a part of those things than the ordinary person’s saying.

#19 “Two Tramps in Mud Time” (Robert Frost)

“Two Tramps in Mud Time” is one of the great American poems about work. Robert Frost here calls into question how we define work. He considers who should get to, or have to, do various kinds of work.

I am often struck by how much of “work” in human societies is really just a social agreement among people to look busy. Capitalism involves a rhetoric of lean, mean, ever-more-efficient production. But corporate employees spend an enormous amount of time in pointless meetings. (Academic employees spend even more time in them.) Retail employees bustle about moving things from one place to another, solicitous of customers to the point of aggravation.

Even more interesting is the “work” done not for the market but for the psychological and social well-being of the worker. In the 18th and 19th centuries, upper-middle-class (sometimes even upper-class) ladies would constantly “work” at embroidery or other sewing projects. This needlework had some economic benefit, but it was inefficient; it was done really out of a sense that idleness was not good for individuals or their communities. Today in American suburbs, people get out of work on the weekends and … go back to work: on their homes, their cars, their boats, their craft projects. Is such work play? Is play perhaps as important as work?

“My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation,” says Frost’s speaker. Being a poet and a self-sufficient farmer (at least in this dramatic situation), he has the rare opportunity to combine the two. Or perhaps his assertions themselves are “play.” Does he really need to split the wood himself? It’s as if someone out for a jog met someone else running for their life. How do you defend playing at something so serious?

As so often in Frost’s poetry, the absolute plainness and matter-of-fact quality of the language is its great beauty. The phrasing of the poem is so perfect and so confident that I suspect a metaphor in the great lines about splitting logs:

And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.

When a great poet is on his game, even in play, the lines fall “splinterless” onto the page.

#20 “An Arundel Tomb” (Philip Larkin)

“An Arundel Tomb” is the third poem about love on today’s segment of the Countdown. But it is not a love poem. It’s about our attitudes toward love; about how marriage, as an institution, presents love to the world; about social class, and the history of class in England; and about how to “read” the past. Just as we may not understand contemporaries from another culture, we may not understand the culture of a distant century.

Choose your tombstone wisely, the poem seems to say. The aristocrats buried beneath this slowly-eroding sculpture were probably married by arrangement, with an eye to the succession of various properties and titles. We cannot know how they related to each other. We can infer that they did not have a modern “companionate” marriage, where Mom scrapes the dishes, Dad loads the dishwasher, and the couple settles down on the couch to watch Law and Order. The “Arundel” couple’s marriage was heavily regulated by ceremony. Both of them, after their heirs were born, may have gone separate ways in all but the most public of marital duties.

But the ideal of marriage, then as now, is literally engraved in stone: “His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.” A gesture of affection that they might never have enacted except on their wedding day and a few subsequent grand occasions “has come to be / Their final blazon.”

As in all of Philip Larkin’s great contemplations of other people’s lives, the tone is a remarkable blend of cynicism and sympathy. The Arundel couple are hypocrites. Or are they? If we keep acting out appearances, when do the appearances become reality – particularly if we arrange to keep enacting them forever?

#21 “After the Blitz” (J.R. Ackerley)

J. R. Ackerley’s “After the Blitz” is so little-known that only one blogger has ever bothered to post the entire text of the poem on the Web. And even this blogger has contributed to the continuing obscurity of the poem by not posting its title or author. Ackerley was a distinguished English journalist, a writer of great memoirs like My Dog Tulip. His poetry, privately published in short collections, is almost unknown. Some years ago I met a writer who had been a close friend of Ackerley’s. I mentioned “After the Blitz.” The writer was puzzled – she hadn’t known Ackerley wrote poems at all.

The form of “After the Blitz” deliberately recalls that of Tennyson’s sequence of poems “In Memoriam,” which, like “After the Blitz,” was written for a beloved friend who had died too young. Like the “In Memoriam” poems, “After the Blitz” rhymes ABBA, a lovely form that folds one couplet around an internal couplet. (“After the Blitz” uses 10-syllable lines, though, not the 8-syllable lines of “In Memoriam.”)

The “Blitz,” of course, is the German bombardment of London and other cities at the height of Hitler’s power during the Second World War. The speaker of the poem describes an apartment where he and his lover have spent some good time together. The apartment has been severely damaged in the Blitz, and he’s rebuilt it. Meanwhile, the soldier/lover has gone missing – presumed dead, but with his official fate unresolved. The speaker sets everything in the flat up so that the lover will feel at home, in the unlikely event he ever returns.

“After the Blitz” is an incomparable love poem that ranges far beyond a single or simple relationship, to talk about love itself, and the way in which war destroys people’s plans. Among the poem’s many beauties is the exquisite tension between “man’s resilience” in rebuilding after the Blitz, and the unbearable, final loss of the one person who would have been all the reason in the world to rebuild.