Poetry is a good way to experience the essence of summer in two ways. First is the way the poet has described a specific event or feeling about the season. Second is our reaction to what the poem says; we read what’s written and will immediately have an opinion about it. We can’t help it, it’s a natural response to human communication. Our opinion could be, and often is, next to nothing; the words in verse just didn’t ring our bell so we’re neutral about it. However, we usually have an infinite range of opinions from “it’s a waste of words”, “I don’t get it”, through “that’s interesting” and “I never thought of that”, all the way to “wow, I just had a spiritual awakening!”
Well, okay, only rarely does a poem give us instant enlightenment. But sometimes the words and their arrangement on the page give us a feeling of connection to an image, phrase or thought. Tha’ts what poetry is all about: connection. It’s a uniquely human way to have an affinity to all matters of the world. A good poem opens up our hearts and minds to an experience that another person has described and to which we add our own layers of understanding. Poetry is a shared effort. It’s best done in an atmosphere of curiosity and the free flowing images in our mind.
The reader need not feel intimidated by a poem. It’s not a test to see if you can get the right answer, as so many of us experienced in high school english class. Once you read a poem it’s yours to do with as you please. Billy Collins, the beloved contemporary poet and teacher, once said that too often people think they have to tie up a poem and beat it with a hose to dislodge its meaning. We don’t have to get violent with poetry. We can read it and just let it go without comment. We can also read it and enjoy the reverberations through our senses, or how it reminds us of our own world. We may even read it and become enlightened to the meaning of life. In all cases, just read a poem and see what happens.
Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout
Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones,
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
This poem covers a lot of territory. You feel the crisp thin air of his mountain aerie then float down for miles through bright trees and flies. The humid late summer heat is quenched by that wonderful cupful of snow melt. The poet is secure in the contentment of solitude. Book learning has dropped away with the distance he has chosen from a few friends and city life. You get the sense that he doesn’t need anything more. Gary Snyder, now ninety three years old, is a poet, environmental activist, Buddhist practitioner and essayist. Turtle Island won the Pultizer prize for poetry in 1975. Read the man’s work now while you can make a connection to his living presence. His final (his words) book of poetry is This Present Moment.
Light In August
In the embers of an August day
I stroll through rows of magnificent dahlias,
waning sun casting muted light on a kaleidoscope
of unexpected patterns of crimson, yellow, orange and pink.
In the last hurrah of summer
this rich contrast of muted light on dazzling dahlias
is an unexpected harbinger of hibernation,
A time of soul-seeing by fresh angles of light,
waiting for outside sun to rise and warm again.
Yet I stroll through this interval of silence and waiting
expecting the gift of harvest and the calm of the cave.
Rita H. Kowats
This poem is an interesting contrast with the one above it. It’s more richly embellished. The poet paints a seemingly cozy picture of a colorful flower garden. But the light is of embers, something is burning away. We are shown that the riotous heat of summer will soon be extinguished by the calm of winter’s hibernation. Then, within two lines, the poet alludes to the finale of cave-dwelling when we are waiting for the sun to rise again. Time is condensed here, and yet, it is still summer. There’s a sense of suspended waiting: expecting the bounties of harvest but also looking forward to the solitude of a cave.
The thick-walled room’s cave-darkness,
cool in summer, soothes
by saying, This is the truth, not the taut
Rest here, out of the flame—the thick air’s
stirred by the fan’s four
slow-moving spoons; under the house the stone
has its feet in deep water.
Outside, even the sun god, dressed in this life
as a lizard, abruptly rises
on stiff legs and descends blasé toward the shadows.
Here the poet takes us directly into a shelter from high noon’s ferocious heat. We’re told that the cave-like abode of the room is “the truth” rather than the insect riddled outside light. Here truth may mean the place that we really want to be. Why? Perhaps because the house’s foundation is part of the life-giving presence of water. We may be hesitant to think that a foundation is okay being deep in water but the poet tells us that, hell yes!, even the lizard’s are seeking the cool shadows. This is a good poem that points out that the external signs of extreme (noon) summer can be grounded by the internal sense of being secure in the foundational waters of life.
The long tradition of writing haiku in Japanese culture has been absorbed into nearly every other culture on earth. There is a multitude of on-line sites dedicated to the writing and discussion of this art form. A hallmark of haiku composition is a series of rules that determine how the poem will be assembled.
The first is that it must be composed of what western languages call seventeen “syllables”. However, a syllable (a unit of pronunciation having one vowel sound in English) is not exactly the same as a Japanese unit of sound. Therefore, when a Japanese haiku is translated into English it appears much briefer than it is when written in Japanese. But it is the brevity that packs the punch of this much admired poetry. Writing haiku in English is an interesting exercise combining imagination and diction.
Another rule is that a haiku must contain two images that work together to create a scene. And yet another rule is that a haiku must contain a word or phrase that refers to a specific season of the year. The “season word” is sometimes obvious like “heat” for summer, but sometimes less specific like “buzzing flies” which is also a phrase that refers only to summer. There are more rules (remember that this poetry was highly developed in Japan) but for now just know that haiku is essentially a picture painted with words. A good haiku will compress the poet’s thoughts and emotions into a few well chosen words. The intention is to evoke a similar reality in the reader. More rules: haiku don’t have titles, and they are written in three lines.
So, sit back and read each of the following poems several times to taste the flavor of the poet’s thoughts. The first two are by native english writers, those that follow are by the revered masters of Japanese haiku.
Another heat wave
dark clouds build in the west
flies cling to the screens
Colleen M. Chesebro
Packed air pressing skin
butterflies tumbling through sky
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone
A solar eclipse
a circle in a washtub…
pale blue in the rain
more blue in the moonlight