Posts Tagged ‘seasons’

Winter trifles

Monday, December 13th, 2010

It is a cold day in Winnipeg, a real freeze-your-face-off day, and while walking to a nearby café to meet some friends for a late breakfast I remembered this little poem:

Oh, the cold of Canada nobody knows,
The fire burns our shoes without warming our toes;
Oh, dear, what shall we do?
Our blankets are thin, and our noses are blue—
Our noses are blue, and our blankets are thin,
It’s at zero without and we’re freezing within!

(Chorus)—Oh, dear, what shall we do?

—John Dunbar Moodie

Clearly, this was written before the days of central heating! Few of us now can complain of being so miserably cold indoors, whatever it’s like outside.

(John Dunbar Moodie, by the way, was the husband of Susanna Moodie, and this poem is quoted in her book, Roughing It In The Bush.)

And of course the “nobody knows” in the first line reminds me of this, from The House at Pooh Corner:

The more it
The more it
The more it

And nobody
How cold my
How cold my

To which Piglet eventually responds: “Pooh,… it isn’t the toes so much as the ears.”

But for me, it’s always the toes.

Poems for fall

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

So many autumn poems are melancholy. Granted, some autumn days are conducive to melancholy: dull, damp and grey. Dry leaves turn to wet brown muck in the streets and you retreat inside with thoughts of blankets and hot drinks.

Fall is equated, understandably, with old age and fading beauty. It’s linked with decay, death and loss. Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ “Summer and Fall” follows that pattern with lines like these: “Margaret, are you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?” It seems to liken autumn to the loss of childhood, the loss of a former self, as it ends: “It is the blight man was born for,/ It is Margaret you mourn for.” And W.H. Auden has this pair of lines in “Canzone”: “Drift, Autumn, drift; fall, colours, where you will:/ Bald melancholia minces through the world.”

Gloomy stuff. But then there’s this one, from an old children’s anthology:

I like the fall,

The mist and all…

I like the gray

November day,

And bare, dead boughs

That coldly sway

Against my pane.

I like the rain. (“The Mist and All” by Dixie Willson)

Which reminds me of my son a couple of weeks ago when I was complaining about the persistent rain: “What’s wrong with the weather?” (more…)

Poems for spring

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Spring is about surprise. Spring happens every year, and yet it’s possible to be amazed over and over at what the season brings with it: the smell of damp earth; shoots emerging from the ground; birds returning. I’ve been reading some poems that express the exuberance of spring wonderfully.

e.e. cummings was very good at exuberance, and wrote several spring poems. A bookstore in my neighborhood had one posted in the window: “in Just-/ spring     when the world is mud-/ luscious the little/ lame balloonman// whistles     far     and wee…” The line near the middle, “when the world is puddle-wonderful,” reminds me of my son, who views puddles (as I did, at his age) as things to be enjoyed, not avoided. (Full text of the poem here.)

In “Québec May” by Earle Birney you can sense both the energy of growing things and people’s revived spirits: “Now the snow is vanished clean/ Bo’jour, Pierre, ça va?/ skyward point the cedar billows/ birches pinken    poplars green/ magenta runs the sumach tine/ pouring down the hills like wine/ Yellow catkins on the willows/ yellow calico on line/ ‘Allo, Marie, ça va?

Of course, people have been writing poems about spring for centuries. One of the few bits of poetry I remember from a class in Middle English literature is the opening of this lyric: “Lenten is come with love to toune,/ With blosmen and with briddes roune,/ That all this blisse bringeth.” Unfortunately, all this bliss contrasts with the speaker’s unhappy love life, but there’s still a lot about the beauty of birds and flowers here.

And there’s the most famous of Middle English lyrics: “Sumer is icumen in,/ Lhude sing, cuccu!/ Groweth sed and bloweth med/ And springth the wude nu./ Sing, cuccu!” The rhythm skips merrily along, like the lambs and calves in the second stanza. (Hear a music video of this here.)

And finally, there is A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now…”, in which the speaker thinks about how many years he may have left to live, and concludes: “And since to look at things in bloom/ Fifty springs are little room,/ About the woodlands I will go/ To see the cherry hung with snow.”

Spring has sprung. Carpe diem.

De gustibus non disputandum

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Or, in English, matters of taste are not to be disputed. Or, to stretch the concept a little, there’s no arguing with tradition. I’m thinking of how we often feel a strong pull toward things we’ve grown up with, regardless of how our beliefs, tastes or critical faculties have changed over time. This is expressed beautifully and hilariously in the song Zen Gospel Singing by Mark Graham (recorded by Bryan Bowers). In it the singer tells how, despite having left the church become a Buddhist, he misses the four-part hymn singing. He doesn’t believe in that sin-and-salvation stuff any more, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to get his Buddhist friends to sing more than one note at a time.

I had to laugh when I heard this song, because it reminded me of the Christmas songs we used to sing at family gatherings years ago. Some of them are truly lovely; others can be either lovely or drippily sentimental, depending on the day; still others are just not very good (sorry, Mom). Bells are mentioned frequently, as in “Süsser die Glocken nie klingen” (“Sweeter the bells never ring”), “Hört Ihr nicht die Weihnachtsglocken” (“Don’t you hear the Christmas bells”), or “Kling, Glöckchen, kling” (“Ring, little bells, ring”). Christmas trees come up fairly often, too, as in one of my favorites, “Welchen Jubel, welche Freude” (“What rejoicing, what delight”). I sang all these, and loved them, long before I understood the words.

But for a certain subset of Russian Mennonites from the prairies (my extended family included), the crown jewel of Christmas music was “Der Friedensfürst” (“The Prince of Peace”). It’s different from the others: not a hymn or carol, but a choral piece probably written around the turn of the 20th century. It’s composed of several short sections, with each pair of lines in the text having a different musical setting. It sounds like it was written in the popular-song style of the day. Once, at a carol-singing evening at the church we attended in Toronto, someone brought out copies of “Der Friedensfürst” and we sang it. Those of us who knew the piece were thrilled; those who were new to it didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

To this day I am not sure if it’s a good piece of music, objectively speaking. But that’s not the point. The point is that we used to sing it every Christmas, and now we don’t. And if, at some Christmas gathering, someone were to pull out a copy of the music, and if there were at least two other people in the room who knew it, I’d sing it. With feeling.