Too soon to call? Ah well, it’s almost mid-September and, even though most of the Western hemisphere’s weather patterns are skewed (and the Eastern one’s, for that matter), September has always meant the beginning of autumn for many of us.
There are so many poems about autumn out there. The typical themes tend to be related to nature’s beauty and bounty or the passing of time. Yet, as with any good poem, it’s all in the telling — the imagery, the metaphors, the musicality, the language and so on.
Today’s poem is a short one and centers on the passing of time theme— how nothing lasts, to be more precise. Yet there is a hopefulness at the end as the speaker remarks how, even as old things of beauty are lost, new beautiful things come to take their place.
Carl August Sandburg was the quintessentially American poet. A Midwesterner mostly, he moved, eventually, to North Carolina in the South, where he wrote a little over a third of his work. Before starting this prolific Pulitzer-winning writing career, he tried his hand at various blue-collar trades from milk delivery to farm labor. His support of the Civil Rights Movement made him the first white man to be honored by the NAACP with their Silver Plaque Award.
His Pulitzer-winning biography of Abraham Lincoln continues to be a standout for both sheer volume/length as well as the copious amount of research (some 30-odd years’ worth) that he put into trying to “separate Lincoln the man from Lincoln the myth.”
One of his best works, for me, is the Rootabaga Series — his version of American fairy tales which did not include the typical royal characters that European fairy tales did. Set in the American Midwest, they include, instead, farms, trains, skyscrapers, and corn fairies.
But, Sandburg was multi-talented. As Harry Golden, his friend, said:
(he was) the one American writer who distinguished himself in five fields—poetry, history, biography, fiction, and music.
Regarding that last, Sandburg was quite the urban folk musician, often playing the solo guitar at his own lectures and poetry recitals. This made him even more of a popular poet than others of his time and he was dubbed “the singing bard” or “the voice of America singing.”
This prose poem is short but powerful. It calls to mind one of Sandburg’s thirty-eight ‘Definitions of Poetry‘:
8. Poetry is a slipknot tightened around a time-beat of one thought, two thoughts and a last interweaving thought there is not yet a number for.
The opening line hits you the hardest as it tells about, quite plainly, the speaker’s sorrow over loss in life.
Then, the second line takes your breath away with the word-painting it puts before your mind’s eye: a yellow corn field and the brown earth come to a vivid, imaginative life as a pretty scarf adorning a sunburned woman’s neck. You want to pause awhile, drinking deep of this visual. There is something both serene and tantalizing about it.
And the final movement/stanza describes the northwest wind — that augur of winter and snow to whom the great poet, Shelley, offered an entire ode. And how, when it blows through with all its force, it shreds the yellow field/scarf, leaving behind that first snow. And yet. And yet. From that first, virgin snow, new beautiful things are created— different colors, sounds, shapes, and textures fill the world.
Yes, old things go, they do not last, as the speaker’s last words tell us. But don’t we need these rites of passage that the changing of seasons offers to us? If nothing else, they allow us to reflect on transience, how to make the most of what we have while we still have it and how to let go of things so we can move forward towards that which we must receive, whether we choose it or not. This age-old, steadfast philosophy that nature never fails to remind us of each and every year— all of us, young or old, happy or sad.
I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.
The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.
The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.
~ Carl Sandburg, ‘Complete Poems‘