I speak this poem now with grave and level voice
In praise of autumn, of the far-horn-winding fall.
I praise the flower-barren fields, the clouds, the tall
Unanswering branches where the wind makes sullen noise.
I praise the fall: it is the human season.
No more the foreign sun does meddle at our earth,
Enforce the green and bring the fallow land to birth,
Nor winter yet weigh all with silence the pine bough,
But now in autumn with the black and outcast crows
Share we the spacious world: the whispering year is gone:
There is more room to live now: the once secret dawn
Comes late by daylight and the dark unguarded goes.
Between the mutinous brave burning of the leaves
And winter’s covering of our hearts with his deep snow
We are alone: there are no evening birds: we know
The naked moon: the tame stars circle at our eaves.
It is the human season. On this sterile air
Do words outcarry breath: the sound goes on and on.
I hear a dead man’s cry from autumn long since gone.
I cry to you beyond upon this bitter air.
Such a short summer. Now we’ve turned into fall. This book of observations by the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard covers ordinary things with unexpected observation. The author is waiting for the birth of his daughter. He writes to her about Q-tips and winter boots, about buses and bonfires, toothbrushes, coins and sugar. It’s like a book writing exercises. It reminds me of how children renew the world for parents, and how the writer’s job is to go deeper into some dimension of the world we share. Also, I am drawn to writers with hearts of winter.
Why compare myself to summer? We’re like day and night, like sun and moon. And if I don’t snow, who am I then? Nobody. Then I am nobody. Then that damned self-righteous summer will triumph from here to eternity. Then no one will offer any resistance to that complacent idiot. p. 27
Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe, The Old Crow Medicine Show
We need a version of this wild American flower to blossom again. It will come from the spiritual centers of the land where native and immigrant spirits have not been entirely stamped out. It flourished when the train transported people together from the farms and fields to great American cities, full of promise and hope, where people from many nations lived together. The young people of our country need to step forward now-into positions of leadership and influence-and help us to a better place.
…those places which have held significance for Bostonians and their writers: the Garden and Common, Back Bay, the South End, all clustered in the city’s center. Beyond lie the hard edges of the city, where immigrant energies, racial and ethnic identities have long been felt: the North End, South Boston, Charlestown and Dorchester. To the west lies Cambridge, central to Boston’s self-definition from the beginning, and particular Harvard, which embodies so much of the city’s mind and soul. We travel from Beacon Hill to Harvard to Concord, the pastoral and ideological counterpoint to pragmatic, commercial Boston. Farther West lie Amherst and the Berkshire Hills, Lenox, and the other towns, at the outer edge of Boston’s reach. The sphere of influence arcs north to include southern New Hampshire and south to encompass Cape Cod. All of these are sites which have been illuminated by the imagination of Greater Boston’s writers who have infused such places with ideas, passions, and symbols. America’s city upon a hill, though radically transformed, is still, as John Winthrop imagined it should be, a beacon–“the eyes of all people are upon us.” –Shaun O’Connell, Imagining Boston, A Literary Landscape
Millet’s Angelus is named after the Marian devotional prayer. Millet 1814-1875 depicts two peasants bowing their heads at the end of the day and praying, as the Angelus bell of blessing tolls in the church on the horizon. The image was placed long ago over my mother’s dining room table. The evening silence and rural spiritual obedience of it makes it hang heavy and famously in my memory.
The Angelus (1857–59) by Jean-François Millet
Salvador Dali 1904-1989 was fascinated by Millet’s Angelus. He painted his own variation on it. Dali did not believe that the peasant planters were praying. He thought they were mourning the death of an infant they had buried there in the field. The figures are too focused and quiet, too relaxed, to be praying a devotional prayer at the end of the work day, or so Dali thought.
Pastels by Millet and other French painters are at the MFA now. There’s a note about how much Millet meant to Impressionists such as van Gogh 1853-1890 who viewed a group of Millet’s pastels and said to his brother, “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
For a man who wants to be his own master, to depend on no one else, to make life conform to his own visions rather than to follow the blueprints of others, playwriting is the perfect occupation. To sit in a room alone for six or seven or ten hours, sharing time with characters that you created, is sheer heaven. And if not heaven, it’s at least an escape from hell.
Here’s a poem from Tracy K. Smith’s new volume, Wade in the Water. She is the current poet laureate of the United States and a teacher at Princeton.
The United States Welcomes You
Why and by whose power were you sent?
What do you see that you may wish to steal?
Why this dancing? Why do your dark bodies
Drink up all the light? What are you demanding
That we feel? Have you stolen something? Then
What is that leaping in your chest? What is
The nature of your mission? Do you seek
To offer a confession? Have you anything to do
With others brought by us to harm? Then
Why are you afraid? And why do you invade
Our night, hands raised, eyes wide, mute
As ghosts? Is there something our wish to confess?
Is this some enigmatic type of test? What if we
Fail? How and to whom do we address our appeal?
Extraordinary passages of light shine out of the poet’s memoir. Here’s one that made me blink. It’s the author as a college student, on a trip to New York City, and back to Cambridge: a young person, finding herself, forming herself with ideas, finding comfort in movement at night along a most populated corridor.
I made a trip to New York [from Cambridge] one weekend….my aunt Carla had given me a tour of the Harlem neighborhoods, weaving along the blocks of Striver’s Row and, farther north, pointing out the abandoned buildings that had once been magnificent, too, but that now stood like doll houses on burnt-out blocks. After dark, as we were heading back down Lenox Avenue, I’d pointed to the silhouettes warming themselves around garbage cans whose contents had been set aflame…There was something about it that delighted me, something real…
“When I graduate, I want to come here. I want to live in Harlem, with all these beautiful black people,” I announced. It felt like a homecoming. The little sliver of blackness I’d known growing up in California, a sliver that sat inside the walls of our family house, or inside the silence of my mind, leapt in joy to know that there was an immense realm whose facets gave back occasional glimpses of itself.
On the Greyhound back to Boston, signs everywhere told me how much further there was to go…Moving over ramps and bridges, and back and forth across lanes, I relaxed my grip around the confusion, the sorrow, the independence, the wanting, the shifting allegiances, the insatiable wondering that fueled so much of my life. High above the ground, watching the bus’s shadow skimming north on Interstate 95, I felt vacant, expansive, subjective, far away. Like a cloud pushed along by the wind.
My son Nate introduced the poetry and music of Kendrick Lamar to me by playing episodes of the podcast Dissect on a long road trip. The episodes explore, in detail, the raw energy, passionate theology and unnerving social commentary in the tracks of Lamar’s album, To Pimp A Butterfly. The lyrics explode in performance, unfolding the seethe and rage of black America in powerful, introspective art.
Art that is soft and easy on our hearts is not all there is. When we are on top of the world, safe and secure, music and poetry can be quiet and mild. There are other voices, from other places, down the street, that speak from very different experiences.
During a few days together, my sons and I talked about many things. Matt was reading about Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. In the last years of his life, in Independence, Missouri, Truman took morning walks with Thomas Melton, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church.
Passing an enormous gingko tree on Maple Street, one of the largest, most spectacular trees in town, Truman would customarily speak to it. And what would the President say to the tree, Melton was asked by a visitor years later. He would say, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ Truman, by David McCullough, p. 984.
When Truman died in December, 1972, Mary McGrory wrote a tribute to him for the Washington Star:
He did not require to be loved. He did not expect to be followed blindly. Congressional opposition never struck him as subversive, nor did he regard his critics as traitors. He never whined. He walked around Washington every morning–it was safe then. He met reporters frequently as a matter of course, and did not blame them for his failures. He did not use the office as a club or a shield, or a hiding place. He said he lived by the Bible and history. So armed, he proved that the ordinary American is capable of grandeur, and that a President can be a human being. Truman, p. 989
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.
-Richard Wilbur 1921-2017