The first real winter chills have inspired many poets, and encouraged them – and you – to stay inside and write. (Unless you're lounging next to a pool in Australia)
And so we come to November, the 11th month of the year, the first of our northern winter, and one that is rich in customs and holidays. All Saints, All Souls, Guy Fawkes and the bonfires; these traditions and their rich associations with mortality are well suited to the shortening days and chill winds of the new season.
In The Shepheardes Calender: November, Spenser explores the month's dying fall when, after a discussion of how the lighter songs of May are no longer appropriate, he has Colin sing a lament to the dead maiden Dido. With its interweaving of the language and intellectual landscapes of the pastoral, amour courtois and Biblical traditions, November is one of the high points of the entire Spenserian cycle.
Of course, as our antipodean regulars remind us, November is only the beginning of winter here in the north; below the equator it marks late spring and early summer. In Thomas W Shapcott's poem The Fifth of November, the jaracanda tree bursts into fiery bloom, an image of another kind of death than that represented by our chill November. John Kinsella's Heading South through the Long Paddock chronicles a drive through the outback in late November; high summer, with the tarmac melting and grain ripening in the fields. The drive is a journey through time and space that arrives at a point where 'Everything here is like something else / because it is not as it was.' My thanks go to Creel for pointing me to the Australian Poetry Library website, a veritable treasure trove.
Adelaide Crapsey's cinquain November Night returns us to a northern landscape and one of the most characteristic November images, the fallen leaf. The haiku-like quality of the form she invented helps bring this seemingly slight observation to vivid life. Equally luminous is Howard Nemerov's picture of a row of ginkgo trees shedding their foliage simultaneously and instantly one crisp November night as if to an unheard command in The Consent. This event serves as pretext for a mediation on our common unknowable fate.
Autumn and descending foliage take on a different resonance in Kenneth Rexroth's Falling Leaves and Early Snow, which opens with the realisation that coming generations will say, "They fell like the leaves/In the autumn of nineteen thirty-nine." It's a traditional enough analogy but brought to fresh life by the immediacy with which Rexroth paints his familiar Rockies surroundings.
In At the Justice Department November 15, 1969, Denise Levertov takes us to events surrounding another war. On that day in Washington DC up to half-a-million people gathered to protest peacefully against US involvement in Vietnam. The poem opens with what might be a perfectly ordinary image of November in the city: fog, and the streetlights shining through it. It soon emerges that this is no ordinary weather, however; the fog is tear gas. The poem celebrates the fact that an action intended to disperse the crowd succeeds only in bringing them closer together. It also brings home to the protesters how trivial their sufferings are compared with those experienced on the front line of the war itself.
The November of Anne Sexton's The Double Image is a more personal world, and one in which death is present but defeated. The bleak depiction of madness and attempts at suicide is balanced against the love between mothers and daughters, and in the end love endures despite, or perhaps because of, its selfish root. The final lines, addressed by the speaker to her daughter:
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me.
are both and admission and defiant statement of survival against the odds, just as the cold of November is also the precursor of a new spring to come.
The shortest, and in many ways the most mysterious, November poem I know is Fragment 8: Thicker than rain-drops on November thorn by Samuel Taylor Coleridge . It reads, in its entirety,
Thicker than rain-drops on November thorn.
If ever a piece of writing left everything to the reader's imagination, then this, in my view, is it.
And so the time has come for me to invite you to post your November poems. Maybe you're walking through drifts of fallen leaves or a city fog, or perhaps you're soaking up the Australian summer sun (or looking out the office window wishing you were). One way or another, tell us about it here.