Politics, war and a sense of passing have all been recurring themes among poets going about their business as summer turns to autumn. Are your thoughts of a rusty brown hue?
Ah, September: the ninth month of the year with a name that indicates that it is, or rather once was, the seventh one. Maybe we should just gloss over that. The September poem in Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender starts out as a cautionary tale of the other man's grass, but soon descends into yet another round of papist-bashing. Maybe we should just gloss over that, too. At this point, you may be thinking I'm just going to gloss over the entire month; fortunately, there are lots of very fine September poems that we can look at to get us back to our ongoing poster poems calendar challenge.
There seems to be something about September and political poetry. Two particularly well-known examples of the genre are Yeats' September 1913 and Auden's September 1st, 1939. It would be difficult to imagine two poets with more divergent politics than the haughty, aristocratic-leaning Irishman and the young English socialist intellectual. Yet Auden came to admire the older poet, and wrote a fine elegy for him.
Yeats' poem, characteristically enough, was inspired by middle-class Catholic Dublin's failure to support a scheme to secure Hugh Lane's collection of contemporary art for the city. The oft-quoted refrain "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, / It's with O'Leary in the grave" compares the penny-pinching bourgeoisie of 1913 Ireland with the poet's semi-mythological golden age of Irish cultural nationalism, the Young Irelander period in the middle of the previous century. Unsurprisingly, the comparison is less than flattering.
Auden was a different poet writing in a different era and, by September 1939, a foreign country. His poem is an angry meditation on the outbreak of war in Europe, an event he had long foreseen. The poem's perspective is coloured by Auden's residence in New York, in the neutral US. It is in many respects a clumsy work, perhaps marred technically by the poet's lack of emotional distance, and Auden himself came to consider it "trash which he is ashamed to have written". Nevertheless, it is a powerful piece of rhetoric that captures a particular, earth-shattering moment in history.
Another poem with links to world war two is Geoffrey Hill's September Song. Hill is not a particularly rhetorical poet – certainly not in the ways Auden and Yeats were – but the quiet detail of his song for a victim of the Holocaust carries its own very specific weight. It is one of the most understated and affecting poems on the topic that I know of in English.
In Denise Levertov's September 1961, the freight of history is less political than literary, but the sense of something passing away is just as strong. She is marking the drift of three of her poetic forebears, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and "HD" (Hilda Doolittle) into silence, a "learning to live without words". Levertov and her contemporaries are left to try to follow the road opened up by the older poets, but in the dark, without "the light of their presence".
None of these September poems explicitly mentions the autumnal aspect of the month, although all are suffused with a sense of things passing away, so the season of the fall is there implicitly. Other poets take a more straightforward approach. Carl Sandburg, in his poem Hydrangeas, focuses on the rusty brown of autumnal decay, but interestingly sees it not in the leaves of trees, but on the white flowers of the hydrangea bush. It's an illuminating twist to a very traditional poetic trope.
In his To the Light of September, WS Merwin avoids brown altogether, but still contrives to evoke the early autumn feeling through a series of images from nature culminating in the plums "that have fallen through the night / perfect in the dew". In Another September, the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella takes a different traditional trope as his subject matter: autumn's association with ageing and intimations of death, overlaid by a sense of the poet's distance from the facts of experiences that come filtered through a sieve of words and forms.
And so it's time to fill in the ninth page of the poster poems calendar. There's a hint of autumn in the air and, once again, we are living through momentous times. Maybe your September is a suitably natural brown, or perhaps your mind inclines to thoughts of a wider social decline as the days close in. One way or another, please post your September poems here.