But now September’s come — / Rich and cider-sweet, the sun/ Pours mellow gold above the ripened fields;/ The summer leaves are licked by/ Scarlet flames — the harvest moon hangs/ Heavy, lush and lambent in the/ Soft September night, and somehow/ Things seem “right.” The gush of words/ Has slowed, the rush of blood — a purple tide — Flows deep inside me now — Not because the love is less, but more,/ And now I know what blood is for:/ To nourish every season of our hearts/ Together or apart our veins are grafted now — We share the same supply, you and I — You hurt, I cry, I laugh, you smile, and/ All the while, our love ripens full and sweet,/ Day by day — yes,/ I guess that you could say/ I love you in a September way.
— Jenifer Maxson
It’s come to this — I’m flagrantly quoting myself. But it’s September on Shelter Island, when the inimitable Island light, gauzy yet crystal clear, always inspires poetry.
Because of the rich tide of it flooding the Island this month into which I had occasion to wade via my research surrounding the long-established Art/Rich Poetry Roundtable, as well my attendance at the fascinating Zoom webinar this past Saturday titled “What Is the Role of the Poet?” hosted by Island poet, Virginia Walker, I was put in mind of the unexpected significance that poetry has had in my own life.
The above is the second half of a poem I wrote nearly 25 years ago when, as a baby of 50, I met and fell in love with the man who would become my second husband. Not having written poetry since high school, I was almost as surprised as he was when I began pelting him with poems every week or so.
“September” was one of those many offerings (mercifully, he was a carpenter not a literary critic).
A few years later, though, when I needed a Masters degree for my permanent teaching certification, it was that “collection” of poems, the only finished product I had to show as a writing sample, that I sent along with my application. Of course, the fact that they were looking for paying customers might’ve lowered their literary bar a bit, but still, that poetry got me in, fulfilling of all things, a pragmatic purpose and changed my life.
Poetry, real poetry, can be a “life-changer,” and so much more than the tepid moon-June-spoon stuff that many of us connect with it. My students taught me that. Lines from their poetry still come easily to mind.
The 6th grader, M.D., who wrote a haiku about a sunset that looks like “raspberry sherbet melting across the sky,” or one of the Clark boys who, being forced to write a poem, did one about fishing early in the morning, his catch lying in the bottom of the boat “shining like quarters.”
Across my teaching years there were countless lines written by students that took my breath away, and theirs, too. When I read their work aloud to a class of 6th, 7th, or 8th graders, if a line touched us, the atmosphere shifted for an instant and like a collective tuning fork we all vibrated to the music of the words. No one had to say anything, we all knew it. Only humans can do that.
Young or old, educated or not, when accidentally or deliberately we find the precise words for something in us — a memory, a moment, a feeling — we can sometimes make it happen again for ourselves and for someone else who is reading it, or listening to it. That’s a special magic. That’s poetry.
Words can draw blood or freeze it, such as Emily Dickinson’s line from “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” that was brought up in a recent Poetry Roundtable discussion. Her narrator has never encountered a snake, “Without a tighter Breathing, and Zero at the Bone.”
In that webinar I mentioned earlier, which aired last Saturday, all four guest poets spoke of the purposes poetry serves for them.
For George Held that includes it being a means of “recording” events huge and humble. Gladys Henderson has “always believed poetry is a healing art…[if the poet] is brave enough to give words to the forbidden.” Robert Savrino believes that his purpose as a poet is to “promote, inspire and teach,” and in one of her poems, Lila Zemborain writes that “the wound opens and its mouth wants to speak.”
Poetry has as many “purposes” as there are humans to write, read and/or hear it. It’s not the step-child of the arts, but rather their mother, giving a voice to truth that is not apart from life but forged from it — summer, fall, winter, spring.