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Posts Tagged ‘cherry blossoms’

poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

 

Barter

by Sara Teasdale

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

All beautiful and splendid things,

Blue waves whitened on a cliff,

Soaring fire that sways and sings,

And children’s faces looking up

Holding wonder like a cup.

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

Music like a curve of gold,

Scent of pine trees in the rain,

Eyes that love you, arms that hold,

And for your spirit’s still delight,

Holy thoughts that star the night.

 

Spend all you have for loveliness,

Buy it and never count the cost;

For one white singing hour of peace

Count many a year of strife well lost,

And for a breath of ecstasy

Give all you have been, or could be.

 

Image 1

 

I may have mentioned once or twice that I love the cherry blossoms. Not cherry blossoms, mind you, but the cherry blossoms, the ones that ring the Tidal Basin and the ones that form a pink tunnel on the streets of Kenwood, a neighborhood in suburban Maryland. It’s a once-a-year treat, and if you don’t live in Washington, D.C., catching them at peak is a matter of luck. Walking under cherry blossoms is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had and the probably most ephemeral. The Japanese even have a name for it, hanami.

 

This is what the Kenwood cherry blossoms look like at peak:

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 3.17.44 PM

This is what they look like when you come too late:

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Which is what seems to happen to me year after year. Even the carpet of petals underfoot was gone. Sixty mile an hour winds two days before my visit scattered their beauty.

 

So I just had memories to go on, calling up the “breath of ecstasy” from past visits. Breath of ecstasy is what poet Sarah Teasdale names our experience of the sublime: the sight of crashing waves (what a great line—blue waves whitened on a cliff), and fire, and a child’s innocent face (another great line—holding wonder like a cup), the sound of music, the smell of pine trees in the rain.

 

These experiences, which we’ve always considered ours for the taking, as in, the best things in life are free, aren’t free at all in Teasdale’s vision. Life has loveliness to sell, she writes, and the cost is high, a year of strife, perhaps, or even all you have been, or could be.

 

I’m having trouble understanding how that barter works out in real life, how it might cost me, in real terms, to seek beauty. I’m not going to sell my house so I can live in Iceland for a year to see the northern lights. But I can see how easy it is to stay in bed instead of getting up to see a sunrise, or how much less it costs me to stay warm in front of the television instead of putting on a coat to look at a winter moon. Easier still to Google a photograph of the northern lights and tick it off my list of beautiful sights to experience. Teasdale’s poem reminds me that effort, not just attention, is required to experience such beauty, and in this post-Romantic, technology-mad world, effort is the price of loveliness.

 

It’s an old-fashioned poem, not perfect, a little clunky in parts, a little inflated in others, but there’s much to enjoy. The passion, the high-minded feeling, the Romantic yearning for the sublime—they don’t make such poems anymore. Outside of a spiritual context or yoga class, no poet today would write like this, unless the poet was being ironic. But how else to capture that most essential human feeling of being overwhelmed by beauty? We need these old poems, we need these old poets to express our awe, our wonder and straightforward joy.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 4.57.17 PMSara Teasdale (1884-1933) was born in St. Louis, the youngest of four children. A sickly child, she was home-schooled till age nine. She started publishing her poems in her early twenties. Her work was well-received, and in 1917 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

 

In 1914 she married Ernst Filsinger, an admirer of her poetry, after rejecting several other proposals. They moved to New York City in 1916 and lived on the Upper East Side.

 

He travelled often, and during one of his trips, she moved away without telling him so she’d be eligible for divorce, much to his shock. They divorced in 1929. She re-kindled a friendship with an old boyfriend, poet Vladmir Lindsay. Lindsay was married by this time. He committed suicide and two years later she did at age 48.

 

A few years ago I left a poem of hers in the cosmetic aisle of Target. You can read that here.

Also worth noting:  her lyric poems seem to be popular with choral groups. Link here for one very lovely example.

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WATER AND FIRE

by Rick Cannon

For a long time

with the heavy, dreamy struggle upward,

the natural cupping of the hands,

the lengthy earning of a stroke,

a man does not know fire.

It’s not until he sees how easily things melt

and slide away,

how his father went,

his mother fails,

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser,

not until then does he walk on flaming grass

into the furnace of the trees

and wonder that he’s not consumed.

Finding a suitable location for this poem stumped me for a while.  If the poem were written for women, I’d have a much easier time of it.  There are, after all, many more public spaces devoted to women than to men—more clothing stores, more facilities devoted to our personal upkeep, more aisle space for our drugstore needs.  How to reach the male audience for whom “Water and Fire” is intended?  In the men’s department, a sports bar, a stack of Esquire magazines at the bookstore?  Most of those places draw young men, and most young men wouldn’t think this poem could ever apply to them.  To borrow the metaphors of the poem, young men are too busy swimming along in their dreamy waterworld to imagine the trial by fire ahead.

So my question was, where do men of late-middle age go when they’re not at work?  Or when they’re not at home, collapsing on couches and muting sorrow with a click of the remote?  A few appropriate spots came to mind: a  urologist’s office, a golf course, a barber shop or, if I had an accomplice, the men’s bathroom.

But in the end, I decided to leave this beautiful poem in a beautiful location, on a Tidal Basin cherry tree.  Conveniently this was also a good way to celebrate my first year of blogging.  One of my first posts last year was on these same cherry blossoms, just after they had bloomed.  (This year the trees were only a smidge past peak, still faintly pink, which I took as an auspicious sign for my second year of blogging.)

If I needed a third reason to tape a poem to a cherry tree (and the more reasons I can accumulate, the more taping poems to trees seems like a reasonable project), Rick Cannon is from Washington, D.C., and teaches at Gonzaga High School just a few miles from where I left his poem.

Onto the poem itself.  The Everyman of “Water and Fire” moves through the two titular environments.  In water he’s protected from fire and doesn’t even know fire exists.  All his energy is focused on moving forward.  And then Everyman’s perspective shifts.  Whatever his efforts have earned him counts for nothing once life starts taking away what could never be earned in the first place:  his parents, his wife’s beauty and all those things unmentioned but somehow present in the poem—health, carefree children, marital harmony, bodies and homes untouched by bad accidents.  Life will be grueling at some point, there’s no escaping it.  But to walk through fire and not be burned to ash is to be triumphant and sorrowful both at once.

I’m reminded of the brutal coming-of-age rituals I read about in Miss Parr’s Social Studies class, rituals in which boys become men by leaping from great heights with vines tied to their ankles.  But in this poem, it is the older man who must endure trials.  And what does he become?  A man burned and scarred but stronger than the young fellow in the water.

I’m fascinated by glimpses like this of the male experience—and I must admit men are stranger to me sometimes than birds and not at all as simple as my husband claims them to be.  But it’s as a woman that I was initially drawn to this poem.  Specifically, the lines

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser.

Ouch.  Thank goodness Cannon doesn’t mention vaginal atrophy, graying pubic hair, thinning eyebrows, the occasional whisker and other disheartening signs of physical decline in the female body.

(Which reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water, a play set in the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union.  Suspected of espionage, the bumbling Walter Hollander responds to his wife’s bragging about being the former Miss Wisconsin of 1938 with this lovely zinger about her legs:  “One look at those varicose veins and they’ll think I’m smuggling road maps.”)

Interesting that the man in the poem doesn’t notice his own decay, only that of the people around him.  God love all these men who can look in the mirror with such blindness and bliss!  Most women I know (including myself) obsess over aging faces.  We cling to what’s left of our beauty like lovers at a train station.  But not most men.  Either they’ve bought into the idea that they get better looking with age, or seconds after noticing their paunch, they pat it and put it out of their minds.

Of course the arc of life described in the poem is universal, and just as easily applied to women; and there’s no reason, I can hear my husband say, to fashion the poem into a dart to throw at men.  But it’s my blog and what’s done is done.

Rick Cannon graduated from Georgetown University and Iowa Writers Workshop.  In addition to teaching at Gonzaga for over 30 years, he’s an adjunct professor at Trinity University and has published three chapbooks.  He and his wife, poet Lori Shpunt, have five children.  You can read more of his wonderful poems here.

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That's the Jefferson Memorial in the background

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

by A.E. Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

I visited my mother three days after Easter with a plan to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin and in Kenwood, a neighborhood in Maryland that for two weeks every year is one of the most magical places on earth. As a child I thought it was a fairyland.  We would get out of the car and walk under a tent of pink trees that covered the width of the street. We kicked up thick layers of pale velvety blossoms and threw the petals at each other like confetti.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything so lovely.  This April I was sure I would see the cherry blossoms again—I would arrive only two days past the peak.  Alas, the trees in Kenwood were green with a only a hint of pink, and those at the Tidal Basin, where I posted this poem, had all but lost their delicate coloring.  I wasn’t completely disappointed in the outing, though, because the sight of my 84-year old mother enjoying herself in a Tidal Basin paddle boat was a treat in itself.

I love this little poem but it’s always confused me.  All that math!  Turns out my confusion sprang from a misapprehension of Housman’s age.  I thought that he was three score year and ten, or less poetically, 70.  And 70 minus 20 is 50, the additional years he says he has to enjoy the blossoms.  Was he assuming that he’d live to be 120?  No, but I was.  Thanks to a little internet research, I now understand that threescore year and ten is a biblical reference to the average lifetime.  So Housman has just passed 20 and is thinking of the 50 years he has left before he dies at 70 and never sees cherry blossoms again.  I guess this shows that you don’t have to fully understand a poem to enjoy it—understanding can come over time.  And also that math can make me a complete idiot.

Housman actually lived to be 76, so he got in six more springs with the cherry blossoms than he had anticipated.

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