by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
I am by choice most thoroughly a creature of the West Coast convergence of sea and desert, which gives new meaning to “dry land.”
Autumn, when the sun recrosses the equator heading south, might tempt me to try a different country. There’s something very alluring about leaves turning amber and russet, then crackling underfoot, about light that glows in an ever-afternoon, and air that breathes soft and cool upon the skin but smells of smoke-tang and apple cider.
Yet while Time may tarry, it never stops. As sure as the sun, as constant as the constellations, Winter will follow Autumn. And then I look around my dry-scape of arroyos and beaches, content to be warmer than the creatures of that other country. Better earthquakes than blizzards for me.
In celebration of the glories of this enticing season, I offer two very different poets.
Our first poet is John Keats, who was born on Halloween – October 31, 1795, in London – and died on February 23, 1821, of tuberculosis in Rome, where he had gone in a vain attempt to restore his health.
But in his 25 short years, he won undying fame, and wrote some of the most beautiful poems in the English language: “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn,” which is the final work of his 1819 odes:
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
The “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” that time of his full power as a poet was too short for Keats, and he died when the songs of spring were yet to come.
Yet Keats did possess the gift of prophecy: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”
Thomas McGrath, our second poet, grandson of immigrant homesteaders in North Dakota, was born just before Thanksgiving, on November 20, 1916. The 1918 Influenza Pandemic bypassed the isolated McGrath farm, but his family was not spared the devastating effects of the Great Depression. As Social Historian E. P. Thompson wrote, “McGrath’s family experience was the whole cycle — from homesteading to generations working together to bust — in three generations.”
His political and social views ever after were firmly on the side of working people.
He was in and out of Moorhead State University, then attended the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, earning a B.A. in 1939. Awarded a Rhodes Scholarship that he couldn’t use immediately because WW II intervened, he studied at Louisiana State University with “Formalist” critic Cleanth Brooks (Modern Poetry and the Tradition), and met Alan Swallow of Swallow Press, who published McGrath’s first book of poems.
1947-1948: he used his Rhodes Scholarship, at New College, Oxford, England.
1951-1954: McGrath taught at Los Angeles State University, but was dismissed after appearing as an unfriendly witness – “A teacher who will tack and turn with every shift of the political wind cannot be a good teacher. I have never done this myself, nor will I ever” – before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
1954-1960: McGrath worked various jobs. He founded, with his then-wife Genia, the journal Crazy Horse.
1962-1967: he taught at North Dakota State University at Fargo.
1969-1983: McGrath was on Moorhead State University’s faculty.
Joseph Butkin observed in North Dakota Quarterly, “For McGrath, politics and poetry emerge from the same source, from the geography of his life and the history of his time.”
BEYOND THE RED RIVER
The birds have flown their summer skies to the south,
And the flower-money is drying in the banks of bent grass
Which the bumble bee has abandoned. We wait for a winter lion,
Body of ice-crystals and sombrero of dead leaves.
A month ago, from the salt engines of the sea,
A machinery of early storms rolled toward the holiday houses
Where summer still dozed in the pool-side chairs, sipping
An aging whiskey of distances and departures.
Now the long freight of autumn goes smoking out of the land.
My possibles are all packed up, but still I do not leave.
I am happy enough here, where Dakota drifts wild in the universe,
Where the prairie is starting to shake in the surf of the winter dark.
Thomas McGrath died on September 20, 1990, in Minneapolis. His life began and ended in the autumn season, in the Midwestern country that was his heart’s true home.
Sources and Further Reading
- To Autumn – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/240196#poem
- The Revolutionary Poet in the United States: The Poetry of Thomas McGrath. Copyright © 1988 by the Curators of the University of Missouri
- Beyond the Red River – from Selected Poems 1938-1988. © 1988 by Thomas McGrath. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177084
- John Keats – drawing by Joseph Severn, less than a month before his death
- Red River of the North
Word Cloud Photo by Larry Cloud