Spring seems to have always been a time of inspiration for artists, and poets are no exception. This season’s collection of poems drifts from Romanticism to contemporary poets and everything in between.
The best advice I ever received about how to read a poem was quite simple: read it aloud.
To this I’d add my own advice: read it repeatedly.
We’re sometimes inclined to think of poems like little envelopes: there’s a meaning inside somewhere, and all the “poetic” bits (rhyme, meter, figurative language) are merely the envelope enclosing that meaning. If we can just get at the meaning, we can dispense with the rest! So we read in order to “meaning-hunt.”
This is no way to read a poem, and certainly no way to enjoy reading it!
Poems are, quite simply, ordered words. They do mean something, but that meaning is integrally caught up in the being of the poem. This means that to understand a poem you must first simply read, reread, and reread it again. Return to it. Leave it alone and come back to it, and experience its revelation of itself to you. Camille Paglia puts this far more artfully in her book Break, Blow, Burn: “I believe in immersion in and saturation by the poem, so that the next time we meet it, we have the thrill of recognition. We feel (to quote singer Stevie Nicks) the hauntingly familiar. It’s akin to addiction or to the euphoria of being in love.”
As you read the following poems on springtime, allow yourself to be saturated by them. Find somewhere peaceful where you can read aloud and not feel foolish. Read slowly. Observe line breaks on one read; ignore them the next time and read only for grammar. Let the images cluster in your mind’s eye. Allow yourself to feel the shape and texture of the poem in your mouth, on the “imaginations’ tongue,” as Denise Levertov will describe it in one of the poems below. Visit and revisit it—and as you experience the euphoria Paglia describes, you’ll also find yourself more saturated by the spring time itself, in all its ancient freshness!
01. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” by William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
This is a classic spring poem, and for good reason. I love the cluster of images it offers: vivid daffodils, starlight, ocean waves together flood the imagination with an experience as vivid as the speaker’s own. The last stanza meditates on poetic memory: it transcends time and space in its ability to relive and to share experiences. Read the full poem here.
02. “The Poppies,” by Mary Oliver
The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation
of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
This poem meditates on how earthly things, like poppy blooms, remind us of the eternal. The language of the poem is full of religious suggestions (“levitates,” “redemptive,” even an explicit “holiness”) but is invested in how these realities can be reached by a return to the good earth: “happiness, / when it’s done right, / is a kind of holiness, / palpable and redemptive.” Read the full poem here.
03. “Spring,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
Read this poem aloud. Savor the alliterative lilt of the language as you squeeze from it “a strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning.” Read the full poem here.
04. “here’s to opening and upward,” by e. e. cummings
here’s to opening and upward, to leaf and to sap
and to your(in my arms flowering so new)
self whose eyes smell of the sound of rain
This poem captures the way the heart tends to cluster things it loves into one glorious constellation of images that language can never quite capture: spring, seedlings, new love, rainfall, ocean swell, star glimmer—we jump through them all here! The way Cummings uses—and breaks!—standards of English grammar reminds us of language’s glorious inability to capture moments of ecstatic transcendence. Read the full poem here.
05. “A Light Exists in Spring,” by Emily Dickinson
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
In this poem, Dickinson walks us through the process of viewing a spring landscape—each flower, tree, hill—rather than giving us the whole. In doing so, she makes us think of how that whole is more than the sum of its parts and so functions as a “sacrament,” pointing to an experience and a reality beyond the pieces themselves. Read the full poem here.
06. “The Trees,” Philip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said.
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Here Larkin meditates on the mystery of life-in-death, death-in-life. Spring, for all its protestations that life “begin[s] afresh, afresh, afresh!” bears in its own loveliness the promise of its decay: blossoms swiftly “relax” into a subdued greeness which “grieves” the inevitable passing away of spring splendor. So pause a moment, and savor these passing things! Read the full poem here.
07. “Today,” Billy Collins
If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house . . .
This poem’s structure offers the reader brief little vignettes of language and imagery, creating an ebb and flow, a breath and release, a stopping and starting, which mimics a stroll down a spring-y lane. The beautiful moments are disrupted by violence as the turbulent world breaks into the peace of this glorious “today.” In this way, the poem bids you consider your relationship to the world around you. Read the full poem here.
08. “The Enkindled Spring,” by D.H. Lawrence
I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.”
I too am amazed at this spring—and at the strange juxtaposition of imagery this poem offers us! The connection of spring scenes with conflagration is unconventional and unexpected. It seems to work because together these images capture the intensity and brevity of springtime glory. I love thinking about the colors and textures of spring as a kind of consummation of the earth’s reserves: this glory is passing, flaming out for a few weeks before it burns down to its embers. Read the full poem here.
09. “Spring and All,” by William Carlos Williams
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.
This poem reminds us that spring begins long before the blossoms burst out in our gardens. Life resembles death in its early stages—the stark outlines of “purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy / stuff of bushes” and the “leafless vines” distract us from the roots which already are alive: “they / grip down, and begin to awaken.” New life, says the poem, begins in the buried darkness of death. Read the full poem here.
10. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by W. B. Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
I love this poem for spring because of its specificity. The speaker wants a simple life, but not just any simple life: he knows what he wants his home made from, how many bean poles he will have, how the sounds of the “bee-loud glade” and the “linnet’s wing” and the “water lapping” will pair with the “purple glow” of noon, the “glimmer” of evening. For readers who, like the speaker, are trapped in our city lives (now more than ever!), this poem is a reminder of the goods of home and garden. It bids us listen to the longings “in our deep heart’s core” and to try to satisfy them in what ways we can. Read the full poem here.
11. “O Taste and See,” by Denise Levertov
living in the orchard and being
hungry, and plucking
In this strange and wonderful modern revision of Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us,” Levertov pushes us to integrate our internal and external lives, the lives of the body and the soul. The poem walks us through a litany of things and actions and modes of sensation. Like Oliver in “Poppies,” Levertov shows us the goods of the world available to our senses—taste, touch, smell, sight, all of which are so stimulated in this season of spring—as opportunities to transform ourselves through participation in the goodness around us: “O taste and see!” The transcendent is made available to us through the temporal, material world. Read the full poem here.