As we step out of August and into September, I find myself missing what we haven’t lost quite yet: the life-filled and life-affirming summer. The poems included in this season’s roundup are all by twentieth-century poets. I think there must be something about the freedom of modern and contemporary poetry which lends itself to depictions of summer. As I read these poems and tried to write about them, a few words kept recurring in my mind: saturation, indulgence, fecundity. There’s something overwhelming in the splendor of summer, the way the air smells of life and earth and flesh. It is almost ugly in its raw honesty: the stuff of life is exposed in its vivid physicality. Gone is the demure spring, and we are far still from the noble festivity of autumn and the sober, sterile peace of winter: it is summer, the season of extremes and joy and bodily thriving. It is the timeless season: each day feels like eternity in its life-giving fullness. Mary Oliver puts it best: “everything has already been more than enough.”
01. “The Roses,” Mary Oliver
One day in summer
has already been more than enough
One of the great nature poets of the century, Mary Oliver’s language so appeals to our senses that we feel immersed in the scene she’s describing. And at the same time, as she points to the things of earth, her poems push out into a transcendent, timeless realm. This poem is about saturation, over-stimulation, the sense of overwhelm that comes with high summer’s deep and fecund green. It is about the way that intense joy causes a kind of pain, perhaps because we know that, like the roses of summer, it will pass away—and instead of leading us to despair, this sense of passing joy reaffirms that we are made for a happiness with “no end.” Read the full poem here.
02. “California Hills in August,” Dana Gioia
I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.
This poem offers a different sort of summer grandeur for our contemplation: the spare golden hills of California in late-summer. It is a poem of paradox, listing all the signs of life and beauty a casual viewer might miss in the stark landscape. In this listing, the poem teaches us how to see what is in front of us instead of approaching life with preconceived measures of value. Read the full poem here.
03. “Fireflies in the Garden,” Robert Frost
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
Like so much of Frost’s work, this poem at first underwhelms with its simplicity. Only six lines, easy rhymes, natural rhythm—but beneath this placid surface, Frost offers us an image of the mixture of joy and sorrow, life and death which underlie these waning summer days. Read the full poem here.
04. “More Than Enough,” Marge Piercy
The first lily of June opens its red mouth.
This poem saturates us in life and the colors and smells of high summer. It is almost overindulgent—we “stagger,” drunk on the imagery, “smeared with pollen” from the blooms Piercy has rubbed in our faces—but we are experiencing life in its fullness, with the sense that what is now will never be again: summer makes us bring forth new life like the turtle on the sand. Read the full poem here.
05. “Blackberry-Picking,” Seamus Heaney
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
Heaney’s poem takes us to the end of summer—certainly in its subject matter (late summer is blackberry season) but also in its language, with its deeper colors and sounds. Read this poem out loud if you possibly can, and feel the full richness of the sounds in your mouth. The mixed tone of the pleasure of possession and the bitterness of loss helps make this poem both a vivid picture of Heaney’s experiences and an insightful commentary on effort and passing time. Read the full poem here.
06. “One With The Sun,” A. F. Moritz
one with the sun
in trackless fields
of yellow grass and thistle, scent
of humid heavy air and the wing music
of bees and flies.
Summer brings out the child in us: the long days, warm nights, and sensory saturation makes us long for days of carefree innocence. We want to once again lose ourselves in “trackless fields” and lie under trees in “secret whorls of grass,” at peace with the world and with ourselves. Read the full poem here.
07. “Fireflies,” Frank Ormsby
What should we make of fireflies, their quick flare
of promise and disappointment, their throwaway style?
Our heads turn this way and that. We are loath to miss
such jauntiness in nature.
Fireflies are simply magical, and this poem captures their sporadic beauty as it darts from question to question, observation to interpretation, and finally rests in its simple confidence that, whatever fireflies might “mean,” they bear the “memory of light / from its long blackout.” Read the full poem here.
8. “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” -Ross Gay
Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
This is a narrative poem without any real plot, a coming together of a community of strangers. There is something juicy in the language (read this one aloud too) suited to its subject matter. In his vivid recreation of the scene, Gay wraps us into the memory. Read the full poem here.
09. “To Earthward,” Robert Frost
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air
That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of–was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?
This is simply one of my most favorite poems. To me it’s a “summer” poem because of the way it luxuriates in stimulating the senses. It’s a poem about the physicality of human existence, about the strange pull “to earthward” which at the same time pushes us back towards the sky. Read the full poem here.
10. “Georgia Dusk,” Jean Toomer
The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, too indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night’s barbecue
And in honor of these spectacular summer nights, I’ll end with this exquisite serenade to dusk from Jean Toomer (who’s larger work Cane, from which this poem comes, is a masterpiece and well worth a read). This is a poem of summer stasis, of the lazy evenings spent simply being. We can almost hear the singers’ voices, rising like “the chorus of the cane,” giving voice to the “sacred whisper” of the voiceless world which embodies itself through mortal lips. Read the full poem here.