Artist Joan Mitchell (1926-1992) once said this about her work: “My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or fields … [I]t’s more like a poem … and that’s what I want to paint.” Mitchell was just ten years old when Poetry Magazine published this poem of hers. I admire its air of ominous suspense: the “Blue haze hangs,” “The last red berries hang,” and “Bleakness, through the trees and bushes, / Comes without sound.”
by Joan Mitchell
The rusty leaves crunch and crackle,
Blue haze hangs from the dimmed sky,
The fields are matted with sun-tanned stalks —
Wind rushes by.
The last red berries hang from the thorn-tree,
The last red leaves fall to the ground.
Bleakness, through the trees and bushes,
Comes without sound.
Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) wrote poetry for nearly 80 years. In that time, he won just about every prize a poet can win, and at the age of 95, was appointed (for the second time) poet laureate of the United States. For him, “[p]oetry is ultimately mythology, the telling of stories of the soul. The old myths, the old gods, the old heroes have never died. They are only sleeping at the bottom of our minds, waiting for our call.”
“End of Summer” is in several ways remarkably similar to “Autumn”: note the common references to fields, stalks/stubble, blue sky, leaves, and wind, as well as the tone of foreboding that they share. In other ways, of course, there is no comparison. When we read the first two lines of Kunitz’s poem, “An agitation of the air / A perturbation of the light,” we recognize immediately that we are in the hands of a skilled poet. Who else could make those prosaic words “agitation” and “perturbation” work so well as poetry? The metaphor of the door turning on its hinges and ultimately clanging open — “the iron door of the north,” that is … well, there’s something terrifying about that. But above all, it’s the way Kunitz’s “I” centers his poem, making it memorable, in contrast to the ten year old’s effort, which seems like a mere exercise.
End of Summer (1953)
by Stanley Kunitz
An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.
I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones,
Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.
Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was over.
Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows
Order their populations forth,
And a cruel wind blows.
In any case, it’s finally here, seemingly, in the Southeast — autumn. It arrived overnight. I’m glad.