Friday, February 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: Oh. No. More. Snow.

It snowed another four inches in Seattle Wednesday night, and it shouldn't snow at the end of February in Seattle, not if there have already been several good snowstorms for the season. People are beginning to stare at their feet as they walk by you on the sidewalk, for no other reason than a general long-winter malaise.

So in an effort to raise my eyes (and my spirits) and look around, here is a poem I thought I would save until May, since it mentions that lovely month (or "lusty month" as Lerner and Loewe said in Camelot - "the darling month when everyone throws self-control away.") I am in deep need of this poem RIGHT NOW. It's by Sara Teasdale, whose work was always described to me in derogatory terms when I studied poetry. I think that's because she stayed with meter and lyricism longer than most modern poets, and because women writers were and are often put down (by other women as much as men) when their focus falls on domestic scenes. Whatever the reason, there's a charge of sentimentality against some of Teasdale's poetry, and not without reason. Even this poem has some problems that make me nervous - that line "trailing stately round her bluffs" almost sinks it, with its elevated diction. But oh, how can anyone resist those redbirds, the redbud, the buckberry, the wild plum....? I would forgive Teasdale anything, just for giving me those colors on a gray February day.


Redbirds, redbirds
Long and long ago,
What a honey-call you had
In hills I used to know;
Redbud, buckberry,
Wild plum-tree
And proud river sweeping
Southward to the sea,
Brown and gold in the sun
Sparkling far below,
Trailing stately round her bluffs
Where the poplars grow --
Redbirds, redbirds,
Are you singing still
As you sang one May day
On Saxton's Hill?

Sara Teasdale


The Poetry Friday round-up this week is over at Mommy's Favorite Children's Books.


  1. I read quite a bit of poetry. I read mostly women. I never thought negatively of women writers who address domestic themes. It's not her themes that fail to move me rather it is her style; it feels foreign and detached. I have no desires or experiences that connect me to what she is describing. And while this does not speak to me, I admire and respect the skill here, the sound and images she creates are lyrical.

  2. Susan - Well, I don't think ALL women have a problem with poetry that focuses on domestic themes, and it's nice to hear that you don't (though I'm curious why you read mostly women.) But it's not radical to say that a woman has much more difficulty winning critical acclaim if her focus is essentially domestic (the small details of home, family, love.) There are lots of scolds out there who will allow a man to write a tender domestic scene - they'll cut him a lot of slack - but who flinch or sneer if a woman does it. This happens for more than one reason - maybe there are too many women writing mediocre poems about family life? Or maybe it's because women have been trying for so long to claim a right to other areas of discourse, and a female poet who remains focused on these themes is seen as something of a throwback? Despite the level of formal mastery or skill, writing with a less public, more private focus (NOT confessional - just beyond public view) is often considered "second tier," by both men (quite a few) and women (quite a few.) Maybe that's changing, but if it is, it's not happening in a snap. Again, I don't mean to imply that everyone who reads poetry looks down on poems that focus on the domestic. I believe its a professional and critical attitude that's tangible in the narrower world of published poets, editors and critics, and I don't see it going away any time soon.

    Which doesn't really have too much to do with this poem, which isn't exactly domestic, though it is tender.

    I'm surprised you see something foreign and detached in "Redbird" (or maybe you just mean Teasdale's work in general?) This poem is full of passion - a little old-fashioned, maybe, but shaped by longing and loss. It shows a knowledge of one particular landscape that is intimate and even a bit erotic - the "honey-call" of it, and the sense that something else might have happened on Saxton's Hill to make the speaker of the poem remember that one day so vividly (and in shades of red....)

    Lyricism can cut both ways - sentimental/fuzzy or sharp and clear - so I don't always praise lyricism. In this poem, however, Teasdale's clarity at the surface as she names the birds and bushes on the hill (while maintaining a delicate subtext that is much larger) is something I often shoot for in my own work. I seldom hit the mark quite as squarely or beautifully as she does here, so I recommend it to people looking for a good poem on Poetry Friday. Great poetry it is not - but it's a good poem, and that's as far as I'm reaching today.

  3. I've loved Sara Teasdale since I discovered her through her poem "Barter" in college. I love her work the same way I love the work of most poets -- I love the poems I love and I don't love the others. I feel okay with that.

    Julie, come over to my PF entry for a blast of bright sun, color, and relief from the winter blues.

  4. "where the poplars grow" is almost enough for me. I can see them waving in gold and green in the wind, all along the road stretching across the Manchurian plain from way back when I lived in Northeast China. May comes late there but is just about heaven. The redbirds and redbuds put me over the top. Thanks for posting this.

  5. And now that I've read your comment and great commentary on the poem, Julie, I can add that I have the feeling you describe: "longing and loss. It shows a knowledge of one particular landscape that is intimate and even a bit erotic - the "honey-call" of it, and the sense that something else might have happened on Saxton's Hill..." associated with my memories of the poplars in Heilongjiang province. You hit the nail on the head here! Your comment makes me love the poem even more.

  6. Julie,

    I agree with Mary Lee about loving some poems and not others written by the same poet. I also feel the same as Cloudscome. After reading your comments about the poem and rereading the poem a few times, I have a much better appreciation of it.

  7. "women writers were and are often put down (by other women as much as men) when their focus falls on domestic scenes"

    You just said a mouthful. In fact, I was just reading some critical essays about Jane Austen yesterday, and that's one of the key beefs people have about her. She was dismissed as a portraitist, as someone who dwelt on small things. Same goes for Emily Dickinson, whose work was initially butchered (and suppressed in part) in such a way as to make it small indeed.

    As Virginia Woolf pointed out, the topics that are important to men (such as sports and war) are seen as Important, whereas the home and domestic life are seen as dull and uneventful, nevermind that the drama of the drawing room might actually have more impact in the lives of people than some of the "important" topics in the world of men. Wind me up and watch me go, I fear - now that I'm back into my Jane project, I'm back into considering how very wrong her family was to try to whitewash her to make her seem like a bland, kind-hearted spinster instead of like the living, breathing, complicated, talented woman that she was.

  8. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts. I feel like I am in one of those lively graduate classes in which the participants have thought about the subject and feel passionately about it.

  9. Thanks for all of your insight on this poem and poet.

  10. The gray days of the NW make us long for some color, doesn't it. I loved the color images of this poem and realy, can you believe that May is just around the corner?Thanks.

  11. I have the same problem with the snow here, it just keeps coming and the entire city of Toronto stares at the sidewalk as they walk by.
    You asked for a letter from my post at Down the Rabbit Hole, so here it is, you get the letter: P!

  12. Dear Julie
    I learned about you from my Children's Lit. prof. I'm working on a fundraising peace book for Patch Adams, M.D. (remember Robin Williams' movie about him?) and Gesundheit's World's First Silly Hospital in W. VA. I went to Russia this winter on a clowning trip with him & other clowns and I'm stoked about their vision of peace. Jane Yolen and Maya Angelou are contributing a peace poem; would you be interested? I am also asking Uma. Her student, Claudia Reder, is the Ch.Lit. prof. I mentioned. Please: 805 384-0800 or email me. Judy Fisk Lucas, Camarillo, CA; SCBWI member