Poets write odes and elegies to spring and autumn, and they muse on the metaphorical significance of winter, but they have been quieter—at least on the surface—on the glorious subject of summer. “Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language,” said Henry James, but he was a novelist. I suspect one reason the poetic power of summer is subtler than that of other seasons is that summer doesn’t really need poets to celebrate or understand it. Summer is its own justification; it celebrates and understands itself.
The season, accordingly, tends to be more of a setting or backdrop than a conscious presence in poetry. Even classic poems such as “Fern Hill,” “We Real Cool,” and “Binsey Poplars” can require attentive reading to recall that they are set in summer. The season often takes a back seat; expect the real action usually to happen in the foreground.
After all, summer lives are rich, experiences deep—even the hard ones—and something in this season can force us to confront them without prevarication. We eat tomatoes, as in Lucia Perillo’s “Early Cascade,” and wish we could have eaten the dirt instead. We mourn, and it can feel more painful now, as in Christina Rossetti’s “A Dirge.” We remember history, as in Honorée Fannone Jeffers’s multilayered “The Gospel of Barbecue,” in which generations of summer memories mix pain and pleasure, body and history. We wonder about how we are living our lives, like Peter Gizzi demanding, in “A Winding Sheet for Summer,”
And what have you been given, the blue nothing asks,
who are you under clanging brass?
Summer holds us to account. For one thing, it offers those of us in colder climates the possibility of an intimate, trusting receptiveness to nature, one of the most challenging as well as priceless gifts a lyric poet of the modern era can receive. Summer’s generosity can restore perspective, as June Jordan learns in “For Alice Walker (a summertime tanka)”:
You and me talking Congo
gender grief and ash
I say, “God! It's all so huge”
You say, “These sweet trees: This tree.”
It’s not just summer’s abundance that affects us in such a magical way; it’s also the complex impact of the season’s self-sufficiency. Though spring is known as the season of birth and autumn and winter as seasons of death, summer is characterized by innumerable cycles of life and death and rebirth on every scale: from the metamorphosis of caterpillars and tadpoles to the quick journey of a flower from bud to rotting petal. Such summer transformations embody the interweavings of life and death. I suspect the resonance of this more ineffable aspect of summer moves the poet of Dickinson’s “Farther in Summer than the Birds” to listen beyond the expected songs from the trees:
Pathetic from the Grass,
A minor Nation celebrates
It’s unobtrusive Mass.
These small beings (are they crickets?), with their “spectral canticle,” embody a deeper reality than the birds—perhaps a force akin to the steady and uncanny hum of Dickinson’s own nation of diminutive poems. And the source of this farthest power of summer, its “Druidic difference,” as Dickinson calls it, is the window it opens onto the imperturbably complex and self-contained life of the planet itself.
This summer gift happens on the physical level too; those of us who live in colder climates can experience Earth directly and leisurely now as at no other time. We “set out, oily and nude, / through mist, in chilly solitude,” as Maxine Kumin writes, or find ourselves “[d]rinking cold snow-water from a tin cup” at the top of a mountain after a long hike, like Gary Snyder. Or we may simply bend down to the earth for a while to ponder and wonder about our lives, as Tim Seibles does in “One Turn Around the Sun,” asking of the ants, “where are they going with so many legs”?
Perhaps because of summer’s hospitality to our bodies—even our naked bodies—the season is perhaps named most often in poems concerning eroticism and sex. The firefly in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” is a canonical example: “The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.” Outside in the privacy of summer, eros can enjoy rare freedoms. For a poet such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, equally passionate about sex and poetry, summer offers the uninterrupted ability to not only “go forth at nightfall crying like a cat” but also experience the afternoon visionary journey of “Renascence,” which famously changed the course of Millay’s life. The season’s sensuality can be as mystical as it is erotic, as when Marge Piercy addresses June:
we stagger into you smeared
with pollen, overcome as the turtle
laying her eggs in roadside sand
The rich gifts of summer, of course, can overwhelm. Consider the flip side of the abundance of summer: all that plenty can’t last forever. Its riches speak to its temporary nature—and perhaps, in the end, a deeper understanding of our own possibilities in the face of transience. Thus, Tu Fu confesses, “in midsummer / Nights are too short,” Robert Herrick admonishes “the virgins” to “[g]ather ye rose-buds while ye may,” and Marilyn Hacker pleads “Seize the days, the days, or the years will seize them” in “Dusk: July.” But what about those of us who simply can’t manage to seize the day right now? Let’s join the poets who have seized it for us—such as Kazim Ali, who writes, “You’re explaining how trees actually breathe”—inviting us to share their moments of summer bliss when sky and ground, body and soul, self and nature are as one, so the magic of the season can open our consciousness as well:
In the dog days of summer as muslin curls on its own heat
And crickets cry in the black walnut tree
The wind lifts up my life
And sets it some distance from where it was.
—From “Dog Days of Summer,” by Meena Alexander
Into the rooms flow meadow airs,
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round.
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same
—From “Country Summer,” by Léonie Adams
Wherever we are, let’s open ourselves to the precious gifts of summer, the gifts of self-confrontation and freedom, sensuality and transformation; let’s celebrate summer solstice in full flower, as John Clare says: “Come we to the summer, to the summer we will come.”
Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...