Here’s a wonderful poem for homeschool high-schoolers (and for mom and dad, too) that considers how the seasons arrive and what defines them. It’s from British poet Elizabeth Jennings (1926–2001), and it’s our poem-of-the-week for the second week of September — a perfect poem for the start of the new homeschool year.
Song at the Beginning of Autumn
Now watch this autumn that arrives
In smells. All looks like summer still;
Colours are quite unchanged, the air
On green and white serenely thrives.
Heavy the trees with growth and full
The fields. Flowers flourish everywhere.
Proust who collected time within
A child’s cake would understand
The ambiguity of this —
Summer still raging while a thin
Column of smoke stirs from the land
Proving that autumn gropes for us.
But every season is a kind
Of rich nostalgia. We give names —
Autumn and summer, winter, spring —
As though to unfasten from the mind
Our moods and give them outward forms.
We want the certain, solid thing.
But I am carried back against
My will into a childhood where
Autumn is bonfires, marbles, smoke;
I lean against my window fenced
From evocations in the air.
When I said autumn, autumn broke.
When you introduce your students to a new poem, especially one like this that is in a traditional form, take your time, and don’t worry about “getting” everything right away. A good poem is a friend for life, and as with any friend, it takes time to get acquainted.
Before you even start to worry about meaning, take a look at the poem’s structure. How many lines does it have? Are the lines grouped into stanzas? How many lines in each stanza? How many syllables in each line? Many traditional poems are highly structured and fit together in an almost mathematical way, which you can discover by counting. Do the lines rhyme? What is the rhyme-scheme? By uncovering these details of structure your students will come to appreciate good poems as carefully crafted pieces of literary labor — a good lesson for high school students in particular who may be ready to move on from verses-for-children to poetry-for-adults.
“Song at the Beginning of Autumn” is a very precisely structured poem. If you count, you’ll find that every line has exactly eight syllables. (That pattern tells you that “flowers” should be pronounced here as something close to a one-syllable word: “flowrs” not “flow-ers.”) Do the lines have a rhyming pattern? They do. The lines of the first stanza end with arrives–still–air and thrives–full–where. We’ll call that ABC ABC, and if you check all the other stanzas you’ll find they’re exactly the same: ABC ABC.
If you try to read this poem aloud you’ll discover that it has a kind of prose-y feel — it doesn’t seem very “poetical” at first. What creates that sensation? The prose-y feel comes from Jennings’ deliberate use of a technique called enjambment — a wonderful literary term for your students to learn that refers to the mismatch between the line breaks of the poem and the natural grammatical pauses in the poem’s underlying sentences.
The opposite of enjambed verse is end-stopped verse, in which the line-ends correspond to natural grammatical breaks: “Whose woods these are I think I know (pause). / His house is in the village though (pause); / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow (pause).” That’s Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods,” a heavily end-stopped poem with a sing-song-y feel.
Contrast that with Jennings, with natural grammatical pauses added: “Now watch this autumn that arrives / In smells (pause). All looks like summer still (pause); / Colours are quite unchanged (pause), the air / On green and white serenely thrives (pause). / Heavy the trees with growth and full / The fields (pause). Flowers flourish everywhere (pause).” In her case, many of the natural grammatical pauses don’t coincide with the line-ends — that’s enjambment, and that’s what creates the prose-y feel of the poem.
You can ask your students some good vocabulary-related questions this week as you try to work through the poem’s meaning together. Who is Proust? What’s the difference between “colours” and “colors”? What’s the origin of the word “nostalgia”? (And how is it related to the word “analgesic”?) How is the word “broke” being used here? (Hint: it’s intransitive definition #13 in your recommended family dictionary.) (Wait, are you saying there are thirteen different definitions of “break/broke”? Actually, there are a lot more — send your students to the dictionary to find out!)
What wonderful words and poetical productions will you be studying in your homeschool this Cygnus Term? 😊
❡ When I said autumn, autumn broke: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. 🍁
❡ Literary lives: If you want to learn more about Elizabeth Jennings, “one of the most popular, prolific, and widely anthologized lyric poets of the late twentieth century,” see if you local library can borrow this new biography for you: Elizabeth Jennings: The Inward War (Oxford University Press, 2018). 🖋
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Add your name to our River Houses mailing list to get posts like these delivered right to your mailbox, and print your own River Houses Poetry Calendar to follow along with us as we visit fifty of our favorite friends over the course of the year. 📖