My drive to work takes me along a winding river with views of the Green Mountains. The past couple of mornings the fog that has settled into the valleys and the deciduous trees that are visible above the mists are bright red and orange. As the sun lingers in the liminal space between night and day, its amber glow silhouettes the ravens perched on the tops of the bare trees.
The loss of daylight during this time forces us to slow down. It encourages us to think about what has happened over the past year. This time can bring celebrations, festivals, and bountiful harvests. But it can also be a time of reflection and contemplation on losses. With the leaves dropping from the branches, and the flowers curling in on themselves, the poets are spurred to pick up their pens and write about these transitions.
Lloyd Schwartz is the author of four books of poetry and is the current Poet Laureate of Somerville, Massachusetts. He has a poem titled “Leaves” that begins with these lines.
“Leaves” by Lloyd Schwartz
Every October it becomes important, no, necessary to see the leaves turning, to be surrounded by leaves turning; it's not just the symbolism, to confront in the death of the year your death, one blazing farewell appearance, though the irony isn't lost on you that nature is most seductive when it's about to die, Excerpt from Leaves by Lloyd Schwartz
Schwartz is wasting no time getting into the heart of the matter. How do the changing season relate to our lives?
Schwartz then continues to follow the imagery of the autumn leaves as he investigates, what I believe, is the life long pursuit of happiness.
Schwartz starts by asking us to reflect on the many dead ends in life:
whichever road you take will be the wrong one and you've probably come all this way for nothing
And then there is the intense peak foliage moment. When all the vibrant colors come into view.
It won't last, you don't want it to last. You can't stand any more. But you don't want it to stop. It's what you've come for. It's what you'll come back for. It won't stay with you, but you'll remember that it felt like nothing else you've felt or something you've felt that also didn't last.
It is so interesting to read the about autumn leaves written in this way. The parallels that I find between Schwartz’s writing and the human pursuit of happiness is striking. Once we find it, we want to hold on to it. But we know that lasting intense joy, like foliage, is temporary.
Shifting gears a bit, Georgia Douglas Johnson explores the connection between the fallen leaves and loss in her poem “Dead Leaves”.
“Dead Leaves” by Georgia Douglas Johnson
The breaking dead leaves ’neath my feet A plaintive melody repeat, Recalling shattered hopes that lie As relics of a bygone sky. Again I thread the mazy past, Back where the mounds are scattered fast— Oh! foolish tears, why do you start, To break of dead leaves in the heart?
I have read this poem several times and there is just something that resonates with me. I can imagine myself wandering down a wooded path with my feet crunching the dried leaves. I am deep in thought about all the mistakes I have made and all the opportunities that I let slip by. For me, there is something really intriguing about this one.
For our final poem today, we return to the work to Robert Frost. This poem, “Gathering Leaves”, reflects on the process of raking leaves, but it may also pose some deeper philosophical questions.
“Gathering Leaves” by Robert Frost
Spades take up leaves No better than spoons, And bags full of leaves Are light as balloons. I make a great noise Of rustling all day Like rabbit and deer Running away. But the mountains I raise Elude my embrace, Flowing over my arms And into my face. I may load and unload Again and again Till I fill the whole shed, And what have I then? Next to nothing for weight, And since they grew duller From contact with earth, Next to nothing for color. Next to nothing for use, But a crop is a crop, And who’s to say where The harvest shall stop?
As I read this poem, I am easily carried into the process of trying to corral leaves. The noise of raking and then trying to get the leaves into some sort of container. Although Frost doesn’t tell us exactly why he is trying to gather all these leaves, he does mention that they are a “crop”. Therefore, of some sort of use to him in the end.
What I find really interesting is that last line, “And who’s to say where/The harvest shall stop?” I don’t think we are just talking about harvesting leaves. I think Frost is asking the reader to contemplate something larger than that.
I am wondering if you have any favorite poems about leaves? Or thoughts about the poems presented here. Feel free to share below.
- Lloyd Schwartz published “Leaves” in his 1992 book Goodnight, Gracie. You can read the full poem here.
- Georgia Douglas Johnson published “Dead Leaves” in her 1918 book The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems. You can read the full poem here.
- Robert Frost published “Gathering Leaves” in his 1923 book New Hampshire. You can read the full poem here.
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