If spring didn’t exist — sometimes in Ann Arbor I think it doesn’t — poets would have had to invent it. Breezes no longer sting, but soothe, and daylight lingers later than we remember possible. We are reminded of the myriad varieties of green, and the mineral smell of rain and soil. “What is all this juice and all this joy?” Gerard Manley Hopkins asks — and though we know what it is and trust it to arrive, spring nevertheless surprises and overjoys when it does.
Cycles of life and death concern us all, of course, but poets seem particularly obsessed. So it’s no surprise that they have plenty to say about the most symbolically resonant of all seasons. In Philip Larkin’s “The Trees,” buds have just begun to open. Larkin imagines the blossoming trees as
… unresting castles (which) thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
The richness of sound — especially the repeated “sh” in the last line — recalls the rustle of young leaves, a music we may have forgotten since last November. But the trees only seem to say anything at all; we are the ones who give voice to what we see, smell and feel happening around us.
And happening within us. The season, Tony Hoagland reminds us in “Just Spring,” “drives more (than) birds and flowers crazy.” And desire, “if you don’t let it out, everybody knows / backs up and poisons you inside / like old sap clogged inside a tree.” The Freudian teenagers in Hoagland’s poem vandalize churches “because they loved their mothers so much / it was killing them,” and a recent divorcée swears off love, even though she secretly wants to be
… kissed all over her thirty-nine-year old body
until, like Spring,
she comes and comes and comes.
Suffering Mother of God. Sweet Jesus.
That’s not to say it’s all juice and joy, though. If spring comes with its melodies of love and rejuvenation, such love and rejuvenation also remind us of all that does not return, what is lost for good.
T.S. Eliot opens “The Waste Land” in spring but, lost in his own spiritual desert, declares that “April is the cruellest month.” Earthly reawakening isn’t much good to one whose mind and heart remain wintry. “To what purpose, April, do you return again?” asks Edna St. Vincent Millay in “Spring.” “Beauty is not enough.” And it never is, much as it astonishes us for simply being. “It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, / April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”
Those of us who live in the upper Midwest must beware the false spring that lasts about 20 minutes before returning us to a winter redux, colder than ever. In “The Birds Return,” the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska watches the birds “again come back too early,” and proclaims,
Rejoice, O reason, instinct can also err.
It dozes off, it overlooks — and down they fall into the snow,
and perish senselessly.
To watch this happen seems unjust, even unnatural, to a human sensibility. But Szymborska makes clear that this is how new beginnings in fact begin. Szymborska stakes a clever, subtle claim on behalf of those fallen birds, and false spring, regarding the dropped birds from the perspective of a stone “which in its archaic and boorish way / looks on all life as attempts repeatedly failed.”
The failures are necessary and can even be beautiful themselves. University English Prof. Linda Gregerson writes in “Spring Snow” of “a kind of counter- / blossoming, diversionary, // doomed.” In this spring blizzard, the old season is not yet ready to be dethroned:
made (who little thought
what beauty weighs) to bow
before their elders.
“What beauty weighs” is the impossible question that poets, and all the rest of us too, try to answer as we watch spring become itself.
It’s that cold spring between-season in which Derek Walcott, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, sets his poem “Upstate:” “A knife blade of cold air keeps prying / the bus window open. The spring country / won’t be shut out.” The cold climate notwithstanding, Walcott experiences a kind of thaw, finds himself
… falling in love with America.
I must put the cold small pebbles from the spring
upon my tongue to learn her language,
to talk like birch or aspen confidently.
In Walcott’s vision, “spring country” is not only the landscape he passes, but America itself, which represents a way of falling in love, a feeling “as warm as bread or as a homecoming.”
The phrase “new beginning” should be an oxymoron: Beginnings are supposed to happen only once. But, in the words of Walt Whitman, spring allows poets to see the world “as Adam, early in the morning.” Poetry finds words to describe what happens when the miracle of birth meets the mercy of return. In “The Continuous Life,” Mark Strand writes, “the luckiest / Thing is having been born.” He may well be right — but being reborn is pretty good too.