Poetry Sunday: “In Late Summer,” by Tess Taylor

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem, “In Late Summer,” is free verse, consisting of fifteen lines divided into two parts, each with variable-length stanzas. Part one arranges seven lines into two tercets and a singleton line, and part two arranges eight lines into a singleton line, a couplet, a singleton line, a couplet, and a couplet. All lines are short, comprised of from three to ten syllables, and the poem makes conspicuous use of the page’s white space, feeling open with ample breathing room. Meter is not regular, though most lines have four beats and some scan as iambic tetrameter. Part one uses two full sentences and part two, five sentences; all are short, and simple in construction. With the exception perhaps of the words “conceit” and “apocalypse,” diction is plainspoken and syntax and punctuation regular, making this a poem that does not pose syntactic difficulty. Instead, its depth and mystery arise from nuances created by the words and their layers of meaning.

Point of view is first-person plural (“we”), revealed in line 2, a perspective that might include a couple or a family, or might more be broadly interpreted as a communal “we” including, well, anyone who can identify with what is happening in the poem. I certainly feel included, as the images here could have been drawn straight from the lake in Vermont where I spend time each summer. I was hooked from the very first line, with its wonderful concrete images—“Windonthe lake, suninthe corn”—that set up a pattern of slant-rhyming nasals whose echo we will hear again later in lines 11-12’s “tones” and “gone.”

The poem eschews a formal rhyme pattern, but subtle echoes of end rhyme chime all the way through: “light” and “late” in lines 4-5, “could” and “would” in lines 2 and 6, “tones” and “gone” in lines 11-12, and “conceit” and “wait” in lines 13-14. Internal rhyme and assonance, both within and across lines, are also at work, in “sun in the corn” (line 1), “pond” and “long” (line 2), “Fare-thee-well” and “yarrow” (lines 6-7), and “bit” and “cricket” in the last line. Finally, a couple of words, notably the “we” in lines 2-3 and “conceit” in line 13, are repeated. The effect of these sonic repetitions is a subtle music, aching and fleeting as the late-summer season the poem describes. Being musical and appealing to the senses to capture a moment in time, it is a classic lyric. Wrestling with the contemporary lyric in previous columns, such as one featuring a poem from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I have come around to the idea that most lyrics are, at bottom, an impassioned human utterance or cry in response to an experience. In this case, the cry is a celebration of the beauties of late summer as well as a lament for the season’s end.

“In Late Summer” opens with a vivid image that, for me, captures the essence of August in New England. We know it is not early summer because the corn is tall and reflects the sun on its broad leaves. Almost immediately, in line 2, there is a sense of endings. “We swam in the pond as long as we could” suggests that pond swimming is now over for the day and perhaps for the season as well. “We save the rich blue on our inner eyes” is a gorgeous evocation of one way we might remember those swims, and the word “save” nicely invokes “savor.” The next stanza makes clear that the poem takes place in late summer, when apples are beginning to ripen, in an image that triggers taste and smell while it treats us to the idea of the alchemy of photosynthesis, fruit making “sugar of light.” Another clue to the time of year is the sun coming up “late,” casting the slant light that tells us we are moving away from solstice and into fall, a light this poet charmingly calls “fare-thee-well” light. It is still summer, though, with yarrow in bloom and “starlings” that “scatter” away from the speaker’s field of vision.

Part ii seems to return, briefly, to the fullness of the season just before its turn to fall, the slowdown and expansive feeling of that time captured in “[a]fternoons expand into silence.” If this poem were a sonnet (at 15 lines it could almost be) we’d expect a turn in the next line, line 9, and indeed it comes in “A page turns / in the mind-sized room.” This is the speaker’s mind registering a change, the subtle intimations of summer’s ending suddenly coming into sharper focus. Now, it seems, she is fully aware that summer is ending, and one consequence is melancholy. That mood is captured with exquisite precision in yet another light image, one bringing in the auditory sense in this synesthetic tour de force: “Light on the floor plays cello tones.” The next line makes the sense of loss explicit: “It is not coming back, what has gone.” It was at this point that I began to wonder if the entire idea of summer’s end might be a metaphor for all things that end, and for human mortality.

The next line, line 13 is the first time the poem uses diction that is anything but plainspoken: “A conceit, a conceit.” Here, the speaker steps out of the scene she has created to comment on it. That the word is repeated tells us it’s important, so let’s have a closer look at its meaning. In common parlance, a conceit is “an excessively favorable opinion of one’s own ability, importance, wit, etc.” or something “conceived in the mind; a thought; idea” or “a fancy; whim; fanciful notion.”  If you thought of the word “conceited,” you are getting a clue about some of the more subtle connotations of this word. It is almost as if the speaker is chiding herself here for using metaphors and images of summer to escape the gritty realities of the larger world.

“Conceit” has a special meaning to writers. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poeticsdefines it as a “complex and arresting metaphor, in context usually part of a larger pattern of imagery, which stimulates understanding by combining objects and concepts in unconventional ways.” Derived from concetto, Italian for “concept,” the word “denotes a rhetorical operation . . .  specifically intellectual rather than sensuous in origin.” [PEP,eds. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan (University of Princeton Press 1993), pp. 231-2] Petrarchan conceits use objects or nature to convey human experience  while in metaphysical conceits, the vehicles of comparison are typically more conceptual. [Id.] A classic  example is Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” which envisions the souls of two lovers as the legs of a compass. My personal favorite is Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” a poem that casts lovemaking and erotic foreplay in geographic terms and includes these wonderful lines:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,

A “more intricate and intellectual device” than your everyday conceit, a metaphysical conceit tends to “set up an analogy between one entity’s spiritual qualities and an object in the physical world,” and in what is called an “extended conceit” sometimes even “controls the whole structure of the poem.”

The conceit here is the use of light to convey the end of summer and, in the larger sense, the transience of human existence, and because it runs through the entire poem, I’d call it “extended.” In a sophisticated pun on the meaning of a literary conceit, the speaker, in line 13, calls herself out for her fanciful musings. And indeed, in the next line the real world intrudes, with the speaker thinking about “war & apocalypse.” It’s interesting that the line is italicized, something that heightens our attention to it but may also suggest dialogue—the intrusion of another voice (the speaker’s own thoughts, or the other half of that “we”) or of the speaker’s phone beeping with a text news alert about the latest global disaster.

In summer, things slow down and we sometimes have the privilege, albeit brief, of holding the world—with all its war and apocalypse—at bay. When the season ends, we mourn that as much as we mourn all the other things we love about summer: sun on corn, swimming in the pond, that special slant of light through the trees. Summer offers a sense of holiday or escape from everyday life, the way a conceit or a moment’s fancy can divert us from the world of brutal reality into the one shining in our imagination. Summer does this reliably and well, but—it always ends. This poem allows us to dwell for one more minute at summer’s apogee, that fleeing liminal space between the season’s peak and its waning. “In Late Summer” slays me with its sharp-edged beauty—a poem to love for many reasons, not the least of which isits ability to stop time, holding our responsibilities in abeyance for “a bit” longer, if only for the two-beat bar of a “cricket’s chirp.”

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  • Susan Hankla August 25, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    Reading your column is like sipping on Golden Seal tea for mental health.

  • Meryl Natchez August 19, 2019 at 10:01 pm

    Lovely poem that really captures that end-of-summer longing.