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Poems For The Start Of Winter

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Monday marks the first day of winter (though it's an absurd 57 degrees here in Washington as I write this column) and I've put together some poems for the occasion. I've overlooked classics like Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" hoping for a few that might be new to you.

Leading off, here are two haikus by the 17th Century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Like many haikus, this first one is deceptively simple:

Winter solitude--
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.

"Winter solitude" in enacted in the visual image of the second line and the sound of the wind in the third. It's a concise but powerful poem. This second haiku, in contrast, isn't worth meditating on, but it's fitting for a winter in Washington (minus the monkeys).

First winter rain--
even the monkey
seems to want a raincoat.

We'll go from the sparse resonance of the haiku to the mellifluous wordplay of Shakespeare. This sensuous winter song is from "Love's Labour's Lost" (Act V, Scene ii):

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When Blood is nipped and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who;
Tu-whit, tu-who: a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose looks red and raw
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who;
Tu-whit, tu-who: a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

And speaking of songs, the English poet Christina Rossetti's poem "A Christmas Carol" became--as you could surely guess--a well-known Christmas carol when it was set to music by Gustav Holst. "In the Bleak Midwinter," as it's now known, also works well as a poem.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty winds made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

Ezra Pound truly embraced the bleak with "Ancient Music," a poem that captures how many of us feel about the season. It's a parody of this well-known Medieval English song about the start of summer.

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
An ague hath my ham.
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

To end on a more positive note, here's an excerpt from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight." Possessing a Romantic's belief in a holy presence in nature, Coleridge hopes that "all seasons shall be sweet" to his child,

...whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Here's wishing you the same. Happy holidays (and may an ague not hath your ham!).