Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Green Leaf: The Collected Poems of Robert Nathan

I cannot let April slip past without acknowledging National Poetry Month; the cruelest month in T. S. Eliot’s words, and when grief still clings to me like a fevered dream because of recent loses, I turned to Robert Nathan, best known as the author of The Bishop’s Wife (1928) and Portrait of Jennie (1940) to help ease my troubled mind. The Green Leaf was published in 1950 and sold steadily, although I am uncertain if it made any best-seller lists. Nathan’s poetry sold at a slower rate than his many acclaimed novels, but his poetry did sell, and consistently. He was once a headline writer at Alfred A. Knopf publishers, but they have forgotten him. I will not forget him because his books mean a great deal to me. Nathan was never exalted for his poetry, at least not in the way that Robert Frost was, but he was respected, and he published multiple volumes of verse. Many of his poems rhyme, relying on a standard couplet. The Green Leaf also includes sonnets, and a sprinkling of free verse. Included here is his long poem, “Morning in Iowa” which is a descriptive narrative with wide-ranging themes, most of which is a celebration of life and the American experience.

American mountains, how they pull the heart
Into the wilderness with Indian names,
And feathered wars, and lost American sky.
Lost sky, lost earth, and lost American dream.

His lines are sometimes beautiful by their simplicity: “Topeka holds the morning like a cup and spills it onward.” Nathan was born in 1894 and witnessed extraordinary cultural changes to the American landscape. All of his work is marked by a deep nostalgia for simpler times, glowing summer days, or the contentment that comes with an autumn harvest.

Beauty is ever to the lonely mind
A shadow fleeing; she is never plain.
She is a visitor who leaves behind
The gift of grief, the souvenir of pain
-        Autumn Sonnets # 26

Nathan uses crisp, clean images, an undertone of Christian theology, and a remarkable insight into human nature that drives his poems onward. His poetry is much simpler, by his own choice, than other poets of his time, and he addresses this in the introduction: “It seems to me that our modern artists are more afraid of banality than of anything else in the world. Yet I would rather listen to something banal than to something for which the artist has had to reach too far...” Nathan describes himself as a mugwump, and that he was. Nathan’s poetry is enjoyable, sometimes enlightening, and very much the product of a writer who would be considered Old School, and perhaps stereotypical. Scholars do not discuss him in the same forum as Hemingway or Faulkner; Nathan’s sentiment and nostalgia is too far removed from their post-modern criteria. Yet he touches a chord with many readers, even now. Certain of his novels are literary treasures – Long After Summer, The Train in the Meadow, Stonecliff, and Winter in April – and I will cover some of these in the future. Many of Robert Nathan’s books are available for Kindle.

Here’s last year’s grief
In the green leaf;
And all he knows is
That time will take
All heartbreak,
And turn it to roses.
-        With a Bunch of Roses

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