Three autumnal poems for a very Vassar fall

Fall is officially underway here in Poughkeepsie, and I, for one, could not be happier. The maple trees throughout the quad have turned bright red, miniature pumpkins are being sold at the Arlington farmers’ market and apple cider donuts seem to be everywhere. To get in the spirit of the new season, I always like to read a few autumnal poems. Today, I wanted to share a few of my favorites with you. Hopefully, you can read and think about these around campus in order to feel the true essence of a fall spent at Vassar. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former Vassar student Mary Oliver composed a perfect poem for reading as you sit on a bench somewhere on campus. In “A Song for Autumn,” she writes, “In the deep fall/ don’t you imagine the leaves think how/ comfortable it will be to touch the earth instead of the/ nothingness of air and the endless/ freshets of wind?” She continues on, “And don’t you think/ of the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,/ warm caves, begin to think/ Of the birds that will come—six, a dozen—to sleep/ inside their bodies?”

Maybe Oliver was thinking of her own experiences of autumn at Vassar during the ’50s, when she wrote “A Song for Autumn.” It’s certainly nice to imagine the leaves that have already fallen all over campus to be happy and comfortable on the ground. And as the temperature is cooling, maybe the trees in the Ecological Preserve have begun to welcome dozens of sweet birds to “sleep inside their bodies.” In order to truly channel Oliver’s nature-loving energy, I recommend that you get a cup of hot chocolate from the Deece (if the hot chocolate machines are miraculously working) and go for a walk around campus, looking for happy leaves and cozy birds along your way. Who knows, maybe you’ll be looking at the same trees and ponds that Oliver herself looked at when she was here, all those decades ago. 

While she never attended Vassar, Ada Limón was just recently inaugurated as the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States, so her work is well worth a read now (or anytime). In “It’s the Season I Often Mistake,” which appeared in her newest collection “The Hurting Kind” from Milkweed Editions, Limón writes, “Birds for leaves, and leaves for birds./ The tawny yellow mulberry leaves/ are always goldfinches tumbling/ across the lawn like extreme elation.” She continues to muse about this concept of the similarity between birds and leaves during fall, saying, “And today, just when I/ could not stand myself any longer,/ a group of field sparrows, that were/ actually field sparrows, flew up into/ the bare branches of the hackberry and I almost collapsed: leaves/ reattaching themselves to the tree/ like a strong spell for reversal.” 

Have you also been having the problem of mistaking leaves for birds? I haven’t experienced this yet, but one can always hope. Maybe you’ll see some particularly leaf-like birds, or bird-like leaves, while walking to class. If you do, you’ll have to let me know. This is supposed to be the most magical season, anyway, with the “strong spell[s] for reversal” and all. 

To finish us off, I’ll be sharing a poem by Sanni Wani which originally appeared in an issue of Savant-Garde. In “Good morning, the sun in October,” Wani writes, “[the sun in October] makes the leaves look like they have been spun out of gold/ and there are several kinds of hickory trees growing outside/ my window.” She continues, “When autumn light bleeds new colours/ into things, or out of them, a garden snake will take a nap/ on the warm wood of a branch and wake up as a frond/ and ask, ‘When did I turn to gold?’”

The sun in October truly does create some magical light. I’m sure that you’ll catch a glimpse of it, turning every tree and building on campus gold, many times this month. I hope that, on one of our increasingly rare sunny days, you’ll find the time to sunbathe, maybe on a bench in the quad or on the grass by Sunset Lake. 

In any case, I hope these verses have provided a beautiful and poetry-filled start to the fall season!


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