Image by Mark Skrobola
Outside our offices the evenings are drawing in. The winter solstice is four weeks away, and we can feel autumn slowly shifting into winter. You can almost taste it in the air – and it puts us in the mood for some wintry poetry. Have a read of the poems below, and then send us your own ice-cold creations.
It’s easy to see why the seasons are popular with poets. Each has its own distinct character; their temperatures and weather conditions are partly predictable, but can still be wildly irregular; they are a central to the earthly cycle of death and regrowth. The seasons can seriously affect our mood, and they can also be physically dangerous, with their extremes of heat and cold. As with our recent Stars challenge, it almost seems like the seasons were designed as metaphors for poetry!
Your mission, should you choose to accept it (and we hope you will!), is to write a poem about winter. We want poems that really plunge us into the sensations of winter – whether that’s rolling in the snow, or thawing by the fire, or something else entirely. Make us feel like we’re there, with vivid physical details and imaginative descriptions. Think about what winter is like where you live. For some people, it means six feet of snow; for others, winter is a much more subtle shift. Do you want to write about your own experience of winter, or something completely different?
For some ideas about the huge variety of ways of writing about winter, read these wonderful poems below. This one season is both muted and loud, passive and active, drab and vibrant, fire and ice… So experiment with it!
Winter, Spring and Summer
Winter is often discussed in contrast with spring or summer. Often spring and summer are imagined nostalgically from the chill of winter, but poets rarely set up a simple opposition between ‘winter as bad’ and ‘spring as good’.
In Keats’s ‘On the Grasshopper and Cricket’, summer brings the poetry of the grasshopper, and winter brings the poetry of the cricket. The sleepy listener mistakes the cricket’s song for grasshopper’s, “among some grassy hill”. But this nostalgia for summer is balanced by the beauty of the wintry scene: “the frost/ Has wrought a silence”. Keats makes it clear that “The poetry of earth is ceasing never.”
In Rita Dove’s ‘November for Beginners’, the people in the poem respond to the oppressive winter by imagining the spring:
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!
Spring, like the winter of the poem, is closely linked to mood. Spring is associated with joy and excess – though the word “fool” makes this happiness seem ambiguous. Winter may be painful, but it is also creatively stimulating – the speakers “wait…making music/ of decline”.
All these poets use interesting imagery, but some poets particularly luxuriate in the different descriptions of wintry weather. The varied descriptions make up the poem – they are not used as illustrations or a setting for the main action.
In ‘It sifts from Leaden Sieves’, Emily Dickinson takes pleasure in vividly describing the appearance of snow on the landscape: “It fills with Alabaster Wool/ The Wrinkles of the Road”, “It Ruffles Wrists of Posts/ As Ankles of a Queen”. Because she builds up such a detailed picture, the eeriness of the melted, disappeared snow at the end of the poem is even more powerful.
Shakespeare’s ‘When Daisies Pied and Violets Blue’ evokes winter in a very down-to-earth and visual way, describing the effect of the season on everyday life – the coughing in the church drowns out the parson’s voice, and “Marian’s nose looks red and raw”!
Winter and metaphor
Many poets use winter in a very metaphorical way, so the qualities of the season say something about the human lives in the poem.
In Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet XCVII’, the absence of the beloved is directly compared with winter: “How like a winter hath my absence been/ From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!” Shakespeare then uses the other seasons to compare other aspects of their relationship, before bringing the sonnet back round to winter.
In ‘November for Beginners’, Rita Dove makes the heavy wintry sky match the frustrated feelings of the people in the poem. She opens with a dream of release – “Snow would be the easy/ way out” – which is impossible. The ominous sky both reflects and contributes to the people’s ominous mood.
In ‘The Snow-Shower’ by William Cullen Bryant, the snow flakes come to represent souls, whose fall through the sky is like “the passage of life”. It might sound like a sentimental comparison, but the lake they fall into is described in many different ways – as “dark”, “silent”, “grave”, “sullen”, and a place of “rest”. Imagining the afterlife as a mysterious lake is complicated and interesting.
Winter and the human world
The poets imagine all sorts of complex relationships between the human world and the natural world. Their human characters are sometimes distanced from their environment, and sometimes fully involved.
In ‘Winter Psalm’, Richard Hoffman establishes the wintry scene by showing its impact on the human world: “snowplows/ and salt-trucks flashing yellow”. By discussing this busy world affected by the snow, Hoffman also sets up an effective contrast with the passive speaker who sits by the window, “robe over pajamas”. The speaker seems secure but also isolated from the world outside.
In ‘Reluctance’, Robert Frost imagines a complex relationship between the speaker and the season, where the bareness and death of winter both influence and conflict with the speaker’s desires. He understands the impulse “To go with the drift of things”, but believes this is “treason” to the “heart of man”.
In Emily Dickinson’s ‘Snow flakes’, the speaker and the snow flakes both have an effect on each other. The speaker’s counting makes the snow flakes “dance”, and in turn their jollity makes the speaker “resign the prig”. In the circular ending, the speaker’s toes are “Marshalled for a jig” – so she makes the snow flakes dance, and they make her dance in turn.
In ‘The Snow Man’ by Wallace Stevens, who is the snow man, and who is the “listener”? Are they the same, or is one human and one a snow man, or is one turning into the other? The human world and the icy winter world start collapsing into one another.
The same poets imagine winter in very different ways – compare Emily Dickinson’s ‘It sifts from Leaden Sieves’ with ‘Snow flakes’, or Shakespeare’s ‘When Daisies Pied’ with ‘Sonnet XCVII’. Once you’ve written one winter poem, why not try another piece that has a completely different atmosphere? We’d love to read them both!
Submitting your poems
This challenge is now closed for submissions, though you could always write a poem in response and send it off to one of the opportunities on our Poetry Map. Have a look at these poems, selected for the challenge, for inspiration!
Outfoxing the Seasons by Rachel Martin
Going Up by Ruby Mason
Winter’s Sidelong Light by Conor Whelan
New York in Winter by Andrés Vaamonde
A bee I found by the garage by Anna Thomas
Shower by Mary Anne Clarke