How Does A Poem Mean?

Image: Catalpa, Staple Inn

This book on how to read, write and teach poetry was published in 1959 by John Anthony Ciardi. He was raised in Massachusetts by his Italian, unlettered mother, who had been widowed when he was three. A critic wrote that as a poet and professor , “he is more like a very literate, gently appetitive, Italo-American airplane pilot”.

His 1966 poem, “The Catalpa”, came to my mind as I sat in the church of St James’s, Piccadilly, on this Sunday which is both the fourth in Advent and Christmas Eve. The “CatalpaNativity” currently standing in front of the altar was carved by Clinton Chaloner from the wood of a Catalpa tree which stood in the courtyard of the church for over eighty years. At one time, participants in baptismal services spent part of the ceremony beneath its branches.

When I looked the poem up to check my memory of it, I found myself unwilling to quote any line without another, and here it is:

The catalpa’s white week is ending there

In its corner of my yard. It has its arms full

of its own flowering now, but the least air

spills off a petal and a breeze lets fall

whole coronations. There is not much more

of what this is. Is every gladness quick?

That tree’s a nuisance, really. Long before

the summer’s out, its beans, long as a stick,

Will start to shed. And every year one limb

cracks without falling off and hangs there dead

till I get up and risk my neck to trim

what it knows how to lose but not to shed.

I keep it only for this one white pass.

The end of June’s its garden; July, its Fall;

All else, the world remembering what it was

In the seven days of its visible miracle.

What should I keep if averages were all?

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