Tea and Poetry

January is National Hot Tea Month

The Tea Council of the USA, founded in 1950, celebrates National Hot Tea Month every January. But, have you ever really wondered where tea came from, and whatever made someone put leaves in hot water and then drink it? Legend tells us that in 2737 BCE, a Chinese emperor was sitting under a tree while his servant was boiling some drinking water. Some leaves blew into it. Luckily, the emperor was a renowned herbalist and he decided to sample the brew that had just been created by accident. Sometimes, the best things appear to “just happen,” don’t they? It’s like building a sestina, I think. Something that is so perfect, so seemingly simple, takes just the right amount of ingredients, time, and an unerring sense of when it’s done steeping.

Trying to explain a sestina by analyzing its pattern is befuddling. It is best to read one of the best ever written, a poem titled “Sestina,” by Elizabeth Bishop. Heartbreakingly beautiful, specific in its details and in its tone, this poem resonates over and over again. Consider for a moment this image from the third stanza:

It’s time for tea now; but the child

is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears

dance like mad on the hot black stove,

the way the rain must dance on the house.

We can hear it, see it, smell it—all in four short lines. In the next stanza, the tea-imagery continues with the grandmother’s

teacup full of dark brown tears.

She shivers and says she thinks the house

feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

The emotional pull of those lines is undeniable. Bishop is past-master of her craft.

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