Saturday, September 18, 2021

No, Thank You

Day after day, modern "civilization" casts its flotsam and jetsam upon our shores.  There is no help for it.  Each of us maintains our own inventory of which pieces of detritus have caught our attention of late, or over the course of a lifetime.  The arrivals will never cease: "everything that can be imagined is bound to be realized at least once -- everything that mankind is capable of conceiving, it seems compelled to do."  (Saul Bellow, "Writers, Intellectuals, Politics: Mainly Reminiscence," in Saul Bellow, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction (edited by Benjamin Taylor) (Viking 2015), page 407.)  

Bellow's assertion cuts both ways, doesn't it?  Human nature harbors a boundless capacity for both good and evil.  Who knows which of the two will appear next, and in what form?  Caught up in the daily distraction (the latest political and media "crisis"), we are encouraged to bounce back and forth between hope and dread, anxiously awaiting "news."  This is no way to live.

Nearly every day I walk past a small round meadow, about fifty feet wide, which is surrounded on all sides by tall pines.  A single young maple stands near the center of the circle of grass and wildflowers. Each year I watch the maple change through the seasons, out there alone in the open.  Who knows what will happen to it?  It will likely outlive me, which is a comfort.  We each go on in our own way.

Alternative worlds are available to us.  Worlds free of flotsam and jetsam.  I have recently been spending time with poems set to music in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Another world (not without its own good and evil, of course), but one which feels seemlier and nobler than the one in which we now find ourselves.  In the songs, one comes upon lines such as these:

Constant Penelope sends to thee, careless Ulysses.
Write not again, but come, sweet mate, thyself to revive me.
Troy we do much envy, we desolate lost ladies of Greece,
Not Priamus, nor yet all Troy can us recompense make.
Oh, that he had, when he first took shipping to Lacedaemon,
That adulter I mean, had been o'erwhelmed with waters.
Then had I not lain now all alone, thus quivering for cold,
Nor used this complaint, nor have thought the day to be so long.

Anonymous, in William Byrd, Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadness and Piety (1588), in E. H. Fellowes (editor), English Madrigal Verse 1588-1632 (Oxford University Press 1967), page 48. The eight lines are a translation of the opening lines of the First Epistle of Ovid's Heroides.  Ibid, page 683.

What shall it be: Bedlam, or a world in which a poet forever unknown to us wrote of "constant Penelope"?

Robin Tanner (1904-1988), "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

The Elizabethan era may indeed be a different world, but I was pleased to encounter these lines, which are timeless, in one of the songbooks:

The love of change hath changed the world throughout;
     And what is counted good but that is strange?
New things wax old, old new, all turns about,
     And all things change except the love of change.
Yet find I not that love of change in me,
But as I am so will I always be.

Anonymous, in Richard Carlton, Madrigals to Fine Voices (1601), Ibid, page 77.  As is the case with many of the songs from the period, the identity of the poet is not known.

As one who is conservative in temperament (a temperament confirmed by six decades of watching the world), it is gratifying to discover a kindred soul from four centuries ago.  The lamenters of change are always with us, aren't they?  Mind you, the conservatism of which I speak has nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary politics, which are of no interest to me.

"Yet find I not that love of change in me" (a lovely line) in turn brings this to mind:

     The Metropolitan Underground Railway

Here were a goodly place wherein to die; --
     Grown latterly to sudden change averse,
All violent contrasts fain avoid would I
     On passing from this world into a worse.

William Watson (1858-1935), Epigrams of Art, Life, and Nature (Gilbert Walmsley 1884).

I concede that the Underground is no doubt a marvelous thing. Having once lived in Tokyo, I recognize the convenience and efficiency of subways and train lines.  But I sympathize with the sentiments expressed in the poem.  "Grown latterly to sudden change averse."  Yes.  A time comes when one feels prepared to quietly and permanently exit the wearisome world of change.

Robin Tanner, "June" (1946)

But I feel I've lost the thread.  The flotsam and jetsam of the modern world and aversion to change are ultimately of no moment.  As always, one should attend to one's soul.  Where does one start?  Best to return to the solitary maple tree in the clearing among the pines. Everything begins and ends with a single beautiful particular.

A quiet bell sounds --
and reveals a village
waiting for the moon.

Sōgi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, The Road to Komatsubara: A Classical Reading of the Renga Hyakuin (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University 1987), page 96.

Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927)

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Eight: Exile

Is the World we live in enchanted or disenchanted?  Happily, we cannot think, or reason, our way to an answer to this question. Moreover, the answer may be beyond words, which is appropriate. The World is mostly reticent.  But, if we pay attention to it, we may receive glimpses, glimmers, inklings. 

And, in the end, the answer we may stumble upon applies only to a single soul: our own.  Still, we may encounter kindred souls in our travels.  What would we do without them?

"What a marvelous time it was when everything was alive, according to human imagination, and humanly alive, in other words inhabited or formed by beings like ourselves; when it was taken as certain that in the deserted woods lived the beautiful Hamadryads and fauns and woodland deities and Pan, etc., and, on entering and seeing everything as solitude, you still believed that everything was inhabited and that Naiads lived in the springs, etc., and embracing a tree you felt it almost palpitating between your hands and believed it was a man or a woman like Cyparissus, etc., and the same with flowers, etc., just as children do."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 69.

As an unrepentant Wordsworthian pantheist (the Wordsworth of 1797 through 1807) and a lover of the poems in The Greek Anthology, I fully concur with Leopardi's thoughts.  How far we have fallen!  But some may say: "What of Progress?"  Ah, yes, "Progress."  We now find ourselves in the hands of political, scientific, technological, and media "experts."  That seems to be working quite well.

H. S. Merritt, "Woodford Bridge in the Avon Valley" (c. 1942)

I am also wholly in sympathy with Walter de la Mare:

                         Exile

Had the gods loved me I had lain
     Where darnel is, and thorn,
And the wild night-bird's nightlong strain
     Trembles in boughs forlorn.

Nay, but they loved me not; and I
     Must needs a stranger be,
Whose every exiled day gone by
     Aches with their memory.

Walter de la Mare, The Listeners and Other Poems (Constable 1912).

The pang of exile from a lost, ever unreachable world is a thread that runs throughout de la Mare's poetry.  But it never leads to a slighting of the World as we find it.  Nor does it lead to despair, or to lack of love for the beautiful particulars of the World.  Thus: "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall." ("Now.")  Or this: "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour." ("Fare Well.")  

And, despite the sadness and the sense of irremediable loss expressed in "Exile," de la Mare still catches glimpses of the lost world in the English countryside:

           Echo 

Seven sweet notes
In the moonlight pale
Warbled a leaf-hidden
Nightingale:
And Echo in hiding
By an old green wall
Under the willows
Sighed back them all.

Walter de la Mare, Bells and Grass: A Book of Rhymes (Faber and Faber 1941).

This brings to mind a lovely poem from The Greek Anthology:

High up the mountain-meadow, Echo with never a tongue
Sings back to each bird in answer the song each bird hath sung.

Satyrus (c. 1st century B.C. - 1st century A.D.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 358.

There is no telling what one might suddenly see out in a field:

                            Flood Water

What saw I -- crouching by that pool of water
     Bright-blue in the flooded grass,
Of ash-white sea-birds the remote resort, and
     April's looking-glass? --
Was it mere image of a dream-dazed eye --
That startled Naiad -- as the train swept by?

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

H. S. Merritt, "Bowerchalke" (c. 1942)

The ironic moderns among us have "progressed" too far to take any of this seriously.  They fancy themselves to be unillusioned and undeceived.  Products of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment."

Leopardi again: "[T]here has never been an age so tainted and corrupted that it did not believe itself to stand at the pinnacle of civilization and social perfection, and to be an example to the other ages, and, in particular, superior in every respect to all past ages, and at the farthest point in space yet traveled by the human spirit." (Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, page 395.)  

Enchanted or disenchanted?  Each of us makes a choice in this matter every day.

                       Ionic

That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1975).

H. S. Merritt, "Wishford, Wylye Valley" (c. 1942)

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Now

The angled, honey-yellow afternoon light has taken on the aspect of autumn, and the shadows of trees have begun to lengthen across the evening fields.  Yet still the swallows skim, swoop, and curve just above the dry meadow grasses.  Once again, the time has come to visit my favorite poem of August.

       A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter.  The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (Alfred A. Knopf 1942).

I will not attempt to pick apart this thing of beauty.  Long-time readers of this blog may recall my position on these matters: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  As it happens, it appears that Stevens may share my view: "once a poem has been explained it has been destroyed."  (Wallace Stevens, letter to Hi Simons (January 9, 1940), in Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1966), page 346.)  However, despite this statement, Stevens wrote several letters to critics and translators responding to their inquiries about what certain of his poems "mean."  This gives me license to offer two tentative thoughts. First, it may be helpful to recall Stevens' references in "An Old Man Asleep" (which appeared in my previous post) to "the two worlds": "the self and the earth."  Second, think of "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" and "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" (which also appeared in my previous post) as a lovely, complementary pair.  The self and the earth.

But we mustn't get carried away.  Consider this.  "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" was first published in the October, 1937, issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  Five months earlier, Stevens wrote this in a letter: "One side of my bed there is nothing but windows; when I lie in bed I can see nothing but trees.  But there has been a rabbit digging out bulbs: instead of lying in bed in the mornings listening to everything that is going on, I spend the time worrying about the rabbit and wondering what particular thing he is having for breakfast."  (Wallace Stevens, letter to Ronald Lane Latimer (May 6, 1937), in Holly Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, page 321.)  A rabbit.  Just a rabbit.  Or not.

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

On a hot and windless afternoon, birdsong nearly ceases.  The swallows vanish.  But, if you walk beside a meadow, you can hear the clicking and crackling of grasshoppers, unseen, jumping in the tall grass.  If you enter a dark wood, you may notice rustling in the bushes beyond the path.  The source of the sound remains a mystery. Everything is in its place.

                         One Almost Might

Wouldn't you say,
Wouldn't you say: one day,
With a little more time or a little more patience, one might
Disentangle for separate, deliberate, slow delight
One of the moment's hundred strands, unfray
Beginnings from endings, this from that, survey
Say a square inch of the ground one stands on, touch
Part of oneself or a leaf or a sound (not clutch
Or cuff or bruise but touch with finger-tip, ear-
Tip, eyetip, creeping near yet not too near);
Might take up life and lay it on one's palm
And, encircling it in closeness, warmth and calm,
Let it lie still, then stir smooth-softly, and
Tendril by tendril unfold, there on one's hand . . .

One might examine eternity's cross-section
For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection?

A. S. J. Tessimond (1902-1962), Collected Poems (edited by Hubert Nicholson) (Bloodaxe Books 2010).

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "The River" (1924)

"To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time."  To "examine eternity's cross-section/For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection."  Easier said than done, of course.  All of the ordinary days intervene.

"I wonder if you are haunted to the extremity that I am by this half-peaceful half-fretting sense of the incessant insecurity & fugitiveness of everything.  Every moment of the present wears a vaguely surmised suggestion that it is only pretending, that the conspiracy is just coming to an end.  I always seem to be on the brink of something; & so the future is hateful because it can't possibly come, or if it does, will only lead to other futures that can't.  And I long to get things over, to have them safe in memory -- beyond the guessings of foreboding and anxiety.  Even you are almost best in memory, where I cannot change you, nor you yourself."

Walter de la Mare, letter to Naomi Royde-Smith (April 24, 1911), in Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare (Duckworth 1993), page 183.

De la Mare wrote the passage in the letter the day before his thirty-eighth birthday.  In his eightieth year, this poem was published:

               Now

The longed-for summer goes;
Dwindles away 
To its last rose,
Its narrowest day.

No heaven-sweet air but must die;
Softlier float,
Breathe lingeringly
Its final note.

Oh, what dull truths to tell!
Now is the all-sufficing all
Wherein to love the lovely well,
Whate'er befall.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1953).

De la Mare died in June of 1956.  Eleven months prior to his death, he said this: "My days are getting shorter.  But there is more and more magic.  More than in all poetry.  Everything is increasingly wonderful and beautiful."  (Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare, page 443.)

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

Friday, August 6, 2021

Here

Last week I took an afternoon walk on a warm, breezy, cloudless day. At times I paused beneath the trees, looking upward, listening to the leaves.  A thought suddenly occurred to me: it is enough to have been put into this World simply to see blue sky beyond swaying boughs of green leaves on a summer afternoon.  At last, there is nothing to be said, no thoughts worth thinking.

     The River of Rivers in Connecticut

There is a great river this side of Stygia, 
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun.  On its banks,

No shadow walks.  The river is fateful,
Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it.  The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf 1954), page 533.  

The Collected Poems, Stevens' final volume of poetry, was published on October 1, 1954, the day before he turned seventy-five.  "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the book. It appears in a section titled The Rock, which contains the poems Stevens wrote after the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in 1950.  Stevens died on August 2, 1955.

I have been visiting Stevens' poetry recently, and at the same time I have been reading poetry written by Sōchō (1448-1532).  Sōchō's poems appear in a journal kept by him from 1522 to 1527, when he was in his seventies.  He was a renga (linked-verse) master, and spent much of his life traveling throughout Japan, participating in renga sessions, during a tumultuous and violent time.  Many of the poems in the journal are hokku, the three-line verse form which constitutes the opening link in a renga.  Hokku evolved into the free-standing poem we now know as haiku.

     Yet gently blows the wind,
and gently fall the leaves
     from the willow trees!

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō (Stanford University Press 2002), page 109.

By happenstance, I have discovered that Sōchō's poems and Stevens' late poems in The Rock go together well.  I am loath to depart from the two septuagenarians.  They are fine companions.

Paul Nash (1889-1946), "Berkshire Downs" (1922)

The evidence suggests that Stevens devoted a great deal of time to the arrangement of the poems that appear in The Rock.  He selected this as the opening poem:

                    An Old Man Asleep

The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.

The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, page 501.

I am reluctant to venture beyond the words of Stevens' poems. Far too much ink has already been spilled by the Wallace Stevens academic-industrial complex.  What could I possibly add?  Alas, how can I resist?  First, "An Old Man Asleep" is lovely, which is all that matters.  The words and their sound.  Second, "the two worlds" ("the self and the earth") are something to bear in mind when reading any poem by Stevens.  Third, and wonderfully, a beautiful particular: "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R."  Again, best to leave beauty as it is, and the words as they are, without comment. Yet one should be aware of the lovely and important place that rivers occupy in Stevens' poetry. "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is probably my favorite Stevens poem, but it has close competitors, one of which is "This Solitude of Cataracts": "He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice . . ."

With respect to "the drowsy motion of the river R" -- "an unnamed flowing" -- and its "gayety," "propelling force," and fatefulness, this may be worth considering:

"At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct.  Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young.  So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price?  It is as though one began to lose one's heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Robin Hard), Meditations, Book VI, Section 15 (Oxford University Press 2011), page 48.

That's enough of that.  A few words from Sōchō are in order:

     A morning glory --
like dreams or dew, the flower
     blooms but a moment.

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō, page 108.

Paul Nash, "Behind the Inn" (1922)

"It is enough to have been put into this World simply to see blue sky beyond swaying boughs of green leaves on a summer afternoon." So it seemed to me for a moment as I stood beneath a tree last week. Ah, merely a passing fancy.  A hasty, ill-considered conclusion. Pretentious and overly-dramatic as well.  There is much more to life than blue sky and green leaves, isn't there?

A few days later, something written by Walter Pater came to mind: "He has been a sick man all his life.  He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all."  (Walter Pater, "A Prince of Court Painters," in Imaginary Portraits (Macmillan 1887), page 48.)  But of course.

And yet there is the final poem in The Rock, which is also the final poem in The Collected Poems.  As is the case with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" (which immediately precedes it) and "An Old Man Asleep," Stevens placed it where it is with intent.

   Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry -- it was 
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, page 534.

This time I will stay silent, and defer to Sōchō:

     In the moon's clear light
all mundane desires
     are but a path of dreams.

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō, page 29.

Paul Nash, "Oxenbridge Pond" (1928)

Friday, July 16, 2021

The Latest News

Recently, as I walked abroad on a sunny afternoon, it occurred to me that I had not read "Adlestrop" in quite some time.  I have no idea why this thought arose.  Was it because I was walking beneath a canopy of leaves, surrounded by birdsong?  ". . . And for that minute a blackbird sang/Close by, and round him, mistier,/Farther and farther, all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire."  Perhaps.

In any case, I resolved to return to "Adlestrop" that evening.  But the truth is that it has never left me, nor have I left it, after having stumbled upon it forty or so years ago, after which I became steeped for a long period of time in the beauty and the melancholy of Edward Thomas' poetry.  Each of us carries these worlds inside of us, don't we?  Having made my resolution, I walked on.  Within a few minutes, this came to me:

                   Period

It was a time when wise men
Were not silent, but stifled
By vast noise.  They took refuge
In books that were not read.

Two counsellors had the ear
Of the public.  One cried 'Buy'
Day and night, and the other,
More plausibly, 'Sell your repose.'

R. S. Thomas, H'm (Macmillan 1972).

Nearly fifty years have passed since "Period" was published.  Here we are.  It is a good time to sit down and read "Adlestrop."

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "Little Park, Lyme Regis" (1956)

I sometimes feel that the sadness and tragedy of Edward Thomas' life has come to overshadow his poetry.  Which is why we need to read his poems.

                    Adlestrop

Yes.  I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

The origins of the poem can be traced back to an entry in one of Thomas' "field notebooks":

"24th [June 1914] a glorious day from 4.20 a.m. and at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud with dirtied grey bars above the sea of slate and dull brick by Battersea Park -- then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose large masses above and gaps of dark clear blue above haymaking and elms.

"Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.

"Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willowherb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel -- looking out on grey dry stones between metals and the shining metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass -- one man clears his throat -- a greater than rustic silence.  No house in view  Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

"Another stop like this outside Colwell on 27th with thrush singing on hillside above on road."

Edward Thomas, Ibid, page 176 (punctuation (or lack thereof) as in original text).

A vanished world.  Even then, Thomas knew it was a world that was vanishing.  Thus, the beauty and the melancholy.  (Although the source of both in Thomas' life was a great deal more complicated than that.)

Gilbert Spencer, "The Cottage Window" (c. 1937)

I am wary of reductiveness when discussing a poet's poems. Moreover, long-time (and much appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my two fundamental poetic principles: "Explanation and explication are the death of poetry."  (The second, for those who may be curious, is: "It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.")  Accordingly, I am tempted to leave "Adlestrop" as it is.  In a time when the world appears to be taking leave of its senses (which is always the case), it is enough that it appear here for a few souls to read.  Civilization has always been preserved by a handful of the quiet, patient, and devoted.

Still, I will offer a thought about what lies at the heart of Edward Thomas' poetry, of its beauty and melancholy and truth.  We live evanescent lives amidst the beautiful particulars of a flitting, fleeting World, a World that will outlast us.  A moment is all we have.  We should be attentive and grateful.  Hence, "Adlestrop."  Hence, nearly every poem that Thomas wrote.

     Bright Clouds

Bright clouds of may
Shade half the pond.
Beyond, 
All but one bay
Of emerald
Tall reeds
Like criss-cross bayonets
Where a bird once called,
Lies bright as the sun.
No one heeds.
The light wind frets
And drifts the scum
Of may-blossom.
Till the moorhen calls
Again
Naught's to be done
By birds or men.
Still the may falls.

Edward Thomas, Ibid.  The poem was written in June of 1916.  Ibid, page 303.

"No one heeds."  "Still the may falls."  Exactly.  We owe the World our attention and gratitude.

Gilbert Spencer, "Wooded Landscape"

I am drawn once more to a thought that has appeared here on several occasions: "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).)  An alternative translation (by David Pears and Brian McGuinness): "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."

It would seem that we now find ourselves "stifled/By vast noise." There is nothing new about this.  Only the bedlamites making the noise change.  We should never surrender our repose to them.  Which is likely why I felt the need to read "Adlestrop."  Which is why I often return to a waka written more than a thousand years ago:

To a mountain village
   at nightfall on a spring day
      I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
   from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988-1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

Gilbert Spencer, "From My Studio" (c. 1959)

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A Blade of Grass

I recently read the following haiku by Bashō:

a dragonfly
vainly trying to settle
onto a blade of grass

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 297.

Ueda's book consists of a selection of Bashō's haiku, each followed by excerpts of commentaries on the poem offered by Japanese critics over the years.  Of this haiku, one critic writes: "This looks like a simple descriptive poem, and yet it makes us wonder whether Bashō's eyes were not observing something important in the very heart of nature."  (Ibid, page 297, quoting Momota Sōji (1893-1955).)

True, but a bit of an understatement, R. H. Blyth might say, for he wrote this of Bashō (in comparing him to Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes, in that order):  "In what point is Bashō equal or superior to these great men?  In his touching the very nerve of life, his unerring knowledge of those moments in time which, put together, make up our real, our eternal life.  He is awake in the world that for almost all men exists as a world of dreams."  (R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page iii.) (Blyth's observation brings Wordsworth's "spots of time" to mind.) Many of you may be skeptical of Blyth's claim.  After all, he devoted much of his life to writing about haiku, and thus was not a disinterested party.  Knowing Blyth, he was likely also exaggerating for effect.  Still, I confess I am not unsympathetic.

But let's leave all that aside.  It is simply a matter of a blade of grass, of a dragonfly.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
"Bluebells, Cornflowers, and Rhododendrons" (1945)

About a week later, having decided to travel to the world of W. B. Yeats, I came upon this:

   Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

W. B. Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (Macmillan 1933).

This poem has its source in Yeats' esoteric philosophical explorations. A daunting world in which to venture.  It tends to leave me befuddled.  However, I have been fond of Yeats from an impressionable age, and I will never cease returning to him.

But, there it was again, out of the blue: "a blade of grass."  Poetry is a wonderful thing, isn't it?  You never know what will happen the next time you open a book of poems.  A week earlier, I had been marveling at a dragonfly and a blade of grass.  Now, suddenly, serendipitously (I hadn't gone looking for "Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors"), there it was: "a blade of grass."

Stanley Spencer, "Peonies" (1939)

Yet, there was one more step to take.  A blade of grass.  A dragonfly. Something was nagging at me.  In poetry, one thing always leads to another.  Ah, yes, a dragonfly:

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
        For know, all things
        Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
    Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (c. 556-c. 468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 234.

One of the joys of poetry is the way in which a poem you have read remains inside of you, waiting patiently.  A poem from 17th century Japan.  A poem written by an Irish poet in the 20th century.  A poem born in Greece 2,500 years ago.

It is all a matter of a blade of grass.  Or of a dragonfly.

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

Thursday, May 20, 2021

May

In my previous post, we visited my favorite April poem: Patrick Kavanagh's "Wet Evening in April."  A poem haunted by melancholy. But a serene and peaceful melancholy, a lovely melancholy.  This is never a bad thing.  Like April. 

May is a different matter.  As it happens, Kavanagh wrote a fine short poem about May as well:

       Consider the Grass Growing

Consider the grass growing
As it grew last year and the year before,
Cool about the ankles like summer rivers,
When we walked on a May evening through the meadows
To watch the mare that was going to foal.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn (Penguin 2004).  The poem was first published in The Irish Press on May 21, 1943.  Ibid, page 271.

In May we enter the green world again.  The meadow grass sways in green waves.  The tunnels of trees continue their annual interlacing, each tree extending its boughs a bit each year, as overhead the green grows deeper.  And, as I report here every May, the ants have once again commenced their kingdom building, burrowing away in the darkness, erecting pyramids of sand in the green world above.

Gilbert Adams (1906-1996), "The Cotswolds from Park Leys" (1958)

I am quite fond of "Consider the Grass Growing."  But, as I have noted here in the past, this is my favorite May poem:

                  The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old?  No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

Larkin's "unresting castles" always bring to mind my favorite November poem, Wallace Stevens' "The Region November."  The two poems seem made for each other.  Both consist of twelve lines.  In both, trees "thresh" and "sway."  And, wonderfully, their final lines echo one another with lovely triple repetitions.  "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."  "The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying."

Samuel Llewellyn (1858-1941), "Sailing at Blakeney (c. 1938)

In May, a bright yellow-green inch-long or so spray of soft needles emerges at the tip of each twig on each branch of certain types of pine trees. "Nature's first green is gold."  In the midst of my seventh decade, I often think that I have spent most of that time sleepwalking through the World.  How long it took for me to take notice of those soft green needles!

I was again shaken out of my sleep yesterday afternoon.  As I walked beneath a madrona tree, tiny white berries pattered down around me from the boughs overhead.  But they weren't berries.  I picked one up and discovered it was a flower: a creamy-white, bell-like hollow globe, about a quarter-inch or less in diameter.  The flowers had fallen from large clusters high up in the tree.

                       Reciprocity

I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

John Drinkwater, Tides (Sidgwick & Jackson 1917).

A haiku written by Bashō is prefaced by a headnote which consists of "a sentence that often appears in Taoist classics, although Bashō probably took it from a poem by the Confucian philosopher Ch'eng Ming-tao."  (Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 153.)  The headnote is this: "As we look calmly, we see everything is content with itself."

Arthur Friedenson (1872-1955), "On the River at Wareham, Dorset"

Thursday, April 29, 2021

April

I'm certain I'm not the only young man or woman whose budding interest in poetry was quickened by happening upon the following lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (Boni and Liveright 1922).

I seem to recall that the presence of April, my birth month, played some role in why I was smitten with the lines.  But I could be misremembering.  On the other hand, I was a melancholy, bookish lad (some things never change), so I suspect my recollection may be accurate.  In any case, the lines have remained with me for nearly fifty years, even though my affections have long since migrated from The Waste Land to Four Quartets.

All of which leads (in a roundabout fashion), dear ever-patient readers, to our annual visit to my favorite April poem:

                         Wet Evening in April

The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).  The poem was originally published on April 19, 1952, in Kavanagh's Weekly.  Ibid, page 280.

Allan Gwynne-Jones (1892-1982), "Spring Evening, Froxfield"

I suppose one might argue that "Wet Evening in April" is not a true "April poem" at all.  One expects something along these lines: "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough . . ."  Or something even more effulgent and, yes, flowery:

                                   April, 1885

Wanton with long delay the gay spring leaping cometh;
The blackthorn starreth now his bough on the eve of May:
All day in the sweet box-tree the bee for pleasure hummeth:
The cuckoo sends afloat his note on the air all day.

Now dewy nights again and rain in gentle shower
At root of tree and flower have quenched the winter's drouth.
On high the hot sun smiles, and banks of cloud uptower
In bulging heads that crowd for miles the dazzling south.

Robert Bridges, The Shorter Poems (George Bell & Sons 1890). Caught up in his enthusiasm for the month, Bridges includes sprightly internal rhymes within the first five lines.

Or perhaps something more restrained, but still evocative of the month's beautiful and hopeful course:

                    April

Exactly: where the winter was
The spring has come: I see her now
In the fields, and as she goes
The flowers spring, nobody knows how.

C. H. Sisson, What and Who (Carcanet Press 1994).

Mind you, I am quite fond of each of these poems, and they have appeared here on more than one occasion.  Still, April would not be April without its characteristic tinge of melancholy.  All of those cherry, plum, and pear petals drifting down beneath a blue sky, carpeting the green grass and the sidewalks.  It's wonderful how April and October share a similar bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness, isn't it?  Every six months, year after year, the falling of petals and the falling of leaves.  Trying to tell us something.

William Wood (1877-1958), "April Weather"

Ah, well, everything in the World and in our life eventually comes around to our evanescence, and the evanescence of the beautiful particulars that surround us.  "But it is a sort of April weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."  (William Cowper, letter to Walter Bagot (January 3, 1787), in James King and Charles Ryskamp (editors), The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Volume III: Letters 1787-1791 (Oxford University Press 1982), pages 5-6.)  This is lovely, but perhaps too dramatic.  Life is a matter of petals and of leaves.  And of gratitude.

          Pear Blossoms by the Eastern Palisade

Pear blossoms pale white, willows deep green —
when willow fluff scatters, falling blossoms will fill the town.
Snowy boughs by the eastern palisade set me pondering —
in a lifetime how many springs do we see?

Su Tung-p'o (1036-1101) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Copper Canyon Press 1994), page 68.

Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959), "The Cornish April"

Friday, April 16, 2021

Present

I am an escapist.  The past month I've spent a great deal of time in 17th century Japan in the company of Gensei, a Buddhist monk-poet, and in Victorian England in the company of Christina Rossetti.  From what world am I fleeing?  I suspect you know.

"I have not yet looked at the newspaper.  Generally I leave it till I come back tired from my walk; it amuses me then to see what the noisy world is doing, what new self-torments men have discovered, what new forms of vain toil, what new occasions of peril and of strife.  I grudge to give the first freshness of the morning mind to things so sad and foolish."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Archibald Constable & Co. 1903), page 7.

Unlike Henry Ryecroft, I am not amused by what appears in the newspapers (or in their modern electronic successors).  Hence, I am content to leave news out of my life entirely.  "Where, to me, is the loss/Of the scenes they saw -- of the sounds they heard."  (Mary Coleridge, "No Newspapers.")  Of course, in this day and age snippets inevitably seep through -- insidious, noisome.  Our life is now akin to being forever stranded in an airport departure lounge, forced to listen to the ever-present cable news presenters dissembling from an unasked-for television screen hovering in the air somewhere above us.  Ah, welladay!

But we have it within us to live a seemlier life, a life of peace and quiet, of small things.

Trailing my stick I go down to the garden edge,
call to a monk to go out the pine gate.
A cup of tea with my mother,
looking at each other, enjoying our tea together.
In the deep lanes, few people in sight;
the dog barks when anyone comes or goes.
Fall floods have washed away the planks of the bridge;
shouldering our sandals, we wade the narrow stream.
By the roadside, a small pavilion
where there used to be a little hill:
it helps out our hermit mood;
country poems pile one sheet on another.
I dabble in the flow, delighted by the shallowness of the stream,
gaze at the flagging, admiring how firm the stones are.
The point in life is to know what's enough --
why envy those otherworld immortals?
With the happiness held in one inch-square heart
you can fill the whole space between heaven and earth.

Gensei (1623-1668) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Grass Hill: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Gensei (Columbia University Press 1983), page 70.  The poem is untitled.

"The point in life is to know what's enough."  Exactly. "September 1 -- the beards of Thistle & dandelions flying above the lonely mountains like life, & I saw them thro' the Trees skimming the lake like Swallows."  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 799 (September, 1800).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Glamis Village in April"

On his walk, Gensei misses nothing.  "In the deep lanes, few people in sight;/the dog barks when anyone comes or goes."  A mere commonplace?  But perhaps Gensei is echoing a line in a poem written in China twelve centuries earlier by T'ao Ch'ien (who was revered by Japanese poets): "A dog barks somewhere in the deep lanes."  ("Returning to the Fields" (line 15) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 78.)  Or perhaps he is simply (and not so simply) paying attention to the World.  Never underestimate the commonplace, the quotidian.  These terms are not pejorative.

               Lark Descending

A singing firework; the sun's darling;
     Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence: see, a small gray bird
     That runs among the weeds.

Edmund Blunden, Poems, 1930-1940 (Macmillan 1940).

While out walking yesterday afternoon I heard no larks singing in the cloudless sky.  But I did hear an unseen woodpecker far off in the woods, hammering.  A small thing.  "There have been times when looking up beneath the sheltring [sic] Trees, I could Invest every leaf with Awe."  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804, Notebook Entry 1510 (September, 1803).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

An aside, in closing.  I am ever in search of those who have found serenity and equanimity.  This is why I have long been fond of Gensei, and of his poetry.  Thus, I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I unexpectedly came upon this, which was previously unknown to me.

     Homage to Gensei

Last night I lay awake
From some sound in the night
And pictured I could take
(Knowing that I could not)
The firm and quiet way
Of the gentle monk Gensei,
Who watched from his Grass Hill
(Three hundred years away)
Beneath a favorite tree,
Or from his leaky hut,
Travels of crow, cloud, sail;
With some food and wine
Welcomed the always rare
Visit from old friends; wrote
His poems, though unwell
Much of the time; read; gave
Lessons, again while sick,
Kept clear of pedantry
(And all he wrote of it
Rings true of it today),
With his goose-foot walking stick
To keep him company
Took walks, kept his mind free
And agile as the air,
Transcending tragedy,
Under his bent old pine
With writing brush in hand
Quiet at close of day
Saw out the evening sun
Across the shadowy land.
     *        *        *        *        *   
Slight rustlings in a tree
And a slow car going by
Returned me to what's mine,
What it had all come to,
What I still had to do
With my own dwindling days.

Alan Stephens, Collected Poems, 1958-1998 (Dowitcher Press 2012).  The ellipses are in the original text.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Poetry

As I have noted here before, a poem that has moved us remains with us, and can return at any time, unexpectedly and unaccountably. Last night, this floated up:

             Out There

Do they ever meet out there,
The dolphins I counted,
The otter I wait for?
I should have spent my life
Listening to the waves.

Michael Longley, The Ghost Orchid (Jonathan Cape 1995).

I have no idea why this arrived when it did.  But I was delighted.  It was with me as I fell asleep, and it greeted me when I awoke this morning.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "A City Garden" (1940)

Poems live on inside you.  They accumulate.  Over time, they establish ever-changing connections with you and with each other. One poem leads to another: they travel outward, then circle back again.  This never stops.  They become stepping stones as you make your way through the World.  Yes, life is life, poetry is poetry, the World is the World.  But these small daily journeys -- many-pathed, never the same -- all add up.

Like today, for instance.  Five bright red tulips, the first of the year. Further on, an azalea bush, covered with white flowers that were not there a week ago.  And, all around, unceasing birdsong, pink-white magnolia blossoms in the blue sky.

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

Today I discovered that this is my thousandth post.  Imagine that.  All of these poems, paintings, and stray thoughts sent out into the ether for eleven years.  To what end?  The beautiful particulars of the World noted in passing, and with gratitude.  And, speaking of gratitude: thank you, dear readers.

To a mountain village
   at nightfall on a spring day
      I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
   from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988-1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

Harold Jones (1904-1992), "The Black Door" (1935)