Friday, July 13, 2018

Awake

This past week I spent an afternoon idyll in the emergency room of a local hospital, where I became acquainted with atrial fibrillation (also known, more familiarly, as "AFib").  New encounters of this sort are always salutary:  we should never take anything for granted.  One emerges from these episodes with a  freshened sense of gratitude.

How much time we have on our hands!  How little time we have on our hands!

The previous weekend I had read the following mysterious and wondrous poem.

     The Song of the Mad Prince

Who said, 'Peacock Pie'?
     The old King to the sparrow:
Who said, 'Crops are ripe'?
     Rust to the harrow:
Who said, 'Where sleeps she now?
     Where rests she now her head,
Bathed in eve's loveliness'? --
     That's what I said.

Who said, 'Ay, mum's the word'?
     Sexton to willow:
Who said, 'Green dusk for dreams,
     Moss for a pillow'?
Who said, 'All Time's delight
     Hath she for narrow bed;
Life's troubled bubble broken'? --
     That's what I said.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

Ah, well:  each of us a fluttering heart, a flickering soul.

David Murray (1849-1933), "Crofts on the Island of Lewis" (1921)

Later in the week, something floated up out of my past.  I hadn't thought of it for years.  I beg your forbearance for its presence here.  I offer it, not as poetry, but as an instance of how we meander our way through life, of how things vanish and then return.

                            Breathless

And then -- never a doubt -- that day shall come.
You think -- wrongly -- that you can "handle" it.
(As if all before has been "handled" well.)
But it will be the last thing you expect.

Oblique and aslant shall be its approach:
Without stealth, and with utter certainty.

How little we know!  It leaves you breathless.

sip (March, 2004).

Alex Kirk (1872-1950)
"Cranborne Chase, Dorset, a View towards Horton Tower" (1935)

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Beauty

When all is said and done, Keats is exactly right:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

A great deal of critical ink has been spilled over those two lines.  At the outset, there is a textual question as to whether the entire two lines should be placed within quotation marks, or only the first clause: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  This question is related to the issue of whether the lines (or the first clause, depending upon where the quotation marks are placed) are spoken by the urn or by the poet. The predominant view is that the lines are spoken by the urn, and that the entire two lines should be placed within quotation marks.

The remainder of the spilt ink relates to the meaning of the two lines, both on their own, and within the context of the entire poem.  In her edition of Keats's poems, Miriam Allott summarizes the conflicting views as follows:

"Opinions about the meaning of the beauty-truth equivalent and its relevance to the rest of the poem can be roughly divided as follows: (1) philosophically defensible but of doubtful relevance ([John Middleton] Murry); (2) a 'pseudo-statement,' but emotionally relevant (I. A. Richards); (3) expressing the paradoxes in the poem and therefore dramatically appropriate ([Cleanth] Brooks); (4) meaningless and therefore a blemish (T. S. Eliot); (5) an over-simplification, but attempting a positive synthesis of the oppositions expressed in the poem (F. W. Bateson); (6) emotionally and intellectually relevant when properly understood, but 'the effort to see the thing as Keats did is too great to be undertaken with pleasure' ([William] Empson)."

Miriam Allott (editor), The Poems of John Keats (Longman 1970), page 538.

Well, yes, of course T. S. Eliot would say that the statement "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem."  In partial defense of Eliot (only partial) he follows up with a qualification of sorts:  "and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue."  (T. S. Eliot, "Dante," in Selected Essays (Harcourt, Brace and Company 1950), page 231.)  As one who is fond of Eliot's poetry and his critical writings, I would respectfully suggest another possibility:  (1) Eliot fails to understand the statement and (2) the statement is true.

But I am not here to unwind all of this . . . humbug.  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my fundamental poetical precepts:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  Moreover, I am simple-minded and credulous: hence, I take what Keats says at face value.  And what he says accords with my experience of the World and of life.  Nothing more needs to be said.

William Ratcliffe (1870-1955), "Bodinnick, Fowey"

Enough of that digression.  Keats's lines appear in this post because they came to mind when I read a poem by Walter de la Mare a few days ago.  The monstrous and passionless existence (I shall not call it "life") that the lines have taken on in the hands of literary critics is nothing but a frolic and a detour (a combination of words I first heard in law school about 35 or so years ago, but which is apt when it comes to the tomfoolery of critics).

Here, then, is the poem that led me to think of "Beauty is truth, truth beauty":

     The Song of the Secret

Where is beauty?
          Gone, gone:
The cold winds have taken it
     With their faint moan;
The white stars have shaken it,
     Trembling down,
Into the pathless deeps of the sea:
          Gone, gone
     Is beauty from me.

The clear naked flower
     Is faded and dead;
The green-leafed willow,
     Drooping her head,
Whispers low to the shade
     Of her boughs in the stream,
          Sighing a beauty --
          Secret as dream.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

One of the many things I like about Walter de la Mare is that, unlike most 20th century poets, he was not afraid to use the word "beauty" in an unironic sense.  It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when "beauty" was a philosophical or a metaphysical concept, not merely an empty word from the worlds of advertising, movies, television, and music.  For example, early in his life, before he began his political career, Edmund Burke wrote A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  ("Sublime": another word that has lost all meaning in our time.)

Granted, "beauty" seems an ethereal, will-o'-the wisp thing in "The Song of the Secret," but that does not make it any less real.  Consider this:

"A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

Another poet who has no qualms about using the word "beauty" is de la Mare's friend Edward Thomas.

                              Beauty

What does it mean?  Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now.  And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph --
'Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.'  Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied.  But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening while it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me.  Beauty is there.

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

In "Beauty," Thomas is unsparing in disclosing the despair and misery (melancholy is not a strong enough word) that dogged him throughout his life.  But he makes clear that the despair and misery are not the whole story.  We know this from the beautiful particulars of the World that appear in his poems.

Yet, although the beautiful particulars are pervasive in his poetry, there is a wraith-like figure beyond them that is ever out of Thomas's reach.  It is, for instance, the song of "The Unknown Bird":  "Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,/Nor could I ever make another hear. . . . As if the bird or I were in a dream./Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes/Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still/He sounded."  There is also the ambiguous female figure in "The Unknown":  "The simple lack/Of her is more to me/Than others' presence,/Whether life splendid be/Or utter black. . . . She is to be kissed/Only perhaps by me;/She may be seeking/Me and no other: she/May not exist."

This is the beauty "secret as dream" of which de la Mare speaks in "The Song of the Secret."  It is Jaccottet's elusive beauty:  "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."

William Ratcliffe, "Regent's Canal at Hammersmith"

It is appropriate to give the last word to Keats:

"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth -- whether it existed before or not -- for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love[:] they are all[,] in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty."

John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey (November 22, 1817), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 36-37.

William Ratcliffe, "Old Cottage at Worth, Sussex" (1920)

Saturday, June 23, 2018

News

Ah, "news"!  What place should we give it in our lives?  I concede that it has some practical benefits.  For instance, it provides us with warnings of volcanic eruptions, approaching typhoons, and imminent tornadoes.  (Yet, in our day and age, even these warnings are likely to be given a political overlay of some sort.)

All in all, it is best to dispense with news entirely.  Paying attention to it drags us into the politicization of life that has been poisoning our culture (such as it is) for years, and which proceeds apace.  The internal editing required is not worth the time and effort.  Our souls were sent here on more important business.  Time is short.

               News

The people in the park
are not news:
they only go to prove
what everyone knows --
the sufficiency
of water and a few trees.

The people in the gallery
are not news either:
they are here for more trees
and the permanence of water
of various kinds:  everything
from the seastorm to spring rain.

Walking in the street,
we are not news, you and I,
nor is the street itself
in the first morning sun
which travels to us from so far out
sharpening each corner with its recognition.

News
wilting underfoot, news
always about to lose its savour,
the trees arch over the blown sheets
rain is reducing to a transparent blur
as if water with trees were alpha and omega.

Charles Tomlinson, The Vineyard Above the Sea (Carcanet 1999).

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947)
"The Harbour Window" (1910)

Here is my news for the week.  Patches of purple-pink and pink-white sweet peas have appeared in the meadows that slope down to the bluffs above the waters of Puget Sound.  Beside the paths I walk, the blackberry bushes are blossoming:  countless five-petaled white stars. Tiny crab apples are growing on a solitary tree that stands beside a wide field.  On a windy day, the tall grass in the field tosses and sways like a sea.

                         No Newspapers

Where, to me, is the loss
     Of the scenes they saw -- of the sounds they heard;
A butterfly flits across,
     Or a bird;
The moss is growing on the wall,
     I heard the leaf of the poppy fall.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).  The poem was written in 1900.

Thomas Creswick (1811-1869) and Alfred Elmore (1815-1881)
"Dorothy Vernon's Doorway, Haddon Hall" (1865)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Voices

Yesterday evening, I sat listening to the birds chattering and singing outside the window, in the back garden.  There are so many worlds within the World!  Abiding before we arrive, abiding after we depart. A thought that brings with it a certain reassurance, and serenity.

                      Aboard a Boat, Listening to Insects

As though delighting, as though grieving, each with its own song --
an idler, listening, finds his ears washed completely clean.
As the boat draws away from grassy banks, they grow more distant,
till the many varied voices become one single voice.

Ōkubo Shibutsu (1767-1837) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 92.

Anthony Eyton (b. 1923), "Oak Wood"

As I have noted here in the past, I am always pleased to see the ant hills appear in the seams of the sidewalks in late spring.  Mere grains of sand, yes; but, still.  I feel the same way when I hear the sound of grasshoppers off in the tall grass of a meadow on a sunny afternoon in early summer.  Eternity resides in these renewals and recurrences.

     Grasshopper!
Be the keeper of the graveyard
     When I die.

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), p. xxvi.

Michael Garton (1935-2004), "Woodland Clearing"

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Arrival

The World is reticent.  It keeps its own counsel.  And yet it is capable of communicating directly with us in an instant.  Perhaps I am being presumptuous, but I believe we have all experienced moments that have brought us, however briefly, close to the heart of the World.

                Islands

These new songs that I sing
     Were islands in the sea
That never missed a spring,
     No, nor a century.

A starry voyager,
     I to these islands come
Knowing not by what star
     I am at last come home.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (Secker & Warburg 1985).  The poem was originally published in Thirty-One Poems (John G. Wilson 1922).

These moments of communication do not involve the use of words. Words are a merely human peculiarity -- a necessary and beautiful peculiarity.  How else could we survive our short space of time here? But the feeling of arriving at the heart of the World is, alas and amen (to borrow from Walter de la Mare), beyond words.

William Bradley Lamond (1857-1924), "Forest Track"

Still, poets do their best to capture these rare moments with the tools that are available to humans.  Failure is inevitable.  But that is no reason for the poets to stop trying.  Or for us to cavil when their efforts fall short.  Words are not enough.  We can only be grateful for the approximate manifestations of Beauty and Truth that the poets bring to us.

As a context for the work of poets, and, more broadly, for how we place ourselves in the World on a daily basis, consider this:

"Proposition 6.52.  We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.  Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.

"6.521.  The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.

"(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

"6.522.  There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."

Ludwig Wittgenstein (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).  The italics appear in the original text.

Wittgenstein's term "the sense of life" (in German, "der Sinn des Lebens") is a lovely way of describing what we may experience during one of those moments when the World communicates with us.  And, although science-enamored, ironic moderns may not like it, "mystical" is an entirely appropriate word to use when contemplating the possibility of arriving at a place where "the sense of life" becomes clear to us.

In the meantime, the poets, on our behalf, do their best to articulate those "things that cannot be put into words."

                           Infinity

This lonely hill was ever dear to me,
And this green hedge, that hides so large a part
Of the remote horizon from my view.
But as I sit and gaze, my mind conceives
Unending spaces, silences unearthly,
And deepest peace, wherein the heart almost
Draws nigh to fear.  And as I hear the wind
Rustling among the branches, I compare
That everlasting silence with this sound:
Eternity is mine, and all past ages,
And this age living still, with all its noise.
So in immensity my thought is drowned,
And sweet it is to founder in this sea.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by Iris Origo), in Iris Origo, The Vagabond Path (Chatto & Windus 1972), page 182.

Leopardi's "silences unearthly" and "everlasting silence" bring to mind Wittgenstein's final proposition in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

William Bradley Lamond, "A Coastal Village"

At times, there is nothing to be said.  "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words."  As human beings who traffic in language, this is hard for us to imagine.  But I would suggest that finding our way to the heart of the World requires the abandonment of certain things upon which we habitually rely.  Words, for instance.  Perhaps even more.

"Attachment to the self renders life more opaque.  One moment of complete forgetting and all the screens, one behind the other, become transparent so that you can perceive clarity to its very depths, as far as the eye can see; and at the same time everything becomes weightless.  Thus does the soul truly become a bird."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry in May of 1954, in Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 1.

Easier said than done.  I certainly would never claim to have attained the states of which Jaccottet and Wittgenstein speak.  At the most, fleeting glimmers and glimpses.  Inklings.  But what they say rings true to me.  I still hope to stumble upon the heart of the World.  For now, the poets keep me headed in the right direction.

                 Arrival

Not conscious
       that you have been seeking
              suddenly
       you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
              dust free
       with no road out
but the one you came in by.

              A bird chimes
       from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
       you know.  The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
       as you are, a traveller
              with the moon's halo
       above him, who has arrived
       after long journeying where he
              began, catching this
       one truth by surprise
that there is everything to look forward to.

R. S. Thomas, Later Poems (Macmillan 1983).

William Bradley Lamond, "Farm Scene"

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Life

On my walk yesterday afternoon (a clear, warm day, with a brisk wind), I came across a dead mole lying on its back at the side of the path.  He or she was a small, dark-brown thing, about eight inches long, its pinkish-white, fleshy front paws open to the sky.  It was those tiny, outspread paws that particularly touched me.

We were in the shade beneath the rustling leaves and swaying boughs of an avenue of trees, a bright canopy of blue and yellow and green flickering overhead, a patchwork of light and shadow moving on the ground.  Birdsong surrounded us, near and far.

That's all.

                  A Dead Mole

Strong-shouldered mole,
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

Andrew Young, Speak to the Earth (Jonathan Cape 1939).

William Birch (1895-1968)
"Morning in June, the Vale of Dedham, Essex"

Monday, May 14, 2018

Time

Please accept my apologies for the silence, dear readers:  I have been on a two-week road trip, from which I have now returned.  I can report that all is well in this beautiful country:  spacious skies, purple mountain majesties, fruited plains, an ocean white with foam.  And, on top of all that, how can one not love a country that has seen fit to establish a James Dean Memorial Junction?  (Where California 46, curving away toward the live oak-dotted hills, the sea, and the sunset, meets California 41.)

Purely by happenstance, my trip included a visit to the university from which I graduated 40 years ago this year:  a campus located on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, in Santa Barbara.  I had no madeleine moment.  However, I did idly muse:  Which is better (or worse):  to say that 40 years have passed or to say that four decades have passed?  

                    Arriving in Lo-yang Again

Those years, I was a green-youthed wanderer;
today I come again, a white-haired old man.
From those years to today makes one whole lifetime,
and in between, how many things have had their day and gone!

Shao Yung (1011-1077) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 335.

Robert Fowler (1853-1926), "Knaresborough"

Four decades, forty years:  six of one, half a dozen of the other.  Time is what it is.  But the mere fact of that much distance is enough to give one pause.  Yet there are no grounds for regret or lamentation. After all, I am here to see that distance:  something that ought not to be taken for granted.  Gratitude is the appropriate response.

Still, passing through that changed yet unchanged place, I did wonder about a now-vanished young wight, all melancholy and expectation.  What has become of him?

Parthenophil is lost, and I would see him;
For he is like to something I remember
A great while since, a long, long time ago.

John Ford, The Lover's Melancholy, Act IV, Scene 3 (1628), in Iris Origo, The Vagabond Path (Chatto & Windus 1972), page 239.

William MacGeorge (1861-1931), "A Summer Day on the Solway"

When I arrived home yesterday, I could smell the lilacs (white and pale purple) in the garden as I got out of the car.  On my walk this afternoon, I discovered that, while I was away, spring arrived here in earnest.  "Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May./Last year is dead, they seem to say,/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."  Forty years, four decades.  Gone.  Ever-present.

             Ah! Sun-flower

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789), in David Erdman (editor), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (University of California Press 1982).

Fred Stead (1863-1940), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"

Monday, April 23, 2018

Passing. Past. Perennial.

The time has come, dear readers, to return to my "April poem."  It is part of a group which includes my May poem ("The Trees" by Philip Larkin), my August poem ("A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" by Wallace Stevens), and my November poem ("The Region November" by Stevens), each of which reappears here annually at its appointed time.  I beg your indulgence for asking you to accompany me on these pilgrimages.  Think of them as stepping stones across the year.

                    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 first published in Kavanagh's Weekly on April 19, 1952.

A small and beautiful thing.  The less said, the better.

John Mitchell (1862-1922), "The Waterfoot, Carradale" (1921)

As I noted here a few years ago, I feel a sense of serenity when I contemplate the fact that the seasons will continue to come and go long after I have turned to dust.

Since late March I have been spending time with the poems in The Greek Anthology.  Recently, I came across this:

The world is fleeting; all things pass away;
Or is it we that pass and they that stay?

Lucian (120-200 A. D.) (translated by Walter Leaf), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938).

In one of his notebooks, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes:

"The quiet circle in which Change and Permanence co-exist, not by combination or juxtaposition, but by an absolute annihilation of difference/column of smoke, the fountains before St Peter's, waterfalls/God! -- Change without loss -- change by a perpetual growth, that [at] once constitutes & annihilates change.  [T]he past, & the future included in the Present//oh! it is aweful."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (April or May, 1806) in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 2: 1804-1808 (Pantheon Books 1961), Entry 2832.

The italics and the slashes appear in the original text.  Given that Coleridge was in Italy at the time the entry was made, "the fountains before St Peter's" likely refers to the fountains in St Peter's Square in Rome.  Coleridge's use of the spelling "aweful" was not uncommon in his time.  The spelling provides a reminder that "awful" means "awe-inspiring," with one sense being "solemnly impressive; sublimely majestic."  Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition 1989).  Of course, in our age the word usually means "causing dread; terrible, dreadful, appalling."  Ibid.  I am inclined to think that Coleridge was using "aweful" in the former sense.  But this is only a guess.

For me, "Wet Evening in April" embodies a feeling of permanence in the midst of unceasing change.  I know the melancholy of which Kavanagh speaks.  We all do.  As have all those who have come before us.  As will all those who will come after as.  The birds singing in the wet trees on an April evening accompany us all.

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

But melancholy is not the whole of it.  For instance, when it comes to the birds of April, and of spring, we should remember Ben Jonson's translation of a fragment of Sappho:  "The dear good angel of the spring,/The nightingale."  (Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, Act II, Scene VI, in H. T. Wharton, Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation (John Lane 1907), page 96.)

Kavanagh knows this as well.  Thus, he brings us from April into May:

       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.  The poem was first published in The Irish Press on May 21, 1943.

"Consider the grass growing/As it grew last year and the year before."  Never-ending, with us or without us.

Mary Jane Girardot (1863-1933), "Evening Glow" (1900) 

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Spring. And All Else.

The poems that move us the most have an inexpressible mystery at their heart.  This is a dogmatic proposition that I cannot hope to defend on a rational basis.  It is a corollary to one of my two laws of poetry (which long-time -- and much-appreciated! -- readers of this blog may recall):  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  (For those who may be interested, my second law is this:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.)

With those platitudinous truisms out of the way, let us consider, for instance, this:

            A Song for a Parting

                            I.
Flora will pass from firth to firth;
Duty must draw, and vows must bind.
Flora will sail half round the earth,
Yet will she leave some grace behind.

                            II.
Waft her, on Faith, from friend to friend,
Make her a saint in some far isle;
Yet will we keep, till memories end,
Something that once was Flora's smile.

William Cory (1823-1892), Ionica (Third Edition; edited by A. C. Benson) (George Allen 1905).  The poem originally appeared in the 1891 edition of Ionica.

William Cory is best known for his translation of a poem by Callimachus (c. 310 - c. 240 BC).  Callimachus's poem is found in The Greek Anthology.  Cory's translation, which has appeared here in the past, begins:  "They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,/They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed." It concludes:  "Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;/For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take." "Thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales" refers to Heraclitus's poems.

Who, or what, is "Flora"?  The Roman goddess of flowers and of spring?  Or is she a real person whose identity is cloaked in an evocative alias?  Or neither?  I have no idea.  Yet the poem still beguiles me, for it is a beautiful thing.  Flora is Flora.  Nothing more need be said.

James Torrington Bell (1898-1970), "Landscape"

As lovely and welcome as the arrival of spring is, I have lately found myself regretting the coming disappearance of the bare branches of the trees as the leaves emerge.  As one ages, it seems that life and the World take on a more elegiac cast.  I say this without a trace of melancholy, complaint, or foreboding.  The beautiful particulars of the World seem more beautiful to me with each passing year, with a beauty that continually unfolds, without end.  This no doubt has something to do with a quickening awareness of the evanescence of all things.  There is no getting around it:  time is short.  Yet an elegy need not be a lament.

And so I never tire of looking up at the breathtaking intricacy of interlacing empty branches against the sky, in any weather.  But particularly when, beyond the branches, white castles of cloud travel across the blue.  Nor will the shadows of those same branches spread out at my feet on a sunny day ever cease to be a source of wonder.

"A Song for a Parting."  Exactly.

     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.

James Torrington Bell, "Braes of Downie" (1938)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Beginning

When I looked out the front window on Saturday morning, I saw a few dozen sailboats out on Puget Sound.  The spring racing season has begun.  The sails, spread across the water from north to south, were a lovely, spirit-lifting sight.  Another version of Wordsworth's daffodils:  "a crowd, a host . . . fluttering and dancing in the breeze."

An annual confirmation of renewal, of beginning anew.  One feels that a page has been turned.

                                Kinsale

The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past --
deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,
browsing on spire and bogland; but today
our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,
our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay
like racehorses.  We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no one.

Derek Mahon, Antarctica (The Gallery Press 1985).

Henry Moore (1831-1895), "Catspaws Off the Land" (1885)

To the west, beyond the water and the sails, the peaks of the Olympic Mountains towered and gleamed, covered with a winter's worth of snow, their slopes mottled with shifting cloud shadows.  Everything was in its place.  A spring day can give one the feeling of having arrived safely home.  To begin again.

     The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first seasonal 'invasion.'
Today the place is as it might have been,
Gentle and almost hospitable.  A girl
Strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
Light-footed, swinging a book-bag,
And the doors that were shut all winter
Against the north wind and the sea-mist
Lie open to the street, where one
By one the gulls go window-shopping
And an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.

While I sit with my paper and prawn chow-mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
-- An ideogram on sea-cloud -- and the light
Of heaven upon the hills of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

John Anthony Park (1880-1962), "The Harbour, Polperro, Cornwall"