Sunday, February 27, 2011

"From Fifty To Sixty, One Is Free From All Ills": Po Chu-i

As one tops a hill and contemplates the path ahead, the words of the T'ang Dynasty poets come in handy -- their poems are filled with journeys and leave-takings, each unfolding in a particular place and in a particular season.  But Romantic effusions are generally kept in check:  what they offer is straightforward talk in a minutely beautiful world.

Lately I have been considering "On Being Sixty" by Po Chu-i (772-846).  Selfishly, I have taken an interest in what he has to say about the years between 50 and 60, whose hill I am ascending, and soon will top.

                                      On Being Sixty

Between thirty and forty one is distracted by the Five Lusts;
Between seventy and eighty one is prey to a hundred diseases.
But from fifty to sixty one is free from all ills;
Calm and still -- the heart enjoys rest.
I have put behind me Love and Greed, I have done with Profit
     and Fame;
I am still short of illness and decay, and far from decrepit age.
Strength of limb I still possess to seek the rivers and hills;
Still my heart has spirit enough to listen to flutes and strings.
At leisure I open new wine and taste several cups;
Drunken I recall old poems and chant a stray verse.
To Tun-shih and Meng-te I offer this advice:
Do not complain of three-score, "the time of obedient ears."

The translation is by Arthur Waley.  In a footnote to the final line, Waley writes:  "Confucius said that not till sixty did 'his ears obey him'."  Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (1946).

"Free from all ills?"  "Calm and still -- the heart enjoys rest?"  Love, Greed, Profit, and Fame "put behind me" or "done with?"  It sounds as though I am living in paradise.

                    Stanley Spencer, "Mending Cowls, Cookham" (1915)

Friday, February 25, 2011

How To Live, Part Five: "Better A Wrecked Life Than A Life So Aimless"

Today, Christina Rossetti offers a word of advice on How to Live.  To wit:  darkness lies before us; thus, we had best not live our life as a "pastime."  (Easier said than done, I know.)  The Oxford English Dictionary defines "pastime" as  "a diversion or recreation which serves to pass the time agreeably. . . . Also: a practice commonly indulged in." 


A boat amid the ripples, drifting, rocking;
Two idle people, without pause or aim;
While in the ominous West there gathers darkness
            Flushed with flame.

A hay-cock in a hay-field backing, lapping,
Two drowsy people pillowed round about;
While in the ominous West across the darkness
            Flame leaps out.

Better a wrecked life than a life so aimless,
Better a wrecked life than a life so soft:
The ominous West glooms thundering, with its fire
            Lit aloft.

The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (edited by William Michael Rossetti) (1904).  "Better a wrecked life" took me aback when I first read it:  it did not seem "Victorian."  But that only shows that I underestimated Victorian poetry at the time.

                                 John Constable, "Old Sarum" (1834)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Sleeping At Last"

The funereal theme of Laurence Whistler's "A Form of Epitaph" put me in mind of a poem by Christina Rossetti.  As I have suggested previously, there is a melancholy cast to Rossetti's poetry.  She is ever aware of mortality (which is not a bad thing in my book).  The following poem is a marvel of  music, with its repetitions (it is a roundel) and its internal rhymes.

                         Sleeping at Last

Sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over,
   Sleeping at last, the struggle and horror past,
Cold and white, out of sight of friend and of lover,
         Sleeping at last.

   No more a tired heart downcast or overcast,
No more pangs that wring or shifting fears that hover,
   Sleeping at last in a dreamless sleep locked fast.

Fast asleep.  Singing birds in their leafy cover
   Cannot wake her, nor shake her the gusty blast.
Under the purple thyme and the purple clover
         Sleeping at last.

Christina Rossetti, New Poems, Hitherto Unpublished or Uncollected (edited by William Michael Rossetti) (1896).  "Sleeping at Last" was published after Rossetti's death.  There are contending views as to whether it was the final poem written by her.  The other candidate is "Heaven Overarches." 

                     Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Christina Rossetti" (1866)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Life Explained, Part Fourteen: "A Form Of Epitaph"

The following poem is by Laurence Whistler (1912-2000), who started out as a poet and later became a glass engraver (although he did not give up poetry).  His brother was the artist Rex Whistler (1905-1944), who is perhaps best known for his book illustrations.  The poem is wonderfully humorous, but -- like the best humorous poems -- goes beyond laughs.

                    A Form of Epitaph

Name in block letters   None that signified
Purpose of visit   Barely ascertained
Reasons for persevering   Hope -- or pride
Status before admission here   Regained
Previous experience   Nil, or records lost
Requirements   Few in fact, not all unmet
Knowledge accumulated   At a cost
Plans   Vague    Sworn declaration   Not in debt

Evidence of departure   Orthodox
Country of origin   Stateless then, as now
Securities where held   In one wood box
Address for future reference   Below

Is further time desired?   Not the clock's
Was permit of return petitioned?   No

Laurence Whistler, Audible Silence (1961).  The poem is -- lovely touch! -- a sonnet.

                                                  Laurence Whistler
                                       Window in St. Nicholas Church
                                                  Moreton, Dorset      

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"First Warmth"

On my walks this past week, I have noticed crocuses surfacing.  And deep-red leaf-buds have begun to appear on the lilac bushes in the yard.  Or is it a false spring?

                       First Warmth

I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,
As a questioner about reality,

A countryman of all the bones in the world?
Now, here, the warmth I had forgotten becomes

Part of the major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality;

And thus an elevation, as if I lived
With something I could touch, touch every way.

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997).

Stevens wrote "First Warmth" in 1947 -- his 68th year.  As I have noted previously, Stevens's late poetry (from the mid-1940s until his death in 1955) is more direct and more emotional than his earlier poetry.  (Which is not to say that he completely abandoned his often-difficult abstractions and his verbal flights -- I am not suggesting that he began to sound like Robert Frost.)

As I became acquainted with Stevens's poetry, there were times when I felt that his abstractions and his verbal "prinking" (to use a word of his) were too much for me.  But then I worked my way into his late poems.  "First Warmth" may have been a turning point for me:  the lines "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,/As a questioner about reality,/A countryman of all the bones in the world?" showed me a side of Stevens that I hadn't seen (or perhaps hadn't noticed) before.  "The warmth I had forgotten" (with its prefatory "now, here") told me that he recognized that he may have been missing something all along.  (On the other hand, notice the "as if" in line 7  --  he doesn't give in completely, does he?  What's more, he later revised the poem and retitled it "As You Leave the Room."  I will save that for another time.)

But that is enough palaver.  "First Warmth" is a poem about spring.  False or otherwise.

                             Richard Eurich, "The Frozen Tarn" (1940)               

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Life Explained, Part Thirteen: "Leaving Town"

I have previously suggested that James Reeves is a Neglected Poet who deserves to be better known.  I am fond of the following poem by him.  In it, nothing seems to happen.  On the other hand, the never-ending journey seems somehow portentous -- in a small modern way.  Like Dante in an industrial park.

                         Leaving Town

It was impossible to leave the town.
Bumping across a maze of obsolete rails
Three times we reached the gasworks and reversed.
We could not get away from the canal;
Dead cats, dead hopes, in those grey deeps immersed,
Over our efforts breathed a spectral prayer.
The cattle-market and the gospel-hall
Returned like fictions of our own despair,
And like Hesperides the suburbs seemed,
Shining far off towards the guiltless fields.
We finished in a little cul-de-sac
Where on the pavement sat a ragged girl
Mourning beside a jug-and-bottle entrance.
Once more we turned the car and started back.

James Reeves, The Password (1952).  An aside: depending upon the strictness of one's definition, the poem may qualify as a sonnet.  A second aside: for more on the Hesperides, you may wish to check here.

                       John Aldridge, "Great Barfield Village" (1951)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

No Escape, Part Eight: "No Traveller Tells Of It, However Far He Has Been"

The search for the Ideal Place is, at bottom, a search for Home (whatever that is).  Being of a melancholy turn of mind, Edward Thomas was wont to express a longing for a missing "home" or "land" that seemed always out of reach.  But, because he was a wise and a sensitive man, Thomas knew that he was kidding himself.  The Ideal Place -- the Home we long for -- is a chimera.  And the old saw (traceable to Socrates via Montaigne) beckons:  "wherever you go, there you are."


Not the end: but there's nothing more.
Sweet Summer and Winter rude
I have loved, and friendship and love,
The crowd and solitude:

But I know them: I weary not;
But all that they mean I know.
I would go back again home
Now.  Yet how should I go?

This is my grief.  That land,
My home, I have never seen;
No traveller tells of it,
However far he has been.

And could I discover it,
I fear my happiness there,
Or my pain, might be dreams of return
Here, to these things that were.

Remembering ills, though slight
Yet irremediable,
Brings a worse, an impurer pang
Than remembering what was well.

No: I cannot go back,
And would not if I could.
Until blindness come, I must wait
And blink at what is not good.

                                 Richard Eurich, "Seabound" (1984)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Trees And Vanished Love: Three Poems

I recently came across a lovely poem by Sheila Wingfield (1906-1992), whose poetry I had not encountered previously.  The poem brought to mind two other poems that go together well with it.  (I have previously posted those two poems, but I think it is worthwhile to see all of the poems together.)  The theme is Vanished Love -- although, having said that, I notice that I am violating one of my cardinal rules:  "Do not attempt to paraphrase or summarize a poem."  In any event, here are the poems.


The tree still bends over the lake,
And I try to recall our love,
Our love which had a thousand leaves.

Sheila Wingfield, Collected Poems: 1938-1983 (Enitharmon Press 1983).

                    John Brett, "February in the Isle of Wight" (1866)

                    The Wind in the Tree

She has decided that she no longer loves me.
There is nothing to be done.  I long ago
As a child thought the tree sighed 'Do I know
Whether my motion makes the wind that moves me?'

F. T. Prince, Collected Poems (1979).

                            J. M. W. Turner, "Mortlake Terrace" (1827)


Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (The Gallery Press 2001).

Friday, February 11, 2011

"An Ideogram On Sea-Cloud": Derek Mahon

The lines "Television aerials, Chinese characters/In the lower sky" from Douglas Dunn's "On Roofs of Terry Street" put me in mind of a reference to a Chinese character in one of my favorite Derek Mahon poems.  As I have mentioned before, Mahon is a wonderful poet of sea-coasts and sea-side towns, and this is one of those poems.

      The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first '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 mountains of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (The Gallery Press/Viking 1991).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Vanished America, Part Two: "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo"

The "country music" that one hears in today's world of popular entertainment is not country music.  If you wish to hear real country music you must go back to the sources.  For me (and for others of my generation, I suspect) that exploration began with a 1968 album (yes, album) by The Byrds:  Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

At that time (and to this day, come to think of it) country music was anathema to the soi-disant cognoscenti (who are always blinkered and deaf to the real thing) -- they believed that country music was the music of gun-totin', Bible-thumpin' rednecks.  Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of The Byrds knew better.  Fortunately for us, they stumbled upon Gram Parsons at a time when they needed to add some members to the group.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Gram Parsons's legacy is a story in itself.  He died in 1973 at the age of 26.  But, before he died, he passed his love of traditional country music on to a generation of  people who might not have otherwise recognized its distinctive American beauty.  The Byrds hired Parsons to play piano (at which he was marginally proficient -- he mainly played guitar), but his enthusiasm convinced McGuinn and Hillman to make a country album.  McGuinn said later that he had merely intended to hire a piano player, but Parsons "exploded out of this sheep's clothing.  God!  It's George Jones!  In a sequin suit!"

                                         Gram Parsons (1946-1973)

Sweetheart of the Rodeo is not a "cross-over" album, or a "fusion" album.  It is a traditional country album by young American musicians (The Byrds were rock stars at the time) who appreciated this unique form of American music.  I am certainly not claiming that The Byrds and Gram Parsons are the ultimate exponents of true country music -- for that, you need to go back to the Carter family, Roy Acuff, and the Louvin brothers and move forward from there.  But please listen to the album -- I recommend starting with "Hickory Wind," "You Don't Miss Your Water," and "One Hundred Years from Now" -- and you will hear American music at its best.

Monday, February 7, 2011

"Rain Drying On The Slates Shines Sometimes": Douglas Dunn

One thing leads to another.  It seems that I am on my inadvertent way to compiling an anthology of roof poems -- or, to be more specific, roofs-after-rain poems.  It started with "The sky stops crying and in a sudden smile/Of childish sunshine the rain steams on the roofs" from Stanley Cook's "Second Marriage," which was followed by "our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun" from "Kinsale" by Derek Mahon.

And now, here is a city scene from Douglas Dunn in which the rain has once again passed, leaving -- not steaming -- but shining roofs.  The Terry Street of the poem is the Terry Street of Hull -- home of Philip Larkin and Andrew Marvell, Member of Parliament from Hull.

               On Roofs of Terry Street

Television aerials, Chinese characters
In the lower sky, wave gently in the smoke.

Nest-building sparrows peck at moss,
Urban flora and fauna, soft, unscrupulous.

Rain drying on the slates shines sometimes.
A builder is repairing someone's leaking roof.

He kneels upright to rest his back.
His trowel catches the light and becomes precious.

Douglas Dunn, Terry Street (1969).

                          Edward Hopper, "Saltillo Rooftops" (1943)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Stars And Daisies: Andrew Young And Harald Sohlberg

"Flower Meadow in the North" was painted by Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) in 1905, when he was staying at Gullikstad, Norway.  It is in the collection of the Nasjonalgalleriet in Oslo.  Sohlberg is one of many fine Scandinavian landscape painters of the 19th and early-20th centuries.  As an introduction to these artists, I recommend Torsten Gunnarsson's Nordic Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century (1998) and A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting, 1840-1910 (2006), by Gunnarsson and others.   

I featured "Flower Meadow in the North" in a previous post, and I thought of it again when reading the following poem by Andrew Young (1885-1971):


The stars are everywhere to-night,
Above, beneath me and around;
They fill the sky with powdery light
And glimmer from the night-strewn ground;
For where the folded daisies are
In every one I see a star.

And so I know that when I pass
Where no sun's shadow counts the hours
And where the sky was there is grass
And where the stars were there are flowers,
Through the long night in which I lie
Stars will be shining in my sky.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (1960).  "Daisies" in turn brings to mind two lines from Young's "The Ruined Chapel":

And headstones lie so deep in grass
They follow dead men to their graves.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (1960).

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Our Sky-Blue Slates Are Steaming In The Sun": Derek Mahon

My previous post featured Stanley Cook's "Second Marriage," which contains the lines:  "The sky stops crying and in a sudden smile/Of childish sunshine the rain steams on the roofs."  The lines bring to mind a poem by Derek Mahon, who is a wonderful poet of sea-coasts and sea-side towns -- "The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush," "Day Trip to Donegal," "Beyond Howth Head," and "The Sea in Winter," to name but a few. 


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 race-horses.  We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no-one.

Derek Mahon, Antarctica (The Gallery Press 1986).

                        John Constable, "The Sea Near Brighton" (1826)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"In The Wood Of The World Where Neither Of Them Is Lost"

Louis MacNeice's "Selva Oscura" brings to mind a quiet poem about two people who are not lost in a "dark wood."  The poem is by Stanley Cook (1922-1991), who deserves to be better known. 

                      Second Marriage

The sky stops crying and in a sudden smile
Of childish sunshine the rain steams on the roofs;
Widow who has married widower
Poses outside the Registry for photographs.

Their grown up children are there
And damp confetti like a burst from a bag
Accumulated from a morning's marriages
Is second-hand for them against the door.

In the wood of the world where neither of them is lost
They take each other by the hand politely;
Borrowers going to and from the Library
Pass through the group as if it were a ghost.

Stanley Cook, Woods Beyond a Cornfield: Collected Poems (1995).

                                              Stanley Roy Badmin
                 "Wharfedale Looking Towards Grassington, Yorkshire"