Friday, November 30, 2012

"The Onset"

One of my favorite poems about the onset of winter is, well, "The Onset" by Robert Frost.  The poem begins as a sort of echo of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (which appears a few poems prior to it in Frost's 1923 collection New Hampshire):  the speaker is alone "in dark woods" as the snow commences "on a fated night."  But Frost soon heads off in a different direction, as is his wont.

                Douglas Percy Bliss, "Urban Garden under Snow" (c. 1946)

                       The Onset

Always the same, when on a fated night
At last the gathered snow lets down as white
As may be in dark woods, and with a song
It shall not make again all winter long
Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground,
I almost stumble looking up and round,
As one who overtaken by the end
Gives up his errand, and lets death descend
Upon him where he is, with nothing done
To evil, no important triumph won,
More than if life had never been begun.

Yet all the precedent is on my side:
I know that winter death has never tried
The earth but it has failed:  the snow may heap
In long storms an undrifted four feet deep
As measured against maple, birch, and oak,
It cannot check the peeper's silver croak;
And I shall see the snow all go down hill
In water of a slender April rill
That flashes tail through last year's withered brake
And dead weeds, like a disappearing snake.
Nothing will be left white but here a birch,
And there a clump of houses with a church.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

Frost is always nothing if not exact, and I am certain that many of us can testify from experience that Frost's description of the sound of the falling snow "hissing on the yet uncovered ground" is precise and perfect.  The same goes for "I almost stumble looking up and round."  I imagine that a number of us have done exactly that, whether as a child or as an adult. This is why we have poets and artists, isn't it?  To express that which we all "know," but have not yet been able to articulate.

A side-note:  a "peeper" (line 17) is, according to the OED, "a small tree frog of the genus Hyla; esp. (more fully "spring peeper") a very small, brownish-grey tree frog with a dark cross on the back, Hyla crucifer, of eastern North America, the male of which sings in early spring."  Frost's poem "Hyla Brook" (which may be found in Mountain Interval) contains a further consideration of the peeper.

              Stanislawa de Karlowska, "Snow in Russell Square" (c. 1935)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


There are snowfalls, and then there are snowfalls.  For instance, the snowfall that signals the beginning of winter is a thing unto itself.  As one might expect, it has nothing to do with the "official" date on which winter begins.  It has nothing to do with the solstice.

Rather, this particular snowfall is a sensual and emotional event.  It involves the light (be it early or late), the drift of the wind, and the way in which the snow whirls out of the sky.  A blizzard is not required.  A few flakes will do.  Something inside you says:  Ah, it is here.

                              John Nash, "The Garden in Winter" (c. 1943)


Again, great season, sing it through again
Before we fall asleep, sing the slow change
That makes October burn out red and gold
And color bleed into the world and die,
And butterflies among the fluttering leaves
Disguise themselves until the few last leaves
Spin to the ground or to the skimming streams
That carry them along until they sink,
And through the muted land, the nevergreen
Needles and mull and duff of the forest floor,
The wind go ashen, till one afternoon
The cold snow cloud comes down the intervale
Above the river on whose slow black flood
The few first flakes come hurrying in to drown.

Howard Nemerov, The Western Approaches (1975).

                          John Nash, "The Garden under Snow" (c. 1924)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Compensations, Revisited

In a recent post, I suggested that autumn's losses are accompanied by compensations.  One of those compensations is the sound of empty trees. The other day I walked down an avenue of mostly leafless trees -- only a few stragglers remained, most of them, curiously, out on the tips of branches.

The day was breezy.  The trunks creaked, as I imagine the masts of a wooden ship might creak in a wind.  Higher up, the empty branches clacked and clattered against each other.  To borrow from Wallace Stevens's "The Region November":  the trees seemed to be "saying and saying."  But not, alas, in any known language.  Which is not to say that communication is wholly impossible.

The fairy tale atmosphere of James Elroy Flecker's "November Eves" and Louis MacNeice's "The Riddle" may be apt as well.  As may be the following poem by Thomas Hardy.

                                    Emily Carr, "Inside a Forest" (c. 1935)

             Night-Time in Mid-Fall

It is a storm-strid night, winds footing swift
          Through the blind profound;
     I know the happenings from their sound;
Leaves totter down still green, and spin and drift;
The tree-trunks rock to their roots, which wrench and lift
The loam where they run onward underground.

The streams are muddy and swollen; eels migrate
          To a new abode;
     Even cross, 'tis said, the turnpike-road;
(Men's feet have felt their crawl, home-coming late):
The westward fronts of towers are saturate,
Church-timbers crack, and witches ride abroad.

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925).

                                          Emily Carr, "Clearing" (1942)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"November Eves"

I am writing this in the cold clime in which I was born, visiting relatives for Thanksgiving.  Yesterday, the temperature dropped about 25 degrees in the space of 12 hours or so.  Borne on an icy wind, snow arrived in the evening.

This morning, a childhood of winters came rushing back.  "The snows of yesteryear" and all that.  Not in minute detail, but in the form of emotion. The sort of emotion that sank down into your bones decades ago, without your knowing it.  Now, here it is again, all of it.

                      John Piper, "The Tithe Barn, Great Coxwell" (c. 1940)

                November Eves

November Evenings!  Damp and still
They used to cloak Leckhampton hill,
And lie down close on the grey plain,
And dim the dripping window-pane,
And send queer winds like Harlequins
That seized our elms for violins
And struck a note so sharp and low
Even a child could feel the woe.

Now fire chased shadow round the room;
Tables and chairs grew vast in gloom:
We crept about like mice, while Nurse
Sat mending, solemn as a hearse,
And even our unlearned eyes
Half closed with choking memories.

Is it the mist or the dead leaves,
Or the dead men -- November eves?

James Elroy Flecker, The Old Ships (1917).

                    John Piper, "The River Approach, Fawley Court" (1940)

The fairy tale feeling of Flecker's poem is reminiscent of a poem by Louis MacNeice.

                             The Riddle

'What is it that goes round and round the house'
The riddle began.  A wolf, we thought, or a ghost?
Our cold backs turned to the chink in the kitchen shutter,
The range made our small scared faces warm as toast.

But now the cook is dead and the cooking, no doubt, electric,
No room for draught or dream, for child or mouse,
Though we, in another place, still put ourselves the question:
What is it that goes round and round the house?

Louis MacNeice, Solstices (1961).

                                                      John Piper
      "Tombstones, Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hinton-in-the-Hedges (1940)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"A Leaf Treader"

As I have noted before, "wistful" and "bittersweet" are the feelings that I associate with autumn.  But autumn never makes me feel down in the dumps.  Yes, there is that ever-present background whisper that sounds something like "mortality."  But, with beauty predominating, why pay it any mind?

In the following poem by Robert Frost, autumn's leaves take on a more threatening aspect.  The whisper is more insistent:  "an invitation to grief." But, as is so often the case with Frost, a suspicion arises that he is pulling our leg.  Or is he?

                            James McIntosh Patrick, "City Garden" (1979)

                              A Leaf Treader

I have been treading on leaves all day until I am autumn-tired.
God knows all the color and form of leaves I have trodden on and mired.
Perhaps I have put forth too much strength and been too fierce from fear.
I have safely trodden underfoot the leaves of another year.

All summer long they were overhead, more lifted up than I.
To come to their final place in earth they had to pass me by.
All summer long I thought I heard them threatening under their breath.
And when they came it seemed with a will to carry me with them to death.

They spoke to the fugitive in my heart as if it were leaf to leaf.
They tapped at my eyelids and touched my lips with an invitation to grief.
But it was no reason I had to go because they had to go.
Now up my knee to keep on top of another year of snow.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (1936).

A nice companion piece to "A Leaf Treader" is Frost's "In Hardwood Groves," which I have posted previously.  The poem regards autumn with more equanimity.  Here is its second stanza:

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

Robert Frost, Collected Poems (1930).

                          James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Nearly a year ago, I posted Robert Frost's "Reluctance," which appeared in A Boy's Will in 1913.  The following poem was published ten years later in Frost's New Hampshire.  I think of the two poems as variations on a theme that surfaces in the final stanza of "Reluctance":

Ah, when to the heart of man
     Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
     To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
     Of a love or a season?

Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).

                  James McIntosh Patrick, "White Poplar, Carse of Gowrie"


All crying, 'We will go with you, O Wind!'
The foliage follow him, leaf and stem;
But a sleep oppresses them as they go,
And they end by bidding him stay with them.

Since ever they flung abroad in spring
The leaves had promised themselves this flight,
Who now would fain seek sheltering wall,
Or thicket, or hollow place for the night.

And now they answer his summoning blast
With an ever vaguer and vaguer stir,
Or at utmost a little reluctant whirl
That drops them no further than where they were.

I only hope that when I am free
As they are free to go in quest
Of the knowledge beyond the bounds of life
It may not seem better to me to rest.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

The territory of autumn is covered quite well by the words "misgiving" and "reluctance."  But I lean towards the sort of embrace (or is it resignation?) suggested by Wallace Stevens's "The Region November."  However, it takes a simple, direct statement to get to the real heart of the matter.

     The grasses of the garden,
They fall,
     And lie as they fall.

Ryokan (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 366.

                  James McIntosh Patrick, "Byroad near Kingoodie" (1962)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"The Consent"

During my afternoon walk, I pass beside a large field of wild grasses.  At this time of year, the field is a mixture of grey and tan and brown.  The field has no trees, save for a single crab-apple that stands at one edge of the field.  Its leaves have now all fallen.  A nearly perfect circle of gold, orange, and red lies on the ground beneath the tree's empty branches.

                               John Nash, "The Barn, Wormingford" (1954)

                      The Consent

Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone:  the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

What signal from the stars?  What senses took it in?
What in those wooden motives so decided
To strike their leaves, to down their leaves,
Rebellion or surrender?  and if this
Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?
What use to learn the lessons taught by time,
If a star at any time may tell us:  Now.

Howard Nemerov, The Western Approaches (1975).

Watching the crab-apple gradually lose its leaves each year is always a sad experience.  And seeing the circle that surrounds the empty tree in November comes as a sort of annual soft exclamation of finality, something like the "now" that closes Nemerov's poem.

Ah, but in Spring the crab-apple blossoms will be lovely.

                   John Nash, "The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall" (c. 1958)

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Continual Conversation With A Silent Man"

In my previous post I made an inadequate and ill-advised attempt to explain what Wallace Stevens's "The Region November" might "mean." Paraphrase and explication are the death of poetry.

Perhaps a better way to approach the poem is through another poem by Stevens.  Once again, we find ourselves bumping up against obdurate, wordless, and emotionless Reality, exemplified this time not by the north wind and the swaying trees, but by "the old brown hen" and "the old blue sky."

                                William Baziotes, "Primeval Wall" (1959)

   Continual Conversation with a Silent Man

The old brown hen and the old blue sky,
Between the two we live and die --
The broken cartwheel on the hill.

As if, in the presence of the sea,
We dried our nets and mended sail
And talked of never-ending things,

Of the never-ending storm of will,
One will and many wills, and the wind,
Of many meanings in the leaves,

Brought down to one below the eaves,
Link, of that tempest, to the farm,
The chain of the turquoise hen and sky

And the wheel that broke as the cart went by.
It is not a voice that is under the eaves.
It is not speech, the sound we hear

In this conversation, but the sound
Of things and their motion:  the other man,
A turquoise monster moving round.

Wallace Stevens, Transport to Summer (1947).

                                 William Baziotes, "Water Forms" (1961)

You will not get me to opine on what that means.  I will say that a possible conjunction between this poem and "The Region November" may become apparent in the fifth stanza, when Stevens begins to talk about "voice," "speech," and "sound."  Again, as in "The Region November" (in which the wind and the trees are capable of "saying and saying"), Reality (the World, Nature, whatever you wish to call it) is capable of "conversation."  But this "conversation" is sound without "voice" or "speech."

Yes, I know:  curious, this Stevens fellow, this lawyer and insurance company executive walking around a park in Hartford (Connecticut) during his lunch breaks, looking around, composing odd poems.

A side-note:  Stevens's use of color is often entertaining and light-hearted. Here we have the "brown hen," the "blue sky," the "turquoise hen and sky," and, most mysteriously, "the other man,/A turquoise monster moving round."  I am reminded of the wonderful colors in "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts":

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

. . . . .

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 (1942).

                                      William Baziotes, "Pinwheel" (1958)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"The Trees Are Swaying, Swaying, Swaying"

As long-time (and much-appreciated) readers of this blog know, there are certain poems that I return to at the same time each year.  Thus, each November I visit -- no big surprise here -- "The Region November" by Wallace Stevens.

I return to it because of the pleasure to be found in its sounds:  the "sway" and the "swaying," the "deeplier, deeplier," the "loudlier, loudlier."  I return to it for the way in which the sounds turn into motion.  I return to it simply because the title is wonderful:  I love the thought of "the region November."
                                                William Samuel Jay
                       "At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

            The Region November

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.
It is like a critic of God, the world

And human nature, pensively seated
On the waste throne of his own wilderness.

Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.

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

Alas, the question may arise:  what does it mean?  I'd say that the north wind and the trees are inscrutable, reticent, and devoid of emotion.  I'd say that imputing anything to them other than what they are is folly, and that we best take them just as they are.  However, I'd also say that we have it in our power to make of them what we will -- in an imaginative sense.  But this in no way gives us power over them.

For example:  someone may decide to write a poem titled "The Region November."

                                John Samuel Raven, "A Sussex Mill" (1858)

     To wake, alive, in this world,
What happiness!
     Winter rain.

Shoha (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 217.

            John Haswell (1855-1925), "Whitnash Church, Warwickshire"

Monday, November 12, 2012


I shall go ahead and state the obvious:  we are all mysteries to one another. And we shall remain so until each of us goes to the grave.  How could it be otherwise?

Think of the labyrinthine corridors of your own heart and mind.  Think of the tricks, evasions, and rationalizations that you sell to yourself.  And then try to imagine that you could begin to know the heart or mind of someone else.


It's midnight
And our silent house is listening
To the last sounds of people going home.
We lie beside our curtained window
What makes them do it.

Ian Hamilton, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 2009).

                  Dane Maw (1908-1989), "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"


From the bay windows
Of the mouldering hotel across the road from us
Mysterious, one-night itinerants emerge
On to their balconies
To breathe the cool night air.

We let them stare
In at our quiet lives.
They let us wonder what's become of them.

Ian Hamilton, Ibid.

                                Bernard Ninnes (1899-1971), "Nancledra"


In the dark, from afar, two strangers talk.
We cannot understand a word they say.
Yet there is meaning in the rise and the fall.

At length, a bitter dispute is settled.
We can at last sleep a peaceful sleep.

But don't be surprised at a plaint in the night --
In another language, or in no language at all --
From afar, and out of the dark, out of the dark.

sip (2010).

                          Myrtle Broome (1888-1978), "A Cornish Village"

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"November Dream"

At times, autumn has a dream-like feel to it.  This may have something to do with its mix of changefulness and stillness, a quality that I mentioned in a recent post.  Moreover, as is the case with any good dream (as opposed to a nightmare), we are reluctant to leave it behind.

How lovely it would be to be forever fixed in a grove of yellows and oranges and reds, the leaves trickling down as squirrels gambol overhead.  On the other hand, the essence of autumn's beauty is its disappearance, isn't it?

         John Piper, "The Bridge at Tyringham, Buckinghamshire" (1940)

                   November Dream

I wake to sycamore's yellowing leaves against the grey
Of cloud and London brick,
Day's solid walls and faintly luminous sky;
And still I almost see, in mind's eye,
Last night's woodland way
I followed under boughs of gold
Bathed in another light than these
That stand outside my window's narrow space.
No separation set me there, as here, apart
From dream's afresh-created sky and trees.
In that remembered country I was there indeed
While here, in body locked away,
Touch solid wood, wet leaves, earth-coloured flowers
And all is other that I feel and see;
Yet this world we call real, that has no place.

Kathleen Raine, The Oval Portrait (1977).

          John Piper, "Exterior of the Church of St Denis, Faxton" (1940)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

"At Day-Close In November"

The passage of time is an ever-present theme in the poetry of Thomas Hardy.  Thus, for instance, Hardy often ponders the way in which natural and man-made objects stand as mute witnesses to the comings and goings of human beings.  Old furniture, wood floors, cathedral facades, rain-worn (of course!) tombstones, sun-dials, waterfalls, trees . . .

       At Day-Close in November

The ten hours' light is abating,
     And a late bird wings across,
Where the pines, like waltzers waiting,
     Give their black heads a toss.

Beech leaves, that yellow the noon-time,
     Float past like specks in the eye;
I set every tree in my June time,
     And now they obscure the sky.

And the children who ramble through here
     Conceive that there never has been
A time when no tall trees grew here,
     That none will in time be seen.

Thomas Hardy, Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries, with Miscellaneous Pieces (1914).

                                  David Chatterton, "Devon Scene" (1942)

It has been suggested that the trees referred to in the poem are the trees that Hardy planted around Max Gate, the house that he built at Dorchester in Dorset.  When Hardy and his first wife Emma moved into the house, the land surrounding it was mostly bare of trees.  J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (University of North Carolina Press 1970), page 291.

According to The Early Life of Thomas Hardy (the authorship of which was credited to Hardy's second wife Florence, but which was in fact mostly written by Hardy):  "Some two or three thousand small trees, mostly Austrian pines, were planted around the house by Hardy himself, and in later years these grew so thickly that the house was almost entirely screened from the road, and finally appeared, in summer, as if at the bottom of a dark green well of trees."

The following poem is about Hardy's planting of the trees for Emma.

       Everything Comes

'The house is bleak and cold
     Built so new for me!
All the winds upon the wold
     Search it through for me;
No screening trees abound,
And the curious eyes around,
     Keep on view for me.'

'My Love, I am planting trees
     As a screen for you
Both from winds, and eyes that tease
     And peer in for you.
Only wait till they have grown,
No such bower will be known
     As I mean for you.'

'Then I will bear it, Love,
     And will wait,' she said.
-- So, with years, there grew a grove.
     'Skill how great!' she said.
'As you wished, Dear?' -- 'Yes, I see!
But -- I'm dying; and for me
     'Tis too late,' she said.

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).

                                               Delmar Harmood Banner
               "Yews In Mardale Church Yard Before Destruction" (c. 1945)

In a note to the poem, J. O. Bailey suggests that the source of the poem's title may be the proverb "Everything comes to he who waits," and that the applicability of the proverb in this instance is sadly ironic since Emma died before the trees grew to their fullest.  (J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary, page 401.)  This is the sort of irony that would never be lost on Hardy.

An aside:  the image of a "bleak and cold" new house in which "All the winds upon the wold/Search it through for me" brings to mind Edward Thomas's "The New House," which I have posted here previously.  It begins:

Now first, as I shut the door,
I was alone
In the new house; and the wind
Began to moan.

                       William Rothenstein, "Wych Elm in Winter" (1919)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The First Tuesday After The First Monday In November

Today is Election Day in the country in which I was born.  Here is my prediction:  whatever the outcome, on Wednesday morning the United States of America will go on being the United States of America.  Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the rest of that brilliant, star-crossed group knew a thing or two.  Here, in the words of Clint Eastwood, is one of the things they knew:

"I would just like to say something, ladies and gentlemen.  Something that I think is very important.  It is that you, we -- we own this country.  We own it. . . . It is not politicians owning it.  Politicians are employees of ours."

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


You say a thousand things,
And with strange passion hotly I agree,
And praise your zest,
And then
A blackbird sings
On April lilac, or fieldfaring men,
Ghostlike, with loaded wain,
Come down the twilit lane
To rest,
And what is all your argument to me?

Oh yes -- I know, I know,
It must be so --
You must devise
Your myriad policies,
For we are little wise,
And must be led and marshalled, lest we keep
Too fast a sleep
Far from the central world's realities.
Yes, we must heed --
For surely you reveal
Life's very heart; surely with flaming zeal
You search our folly and our secret need;
And surely it is wrong
To count my blackbird's song,
My cones of lilac, and my wagon team,
More than a world of dream.

But still
A voice calls from the hill --
I must away --
I cannot hear your argument to-day.

John Drinkwater, Tides (1917).

                               Stanley Spencer, "The Roundabout" (1923)

Sunday, November 4, 2012


A year or so ago, I posted Seamus Heaney's "Postscript," which is about an autumn drive "out west/Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore."  The poem concludes as follows:

                      . . . You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber 1996).

The following poem by Charles Tomlinson is also about a drive in autumn, a drive in which the wind again plays a part.

                            Charles Ginner, "Spaniard's Corner" (c. 1920)

          Autumn Piece

by the choreography of the season
the eye could not
with certainty see
whether it was wind
stripping the leaves or
the leaves were struggling to be free:

They came at you
in decaying spirals
plucked flung and regathered by the same
force that was twisting
the scarves of the vapour trails
dragging all certainties out of course:

As the car resisted it
you felt it in either hand
commanding car, tree, sky,
master of chances,
and at a curve was a red
board said 'Danger':
I thought it said dancer.

Charles Tomlinson, Written on Water (1972).

                                               Charles Ginner, "Rooftops"

Tomlinson's conflation of "danger" and "dance" puts me in mind of Dorothy Wordsworth's description of a last leaf dancing upon a tree, which I have previously posted here:

"William and I drank tea at Coleridge's. . . . Observed nothing particularly interesting. . . . One only leaf upon the top of a tree -- the sole remaining leaf -- danced round and round like a rag blown by the wind."

Both William Wordsworth and Coleridge were wont to appropriate observations made by Dorothy Wordsworth into their own poetry.  Thus, Coleridge later wrote in "Christabel":

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Christabel."

                                       Charles Ginner, "Red Brick House"

Friday, November 2, 2012


In my previous post, I made an amateur attempt to gloss a poem by Basho. In addition, I posted three different versions of the haiku, hoping to show that translating a mere seventeen syllables is a very tricky thing.  This is especially true when the seventeen syllables are capable of containing Life, the World, and the Universe.   The following poem by John Hewitt sheds some light on the process of translation.

                                                         Gilbert Spencer
                                              "Air Raid Warning" (1940)

     Gloss, on the Difficulties of Translation

Across Loch Laig
the yellow-billed blackbird
whistles from the blossomed whin.

Not, as you might expect,
a Japanese poem, although
it has the seventeen
syllables of the haiku.
Ninth-century Irish, in fact,
from a handbook on metrics,
the first written reference
to my native place.

In forty years of verse
I have not inched much further.
I may have matched the images;
but the intricate wordplay
of the original -- assonance,
rime, alliteration --
is beyond my grasp.

To begin with, I should
have to substitute
golden for yellow
and gorse for whin,
this last is the word we use
on both sides of Belfast Lough.

John Hewitt, Collected Poems (Blackstaff Press 1991).

I think that it is best to concede that no translation can ever capture the original.  We delude ourselves if we think otherwise.  But does that mean that reading translations is not worth our while?  Speaking for myself, I am not willing to give up the poetry of, for example, Basho, Po Chu-i, Wang Wei, or C. P. Cavafy because I do not know Japanese, Chinese, or Greek.  I realize that I will inevitably be missing something in the absence of the original, but I can only hope that something of the heart of the original is conveyed in a good translation.

                                                        Gilbert Spencer
                           "The School on Peggy Hill, Ambleside" (c. 1952)