Saturday, September 24, 2016

Reeds

On a recent sunny afternoon, as I walked down an avenue of trees, the thought occurred to me:  This is enough.  What, you may ask, was "enough"?  The ever-restless dappled light and shadow on the path before me.  The equally restless interwoven leaves and blue sky above me, changing kaleidoscopically in the wind.  Intermittent warbling, whistling, and clucking in the meadows and in the woods beyond the meadows.  An overall sense of things-as-they-ought-to-be.  A feeling of being in the presence of perfection.  Yes, all of this was enough.

Majestic panoramas (mountain ranges, seascapes, cloud kingdoms) can arouse similar feelings, but an avenue of trees -- and much, much less (although I am reluctant to use the word "less" when referring to the beautiful particulars of the World) -- can provide us with more than enough upon which to build a life.  Consider, for instance, reeds.

        Reeds

Sounding even
more mournful
than I'd expected,
an autumn evening wind
tossing in the reed leaves

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 70.  The poem is a waka.

Earlier this year, I noted Hilaire Belloc's suggestion in his essay "On Ely" that, in exploring the World, we have the choice of "going outwards and outwards" or of "going inwards and inwards."  We may live an "extensive" life or an "intensive" life.  As an example of the latter, Belloc opines that you could devote your life to the study of "the religious history of East Rutland" and never reach the end of your explorations.  The same can be said of a life spent in contemplation on the beauty of reeds.

Edward Waite (1854-1924)
"The Mellow Year Is Hastening to its Close" (1896)

Belloc does not argue that an "intensive" life is preferable to an "extensive" life, or vice-versa.  In fact, he points out that, whichever path we choose, we will never exhaust the possibilities of the World.  However, I'm inclined to favor the "going inwards and inwards" approach.

This may simply be a reflection of my current location on the mortality timeline:  I have not yet reached the banks of the River Styx, but Charon will be within hailing distance before too long (although I hope to make him wait for quite some time).  Hence, exploring the manifestations of Beauty and Truth in a clump of rustling reeds seems to be a reasonable way of passing the time that remains.  As opposed to, say, conquering the seven summits.

   By the Pool at the Third Rosses

I heard the sighing of the reeds
In the grey pool in the green land,
The sea-wind in the long reeds sighing
Between the green hill and the sand.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
Day after day, night after night;
I heard the whirring wild ducks flying,
I saw the sea-gull's wheeling flight.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
Night after night, day after day,
And I forgot old age, and dying,
And youth that loves, and love's decay.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
At noontide and at evening,
And some old dream I had forgotten
I seemed to be remembering.

I hear the sighing of the reeds:
Is it in vain, is it in vain
That some old peace I had forgotten
Is crying to come back again?

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (Heinemann 1899).  The poem was written on September 1, 1896, at Rosses Point, which is located in County Sligo, Ireland.  Rosses Point, Rosses Upper, and Rosses Lower are three villages (or townlands) on a peninsula in Sligo Bay.  Hence the phrase "the Third Rosses" in the title of the poem.

It is not surprising that one of my beloved wistful poets of the 1890s would be bewitched by "the sighing of the reeds":  spring, summer, autumn, or winter, the whispering of the wind in the reeds is the embodiment of wistfulness.  This wistfulness edges into melancholy and mournfulness in autumn and winter, as Saigyō's waka demonstrates.  (When it comes to these feelings, poets such as Arthur Symons and Saigyō or Ernest Dowson and Bashō have a great deal more in common than one might imagine.)

The repetition of "I heard the sighing of the reeds" at the beginning of the first four stanzas (replicating the never-ending rustling) is lovely, as is the slight variation in the fifth and final stanza:  "I hear the sighing of the reeds."  Yet I am also fond of something as seemingly simple as this:  "In the grey pool in the green land."  As I have observed here in the past, the Nineties poets are not everyone's cup of tea, but no one does this sort of thing better than they do.

Edward Waite, "Autumn (Russett Leaves)" (1899)

On the subject of the World's beautiful and wholly sufficient particulars (an avenue of trees, a clump of reeds), one of Ludwig Wittgenstein's poetic philosophical aphorisms comes to mind:  "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.44, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) (translated by C. K. Ogden).  It is important to consider this statement in conjunction with the two statements which immediately follow it:

"To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole -- a limited whole.
Feeling the world as a limited whole -- it is this that is mystical."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.45, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

The phrase "a limited whole" is not a phrase of disparagement.  Rather, it is a description that makes clear that something lies beyond the limited whole.  A clump of reeds soughing in the wind is part of the limited whole. Make no mistake:  it is sufficient in itself.  But there is something more.

           The River

Stir not, whisper not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river,

Whose whispering willows,
Whose murmuring reeds
Make silence more still
Than the thought it breeds,

Until thought drops down
From the motionless mind
Like a quiet brown leaf
Without any wind;

It falls on the river
And floats with its flowing,
Unhurrying still
Past caring, past knowing.

Ask not, answer not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

"The giver of quiet" lies beyond the "limited whole."  The same is true of Symons's "some old dream I had forgotten" and "some old peace I had forgotten."  But we mustn't forget:  in the absence of the "murmuring reeds" and "the sighing of the reeds," we would have no inkling of that something which lies beyond.

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"

Who, or what, is "the giver of quiet"?  Wittgenstein again:  "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.522, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).  These thoughts by Philippe Jaccottet, which appeared in my last post, are also apt:  "there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being.  But I am incapable of attributing to this unknown, to that, any of the names allotted to it in turn by history."  Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 157.

Which brings us back to Wittgenstein:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

But I fear that I am leading us into the brambles of abstraction.  What ultimately matters is a single clump of reeds.  Swaying and sighing in the wind.  In medieval Japan, in 19th century Ireland, or anywhere else at any time.

When all the reeds are swaying in the wind
How can you tell which reeds the otters bend?

Michael Longley, Selected Poems (Jonathan Cape 1998).

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

24 comments:

Fred said...

Stephen,

Two great poems--one by Symons who I had heard of but never really looked at any of his poems and one by Patrick MacDonogh, whom I never had heard of, or at least, don't remember his name.

"I heard the whirring wild ducks flying,"

The sea darkening. . .
Oh voices of the wild ducks
Crying, whirling, white
-- Basho --

Both poems seems to express a common theme found in mystics, regardless of culture or dogma--openness and receptivity, the release of the present concerns . . .

Time to take a look at Symons and MacDonogh, I think.

George said...

It was in 1899 that Yeats published his volume The Wind in the Reeds. A glance into shows wind in the sedge, but not the reeds. I thought that "Baile and Aillin" had wind in the reeds, but find I was thinking of "Nor the grey rush when the wind is high."

The last of Pound's Cantos begins "I have tried to write Paradise/Do not move/Let the wind speak/that is paradise."

Despite its reputation as a swamp, Washington, DC, hasn't much in the way of reeds. Yet autumn is quite satisfactory here, though the wind must make shift with trees, shrubs, and grasses to move.

erin said...

usually silent and always grateful, i can't resist bringing this to sway along with the reed poems,

Great Aso by Tatsuji Miyoshi

Horses are standing in rain.
A herd of horses with one or two foals is standing in rain.
In hushed silence rain is falling.
The horses are eating grass.
With tails, and backs too, and manes too, completely
soaking wet
they are eating grass,
eating grass.
Some of them are standing with necks bowed over absent-
mindedly and not eating grass.
Rain is falling and falling in hushed silence.
The mountain is sending up smoke.
The peak of Nakadake is sending up dimly yellowish and
heavily oppressive volcanic smoke, densely, densely.
And rain clouds too all over the sky.
Still they continue without ending.
Horses are eating grass.
On one of the hills of the Thousand-Mile-Shore-of-Grass
they are absorbedly eating blue-green grass.
Eating.
They are all standing there quietly.
They are quietly gathered in one place forever, dripping
and soaked with rain.
If a hundred years go by in this single moment, there would
be no wonder.
Rain is falling. Rain is falling.
In hushed silence rain is falling.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for these wondrous poems, Steve.

Today, my mood rhymes with yours. Here's a line from Thoreau I read today: 'That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.'

And this by Frederick Buechner: 'Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.'

Come over someday...see the bauhinias bursting into blossom outside the eastward windows...against the misty hills at the horizon...and the dance of the little yellow butterflies...

A kindred soul, anjali

mary f.ahearn said...

A beautiful post - thank you. I'm reminded of my favorite chapter in "The Wind in the Willows" - chapter 7, I believe, which describes Rat and Mole's coming into the presence of Pan. The reed music is noted as this - "And hark to the wind playing in the reeds!"
"It's like music-far away music," said the Mole, nodding drowsily.
Rat responds "Dance-music, the lilting sort that runs on without a stop-but with words in it too-it passes into words and out of them again...and then nothing but the reeds soft thin whispering."
Thanks again for posting, the amazing art, and the time you devote.
Mary

Anonymous said...

Would it be possible for you to add Edward Waite to your sidebar? I feel sure that at least "Autumn Coloring" has appeared in your blog before. I'd like to be able to find that entry.
Susan

Natalie said...

Thank you for yet another rich and profound blog entry. I am astonished by your range of references and your selection of illustration.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I'm pleased you like the poems by Symons and MacDonogh. I think that both poets are unjustly neglected, and I hope you will explore them further.

Thank you for sharing the haiku by Bashō. I've always liked his description of the voices of the wild ducks as being "white": very unusual and striking. With each passing year, my admiration for Bashō continues to grow.

Mysticism has interested me from the time I read William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience as part of a college course. I was delighted to discover about 10 years or so ago that Wittgenstein was an admirer of the book. Bertrand Russell, in a letter, described Wittgenstein as "a complete mystic." This was not intended to be a compliment. But I don't think that Russell understood Wittgenstein. And, in my humble opinion, most studies of Wittgenstein fail to understand this part of him.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: You and I are on the same wavelength: in putting the post together, Yeats's "He Hears the Cry of the Sedge" came to mind, but I decided to save it for another time. It goes well with a poem about sedge by George Meredith: "Song in the Songless" ("They have no song, the sedges dry,/And still they sing . . ."). The sound of wind in the reeds is right up Yeats's alley though, isn't it?

I had forgotten the line by Pound: thank you for that. Although The Cantos befuddle me, there are snatches of great beauty in them. The final Cantos are particularly lovely, and moving.

It must be wonderful this time of year where you are. Despite the lack of reeds, the sound of the wind passing through anything is beautiful and evocative in autumn!

Thank you very much for stopping by again. It is always nice to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

erin: Thank you. That's very nice of you to say. And thank you as well for sharing the poem by Miyoshi: both he and the poem are new to me. (I ought to know more about modern Japanese poetry, but I always find myself amid the traditional poets -- the closest I get to modern poetry is Masaoka Shiki, who died in 1902.) The poem is lovely, and fits well here: the mood is perfect. It reminds me a bit of traditional Chinese poetry, in particular of the ancient songs and poems found in The Book of Songs -- I think this may be due to the repetitive phrases. I love "the Thousand-Mile-Shore-of-Grass'! I will not forget that.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anjali: Thank you very much for the kind words about the post. I'm happy you liked the poems.

Thank you as well for the quotes from Thoreau and Frederick Buechner, which are new to me. They complement perfectly the subject matter of the post. I'm embarrassed to say that I hadn't heard of Buechner before -- I will have to look into his work further.

And thank you for introducing me to bauhinias. I've now seen images of them on the internet -- so many different varieties and colors! This reminds me of how much of the world I have yet to discover (which is a good thing).

It is always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: I greatly appreciate your kind words. Thank you very much.

And thank you for the lovely passage from The Wind in the Willows (a book, alas, I have never read): if I had known of the passage, I would have included it in the post! But now, thanks to you, it finds its way here anyway, which is wonderful.

As ever, thank you for stopping by.

Deb said...

Loving the poems you've chosen in this post, they suit my melancholic and nostalgia driven nature. It's great to have a laugh, but when the words twist something deep inside, sending goosebumps along the skin and bringing tears to the eyes, that's the best. Many would think that was an odd sentiment :-)

And the poem contributed by Erin in these comments - I don't have words for how beautiful that is!

Thank you to you both for some wonderful additions to my collection.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: You are correct: three of the paintings by Waite appeared in a post on October 31, 2015 ("When All The World Is On The Wane"), which featured two poems each by Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hardy. I remembered that the paintings featured the margins of ponds or streams, so I thought that they would fit well with a post featuring reeds. (I sometimes forget to add painters to the sidebar, which is what happened in this case.)

I'm happy to hear from you again. Thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Natalie: Thank you very much. I'm pleased you enjoyed the post. These posts are attempts to figure things out, and if one thing leads to another, I try not to interfere with the process. It's funny how certain things stick in our memory, and then unaccountably become connected.

Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: I don't think that what you describe is "an odd sentiment" at all. Of course, I'm biased: my feelings are similar to yours. I'm pleased you liked the poems.

I agree with you about the poem shared by Erin: it is wonderful. I intend to track down more poems by Miyoshi.

I appreciate your stopping by again. It is always good to hear from you.

Fred said...

Deb,

Emily Dickinson once said: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

No, your reactions are not strange. It happens to me, now and then.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: This is the sort of feeling we all hope for, isn't it? Thank you for sharing this.

Kevin Dwyer said...

A small pile of coincidences leads me to offer you this poem. Dermot Healy lived in Ballyconnell Co Sligo one of his books of poetry is titled The Reed Bed. I happen to have a copy. This morning I opened Jaccottet's ( how do you pronounce his name ) Landscape with Absent Figures to the chapter titled Working a L' Étang where a reed bed plays a prominent role as you know. Okay, fine, I surrender.

The Reed Bed

1

So it is with the reeds. I pass them daily
but the minute I've gone by

and the rustling stops
somewhere behind me

among the floating trees
they no longer exist,

and then I start
wondering what it is I lost,

what was that thing,
that important thing,

I left behind me
On the dreaming road?

2

And then comes the moment
when returning home

I turn perchance their way
and there they are,

the familiars I lost
that morning,

sifting, by the dark tree
that marks the edge

of their watery bed,
a tossed acre of Amber reeds

feather-headed,
frail, summoning.

3

And this is when
they truly exist,

when you come
upon them

at the last moment
and the eye

suddenly catches them
nodding in their bed

of cinnamon
getting ready

in flurry of whispering
or leave you again.

( The Reed Bed, Gallery Press, 2001 )

Hope you and your readers enjoy the poem.

kevin

Stephen Pentz said...

Kevin: Those sorts of coincidences and connections are wonderful, aren't they? Reeds, Sligo, Symons, Healy, Jaccottet . . . and that's only a start. (I suspect you are aware of a passage about reeds in Jaccottet's Seedtime (translated by Tess Lewis). It is from October, 1956, and begins: "The reeds: how their velvety ears burst, letting loose a slow stream of seeds, an entire crop, in complete silence. . . ." This ties in with the definition of "semaison" used by Jaccottet as the epigraph to Seedtime: "Semaison: The natural dispersion of a plant's seeds.")

Thank you very much for "The Reed Bed," which is beautiful. I'm ashamed to say the Dermot Healy is new to me, and I don't know how that happened. Given that I am very fond of Derek Mahon's poetry, I don't see how I missed Healy, since they are both published by Peter Fallon at The Gallery Press. But now you've corrected that for me, which I greatly appreciate. I will be exploring his work further.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and, again, for giving us "The Reed Bed." I hope you'll return soon.

Martin Caseley said...

Stephen: only just caught up with this post, but, as someone who lives about half a mile from the boundary of East Rutland, I fear Mr Belloc was wrong: there is little to build an intensive study on! This is a landscape of small villages and, mostly, water - Rutland Water, which covers a lot of Rutland, is a man-made lake.

This is merely a flippant observation, but can I add that the Waite paintings are wonderful.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Caseley: Thank you for that information! Following up on your comment, I discovered on the internet that Rutland is England's smallest county -- something I did not know. But perhaps Belloc is correct after all: if one chooses the "intensive" life, and elects to proceed "inwards and inwards," perhaps even the religious history of so small a place as East Rutland will never be exhausted!

Yes, the paintings by Waite are lovely, aren't they? He captures the light and the colors of autumn beautifully, I think.

Thank you very much for visiting again. It's always nice to hear from you.

Trademark Attorney said...

I love the personification here, the sighing of the reeds and the whispering of the river. It really creates a sense of calmness.

Stephen Pentz said...

Trademark Attorney: Thank you for the thoughts. Yes, I agree that all of the poems have "a sense of calmness" about them -- which reflects the calmness of reeds and rivers, of course!

Thank you for visiting.