Sunday, January 1, 2017


One sunny afternoon this past summer, as I walked beneath a big-leaf maple, I was struck by the thought that we live in a World in which everything is in motion.  The thought was prompted by the sight of the leaves of the tree moving in the breeze.  Not the swaying of the boughs, not the rustling of sprays of leaves.  What I saw -- for only an instant -- was each of the thousands of leaves fluttering in the wind.

What took me aback was a sudden recognition that each of the leaves was unique and uniquely alive.  It is easy to say:  The leaves fluttered.  But such a statement omits a great deal.

     The stars on the pond;
Again the winter shower
     Ruffles the water.

Sora (1648-1710) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 223.

Stars and leaves.  Ever in motion.  Uncountable.  But each one sovereign and irreplaceable.

Patrick Symons, "Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common)" (1981)

One thing always leads to another in the World in which we live.  From leaves to stars to winter showers to the ruffling water of a pond to . . .


Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon, Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998).

The Chinese character for "heart" is xin.  The same character is used in the Japanese language, and is known as kokoro.  As I have noted here in the past, the character is a wonderful one:  in both Chinese and Japanese it can mean "heart," but it can also mean "mind."  It can also carry connotations of "spirit," "soul," or "core."  (For an interesting discussion of the various manifestations of xin in the Chinese language and in the culture of China, please see Jing Li, Christer Ericsson, and Mikael Quennerstedt, "The Meaning of the Chinese Cultural Keyword Xin," Journal of Languages and Culture, Volume 4, Number 5 (2013).)

In Jaccottet's poem, it is "the heart" that "flies from tree to bird,/from bird to distant star,/from star to love."  This is a lovely thought.  But it becomes even lovelier when one thinks of xin and kokoro:  it is an indivisible compound of heart, soul, spirit, and mind that flies from leaf to star to bird to . . .

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight Through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

The motion of the World is a motion of imminence, immanence, and emanation.  It is a motion of the present moment.  It has nothing to do with change or transformation.  Our human mortality does not enter into it.  In fact, human beings do not enter into it.  We are ever prone to analyze, categorize, and explain the World in terms of ourselves.  But the World can get along quite well without us, thank you.

   The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician

It comes about that the drifting of these curtains
Is full of long motions; as the ponderous
Deflations of distance; or as clouds
Inseparable from their afternoons;
Or the changing of light, the dropping
Of the silence, wide sleep and solitude
Of night, in which all motion
Is beyond us, as the firmament,
Up-rising and down-falling, bares
The last largeness, bold to see.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

Of course, we humans are here.  I do not deny that.  But our first duty to the World is to leave well enough alone.

The World is aquiver.  This is what I belatedly discovered on that summer afternoon when, in my usual slow-witted fashion, I at long last noticed the singularity of each leaf's movement in the wind.

     The Place of the Solitaires

Let the place of the solitaires
Be a place of perpetual undulation.

Whether it be in mid-sea
On the dark, green water-wheel,
Or on the beaches,
There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;
And, most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitaires,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.

Wallace Stevens, Ibid.

Stephen McKenna, "Foliage" (1983)

I do not make New Year's resolutions.  Instead, on New Year's Eve I have gotten in the habit of reading the following two haiku.

     I intended
Never to grow old, --
     But the temple bell sounds.

Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 202.  In Japan, the bells of Buddhist temples are rung 108 times at the turning of the year as a reminder of the 108 sins and desires that we should seek to rid ourselves of.

     Journeying through the world,--
To and fro, to and fro,
     Harrowing the small field.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 290.

A small field, yes, but inexhaustible.  More than enough beauty for one lifetime.

Robert Ball, "Mrs. Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)


Esther said...

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!
Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
n(_ _)n

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Dōmo arigatō gozaimasu. Happy New Year to you as well. It is always a pleasure to hear from you, and I greatly appreciate your presence here over the years. I wish you the best in the coming year.

Mudpuddle said...

dynamite post; many tx for engaging with the real... i hope the new year will grant insight and wisdom to us all...

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: Thank you very much. Your New Year's wish for us all is a good one. I wish you well in the coming year.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, A wonderful post to begin the new year. So much to savour. I recall a walk I took back in the autumn, standing beside a stream at the edge of local woods and realising that standing there, silent and still I could hear the sound of each individual leaf falling, 'sovereign and irreplaceable' as you say.

To quote from a favourite Norman MacCaig poem, An ordinary day.

"...and my mind observed to me,
or I to it, how ordinary
extraordinary things are or
how extraordinary ordinary
things are, like the nature of the mind
and the process of Observing.

May I take this moment to wish you a happy and joyful New Year.


Fred said...


I don't know why but this came to mind while reading your post.

Clear-colored stones
Are vibrating in; the brook-bed. . .
Or the water is

-- Soseki --
A Little Treasury of Haiku
trans. Peter Beilenson

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you for your kind words about the post. Your autumn anecdote about the sound of each leave falling is lovely, and perfect in this context. One has a similar feeling when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a single leaf falls right in front of you.

And thank you as well for the lines from MacCaig's poem, which also fit well here. MacCaig is a wonderful poet of the everyday and the commonplace (and I do not use either of those words pejoratively), isn't he? I'm glad you quoted MacCaig, for you have reminded me that it has been too long since I last visited his poems -- a good way to begin the new year, I think.

I wish you and your family a wonderful New Year as well. I look forward to continuing our conversations throughout the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for sharing the haiku, which is new to me. It is lovely, and exactly on point: all is in motion.

It reminds me of a haiku by Buson (although Buson's is not as focused on motion as Soseki's):

The bottom seen clearly,
The fish seen clearly,
Deep is the water of autumn.

(Translation by R. H. Blyth, in Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page xxi.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. I greatly appreciate your long-time presence here, and I look forward to sharing our discoveries again throughout the coming year.

Tim Guirl said...

Mr. Pentz,

May this year be all you most hope for. I look forward to the gift of your blog posts in 2017, which you generously share with your readers.

I usually make a few New Year's resolutions, and one is to play the piano more. I took lessons for most of my youth and am now playing again, much to my intense delight. Music and poetry have much in common.

Tim Guirl

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many of your visitors have noticed that in the first painting, "Oak Arch Grey", there is a person (probably a man)sitting under a tree towards the middle. I think he is drawing -- perhaps preparing this very painting. I did not see this until I made a gallery of the four paintings, which slightly enlarges them.
Happy New Year, Stephen. I hope we have much more of First Known When Lost to look forward to this year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: Thank you very much. That's extremely kind of you to say. But it is a two-way street: I receive a great deal in return, in particular the long-time presence of sympathetic readers and visitors like yourself, which I greatly appreciate (and which keeps me going). I thank you for that.

Your New Year's resolution is a fine one, and I envy you your musical ability, something I have never had. I agree that music and poetry have a great deal in common: sound, movement, and rhythm of course, but also a way of being in the moment, I think.

It is always a pleasure to hear from you. I wish you and your loved ones all the best in the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you for mentioning the figure in the painting: I had missed that! I suppose I was so enthralled by the greens of the canopy of leaves and the browns of the branches that my eyes never worked their way down to that spot. Wonderful. Your thought about the person being the painter is a good one.

Happy New Year to you as well! As I hope you know, I greatly appreciate, and highly value, your presence here over the years. I look forward to continuing our conversations in the coming year. Take care.

George said...

It seems to me that there is a Homeric epithet having to do with moving leaves, but I can't place it. It is possible that I have in mind Virgil's imitation of a Homer scene, with "coruscis ... silvis". Otherwise, for leaves in the wind, I think of Allan Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead": "Dazed by the wind, only the wind/The leaves, flying, plunge and expire."

Yes, the world is steadily in motion. As Heraclitus says, everything flows.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

"In Jaccottet's poem, it is "the heart" that "flies from tree to bird,/from bird to distant star,/from star to love." This is a lovely thought. But it becomes even lovelier when one thinks of xin and kokoro: it is an indivisible compound of heart, soul, spirit, and mind that flies from leaf to star to bird to . . ."

Thank you! That's really delicious. I will have to look this up. Derek Mahon is a wonderful poet and I would trust him with translations. As always, I love the way you illuminate the many ways to look at Wallace Stevens.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Your knowledge of Homer and Virgil far exceeds mine, but I wonder if what you have in mind is a passage from Book VI of The Iliad (which, coincidentally, I considered in a post titled "Leaves" in October of 2014). Here is Pope's translation:

Like leaves on trees the race of man is found,
Now green in youth, now with'ring on the ground:
Another race the foll'wing spring supplies,
They fall successive, and successive rise;
So generations in their course decay,
So flourish these, when those are past away.

Here is William Cowper's translation:

For, as the leaves, such is the race of man.
The wind shakes down the leaves, the budding grove
Soon teems with others, and in spring they grow.
So pass mankind. One generation meets
Its destined period, and a new succeeds.

I am probably on the wrong track, but these passages occurred to me.

Thank you for the lines from Tate's "Ode," a poem that I memorized in my younger years when I was enthralled with "the Fugitive Poets" (Tate, Ransom, Warren, et al.) for a number of years. I'm happy to be reminded of it.

And thank you as well for the reference to Heraclitus, which hadn't occurred to me. His thought fits perfectly here, doesn't it?

As always, it is good to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: Thank you for those thoughts. I agree with you about Derek Mahon's virtues as a translator. He is one of my favorite poets, and I am very fond of the many translations he has done, from a variety of languages. You may already be aware of them, but, if not, I highly recommend his two collections of translations: Adaptations (The Gallery Press 2006) and Echo's Grove (The Gallery Press 2013). Echo's Grove includes everything that appears in Adaptations, as well as many additional poems. It also includes an interesting Foreword about his translation practices.

As for Stevens: I'm pleased you have noticed his recurring presence here. He is always in the background for me, I think. Eventually, the time comes for one or two of his poems to appear (or reappear) in a post. When I got to thinking about "motion," these two poems came immediately to mind. But, as you know, a great number of his poems might fit equally well here.

As for "xin" and "kokoro": the article on "xin" that I referred to can be readily found on the internet. It is quite illuminating.

As always, thank you very much for visiting.

George said...

The passage I quoted is from early in the first book of the Aeneid, the Trojan's first harbor in Libya. Robert Fitzgerald gives it as

There are high cliffs on this side and on that,
And twin peaks towering heavenward impend
On reaches of still water. Over these,
Against a forest backdrop shimmering,
A dark and shaggy grove casts a deep shade,

This is an imitation of Homer's description the harbor at Ithaca where the Phaeacians leave the sleeping Odysseus in Book XIII of the Odyssey.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for providing the passage, which is lovely in Fitzgerald's translation, and for pointing out that it is an echo of the Odyssey. I appreciate your taking the time to share your knowledge.