Thursday, January 19, 2017


Given the mystery of our own souls, we ought to be respectful of the souls of the strangers who share our time on earth.  Hence, a poet takes a risk when he or she presents us with a portrait of one of those strangers.  The dangers of presumption, condescension, oversimplification, and caricature are obvious.  Yet, if done with sensitivity and empathy, such portraits can tell us something about our own soul and the souls of our fellows, all wandering and unknowable, all with much in common.

               Tinker's Wife

I saw her amid the dunghill debris
Looking for things
Such as an old pair of shoes or gaiters.
She was a young woman,
A tinker's wife.
Her face had streaks of care
Like wires across it,
But she was supple
As a young goat
On a windy hill.

She searched on the dunghill debris,
Tripping gingerly
Over tin canisters
And sharp-broken
Dinner plates.

Patrick Kavanagh, Ploughman and Other Poems (Macmillan 1936).

In "Tinker's Wife," Kavanagh tells us what he has seen.  Some of us will find the poem to be sensitive and empathetic.  I do.  Others, particularly thoroughly ironic moderns, may feel that Kavanagh has moved past empathy into pity, and past sensitivity into sentimentality.  This is of no moment to me, for I have no objection to either pity or sentimentality, if they are grounded in a feeling of kinship with the souls in whose company we are passing through life.

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

The utopian, inhuman worlds of politics and social science are concerned with groups and categories, not with individual human beings.  Thus, many of those who are unhappy with the outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election have reacted in a way that reveals a great deal (none of it good) about how they view their fellow human beings: they see caricatures and stereotypes, not individual souls.  What the unhappy fail to realize is that, by objectifying others, they are at the same time objectifying themselves, and have in turn transformed themselves into caricatures and stereotypes.  This is what happens when one becomes politicized.

Good poets and artists, on the other hand, are concerned with individual human souls.  Which is not to say that they are saviors or saints.  Nor are they out to edify us.  Rather, they simply ask us to look at the beautiful particulars of the World.  Those particulars may at times cause us to catch our breath in sadness and, yes, in pity.  But this is life, not theory.

                               A Stranger

Her face was like sad things: was like the lights
Of a great city, seen from far off fields,
Or seen from sea: sad things, as are the fires
Lit in a land of furnaces by night:
Sad things, as are the reaches of a stream
Flowing beneath a golden moon alone.
And her clear voice, full of remembrances,
Came like faint music down the distant air.
As though she had a spirit of dead joy
About her, looked the sorrow of her ways:
If light there be, the dark hills are to climb
First: and if calm, far over the long sea.
Fallen from all the world apart she seemed,
Into a silence and a memory.
What had the thin hands done, that now they strained
Together in such passion?  And those eyes,
What saw they long ago, that now they dreamed
Along the busy streets, blind but to dreams?
Her white lips mocked the world, and all therein:
She had known more than this; she wanted not
This, who had known the past so great a thing.
Moving about our ways, herself she moved
In things done, years remembered, places gone.
Lonely, amid the living crowds, as dead,
She walked with wonderful and sad regard:
With us, her passing image: but herself
Far over the dark hills and the long sea.

Lionel Johnson, Ireland, with Other Poems (Elkin Mathews 1897).

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

I am fond of robins.  I grow even fonder of them in winter, when they gather together in flocks.  I was delighted this past week when, on a sunny afternoon, I saw a large group of them (50 or so) spread out over a newly-mown meadow.  They were a companionable lot, chirping and clucking their leisurely way across the green field in the golden light.  A few sparrows had worked their way into the strolling congregation.  The robins had no objection.

I was once again reminded:  we never know what the World will bestow upon us.  With that in mind, we should be attentive, receptive, and -- above all -- grateful for the abiding mystery of it all.


Deaf and dumb lovers in a misty dawn
On an open station platform in the Dordogne
Watched each other's hands and faces,
Making shapes with their fingers, tapping their palms
Then stopped and smiled and threw themselves
Open-mouthed into each other's arms

While the rest of us waited, standing beside our cases.
When it arrived she left him and climbed on the train
Her face like dawn because of their conversation.
She suddenly turned, grabbed his neck in the crook of her arm,
Gave him the bones of her head, the bones of her body, violently,
Then climbed on again alone.  Her face hardened
In seconds as the train moved away from her island.
Tight lipped she looked around for a seat on the sea.

P. J. Kavanagh, Edward Thomas in Heaven (Chatto & Windus 1974).

Stanhope Forbes, "The Harbour Window" (1910)

At the beginning of 1694, the final year of his life, Bashō was living in Tokyo (then known as Edo).  His health was poor.  In April of the previous year, his beloved nephew Tōin, who Bashō had taken into his home and cared for, had died of tuberculosis.  In the same year, he had "begun to look after a woman named Jutei and her three children, although, except for one of the children, they lived separately from him.  Surviving records are vague on Jutei's identity, but they suggest Bashō had had some kind of close relationship with her in his young days.  Her children, however, do not seem to have been fathered by Bashō."  Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 348.

Sensing that his death was approaching, on June 3, 1694, Bashō set off on a journey to Ueno (his hometown), which is located approximately 350 kilometers southwest of Tokyo.  He intended to see his relatives and friends for the last time.  He arrived on June 20.  Late in July, while still in Ueno, he learned that Jutei had died suddenly in Tokyo.  Bashō never returned to Tokyo.  He died in Osaka on November 28.

At the news of the nun Jutei's death

never think of yourself
as someone who did not count --
festival of the souls

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), Ibid, page 393.

The Japanese word for "festival of the souls" is tamamatsuri. "Tamamatsuri, more commonly known as urabon (the bon festival), is an annual Buddhist rite at which each family offers prayers to the souls of its ancestors.  In Bashō's time it was held for four days, beginning on the thirteenth of the lunar seventh month.  In 1694, that day was September 2." Ibid, page 393.

What a beautiful thing Bashō has given us.  I hesitate to say anything more, but these lines just came to mind:

There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

W. B. Yeats, "Paudeen," Responsibilities and Other Poems (Macmillan 1916).

Stanley Spencer, "The Roundabout" (1923)


Nige said...

Wise words, Stephen - and a very beautiful post. Thank you.

John Ashton said...

Taking for granted the mystery of our own lives I would also include the lives of those fellow creatures with whom we share this earth. Assuming equally that we should never condescend, simplify or presume to know how they feel or think, yet we can empathize whenever we witness suffering.

The Tinker’s Wife with which I was not familiar made me think of Larkin’s lines;
“we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.”

Genuine pity and those feelings of kinship that it engenders is never sentimental in my opinion, and to empathize is surely one of the marks of a civilized person. It is that part of our being which enables us to understand experiences we may not have shared.
Noticing the particulars of this world is, as you point out beautiful and also painful on occasion. It can make us catch our breath, even catch that indefinable something that might on occasion be the beginning of tears, if that isn’t too sentimental. The opening line of the Lionel Johnson poem” Her face was like sad things”, is rather like that.

We never know what gifts the world will give us. We should at least try to be aware and quietly thankful for every day. This morning I saw a song thrush,sadly an increasingly rare sight here, searching the frost brittle grass close to our campus pond,and all around the trees were full of the bright sound of early morning birdsong. The sun was huge, a fiery orange glow nestling above the bare branches of the tallest trees. It was far too early for students to be abroad, I had those moments to watch and listen, savouring the unrepeatable miracle of this one winter morning.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nige: Thank you very much. That's extremely nice of you to say.

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. I wish you and your loved ones all the best in the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for all of those lovely thoughts.

As you know, those lines by Larkin are quite dear to me, and they have appeared here on more than occasion. I'm happy you quoted them: they came to mind when I was writing the post, but I decided that perhaps I have repeated them here too often, so I left them out. But now, thanks to you, they have made their way here, which is nice. We were thinking along the same lines.

I appreciate your observations on sentimentality and pity. I think, as you imply, that those feelings are viewed ironically by a great number of people in the modern world. But they are perfectly legitimate human feelings.

Finally, thank you for the lovely description of what you saw on campus in the morning. As you and I have discussed before, these sorts of scenes are around us every day, and we have to be attentive so as not to miss them. Although my technical knowledge of birds is extremely limited, I find that they are often the ones who catch my attention when I am sleepwalking through the World. They shake my shoulders and say: "Look!" As you say, what we see each day is an "unrepeatable miracle."

As always, I greatly appreciate your stopping by. Thanks again.

Don Wentworth said...

As I prepare to head out to the Women's Sister March this morning here in Pittsburgh, I could not have sought, nor received, wiser, more compassionate counsel. Sincere thanks, Don Wentworth

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Wentworth: Thank you very much for your kind words. Of course, any wisdom and compassion in the post are attributable solely to the poets and their poems (particularly Bashō's haiku and the two lines from Yeats). I can state with certainty that I will never be able to claim either of those qualities for myself! I am merely a messenger.

It's good to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for yet another blog post that left me in tears. Your brilliant achievement in finding just the right collection of words and illustrations that amplify and clarify each other is like finding the right contrapuntal harmonies in the great sea of art.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: Thank you very much. I greatly appreciate your kind thoughts. These four poems always move me when I read them, so I was lucky to find the occasion to place them together. I'm pleased you liked the gathering. My debt, of course, is to the poets and the painters; I am only the gatherer.

As always, it is a pleasure to have you visit. Thanks again.

Acornmoon said...

I love the idea that a poem can be a portrait of a soul.

Wurmbrand said...

I would like to be able to share the following two paragraphs, with credit, with students. The politicized view is exactly what they are wearisomely taught to adopt by teachers. You can imagine the problems that arise when they read, say, Wordsworth.

----The utopian, inhuman worlds of politics and social science are concerned with groups and categories, not with individual human beings. Thus, many of those who are unhappy with the outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election have reacted in a way that reveals a great deal (none of it good) about how they view their fellow human beings: they see caricatures and stereotypes, not individual souls. What the unhappy fail to realize is that, by objectifying others, they are at the same time objectifying themselves, and have in turn transformed themselves into caricatures and stereotypes. This is what happens when one becomes politicized.

Good poets and artists, on the other hand, are concerned with individual human souls. Which is not to say that they are saviors or saints. Nor are they out to edify us. Rather, they simply ask us to look at the beautiful particulars of the World. Those particulars may at times cause us to catch our breath in sadness and, yes, in pity. But this is life, not theory.-----

Much of the problem that the students are caught up in relates to the "postmodernist" assault on "logocentrism" and "essentialism." I have a sign in my office: "You can be clever and you can be sensitive but you can't be wise if there is no Logos."

Dale Nelson

Stephen Pentz said...

Acornmoon: I'm happy to hear from you again. Thank you very much for stopping by.

Yes, the idea of "a portrait of a soul" is a nice one, although, unless it is a self-portrait, a poem can, as you know, only provide us with glimpses and glimmers. Hence the title I gave to the post: "unknowable." One of the common features of these four poems is that they are reserved and respectful, and do not presume too much. Still, as you suggest, they do, I think, catch a passing glimmer of four particular souls.

Thank you again for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I continue to visit your blog to check in on your lovely creations.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: I would be flattered and delighted if you share my thoughts with students. As you know from some of my prior posts, it is a subject I feel quite strongly about, and I completely agree with the thoughts you express in your comment. As a teacher, you are far closer to the reality of the problem than I am, so any change, however small, that can be effected with some tiny help from my words would be wonderful. Although (and, again, you are far closer to the reality than I am) it does seem like an uphill battle: the politicization has been metastasizing for far too long. But we can only effect change one person at a time, starting with ourselves, of course.

Thank you very much for your thoughts. It's good to hear from you. I appreciate your stopping by again.

Wurmbrand said...

Thank you, Stephen. I have printed copies of those two paragraphs and left them on our till-today-unpoliticized free book table. But just today, what should appear but publicity for "Hearing Marginalized Voices: Otherness, Statelessness, and Cultural Isolation," calling for proposed papers dealing with "Communication and Global Politics," "Gender Studies," "Sociolinguistics," etc. One cannot expect that the conference (at North Dakota State University) will seethe with fresh, warm, human, poetic consciousness. Thank you, then, for the opportunity to offer a little counter-music to the insistent drumbeat of politically correct activist "scholarship" that is (almost) all we hear.

Wurmbrand said...

Here is something from a kindred spirit, posted at Rod Dreher's blog today (26 Jan. 2017), on "The World Around Us":

Though I remain a Catholic, I’ve found my truest companions these days in the Eastern thinkers and poets, especially Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Tao Ch’ien. Read these thinkers and you can truly access the circular nature of the world, how good and evil coexist together and for periods outshine one another, and, most importantly, how important it is to maintain a focus on the longer view and the broader term. A new resident occupies the White House, but the Potomac flows on untroubled. Federal lands may be sold, but Old Faithful still hisses and churns. After the Russian ambassador was shot in Turkey, virtually everyone I follow posted a frantic series of “World War III is here!” items. The next day, things were calm again. The dogs are no doubt barking, but the caravan is still passing.

I’ve taken the rather drastic step of eliminating everyone from my social media world who comments regularly on current events. I no longer start the day with the newspaper; instead, I read novels and poetry and contemplative works while I have coffee. I get the WSJ [Wall Street Journal] by mail in the afternoon, when the news seems less drastic and more contextual. We need more of this, I think, and perhaps we need to make it a movement. Slow living? Slow news? Either way, we’ve got to detach from this anxious, always-on-and-blaring online world.

I was doing dishes this morning and looking at our bird feeders outside the kitchen window. On the ground were perhaps a dozen song sparrows, noisily squabbling over seeds. I almost teared up at how merrily they seemed to hop around. As I walked to work a deer glanced at me lazily from the trees, unaffected by my presence. A spring breeze blew the conifers, and a woodpecker chattered at me from a pin oak. Clouds rolled on. I exchanged a few remarks about the weather with a campus police officer. This afternoon I will read a Winnie the Pooh book with our son, and perhaps take him to a creek to look for minnows and float walnut-shell boats downstream.

The world, in all its non-collapsing glory, is still there. It is all around us, and in us, and between us. We need to look up and see it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for the follow-up thoughts.

First, the content of the conference you describe is, alas, not at all surprising, is it? I comfort myself with the thought that a conference like that, and tens of thousands like it, mean absolutely nothing in the long run. Millennia from now, there will still be those who read (citing at random) Bashō, Wordsworth, Hardy, Herrick, and others because of the truth and beauty they find there. Such things have always been preserved and passed on by a small percentage of those who inhabit the planet at a given time. We each have a small but important part to play in that ongoing act of preservation.

Second, the passage from one of Rod Dreher's readers is lovely and perfect. (I read the entire piece on Dreher's blog as well.) The writer articulates wonderfully, and at greater length, many of the same feelings about the politicization of the world that I have expressed here over the years (more recently in response to the simplistic, inexcusable, and intolerant reactions to the Brexit referendum and the presidential election). Fortunately, I have never participated in the world of social media (other than this blog), and never intend to. As for newspapers (and televised news): I gave them up years ago.

I was delighted to see the writer mention the five Chinese poets and philosophers, all of whom have appeared here on occasion. I was particularly pleased to see him/her mention T'ao Ch'ien, who is not as well known as the others, since he is a particular favorite of mine. When I feel the need for serenity, I often turn to his poems, a few of which have appeared here in the past. I concur entirely with the writer's advice on the ability of the Chinese philosophers and poets to put things in perspective. The great haiku poets -- Bashō, Buson, and Issa -- have a similar impact.

Thank you again for sharing your further thoughts.

Wurmbrand said...

I will revisit Bashō.

Perhaps you and guests at this blog saw this piece about news a few years ago. I'm sure it isn't the last word on the subject.

Wurmbrand said...

You mentioned watching the robins. For some years I have recorded the date in the autumn when I last saw a robin, and the date in the following year when I first saw one. Here in North Dakota robins generally don't winter over. However, a few years ago, one day in early January I was walking along the frozen river and trudging through snowdrifts, and saw several robins flying among the bare trees. I hoped they had not lingered too long and would therefore perish before the snow thawed in March and April; but for me this was a moment of wonder.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you for the link to the piece by Rolf Dobelli, which I hadn't seen. I agree with all of his points. Of course, resistance to "news" has a long history. This poem by Mary Coleridge (written in 1900) has appeared here before:

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.

And there is the poem by Stephen Crane (originally a journalist by trade) beginning "A newspaper is a collection of half-injustices," which ends with these lines:

A newspaper is a symbol;
It is feckless life's chronicle,
A collection of loud tales
Concentrating eternal stupidities,
That in remote ages lived unaltered,
Roaming through a fenceless world.

I hope you can revisit Bashō. As you know, a critical underpinning of his art (and of most traditional Japanese poetry) is Chinese poetry and philosophy (both Taoism and Buddhism). This is why I mentioned him in connection with the Chinese poets and philosophers mentioned in the passage you quoted. He gives us, I think, the same perspective on life.

As for robins: they are wonderful creatures, aren't they? I was born in Minnesota, and spent my early years there, so, like you, I was used to seeing them disappear in winter, and we always looked for "the first robin of spring." In the Pacific Northwest, they tend to stay the entire year, and I always find the winter flocking behavior charming.

Thank you for the further follow-up thoughts.

Liz Evershed said...

Hello Stephen (if I may),

I've been an occasional visitor to your blog for a while now and just wanted to leave a quick line to express my gratitude for these very timely thoughts and poems. Reading this, I'm reminded of a line from American novelist Frederick Buechner: 'if factions grind their separate axes too vociferously, something mutual, precious, and human is in danger of being drowned out and lost...' Thank you for helping to preserve that 'something mutual, precious and human' on your blog.


Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Evershed: Thank you very much for your kind words. And thank you as well for the quote from Frederick Buechner, which is new to me, and wonderful. It articulates much better than I can what I am trying to get at. The phrase "something mutual, precious, and human" is lovely and perfect. If I am helping, in some tiny way, to "preserve" that "something mutual, precious, and human," then I would be gratified. We all do what we can do. If nothing else, we should refrain from adding to the clamor and the rancor.

Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you will return soon.

Wurmbrand said...

Thank you again for this posting, and for a recent one in which you quoted from Marcus Aurelius. I have quoted from the two postings in writing to a professor of philosophy and religion who has recently published, at Slate, an essay calling for fighting and intolerance of ideas he rejects. Since he allowed for violence, I didn't see in his essay a firm respect for the people with whom he at present disagrees. I hope that his mind and heart will be touched. May the Logos bless you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Wurmbrand: Thank you for your follow-up thoughts. As for the article in Slate: I'm afraid I won't venture anywhere near it. I don't have the fortitude that you do! As you know, I do my best to avoid such locations. (I'm of the same mind as the person quoted by Rod Dreher in one of your previous comments here: I would rather wash the dishes, look out the window at the trees and the birds, and think of some lines of Chinese poetry.)

As for your attempt to talk some sense into the author of the article by directing him to Marcus Aurelius: I know you already know this, but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for a reasonable response. But perhaps I am not giving him enough credit. People can change.

I greatly appreciate your parting thought: thank you very much.