Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Do we grow wiser with age?  Well, let's not get too carried away.  Speaking for myself, the only piece of wisdom that I can provisionally claim in my seventh decade above ground (and within hailing distance of a return to the dust) is this:  I realize, on a daily basis, that I am profoundly ignorant.

Yet, being aware of, and at peace with, one's ignorance is a good thing.  It is certainly not cause for self-recrimination or despair.  It relieves us of the great weight of trying to "figure things out," of trying to solve the mysteries of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are headed.  It frees us up to do what we ought to have been doing from the start:  loving, and being unceasingly grateful for, the World and all of its beautiful particulars.

Come to think of it, a strong argument can be made that living a life of love and gratitude is exactly why we are here.  All else takes care of itself.  But this is not an abstract proposition:  it is a day-to-day way of being, a matter of striving to cultivate attention and repose throughout each of our fleeting and priceless days.


Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles --
golden, warm, and vivid candles.

Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.

I don't want to look at them:  their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.

I don't want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1992).

Cavafy was horrified at the prospect of death and did not take growing old well.  Hence the tone of "Candles."  The Japanese haiku poets are, like Cavafy, aware of the situation in which we find ourselves.  However, they tend to have a more equable view of things.

     Slow days passing, accumulating, --
How distant they are,
     The things of the past!

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 46.

Francis Le Maistre (1859-1940), "Seascape with Two Women"

Rather than imagining that we might acquire wisdom with age, perhaps a better approach is to become adept at letting things go.  As the years and (alas!) decades speed by (populated by days), we are well-advised to disabuse ourselves of certain notions and to abandon certain conceits.  If, by some point in our life (before it is too late), we have not begun to identify and jettison these notions and conceits, all hope is lost.  Something along these lines is required:


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

While this lifelong project is underway, the days come and go.  There's no stopping them.

               Dream Days

'When you stop to consider
The days spent dreaming of a future
And say then, that was my life.'

For the days are long --
From the first milk van
To the last shout in the night,
An eternity.  But the weeks go by
Like birds; and the years, the years
Fly past anti-clockwise
Like clock hands in a bar mirror.

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

As Mahon observes, the days are indeed long -- "an eternity."  (Do you remember all of those never-ending afternoons in the schoolroom?)  The Japanese haiku poets, whose art is aimed at presenting a vanishing instant of experience that embodies the whole of the World and the whole of a human life, are ever aware that our fate is played out each day, moment-by-moment.

     Calm days,
The swift years

Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 42.

 Kathleen Wilson (d. 1936), "Thatched Cottages"

Like Cavafy, Philip Larkin was terrified of death.  But this did not prevent him from creating poems that are full of Beauty and Truth, and which celebrate the wonder and joy of being alive -- in their own Larkinesque way, of course.  Do not believe those who caricature Larkin as a dour, cranky misanthrope.  Anybody who holds this view has not taken the time to actually read Larkin's poems (or his prose).


What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber & Faber 1964).

Larkin being Larkin, the second stanza is required.  But consider the first stanza.  Some may say that the line "They are to be happy in" is intended to be mordant or ironic.  It is not.  Others may say that the entire stanza is nothing more than a truism, a cliché.  In fact, it is a simple statement of truth.  An aversion to the articulation of essential truths is endemic amongst ironic moderns.

The modern urge to over-complicate life puzzles me.  "Days are where we live."  Look around.  Everything is right there in front of you.

     A night of stars;
The cherry blossoms are falling
     On the water of the rice-seedlings.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 170.

Is there anything more beautiful and true than this?

John Anthony Park (1880-1962), "The Harbour, Polperro, Cornwall"

Another poet who is also unfairly caricatured as a dour, cranky misanthrope has this to say about how we ought to spend our days: "Life is not hurrying//on to a receding future, nor hankering after/an imagined past."  (R. S. Thomas, "The Bright Field.")  As I have noted here before, when I set out on my afternoon walk, I often remind myself:  "Stop thinking.  Just look and listen."  An abandonment of the past and the future is implicit in this admonition.  However, apart from a few fugitive moments, I always fail miserably.

                      Days and Moments

The drowsy earth, craving the quiet of night,
Turns her green shoulder from the sun's last ray;
Less than a moment in her solar flight
Now seems, alas! thou fleeting one, life's happiest day.

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

Yes, all of this daily passing and vanishing is bound to provoke an "Alas!" now and then.  Yet it seems to me that our diurnal existence is where, from moment to moment, Paradise lies.  Still, we tend to long for something more:  passing and vanishing can be hard to accept.  Here's a thought:  "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.4311 (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).  An alternative translation is:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."  Ibid (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

Who needs Eternity?  One day is enough.

     All the long day --
Yet not long enough for the skylark,
     Singing, singing.

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 195.

Giffard Hocart Lenfestey (1872-1943), "Evening, the Stream"


Denise said...

How I love that Larkin poem. Your wonderful post was for me a timely reminder that all we have is the present moment. Past and future exist only in our minds. Thank you Stephen!

George said...

Well, there is Randall Jarrell's

Pain comes to us out of the darkness,
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

("90 North", I think)

or J.V. Cunningham's

The journey of the soul is simply
Through age to wisdom;
But wisdom, if it comes,
Comes like the ripening gleam of wheat,

Nourished by comfort, care, rain, sunlight,
And briefly shining
On windy and hot days,
Flashing like snakes underneath the haze.

(The Helmsman: An Ode)

Anonymous said...

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdom, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the
Day Turned and departed silent.
I, too late, Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.

Emerson's poem echoes your sentiments that too often we ignore the wonders and spectacles each day bring to us, the gifts that offer to us. Too often, we ignore the wonder and mystery of the quotidian. I recall that in Wallace Steven's poem "Large Red Man Reading," the poet says that could the dead return what they'd long for was "to step barefoot in to reality." "They would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost / And cried out to fell it again, have run fingers over leaves / And against the most coiled thorns." I think of Chardin's paintings, comestibles on a table. It's as Frost says, we keep looking to see for a miracle and neglect to look behind us at the land where miracles enough lie to enchant us.

Stephen Pentz said...

Denise: Thank you for the kind words. I'm pleased to hear that you like the Larkin poem -- it tends to be overlooked. I think we all realize that the present moment is "where we live," but it is very difficult to live day-by-day in light of that awareness. Poetry is one of the things that provides me with "reminders" (to borrow your word) of this fact.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you for sharing the lines from "90 North," a poem that I have long been fond of -- a bleak poem, but beautiful. And thank you as well for the lovely lines from Cunningham, which are new to me. I agree with his qualified statement "wisdom, if it comes . . .," as well as with his thought that, if it does come, it is "briefly shining." We can only hope for glimpses, I think.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, I’m not sure whether we become any wiser with age, but perhaps we become more accepting of uncertainty and the limit to what we can possibly know.
I’m content that those days of arrogance and certainty that can prevail in our youth are long past. The advancing years have increased my contentment with the reality of the mystery of the universe.

I’m content to spend my time, or as much of it as I can in being attentive to the world I inhabit. Noticing what is around me, and as seemingly commonplace as it may appear, remembering that therein is the miracle.

I’m reminded of some words of Wendell Berry; “We are alive within mystery, by miracle we have more than we can know.” And also;- “ Never forget; we are alive in mysteries.”

The Larkin and Mahon poems are both long time favourites of mine. The haiku of Taigi and Buson are new to me, the Buson “ A night of stars” in particular is lovely.

Apart from a few minor aches, age does not trouble me. There is for me an understanding of my own insignificance that has deepened with the passing of the years which does not fill me with fear or any need to make noise in the world about myself.

I am here for a short while, that in itself is a miracle. To live gently and quietly, to have some moments of serenity hopefully ,and to be grateful that I am still able to witness, “the World and all of its beautiful particulars” .

I also fail to stop thinking too much, and on certain days my mind is uselessly beset by minor problems when I should be noticing the world. It is what we must endeavour to do and remind ourselves to stop, look, listen and realise the uselessness of hurry.

“ We do not remember days, we remember moments” – Cesare Pavese.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for those thoughts, and for sharing the poem by Emerson (which is new to me) and the lines from Stevens. I agree wholeheartedly that "the wonder and mystery of the quotidian" is what is most important in our lives. Frost is exactly right, isn't he?

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for those wonderful and lovely thoughts. I completely agree that the acceptance of uncertainty and the realization that we live amid mystery are key stages in attaining (one hopes) some sort of tranquility and peace. You are exactly right (as you and I have discussed here in the past): it all comes back to being receptive, to paying attention -- "to stop, look, listen and realise the uselessness of hurry," as you say. Your final quote from Pavese is lovely and perfect (and so true).

As always, I greatly appreciate your stopping by. I hope you enjoyed your spring holiday.