Monday, January 1, 2018


As I have noted here in the past, I am not one to make New Year's resolutions.  Still, the turning of the year is an appropriate time to remind ourselves of what is important in life, and to consider how we ought to place ourselves in the World.

The reminders (aspirations of a sort) that I offer below are not intended to be all-inclusive.  And please bear in mind that I do not in any way, shape, or form claim to exemplify these qualities.  Far, far from it:  on a daily basis, I fail miserably to live in accordance with these common sense habits of being.  But our lot on earth is to fail, yet to persist.  We are, after all, in Keats's "vale of Soul-making":  an ongoing journey, with an end beyond our ken.

These aspirations are echoed in three haiku that I try to revisit at this time each year.  Here is the first:

     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 (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 202.

Naturally, the turning of the year brings an awareness of time and its passing.  In Japan, there is an added dimension to this tolling of time:  as the old year ends and the new year begins, the bells in Buddhist temples are rung 108 times in order to remind we mortals of each of the 108 desires that beset us.

Our time here is short, and is shortening as we breathe.  This fact should be sufficient to provide us with perspective as to how best to spend our remaining moments.  To wit:  "Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."  Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book II, Section 11, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

Samuel Birch (1869-1955), "A Cornish Stream"

Given that we may "step into the grave" at any moment (a sobering thought, but not cause for despair), we had best attend to the fellow souls with whom we abide in the vale of Soul-making.  It is all quite simple, really (but, like many simple things, difficult in the observance):

                  . . . we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin, "The Mower," in Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

Kindness.  The polar opposite of the irony and the politicization that infect the world in which we now live.  Political beliefs (of any stripe) have nothing whatsoever to do with the ability of a person to behave in a decent manner toward one's fellow souls.  As for irony, I find the contemporary version to be self-regarding, self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, and irremediably misanthropic.

Alas, failure in the practice of kindness occurs on a daily basis (speaking for myself).  But it is a new year.  The second haiku provides not a resolution, but a reminder:

     The autumn wind is blowing;
We are alive and can see each other,
     You and I.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press  1952), page 413.

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

And, finally, my third turning-of-the-year haiku:

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

Shōha (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 217.

The Old Year should end and the New Year should begin with an expression of that from which all else flows:  gratitude.  Gratitude for the World and its beautiful particulars.  Gratitude for being alive.  Gratitude for, yes, winter rain.

Best wishes for the New Year, dear readers.

Fred Stead (1863-1940), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"


Michael King said...

Dear Mr Pentz
A New Year resolution for me is to write and tell you if the pleasure your posts have given me, both the words and pictures, ever since I discovered your site a couple of years ago. It is a place of sanity in a crazy world! Thank you for constantly reminding us if the beauty and goodness in the world and our lives.
I send you best wishes for 2018 across the miles from north London.
Michael King

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. King: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm delighted you found your way here, and that you continue to return, which I greatly appreciate. If you find this "a place of sanity in a crazy world," I am grateful, since everything that I post here (poems, prose, and paintings) is something that I find of value, and that in turn helps to preserve my own "sanity in a crazy world." To find that those things may resonate with others is beyond my expectations, and extremely gratifying and humbling.

Thank you again. Best wishes to you as well in the coming year.

Jane the Booklady said...

Dear Mr Pentz,
Thank you for your words, choice of poems and paintings, they always delight and I often save the opening of the email, as it is a treat that cheers me on a grey day.
I write ceremonies; weddings, namings and funerals and I often find inspiration here.
May you have a happy New Year
Jane Arnold

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Arnold: Thank you very much for those kind thoughts. And thank you as well for your long-term presence here, which is much appreciated. It is always good to hear from you.

I wish you all the best in the coming year.

Fred said...

Stephen, Thanks for a marvelous year of great poetry and paintings. I'm looking forward to the coming here At First Known.

Anonymous said...

For now, just my warmest wishes (from a very cold New York City) for the Bew Year.
May it bring many more poems and paintings to help keep your regular followers on an even keel. I hope also to bring pleasure to new discoverers of First Known.
I have a happy story about haiku & me, which I'll post here another day.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: You're very welcome. And thank you for being here over the years. Your visits are greatly appreciated, as are your comments. I look forward to the coming year at Fred's Place as well. We'll keep exploring together. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm delighted to hear from you at the beginning of the year. I stopped by the Weather Channel today to see how cold it was in Minneapolis, where my relatives live and where my sister is visiting, and saw someone reporting from New York City about the cold there as well: I thought of you. And I see you may have snow on the way. Stay safe and warm.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. Your long-time presence here is something I greatly value, and I thank you for that. I look forward to hearing from you in the coming year (including your haiku story). Take care.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, May I wish you a very happy New Year,and echoing what others have already said thank you for all that has led me to poems and poets I was not familiar with as well as reminders to revisit those I've neglected for a while. Thank you for the continued presence of your blog and all that you post here.

Esther said...

And in the old days in Japan, people added a year to their age on new year's day, instead of waiting until their birthday. So the poet was also turning a year older as he was listening to the bells. I greatly enjoyed the depth of meaning in your selections for the new year. Akemashte omedetou!

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. And thank you as well for your ongoing presence here, and for the thoughts and images and poems you provide throughout the seasons. I look forward to a continued sharing of poetry and paths in the coming year. Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you for sharing that: I wasn't aware of that practice. This adds yet a further dimension to Jokun's haiku. (On a related note, I like the traditional Japanese practice (which has its origin in China, I believe) of treating newborns as being one year old when they are born.)

Happy New Year to you as well. I look forward to having you here in the coming year.

Anonymous said...

This even colder day in NYC seems a good time to tell my haiku story.
Thanks to an early start from my mother, I've always loved poetry. But I knew nothing about Chinese & Japanese poetry until I began reading your blog. Then I became interested.
Last summer, while celebrating my 80th birthday at our family property in New Hampshire, I was looking at the shelves in the building where I was staying. Despite the fact that there are a formidable number of books in the three buildings which make up our property, in our family since 1910, I was mightily surprised to see a small, unfamiliar book: "Haiku, Volume 2, Summer-Autumn by R.H. Blyth. Of course I was familiar with the book's existence from the many haiku I've read on "First Known". The book was hard-cover, fairly worn. Having no idea who might have left it there, I appropriated it; bringing it back to New York with me.
As winter began, & with unusual vengeance here, I decided I needed Volume 4, Autumn-Winter.
Through the benevolent magic of the internet, I now have a paperback lightly used copy -- & not via Amazon either! One good omen for the New Year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you very much for sharing that wonderful story: serendipity! I am pleased and gratified to have played a small part in your discovery of R. H. Blyth.

As I'm sure you have discovered, Blyth goes far beyond simply translating haiku (although, that being said, I think that he remains the best translator of haiku into English): his observations about Japanese culture and about life and the world in general are marvelous, as is the way he weaves into the text his vast knowledge of English and European poetry, literature, and philosophy. I consider Haiku to be one of the great books of the 20th century, and woefully under-appreciated.

My own story: I purchased my 4-volume set of Haiku in a used bookstore in Seattle more than 30 years ago. I had been reading worn paperback copies up until that point. Then, one day when I was browsing in a favorite bookstore, I came upon a full 4-volume hardcover set, still with the original dust-jackets. I had recently graduated from law school, and had a job, so I was finally able to splurge on books. Those small volumes (they were printed in Japan in 1950 through 1952, and they are the typical size of books in Japan) will always be among my most treasured books.

I wish you happy reading! It is lovely the way he proceeds by the seasons: I visit each volume in turn throughout the year. I suspect you will do the same. (But also, if you can, please find a copy of the first volume: Eastern Culture, which establishes the context in which haiku developed, including its cultural (both Japanese and Chinese), philosophical, Buddhist, and Taoist underpinnings.)

As always, thank you very much for visiting. Take care in the frigid weather back there!