Monday, December 31, 2018

Gifts

The ways in which beauty places itself in our path are manifold and mysterious.  Early this morning, out of the blue, I received this gift:

"October 6, 1940.  Late in the season as it is, a dragonfly has appeared and is flying around me.  Keep on flying as long as you can  -- your flying days will soon be over."

Taneda Santōka (1882-1940) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, For All My Walking:  Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka with Excerpts from His Diaries (Columbia University Press 2003), page 102.

The passage is lovely in itself, but it moves into a deeper dimension when one considers the life of Taneda Santōka.  When he was eleven years old, his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in a well.  Santōka watched as her body was pulled from the well.  He attended Waseda University in Tokyo for a year, but was forced to leave due to a drinking problem, which persisted throughout his life. He married, but the marriage ended in divorce.  He entered into a business venture (a sake brewery) with his father, but the business failed.  After he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide by standing in front of a train, he was taken in by the head priest of a Zen Buddhist temple.  At the age of 43, he was ordained as a Zen priest.

After serving briefly as the caretaker of a temple, he became a mendicant monk, spending much of the remainder of his life on constant walking journeys throughout Japan, in all seasons -- walking and walking, forever walking.  He survived by begging and by sleeping in cheap inns or, often, out in the open air.  But he maintained a loyal group of friends who came to his aid when times were most difficult.  And, through it all, he wrote haiku -- lovely and moving haiku.  He died in his sleep at the age of 58.

Burton Watson appends the following note to the passage by Santōka quoted above:  "This is the last entry in Santōka's diary, written four days before his death."

Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Cheshire Mill" (1939)

As is usually the case, the arrival of beauty betokens an opening, not a closing.  Thus, Santōka's dragonfly brought this to mind:

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
          For know, all things
          Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
          Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (556-468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 234.

I apologize for repeating myself:  Simonides' poem appeared here last month.  But this is how beauty works:  one thing leads to another.  A dragonfly.  An ancient Greek poet born on the island of Ceos in the Aegean Sea.  A Japanese haiku poet-monk of the 20th century.  And here we are: all of us together at the turning of the year.

Malcolm Midwood Milne (1887-1954), "Barrow Hill" (1939)

As midnight approaches on New Year's Eve in Japan, the bells in Buddhist temples are sounded 108 times:  once for each of the sins and desires that we should seek to rid ourselves of.  At this time each year I am reminded of a 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 (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 202.

So it is in this dragonfly World of ours, a World in which each year, each moment, is a gift.

Happy New Year, dear readers.

Dudley Holland (1915-1956), "Winter Morning" (1945)

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year to you! May your year be full of pleasant reading hours and gifts of beauty. Thank you for sharing your discoveries with us. Best wishes for 2019, Ann.

Maggie Emm said...

Happy New Year Stephen! And thanks for another year of thought-provoking, illuminating and sustaining posts. As I woke this morning I was thinking (as you do at the start of a new year) of words that describe the transistory-ness of life - fleeting, evanescent...and then came your post with the dragonflies - we don't know the meaning of a short life! May you have a wonderful 2019.

Anonymous said...

Dear Steve,

I'd like to wish you and your loyal band of readers, ever faithful, a Happy New Year. I'm sure all of your readers, like me, look forward to your splendid writing, insightful and sapient words that always remind us of the simple and incomparable beauty in the quotidian, a simple and direct beauty, freighted with as much profundity as any recondite physics equation. You have taught us to look down at the world of butterflies and flowers and the songs of birds and to resist seeking arcane and non-existent wonders "above us." I'd find my mornings bereft did I not find your words waiting for me. Thank you, sir, and thanks also to your readers who delight us readers with their trenchant comments. I'm sure you agree that you and your readers make a good team.

Sincerely,

Bruce Floyd

Thomas Parker said...

Happy new year to you! May it be a year of peace and beauty and sanity for you, for us all, even in the midst of the turmoil and ugliness and derangement that presses in upon us. The wonderful words and images that you share are much needed reminders that we can find the truth which will sustain us, if we will only seek it ardently enough.

Nigel PJ said...

Thank you so much for all the beautiful and sensitively presented poems.
Happy New Year!

Sam Vega said...

As ever, I greatly appreciated the poems; in particular, the fragment of Simonides.

But the really remarkable thing about this New Year post is - for me - the picture of Barrow Hill, by Milne. By a really astonishing coincidence, I live about two hundred yards over the brow of that hill. It is the southern route into the village of Henfield, in West Sussex, where we moved about eighteen months ago. I cycle up that hill regularly, and it gets harder each time! The view has not changed much since 1939, except that the ruined windmill is long gone; it was demolished because it became unsafe. I knew nothing of Milne, but Googling him brings up several pictures of Henfield and the surrounding Wealden countryside and churches. Apparently one of his pictures is in the local museum, but I hadn't remembered it.

The poems link up to show us a common but indefinable essence to our lives, and likewise our experiences are shot through with all sorts of coincidences.

Happy New Year to you, and to all who visit here. May this oasis continue to refresh us for many more years.

Nige said...

And happy new year to you, Stephen – thanks for another year of beautiful posts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ann: Thank you very much for your kind words, and for your visits here. Happy New Year to you as well, and I wish you all the best in the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: As ever, thank you very much for your kind thoughts.

Yes, "fleeting" and "evanescent" are words that come to mind at this time of year, aren't they? Which is why I was delighted to stumble upon Santōka's diary passage -- and his dragonfly -- on New Year's Eve morning. It's wonderful how these gifts arrive unbidden. The timing of the dragonfly's arrival in Santōka's life is deeply touching.

Thank you very much for your long-time presence here, and for your many thoughtful comments. Happy New Year to you, and best wishes in 2019.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you very much for your kind words, which I greatly appreciate. But I am merely the messenger, bearing (I hope) wonderful treasures from those who are wiser and more articulate (both in words and images) than I am: I merely do my best to erect a rickety structure for them. I can only hope their words and images resonate with others. I always feel that I fall far short of conveying how important they are to me.

But I am even more thankful for your apt and kind words about the readers who have found their way here over the years (which includes you, of course). Words cannot express (a cliché, but true) how fortunate, humbled, and grateful I am for the wonderful people who visit here. When I started this blog, my sole purpose was (and still is) to share the things I love in the hope that they may resonate with others as well. I felt that if this blog persuaded just one person to read, for instance, the poetry of Edward Thomas, Bashō, or Thomas Hardy then it will have been worth it. The response I have received from my (I hate to use the word "my"!) "loyal band of readers" has been far beyond what I ever expected. Yes, I completely agree with your thought that "you and your readers make a good team." This blog would not exist, or be what it is, without everyone who is here.

Speaking of which, your long-term presence here -- and support, thoughts, and inspiration in so many ways -- mean a great deal to me, and I am deeply grateful. It is always a delight to hear from you, and I always come away from our interactions enriched. (To cite just one instance among many: if not for you, I would not know of the beauty and wisdom of Emily Dickinson.)

I wish you and your loved ones a wonderful new year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: Thank you very much for your kind words.

Ah, well, "turmoil and ugliness and derangement" are the way of the world (and of human nature), aren't they? Past, present, and future. But, as you say, so are beauty and truth. So it is in "the vale of Soul-making."

Happy New Year to you as well. As always, thank you for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nigel PJ: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your kind words. Happy New Year to you, and all the best in the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: That is indeed a wonderful coincidence! I can only imagine your surprise at seeing the painting. Over the years, a few readers from the UK have noted personal connections with some of the paintings that have appeared here, but you living "about two hundred yards over the brow of that hill" takes the prize for coincidence. (Or is it synchronicity?) Whenever I look at that painting, I imagine walking into it. And now I learn that you live there. I'm happy to hear that (apart from the vanished windmill) the view has not changed a great deal. "O lovely England." (To quote the title of a poem by Walter de la Mare, whose poetry I have been revisiting again the past few weeks.)

Yes, life is "shot through with all sorts of coincidences," isn't it? At this stage in my time on earth, I lean toward the view that life is governed more by chance and coincidence than planning and intent. Marcus Aurelius continually reminds us about Fate and the will of the gods, and I used to look askance at those passages in The Meditations. Now, not so much.

Happy New Year to you as well. As always, thank you very much for visiting. You are certainly among the long-time "loyal band of readers" (mentioned by Mr. Floyd above) for whom I am deeply grateful.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nige: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your kind words. Happy New Year to you as well. I wish you and your loved ones all the best in the coming year.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, Echoing what has already been so eloquently said, may I add my own thanks for the poems, paintings,your own words and thoughts and the comments of other's who visit too.
Over the years since I discovered your blog I have been prompted to return to many poets and writers I had neglected for too long and to discover other's entirely new to me. Thank you and may I wish you a Happy and Peaceful New Year.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for your kind thoughts. I greatly value your long-time presence here, both as a reader and as a commenter. Your continuing support means a great deal to me. As far as me prompting you to return to, or introducing you to, poets and writers, the sharing has gone both ways: you have sent me back to many old favorites and introduced me to many new names, for which I thank you.

Happy New Year to you as well, and I look forward to further conversations and further sharing in the coming year.