Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Singing In The Night

In recent years, scenes from past dreams have begun to float into my mind during my waking hours.  Not entire dream sequences, but brief snippets:  a room, a landscape, a face.  When they first arrive, I take these snippets for memories, but I then quickly realize that I am, with no conscious intent to do so, revisiting a dream (or, better: a dream is revisiting me).  All of this takes place within the space of a few seconds.

For all I know, this may be a sign of pathology.  But I am not looking for an explanation.  Nor am I walking around in a fugue state.  However, it has prompted me to wonder whether everything we have ever experienced, felt, or thought remains sitting inside us.  If that is indeed the case, what prompts these things to float up?  Why do some seemingly commonplace incidents continue to haunt us, while major "life events" have no hold upon us?

              Chance Pleasures

Smiles from strangers met but once,
     On simplest affairs,
When nature welcomed circumstance,
     May last us years.
And sunbursts over nameless plains,
     Not homes to us, shall gild
Further adventures with the lens
     Of life in our home field.

One cannot count nor reckon thus,
     Nor tell at the time;
No use to note it down, no use,
     When such spells gleam, --
When such winds stir such linden leaves,
     Such lamps shine late and pale
Over empty quays, unmeaning waves --
     But wait;  at length, the spell!

Edmund Blunden, Poems 1930-1940 (Macmillan 1940).

Yes, that's the nub of it:  "But wait; at length, the spell!"  Which in turn begs the question:  why the spell?

Eric Hesketh Hubbard (1892-1957), "Harlech Castle"

I am not suggesting that everything that resides within us is endlessly fascinating.  And I am not seeking to follow a winding trail into a dark wood where a revelation lies waiting.  (The contemporary proclivity for writing (and reading) self-regarding memoirs of this sort puzzles me.)  I am reminded of the title of Philip Larkin's poem about deciding to stop keeping a diary:  "Forget What Did."  Precisely.  All of those Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

And yet.  One of our primary obligations as human beings is to pay attention to what goes on outside us and around us, which is invariably more interesting than what goes on inside us.  Which does not mean that we leave ourselves out of account when paying attention.  The trick is to not let our overweening sense of self overwhelm the integrity and the beauty of the particulars.

             A Short Ode

All things then stood before us
        as they were,
Not in comparison,
But each most rare;
The "tree, of many, one,"
The lock of hair,
The weir in the morning sun,
The hill in the darkening air,
Each in its soleness, then and there,
Created one; that one, creation's care.

Edmund Blunden, A Hong Kong House: Poems 1951-1961 (Collins 1962). The quotation in line 5 ("tree, of many, one") comes from William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood":  "But there's a tree, of many, one,/A single field which I have look'd upon,/Both of them speak of something that is gone."  I presume this reference accounts for Blunden's title (contrasting his ode of ten lines with Wordsworth's of over 200 lines).

Larkin gets it exactly right (I realize that I say this quite often) in the final two stanzas of "Forget What Did":

And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed

Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come,
And when the birds go.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

Eric Hesketh Hubbard, "The Cuckmere Valley, East Sussex"

This is where poetry (and painting and music) come in.  A beautiful and moving work of art cannot be created unless its creator first pays strict and loving attention.  Then, if he or she is skilled, and visited by the Muses, the rest of us can see and feel the World in a way that honors the World's particulars while miraculously -- if only briefly -- giving us the sense that we and the World's particulars are all in this together.


Blue water . . . a clear moon . . .
In the moonlight the white herons are flying.
Listen!  Do you hear the girls who gather water-chestnuts?
They are going home in the night, singing.

Li Po (translated by Shigeyoshi Obata), in Shigeyoshi Obata, The Works of Li Po (E. P. Dutton 1922).

Eric Hesketh Hubbard, "Dunluce Castle"


Bovey Belle said...

What beautiful choices of poetry (as always), and thank you for profound thoughts to ponder on a miserable grey January afternoon where rain is turning to snow.

Sometimes a smell - crushed bracken, say - can evoke a memory so clearly that the years roll away and I am in Bracken Camp again, crouched with elbows clasping knees, and hiding . . . Our soul needs memories to survive, however well deeply it chooses to hide them from us.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: Thank you very much for your thoughts. It's good to hear from you again.

Yes, it is often something small and unexpected that triggers memories, isn't it? Your crushed bracken and Proust's madeleine, for instance. It's odd and wonderful how this occurs, and the clarity of the memories that follow.

Keep warm! I was surprised to see the photographs of snowdrops on your blog today: they seem to be rushing things, I fear.

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

I've been noticing lately -- perhaps because it's pent-up January -- how splendid many of the skies are in the paintings you feature. Going all the way back to Constable, the skies of the British Isles.
I believe that Gertrude Stein said "America has no sky", but I'm not sure that's accurate.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'd say I haven't yet seen a sky that wasn't beautiful. I tend to focus on painters from the United Kingdom, but -- to cite just one instance -- the Hudson River School painters are wonderful with clouds. The Japanese have a phrase "Nihon-zora," which is used to describe what they take to be the unique beauty of the sky in Japan. Some of the most beautiful skies I have ever seen were on the coast of Thailand, as the sun sank into the Andaman Sea. I'd be hard-pressed to choose a favorite.

As for Stein's comment, I've never been able to make head or tail of anything she wrote. And this is no exception. My first thought is: she obviously never spent much time west of the Mississippi!

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.