Wednesday, February 4, 2015


As I walked through the backyard a few days ago, it was full of twitterings and snatches of song.  Sparrows, chickadees, robins, starlings?  I'm no expert on these ornithological matters.  Besides, as is their wont, they were shy, and thus hidden.

In my younger years, I was on the lookout for bedizened birds: cardinals, orioles, tanagers, and the like.  But now I am fond of these workaday companions, who are with us always.  Think of the generations of them that have accompanied us through our lives!  There is little in life that is constant, or that can be relied upon, but this humble, comforting chorus has never ceased.

                    Winter Garden

The dunnock in the hedge -- is he fearful
or fastidious?  His eyes are fixed on the bird table
where five free-for-all sparrows
peck in a shower bath of crumbs.

A mouse zigzags
among the frozen raspberry canes,
going nowhere elaborately.

Three apple trees look as if they'd get on rehearsing
as Macbeth's witches
if they had the energy.

And, only seven hours old,
the day begins to die.

-- The sparrows have gone, telling everybody, and the dunnock
is giving us all
a lesson in table manners.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

John Nash, "Winter Scene, Buckinghamshire" (1920)

As a rule, Japanese waka and haiku poets do not traffic in "symbols," "metaphors," or "allegories."  They simply report what is going on in the World around us.  All this thinking that we do is highly overrated.

If they didn't sing
we'd just take them
for deeper-hued leaves --
the flocks of greenfinches
feeding on willow buds.

Saigyo (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991).

Now, I acknowledge that it certainly took some thinking on Saigyo's part to compose this poem.  But the thinking went into figuring out how to present this beautiful piece of the World to us with the least amount of interference and elaboration.  Lest we destroy Saigyo's lovely report on experience, we must resist mightily such thoughts as:  "The flocks of greenfinches symbolize . . ."  Or, worse:  "The meaning of this waka is . . ."  No.  We must stop all that.  Saigyo has given us the World.  That is enough.

John Nash, "Winter Scene"

When it comes to birds, I suppose that anthropomorphism is always a danger (the Pathetic Fallacy, sentimentality, et cetera).  But is this really a danger?  If we don't see ourselves out there in the World, then where do we see ourselves?  In the mirror?  In the phantasies, phantasms, and frauds of popular culture?

     Family of Long-tailed Tits

Their twittering isn't avant-garde
or confessional or aleatory.
It doesn't quote other birds
or utter manifestos telling them
how to sing.

It's congruent with their way of flying,
for that, too,
is a sweetest, softest twittering
to the eye.

The clumsy, clever human
bumbles about in the space
between his actions and his words.
No congruence there.

He listens with envy
while their song flirts
from one twig of silence
to another one.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

John Nash, "Melting Snow at Wormingford" (1962)


Acornmoon said...

I do hope thee little everyday companions will always be with us. We might have thought we would always have elm trees and now ash trees are under threat. Thankfully my garden is full of house sparrows and starlings but these are now in decline. When our Oxford children's dictionary no longer finds a space for nature words like acorn and buttercup will future generations be able to articulate or relate to nature poetry? I always enjoy reading your posts and love your choices of paintings especially.

Andrew Rickard said...

"A painting by John Nash is like a sentence spoken by a gentleman, perfectly enunciated, quiet, complete, yet with a certain reserve about it as of things left unsaid"

I've no idea who wrote this -- according to a Christie's auction catalogue it's from a review in the The Colchester Express -- but I think it could also be said of your blog posts. They are always a pleasure to read.

Hope this finds you well.

Best regards,


Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Greeley: Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your kind words.

I understand your concerns about the disappearance of these small things, and the survivability of nature poetry. On the other hand, nature poetry, and poetry in general, perhaps always seem to be on the verge of extinction. After all, poetry is forever out of the "mainstream," kept alive in each generation by a small group of those who love it. I don't mean this in an elitist sense: it is simply a fact. It is up to each of us to do what we can to preserve it.

As ever, thank you for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Andrew: That's very nice of you! My first reaction is something pop-culturish: "I'm not worthy!" But I do greatly appreciate your kind words. However, the little that I do here is not within the same universe (many light years away!) as John Nash and the beauty he has given to the world. I will say this: "a certain reserve" and "things left unsaid" are qualities that I aspire to (but seldom achieve).

As always, it is good to hear from you. Again, your kindness is much appreciated.

Michael said...

Stephen -

The final MacCaig poem reminds of the below from Lawrence, though with a more caustic flavour. I had to transcribe it as I couldn't find it online.

I very much enjoy your blog, which I've only recently discovered.

Listen to the Band!

There is a band playing in the early night,
but it is only unhappy men making a noise
to drown their inner cacophony: and ours.

A little moon, quite still, leans and sings to herself
through the night
and the music of men is like a mouse gnawing,
gnawing in a wooden trap, trapped in.

Stephen Pentz said...

Michael: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope that you'll keep returning.

And thank you as well for sharing the poem by Lawrence, which is new to me. As you say, "more caustic" perhaps, but lovely (and true) in its own way. I agree that it is a nice complement to MacCaig's poem. (It also reminds me that I have not read as much of Lawrence's poetry as I ought to have.)

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

One of the first English poets wrote of birdsong. In Piers Plowmen Wm. Langland writes:

This I went wide-where, walking alone,
In a wide wilderness, by a wood side.
Bliss of the birds song made me abide there,
And on a lawn under a linden I leaned awhile
To listen to their lays, their lovely notes;
The mirth of their mouths made me to sleep,
And mid that bliss I dreamed marvelously.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: I greatly appreciate your sharing this passage. It is absolutely wonderful and beautiful, and fits perfectly here.

Again, thank you very much for sharing it with us.

Mathias Richter said...

A lovely, touching post. Thank you!

A poem which goes well with your heading is Andrew Young's "The Yellow-Hammers". The poet describes a casual meeting with a flock of yellow-hammers and wonders:

Myself, the road, the hedge, these flying things,
Who led, who followed as we climbed the hill?

When they are gone he muses:

How I but now had served so sweet a use,
Driving my golden flock.

Is there a perhaps a religious connotation? After all Young was a Presbyterian minister when writing his early poetry. But then I think Young's poetry is perhaps nearer to the Japanese tradition, preferring exact but sympathetic description to symbolism and hidden meanings. I don't know if he ever studied Japanese poetry. (After stripping off his early symbolist influences his main inspiration became Hardy and Edward Thomas.) But a poem like " The Last Leaf " goes strikingly well with your Saigyo waka I think.
Thank you for making me acquainted with it!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Richter: Thank you very much for bringing in Andrew Young in connection with birds. He wrote many wonderful poems with birds as the subject, didn't he? And you've mentioned two of the best.

And thank you in particular for mentioning how well "The Last Leaf" goes with Saigyo's waka: I agree that they are perfect complements. As you may recall, I posted "The Last Leaf" in the past, but it completely slipped my mind, otherwise I would have linked to it in the post, since, as you say, the resemblance is indeed striking. "Then that too bursting into song/Fled and was gone." Wonderful.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you again for sharing these thoughts on Andrew Young.