Friday, September 25, 2015


First and foremost, autumn awakens an impulse to run out into the World before it is too late.  Time is passing.  And the duration of autumn's beauty is numbered by the leaves on the trees.

But autumn also awakens a contrary impulse:  an urge to settle in, to turn inward.  Consider the endearing activity of the squirrels at this time of year: when I see them intently scurrying about among the fallen leaves, I think of the long nights that await both them and us. Yes, it is time to make ready a burrow, a nest, a refuge.

This little house
No smaller than the world
Nor I lonely
Dwelling in all that is.

Kathleen Raine, from "Short Poems," The Oracle in the Heart (Dolmen Press 1980).

But, whether our movement be outward or inward, I suspect that for most of us the emotional tenor of either movement is the same:  that pensive, wistful, and bittersweet autumnal feeling that we have come to know so well.  It only deepens with the years.  But this is not a bad thing.  Far from it.  Many of us live for autumn.

"They seek retirements in the country, on the sea-coasts, or mountains: you too used to be fond of such things.  But this is all from ignorance.  A man may any hour he pleases retire into himself; and nowhere will he find a place of more quiet and leisure than in his own soul:  especially if he has that furniture within, the view of which immediately gives him the fullest tranquillity.  By tranquillity, I mean the most graceful order.  Allow yourself continually this retirement, and refresh and renew your self."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IV, Section 3 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

Paul Drury, "September" (1928)

As I have noted here on more than one occasion, I see nothing wrong with sentimentality.  The default modern posture is irony.  The essence of modern irony is self-regarding knowingness and distance from life.  Who needs that?  I will take sentimentality over irony any day.  It is a matter of choosing warmth over coldness.

"The unspeakable blessedness of having a home!  Much as my imagination has dwelt upon it for thirty years, I never knew how deep and exquisite a joy could lie in the assurance that one is at home for ever.  Again and again I come back upon this thought; nothing but Death can oust me from my abiding place.  And Death I would fain learn to regard as a friend, who will but intensify the peace I now relish."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), page 112.

"A Quiet Normal Life."  Isn't this what most of us want?  "Here in his house and in his room,/In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked . . ."

                    Her Room

At first, not breathed on,
Not a leaf or a flower knew you were gone,
Then, one by one,

The little things put away,
The glass tray
Of medicines empty,

The poems still loved
Long after sight failed
With other closed books shelved,

And from your cabinet
Remembrances to one and another friend
Who will forget

How the little owl, the rose-bowl,
The Brig-o' Doone paperweight,
The Japanese tea-set

Lived on their shelf, just here,
So long, and there,
Binding memories together,

Binding your love,
Husband and daughter in an old photograph,
Your woven texture of life

A torn cobweb dusted down,
Swept from the silent room
That was home.

Kathleen Raine, The Oval Portrait and Other Poems (Enitharmon Press 1977).

Robin Tanner, "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

The outward and inward movements of autumn take place within a larger context, of course.  The seasonal round feels as if it will go on for ever.  The wistfulness of autumn is, we know, a prelude to "the bleak mid-winter," which has its own charms, but which will in turn awaken in us thoughts of "the cherry hung with snow."  And so it beautifully goes.

There is, though, a deeper theme at work beneath it all.

                       Words in the Air

The clear air said:  'I was your home once
but other guests have taken your place;
where will you go who liked it here so much?
You looked at me through the thick dust
of the earth, and your eyes were known to me.
You sang sometimes, you even whispered low
to someone else who was often asleep,
you told her the light of the earth
was too pure not to point a direction
which somehow avoided death.  You imagined
yourself advancing in that direction;
but now I no longer hear you.  What have you done?
Above all, what is your lover going to think?'

And she, his friend, replied through tears of happiness:
'He has changed into the shade that pleased him best.'

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon, Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998).

Paul Drury, "March Morning" (1933)

Inhabitants of the air?  Yes.  There's no getting around that.  But, in the meantime, here we are.

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (Weatherhill 1977), page 43.

Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927)

Friday, September 18, 2015


A few days ago, when I got into my car, I noticed a tiny, barely visible brown spider hanging by a thread from my rear-view mirror.  As I watched, the thread lengthened and the spider swung downward towards the dashboard.  It landed, and crawled into an air vent.

"Continually regard the World as one living thing, composed of one substance and one soul.  And reflect how all things have relation to its one perception; how it does all things by one impulse; how all things are the joint causes of all that come into being; and how closely they are interwoven and knit together."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IV, Section 40 (translated by Hastings Crossley), in Hastings Crossley, The Fourth Book of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1882), page 35.

     A lantern
Entered a house
     On the withered moor.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 283.

Norman Garstin, "Moulin de la Ville, Quimperlé" (1901)

We live in a politicized world.  Those who participate in that world talk and talk and talk.  The underlying premise of all this talk is:  I am right; you are wrong.  It is a world of nursed grievances and perceived injustices. Nursing these grievances and perceiving these injustices enables the politicized to feel better about themselves:  Look at me.  I am enlightened and concerned.  I care.

The politicized world has nothing whatsoever to do with the individual human soul.


Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon, Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Phillipe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998).

     The long night;
A light passes along
     Outside the shōji.

 Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press  1952), page 356.

Harriet Backer, "By Lamplight" (1890)

A meadow that I pass through on my afternoon walk is dotted with clumps of flowering weeds:  purple, yellow, and white.  Their names are unknown to me.  I am content to remain ignorant.  I needn't know their names to think of them as companions.

     The names unknown,
But to every weed its flower,
     And loveliness.

Sampū (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 123.

As I looked at the flowers this week, it occurred to me that these random galaxies of purple, yellow, and white will remain, returning each year in late summer and early autumn, long after I have turned into dust.  This was not an occasion for alarm.  Instead, the thought was a restful and comforting one.

"That which remembers and that which is remembered are alike creatures of a day."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IV, Section 35 (translated by Hastings Crossley), in Hastings Crossley, The Fourth Book of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, page 31.

     The light in the next room also
Goes out;
     The night is chill.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 328.

Terrick Williams, "Quiet Twilight, Honfleur" (c. 1922)

We are surrounded by, and headed towards, darkness.  To me, this darkness has an intimate feel to it.  It is not a political or a historical darkness.  It cannot be explained by Science.  Filling one's life with distractions will not cause the darkness to vanish.

                       House Fear

Always -- I tell you this they learned --
Always at night when they returned
To the lonely house from far away
To lamps unlighted and fire gone gray,
They learned to rattle the lock and key
To give whatever might chance to be
Warning and time to be off in flight:
And preferring the out- to the in-door night,
They learned to leave the house-door wide
Until they had lit the lamp inside.

Robert Frost, from "The Hill Wife," Mountain Interval (1916).

The darkness is not tragic, nor is it romantic.  It is not a cause for despair, nor is it a cause for celebration.  But it cannot be dispelled.

Because this darkness is intimate, each of us must find our own way of becoming acquainted with it.  But we are not companionless.  We are all in this together.

                                 Anchored at Night in a Creek

I climbed upon the river embankment, and stood there in the darkness;
The river breeze and frosty air chilled me.
When I turned and looked where the boat lay deep in the creek,
Among the flowers of reed and lespedeza was one point of light.

Po Chu-i (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 334.  "Lespedeza" is commonly known as "bush clover."  It blooms at this time of year.

After the fireworks,
     A falling star.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 24.

Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)

Friday, September 11, 2015


The goal of the purveyors of popular culture is to steal Time from us. Popular culture is always about the pursuit of the newest and the latest chimera.  It loathes quiet space and reverie.  Hence the freneticism we see around us.  Mind you, it has always been this way.  Modern technology merely speeds up the proliferation and demise of the distractions provided to us by the thieves of Time.

Space was holy to
pilgrims of old, till the plane
stopped all that nonsense.

W. H. Auden, from "Shorts I," Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1972).

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979) "The Cottage Window"

Let me be clear:  I do not claim to view popular culture from an Olympian height.  I am definitely not above it all.  How could I be?  I was born in the United States of America in the middle of the 1950s.  It has been a non-stop carnival of distraction since my arrival during the first term of the Eisenhower Administration.

I have no complaints.  I have the ability to choose.  And I am in no position to adopt an ironic, superior attitude to what goes on in this land, as long as no one is harmed in the process.

At some point, however, one wants to get off the Tilt-A-Whirl.

In willow shade
where clear water flows
by the wayside --
"Just a while!" I said
as I stopped to rest.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 61.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

"Space was holy to pilgrims of old."  Auden seems to have had physical space in mind -- the distances we travel.  But I think the notion of temporal space is apt as well.

We have to be jealous of the temporal space that we are allotted, for, in the end, it is all that we have.  Popular culture abhors a vacuum.  I would humbly suggest that this is where poetry and art come in.  Poets and artists create a space -- an arrested, timeless moment -- that then becomes available to all of us.  But, with all that is going on around us, it requires an act of will to inhabit that moment.

                         One Almost Might

Wouldn't you say,
Wouldn't you say:  one day,
With a little more time or a little more patience, one might
Disentangle for separate, deliberate, slow delight
One of the moment's hundred strands, unfray
Beginnings from endings, this from that, survey
Say a square inch of the ground one stands on, touch
Part of oneself or a leaf or a sound (not clutch
Or cuff or bruise but touch with finger-tip, ear-
Tip, eyetip, creeping near yet not too near);
Might take up life and lay it on one's palm
And, encircling it in closeness, warmth and calm,
Let it lie still, then stir smooth-softly, and
Tendril by tendril unfold, there on one's hand . . .

One might examine eternity's cross-section
For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection?

A. S. J. Tessimond, The Walls of Glass (Methuen 1934).

Tessimond's poetry is full of references (both approving and disapproving) to the popular culture of his day, and he worked for a time as a copywriter in the advertising business.  He does not hold himself aloof from the modern world, nor does he disparage his fellow denizens.  He knows that we are all in this together.  As in these two poems, he often reflects in a wistful, affecting fashion about what has gone missing from our lives.

                           Empty Room

The clock disserts on punctuation, syntax.
The clock's voice, thin and dry, asserts, repeats.
The clock insists:  a lecturer demonstrating,
Loudly, with finger raised, when the class has gone.

But time flows through the room, light flows through the room
Like someone picking flowers, like someone whistling
Without a tune, like talk in front of a fire,
Like a woman knitting or a child snipping at paper.

A. S. J. Tessimond, Ibid.

Anthony Eyton, "A Kitchen Range" (c. 1984)

Looking back at what I have written in this post, I fear that I sound annoyingly haughty or high-minded on the subject of popular culture.  But, as I said above, I have no complaints.  I am wholly a product of it, it is where I live, and I take the good with the bad.  Please take what I have written as an admonition to myself.  Something along these lines:

"Some think that sloth, one of the capital sins, means ordinary laziness," I began.  "Sticking in the mud.  Sleeping at the switch.  But sloth has to cover a great deal of despair.  Sloth is really a busy condition, hyperactive.  This activity drives off the wonderful rest or balance without which there can be no poetry or art or thought -- none of the highest human functions.  These slothful sinners are not able to acquiesce in their own being, as some philosophers say.  They labor because rest terrifies them.  The old philosophy distinguished between knowledge achieved by effort (ratio) and knowledge received (intellectus) by the listening soul that can hear the essence of things and comes to understand the marvelous.  But this calls for unusual strength of soul.  The more so since society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness.  It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances.  The true poise, that of contemplation or imagination, sits right on the border of sleep and dreaming."

Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (Viking 1975), page 306.

                    Five Minutes

"I'm having five minutes," he said,
Fitting the shelter of the cobble wall
Over his shoulders like a cape.  His head
Was wrapped in a cap as green
As the lichened stone he sat on.  The winter wind
Whined in the ashes like a saw,
And thorn and briar shook their red
Badges of hip and haw;
The fields were white with smoke of blowing lime;
Rusty iron brackets of sorel stood
In grass grey as the whiskers round an old dog's nose.
"Just five minutes," he said;
And the next day I heard that he was dead,
Having five minutes to the end of time.

Norman Nicholson, The Pot Geranium and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1954).

Harold Jones, "The Black Door" (c. 1935)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

"The First Winds Of Autumn"

As I have observed here in the past, the turning of the seasons is a matter of emotion and of sensory impressions.  The seasons come to our hearts when they come, regardless of equinoxes and solstices, or of dates on the calendar.

Last week, I received the first hint that autumn was imminent.  As I walked towards a favorite tree, I noticed a single spray of bright red leaves amidst its uppermost boughs.  Then, just as I passed into the tree's shadow, a lone red leaf fluttered down in front of me and landed at my feet.  This was a lovely and gentle signal.

This week, autumn arrived in earnest.  As I passed through a meadow on my afternoon walk, a row of trees on my left, a sudden breeze crossed the field from the west.  There was no mistaking the underlying chill -- however subtle -- in that breeze.  Autumn had arrived.

Even in a person
most times indifferent
to things around him
they waken feelings --
the first winds of autumn.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watston, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 67.

In the original Japanese, the word that Burton Watson translates as "feelings" is kokoro.  Kokoro is a wonderful word which means both "heart, feelings" and "mind, mentality."  Kodansha's Romanized Japanese-English Dictionary (Kodansha 1993), page 263.  I like to think of it as an amalgam:  something along the lines of "heart-mind-soul."

Note that Saigyō uses kokoro, not a value-laden word such as "sadness" or "happiness."  Kokoro is perfect, for it covers any and all of the emotions that may arise when we feel the first winds of autumn.

George Vicat Cole, "Iffley Mill" (1884)

The image of Robert Frost as a kindly, homily-spinning nature poet is by now a cliché.  It is an image that Frost worked hard to create, probably to throw us off track.  In fact, Nature and the Universe are often indifferent, and sometimes even threatening, in Frost's poetry.

                   Now Close the Windows

Now close the windows and hush all the fields:
     If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
     Be it my loss.

It will be long ere the marshes resume,
     It will be long ere the earliest bird:
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
     But see all wind-stirred.

Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).

I've never known quite what to make of this poem.  It appears to be set in autumn, just before the onset of winter:  is there something foreboding in that prospect that makes the speaker want to shut out Nature?  On the other hand, the speaker only desires Nature to be silent:  he remains willing to "see all wind-stirred."  There is something beautiful in seeing the trees "silently toss," isn't there?  Is Frost telling us that we ought to keep all of our senses awake to what is around us?  At this point I feel myself venturing close to "explanation" and "explication," the death of poetry. Time to stop.

Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"

As long-time readers of this blog know, I am very fond of the Poets of the Nineties, particularly Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson.  Their dreamy world of wistful longing is one that I am willing to dwell in for days at a time.

Although the Poets of the Nineties are certainly not "nature poets," they are quite good at teasing out the emotional implications of those parts of Nature that are dear to their hearts:  twilight, mists, autumn, birds twittering in the shadows, the sound of a stream flowing in the distance, wind . . .

                    The Lovers of the Wind

Can any man be quiet in his soul
And love the wind?  Men love the sea, the hills:
The bright sea drags them under, and the hills
Beckon them up into the deadly air;
They have sharp joys, and a sure end of them.
But he who loves the wind is like a man
Who loves a ghost, and by a loveliness
Ever unseen is haunted, and he sees
No dewdrop shaken from a blade of grass,
No handle lifted, yet she comes and goes,
And breathes beside him.  And the man, because
Something, he knows, is nearer than his breath
To bodily life, and nearer to himself
Than his own soul, loves with exceeding fear.
And so is every man that loves the wind.
How shall a man be quiet in his soul
When a more restless spirit than a bird's
Cries to him, and his heart answers the cry?
Therefore have fear, all ye who love the wind.
There is no promise in the voice of the wind,
It is a seeking and a pleading voice
That wanders asking in an unknown tongue
Infinite unimaginable things.
Shall not the lovers of the wind become
Even as the wind is, gatherers of the dust,
Hunters of the impossible, like men
Who go by night into the woods with nets
To snare the shadow of the moon in pools?

Arthur Symons, The Fool of the World and Other Poems (1906).

I realize that this sort of thing is not everybody's cup of tea.  But I think it is a wonderful poem.  It is the sort of poem that only a poet of the Nineties could write.  I love the repetitions (a characteristic Nineties technique): "Can any man be quiet in his soul;" "How shall a man be quiet in his soul." And: "he who loves the wind;" "every man that loves the wind;" "all ye who love the wind;" "the lovers of the wind."  I love the fact that Symons uses the word "soul" three times.  It is a crucial word in Nineties poetry.  And what a lovely image at the end:  "like men/Who go by night into the woods with nets/To snare the shadow of the moon in pools."  Yes, there is something in the poetry of the Nineties that cannot be found anywhere else.

Walter Goodin, "The River Beverley" (1938)

A return to spareness is in order as we consider autumn, and what follows.

     To the Roaring Wind

What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

This poem provides a good counterpoint to Saigyō's poem.  Stevens was not one to talk openly of "feelings."  At first thought, I would not associate the word "kokoro" with Stevens's poetry:  it is a pretty cerebral business.  Yet I think my first thought does Stevens a disservice:  he has a different way of bringing "feelings" and emotions into his poetry.  But they are there.

Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"