Monday, November 30, 2015


While I was in Minnesota last week, I was able to take a walk through a marsh-dotted wood.  It was a dun-colored world, a world of (to borrow from Thomas Hardy) "neutral tones."  Unseen birds twittered and clucked off in the cattails, or along the floor of the forest.  Grey squirrels crossed the path in front of me, going about their preparations for winter.

     An autumn evening;
Without a cry,
     A crow passes.

Kishū (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 345.

Kishū's haiku captures perfectly and beautifully how the world often makes itself known to us:  unexpectedly, and by degrees.  But we mustn't think of the crow as a "symbol" or a "metaphor" for the world's gracious appearance in our life.  As I have noted here before, we need to stop thinking so much. This whole thinking business is highly overrated.

An autumn evening.  A crow passes overhead in silence.  That's it.  Stop right there.

Benjamin Leader, "At Evening Time It Shall Be Light" (1897)

I haven't lived in the land of my birth for nearly fifty years, but the emotional essence of late November days in The Land of 10,000 Lakes still abides within me.  Those days can be dark and empty, but there is an undercurrent of expectation.

                   A Spell Before Winter

After the red leaf and the gold have gone,
Brought down by the wind, then by hammering rain
Bruised and discolored, when October's flame
Goes blue to guttering in the cusp, this land
Sinks deeper into silence, darker into shade.
There is a knowledge in the look of things,
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

Now I can see certain simplicities
In the darkening rust and tarnish of the time,
And say over the certain simplicities,
The running water and the standing stone,
The yellow haze of the willow and the black
Smoke of the elm, the silver, silent light
Where suddenly, readying toward nightfall,
The sumac's candelabrum darkly flames.
And I speak to you now with the land's voice,
It is the cold, wild land that says to you
A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things:
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

Howard Nemerov, The Next Room of the Dream (University of Chicago Press 1962).

And thus the snow came a few times last week -- a lovely and welcome sight.  We all want to walk out into it.  Everything has changed.

Benjamin Leader, "Autumn in a Surrey Wood" (1902)

I know nothing about how to live.  And I possess no wisdom whatsoever. But, if one lives long enough, one eventually discovers that certain truisms are true.  One is well advised to pay attention to them.  Of course, there are those who think they are superior to these truisms:  "I'm more complex and nuanced than that!"  No, you are not.  You are a human being with a soul. Join the crowd.

As a member of that blessed and miraculous group, here's your first truism: you have no control.  Now you can begin to live.

                           The Consent

Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone:  the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

What signal from the stars?  What senses took it in?
What in those wooden motives so decided
To strike their leaves, to down their leaves,
Rebellion or surrender?  and if this
Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?
What use to learn the lessons taught by time,
If a star at any time may tell us:  Now.

Howard Nemerov, The Western Approaches (University of Chicago Press 1975).

Benjamin Leader, "A Worcestershire Farm" (1900)

The tendency to think and think and think goes hand in hand with the illusion of control.  On an autumn evening, a crow passes silently overhead.  A small miracle.  We have no say in the matter.  Our response should be gratitude.

     Fallen leaves
Come flying from elsewhere:
     Autumn is ending.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), p. 355.

Fallen leaves arriving from elsewhere.  What a wonder.

Benjamin Leader, "November" (1884)


Deborah Vass said...

Thank you for another perfect interlude. I love the haiku, which is as appropriate here in Norfolk as it is in Minnesota. You might like to know that on BBC radio 4 on Friday at 2.15 (UK time) there is a play about Hardy, "Tess in Winter" based on Christopher Nicholson's "Winter", which I greatly enjoyed.

Anonymous said...

Do you read French?
The Nemerov poems reminded me of a poem a bit more explicit in your terms by André Chénier ("A de Pange") containing these lines:

Humains, nous ressemblons aux feuilles d'un ombrage
Dont au faîte des cieux le soleil remonté
Rafraîchit dans nos bois les chaleurs de l'été.
Mais l'hiver, accourant d'un vol sombre et rapide,
Nous sèche, nous flétrit, et son souffle homicide
Secoue et fait voler, dispersés dans les vents,
Tous ces feuillages morts qui font place aux vivants.

A very rough and literal ad hoc translation would be:

Humans, we are similar to leaves of a canopy
Which as the sun mounts the top of the skies
Gives relief in our forests of the summer's heat.
But winter comes by in its fast and somber flight
And dries us out, makes us wither, its homicidal breath
Shaking down and sending away to be scattered by winds
All those dead leaves to make place for the living.

Your blog is a wonder, thank you.

mary f.ahearn said...

This is a lovely post, thank you for the poems and the wonderful art - how beautifully Benjamin Leader catches the light. The poems will be copied into my workbook to be re-read again and again.
Here's some lines from Sylvia Plath's "Flute Note from a Reedy Pond" in her The Colossus -
"Hourly the eye of the sky enlarges its blank
Dominion. The stars are no nearer.
Already frog-mouth and fish-mouth drink
The liguor of indolence, and all thinks sink

Into a caul of forgetfulness.
The fugitive colors die."

The transitional time between late Autumn and Winter - it is a time of acceptance, isn't it?

Thank you again for what you give your readers -

John Ashton said...

Acceptance, yes indeed Mr Pentz. It is one thing we should all learn. Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes reminds me, in my imagination of East Anglia, particularly at tis time of year. A low-lying, water-dominated world. The mist across the fen-lands, the black earth, the sodden grasses edging the fields...

Leaves fall, silently entering silence.

As you say, that's it.

It is astonishing the emotional resonance that the seemingly empty days of autumn's end can have, particularly if it is in the land of your birth.

No snow here. The weather is far too mild, but the woods invite us everyday, and change is there too if we let ourselves have time to notice, and remember we have a soul. Attend, notice and have gratitude for each moment. For each moment is a small miracle as you so rightly say. I never cease to be amazed by the number of people walking about in the world, plugged into various devices, who neither hear nor see the world about them.
Thank you for the Howard Nemerov poems. I am familiar with his name but not his poems. I like the first verse of A spell before winter very much.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Vass: Thank you for your kind words about the post. I'm pleased you liked the haiku. As you know, one of the wonderful things about haiku (and about poems in general) is that, although they are the product of a specific moment in a specific place, they resonate across all places (and times): Japan, Norfolk, Minnesota . . .

I appreciate your pointing out the upcoming Hardy program on BBC Radio 4. I read the program note for it on the BBC website, and it looks interesting. I will try to listen, but sometimes with the BBC overseas access is not available.

Thank you very much for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

afuchs: Thank you very much for the poem: it goes wonderfully here. Chénier is new to me, so I appreciate your sharing the poem. I was able to do a little Internet research on him: a short, tragic life.

I cannot say that I know French, but my high school and college French language courses enable me to understand about half of the vocabulary in the poem. But at least I can still catch the sound of the original. Your translation is lovely: thank you for taking the time to provide it.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I hope you will return soon.

Anonymous said...

This is an evening in this world when I profoundly wish that I could walk away into one of those paintings by Benjamin Leader, or sit in that patch of sunshine by the river, which reminds me of places I have had happy times.
I recently read an interesting post on the internet about gingko trees; among other things, I was surprised to learn that they make up ten percent of the trees in New York City. There are many in my neighborhood; most, but not all, leafless now.
Thank you for this post, Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: Thank you very much for visiting again, for your thoughts, and for your kind words.

Yes, the light in Leader's paintings is wonderful, isn't it? The ability of a painter to capture the look and feel of the peculiar light of autumn always impresses me, and Leader does it in a number of paintings.

Thank you for the lovely lines from Plath's poem. I found the entire poem on the Internet: very nice. It fits well in this context and with, as you suggest, the idea of "acceptance." I like the line "This is not death, it is something safer" that appears later in the poem.

Thanks again. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you.

I've never been to East Anglia (although I hope to visit some day), but I can imagine similarities with the Minnesota lake country in the north. Although there are a number of large lakes in Minnesota (Mille Lacs Lake, Lake Vermilion, Lake of the Woods, etc.), it is the smaller lakes, with their marshy edges, hidden away in the dense forests of birches and pines, that make your comparison resonate with me: as you say, a "water-dominated world."

Your line "Leaves fall, silently entering silence" is wonderful, and captures perfectly the mood of this time of year. Thank you. Silence is the essence.

I'm pleased you liked the poems by Nemerov. As I believe I have mentioned here before, he is a wonderful poet of autumn.

Thank you very much for stopping by again. I hope you have been able to find time to make some autumn excursions.

Bruce Floyd said...


Below is the conclusion of Wislowa Szymborska's Nobel Acceptance speech delivered on December 7, 1996, on her receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. I think her point, if I may be so bold, is that the world is astonishing--but, and she stresses this point, this astonishment is no more than that which is around us all the time.

But the "ordinary" world is not ordinary at all. And if we listen to our greatest poets they will demonstrate to us just how astonishing our world is and, doubly astonishing, if one can make such an absurd comment, is the presence of a self-conscious creature to reveal that this "ordinary" world most of claim a close relationship with is far from our knowing, except some poet bend his imagination to the task of showing us.

The world - whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don't know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing.

But "astonishing" is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We're astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we've grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn't based on comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events" ... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world.

It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Yes, I know exactly what you mean about wanting to walk away into one of Leader's paintings in light of The News of the World. I suspect that most of the paintings that I choose are of that nature! And the News usually gives us ample reason to wish to escape.

I didn't realize that there was such a large number of ginkgo trees in New York City. They remind me of aspens. They have been around a long time: in Washington, we have a Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park in the middle of the state, along the Columbia River.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: As ever, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. And thank you as well for the passage from Szymborska, which is wonderful. Your remarks and her remarks bring to mind one of my favorite thoughts from Wittgenstein (which I have quoted on the blog on more than one occasion): "Not HOW the world is, is the mystical, but THAT it is." Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.44 (emphases in original).

Thank you again.

RT said...

You say:
I know nothing about how to live. And I possess no wisdom whatsoever. But, if one lives long enough, one eventually discovers that certain truisms are true. One is well advised to pay attention to them.

I say:
I suspect the truths surround us when we take time to apprehend Nature; and when that is not possible, the next best thing is Poetry. Surely both can remind us of our own need to commit ourselves to seeking Truth.

By coincidence, I have been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson. He seems somehow germane to what you have said.

All the best to you again (I've been away and silent for a while) from R.T. at Beyond Eastrod.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your thoughts on Truth, with which I completely agree.

I confess that my knowledge of Emerson is scant. I need to explore him further. Thank you for the recommendation.

As always, thank you very much for visiting. No problem whatsoever about being "away and silent for a while." I appreciate your long-time presence here. I hope that all is well.

Martin Caseley said...

Thank you for the fine Leader paintings with this post. Having grown up in Worcestershire, I know that fields like this still exist relatively unchanged in odd corners of the county such as Upton Snodsbury, Alcester (pronounced 'Ulstir') and Inkberrow. The only difference now is that the black and white farm workers' cottages have now been refurbished and look a lot newer/ less damp than when Leader painted them! For the ultimate Leader wet Worcestershire fields painting, have a look at 'February Fill Dyke'.

I always enjoy reading your ruminations.
Martin Caseley

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Caseley: I'm happy to hear that scenes such as those painted by Leader may still survive, albeit somewhat altered -- although the special cast of light in each season and the reflections in the water are timeless, aren't they? Yes, there is often a feeling of dampness about Leader's cottages, barns, and churches, isn't there? I'm familiar with 'February Fill Dyke,' which is indeed lovely. I've been waiting for an opportunity to use it with some appropriate poems -- perhaps this coming February.

Thank you very much for visiting, and for your kind words about the blog, which I greatly appreciate. I hope you'll return soon. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!