Wednesday, August 24, 2016


We humans make a great deal of racket, don't we?  Talking.  Always talking.  And to what end?  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my favorite statements about the mystery of existence:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).  Here is an alternative translation (by C. K Ogden):  "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

This sort of statement befuddles moderns, for they have been taught to believe that everything is ultimately subject to explanation.  This belief (and it is a belief, not a fact) accounts for most of the noise around us:  a never-ending, purportedly "rational" discourse about the causes and effects of the World's minute particulars, which are often perceived as "problems" or "crises" that need to be solved.  Words and yet more words.

Confronted with this barren and tedious state of affairs, my response is to keep my mouth shut.  Why add to the clamor?

But perhaps there is another path available.  Not utter silence, but a type of communication that takes inspiration from the World around us -- the real World.

     All the long day --
Yet not long enough for the skylark,
     Singing, singing.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 195.

The World around us never stops singing.  But it does so in a reserved and seemly fashion.  Without grievance.  With no agenda to pursue.  I would rather attend to the World's music than to the human welter of words, words, words.  With one exception, of course:  the words of poets.

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), "The Small Meadows in Spring" (1880)

As one might expect, our mortality enters into this.  Time is short.  The final two lines of L. A. G. Strong's poem "Garramor Bay," which appeared in my previous post, come to mind:  "O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,/Make music, my heart, before the long silence."

Imagine the life of a cicada.  All those years biding your time in the dark earth.  Then one day, suddenly, there you are:  out in the bright blue and green.  What else would you wish to do but sing?

Knowing what we know -- that they will live but a few short weeks above ground -- their singing takes on a sad and wistful aspect.  How much do they know?  "Nor dread nor hope attend/A dying animal."  (W. B. Yeats, "Death.")  Is this true?  I'm not in a position to say.

     Nothing intimates,
In the voice of the cicada,
     How soon it will die.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 234.

I once lived in Japan for a year, and I was astonished when I first heard the sound of the cicadas in summer:  a shrill, piercing vibration, a chorus consisting of a thousand dentist's drills, magnified and echoing.  The Japanese word for cicada is semi (pronounced "se-mee").  One of Bashō's poems captures perfectly the intensity of the sound of the semi in summer and early autumn:

     The silence;
The voice of the cicadas
     Penetrates the rocks.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 229.

That's it exactly:  a fantastic and breathtaking drilling-down.  But here's the wonderful thing:  my initial astonishment at the screeching chorus soon turned to fondness.  From the outside, the semi is an unlovely creature, but, as singers, they are soothing and endearing.  What's more, we and the semi share the same destiny:  a short time spent above ground. "Make music, my heart, before the long silence."

Alfred Sisley, "A Turn of the River Loing, Summer" (1896)

The songs that emanate from the World come in many forms, and from unexpected quarters.  A fragment of blank verse by William Wordsworth, which appeared in my post of July 31, seems apt in this context:

                                Why is it we feel
So little for each other, but for this,
That we with nature have no sympathy,
Or with such things as have no power to hold
Articulate language?
And never for each other shall we feel
As we may feel, till we have sympathy
With nature in her forms inanimate,
With objects such as have no power to hold
Articulate language.  In all forms of things
There is a mind.

William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden Notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), page 340.

Wordsworth expressed his concern about our having "no sympathy" with nature, or with "such things as have no power to hold/Articulate language," in 1798.  What can we say of the state of that "sympathy" now, more than two centuries later?

In Japan, in the late 17th century, a poet could write this:

     With what voice,
And what song would you sing, spider,
     In this autumn breeze?

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 85.

A vast, empty space of "reason" and "enlightenment" lies between us and the World as Bashō and Wordsworth experienced it.  But, fortunately, that World has not vanished.  It is a World in which one can still imagine a spider singing.

Alfred Sisley, "The Path to the Old Ferry at By" (1880)

As I have noted here in the past, the choice is ours to make:  we can live in an enchanted World or in a disenchanted World.  Although, come to think of it, I'm not sure that this is a matter of choice.  One feels that there is something immanent within, beneath, and behind the beautiful surface of the World or one does not.  I do not say this in a judgmental fashion.  Our emotional sense of how we fit into the World is a wholly mysterious thing, and I am only qualified to speak of how the World feels to me.

It will come as no surprise that I opt for an enchanted, singing World. Skylarks and cicadas and spiders.  And a hototogisu beneath the moon.

     What!  Was it the moon
That cried?
     A hototogisu!

Baishitsu (1768-1852) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 167.  The hototogisu is the Japanese cuckoo.  The word is pronounced thus:  hō-tō-tō-gē (with a hard g) -sū.

The following passage appears in a discussion by Gilbert Murray of the Greek dramatist Euripides.  It eloquently articulates one way of seeing the World.

"Reason is great, but it is not everything.  There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life."

Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (Heinemann 1897), page 272.

I know next to nothing.  But it seems to me that we ought not to limit our potential sources of illumination and revelation.  Here is yet another voice from the World:

All was grey dust save a little fire
and the oriole said:  Who are you?  What are you doing?
Nothing was moving yet to its end.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Michael Hamburger), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Extracts from the Notebooks 1954-1967 (New Directions 1977), page 24.  The poem is untitled.

Alfred Sisley, "Flood at Moret" (1879)


Fred said...

Those are two of my favorite haiku by Basho. Thanks for reminding me of them, especially for

The silence;
The voice of the cicadas
Penetrates the rocks.

Another favorite is

Twilight whippoorwill. . .
Whistle on, sweet deepener
Of dark loneliness

-- Basho --
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Trans. Peter Beilenson

Mudpuddle said...

extraordinarily good post; thanks...

the millet field
by the side of the sea,
under the summer sun

Roseki a history of haiku, vol 2, p. 144, r.h. blyth

Bruce Floyd said...

Touch lightly Nature's sweet Guitar
Unless thou know'st the Tune
Or every Bird will point at thee
Because a Bard too soon-
--Emily Dickinson

Keep thy mouth shut, thy tongue still, and listen to the summer wind at twilight. Thou flawed words, ignorant exegesis, cannot hope to imitate the original, and, besides, the birds will mock thy arrogance,thy inferior song. Or so it seems to this imagination.

deborah said...

A beautiful piece of writing that made me stop, think and enjoy the morning.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I'm pleased you liked the haiku. Thank you for sharing the whippoorwill haiku, which is new to me. Very nice.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: Thank you for your kind words about the post, and for visiting again. And thank you as well for the lovely haiku, which is new to me. It will take me a lifetime to work my way through the four volumes of Blyth's Haiku and the two volumes of his A History of Haiku. I am always discovering something new.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you for the poem by Dickinson, and for your own thoughts: they fit perfectly here. I completely agree with both you and Dickinson. As always, thank you very much for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deborah: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you very much. These posts are a way for me to try to articulate (always inadequately!) how I feel about certain things, and it is gratifying to discover that these subjects may resonate with others as well.

Thank you again.

mary f.ahearn said...

Another Basho -

the shell of a cicada
it sang itself
utterly away

How I enjoyed this posting! A bow and many thanks for the poems presented so beautifully.


Laura D. said...

Ah, Stephen, one of my favorite summer sounds, the cicadas. In Chicago we have annual cicadas, which are active now, in August, and fill sunny days with their loud song. They drown out normal conversation.

But every 17 years, we get the Magicicadas that come out in May and June. The first time was just before my sixth birthday. They were everywhere and so loud you couldn't hear jet engines over them. I pulled their shells off telephone poles covered in them and out of gutters where they clustered. I've seen and heard them three times in my life now, and they are stunning in every way.

Another of my favorite summer sounds is crickets. A few weeks ago I wrote this about them both.

hot cicada whirr
turns cool thrumming cricket song
when night takes over

David said...

What a delightful post!

A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.

This haiku by Basho brings tears to my eyes.

John Ashton said...

Wonderful, wonderful post Mr Pentz. Unfortunately I've not been too well over the past few weeks, hopefully on the road to recovery now. The one positive side of being unwell and at home is that it has given me more time than I usually have to spend reading and re-reading poetry and I am enormously grateful for that, if not for the reason I've find myself confined to the house.

I might perhaps share a few words of my own written many years ago.I make absolutely no claim for their literary merit, but they seem to fit with your post.

Too often this world can seem
a little to one side, our thoughts elsewhere
So much slips by lost to the clatter of the world's noise.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: As always, it's nice to hear from you. Thank you for the kind words about the post.

Yes, that is a lovely haiku, isn't it? As a matter of fact, I struggled over whether to include it in the post rather than "Nothing intimates . . ." But now, thanks to you (and to David -- please see his comment as well), they are both here!

Thank you for visiting again. I hope you are enjoying what remains of the summer. Autumn is beginning to make itself evident here, as I'm sure it is in your part of the country.

Stephen Pentz said...

Laura D: Thank you very much for your thoughts on cicadas. You are fortunate to have them where you live. We don't have them out here, to my knowledge. But I do remember them from growing up in Minnesota -- although I don't recall the massive chorus that I experienced in Japan. I love the thought of the 13-year and 17-year broods of cicadas. What a wonderful thing that is. And it's lovely that you can remember each time they have reappeared in your life.

Thank you as well for your haiku. Crickets do have their own charm, don't they? Fortunately, we do have those here. I love to hear them singing off in the grass of the meadows when I take my afternoon walk.

Thank you for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

David: It's delightful that you, Mary (please see her comment above), and I all share a fondness for that particular haiku by Bashō. I am the same as you: I am moved each time I read it (or when it arises out of memory). It is impossible to forget it after having first encountered it, isn't it? As I said in my response to Mary's comment, I ultimately decided not to include it in the post, but now, thanks to you and Mary, it appears here anyway -- which is wonderful.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for sharing the haiku.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: I'm happy to hear from you again. I thought perhaps you were busy with preparations for the coming school year, so I am sorry to hear you haven't been feeling well. I wish you a speedy recovery.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for sharing your own poem, which is lovely. Yes, I know the feeling of the world seeming "a little to one side" -- speaking for myself, it is a constant struggle not to get caught up in "the clatter of the world's noise." As you know, going out for a walk seems to cure that, and bring us back to what is important.

As ever, thank you for visiting. I hope that you will soon be up and around and back to normal. Take care.

Graham Guest said...

Coincidentally, Stephen, I was reading this post on my phone on Thursday in the dentist’s waiting room and was able to suggest to my dentist that she put people at ease by getting them to imagine the sound of cicadas when she is drilling.

whirr of dentist’s drill
or cicadas’ summer shrill
just filling in time

“Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.” - George Eliot

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guest: Well, that's a nice coincidence! I hope your dentist didn't mind being compared with cicadas. Thank you for the haiku -- with rhymes, and a pun as well!

And thank you also for the quote from George Eliot, which is new to me. Very wise. We should start with all politicians (left, right, and center, it matters not to me).

As always, thank you very much for visiting.