Sunday, October 23, 2016


Autumn simplifies things.  It reminds us of that which is elemental and essential in the World, and in our life.  This is good, since existence is not as fraught with complication as we think it is.

The prevailing culture tries to convince us that certain things are important, and deserve (nay, require) our attention.  Nearly all of these things are of no account, and may be completely disregarded.  Thus, for instance, as a native of this fair and wonderful land I am exercising my freedom by ignoring the current presidential election.  I have assiduously avoided hearing even a whisper of the goings-on.  Of course, I know who the two candidates are (in this day and age, some snippets of information always leak through), but why should I devote a single moment of thought or emotion to either of them?

This is not a political statement, for I have no interest in politics.  Nor am I denigrating those who find the election important.  I expect that some of you who are reading this are appalled at my disinterest.  Please be assured that this is not a matter of me feeling superior to those citizens who participate in the process.  You will have to take me on my word that I am neither supercilious nor cynical.  But, for me, it is a very simple proposition: why should I let either of those people into my life in any way, shape, or form?

Look outside.  The leaves are falling.

     People are few;
A leaf falls here,
     Falls there.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 364.

Earlier this week, after a two-day spell of rain, the sky cleared in the late afternoon.  Cast upon the damp and dark paths,  fallen leaves (brown, orange, and yellow in all their variations) glittered, lit by the declining sun.

"The small yellow acacia leaves lie on the dark earth like immobile glimmers, mute, lighted mirrors."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for October, 1975, in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79 (Seagull Books 2013), page 268.

John Milne Donald, "Autumn Leaves" (1863)

The haiku that appear in this post are ones that I visit each autumn. Although I have been returning to them for years, and by now know them by heart, they remain fresh.  The comparison is inexact (works of art being one step removed from the particulars of the World), but the thought occurs to me:  are the leaves of autumn any less brilliant, any less beautiful, because we have seen them before?

     Blown from the west,
fallen leaves gather
     in the east.

Buson (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass (editor), The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 91.

The grass of lawns and of fields in parks, having been browned by the summer sun, is turning green again with the arrival of the autumn rains. Palls of bright leaves are spread across deep green.  Soon only the grass will remain.

"How the yellow, pink or purple leaves released suddenly, one by one, at almost regular intervals, falling silently and serenely, magnify the light. We are not capable of this."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for November, 1978, in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79, page 329.

Alexander Docharty, "An Autumn Day" (1917)

This past week, on two separate occasions, I watched caterpillars (one black and tan; one black) cross the path in front of me.  I felt charmed and grateful for having encountered them.  Moreover, they served as a reminder that I am always in need of:  Pay attention!

The wind has brought
     enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (Weatherhill 1977), page 67.

Caterpillars and human beings:  each of us in the midst of our own singular journey, crossing a brief, bright space from one dark wood to another.

Am I oversimplifying?  Anthropomorphizing?  Sentimentalizing?  If you spend time with the haiku of the masters (Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki), you will soon become intimately acquainted with the lives and fates of fireflies, cicadas, spiders, fleas, mosquitoes, flies, caterpillars, and butterflies (to name but a few).  You will come to realize that, in this existence of ours, notions of oversimplification, anthropomorphization, and sentimentality are beside the point.  You will learn to banish modern irony from your life.

"Autumn trees:  as if covered with yellow and white butterflies."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for October, 1975, in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79, page 268.

William Samuel Jay, "At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

From a caterpillar in autumn to a butterfly in spring.  Is this what autumn's poignant mix of sadness and exhilaration is telling us?

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

How does one incorporate this sort of perspective into one's own life?  A difficult task.  But think of this, for instance:  the seasons will continue to come and go long after we have returned to dust.  This can be a calming realization.

     The grasses of the garden,
They fall,
     And lie as they fall.

Ryōkan (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 366.

Wistfulness amid beauty.  Is this a unique autumn state of mind?  I used to think so, but now I'm not so sure.  This seems to be the way the World works.  For which we should be grateful.

"This unexpected gift of a tree brightened by the low sun at the end of autumn, as when a candle is lit in a darkening room."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Notes from the Ravine," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 343.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Autumn, Kinnordy" (1936)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Flowers And Stars

It has taken me far too long to get it through my thick skull (and into my head and heart) that Keats has been right all along.  But better late than never.  To wit:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Poems (1820).

One comes across those lines in one's youth, and one is likely to be enraptured.  I know I was.  Yet (at least in my hopeless case) it takes a lifetime to feel them.  Having at last reached that point, I will not brook any of the usual modern cavils:  "What is 'truth'?  What is 'beauty'?  Everything is relative.  How can we 'know' anything?"  I will have none of that, thank you.  Life is too short.

Thus, I will turn to flowers in a field.  And stars.

Where innocent bright-eyed daisies are,
     With blades of grass between,
Each daisy stands up like a star
     Out of a sky of green.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).  The poem is untitled.

One need not limit this lovely image to daisies.  The subject of the following passage is daucus carota (commonly known as wild carrot or Queen Anne's lace).

     "In the shade of tall oak trees in stately array, an airy nave in which you become calmer as soon as you have stepped across the threshold -- as in a big house.
     "You then see white spots slightly wavering, seemingly floating, like flecks of foam scattered here and there, and higher than the dark, vague mass of grass.  At the same time, equally vaguely, because things thus seen are vague, you think of ghosts hovering in this shadowy light so favorable to uncertain, unlikely forms of life . . .
     "Sparse umbels in the shadows, constellations of sorts that are more familiar, less bright, less cold and especially less fixed than those that could seemingly respond to them from above the trees once the day's beautiful veil has been drawn.
     "So I have arrived on the threshold of a kind of grass sky on which seemingly hover within arm's reach -- instead of sharp single stars -- fragile little galaxies that are floating, nearly weightless, and white just like milk or like sheep's wool when it stays snagged on gorse in the Breton islands."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Daucus, or Wild Carrot," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 209.

Hans Wilt, "Spring in Wienerwald" (1909)

Rossetti's stars in a sky of green and Jaccottet's galaxies hovering above the dark floor of a grove of oaks are "all ye need to know."  No further comment is necessary.  It would be the height of folly to say:  "Rossetti's poem is lovely because . . ."  Nothing can be added by saying:  "Jaccottet's passage is wonderful because . . ."  One of the besetting illnesses of the modern world is the compulsion to "explain" and "explicate" everything. We don't know when to leave well enough alone.

My acquaintance with the image of flowers as stars began with the following poem.

                 The Rambler

I do not see the hills around,
Nor mark the tints the copses wear;
I do not note the grassy ground
And constellated daisies there.

I hear not the contralto note
Of cuckoos hid on either hand,
The whirr that shakes the nighthawk's throat
When eve's brown awning hoods the land.

Some say each songster, tree, and mead --
All eloquent of love divine --
Receives their constant careful heed:
Such keen appraisement is not mine.

The tone around me that I hear,
The aspects, meanings, shapes I see,
Are those far back ones missed when near,
And now perceived too late by me!

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).

I cannot recall when I first read the poem.  But the phrase "constellated daisies" has always stayed with me.  In one sense it is merely a passing image that is used in service of the overall theme of the poem.  But, if you spend enough time with Hardy's poems, you come to realize that small images such as these account for a great deal of the wondrousness of his poetry.  Over the years, scores of them accumulate within your mind. Unexpectedly and unaccountably, they float up long after you first read them, for who knows what reason.  Well, Beauty and Truth, I suppose.

Carl Stolz, "Meadow with Flowers" (1939)

A good poem (or any good work of art) brings us back to the world.  It prompts us to take a fresh look at things.  This fresh look encompasses both human and natural particulars.  These particulars are not always lovely and cheerful -- poetry is not mere escapism -- but, in the hands of a good poet, they bring us into the presence of Beauty and Truth.

     "Beauty:  scattered like a seed, at the mercy of the winds, the storms, not making a sound, often lost, always destroyed; but still it blossoms haphazardly, here, there, fed by shadows, by the funereal earth, welcomed by profundity.  Weightless, fragile, almost invisible, apparently without force, exposed, abandoned, surrendered, obedient -- it binds itself to what is heavy, immobile; and a flower blooms on the mountainside.  It is.  It persists against noise, against folly, unwavering amidst blood and malediction, in life that cannot be assumed, cannot be lived.  Thus the spirit moves in spite of everything, inevitably ridiculous, unrewarded, unconvincing. . . .
     "I've said it a hundred times:  I am left with almost nothing; but it's like a very narrow gate through which we must pass and nothing indicates that the space beyond it is not as vast as we have imagined.  It is only a matter of passing through the gate and of it not swinging shut for ever."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for March, 1962, in Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), pages 57-59.

This prose passage is followed by an untitled poem:

Let silent grief
At least brood on this last chance
Of light.

Let this utmost misery
Harbour the chance of flowers.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Ibid, page 59.

Mind you, the purpose of poetry (and of art in general) is not to edify or to instruct.  This is why, for instance, "political poetry" is not poetry.  I return to a Buddhist piece of wisdom which has appeared here in the past:  we mustn't forget that a good poem (or any good work of art) is merely a finger pointing at the moon.

Tina Blau (1845-1916), "On the Schleissheimerstrasse"

But all this talk of Beauty and Truth, Truth and Beauty, means nothing outside of the larger context:  "How to Live.  What to Do."  (To borrow the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens.)  Once again, Keats is our guide.

"Call the world if you please 'The vale of Soul-making.'  Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it)."

John Keats, letter to George and Georgiana Keats (February 14 - May 3, 1819), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 249-250.  A side-note:  Keats wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in May of 1819, the same month in which the letter was posted.  This particular passage was written sometime between April 21 and April 30, 1819.

The phrase "the vale of Soul-making" receives a great deal of attention, and rightfully so.  It is a marvelous thing.  But the passage that immediately follows the two sentences quoted above deserves our attention as well.

"I say 'Soul making' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence -- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions -- but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception -- they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God -- how then are Souls to be made?  How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them -- so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence?  How, but by the medium of a world like this?"

John Keats, Ibid, page 250.

"How, but by the medium of a world like this?"  Wonderful.  Yet I harbor no illusions:  this world contains evil, ugliness, falsity, pain, and sorrow.  We experience them every day.  But withal it is a world of Beauty and Truth.    

A world of flowers and of stars.


The stars are everywhere to-night,
Above, beneath me and around;
They fill the sky with powdery light
And glimmer from the night-strewn ground;
For where the folded daisies are
In every one I see a star.

And so I know that when I pass
Where no sun's shadow counts the hours
And where the sky was there is grass
And where the stars were there are flowers,
Through the long night in which I lie
Stars will be shining in my sky.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)

Thursday, October 6, 2016


A few posts ago, I considered Matthew Arnold's use of the "Sea of Life" metaphor in his poetry.  Recently, however, my thoughts have turned to a more homely image of life:  a boat adrift on calm waters.  I have in mind a wooden rowboat.  Or perhaps, even though I am not a sailor, a small wooden sailboat.

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
     rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

Sami Mansei (8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

I prefer this image to that of a three-masted Ship of Life, under full sail, cleaving the stormy waves of Time, et cetera.  We all know the inevitable end of such a journey:  "As a rule, everyone ultimately reaches port with masts and rigging gone."  (Arthur Schopenhauer (translated by E. F. J. Payne), "Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Vanity of Existence," Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume 2 (Oxford University Press 1974; originally published in 1851), page 284.)  An oceanic circumnavigation is far too dramatic.  I fancy this instead:  "a boat amid the ripples, drifting, rocking."  (Christina Rossetti, "Pastime.")

Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "In Mevagissey Harbour, Cornwall"

Sami Mansei's boat is "rowing out at break of day," bound for a preordained end.  But it is in no hurry, and the scene is suffused with tranquility.  There is a great deal to be said for idle drifting, with a bit of occasional rowing. We will arrive when we arrive.

"These men you wander around with -- none will give you any good advice. All they have are petty words, the kind that poison a man.  No one understands, no one comprehends -- so who can give any help to anyone else?  The clever man wears himself out, the wise man worries.  But the man of no ability has nothing he seeks.  He eats his fill and wanders idly about.  Drifting like an unmoored boat, emptily and idly he wanders along."

Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (Columbia University Press 1968), page 354.

Be assured:  Chuang Tzu is advising us that "the man of no ability" who "emptily and idly . . . wanders along" -- "drifting like an unmoored boat" -- deserves our approbation, not our condemnation.  "The clever man" and "the wise man" have both got it all wrong.


Naught moves but clouds, and in the glassy lake
Their doubles and the shadow of my boat.
The boat itself stirs only when I break
This drowse of heat and solitude afloat
To prove if what I see be bird or mote,
Or learn if yet the shore woods be awake.

Long hours since dawn grew, -- spread, -- and passed on high
And deep below, -- I have watched the cool reeds hung
Over images more cool in imaged sky:
Nothing there was worth thinking of so long;
All that the ring-doves say, far leaves among,
Brims my mind with content thus still to lie.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).  Thomas wrote the poem in May of 1915.  Ibid, page 235.

China in the 4th century B. C., England in 1915, or now:  there is no difference.

Walter Goodin, "Bridlington Harbour, East Riding of Yorkshire" (1951)

Chuang Tzu is correct:  why aspire to be clever or wise?  (Besides, who in their right mind would, or could, claim to be clever or wise?)  If it is serenity and contentment that we seek (I see no reason to grasp after "happiness," whatever that may be), idle drifting seems to be the proper course of action. But one mustn't equate idleness with sloth, disinterest, or ennui:  it is an active state of being that requires attention, patience, receptivity, and humility.  One never knows when a message may arrive.

"Lessons from the world around us:  certain localities, certain moments 'incline' us towards them; there seems to be the pressure of a hand, an invisible hand, urging a change of direction (of the footsteps, the gaze, or the thoughts); the hand could also be a breath, like the breath behind leaves, clouds, sailing boats.  An insinuation, in an undertone like someone whispering 'look,' 'listen,' or merely 'wait'.  But is there still the time, the patience to wait?  And is 'waiting' really the right word?"

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Cherry Tree (Le Cerisier) (The Delos Press 1991), pages 13-14.

Stanhope Forbes, "The Inner Harbour: Abbey Slip" (1921)

Given the distractions of the modern world, Jaccottet asks a valid question: "But is there still the time, the patience to wait?"  Popular culture, the media, and technology all urge us to pursue ephemeral chimeras at ever-increasing speeds.  But each of us has it in us to step into a drifting boat at any moment and to say good-bye to all that (to borrow from Robert Graves). In my experience, this becomes easier as one ages.


When little lights in little ports come out,
Quivering down through water with the stars,
And all the fishing fleet of slender spars
Range at their moorings, veer with tide about;

When race of wind is stilled and sails are furled,
And underneath our single riding-light
The curve of black-ribbed deck gleams palely white,
And slumbrous waters pool a slumbrous world;

-- Then, and then only, have I thought how sweet
Old age might sink upon a windy youth,
Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth,
Weathered through storms, and gracious in retreat.

Vita Sackville-West, Orchard and Vineyard (John Lane 1921).

"Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth."  Well, I doubt that "old age" in itself leads us to the discovery of "the riding-light of truth" (intimations or glimpses of Truth perhaps -- if we pay attention and are lucky).  But, as for "gracious in retreat":  that is a laudable goal, and one that may be attainable as long as we keep our wits about us.

Frank Jowett, "A Sunlight Harbour"

As one who has no wisdom, and who knows nothing, my musings on being able to idly drift on calm waters are purely aspirational.  There may be moments (mere instants) when such a life seems within reach.  They immediately vanish.

Yet, we wouldn't wish it otherwise, would we?

                 Old Crofter

The gate he built last year
hangs by its elbow from the wall.
The oar he shaped this summer
goes through the water with a swirl, a swivel.

The hammer in his great hand
pecks like fowl in the grain.
His haycocks are lopsided.
His lamp stands on the dresser, unlit.

One day the rope he has tied
will slither down the rock
and the boat drift off idly
dwindling away into the Atlantic.

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

Henry Moore, "Catspaws Off the Land" (1885)