Saturday, September 30, 2017

Nearly. Not Quite Yet.

Here is where we find ourselves:  "Now it is September and the web is woven,/The web is woven and you have to wear it."  Earlier this week, I watched a butter-yellow caterpillar crossing a path, headed toward the dry, leaning grass of a broad meadow.  A few days later, I noticed another caterpillar (this one black, with a dark orange band) veering off a different path, bound for the duff-covered floor of a silent, shadowy grove of tall pines.

Although the autumnal equinox came and went more than a week ago, the final turning has not occurred.  Still, the signs are afoot.

                              The Cranes

The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919).

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

As long-time (and much appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall, I am fond of describing autumn as the season of bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness.  Is there a tinge of sadness?  Of course.  More than a tinge, actually.  But this only serves to heighten the beauty.

That which is lovely is lovely because it is departing.  This is true of all of the World's beautiful particulars at all times of the year.  But the pang of departure is keener in autumn.  It is a rueful, yet a happy, pang.  It bears within it the possibility of acceptance and serenity.

          The Trees at Night

Under vague silver moonlight
The trees are lovely and ghostly,
In the pale blue of the night
There are few stars to see.

The leaves are green still, but brown-blent:
They stir not, only known
By a poignant delicate scent
To the lonely moon blown.

The lonely lovely trees sigh
For summer spent and gone:
A few homing leaves drift by,
Poor souls bewildered and wan.

William Kerr, in Edward Marsh (editor), Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 (The Poetry Bookshop 1922).

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Harvesting in Galloway"

The threshold has not yet been crossed.  At the beginning of the past week we enjoyed a cool, brilliant mackerel sky day.  In Japan, the clouds in such a sky are called urokogumo (uroko means "fish-scale"; kumo means "cloud"; the "k" sound of kumo is changed to "g" for euphonic purposes in the compound word):  hence, a fish-scale cloud sky.  In Japanese culture, urokogumo carries with it strong associations of autumn.  I can understand why:  the sight is heart-catching at any time of year, but particularly in autumn, when the blue seems deeper behind the bright white clouds spread across the sky.

Later in the week we had an 80-degree, cloudless day:  a brief Indian summer (as we called it in Minnesota when I was growing up) or St Luke's summer (as it is known in the United Kingdom).  The warm breeze of that day carried a chill thread within it.  Or was this merely my imagination?


Fragile, notice that
As autumn starts, a light
Frost crisps up at night
And next day, for a while,
White covers path and lawn.
"Autumn is here, it is,"
Sings the stoical blackbird
But by noon pure gold is tossed
On everything.  Leaves fall
As if they meant to rise.
Nothing of nature's lost,
The birth, the blight of things,
The bud, the stretching wings.

Elizabeth Jennings, Celebrations and Elegies (Carcanet Press 1982).  For another lovely poem by Jennings on the season, please see "Song at the Beginning of Autumn," which has appeared here in the past.

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

For now, the green canopies remain overhead, although the universe of green has become paler and thinner.  The birds keep up their continual conversation, although their numbers have dwindled.  All is proceeding according to plan.  Constancy amid constant change.

I may speak of autumnal wistfulness, bittersweetness, and sadness, but make no mistake:  my predominant emotions at this time of year are exhilaration, joy, and gratitude.  "We live in a constellation/Of patches and of pitches,/Not in a single world."  How can we be anything but grateful, joyful, and exhilarated?

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 Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Still Life at a Window" (1944)

Thursday, September 21, 2017


I am easy to please.  Or so I like to think.  Perhaps this is merely a matter of growing old, evidence of a fond mind.  "Or else I'm gettin' soft."  Recently, for instance, I have spent a fair amount of pleasurable time mulling over various English translations of a six-line fragment (all that has been recovered) of a Greek poem written by Alcman, who lived in the late 7th century B. C., and who may or may not have been from Sparta.  Mind you, my preoccupation has not been a scholarly endeavor:  I find the lines lovely, and I have been loath to quickly leave them.

The mountain-summits sleep, glens, cliffs and caves,
     Are silent -- all the black earth's reptile brood --
     The bees -- the wild beasts of the mountain wood;
In depths beneath the dark red ocean's waves
     Its monsters rest, whilst wrapt in bower and spray
     Each bird is hush'd that stretch'd its pinions to the day.

Alcman (translated by Thomas Campbell), in Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995).  The poem was originally published in 1821 in The New Monthly Magazine.

Walter John James (1869-1932), "Troughend near Otterburn"

I am always bemused and puzzled when I hear someone proclaim that our age is one in which we are witnessing "the death of poetry" or, more broadly, "the death of culture."  How can poetry and culture be in their death throes if we can read Alcman or Simonides today, Bashō or Saigyō tomorrow, Robert Herrick or Thomas Hardy the day after that, and T'ao Ch'ien or Wang Wei the day after that?  Enough of this death business.

In fact, the creation and preservation of Beauty and Truth by means of poetry and other works of art has always been -- and will always be -- a near run thing.  At any given time in the history of humanity, the survival of Beauty and Truth has depended upon the love and good offices of a few thousand, a few hundred, or even a few dozen people.  These people are not saints, nor are they in any way superior to their fellow human beings.  They have simply (to their surprise and delight) stumbled upon something of the greatest importance.


The far peaks sleep, the great ravines,
The foot-hills, and the streams.
Asleep are trees, and hivèd bees,
The mountain beasts, and all that dark earth teems,
The glooming seas, the monsters in their deeps:
And every bird, its wide wings folded, sleeps.

Alcman (translated by H. T. Wade-Gery), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938).  Wade-Gery added the title "Night" to the fragment.

There you have it:  by reading six lines of verse written over 2,500 years ago, you have prevented the death of poetry.  All is now well with the World.

George Reid (1841-1913), "Evening" (1873)

Please bear with me as I state the obvious:  the best poetry is timeless. When I read Alcman's fragment, I do not feel that I am reading something that is alien to the World as I know it.  And here is something marvelous:  a good poem's timelessness is directly related to the fact that it is the product of a fleeting moment of revelation.  "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall."  By virtue of poetry, a vanished moment becomes imperishable.

"In old-fashioned novels, we often have the situation of a man or a woman who realizes only at the end of the book, and usually when it is too late, who it was that he or she had loved for many years without knowing it.  So a great many haiku tell us something that we have seen but not seen.  They do not give us a satori, an enlightenment;  they show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, -- and not recognized it."

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 322.

Although Blyth's observation relates to haiku in particular, I would suggest that it is applicable to all forms of poetry, in all ages and in all places.

The mountain-tops are asleep, and the mountain-gorges,
     Ravine and promontory:
Green leaves, every kind of creeping things
     On the breast of the dark earth, sleep:
Creatures wild in the forest, wandering bees,
Great sea-monsters under the purple sea's
Dark bosom, birds of the air with all their wings
     Folded, all sleep.

Alcman (translated by Walter Headlam), in Walter Headlam, A Book of Greek Verse (Cambridge University Press 1907).

Walter John James, "Evening" (1913)

As I was thinking about poetry as enlightenment or revelation, as the product of an evanescent moment, this appeared out of the blue:

   Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (Henry Holt 1923).  (A word of caution:  I am not suggesting that "Dust of Snow" is "about" poetry.  I am merely reporting its unexpected arrival on the scene.)

But let us return to a night in Greece two millennia ago.  Which is tonight.


Now sleep the mountain-summits, sleep the glens,
The peaks, the torrent-beds; all things that creep
On the dark earth lie resting in their dens;
Quiet are the mountain-creatures, quiet the bees,
The monsters hidden in the purple seas;
And birds, the swift of wing,
Sit slumbering.

Alcman (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951).  Lucas added the title "Vesper."

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "Nightfall"

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Two Linnets, A Dove, And A Lark

When I am out on my daily walk, I often hear brief rustlings, chirpings, or wing-flutterings from within the bushes on either side of the path, or from off in the dim light of the thick evergreen woods that lie beyond the bushes. This heard but unseen activity provides a comforting reminder of the unceasing life that goes on around us as we fret and fume in our human world, at a far remove from the vitality of such beautiful particulars, our minds ticking and humming along.  These hidden birds, they pay us no mind.

               The Linnet

Upon this leafy bush
     With thorns and roses in it,
Flutters a thing of light,
     A twittering linnet,
And all the throbbing world
     Of dew and sun and air
By this small parcel of life
     Is made more fair:
As if each bramble-spray
     And mounded gold-wreathed furze,
Harebell and little thyme,
     Were only hers;
As if this beauty and grace
     Did to one bird belong,
And, at a flutter of wing,
     Might vanish in song.

Walter de la Mare,  Motley and Other Poems (Constable 1918).

De la Mare makes a wonderful point:  the linnet graces the World (and, by doing so, gives us an unasked-for gift of beauty), yet, simply by being what it is, it also enhances and completes the World:  "And all the throbbing world/Of dew and sun and air/By this small parcel of life/Is made more fair."  These innumerable, tiny pieces (not a single one of them insignificant) all fit together.  (But, please, do not attempt to solve the puzzle.)  Where would the World be without linnets?

        Tenebris Interlucentem

A linnet who had lost her way
Sang on a blackened bough in Hell,
Till all the ghosts remembered well
The trees, the wind, the golden day.

At last they knew that they had died
When they heard music in that land,
And some one there stole forth a hand
To draw a brother to his side.

James Elroy Flecker, Thirty-Six Poems (Adelphi Press 1910).  An ignorant layperson's (i.e., my) translation of "tenebris interlucentem" (or "tenebris inter lucentem") might be "shining amid the dark" or "light amid the darkness."

"The trees, the wind, the golden day."  That is our World in a nutshell, isn't it?  One could go on and on, of course:  The sound of a river of wind in the leaves, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and shadow overhead, a blue and green paradise . . .  But, no, this is enough:  "The trees, the wind, the golden day."

Michael Garton (1935-2004), "Woodland Clearing"

This past spring, I had the pleasure of listening to an unseen dove (or was it doves?) cooing just outside the window of the room in which I am typing this, a room which also serves as a library.  Perhaps I am not sufficiently curious, but I never went out into the garden to investigate.  Was it a male cooing to attract a mate?  Or was it a nesting pair?  I will never know, for I didn't think it was right to intrude.

I felt the same way about the murmuring of the doves as I do about the small sounds I hear from the bushes and the woods while I am out walking:  the cooing seemed to me to be the vital spirit of the World, a World of which we are a part, and which is a part of us.  The presence of the cooing made the garden something different.  It made me something different.

"Bird of good omen, you are at home wherever you travel.  You perch here or there, or you fly for a short time; perhaps at night you fly farther afield, but whatever you do, it is as if nothing were lacking, as if you were the voice that moves up and down the rungs of the world, between earth and sky, never beyond, always in the infinite globe, free but inside it, over there, close at hand, where the silvered branches fork, awaiting nothing, fleeing nothing, traveller whom a second's joy, for no reason at all, steals from the journey's movement and leaves perched, at a halt . . . where?  in the light of the leaves that are soon to fall and give way to the sky, in golden October, dressed in air, suddenly unable to understand any word like going, leaving, frontier, foreigner.  Blessed, clothed in your native light."

Philippe Jaccottet, from "The Collared Dove," in Landscapes with Absent Figures (translated by Mark Treharne) (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), pages 43-44.

John Pearce, "Blackberries in August, Muswell Hill, London" (1980)

"Could you have said the bluejay suddenly/Would swoop to earth?" (Wallace Stevens, "The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man.")  This is how the World reveals itself to us:  in an unending series of miraculous and beautiful commonplaces.  (By the way, I never use the word "commonplace" in a pejorative sense.)

A few months ago, I was walking along a path between two rows of big-leaf maples:  one of my favorite tree tunnels.  Large open meadows of wild grass lie on either side of the path.  My attention moved between the shifting blue and green of the boughs overhead and the shifting patches of light and shadow on the path before me.  "The trees, the wind, the golden day."  As I walked, my eyes looking skyward, then earthward, then skyward again, I was suddenly surrounded by swallows, criss-crossing the path just above the ground as they dived and curved from meadow to meadow, going about their afternoon feeding.  Commonplaces.

               Lark Descending

A singing firework; the sun's darling;
     Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence:  see, a small gray bird
     That runs among the weeds.

Edmund Blunden, Choice or Chance (Cobden-Sanderson 1934).

Patrick Symons, "Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common)" (1981)