Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Spring. And All Else.

The poems that move us the most have an inexpressible mystery at their heart.  This is a dogmatic proposition that I cannot hope to defend on a rational basis.  It is a corollary to one of my two laws of poetry (which long-time -- and much-appreciated! -- readers of this blog may recall):  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  (For those who may be interested, my second law is this:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.)

With those platitudinous truisms out of the way, let us consider, for instance, this:

            A Song for a Parting

Flora will pass from firth to firth;
Duty must draw, and vows must bind.
Flora will sail half round the earth,
Yet will she leave some grace behind.

Waft her, on Faith, from friend to friend,
Make her a saint in some far isle;
Yet will we keep, till memories end,
Something that once was Flora's smile.

William Cory (1823-1892), Ionica (Third Edition; edited by A. C. Benson) (George Allen 1905).  The poem originally appeared in the 1891 edition of Ionica.

William Cory is best known for his translation of a poem by Callimachus (c. 310 - c. 240 BC).  Callimachus's poem is found in The Greek Anthology.  Cory's translation, which has appeared here in the past, begins:  "They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,/They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed." It concludes:  "Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;/For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take." "Thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales" refers to Heraclitus's poems.

Who, or what, is "Flora"?  The Roman goddess of flowers and of spring?  Or is she a real person whose identity is cloaked in an evocative alias?  Or neither?  I have no idea.  Yet the poem still beguiles me, for it is a beautiful thing.  Flora is Flora.  Nothing more need be said.

James Torrington Bell (1898-1970), "Landscape"

As lovely and welcome as the arrival of spring is, I have lately found myself regretting the coming disappearance of the bare branches of the trees as the leaves emerge.  As one ages, it seems that life and the World take on a more elegiac cast.  I say this without a trace of melancholy, complaint, or foreboding.  The beautiful particulars of the World seem more beautiful to me with each passing year, with a beauty that continually unfolds, without end.  This no doubt has something to do with a quickening awareness of the evanescence of all things.  There is no getting around it:  time is short.  Yet an elegy need not be a lament.

And so I never tire of looking up at the breathtaking intricacy of interlacing empty branches against the sky, in any weather.  But particularly when, beyond the branches, white castles of cloud travel across the blue.  Nor will the shadows of those same branches spread out at my feet on a sunny day ever cease to be a source of wonder.

"A Song for a Parting."  Exactly.

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

James Torrington Bell, "Braes of Downie" (1938)


Tim Guirl said...

"The beautiful particulars of the World seem more beautiful to me with each passing year, with a beauty that continually unfolds, without end."

This lovely sentence rings true for me also. I will reach my allotted three score and ten years in 2018. At my age, I am less physically capable, yet I grow increasingly capable of wonder at the beautiful particulars of the World.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: Congratulations on that milestone! I'm at the point where I try to treat these 10-year increments (which now seem to fly by) as turning points, as new beginnings. I wish you many more years to come.

Yes, there is a trade-off between the body and the mind, isn't there? The ultimate message is one we all know in our hearts: the present is where we abide.

It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your kind words, and, as always, thank you very much for visiting and for sharing your thoughts.

Esther said...

"The beautiful particulars of the World seem more beautiful to me with each passing year...." You are in the company of some of Japan's finest writers. In the poignant suicide note left by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, he writes, "Still, nature is for me more beautiful than ever....because it comes to my eyes in their last extremity." And Yasunari Kawabata lifted the phrase, "eyes in their last extremity," to title of one of his own essays, which he refers to in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much for sharing the passage by Akutagawa, which is lovely (sad, but lovely). Given my woeful ignorance of Japanese fiction, Akutagawa, and the passage, are both new to me. I read some Kawabata long ago: Snow Country and Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. I am now going to track down a translation of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech and the essay to which your refer.

I found a translation of Akutagawa's entire note on the internet: as you say, very poignant. (The translation I found does not, however, contain the beautiful phrase "eyes in their last extremity.") He seems to be an interesting person and writer. I also learned that Kurosawa's Rashōmon was based upon Akutagawa's story "In a Grove," which I didn't know. Thank you for bringing all of this to my attention.

As for being "in the company of" Akutagawa and Kawabata: I greatly appreciate your saying so, but I have only put into words what all of us have felt and thought at one time or another. These feelings and thoughts are universal, aren't they? We all articulate them, internally or externally, in our own ways. But Akutagawa puts it much better than I ever can.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for expanding my horizons.

Esther said...

As you may have already discovered, Kawabata's Nobel Prize lecture is entitled "Japan, the Beautiful and Myself." It can be found on the official Nobel Prize website, and contains many poems you might recognize and enjoy.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you for the follow-up comment. Yes, I found Kawabata's speech, and it is indeed wonderful. As you anticipated, I was delighted to find that he devoted so much of the speech to discussing Japanese poetry and poets, and was even more delighted to find the focus on Ryōkan and Saigyō in a couple of places: as you know, I am quite fond of both of them. As you probably know, Ryōkan is often described as the poet who is most beloved by the Japanese people. Kawabata's affectionate remarks about him confirm this feeling.

But I was also delighted at Kawabata's remarks about less well-known poets (at least to those of us outside of Japan) such as Ikkyu, Myoe, and, in particular, Izumi Shikibu, Ono no Komachi, and the Empress Eifuku: three women whose poems deserve greater recognition. You may recall that a poem by Izumi Shikibu appeared here back in February of this year.

Reading the speech moved me greatly: it brought back the time I lived in Japan and the times I have travelled there, and reminded me once again of why I love Japan and Japanese culture. Thank you very much for bringing it to my attention.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Hi, Stephen! Funny story: though I have been silent on your blog, for a while, I do come back from time to time and especially during poetry units in my classes. Today, I set my students (wait for it...)to write an explication of "Lines Written in Early Spring," and I was setting up to introduce them to your blog in hopes that it will encourage them to stick with poetry... We just had an animated discussion about your first law. (One student said he refused to write his explication, so I praised him for his dedication and for having the courage to take an F. He decided to write it.) But, I did say to them that it's like a time in my younger days when I was going crazy about the particulars of a song I loved and a friend of mine said, "I am glad I am not like you. I'm glad I don't have to analyse music." I thought hard about that and realized that I would only do analysis if the music struck the heart first. The first listening is about the intangible; the sublime; the spiritual. After that it is an exploration into how it can be done. I do go to the trouble to tell my students explications should happen in three parts: 1) What meaning do YOU see in it. 2) How does the poet succeed in presenting that message. 3) What is the final thing you want to say about that poem. So, it is a very subjective/open version of explication... Maybe my version is more of a "reaction" than and "explication." As always, though, I do agree with you that to make poetry like an equation to solve is the surest way to kill the enthusiasm for it. Anyway, I hope all is well. It's always a pleasure to visit your blog.

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: It's great to hear from you again. As I'm sure you've gathered, my "laws" are intentionally couched in overly dogmatic and provocative language (which I still think is essentially true, for me, at least). I confess that I have spent a fair amount of time reading books and essays that explain and explicate "difficult" poets that I have encountered over the years. Of course, the usual "Modernist" suspects come to mind: e.g., Eliot, Pound, Stevens. But poets and poetry in general often need some explaining and explication (or at least some background and context). To cite just two instances: R. H. Blyth taught me about haiku and Burton Watson taught me about traditional Chinese poetry. I'd be lost without them. One needs to be educated. (I'm preaching to the choir, of course.) I don't regret any of my nosing around in those critical works. And I still do it.

I completely agree with your point that the urge to analyze only arises when something (a song, a poem) has, to use your phrase, "struck the heart first." I've never felt the need to investigate a puzzling poem that leaves me cold. You're right: the first impact has to do with "the intangible; the sublime; the spiritual." Like listening to "Don't Worry Baby" by The Beach Boys (the original 1964 mono version, of course!). (Hearkening back to a discussion you and I had about Brian Wilson years ago.)

I think your three-step teaching approach is perfect: the idea of provoking a "reaction" rather than asking for an explanation/explication is a fine one: it requires an attempt to think about what the poem "means", but it doesn't require a "solution" (nor does it posit that there is one "solution"). Again, I completely agree with you: "to make poetry like an equation to solve is the surest way to kill the enthusiasm for it." Your students are extremely fortunate to have you guiding them. Unfortunately, I think that "Modernism" and theory-obsessed modern critics have nearly succeeded in killing off poetry for the general reader by creating the impression that poems are "equations" or puzzles to be solved (or, worse, are an embodiment of some sort of political or social agenda).

However, poetry cannot be so easily dispatched. I am confident that there will always be someone out there who stumbles across Thomas Hardy, Bashō, T'ao Ch'ien, or the poets of The Greek Anthology and finds themselves moved beyond all expectation. It happens all the time.

Thank you very much for visiting again. I greatly value your long-term presence here. I hope that all is well with you as well. Take care.

Jeff said...

Alas, we're still waiting for spring out here in the central Maryland woods. We had two glorious days of warmth but now we're back to early morning freezes. I wouldn't complain about it much except that we're perilously low on heating oil and will require a Hanukkah-like miracle if this goes on.

Fortunately, our lilac and our dwarf honeysuckle have decided it's spring and have gone gloriously green, even if the trees have not. The birds are confused: one day they're building nests, the next day they're scrambling for suet and seeds. My hunch is that spring will feel that much more miraculous to all of us, should it decide to arrive....

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: I envy you your location in "the woods": I suspect your daily round provides intimate insights into the coming and going of the seasons that most of us are not able to experience. The fits and starts of spring are always interesting, aren't they? I worry each year when crocuses and daffodils seem to appear unseasonably early, and a cold snap follows. But they know what they're doing, don't they? As for fits and starts, my relatives in Minnesota have seen snow within the past few weeks. Yet, as you rightly say, this sort of thing makes spring "feel that much more miraculous" when it arrives in earnest.

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for the spring report from your neck of the woods. And, ah, yes, the lilacs and honeysuckle: scents that confirm there is no turning back.