Tuesday, July 31, 2018

How To Live, Part Twenty-Eight: Waiting and Watching

As I'm sure is the case with many of you, I have certain poems floating around inside me to which I return again and again: touchstones and talismans that have emerged from the winnowing of life and time.  A trail of breadcrumbs disappearing into -- or leading the way out of -- a dark forest.  Beauty and truth that, if we let them, find their way into an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.

"To those who value it, the one thing certain is that poetry, like wisdom, is a singularly rare thing, that the price of it is above rubies, and that it cannot be gotten for gold.  Once given potential life in words, it need never die; an ardent delight in it, and of this, too, there are many degrees, may be not only the joy of childhood, but a supreme and inexhaustible solace to the aged.  So long as we ourselves remain faithful, it will never prove false."

Walter de la Mare, Poetry in Prose: Warton Lecture on English Poetry, British Academy, 1935 (Oxford University Press 1935), page 42.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947)
"The Inner Harbour, Abbey Slip" (1921)

Thus, one evening last week I suddenly and unaccountably felt the urge to return to this:

          Waiting Both

A star looks down at me,
And says:  "Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do, --
          Mean to do?"

I say:  "For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come." -- "Just so,"
The star says:  "So mean I: --
          So mean I."

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (Macmillan 1925).

"Waiting Both" is the opening poem in a collection that was published in Hardy's 85th year.  I suppose that some (for instance, modern ironists) may find it to be of no interest, or, at best, quaint. Not I.  I may not think of this poem every day, but I know it is constantly with me, and has been since the day I first read it.  This is how poetry works.

"What [poets] say is not chosen to represent what they feel or think, but is itself the very substance of what had before lain dark and unapparent, is itself all that survives of feeling and thought, and cannot be expanded or reduced without dulling or falsification.  If this is not so, and if we do not believe it to be so, then poetry is of no greater importance than wallpaper, or a wayside drink to one who is not thirsty.  But if it is so, then we are on the way to understand why poetry is mighty; for if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."

Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, "On Paul Hill" (1922)

Still, one must be careful.  Poetry is not life.  Each of us knows this, of course.  "He has read well who has learnt that there is more to read outside books than in them."  Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for November 29, 1875, in The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 110.

Mind you, "Waiting Both" articulates a beautiful truth.  As do all those other poems that are talismans and touchstones and breadcrumbs for us.  But they are nothing without the World.  "May. In an orchard at Closeworth.  Cowslips under trees.  A light proceeds from them, as from Chinese lanterns or glow-worms."  Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for May of 1876, Ibid, page 112.

And so we wait.  And so we watch.  Enough to keep one busy for a lifetime.

waiting for what?
each day     each day
more fallen leaves pile up

Taneda Santōka (1882-1940) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka, with Excerpts from His Diaries (Columbia University Press 2003), page 102.

The World is a daily miracle of beautiful and inexhaustible particularity amidst beautiful and inexhaustible multiplicity.  There is no better place to bide one's time.

     On Something Observed

Torn remains of a cobweb,
     one strand dangling down --
a stray petal fluttering by
     has been tangled, caught in its skein,
all day to dance and turn,
     never once resting --
elsewhere in my garden,
     no breeze stirs.

Kokan Shiren (1278-1346) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume 2: Poetry and Prose in Chinese by Japanese Writers of the Later Period (Columbia University Press 1976), page 27.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes
"Village Rendezvous, Copperhouse Creek, near Hayle" (1938)


Anonymous said...

I think your comments on the value of poetry are succinct and correct. You are wise, and astute also, to note that poetry is not life. One would be foolish to equate a poem about a toothache with an actual toothache. I'd say that the last few wretched months of Keats's life show how helpless poetry was to him as he lay dying his protracted and monstrous death. His excruciating suffering swallowed every aspect his life except for itself, and it grew fatter and fatter. And yet, in spite of its limitations, the impossibility of it ever becoming life rather than a comment on it, how empty the world would be without poetry, even if I know, as do you, that millions and millions of people seem to live very well without it, but I, in vanity no doubt, think that those who miss poetry miss one of the most miraculous things in our human existence.

I think Keats's says it best in the last stanza of "Ode on a Grecian Urn." (The stanza is below.) The stanza is known for its closing lines, ones you have quoted more than once: the idea that beauty and truth are the same thing, but just before he writes these lines, he calls the urn a "cold pastoral," meaning the figures on the urn are lifeless, forever frozen in time, while we are being consumed by the passage of time, moving inexorably toward the Great Shadow. Keats says that this "cold pastoral" is "in the midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man . . ."

It's meet and comforting, perhaps, to think of poetry as a faithful friend, one, that, although it cannot resolve the human predicament, can provide what Dickinson called "those ecstatic moments," though as for all that poetry need not bring ecstasy to us: it can bring, discreetly and quietly, a kind of contentment and serene resignation, the serenity Keats describes in his great ode "To Autumn." We live in a world of process, and it is from this process that beauty springs, as if from a fount. The end of Stevens's "Sunday Morning" captures the same insight.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! 45
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

Maggie Emm said...

Oh Stephen, you've done it again - wonderful. Maybe it should be called 'How to live past twenty-eight' - past all the craziness and angst of youth. One of the poems that is part of my life is Tithonus by Tennyson - or at least the first verse:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

Just says it all about the ephemerality of it all - but also the beautiful cycle that we live in.
I hope you are feeling better!

Pen said...

What a beautiful post, Stephen, it brought tears to my eyes. As I'm currently surrounded by octogenarians who are, on the whole, curmudgeonly, I feel tempted to print out and distribute the 85 year old Hardy's quiet moment of contemplative acceptance and ease of spirit. How lovely. Thank you.

Like all of us who visit here, I too have the poems of a lifetime "floating around inside", which bubble to the surface and pop with a barely audible sigh/gasp (and sometimes, tiny fleeting rainbows) of remembered pain and pleasure. May you have the time and leisure to enjoy the bubbles, breadcrumbs, cobwebs and stars.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for that wonderful and thought-provoking meditation on poetry and life (and death). It is a perfect complement to, and far exceeds, my own limited observations. Perhaps the nub of all this is in two of your lovely phrases: "how empty the world would be without poetry" and "one of the most miraculous things in our human existence." This is what de la Mare and Thomas are getting at, isn't it? And this is what the poems by Hardy, Taneda Santōka, and Kokan Shiren demonstrate. And, as you point out so well, Keats, Dickinson, and Stevens are indispensable when it comes to thinking about, and experiencing, the -- what else? -- beauty and truth of poetry.

And, yes, our mortality is always there. How could it be otherwise? As you know, Stevens in "Sunday Morning": "Death is the mother of beauty, mystical."

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you. I'm pleased you liked the post.

It's a nice coincidence that you mention "Tithonus": I had an unexpected urge to revisit both it and "Ulysses" last year, and I was delighted and moved. "Ulysses" was one of the first poems that awakened my interest in poetry when I was young (romantic notions). I didn't come to "Tithonus" until much later in life, but, after I did, the two poems have always been linked together for me. (But, of course, I am not the first to link them. Tennyson himself did.) And they become more and more meaningful and moving with each passing year. Your description is perfect: "the ephemerality of it all -- but also the beautiful cycle that we live in." And those first four lines are among the most beautiful in poetry, aren't they?

As always, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for asking about the heart: a few flutters now and then, but everything is under control. "The ephemerality of it all . . ."

Stephen Pentz said...

Penn: Thank you very much for your kind and lovely words. I'm happy you liked the post. (Albeit with tears!)

I'm pleased at, and gratified for, your comments about Hardy: I mentioned the collection being published in his 85th year for exactly the reason you focus on: the poem, written at that age, is a marvelous and moving thing, isn't it? If I were able to write just one poem like that in my eighties, I would be humbled and thankful. Well, as for Hardy, he had collections of poetry published at the ages of 82 and 85, and a third published just after his death at the age of 87. I never cease to be amazed by this.

I always tell myself to never become querulous and curmudgeonly as I age, but who knows what will happen? But I do know that Hardy is an inspiring and moving example for me. The accounts of him in his final years (by people such as Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, and T. E. Lawrence) are wonderful. I highly recommend a book titled Thomas Hardy Remembered, which was edited by Martin Ray (Ashgate 2007). It is a collection of personal remembrances by people who encountered Hardy. It is a moving and lovely book.

Again, thank you for very much for your kind words, for sharing your thoughts, and for stopping by.

Esther said...

Returning after an absence from your blog....That was quite the scare you gave us! So glad to know you are still with us in the land of the living. Odaiji ni nasatte kudasai.

I wonder if Hardy was thinking of the passage in Job (14:14) when he wrote Waiting Both. "...all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come."

Anonymous said...

Stephen -- I want to cross the bridge in your third picture, walk up the lane & into the white house with the dark roof -- I want to live there.
I've been away & came late to your two most recent posts. Of course I'm thinking of you with a great deal of concern. I've mentioned before, but must again now, how much First Known has helped me, especially while living alone after my husband's death in 2014. I look forward to it as the last thing I will look at on the internet in the evening, going back to an earlier post from the current month if there is no new post. It's the best possible last stop.
Like many of your regular readers, I hope you will post your own poems more often now -- we want to see them.
Take care, as people so often seem to say now when they mean something more heartfelt,

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: I'm happy to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again. And thank you very much for the kind thoughts. (And in Japanese too!) Fortunately, everything seems to be under control. Tests are ongoing to determine a long-term plan of management. But these "wake up calls" are good for one's perspective on life.

Your comment on the source for "Waiting Both" is wise and perceptive! A fine book for background information on Hardy's poetry is J. O. Bailey's The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (University of North Carolina Press 1970). This appears in Bailey's entry for "Waiting Both": "[A] letter Hardy wrote to the Reverend Handley Moule on June 29, 1919, suggests the source of the poem. The Hardys 'were reading a chapter in Job, and on coming to the verse, "All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come," I interrupted and said: "That was the text of the Vicar of Fordington one Sunday evening about 1860." And I can hear his voice repeating the text as the sermon went on".' Bailey, page 502, quoting The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, page 194.

So, you are right on the mark! I wish I knew the King James Version of the Bible as well as you do. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Thank you again for your thoughts. Please return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: That's extremely nice of you to say. Thank you very much for your kind and lovely thoughts. As I hope you know, your long-time presence here means a great deal to me. I understand your thoughts about the phrase "take care" (and I confess to often using it myself), but, coming from you, I know it is indeed heartfelt. And, as for hearts, the tests so far seem to show that mine is mostly sound. I'm here to "Wait, and let Time go by,/Till my change come." What else can we do?

I share your feeling about to wanting to walk into that painting, and to spend your life in that cottage. As I suspect you have noticed over your years visiting here, nearly all of the paintings that I select are chosen based upon the feeling that they are ones that I wish to walk into. It is not a conscious choice, but it no doubt betrays the fact that my view of art is irredeemably romantic and sentimental. Which I have no plans to ever change.

Thank you for your supportive words about posting my poems. We'll see. I worry about the vanity of it.

I hope you had (or are still having) a wonderful time in Europe with your family. Thank you again for your kind thoughts. As always, it is a delight to hear from you.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, Thank you once again for another wonderful post. Please excuse my rather late response. Even though we are more than midway through the summer vacation, we are, as always busily trying to deal with the seemingly never ending list of tasks that ideally need to be completed before the new semester begins in September.

I agree with you, there are always certain poems floating around inside me too. One that has been in the forefront of my mind recently is this;

The Gate, Chyngton Farm, June. - from Six Facets of Light - Ann Wroe.

At the wide fields’ end stands the wicket gate;
and then? Ah then, the deliberate pause,
arms on the worn wood, and the silent wait
for the direction marked as yours.

Behind, the way trodden to the white bone,
the map followed, and the task complete;
vetch greeted, and speedwell, and the thin dust blown
in bluish glitter from the ramrod wheat.

Ahead, a vast country never seen before
No matter how often you passed this way;
Flowers unpicked, fields rearranged, mysterious lore
Clipped by the chaffinch from the elder spray.

Behind, the known world’s bustle and glare
Fade into nothingness. The rusty catch
holds back the breathing of enchanted air –
Step forward, then, and lift the latch –

As you point out it’s not that you think of the poem every day, and yet in a sense it accompanies you always.
I came upon it first when reading Six Facets of Light by Ann Wroe. It was while walking through an area of heathland close to the sea in Suffolk earlier this year that took me back to the poem, and though the landscapes of Suffolk and Sussex are very different there was an inexplicable, indefinable moment that struck a resonance between the two places in my mind.

Six Facets of Light is well worth looking out for. I’m not entirely certain whether Ann Wroe herself is the author of the poem as it’s not made entirely clear, but no matter. As I think you have said yourself, it’s the poem, not the poet that really matters, and since I first read this poem it has been lodged in my mind. Though the poem is very much of and about a particular place, it has for me that sense of a place glimpsed for the first time, seen in such a way that each subsequent visit is like returning to a known place. As you say, touchstone or talisman, speaking a truth we know, but so often cannot articulate in words. Isn’t that precisely what the best poems have, that simultaneous sense of the eternal and the passing.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for those wonderful thoughts about the power of poetry, and how poems return to us. And thank you as well for the poem by Ann Wroe (who is new to me): it is lovely. "Mysterious lore/Clipped by the chaffinch from the elder spray": wonderful. I can understand why the poem has stayed with you.

The book as a whole looks interesting: I found it on Amazon, and read the preview pages. I also read a few newspaper reviews. There are quite a few names that you and I are fond of: Clare, Hopkins, Traherne, Samuel Palmer, and others. I was happy to see Richard Jefferies, whose name is seldom seen these days. (I first came to his work by way of Edward Thomas's biography of him.) And the focus on Ravilious is nice. I'm very fond of his work. Thank you for the recommendation.

"[T]hat simultaneous sense of the eternal and the passing": so true, and very nicely said. That is one of the essential qualities of the poems we love, isn't it?

Thank you for your kind words about the post. As always, thank you for taking the time to visit, and for sharing your thoughts.