Sunday, October 14, 2018

What The Leaves Say

We have now well and truly entered the season of bittersweet wistfulness, the season of wistful bittersweetness.  Is there anything more heartbreakingly beautiful than a sunny, wind-swept brilliant autumn day?  Here, in this corner of the World, we have had five of them in succession, with more on the way.  How can so much joy and so much sadness abide together?

"A brilliant autumn day."  "The brilliant autumn sky."  "The brilliant autumn leaves."  Yes, cliché after cliché:  at times like these, I am only capable of evocation, not exact and accurate description.  I will offer this as an excuse:  you had to have been there; words fail.  Of course, dear reader, you can say the same thing to me, from wherever you are.  Each of us has our own "brilliant autumn day," incommunicable, ineffable.  Some beauty (all beauty?) is beyond words.  In the presence of autumn, anything other than silence is a diminishment.

Still, we have the human urge to articulate . . . something.  What, for instance, do the leaves say?


Far from your own little bough,
Poor little frail little leaf,
Where are you going? -- The wind
Has plucked me from the beech where I was born.
It rises once more, and bears me
In the air from the wood to the fields,
And from the valley up into the hills.
I am a wanderer
For ever: that is all that I can say.
I go where everything goes,
I go where by nature's law
Wanders the leaf of the rose,
Wanders the leaf of the bay.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by J. G. Nichols), in Giacomo Leopardi, The Canti (Carcanet Press 1994).

The poem is a translation of "La Feuille" ("The Leaf") by the French poet Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834).  Hence the title "Imitation."

John Milne Donald (1819-1866), "Autumn Leaves" (1864)

On leaves, Wallace Stevens (he of the wonderful poem titles) gives us this:  "Continual Conversation with a Silent Man."  There are "many meanings in the leaves,//Brought down to one below the eaves . . . It is not a voice that is under the eaves./It is not speech, the sound we hear//In this conversation, but the sound/Of things and their motion."  A caveat, however:  Stevens was of two (or three or four) minds about this conversation with the World.  Thus, for example, there is this from "The Motive for Metaphor":  "You like it under the trees in autumn,/Because everything is half dead./The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves/And repeats words without meaning." (As for the identity of the "silent man" in this "continual conversation," that is something else altogether, and is beyond my ken.)

Yet, if the leaves are saying something, why not listen?  The message may be beguiling.  It may be comforting.  Or full of portent.

            Fast Fall the Leaves

Fast fall the leaves: this never says
To that, "Alas! how brief our days!"
All have alike enjoy'd the sun,
And each repeats, "So much is won:
Where we are falling, millions more
Have dropt, nor weep that life is o'er."

Walter Savage Landor, Dry Sticks (James Nichol 1858).

Alexander Docharty (1862-1940), "An Autumn Day" (1917)

"I sometimes look upon all things in inanimate Nature as pensive mutes."  (Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 117.)  So wrote Thomas Hardy in a notebook entry made on May 30, 1877, in his thirty-sixth year.  He lived nearly 51 more years.  As one might expect, during that half-century Hardy's thoughts on the volubility of inanimate Nature underwent further elaboration and qualification, as evidenced in his poetry.  (He, like Wallace Stevens, was of many minds.)  Moreover, as is characteristic of Hardy, the observation contains its own qualifications.  "I sometimes look upon . . ."  And, of course, "pensive mutes":  incapable of speech, but nevertheless capable of thought and reflection.

This brings us in a roundabout way to a poem which has appeared here several times in the past.

   Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, --
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high --
     Earth never grieves! --
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

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

"Earth never grieves!" is what the poem leads to.  But, for me, the loveliest and most affecting words in the poem are the six words that come next:  "Will not, when missed am I."  Simple, piercing, serene. Is this what the leaves say?  You will have lived your life well if you can come to speak those words and know their truth in your heart.

William Samuel Jay (1843-1933)
"At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)


Maggie Emm said...

I love the word play in the act of leaves leaving the trees - it reminds me of the poem Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the wonderful word 'unleaving' in it.
My older heart isn't colder to the leaves of autumn though!

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for sharing Hopkins' poem, which is always a pleasure to read at this time of year (or at any time of year). It is far too long since I have done so, so I appreciate your posting it now. Yes, "unleaving" is indeed wonderful, isn't it? I've always liked "worlds of wanwood leafmeal" as well. And then there is "ghost guessed." But it is all wonderful, isn't it?

I'm with you: my heart does not "come to such sights colder." I feel that it grows warmer with each autumn. Of course, Hopkins had another context in mind. Also, he wrote the poem at the age of 36, and died at 44. I wonder if he would have felt the same had he lived longer.

As always, it is good to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

James said...

A friend of mine recently had the experience of seeing, in a reflection, like a mirror, someone seemingly in our break room... that wasn't there. The reflection or mirror as portal... the idea I suspect is quite ancient.

Strangely Autumn seems portal-like... the pictures in your blog take me to ... where I am already. By a longer route. Even your blog itself... I realize is a portal itself.

Mirrors and portals always remind me of Surrealism and Magritte ... and many others ... but especially of Cocteau. And googling portals led me to his unusual statement about poetry as a coat of arms...

"Cocteau (in Le Sang d'un poete...) tells the spectator that all poetry is a coat of arms whose symbols can be deciphered only after the expenditure of blood."

And blood... reminds me also of Autumn... much thanks for your blog etc.!!

Damian said...

Thanks for introducing me to the Landor poem; I particularly like that one. More generally, are there any book-length collections of autumn-themed poems you know of to recommend? It would seem strange if there weren't any, but it occurs to me that I've never come across one.

Stephen Pentz said...

James: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts on autumn, portals, and poetry. I like the idea of autumn as a portal: it certainly seems to me that it does open up onto and into . . . things. But I should be wary of giving autumn too much preference: all of the seasons, and all of the beautiful particulars of the World, are portals, in my opinion.

I do think of the paintings that I post here as being portals, as you say. As for the blog itself being a portal: that's very nice of you to say. I hope that is the case.

Thank you for visiting again, and for your kind words.

Stephen Pentz said...

Damian: I'm pleased you like Landor's poem. As for autumn-themed poetry anthologies, I'm not aware of any either. As someone who accumulates anthologies, I would definitely have picked up an autumn anthology if I had come across one.

The closest I can come are Volume 3 (Summer-Autumn) and Volume 4 (Autumn-Winter) of R. H. Blyth's four-volume masterpiece Haiku. These are not anthologies per se. And, of course, the selection is limited to haiku, which are, as you know, characterized by the use of a seasonal word. Blyth made the decision to organize his work according to the seasons. (With the exception of the first volume, which is titled Eastern Culture.)

I have both volumes beside me as I write this, as I return to them each autumn. Here is just a small sample of the categories into which Blyth has organized autumn-themed haiku: autumn morning; autumn evening; the autumn sky; the moon; the wind of autumn; autumn mountains; scarecrows (a particularly wonderful section); visiting graves; wild geese; dragonflies; grasshoppers; crickets; falling willow leaves; autumn leaves; morning glories; bush clover; pampas grass; chestnuts. And a couple of dozen more categories. A lifetime's treasure. Or so it seems to me.

It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for stopping by.

Damian said...

Interesting; I first encountered Blyth's name via the frequent references to him in Alan Watts's writings. He's always been on my radar, so to speak, but only once have I ever happened across one of his books at a library sale. I'll have to start looking for the books you mention. I've always loved haiku, since parsimony is the ruling principle of poetry for me, and I'm especially interested by an entire section of haiku about scarecrows. Ever since my youth, I've been fascinated by scarecrows as a symbol of autumn, and as I got older, I began keeping a collection of decorative ones in the house. (I wrote about it here in case you're interested:

Speaking of leaves, you might already be aware of Linda Pastan's wonderful poem, "November," which I ritually read every autumn:

Thanks again for the tip. Perhaps it's up to you to produce the autumn anthology the world is crying out for!

Dave Lull said...

A search of WorldCat returns bibliographic records for some autumn anthologies, mostly aimed at a “juvenile audience,” not that there’s anything wrong with that. For example the first book listed is Poetry for autumn (Champaign, Ill., Garrard Pub. Co. [1968]) selected by Leland B. Jacobs, with this contents listed:

End-of-summer poem / Rowena Bennett --
The golden rod / Frank Dempster Sherman --
Autumn / T.E. Hulme --
The last word of a bluebird (as told to a child) / Robert Frost --
Autumn fires / Robert Louis Stevenson --
Autumn song / Elizabeth-Ellen Long --
Autumn! / Nancy Byrd Turner --
Autumn woods / James S. Tippett --
Autumn fancies / Unknown --
Robin Redbreast / William Allingham --
Threnody / John Farrar --
September / Mary Howitt --
Watching the moon / David McCord --
School / Blythe Cleave --
Crickets / David McCord --
Nuts / Folk rhyme --
Remember September / May Justus --
October's song / Eleanor Farjeon --
October / Rose Flyeman --
October / Patricia Hubbell --
Fall / Aileen Fisher --
Fall mornings / Maureen Cannon --
Christopher Columbus / Annette Wynne --
Light in the darkness: October 11, 1492 / Aileen Fisher --
Ring around the world / Annette Wynne --
Oh world / Lee Blair --
Don't crowd / Charles Dickens --
Halloween song / Marjorie Barrows --
Luck for Hallowe'en / May Justus --
Halloween / Frances M. Frost --
The bored goblins / Dorothy Brown Thompson --
The witch / Percy H. Ilott --
November night / Adelaide Crapsey --
November woods / Helen Hunt Jackson --
The mist and tall / Dixie Willson --
Windy nights / Robert Louis Stevenson --
Do you fear the wind? / Hamlin Garland --
November / Elizabeth Coatsworth --
Poor voter on Election Day / John Greenleaf Whittier --
Autumn / Elizabeth Madox Roberts --
The land of story-books / Robert Louis Stevenson --
The library / Barbara A. Huff --
Mary make the butter / Ivy O. Eastwick --
The pilgrims came / Annette Wynne --
The first Thanksgiving / Nancy Byrd Turner --
A Thanksgiving fable / Oliver Herford --
Thanksgiving / Old rhyme --
Indian summer / Kathryn Jackson.

Stephen Pentz said...

Damian: Thank you very much for your follow-up thoughts, and for the links to your post and to the poem by Linda Pastan (which is new to me).

As for scarecrows: your post evokes their allure well. I was pleased to see the reference to "kakashi" in the quotation that appears at the outset of your post. By the way, I just counted: there are 42 haiku about scarecrows in R. H. Blyth's Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter. I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, but here are a few (all of the translations are by Blyth):

Autumn deepens;
Scarecrows are clad
In fallen leaves. (Otsuyū)

The autumn wind
Moved the scarecrow,
And passed on. (Buson)

The scarecrow in the distance;
It walked with me
As I walked. (Sanin)

As for Blyth's 4-volume Haiku: again, I highly recommend it. Although it is, in my humble opinion, the authoritative English resource for haiku and although Blyth's translations are, in my humble opinion, the best in English (simple, direct, and true to the originals), it is also a marvelous compendium of Blyth's wide-ranging and obscure learning. For instance, he constantly includes references to Western poetry, literature, and philosophy when discussing specific haiku. He also includes a fair amount of Chinese poetry and philosophy (translated by him). I'm afraid I have to employ a misused and overused term: it is sui generis.

But don't rely on what I say. In the past five years, I have become acquainted with the work of Philippe Jaccottet, and excerpts from his work (both poetry and prose) have appeared in several of my posts. When I first started reading Jaccottet, I was delighted to discover that he is fond of Blyth's work as well. In a notebook entry from August of 1960, Jaccottet writes: "R. H. Blyth's Haiku, essential. . . . I could quote pages. While reading these four volumes, it occurred to me more than once that they contained, of all the words I have ever managed to decipher, those closest to the truth." Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (translated by Tess Lewis) (Seagull Books 2013), pages 52-53. Jaccottet expresses exactly how I feel about Blyth and haiku.

I was lucky enough to come across a full 4-volume set of the original hardcover edition (published in Japan in 1949 through 1952) about 30 or so years ago, and it has been a constant companion since then. Fortunately, copies of Haiku are still fairly readily available (particularly because it was republished in softcover in the 1980s). Each of the four volumes is self-contained, so you can purchase them one at a time. Start with Autumn-Winter, so that you can enjoy the scarecrow haiku!

Finally, as for anthologies of autumn poetry, please see Mr. Lull's post above. As for me undertaking that task: this blog will have to suffice.

Thank you again for your further thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Lull: Thank you very much for sharing this! You are, as ever, an amazing source of information, and I appreciate your taking the time to look into this. I see a few familiar poems in the table of contents to Jacobs' book (which is new to me). I haven't sorted through all of the other 200 or so items yet, but I see several that are familiar and others that are new and interesting (anthologies and otherwise).

It is always a pleasure to hear from you. I hope you are enjoying a lovely autumn "up north" (as we Twin Cities dwellers used to say long ago when I was growing up). Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

After looking at Mr. Lull's list of child-oriented autumn poetry, I found "The Last Word of a Bluebird" in my Complete Frost. I love finding any Frost poem I've never read before; this one is a small treasure -- a charming poem written for his daughter Lesley. A perfect gift for a daughter, as is my Frost collection, given to me by my father long years ago. I only with he'd written his name in it.
We are having a strange fall in New York City, cold but green -- hardly any brilliance.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you for pointing out the Frost poem, which I failed to notice in Mr. Lull's list, but which I have now found and read for the first time. As you say, it is indeed "a small treasure." It is always nice to discover something one has missed by the poets one loves. I know that there are still undiscovered gems for me to discover in the books of, for instance, Frost, Hardy, Walter de la Mare, and Christina Rossetti. Something to look forward to.

I trust that the autumn colors will arrive for you at some point -- perhaps in a sudden rush. As always, it's good to hear from you. I hope that all is well. Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

James Pentz said...

Perhaps it's naive of me to believe that with maturity comes acceptance of the inevitable. All vessels have their own course, and lifespan, which serve as reminders that nature chooses a path of its own. Yet even with an innumerable amount of beings, there are always seems to be certain inevitabilities which nature follows. The coming of Fall is a perfect reminder of this, and I was able to connect with "Fast Fall the Leaves" and "Autumn in King Hintock's Park."

These poems and the general sentiment behind fall remind me of one of my favorite movie scenes, in which upon viewing a film of leaves dancing in the wind, the main character says, "That's the day I realized that there's this entire life behind things,and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid" (American Beauty, 1999). Here's a link to the clip, for anyone that is intersted:

Stephen Pentz said...

Jimmy: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts. As for "maturity" and its relationship to "acceptance of the inevitable," I suspect that it is more a matter of the passage of time -- i.e., aging. Yet, if one is lucky, momentary glimpses of truth may appear at any time, out of nowhere. (Speaking for myself, this has nothing to do with "maturity" or "wisdom," since I cannot claim, and will never be able to claim, either of those qualities.) This is where poetry and art come in, I think. (For instance: the two poems you mention.) And certain messages from the World.

Thank you also for mentioning the scene from American Beauty, which I had forgotten: yes, the plastic bag and the leaves. A lovely scene (with lovely music). "There was no reason to be afraid" reminds me of an anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein: "When he was about 21 years of age . . . something occurred that had a lasting impact on him. He saw a play in Vienna which was mediocre drama: but there was a scene in which a person whose life had been desperately miserable, and who thought himself about to die, suddenly felt himself to be spoken to in the words, 'Nothing can happen to you!' No matter what occurred in the world, no harm could come to him! Wittgenstein was greatly struck by this thought (as he told me approximately forty years later)." (Norman Malcolm, "A Religious Man?" in F. A. Flowers (editor), Portraits of Wittgenstein, Volume 4 (Thoemmes Press 1999), page 192.)

Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.