Sunday, June 2, 2019


A four-line poem written in China in the Fourth or Fifth Century A.D. Perhaps a song.  The poet is unknown.

I heard my love was going to Yang-chow
And went with him as far as Ch'u Hill.
For a moment, when you held me fast in your outstretched arms
I thought the river stood still and did not flow.

Anonymous (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (George Allen and Unwin 1946).

Long-time readers of this blog may recall my two essential poetic principles (i. e., truisms that no doubt try your patience by now).  The first:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  And, begging your forbearance, the second:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.

A poem such as this is timeless and eternal.  It comes from China and from the universe.  Of its Beauty and Truth, nothing more need be said.

Thomas Hennell (1903-1945)
"The Guest House, Cerne Abbas" (1940)

Nothing more need be said.  But, if we are lucky, those four lines may cause us to catch our breath:  Ah, yes, I know, I know, I know.  

                      While You Slept

You never knew what I saw while you slept.
We drove up a wide green stone-filled valley.
Around us were empty heather mountains.
A white river curved quickly beside us.
I thought to wake you when I saw the cairn --
A granite pillar of that country's past --
But I let you sleep without that history.
You did, however, travel through that place:
I can tell you that your eyes were at rest
As the momentous world moved beyond you,
And that you breathed in peace that quarter hour.
We seldom know what is irreplaceable.
You sang old songs for me, then fell asleep.
I worried about what you were missing.
But you missed nothing.  And I was the one who slept.

sip (Glen Coe, Scotland, c. 1986).

Thomas Hennell, "The Beech Avenue, Lasham" (1941)


Esther said...

Your poem still gives me chills.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite short stories, which I reread recently, is John Updike's "The Happiest I've Been". I've been reading a little about Updike on the internet, & see that others have also called it their favorite of his stories. If you read it to the end, you'll see why I mention it in connection with this post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much. (Although I hope I'm assuming correctly that "chills" are a good thing in this instance!) As always, thank you for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm ashamed to say that I am essentially ignorant of Updike's work, and thus wasn't aware of "The Happiest I've Been" until now. After reading your comment, I found it on the internet, and couldn't resist looking at the ending. Wonderful. (I will go back and read the entire story.)

"And there was knowing that twice since midnight a person had trusted me enough to fall asleep beside me." Yes, exactly. Trusted. Or loved.

Thank you very much for sharing this. I hope you have been having a wonderful spring. I'm always happy to hear from you. Take care.

Anonymous said...

I must reply that I have strongly mixed feelings about Updike's writing. The story, as you might guess, echoes an important moment in my own life, which is why I love it. (Also it's less overstyled than most of his writing is.) Although, instead of driving through the Scottish landscape, I was at the wheel in the middle of the night driving past the steel mills of Gary Indiana; a woman driving while a man slept, which made me even happier. So long ago -- much longer than 1986.
No longer spring here -- green everywhere, with masses of roses blooming their heads off.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: That's lovely. Thank you very much for sharing your experience. As you know, one of the wonderful things about art (writing, painting, music) are these "moments of recognition" we occasionally experience. We never know when they will arrive. I think it is a fine thing that "The Happiest I've Been" brought such a moment to you, and I am grateful to you for having reawakened a similar moment for me by sharing the story.

Enjoy the roses! On Saturday, I read these lines by T'ao Ch'ien (translated by James Hightower): "The glorious blossoms are hard to keep . . . Yesterday's springtime lotus flower/Today has become the seedpod of autumn." Passing, but glorious. (And with seeds of rebirth.) Thank you again.

Tim Guirl said...

Mr. Pentz,

I continue to read your lovely blog, much to my intense delight. My dearly beloved and I both retired this week, and are looking forward to our new life together. We will shepherd our grandchildren, ages 3 and nearly 2, three days a week while their parents work. By the way, even though I have been one of your readers for a long time, I have forgotten what the connection is with your blog and General Grant. Please remind me. I know he is a fine writer, based on his memoirs.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: Congratulations! It is wonderful that the two of you are entering into this new period of your lives at the same time. It sounds like there will never be a dull moment!

As for Grant. I was one of the many American boys who grew up during the Civil War centennial and became enthralled with the War. It remains an abiding interest for me more than 50 years later. Over time, Grant became, and is, one of the Americans I admire most. I haven't the space to articulate why. Fortunately, Theodore Lyman, who served as an aide to Major-General George Meade (commander of the Army of the Potomac), and thus interacted with Grant on a nearly daily basis from the spring of 1864 until the end of the War, can do it for me succinctly. In a letter to his wife, Lyman wrote of Grant: "He is the concentration of all that is American." Lyman's description fits perfectly with the first sentence of Grant's memoirs (with which you are likely familiar): "My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral."

Why did I choose the photograph? I suppose I must have been thinking about, or reading about, him at the time. It has long been my favorite photo of him. I like his stolid and determined look. It was taken at Cold Harbor in June of 1864, a month into the Overland Campaign. About a month earlier, after the campaign began in the horrors of The Wilderness, Grant took aside a reporter (Henry Wing) who was headed back to Washington, D. C., and asked Wing to deliver a personal message to President Lincoln from Grant. Grant said to Wing: "Well, if you see the President, tell him from me that, whatever happens, there will be no turning back." Wing repeated the message to Lincoln in private. According to Wing, "Mr. Lincoln put his great, strong arms about me and, carried away in the exuberance of his gladness, imprinted a kiss upon my forehead." Henry King, When Lincoln Kissed Me: A Story of the Wilderness Campaign (1913), pages 13, 36-39. (If you are interested, I did three posts on Grant: June 14, 2010; October 30, 2010; June 5, 2011.)

Again, congratulations! I wish the both of you all the best. As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for your kind words.