Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A New Year

I've never been one for participating in New Year's Eve celebrations. But I am not a curmudgeon about it:  if others find the countdown to the arrival of the New Year exciting, I wish them well in their merrymaking.  I, however, will be sound asleep as the year turns.

Mind you, I am not insensible to the Inexorable March of Time or to "the strumble/Of the hungry river of death."  For example, on Sunday evening Marcus Aurelius brought me this:

"Remember also that each man lives only the present moment:  The rest of time is either spent and gone, or is quite unknown.  It is a very little time which each man lives, and in a small corner of the earth; and the longest surviving fame is but short, and this conveyed through a succession of poor mortals, each presently a-dying; men who neither knew themselves, nor the persons long since dead."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book III, Section 10, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

After reading the passage, I sought out Jeremy Collier's translation. Although Collier has been criticized for his lack of fidelity to the emperor's Greek text, his late 17th century-early 18th century English prose is often lovely and colorful.  And such is the case in this instance:

"Remembering withal, that every Man's Life lies all within the Present; For the Past is spent, and done with, and the Future is uncertain:  Now the Present if strictly examin'd, is but a point of Time.  Well then!  Life moves in a very narrow Compass; yes, and Men live in a poor Corner of the World too:  And the most lasting Fame will stretch but to a sorry Extent.  The Passage on't is uneven and craggy, and therefore it can't run far.  The frequent Breaks of Succession drop it in the Conveyance:  For alas! poor transitory Mortals, know little either of themselves, or of those who were long before them."

Marcus Aurelius, Ibid, in Jeremy Collier (1650-1726) (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

James Paterson (1854-1932),"Moniaive" (1885)

Marcus Aurelius' thoughts in turn bring this to mind:

            The Old Year

The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
     Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
     And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
     In every cot and hall --
A guest to every heart's desire,
     And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
     Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
     Are things identified;
But time once torn away
     No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
     Left the Old Year lost to all.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).

I recognize that the combination of the emperor's thoughts and Clare's poem may not be everyone's cup of tea on the cusp of the New Year.  You'll certainly not find me criticizing those who wish to sing "Auld Lang Syne" in good cheer with their fellows at the stroke of midnight.  We are in "the vale of Soul-making," after all, and there is more than one path through it.

James Paterson, "Autumn in Glencairn, Moniaive" (1887)

Here is a final New Year thought from yet another time and place:

     Swift is their passage
as the flow of the Asuka,
     "Tomorrow River" --
the long months I spend saying,
"yesterday," "today," "tomorrow."

Harumichi Tsuraki (d. 920) (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), in Helen Craig McCullough (editor and translator), Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (Stanford University Press 1985), page 82.

The poem (which is a waka) appears in Kokin Wakashū, an anthology that was compiled in approximately 905.  (Ibid, page v.) The headnote to the poem states that it was "composed at year-end." (Ibid, page 82.)  "Tomorrow River" is an alternative translation of Asukagawa ("Asuka River"), and is based "on the pun inherent in its name -- the sound asu meaning 'tomorrow'."  (Steven Carter (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 480.)

There are many paths.  And all of those yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.  Happy New Year, dear readers!

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


In his poems, Norman MacCaig occasionally takes good-natured digs at modern philosophers and academics, digs that serve as reminders and cautions to the rest of us as well.

    Woodcocks and Philosophers

The woodcock I startled yesterday
clattered off through the birch trees
without starting to philosophise
and write a book about it.

That's his way.
And that's how he survives.
It amazes me that loafing philosophers
Don't all die young.

Unless, of course, when reality
saunters by, they crash off
through book after book, without reading
one blessed word.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2005).

A side-note:  like a great deal else, philosophy isn't what it used to be, is it?  One longs for those passionate, not-suffering-fools-gladly, intemperate, entertaining, exasperating, eccentric characters of yore: Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Leopardi (a poet-philosopher or a philosopher-poet, as you wish), and Wittgenstein come to mind.  Or, to go back even further:  Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Heraclitus.

When it comes to sensibilities such as these, one has the feeling that philosophy is a matter of life and death, that it has something vital to do with how we live and how we die.  Now, we have academic philosophy.  Shot through with politics, social "science," and semantics, as one would expect.  Posturing and word-play.  No wonder MacCaig was skeptical, in his kindly way.

John Noble Barlow (1861-1917), "Autumn at Lamorna, Cornwall"

Here is MacCaig again:

    Compare and Contrast

The great thinker died
after forty years of poking about
with his little torch
in the dark forest of ideas,
in the bright glare of perception,
leaving a legacy of fourteen books
to the world
where a hen disappeared
into six acres of tall oats
and sauntered unerringly
to the nest with five eggs in it.

Norman MacCaig, Ibid.

He is exaggerating for effect, of course.  We are not woodcocks or hens:  we are not as at home in ourselves, or as elegant, as they are. He is not calling for an Edenic "return to nature."  His poems are full of human beings -- their joys and sorrows, their goodness and badness, and everything in between.  "The great thinker" and the "loafing philosophers" are us.  As are his crofters, shepherds, postmen, bus drivers, old men in pubs.  Still, nature is ever-present in his poetry:  mountains, lochs, trees, the sea, flowers, rain and snow, the moon, the stars, and the planets -- and the birds, always the birds.  There is a back-and-forth, a balance.  Human beings and nature are, by turns, the foreground and the background.

John Noble Barlow, "Marazion Marshes, Cornwall"

In an interview, MacCaig said something wonderful:  "I'm bombarded with things that are loveable."  (Ibid, "Quotations from MacCaig," page xlviii.)  This is a capacious and beautiful view of the World, of existence.  "When reality saunters by . . ."   When reality saunters by, as it does each day, we should be receptive and attentive. And grateful.

Onto the rain porch
     from somewhere outside it comes --
a fallen petal.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 443.

John Noble Barlow, "Dewerstone, Shaugh"

Monday, December 9, 2019


Each week I watch a 30-minute episode of a series titled Document 72 Hours on NHK World.  In each episode, a film crew records the human activity in a particular place in Japan over a 72-hour period. The locations have been various and interesting:  a post office, a restaurant, a bargain shoe store, a wig shop, a Shinto shrine, a butcher shop, a traveling library truck, et cetera.  The emphasis is on the people in these places:  the crew politely draws them out, and they tell their stories.  The episodes are always moving.

In this week's episode, the crew followed home care nurses on their visits to patients in Higashikurume, a suburb in western Tokyo.  In one segment, a nurse visited a boy with cerebral palsy.  It was his sixth birthday.  She sang him a song, and gave him and his mother a birthday card she had made for him.  She then bathed him (an event he always looks forward to, according to his mother).

After the visit, while driving her car to the home of her next patient, she said this (as translated into English subtitles):  "Since starting this job, I've often thought about the true meaning of happiness. Everybody is completely different.  Nurses try to help each patient find small moments of joy.  I always try to ask myself what would make my patients happy.  I hope to continue helping them that way."

Ah, these human stories.  These glimmers all around us.

Earlier in the week, I had read this poem:

                              Sitting Up at Night

Spinners' lights from house to house brighten the deep night;
here and there new fields have been plowed after rain.
Always I feel ashamed to be so old and idle.
Sitting close by the stove, I hear the sound of the wind.

Lu Yu (1125-1210) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Lu Yu (Columbia University Press 1973), page 67.  Lu Yu wrote the poem at the age of 83.

[For anyone who may be interested, the episode of Document 72 Hours mentioned above is available until December 17 in the On Demand section of the NHK World website.  The title of the episode is:  "Nurse Visits: Home Is Where the Heart Is."]

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935)
"Winter Night in the Mountains" (1914)

Lights that "brighten the deep night."  Please bear with me, dear readers, as I return to lines that have appeared here on several occasions in the past:  "we should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."  (Philip Larkin, "The Mower.")  It really is as simple as that.

There is a great deal to complain of in our age, isn't there?  Yet, each successive "modern" age seems clamorous, base, and hollow to a large number of its inhabitants.  For instance, the politicized world that surrounds us is paltry and mean.  How could it be otherwise?  It has always been thus, and it will always be thus.  It is one manifestation of human nature, and it will never change.

But none of this is cause for despair.  And so, as I return to Philip Larkin, I must also return to John Keats:  we are in "the vale of Soul-making."  Which leads to this:  "There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,/A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry."  (W. B. Yeats, "Paudeen.")


Last thing at night
he steps outside to breathe
the smell of winter.

The stars, so shy in summer,
glare down
from a huge emptiness.

In a huge silence he listens
for small sounds.  His eyes
are filled with friendliness.

What's history to him?
He's an emblem of it
in its pure state.

And proves it.  He goes inside.
The door closes and the light
dies in the window.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2005).

"Crofter" is paired in my mind with this:

             The Shepherd's Hut

Now when I could not find the road
Unless beside it also flowed
This cobbled beck that through the night,
Breaking on stones, makes its own light,

Where blackness in the starlit sky
Is all I know a mountain by,
A shepherd little thinks how far
His lamp is shining like a star.

Andrew Young, Speak to the Earth (Jonathan Cape 1939).

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1901)

This afternoon, while out on my walk, a thought occurred to me: "The greyest of grey days."  As I walked on, similar thoughts arose.  "A day of a thousand greys."  "The greyest day imaginable."  Such was my mood.

I continued to walk.  Lifting my eyes, I noticed a thin strip of pale yellow light far off, just above the northwestern horizon, below the unbroken ceiling of grey, darkening cloud.  Somewhere out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near the border of Canada, the World was aglow.

I was walking in that direction.  Moments later, a few of the robins who stay here for the winter began to chatter from within a grove of pine trees.  A dove flew across the path in front of me, and disappeared into the dim woods.  (I wonder: was it the same dove I saw a few weeks ago, and mentioned in my previous post?)

Yes, a grey day, but . . .

     The long night;
A light passes along
     Outside the shōji.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 356.

Shiki wrote several haiku that feature solitary gleams of light. Another:

     Farther and farther away it goes, --
The lantern:
     The voice of the hototogisu.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 168.  The hototogisu is the Japanese cuckoo.

The lantern vanishes.  The call of the cuckoo arrives.  As I have noted here before, the World tends to provide us with compensations, doesn't it?

And, finally, there is this:

     The light in the next room also
Goes out;
     The night is chill.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 328.

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1924)