Friday, April 16, 2021


I am an escapist.  The past month I've spent a great deal of time in 17th century Japan in the company of Gensei, a Buddhist monk-poet, and in Victorian England in the company of Christina Rossetti.  From what world am I fleeing?  I suspect you know.

"I have not yet looked at the newspaper.  Generally I leave it till I come back tired from my walk; it amuses me then to see what the noisy world is doing, what new self-torments men have discovered, what new forms of vain toil, what new occasions of peril and of strife.  I grudge to give the first freshness of the morning mind to things so sad and foolish."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Archibald Constable & Co. 1903), page 7.

Unlike Henry Ryecroft, I am not amused by what appears in the newspapers (or in their modern electronic successors).  Hence, I am content to leave news out of my life entirely.  "Where, to me, is the loss/Of the scenes they saw -- of the sounds they heard."  (Mary Coleridge, "No Newspapers.")  Of course, in this day and age snippets inevitably seep through -- insidious, noisome.  Our life is now akin to being forever stranded in an airport departure lounge, forced to listen to the ever-present cable news presenters dissembling from an unasked-for television screen hovering in the air somewhere above us.  Ah, welladay!

But we have it within us to live a seemlier life, a life of peace and quiet, of small things.

Trailing my stick I go down to the garden edge,
call to a monk to go out the pine gate.
A cup of tea with my mother,
looking at each other, enjoying our tea together.
In the deep lanes, few people in sight;
the dog barks when anyone comes or goes.
Fall floods have washed away the planks of the bridge;
shouldering our sandals, we wade the narrow stream.
By the roadside, a small pavilion
where there used to be a little hill:
it helps out our hermit mood;
country poems pile one sheet on another.
I dabble in the flow, delighted by the shallowness of the stream,
gaze at the flagging, admiring how firm the stones are.
The point in life is to know what's enough --
why envy those otherworld immortals?
With the happiness held in one inch-square heart
you can fill the whole space between heaven and earth.

Gensei (1623-1668) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Grass Hill: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Gensei (Columbia University Press 1983), page 70.  The poem is untitled.

"The point in life is to know what's enough."  Exactly. "September 1 -- the beards of Thistle & dandelions flying above the lonely mountains like life, & I saw them thro' the Trees skimming the lake like Swallows."  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 799 (September, 1800).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Glamis Village in April"

On his walk, Gensei misses nothing.  "In the deep lanes, few people in sight;/the dog barks when anyone comes or goes."  A mere commonplace?  But perhaps Gensei is echoing a line in a poem written in China twelve centuries earlier by T'ao Ch'ien (who was revered by Japanese poets): "A dog barks somewhere in the deep lanes."  ("Returning to the Fields" (line 15) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 78.)  Or perhaps he is simply (and not so simply) paying attention to the World.  Never underestimate the commonplace, the quotidian.  These terms are not pejorative.

               Lark Descending

A singing firework; the sun's darling;
     Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence: see, a small gray bird
     That runs among the weeds.

Edmund Blunden, Poems, 1930-1940 (Macmillan 1940).

While out walking yesterday afternoon I heard no larks singing in the cloudless sky.  But I did hear an unseen woodpecker far off in the woods, hammering.  A small thing.  "There have been times when looking up beneath the sheltring [sic] Trees, I could Invest every leaf with Awe."  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804, Notebook Entry 1510 (September, 1803).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

An aside, in closing.  I am ever in search of those who have found serenity and equanimity.  This is why I have long been fond of Gensei, and of his poetry.  Thus, I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I unexpectedly came upon this, which was previously unknown to me.

     Homage to Gensei

Last night I lay awake
From some sound in the night
And pictured I could take
(Knowing that I could not)
The firm and quiet way
Of the gentle monk Gensei,
Who watched from his Grass Hill
(Three hundred years away)
Beneath a favorite tree,
Or from his leaky hut,
Travels of crow, cloud, sail;
With some food and wine
Welcomed the always rare
Visit from old friends; wrote
His poems, though unwell
Much of the time; read; gave
Lessons, again while sick,
Kept clear of pedantry
(And all he wrote of it
Rings true of it today),
With his goose-foot walking stick
To keep him company
Took walks, kept his mind free
And agile as the air,
Transcending tragedy,
Under his bent old pine
With writing brush in hand
Quiet at close of day
Saw out the evening sun
Across the shadowy land.
     *        *        *        *        *   
Slight rustlings in a tree
And a slow car going by
Returned me to what's mine,
What it had all come to,
What I still had to do
With my own dwindling days.

Alan Stephens, Collected Poems, 1958-1998 (Dowitcher Press 2012).  The ellipses are in the original text.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)


Rebecca Weiner Tompkins said...

Thank you for the Alan Stephens poem. He was my teacher in the 70s at College of Creative Studies, UCSB. He certainly helped me find my own way. I wasn't familiar with that particular selection.
Rebecca Weiner Tompkins

Nikki Hardin said...

Thanks for this. It came at a moment when I was resolving to limit myself to newspapers and avoid the constant despair that cable news causes me.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Weiner Tompkins: It appears that you and I once lived in the same part of the world, and perhaps at the same time: I graduated from UCSB in 1978. Although I was nominally an economics major, I took a fair number of English classes. I never took a class from Alan Stephens, but I remember seeing him. I started to take a poetry writing class from Edgar Bowers, but I soon knew I wasn't up to it -- which was true: I was only beginning to discover my love for poetry. Thus, I dropped out of the class, which I still regret.

I hadn't thought about Stephens for some time (although I do have a volume of his poetry), when I stumbled upon "Homage to Gensei." To my mind, it captures Gensei's character quite well (at least how it comes across in Burton Watson's book, which is pretty much the sole substantial source on Gensei's life and poetry in English). We all owe a great deal to Watson for his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry, and his preservation of Gensei's life and poetry is a wonderful gift, and a lovely tribute.

Thank you very much for visiting. I hope you will return.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Hardin: You're welcome. "News" has always been a dubious proposition, and not just in our times. (See, for instance, Stephen Crane's poem beginning: "A newspaper is a collection of half-injustices . . .") But, in my humble opinion, we no longer have even "news," only politicized opinion. Why participate?

Thank you very much for visiting again.

Anthony Hill said...

Thanks for another very nourishing piece.

I have much affection for Blunden. A fine poet and generous tutor to Keith Douglas. There's a fine documentary about Douglas called Battlefield Poet presented by Owen Sheers somewhere online, in case of interest.

Gensei had it right. One does come across such people, rarely. What is it that they have? Self-possession, grace? Are you just born with it, can it be acquired? If it's the latter then, like you, I'd love to have the recipe.

Esther said...

In his autobiography, C. S. Lewis describes being similarly disenchanted with newspapers, which encourage “the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.”

And when I got to your line about small things, I was so convicted I immediately got up from the computer and tended to some “small things” that were awaiting my attention. As the North Wind said in George MacDonald’s beautiful story, “I have little to do, but that little must be done.” Thousands of years ago, Zechariah similarly asked, “For who hath despised the day of small things?” And in support of small things, the Victorian Spurgeon wrote, “…the first dawn of light is but feeble, and yet by-and-by it grows into the full noontide heat and glory.”

I was also moved by Gensei’s line about “the happiness held in one inch-square heart,” as well as Alan Stephens’s Homage to Gensei, culminating in “What I still had to do with my own dwindling days.” It echoes one of my favorite sentences from Emerson, in his essay on Experience: “Thy sickness, they say, and thy puny habit require that thou do this or avoid that, but know that thy life is a flitting state, a tent for a night, and do thou, sick or well, finish that stint.”

This was one of my favorite posts ever. So deep. So quiet. I almost hesitate to throw a pebble into it...

gretchenjoanna said...

Even the old style of news was of questionable value, as Chesterton pointed out: “Journalism largely consists in saying 'Lord Jones is dead' to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”

But the sort of "news" you have given us here, from 17th century Japan, and other such "old news" that is about gifts that are always new, belongs to all of us, as Stephens puts it: "Returned me to what's mine," It unites and nourishes our human community.

Thank you for the gentle exhortation that your example provides. I just realized this week how necessary this seemingly escapist care of the soul is, after mine suffered from exposure to disease.

Andrew Rickard said...

"I am content to leave news out of my life entirely."

Hear, hear!

A belated congratulations on your thousandth post, and thanks for creating and maintaining this quiet place of refuge.

All the best,


sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you so much. Your blog and the poetry you select help me to survive this dreadful time. Your poems always seem to be precisely what I need to read. Thank you for introducing me to so many brilliant poets.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hill: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for the kind words.

Blunden does inspire affection, doesn't he? So gentle, and to have endured so much (which he could never entirely escape afterwards). The connection between Blunden and Douglas is touching. I can only imagine how Blunden felt, knowing what Douglas was headed into. I was able to find the documentary by Sheers (it is not available on BBC Four, but I found it on Sheers' website). I have not watched it yet, but I will do so.

Gensei was afflicted with various illnesses from a young age (as Stephens notes in his poem), and died at the age of 45. His poems and prose are concerned with everyday life, and, as one would expect, reflect his life as a Buddhist monk and teacher, and his devotion to his parents (both of whom died in their 80s; he took care of them until their deaths, dying two months after his mother passed away). One does find sadness and grief in his poems, but, as you say, he "had it right." I agree: such people are rare. I also agree with you that it would be nice "to have the recipe." But, if one reads the poetry of, say, Gensei, Ryōkan, Saigyō, and Bashō, one begins to get a sense of how to live. (Although it was not easy for any of them.)

Thank you for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: I greatly appreciate your kind words about the post. That's very nice of you to say. Thank you. Your thoughts, and the thoughts of others you have shared, are perfect complements to Gensei, Stephens, Blunden, and Coleridge. Have no fear about "throw[ing] a pebble"! The ripples are lovely.

All of the passages you quote are wonderful, but those of Zechariah and Emerson particularly resonate. "The day of small things." "A flitting state, a tent for a night." Thank you. I too love Gensei's "the happiness held in one inch-square heart." Sharing it was my primary motivation for the post.

I suppose hanami has come to an end by now. I hope it was lovely. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

gretchenjoanna: Thank you so much for your kind words about the post, and for sharing your thoughts on "news." I wholly agree that, unlike the "news" that daily surrounds us (as described well by your quote from Chesterton), there is also "old news" (to use your phrase) which enriches our lives, reminds us of what really matters, and focuses our soul on what is important. Thank you for the reminder of that.

The final sentence of your comment worries me. I hope that all is well with you. Yet I see from your most recent post on Gladsome Lights that you went to the sea a few days ago (the wildflower photographs are beautiful). I wish you the best. As ever, thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Andrew: Thank you very much. I greatly appreciate your long-term presence here. For my part, I am continually grateful for the sanctuary of sanity and wisdom you provide at Graveyard Masonry -- this has always been the case, but even more so for me given the state of the world over the past year. I can never thank you enough.

One small example: this past week I was organizing scattered papers, which included posts from Graveyard Masonry that I had printed out, and have been meaning to copy into my commonplace book. One of them was this, from your post on June 13, 2020, quoting a letter from George Gissing to his brother: "Keep apart, keep apart, and preserve one's soul alive -- that is the teaching for the day. It is ill to have been born in these times, but one can make a world within the world. A glimpse of the morning or evening sky will give the right note, and then we must make what music we can." This came at exactly the right moment for me, at a time when the world was in a particularly unhinged state. But, again, this is but one small instance of the sanity and beauty you have provided over the years.

Thank you again for your kind words. I hope that all is well. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt lacrimae rerum: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your kind words. Yes, it has indeed been a difficult world of late. But if the poems and art posted here have been of some solace to you, I'm grateful. I know they have helped me a great deal.

I'm happy to know you are still visiting. Thank you again. Please take care.