Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A Blade of Grass

I recently read the following haiku by Bashō:

a dragonfly
vainly trying to settle
onto a blade of grass

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 297.

Ueda's book consists of a selection of Bashō's haiku, each followed by excerpts of commentaries on the poem offered by Japanese critics over the years.  Of this haiku, one critic writes: "This looks like a simple descriptive poem, and yet it makes us wonder whether Bashō's eyes were not observing something important in the very heart of nature."  (Ibid, page 297, quoting Momota Sōji (1893-1955).)

True, but a bit of an understatement, R. H. Blyth might say, for he wrote this of Bashō (in comparing him to Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes, in that order):  "In what point is Bashō equal or superior to these great men?  In his touching the very nerve of life, his unerring knowledge of those moments in time which, put together, make up our real, our eternal life.  He is awake in the world that for almost all men exists as a world of dreams."  (R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page iii.) (Blyth's observation brings Wordsworth's "spots of time" to mind.) Many of you may be skeptical of Blyth's claim.  After all, he devoted much of his life to writing about haiku, and thus was not a disinterested party.  Knowing Blyth, he was likely also exaggerating for effect.  Still, I confess I am not unsympathetic.

But let's leave all that aside.  It is simply a matter of a blade of grass, of a dragonfly.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
"Bluebells, Cornflowers, and Rhododendrons" (1945)

About a week later, having decided to travel to the world of W. B. Yeats, I came upon this:

   Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

W. B. Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (Macmillan 1933).

This poem has its source in Yeats' esoteric philosophical explorations. A daunting world in which to venture.  It tends to leave me befuddled.  However, I have been fond of Yeats from an impressionable age, and I will never cease returning to him.

But, there it was again, out of the blue: "a blade of grass."  Poetry is a wonderful thing, isn't it?  You never know what will happen the next time you open a book of poems.  A week earlier, I had been marveling at a dragonfly and a blade of grass.  Now, suddenly, serendipitously (I hadn't gone looking for "Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors"), there it was: "a blade of grass."

Stanley Spencer, "Peonies" (1939)

Yet, there was one more step to take.  A blade of grass.  A dragonfly. Something was nagging at me.  In poetry, one thing always leads to another.  Ah, yes, a dragonfly:

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
        For know, all things
        Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
    Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (c. 556-c. 468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 234.

One of the joys of poetry is the way in which a poem you have read remains inside of you, waiting patiently.  A poem from 17th century Japan.  A poem written by an Irish poet in the 20th century.  A poem born in Greece 2,500 years ago.

It is all a matter of a blade of grass.  Or of a dragonfly.

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)