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)


Sam Vega said...

Many thanks for this selection. The issue of Blyth on greatness is an interesting one, and is I think best resolved by relaxing into the fact that greatness comes in such a bewildering variety of forms and styles that we can never fathom it. Ultimately, it is just a term, and can be applied to anything that strikes us as profound. I'm grateful to Basho for showing us another room in the mansion, and I also wonder whether someone like Blyth - who has spent more time than me, and looked far more intently - can see more than I can.

I love this little passage from Alison Lurie's critical study "Boys and Girls Forever". It gives us, I think, an insight into why dragonflies are so appealing; the combination of the vividness and the indeterminacy brought about by such rapid unpredictable motion. And, to be expected from de la Mare, a nugget of wisdom too.

Like many famous writers for children, Walter de la Mare had an idyllic early childhood that was cut short too soon....Later he would write that "those happy, unhappy far-away days seem like mere glimpses of a dragon-fly shimmering and darting."

For the rest of his life de la Mare would try to recapture the dragonfly. He would also continue to believe that it was better to be a child than an adult. At thirty-one he wrote to a friend that growing up "is a fiasco I am more convinced every day." When he was seventy-five, his biographer, Theresa Whistler (then twenty-one), "protested against this wholesale dismissal of adult life." De la Mare, who had known her since birth, insisted that he was right. "Take your own case," he told her. "Look how diluted you are!"

Thank you again, with my best wishes.

Bruce said...

Perhaps the most famous poem about grass in section six of Whitman's Song of Myself. Who doesn't know the beginning: "A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands"? Whitman disavows any precise answer to what the grass is. He suggests many things the grass could be: his "disposition," "the handkerchief of the Lord"-- regardless the grass is a "uniform hieroglyphic," spouting among all peoples. The point, I take it, is to say that grass is merely grass is to miss the wonder of it. The literalists among us frown, say, "If you want to know what grass is go to the horticulturist." But we are not, in this case, interested in what the stolid horticulturist proffers as a definition. In truth, Whitman, giving full rein to his imagination, moves right along and finds himself saying that the grass comes from those thought to be dead, springing from 'faint red roofs of mouths." Whitman arrives to the point where he can chant that "they [the so-called dead] are alive somewhere." Whitman says that "the smallest sprout shows there is really no death." So, we can see, if we wish, that we ignore the grass at our risk of truly understanding what it is or what it means. Remember, this is the Whitman who had no use for rational logic: "Logic and sermons never convince / The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul." We are never more beatific than when we stand speechless and ensorceled under the streaming firmament.

What, though, can the human imagination make of a drop of dew hanging from a blade of grass? More than words can say? Once again I am reminded of Blake's admonition: we must learn to see not with the eye but through the eye. Beauty is collaborative venture: the imagination in conjunction with the object being contemplated. Wordsworth says the same thing. Somehow I think of another of Blake's maxims applies here. He says that if the fool persists in his folly he will become wise. I think he means that it is hard work to train the sensibility to see anew. We need not change the phenomenal world; we must change the interior landscape of our minds, instruct the imagination.

What did Emily Dickinson, the other superlative poet of our American 19th century think of grass, just one of those things she could see from her window, the quotidian unfolding before her? She envies the grass. It can sing" pretty tunes" all day, entertain bees, "hold the sunshine in its lap" and it can--what a marvelous line--"thread the Dews, all night, like Pearl . . . " She ends the poem with that ethereal solecism, the one her editor, the pedant, wanted to change: "I wish I were a hay." Who in our ferverish world, one demanding out duty and obligation, would not sometimes want to be "a hay," harvested and lying in a barn, gone to sleep where we can "dream the days away"?

Oh, did we cultivate our sensibilities with the zeal we lavish on our lawns.

The Grass so little has to do,
A Sphere of simple Green -
With only Butterflies, to brood,
And Bees, to entertain -

And stir all day to pretty tunes
The Breezes fetch along,
And hold the Sunshine, in it's lap
And bow to everything,

And thread the Dews, all night, like Pearl,
And make itself so fine
A Duchess, were too Common
For such a noticing,

And even when it die, to pass
In odors so divine,
As lowly spices, gone to sleep -
Or Amulets of Pine -

And then to dwell in Sovereign Barns,
And dream the Days away,
The Grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a Hay -

Jane the Booklady said...

I too enjoy the way poems become connected through our memories of single lines or ideas. For me, the line "delicate as flower of grass" slipped into my mind when I read your post. I should have guessed that Edward Thomas is always in there somewhere... I have another half- memory that I can't quite grasp yet but I look forward to tracing the poem when I remember it.
Thank you for your writing and the paintings, they give me great pleasure. with best wishes, Jane

Esther said...

Joni Mitchell also comes to mind:

“A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof
Like a dragonfly on a tomb”

(Harry’s House/Centerpiece)

Terence said...

Thank you, Stephen, for a timely post.
Today, sitting outdoors amid the sights and sounds of a summer afternoon, I read this to my wife as we remembered the twenty-seventh anniversary of the birth and death of our daughter Martha. She lived two hours, a brief stay, but one for which we have always been grateful. The poem by Simonides, however, cast the sorrow we still feel in a new light all these years later. Thanks to you, a dragonfly and a blade of grass were today our unknown instructors.
John Lassiter

John Maruskin said...

Stephen, A beautiful post. I reckon the critic who wondered if Basho observed "something important at the very heart of nature" was in "the world of dreams." Which is thinking, not the world. Basho was "awake in the world." Blade of grass. Dragonfly. There we are.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thank you for your wonderful thoughts and observations on the post.

With respect to Blyth's statement about Bashō's greatness, I was a bit reluctant to quote it, since it may seem that Blyth is overreaching. Blyth was quite opinionated, but his opinions (in my view) are based upon a deep and broad knowledge of English, European, Japanese, and Chinese literature and philosophy. (As I'm sure you've noticed over the years, his 4-volume Haiku is an important part of my life, and has been for some 40 years or so.) Your thoughts are perfect. As you say, "greatness" is "just a term," and there are many rooms in "the mansion." (Which is why, for instance, I don't like classifying poets as "major" or "minor.") I think that Blyth would wholly agree with you. One of the marvelous things about the four volumes of Haiku is the way in which Blyth constantly quotes from, for instance, English poets to illustrate a point he is making about a haiku or a haiku poet. In doing so, Blyth's opinions do not always run in favor of the haiku or the haiku poet. Again, I think he would agree with your thought that there are many rooms in the mansion of "greatness" -- or, as I would prefer to say, in the mansion of Beauty and Truth.

Thank you so much for the passage about Walter de la Mare from Lurie's book, which is new to me. Again, I'm sure you know how fond I am of de la Mare, so I find this wonderful. His comment about the dragonfly days of childhood and "Look how diluted you are!" are both lovely. As I'm sure you know, Theresa Whistler's biography of him (mentioned by Lurie) is well worth reading. Regarding de la Mare and childhood, that is an inexhaustible topic, isn't it? The final four lines of his poem "A Recluse" come to mind: "Age proved his blessing. It had given/The all that earth implies of heaven;/And found an old man reconciled/To die, as he had lived, a child."

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. Best wishes to you as well, on this eve of summer's arrival.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: What a wonderful compilation and contemplation. Bringing together Whitman, Blake, and Dickinson (and Wordsworth as well) is thought-provoking, inspiring, and, of course, beautiful. Your observations fit well with Sam Vega's thought about the many rooms in the mansion of "greatness" (or, as I suggested in addition, in the mansion of Truth and Beauty). How different Dickinson, Whitman, and Blake are, and yet there is an essential thread that runs through them all. And which runs through Bashō (and Yeats and Simonides) as well.

It's sad to think of the state in which we live today. In the noisy and deranged world at large none of this matters. But I suppose that's why we have to remove ourselves from that false and demeaning world, and try to preserve what is humanly important. Yes: "The Grass so little has to do/I wish I were a Hay."

"And then to dwell in Sovereign Barns." I couldn't help but think of Arthur Waley's translation of a poem by Po Chü-i:

Climbing the Ling-ying Terrace and Looking North

Mounting on high I begin to realize the smallness of Man's Domain;
Gazing into distance I begin to know the vanity of the Carnal World.
I turn my head and hurry home -- back to the Court and Market,
A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn.

As always, thank you very much for being here. I hope that all is well with you and your loved ones. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jane: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post and the blog. And thank you as well for Edward Thomas' words from "Thaw," which I haven't visited for a while: perfect. He constantly reminds us to look at the small things around us, doesn't he? Things which, after all, are not so small.

I'm happy to hear from you again. Thank you for stopping by. Best wishes to you as well.

Old Owl said...

I love this blog. The beauty you find and reveal to us, the erudition of yourself and your readers makes my heart leap at times. Thank you, Mr Pentz.

And for a more modern view of a blade of grass, Brian Patten:

A Blade of Grass by Brian Patten

You ask for a poem. I offer you a blade of grass.
You say it is not good enough.
You ask for a poem.

I say this blade of grass will do.
It has dressed itself in frost,
It is more immediate
Than any image of my making.

You say it is not a poem,
It is a blade of grass and grass
Is not quite good enough.
I offer you a blade of grass.

You are indignant.
You say it is too easy to offer grass.
It is absurd.
Anyone can offer a blade of grass.

You ask for a poem.
And so I write you a tragedy about
How a blade of grass
Becomes more and more difficult to offer,

And about how as you grow older
A blade of grass
Becomes more difficult to accept

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Well, well, thank you for that memory! A lifetime ago, wasn't it? I just checked to get the exact year right: The Hissing of Summer Lawns was released in November of 1975, my sophomore year in college. The album (something made out of vinyl, for you youngsters out there) is still around here somewhere (as are Court and Spark, Blue, etc.). 45 years ago. That's enough to give one pause. Those are likely to be the two lines that many of us remember from that album, aren't they? I know that they still come back to me periodically, for no apparent reason, other than the usual swirling of memories.

Thank you very much for extending the journey of "a dragonfly." One thing leads to another. (Speaking of which, as I was writing this, another memory surfaced: on November 1, 1975, I saw Bruce Springsteen play at Robertson Gym on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. The internet can be good for some things: I just found the exact date, as well as the setlist. I'd best stop now, before Time engulfs me.)

I hope that all is well with you. You must be In, or entering into, the rainy season, I presume. Thank you for visiting again. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Lassiter: That's heartbreaking. I'm so sorry. I'm at a loss for words. The inadequate best I can do is to say that I am humbled and grateful that I by chance was the messenger who brought you Simonides' words, and that they may have helped you and your wife in some small way on a day that must always be extremely difficult. I wish the best to both of you. Take care.

John Maruskin said...

Stephen, Do you know this poem? It's about Henry White the brother of Gilbert.

B Flat

by Douglas Alexander Stewart

Sing softly. Muse, the Reverend Henry White
Who floats through time as lightly as a feather
Yet left one solitary gleam of light
Because he was the Selborne naturalist's brother

And told him once how on warm summer eves
When moonlight filled all Fyfield to the brim
And yearning owls were hooting to their loves
On church and barn and oak-tree's leafy limb

He took a common half-a-crown pitch-pipe
Such as the masters used for harpsichords
And through the village trod with silent step
Measuring the notes of those melodious birds

And found that each one sang, or rather hooted,
Precisely in the measure of B flat.
And that is all that history has noted;
We know no more of Henry White than that.

So, softly. Muse, in harmony and conformity
Pipe up for him and all such gentle souls
Thus in the world's enormousness, enormity,
So interested in music and in owls;

For though we cannot claim his crumb of knowledge
Was worth much more than virtually nil
Nor hail him for vast enterprise or courage,
Yet in my mind I see him walking still

With eager ear beneath his clerical hat
Through Fyfield village sleeping dark and blind,
Oh surely as he piped his soft B flat
The most harmless, the most innocent of mankind.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for both of your comments, and for your kind words about the post. With respect to your first comment, I agree with your thoughts about the Japanese critic's observation. That being said, very few human beings reach the position that Bashō reached (and he arguably didn't reach that position until late in his short life), so I can't be (and didn't intend to be) too hard on the critic. I have certainly never reached Bashō's state, and likely never will, having sleepwalked my way through life in the "world of dreams." Still, one aspires to be "awake in the world," though failing daily to reach that state.

With respect to your second comment, thank you for sharing Stewart's "B Flat," which is new to me. "The most harmless, the most innocent of mankind." That seems a reasonable state to aspire to as well. By the way, in response to your comment, I did a bit of internet research on Henry White and discovered that he "happily donned the costume of a hermit to entertain Gilbert's guests while they munched on the cantaloupe that he grew in his garden." (This is from a piece titled "Discovering the Hermit in the Garden," which appeared on the Oxford University Press blog in 2013. It is written by Gordon Campbell, who wrote a book titled "The Hermit in the Garden: Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome.") The piping Henry White is a fine complement to de la Mare's recluse.

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for sharing your thoughts, as well as the poem.

Stephen Pentz said...

Old Owl: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. That's quite nice of you to say. And thank you as well for sharing the poem by Brian Patten, which is new to me. It certainly fits well with the poems in the post, doesn't it?

Thank you for visiting. I'm happy you found your way here, and I hope you'll return soon.