Friday, August 6, 2021


Last week I took an afternoon walk on a warm, breezy, cloudless day. At times I paused beneath the trees, looking upward, listening to the leaves.  A thought suddenly occurred to me: it is enough to have been put into this World simply to see blue sky beyond swaying boughs of green leaves on a summer afternoon.  At last, there is nothing to be said, no thoughts worth thinking.

     The River of Rivers in Connecticut

There is a great river this side of Stygia, 
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun.  On its banks,

No shadow walks.  The river is fateful,
Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it.  The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf 1954), page 533.  

The Collected Poems, Stevens' final volume of poetry, was published on October 1, 1954, the day before he turned seventy-five.  "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the book. It appears in a section titled The Rock, which contains the poems Stevens wrote after the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in 1950.  Stevens died on August 2, 1955.

I have been visiting Stevens' poetry recently, and at the same time I have been reading poetry written by Sōchō (1448-1532).  Sōchō's poems appear in a journal kept by him from 1522 to 1527, when he was in his seventies.  He was a renga (linked-verse) master, and spent much of his life traveling throughout Japan, participating in renga sessions, during a tumultuous and violent time.  Many of the poems in the journal are hokku, the three-line verse form which constitutes the opening link in a renga.  Hokku evolved into the free-standing poem we now know as haiku.

     Yet gently blows the wind,
and gently fall the leaves
     from the willow trees!

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō (Stanford University Press 2002), page 109.

By happenstance, I have discovered that Sōchō's poems and Stevens' late poems in The Rock go together well.  I am loath to depart from the two septuagenarians.  They are fine companions.

Paul Nash (1889-1946), "Berkshire Downs" (1922)

The evidence suggests that Stevens devoted a great deal of time to the arrangement of the poems that appear in The Rock.  He selected this as the opening poem:

                    An Old Man Asleep

The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.

The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, page 501.

I am reluctant to venture beyond the words of Stevens' poems. Far too much ink has already been spilled by the Wallace Stevens academic-industrial complex.  What could I possibly add?  Alas, how can I resist?  First, "An Old Man Asleep" is lovely, which is all that matters.  The words and their sound.  Second, "the two worlds" ("the self and the earth") are something to bear in mind when reading any poem by Stevens.  Third, and wonderfully, a beautiful particular: "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R."  Again, best to leave beauty as it is, and the words as they are, without comment. Yet one should be aware of the lovely and important place that rivers occupy in Stevens' poetry. "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is probably my favorite Stevens poem, but it has close competitors, one of which is "This Solitude of Cataracts": "He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice . . ."

With respect to "the drowsy motion of the river R" -- "an unnamed flowing" -- and its "gayety," "propelling force," and fatefulness, this may be worth considering:

"At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct.  Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young.  So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price?  It is as though one began to lose one's heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Robin Hard), Meditations, Book VI, Section 15 (Oxford University Press 2011), page 48.

That's enough of that.  A few words from Sōchō are in order:

     A morning glory --
like dreams or dew, the flower
     blooms but a moment.

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō, page 108.

Paul Nash, "Behind the Inn" (1922)

"It is enough to have been put into this World simply to see blue sky beyond swaying boughs of green leaves on a summer afternoon." So it seemed to me for a moment as I stood beneath a tree last week. Ah, merely a passing fancy.  A hasty, ill-considered conclusion. Pretentious and overly-dramatic as well.  There is much more to life than blue sky and green leaves, isn't there?

A few days later, something written by Walter Pater came to mind: "He has been a sick man all his life.  He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all."  (Walter Pater, "A Prince of Court Painters," in Imaginary Portraits (Macmillan 1887), page 48.)  But of course.

And yet there is the final poem in The Rock, which is also the final poem in The Collected Poems.  As is the case with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" (which immediately precedes it) and "An Old Man Asleep," Stevens placed it where it is with intent.

   Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry -- it was 
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, page 534.

This time I will stay silent, and defer to Sōchō:

     In the moon's clear light
all mundane desires
     are but a path of dreams.

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō, page 29.

Paul Nash, "Oxenbridge Pond" (1928)


Thomas Parker said...

There is indeed more to life than simply encountering nature, but there is nothing like that encounter to bring those other things into clear focus. (I say this even as we seek that encounter less and less, and I have no doubt at all that that is why so many things in our individual and collective lives are so radically out of focus.) It is something that almost all great poets have told us, isn't it? Your post immediately brought this example to mind -

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

James Wright

Ishmael Wallace said...

It is a tremendous comfort, this reminder of the call from outside. Thank you!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: Wright's poem fits wonderfully here. Thank you very much for sharing it, and for placing it here. It's been too long since I've thought of it. It perfectly exemplifies the observation you make in your opening sentence, as well as your subsequent observation that this "is something that almost all great poets have told us." I completely agree with you on both counts. The Japanese haiku form and the Chinese four-line chüeh-chü form come to mind right away, given the immediacy of their encounter with nature, but I agree that your thoughts apply to good poetry in general. (To me, "Lying in a Hammock . . ." has the feel of a traditional Chinese poem, and it's interesting to note that another poem in The Branch Will Not Break ("As I Step over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor") has Po Chü-i as its subject.)

I also agree with your thought about the absence of these encounters being why we find ourselves in a world that is "so radically out of focus." Well said.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Wallace: Thank you very much for your kind words. We need to pay attention to "the call from outside" each day, don't we? A difficult task (at which I fail daily), but we need to be alert to these "reminders." Which is why we need poets like Stevens and Sōchō.

Thank you for visiting. I hope you'll return.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, A wonderful post, so many delights, Wallace Stevens poetry of course and the poetry of Socho, which is entirely new to me, as well as the paintings of Paul Nash, one of my favourite twentieth century British artists.
I’ve recently been reading Stevens, The Man with the Blue Guitar, which I do every couple of years. I’m still not quite sure what it means but am always captivated by its rhythms and use of language.
I regularly read your posts, but over the past few months I’ve been so busy with work I seem to have little time to myself and when I do I’m usually working on my allotment.
Now it’s certain that we will be phasing out working from home and are returning to campus on a part-time basis there has been a lot of extra work preparing for the return of ourselves and the students.
I always look forward to reading your posts. Thank you.

Anthony Hill said...

Yes, if only we were quiet. Fabulous again, thanks.

Esther said...

"...whose c preceded the choir" brings to mind a funny story from high-school. A classically-trained classmate was accompanying the school choir on the piano during a live recording session. The only thing she had to play before the choir started singing was a simple C chord, and she blew it! Even musicians get the yips. :)

Stephen Pentz said...

John: It's great to hear from you. I completely understand that you are busy, and even more so now with the campus re-opening. I hope the re-opening goes well, and that you have some semblance of a return to what once was.

I agree with you about Stevens. I am often befuddled by him, but I have grown to live with my befuddlement over the years. There is too much beauty and truth in his poetry to walk away from, so I persist. The Man with the Blue Guitar and his other long poems are particularly difficult for me, and still mostly elude me. But a large number of his shorter poems are essential for me, both for their beauty and for their content. I think few poets have struggled as much as he did with trying to figure out "How to Live. What to Do" (to quote the title of one of his poems) and to articulate that struggle in their poetry.

(By the way, I returned to Hardy's poetry over the weekend: quite a contrast, isn't it? Two different worlds. But, then again, perhaps not? It is remarkable how strong their poetry remained, and how it continued to develop, in their final years: Stevens until he was 75; Hardy until he was 87. And there is Yeats as well. The three of them are remarkable at the end of their lives.)

As I've said before, I greatly value your long-time presence here, and I appreciate you taking the time to visit, and to share your thoughts, when your schedule permits. I'm happy to hear that you still find time to work in your allotment. Best wishes for what remains of the summer. The light already seems to be changing. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hill: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. "Yes, if only we were quiet": wonderfully put. I couldn't agree more. For some reason, two lines from Walter de la Mare's "A Recluse" seem apt: "And yet his very silence proved/How much he valued what he loved." Thank you again for that thought.

As always, thank you for visiting, and for taking the time to post a comment.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: That's a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it. What a nice complement to Stevens' words.

Thank you for stopping by again. Take care.

Anonymous said...

Our small London poetry group meets weekly and we have turned to Stevens many times. Your post is a wonderful complement to our recent study of Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning. I always look forward to your words, poems and selections of paintings - Aicirtap

Stephen Pentz said...

Aicirtap: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog, which I greatly appreciate.

That's a nice coincidence that your poetry group has recently read "Sunday Morning." Your mentioning it reminds me that it has been far too long since I have visited it: I need to do so. It was one of the poems that first introduced me to Stevens. It is also good to hear that your group reads his poems regularly. In these times, this is welcome and reassuring news.

Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.