Tuesday, June 18, 2024

One Thing Leads to Another, Part Two: Two Poems on a Spring Day

Each morning, I read a poem.  A long-time habit.  I began a recent spring day with this:

     Tilling the field;
From the temple among the trees,
     The funeral bell tolls.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 161.

In his four-volume Haiku, R. H. Blyth collects haiku relating to each season into chapters based upon general categories (e.g., "Sky and Elements"; "Fields and Mountains"; "Human Affairs"; "Birds and Beasts"; "Trees and Flowers").  Within each category, the haiku are in turn organized by specific subjects.  This description sounds much more rigid than how things play out in practice.  Blyth translates hundreds of haiku, but he does not simply provide an anthology. Rather, as I have noted here in the past, Blyth's journey through haiku is accompanied by a wide-ranging and impressionistic (yet learned and thorough) running commentary.  The entire World, past and present, is open to examination and contemplation.  Therein lies the beauty and charm of Blyth's achievement.

Making the journey in the company of the World's beautiful particulars makes perfect sense.  Say, for instance: willows; skylarks; cicadas (semi in Japanese); the River of Heaven (what is called in English "the Milky Way").  ("River of Heaven" is one way of translating the Japanese phrase ama no gawa.  Ama means "the heavens" or "the sky"; no is a particle corresponding to "of"; gawa is the euphonic version of the word kawa, which  means "river."  After coming across ama no gawa years ago, I no longer had need for "the Milky Way.")

On the morning in question, I had decided to return to the haiku collected by Blyth in a section titled "Tilling the Field" in the "Human Affairs" chapter of his Spring volume.  I did not go specifically in search of Buson's haiku, but I know it well.  One of those poems that is not likely to be forgotten, once it has come into your life.  A lovely way to start the day.

Samuel Birch (1869-1955), "Nancledra: Old Cornish Village" (1931)

I am a creature of habit: in addition to reading a poem each morning, I read one in the evening.  I have returned to the poetry of Andrew Young of late, having been away from it for too long a time.  On the day that I read Buson's "tilling the field" haiku in the morning, I came upon this in the evening:


I never noticed, till I saw today
How budding birches stand in their green spray
And bracken like a snake from earth upheaves,
How many in this wood are last year's leaves.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (Secker & Warburg 1985), page 127.

As was the case with Buson's haiku, I hadn't gone in search of "Spring."  But, suddenly, there they were: two poems on the same theme (or so it seems to me) arriving on the same day.  A matter of mere happenstance.  But evidence, perhaps, that there are indeed benefits to growing old.  Sometimes (as long as memory remains intact), the poems that have accumulated within us over the years find their way to each other.  Where do they reside in the meantime? In the mind, in the heart, in the soul?  All of the above.

A small bit of serendipity in the larger scheme of things, one might say.  But one might also say that seven lines of poetry (three lines from Japan in the 18th century; four lines from England in the 20th century) may go some way to articulating, with beauty, what it means to spend our short time here in Paradise.  "Gifts are still occasionally given us, particularly when we have not asked for them, and I cling to the hope of understanding the link between certain of them and our inner life, their meaning in relation to our most persistent dreams." (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 3.)

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "Blackmoor Vale" (1931)

"If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us!  The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.  Consider living creatures -- none lives so long as man.  The May fly waits not for the evening, the summer cicada knows neither spring nor autumn.  What a wonderfully unhurried feeling it is to live even a single year in perfect serenity!  If that is not enough for you, you might live a thousand years and still feel it was but a single night's dream."

Kenkō (1283-1350) Tsurezuregusa (Chapter 7), in Donald Keene (translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), pages 7-8.  Keene provides this note to "Adashino": "Adashino was the name of a graveyard, apparently situated northwest of Kyoto.  The word adashi (impermanence), contained in the place name, accounted for the frequent use of Adashino in poetry as a symbol of impermanence. The dew is also often used with that meaning."  Ibid, page 8.  Keene also provides a note to "Toribeyama": "Toribeyama is still the chief graveyard of Kyoto.  Mention of smoke suggests that bodies were cremated there."  Ibid, page 8.

I have certainly made quite a leap based upon two short poems, haven't I?  But they do go together well.  Daily consideration of our evanescence is always a good thing.  Who knows?  It may lead to equanimity and gratitude.  Dread or melancholy will get us nowhere.

In any case, as I have noted here in the past, when it comes to Beauty, one thing leads to another.  Hence, after encountering Buson's haiku, I followed its path, coming first to this:

     Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
     A lark singing above it.

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 199.

Followed by this (another haiku by Buson):

     Tilling the field:
The cloud that never moved
     Is gone.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 167.

And, finally, Buson again:

     Tilling the field:
The man who asked the way
     Has disappeared.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 165.

Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall my fundamental poetic principle: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  Thus, no doubt wrenching his words completely out of context, I turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuiness).)

Roger Fry (1866-1934), "Village in the Valley" (1926)

"Remember what an Atom your Person stands for in respect of the Universe, what a Minute of unmeasurable Time comes to your share, and what a small Concern you are in the Empire of Fate!"  (Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book V, Section 24, in Jeremy Collier (1650-1726), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701), page 78.)  "The Empire of Fate" is a wonderful touch by Collier.  Even more piquant is this: "Manage all your Actions and Thoughts in such a Manner as if you were just going to step into the Grave."  (Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book II, Section 11, Ibid, page 21.)

[A side-note: Collier's translation of the Meditations has been criticized for its lack of strict fidelity to the original text.  However, his late 17th century/early 18th century prose style is marvelous. In a review of George Long's now-standard 19th century translation of the Meditations, Matthew Arnold chides Long for being "a great deal too hard" on Collier.  (Matthew Arnold, "Marcus Aurelius," in Essays in Criticism (Macmillan 1865), page 275.)  Arnold contends that Collier's translation "deserves respect for its genuine spirit and vigour, the spirit and vigour of the age of Dryden.  Jeremy Collier too, like Mr. Long, regarded in Marcus Aurelius the living moralist, and not the dead classic; and his warmth of feeling gave to his style an impetuosity and rhythm which from Mr. Long's style (I do not blame it on that account) are absent."  (Ibid, pages 275-276.)  I usually rely upon the 1742 translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (a product of the Scottish Enlightenment).  However, I agree with Arnold's view, and often turn to Collier's version in order to enjoy (to use Arnold's phrase) "its genuine spirit and vigour."]

Just as one thing led to another when it came to Buson's "tilling the field" haiku, Andrew Young's "Spring" led me to several other poems by Young.  First, I remembered this:

     Walking in Beech Leaves

I tread on many autumns here
     But with no pride,
For at the leaf-fall of each year
     I also died.

This is last autumn, crisp and brown,
     That my knees feel;
But through how many years sinks down
     My sullen heel.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young, page 53.

But, beyond the lingering dead leaves of vanished years, I thought next of this:

                    The Nest

Four blue stones in this thrush's nest
I leave, content to make the best
Of turquoise, lapis lazuli
Or for that matter of the whole blue sky.

Andrew Young, Ibid, page 54.

And, as always, I soon found my way to this, my favorite among Young's poems:

               A Dead Mole

Strong-shouldered mole,
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

Andrew Young, Ibid, page 63.

Yes, when it comes to Beauty, one thing leads to another.  I think of something written by Kenkō: "A certain hermit once said, 'There is one thing that even I, who have no worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up, the beauty of the sky.'  I can understand why he should have felt that way."  (Kenkō, Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 20, in Donald Keene (translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, page 22.)  The sky: blue, grey, mottled with white clouds, or otherwise.  "Manage all your Actions and Thoughts in such a Manner as if you were just going to step into the Grave."  "The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty."

William Birch (1895-1968)
"Morning in June, the Vale of Dedham, Essex"

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Current Events

On a recent afternoon walk, I heard an unseen owl call from somewhere off in the forest: "Hoo-hoo . . . hoo-hoo."  This seemed to be a gentle inquiry, a tentative "How do you do?"  After about ten seconds of silence, a crow -- also unseen, but from another part of the forest -- replied  emphatically: "Caw-caw-caw."  The meaning of this response seemed less clear.  Was it a warning, a threat?  But this is unfair to the crow: perhaps it was merely a corvine way of saying "Pleased to meet you."

The conversation repeated itself in the same fashion as I walked on. "Hoo-hoo . . . hoo-hoo."  Brief silence.  "Caw-caw-caw."  Quite civilized, I concluded.  The exchange had not come to an end as I passed out of earshot.  I had developed a fondness for both of them. For their part, they were likely unaware of my existence.  I take no offense at this.  The three of us were just passing through the World on an afternoon near the end of winter.  We crossed paths and continued on our separate ways.  But I now think of the title of a poem by Robert Frost: "For Once, Then, Something."


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, The Poems of Norman MacCaig (edited by Ewen McCaig) (Polygon 2005), page 452.

MacCaig's "Crofter" always brings to mind 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, The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (edited by Edward Lowbury and Alison Young) (Secker & Warburg 1985), page 65.

John Nash (1893-1977), "Dorset Landscape" (c. 1930)

My daily walk takes me through the grounds of what was once a post of the United States Army, an important embarkation point for troops bound for the Pacific during the Second World War.  The post has long since been converted into a city park.  But a number of large wooden buildings constructed early in the last century have been preserved.  They have been painted a pleasing pale yellow, with white trim on the windows, doors, and eaves.  They stand here and there amidst the meadows and trees, beside the wide concrete paths that wind through the grounds of the former post.

On a sunny day this week, as I walked through a budding grove of trees, a distant yet clear solo saxophone rendition of "The Girl from Ipanema" wafted through the air.  I knew the source: over the past few months, a lone saxophonist has been practicing on the front porch of one of the buildings, which is set back on a lawn, surrounded by big-leaf maple trees.  This was the first time I had heard him play a song all the way through.

                                   The Just

A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wished.
He who is grateful for the existence of music.
He who takes pleasure in tracing an etymology.
Two workmen playing, in a café in the South, a silent game of chess.
The potter, contemplating a color and a form.
The typographer who sets this page well, though it may not please him.
A woman and a man, who read the last tercets of a certain canto.
He who strokes a sleeping animal.
He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for the existence of Stevenson.
He who prefers others to be right.
These people, unaware, are saving the world.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alastair Reid), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999), page 449.

"The Girl from Ipanema."  A fine choice of music by the saxophonist. I was alive when the song became a hit in this country in 1964.  Sixty years ago.  Imagine that.  At this point, as a member of the Baby Boom Generation, I feel compelled to observe that, when it comes to music, I lived through a charmed time.  Or am I being "sentimental"? (A state of being which some sophisticated moderns find unacceptable.  I've often wondered why this is so.)

But I did not engage in this internal back-and-forth as "The Girl from Ipanema" arrived unexpectedly on the breeze, passing through the warm sunlight and the boughs of the trees on its way, a few days before the beginning of Spring.  I simply received a wonderful gift.


When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved 
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for, 
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers), Ibid, page 451.

John Nash, "The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall" (c. 1958)

A conversation between an owl and a crow.  A song from sixty years ago, borne on the wind.  As I have often said here in the past: in this World in which our time is short, we should pay attention and, above all, be grateful.

         Message Taken

On a day of almost no wind,
I saw two leaves falling almost, not quite,
perpendicularly -- which
seemed natural.

When I got closer, I saw
the leaves on the tree were
slanted by that wind, were pointing
towards those that had fallen.

When I got closer than that, I saw
the leaves on the tree
were trembling.

And that seemed natural too.

Norman MacCaig, The Poems of Norman MacCaig, page 245.

John Nash, "The Barn, Wormingford" (1954)

Monday, January 1, 2024

At the Turning of the Year

Solely by happenstance, this observation surfaced out of my memory during the past week: "The future's uncertain and the end is always near."  An unexpected message for the New Year?  And who might be the source of this thought?  Perhaps Schopenhauer or Leopardi, those cheerful, happy-go-lucky characters?  Or, further back in time, should we look to Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius?  And what of the poets?  For instance, one might imagine Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, or R. S. Thomas arriving at such a conclusion.  (Although I do think that all three of them have been unfairly and inaccurately caricatured as hopeless pessimists.)

The answer is: "None of the above."  Instead, as a member of the baby boom generation (born during the first term of the Eisenhower administration), I am proud to report that Jim Morrison and The Doors permanently planted this unforgettable line in my brain around 1970 or so.  The source (as many of you no doubt already know) is "Roadhouse Blues" from the album (which is what we called those circular vinyl artifacts back then) Morrison Hotel.  And a fine album it was, and remains.  But, have no fear, I don't intend to embark upon one of those by now tiresome baby boomer paeans to the wondrous music of my youth.  (Well, it was wondrous.)

I will, however, say this: "After all, it's true.  The future's uncertain and the end is always near.  And, although it is a truism -- the substance of which has been repeated many times in many ways over many centuries -- there is a certain frisson in having it suddenly arrive near the end of "Roadhouse Blues."  You never know in what guise Beauty and Truth will present themselves.  Be grateful for small and unexpected gifts."

Having listened to "Roadhouse Blues" numerous times this past week, I found myself remembering a lovely poem (which has appeared here in the past):

                         Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)

"Garramor Bay" in turn led me to this (which has also appeared here on more than one occasion):

            Out There

Do they ever meet out there,
The dolphins I counted,
The otter I wait for?
I should have spent my life
Listening to the waves.

Michael Longley, The Ghost Orchid (Jonathan Cape 1995).

"Roadhouse Blues," followed by "Garramor Bay," followed by "Out There": such has been the turning of the year for me.  

Happy New Year, dear readers!

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Road to Grassington" (1971)