Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Here

The time has come, dear readers, to return once again to my "November poem."  I beg your forbearance, for this is the sixth such visit.  But I'm afraid that I never tire of this poem:  its mystery, its ever-unfolding and ever-evolving intimations, and -- above all -- its beauty will never be exhausted (at least not for me).

               The Region November

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.
It is like a critic of God, the world

And human nature, pensively seated
On the waste throne of his own wilderness.

Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.

Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous (edited by Samuel French Morse) (Alfred A. Knopf 1957).  The poem was likely written in 1954, the year prior to Stevens's death at the age of 75.  It was not published during his lifetime.

In his final years, Stevens's poems reflected a greater recognition of intimations of Immanence in the self-sufficient, beautiful particulars of the World around him.  He had devoted his life to a grand project to construct, through poetry, a "supreme fiction."  The defining feature of this project was a constant interplay between Imagination and Reality, an interplay that Stevens regarded as essential to living a fully human life.  I am wholly sympathetic with this way of placing oneself into the World.  Yet it carries with it a risk of abstraction:  the Imagination may assume primacy over Reality.

I think that, toward the end of his life, Stevens harbored doubts about his project.  I am not suggesting that he ever abandoned or repudiated it, or his belief in the human importance of the back-and-forth between Imagination and Reality.  But one senses a bit of uncertainty, an awareness of other possibilities.

                    First Warmth

I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,
As a questioner about reality,

A countryman of all the bones in the world?
Now, here, the warmth I had forgotten becomes

Part of the major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality;

And thus an elevation, as if I lived
With something I could touch, touch every way.

Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous.  The poem was written when Stevens was 67 years old.

But notice the qualification: "as if I lived/With something I could touch, touch every way."  (One comes across the phrase "as if" a number of times in Stevens's poetry.)  And there is this:  "I wonder . . ."

Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Cheshire Mill" (1939)

The change in Stevens can perhaps be appreciated by comparing "The Region November" with one of his best-known poems (which was first published in 1921).

               The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

January, not November.  But, in both cases, we have a listener, listening to the wind in the trees.  One could say that both scenes are marked by bleakness and emptiness.  But are they?  It is a great deal more complicated than that.  Consider a comment made by Stevens in a letter to a scholar who had inquired about the "meaning" of some of his poems:  "I shall explain The Snow Man as an example of the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand it and enjoy it."  Wallace Stevens, letter to Hi Simons (April 18, 1944), in Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1966), page 464.

This goes a long way toward explaining the magnificent (and lovely) puzzle of:  "For the listener, who listens in the snow,/And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." "Nothing that is not there."  In other words:  "Everything is there."  If we fail to realize this, we have "a mind of winter" and "have been cold a long time":  we are incapable of seeing that we have it in us to construct something out of "the nothing that is," to engage in the never-ending (for the brief time we are here) interplay of Imagination and Reality.

Which leads us to a crucial (and beautiful) line in "The Region November": "A revelation not yet intended."  This is where I see a change in Stevens. One is hard put to find Immanence in "The Snow Man":  the focus is on "the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand it and enjoy it."  As I said before, this is a perfectly fine way to live.  But is it enough?  Does it fully account for the "saying and saying" and the "swaying, swaying, swaying" of the trees?  They have no need of us, do they?  And what, indeed, are they saying?  I believe that this is what gave Stevens pause in the final years of his life:  the possibility of revelation.  But I may be completely wrong.

Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975), "The House on the Canal"

At this point, a pause is in order.  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my two fundamental poetical precepts:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  (The other, for those who may be interested, is:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.)  I fear that I may be veering into forbidden territory with all of this palaver.

Hence, let me be clear:  the poems by Wallace Stevens that appear in this post are here because they move me and because I find them beautiful. When all is said and done, you are well-advised to ignore everything that I have said about the poems.

With that, let us turn to another cold, windy, and ostensibly bleak landscape.

                         The Course of a Particular

Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.

The leaves cry . . . One holds off and merely hears the cry.
It is a busy cry, concerning someone else.
And though one says that one is part of everything,

There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.

The leaves cry.  It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,

In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.

Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous.  The poem was first published in the spring of 1951.

I find this to be one of Stevens's loveliest and most affecting poems, even though I have only the faintest sense of its "meaning."  This is, again, a late poem, and the correspondences between it, "The Region November," and "The Snow Man" are remarkable.  The Stevens of "The Snow Man" still remains:  "It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,/In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more/Than they are in the final finding of the ear."  "Fantasia" is preferable to "a mind of winter."

But the Stevens of "The Region November" is here as well, in this wonderful (and absolutely beautiful) line:  "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."  No fantasia is necessary.  "Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,/The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying."

Ian Grant, "Winter Scene, Provencal" (1938)

"The thing itself."  This phrase appears in "The Course of a Particular."  It also appears in the title of the final poem in his final volume:  The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, which was published on October 1, 1954, the day prior to his seventy-fifth birthday.  One presumes that Stevens placed the poem in this position with intent.

He died the following August.

   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, Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).

"One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."

     All the long day --
Yet not long enough for the skylark,
     Singing, singing.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 195.

Josephine Haswell Miller, "Studio Window" (1934)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What Happens

Early last week, I came across this:

     With the young trout in the valley
A leaf of the dwarf bamboo
     Floats away.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952).

Then, on Friday night, this appeared:

"The Whale followed by Waves -- I would glide down the rivulet of quiet Life, a Trout!"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon 1957), Entry 54 (1795/1796; Gutch Notebook).

Two lovely trout arriving within days of each other.  The World often provides us with beneficences of this sort.  In my seventh decade above ground, approaching an inevitable return to dust, I am not entirely surprised when these gifts are bestowed from out of the blue.  But I never take them for granted, and I am always grateful.

Mere coincidence, some might say.  Not I.  We place ourselves in the way of serendipity, or serendipity finds us, or perhaps both.  Ah, but where does serendipity come from?  I am content to let the inquiry end with that question.  I have no need for an explanation.  Time will tell.  Or it will not.

One thing is certain:  I would be happy to "glide down the rivulet of quiet Life, a Trout," accompanied by a single fallen bamboo leaf.

Edward Waite (1854-1924)
"The Mellow Year Is Hastening To Its Close" (1896)

Here is another gift that arrived unexpectedly last week, before the trout made their appearance:

"Little Daisy -- very late Spring.  March -- Quid si vivat? -- Do all things in Faith.  Never pluck a flower again!"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ibid, Entry 15 (1794/1795; Gutch Notebook). "Quid si vivat?" may be translated as:  "What if it should live?"  Seamus Perry (editor), Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection (Oxford University Press 2002), page 134.

Coleridge's notebook entry brought this to mind:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower -- but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Alfred Tennyson, The Holy Grail and Other Poems (Strahan 1870).  The poem is untitled.

I am very fond of Tennyson's poem, but I have always regretted that he plucked the flower "out of the crannies."  But I understand the impulse, and I don't hold his plucking against him.  "Never pluck a flower again!"  I wonder if Coleridge kept his resolution.

As one might expect, the plucking, pruning, or cutting of flowers is a topic that has been visited by Japanese haiku poets on more than one occasion. This is perhaps the best-known instance:

     The well-bucket
Having been taken by the morning glory,
     I borrow water.

Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963).

Yes, it is usually best to leave well enough alone.  Just walk away.

James Paterson (1854-1932), "Autumn in Glencairn, Moniaive" (1887)

On Thursday, line after line of storms passed through, blown by a strong wind out of the southwest.  In the intervals between rain, the sun appeared, but the wind did not let up.  I took my afternoon walk during one of the blue sky openings.  On the walk, I realized that autumn has indeed peaked: swaths of rattling, tumbling leaves swirled around my feet, then raced away to the north along the road, or curved off into the meadows, which have begun to turn green again with the autumn rain, and are strewn with all shades of yellow and brown and orange.  A beautiful sight in the brilliant afternoon.

Here is something I discovered one morning this past week:

Man's years fall short of a hundred;
a thousand years of worry crowd his heart.
If the day is short and you hate the long night,
why not take the torch and go wandering?
Seek out happiness in season;
who can wait for the coming year?
Fools who cling too fondly to gold
earn no more than posterity's jeers.
Prince Ch'iao, that immortal man --
small hope we have of matching him!

Anonymous (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

The poem is untitled.  It appears in a collection known as "The Nineteen Old Poems of the Han."  "Han" refers to the Later Han Dynasty, which lasted from 25 A.D. to 220 A.D.  Burton Watson provides this note regarding "Prince Ch'iao" (line 9):  "Wang-tzu Ch'iao or Prince Ch'iao was believed to have become a hsien or immortal spirit."  Ibid, page 102.

Arthur Waley also translated the poem:

The years of a lifetime do not reach a hundred,
Yet they contain a thousand years' sorrow.
When days are short and the dull nights long,
Why not take a lamp and wander forth?
If you want to be happy you must do it now,
There is no waiting till an after-time.
The fool who's loath to spend the wealth he's got
Becomes the laughing-stock of after ages.
It is true that Master Wang became immortal,
But how can we hope to share his lot?

Anonymous (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).

As autumn begins, we may say to it:  "Slow, slow!"  To no avail.  For we always come to this:  "And lo, it is ended."  Next year will be no different. But we mustn't think this will go on forever.  Well, at least not for us.

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

At the end of the week, a book whose publication I have been awaiting arrived in the mail:  The Second Seedtime: Notebooks 1980-1994, by Philippe Jaccottet.  In October of 1992, he makes this entry (a poem, a fragment of a possible poem, or prose; in Jaccottet's writing, the dividing lines often blur):

In this way we lived, wearing a coat of leaves;
then it gradually becomes tattered and ragged
but without impoverishing us . . .
Soon we will need only light.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), The Second Seedtime: Notebooks 1980-1994 (Seagull Books 2017), page 185.  The ellipses appear in the original.

At some point, words must come to an end.  "Leaves already on the walk scattered --"  Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804, Entry 60 (1795/1796; Gutch Notebook).  Coleridge takes his thought no further:  the notebook entry concludes with "--".

     I going,
You remaining, --
     Two autumns.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 2 (Hokuseido Press 1964).

James Paterson, "Moniaive" (1885)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Bourne

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "bourne" as follows:  "The limit or terminus of a race, journey, or course; the ultimate point aimed at, or to which anything tends; destination, goal."  I first came across the word in "The Bourne" by Christina Rossetti.  I later encountered it in a poem of the same title by Walter de la Mare.  I visited "bourne," as well as both poems, back in June of 2013.

The word pops into my head from time to time for no apparent reason, other than that I am fond of it.  A few poems that I have been mulling over the past couple of weeks brought it to mind again.

In youth I couldn't sing to the common tune;
it was my nature to love the mountains and hills.
By mistake I got caught in that dusty snare,
went away once and stayed thirteen years.
The winging bird longs for its old woods,
the fish in the pond thinks of the deeps it once knew.
I've opened up some waste land by the southern fields;
stupid as ever, I've come home to the country.
My house plot measures ten mou or more,
a grass roof covering eight or nine spans.
Elm and willow shade the back eaves,
peach and damson ranged in front of the hall.
Dim dim, a village of distant neighbors;
drifting drifting, the smoke from settlements.
A dog barks in the deep lanes,
chickens call from the tops of mulberry trees.
Around my door and courtyard, no dust or clutter;
in my empty rooms, leisure enough to spare.
After so long in that cage of mine,
I've come back to things as they are.

T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

The poem is the first poem in a sequence titled "Returning to My Home in the Country."  "Thirteen years" (line 4) refers to the amount of time T'ao Ch'ien served as a government official before becoming a farmer.  Burton Watson explains "ten mou" (line 9) and "eight or nine spans" (line 10) as follows:  "The mou, a land measure, differed at different times and places; T'ao's plot was probably about one and a half acres.  A span is the distance between two pillars in a Chinese-style house."  Ibid, page 129.

George Reid (1841-1913), "Landscape with a Lake"

The bourne that Rossetti and de la Mare describe in their poems is the grave, which they portray as a fairly congenial destination.  I associate the word "bourne" with the word "repose."  Although I am certainly amenable to the notion of a bourne of eternal repose, I see no reason to long for, or to hurry towards, that possible state.  There are wholly congenial bournes available to us short of the grave, as T'ao Ch'ien suggests in his poem. "There will be dying, there will be dying,/but there is no need to go into that."  No need to rush things.  Have a look around.

                  Expectation

     Chide, chide no more away
The fleeting daughters of the day,
Nor with impatient thoughts outrun
                    The lazy sun,
Or think the hours do move too slow;
                    Delay is kind,
     And we too soon shall find
That which we seek, yet fear to know.

     The mystic dark decrees
Unfold not of the Destinies,
Nor boldly seek to antedate
                    The laws of Fate;
The anxious search awhile forbear;
                    Suppress thy haste,
     And know that time at last
Will crown thy hope, or fix thy fear.

Thomas Stanley (1625-1678), Poems and Translations (1647), in L. I. Guiney (editor), Thomas Stanley: His Original Lyrics, Complete, In Their Collated Readings of 1647, 1651, 1657 (J. R. Tutin 1907).

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942), "Evening, Ludlow" (1899)

The potential pathways to a bourne of repose are innumerable: innumerable because of the uniqueness of each human soul.  Still, because human nature has never changed (and will never change), we are not without guides.  Poets and philosophers have preceded us.  They provide us with clues to which we should attend.  For instance, Epictetus tells us:  "Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."  Epictetus (translated by W. A. Oldfather), The Enchiridion, Section 8.  Variations on this bit of advice may be found in every part of the world, and at every point in the history of humanity.  It is a finger pointing to the moon.

T'ao Ch'ien tells us much the same thing, but in his own way.  As I noted above, he left governmental service (a prestigious vocation in his time) to become a farmer.  His poetry reflects the joys as well as the vicissitudes of the life he chose.  He writes about the fear of failed crops and the loss of his house to a fire.  An awareness of the fact of our mortality is ever-present in his poems, but this awareness is matter-of-fact, not mournful or self-pitying.  His path seems to have led him to a bourne of repose.

          Reading The Book of Hills and Seas

In the month of June the grass grows high
And round my cottage thick-leaved branches sway.
There is not a bird but delights in the place where it rests;
And I too -- love my thatched cottage.
I have done my ploughing;
I have sown my seed.
Again I have time to sit and read my books.
In the narrow lane there are no deep ruts;
Often my friends' carriages turn back.
In high spirits I pour out my spring wine
And pluck the lettuce growing in my garden.
A gentle rain comes stealing up from the east
And a sweet wind bears it company.
My thoughts float idly over the story of the king of Chou,
My eyes wander over the pictures of Hills and Seas.
At a single glance I survey the whole Universe.
He will never be happy, whom such pleasures fail to please!

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).  "The Book of Hills and Seas" is "an early work describing the fantastic travels of the ancient King Mu of the Chou dynasty.  The text was discovered in a tomb in 281."  Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, page 138.

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

As I have noted here in the past, we should not presume that we will grow wiser with age.  However, we may at least be able to recognize, and rid ourselves of, certain false notions and conceits about ourselves.  The less baggage, the better.  The more humility, the better.  A lifelong task.

"There is a certain time appointed for you, which, if you don't employ in making all calm and serene within you, it will pass away, and you along with it; and never more return."  Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book II, Section 4.  Time is short.  Age brings no guarantee of wisdom.  But, if we are attentive, receptive, patient, and fortunate, we may arrive at a clearing in the forest, the surrounding shadowy woods shot through with angled shafts of sunlight.

          Of the Last Verses in the Book

When we for age could neither read nor write,
The subject made us able to indite;
The soul, with nobler resolutions decked,
The body stooping, does herself erect.
No mortal parts are requisite to raise
Her that, unbodied, can her Maker praise.

The seas are quiet when the winds give o'er;
So, calm are we when passions are no more,
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal that emptiness which age descries.

The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become,
As they draw near to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new.

Edmund Waller (1606-1690), Divine Poems (1685), in G. Thorn Drury (editor), The Poems of Edmund Waller, Volume II (A. H. Bullen 1901).

Mary Girardot (1863-1933), "Evening Glow" (1900)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Visitants

Everyone we have ever known remains with us.  Nothing we have ever experienced vanishes.  This is not simply a matter of our ability to retain memories, be they good or bad.  Rather, these people and these moments have a life of their own.  When these visitants have a mind to, they return.  We do not need to summon them.

                    Boats of Cane

A traveller once told
How to an inland water slanting come
Slim boats of cane from rivers of Cathay,
With trembling mast so slight,
It seemed God made them with a hand of air
To sail upon His light;
And there
Soft they unload a jar of jade and gold
In the cold dawn when birds are dumb,
And then away,
And speak no word and seek no pay,
Away they steal
And leave no ripple at the keel.

So the tale is writ;
And now, remembering you, I think of it.

Geoffrey Scott, Poems (Oxford University Press 1931).

W. G. Poole, "Plant Against a Winter Landscape" (1938)

Some may view their visitants with trepidation.  To wit:  "When the night-processions flit/Through the mind."  Yes, we are all quite familiar with those night-processions, aren't we?  I can state with assurance that they only lengthen as we grow older.

                                           Ghosts

Mazing around my mind like moths at a shaded candle,
     In my heart like lost bats in a cave fluttering,
Mock ye the charm whereby I thought reverently to lay you,
     When to the wall I nail'd your reticent effigys?

Robert Bridges, October and Other Poems (Heinemann 1920).

I fully understand such feelings, and I have done my fair share of shutting doors and closing the curtains on (as well as running away from) the moths, bats, and reticent (or not-so-reticent) effigys that return from out of the past.  But, in time, one comes to the conclusion that it is best to let them pay their visits.  We ought not to view our ghosts as chain-rattling, moaning Jacob Marleys.  After all, where would we be without them?  They are who we are.

                         Revaluation

Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

Leslie Duncan, "Birchwood"

Welcoming these revenants, we might be pleasantly surprised at the keenness and the clarity of the long-vanished "spots of time" (to use Wordsworth's phrase) that they bring with them.  The immediacy can be breathtaking.  Years, decades, vanish in an instant.

                 The Woodspurge

The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind's will, --
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was, --
My lips drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me, --
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poems (F. S. Ellis 1870).

Why do some things continually return to us, while so much else seems to vanish?  Why that moment?

                    Green Slates
                      (Penpethy)

It happened once, before the duller
     Loomings of life defined them,
I searched for slates of greenish colour
     A quarry where men mined them;

And saw, the while I peered around there,
     In the quarry standing
A form against the slate background there,
     Of fairness eye-commanding.

And now, though fifty years have flown me,
     With all their dreams and duties,
And strange-pipped dice my hand has thrown me,
     And dust are all her beauties,

Green slates -- seen high on roofs, or lower
     In waggon, truck, or lorry --
Cry out:  "Our home was where you saw her
     Standing in the quarry!"

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (Macmillan 1925).

This is typical of Hardy, isn't it?  He once wrote of himself:  "I believe it would be said by people who knew me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred."  (Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 408.)  Hardy suggests that his "faculty" is "possibly not uncommon," but I think not:  he was remarkably conversant with the past events of his life, down to the smallest detail. From his earliest years, he was always looking.  And he forgot nothing. Although we may lack Hardy's special gift, I think we all share the ability to "exhume" moments out of our past that have long been "interred."  (A characteristic choice of words by Hardy, given his fondness for graveyards and ghosts.)

James Cowie (1886-1956), "Pastoral"

As I noted in a recent post, I never use the word "commonplace" in a pejorative sense.  The same is true of the word "prosaic."  The visitants from our past often (perhaps nearly always) move us because they arise out of, or are intertwined with, that which is commonplace or prosaic.  We have no way of knowing what moments will come to define our lives, nor what part of each moment will haunt us all our days.

The blossom of a woodspurge.  "The crushed bracken and the wings/Of doves among dim branches far above."  Green slates.  A bamboo sleeping mat.

          Bamboo Mat

I cannot bear to put away
the bamboo sleeping mat --

that first night I brought you home,
I watched you roll it out.

Yüan Chen (779-831) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000).  Yüan Chen wrote the poem after the death of his wife.

Dudley Holland (1915-1956), "Winter Morning" (1945)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Nearly. Not Quite Yet.

Here is where we find ourselves:  "Now it is September and the web is woven,/The web is woven and you have to wear it."  Earlier this week, I watched a butter-yellow caterpillar crossing a path, headed toward the dry, leaning grass of a broad meadow.  A few days later, I noticed another caterpillar (this one black, with a dark orange band) veering off a different path, bound for the duff-covered floor of a silent, shadowy grove of tall pines.

Although the autumnal equinox came and went more than a week ago, the final turning has not occurred.  Still, the signs are afoot.

                              The Cranes

The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919).

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

As long-time (and much appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall, I am fond of describing autumn as the season of bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness.  Is there a tinge of sadness?  Of course.  More than a tinge, actually.  But this only serves to heighten the beauty.

That which is lovely is lovely because it is departing.  This is true of all of the World's beautiful particulars at all times of the year.  But the pang of departure is keener in autumn.  It is a rueful, yet a happy, pang.  It bears within it the possibility of acceptance and serenity.

          The Trees at Night

Under vague silver moonlight
The trees are lovely and ghostly,
In the pale blue of the night
There are few stars to see.

The leaves are green still, but brown-blent:
They stir not, only known
By a poignant delicate scent
To the lonely moon blown.

The lonely lovely trees sigh
For summer spent and gone:
A few homing leaves drift by,
Poor souls bewildered and wan.

William Kerr, in Edward Marsh (editor), Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 (The Poetry Bookshop 1922).

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Harvesting in Galloway"

The threshold has not yet been crossed.  At the beginning of the past week we enjoyed a cool, brilliant mackerel sky day.  In Japan, the clouds in such a sky are called urokogumo (uroko means "fish-scale"; kumo means "cloud"; the "k" sound of kumo is changed to "g" for euphonic purposes in the compound word):  hence, a fish-scale cloud sky.  In Japanese culture, urokogumo carries with it strong associations of autumn.  I can understand why:  the sight is heart-catching at any time of year, but particularly in autumn, when the blue seems deeper behind the bright white clouds spread across the sky.

Later in the week we had an 80-degree, cloudless day:  a brief Indian summer (as we called it in Minnesota when I was growing up) or St Luke's summer (as it is known in the United Kingdom).  The warm breeze of that day carried a chill thread within it.  Or was this merely my imagination?

             Autumn

Fragile, notice that
As autumn starts, a light
Frost crisps up at night
And next day, for a while,
White covers path and lawn.
"Autumn is here, it is,"
Sings the stoical blackbird
But by noon pure gold is tossed
On everything.  Leaves fall
As if they meant to rise.
Nothing of nature's lost,
The birth, the blight of things,
The bud, the stretching wings.

Elizabeth Jennings, Celebrations and Elegies (Carcanet Press 1982).  For another lovely poem by Jennings on the season, please see "Song at the Beginning of Autumn," which has appeared here in the past.

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

For now, the green canopies remain overhead, although the universe of green has become paler and thinner.  The birds keep up their continual conversation, although their numbers have dwindled.  All is proceeding according to plan.  Constancy amid constant change.

I may speak of autumnal wistfulness, bittersweetness, and sadness, but make no mistake:  my predominant emotions at this time of year are exhilaration, joy, and gratitude.  "We live in a constellation/Of patches and of pitches,/Not in a single world."  How can we be anything but grateful, joyful, and exhilarated?

Even in a person
most times indifferent
to things around him
they waken feelings --
the first winds of autumn.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Still Life at a Window" (1944)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Asleep

I am easy to please.  Or so I like to think.  Perhaps this is merely a matter of growing old, evidence of a fond mind.  "Or else I'm gettin' soft."  Recently, for instance, I have spent a fair amount of pleasurable time mulling over various English translations of a six-line fragment (all that has been recovered) of a Greek poem written by Alcman, who lived in the late 7th century B. C., and who may or may not have been from Sparta.  Mind you, my preoccupation has not been a scholarly endeavor:  I find the lines lovely, and I have been loath to quickly leave them.

The mountain-summits sleep, glens, cliffs and caves,
     Are silent -- all the black earth's reptile brood --
     The bees -- the wild beasts of the mountain wood;
In depths beneath the dark red ocean's waves
     Its monsters rest, whilst wrapt in bower and spray
     Each bird is hush'd that stretch'd its pinions to the day.

Alcman (translated by Thomas Campbell), in Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995).  The poem was originally published in 1821 in The New Monthly Magazine.

Walter John James (1869-1932), "Troughend near Otterburn"

I am always bemused and puzzled when I hear someone proclaim that our age is one in which we are witnessing "the death of poetry" or, more broadly, "the death of culture."  How can poetry and culture be in their death throes if we can read Alcman or Simonides today, Bashō or Saigyō tomorrow, Robert Herrick or Thomas Hardy the day after that, and T'ao Ch'ien or Wang Wei the day after that?  Enough of this death business.

In fact, the creation and preservation of Beauty and Truth by means of poetry and other works of art has always been -- and will always be -- a near run thing.  At any given time in the history of humanity, the survival of Beauty and Truth has depended upon the love and good offices of a few thousand, a few hundred, or even a few dozen people.  These people are not saints, nor are they in any way superior to their fellow human beings.  They have simply (to their surprise and delight) stumbled upon something of the greatest importance.

                              Night

The far peaks sleep, the great ravines,
The foot-hills, and the streams.
Asleep are trees, and hivèd bees,
The mountain beasts, and all that dark earth teems,
The glooming seas, the monsters in their deeps:
And every bird, its wide wings folded, sleeps.

Alcman (translated by H. T. Wade-Gery), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938).  Wade-Gery added the title "Night" to the fragment.

There you have it:  by reading six lines of verse written over 2,500 years ago, you have prevented the death of poetry.  All is now well with the World.

George Reid (1841-1913), "Evening" (1873)

Please bear with me as I state the obvious:  the best poetry is timeless. When I read Alcman's fragment, I do not feel that I am reading something that is alien to the World as I know it.  And here is something marvelous:  a good poem's timelessness is directly related to the fact that it is the product of a fleeting moment of revelation.  "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall."  By virtue of poetry, a vanished moment becomes imperishable.

"In old-fashioned novels, we often have the situation of a man or a woman who realizes only at the end of the book, and usually when it is too late, who it was that he or she had loved for many years without knowing it.  So a great many haiku tell us something that we have seen but not seen.  They do not give us a satori, an enlightenment;  they show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, -- and not recognized it."

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 322.

Although Blyth's observation relates to haiku in particular, I would suggest that it is applicable to all forms of poetry, in all ages and in all places.

The mountain-tops are asleep, and the mountain-gorges,
     Ravine and promontory:
Green leaves, every kind of creeping things
     On the breast of the dark earth, sleep:
Creatures wild in the forest, wandering bees,
Great sea-monsters under the purple sea's
Dark bosom, birds of the air with all their wings
     Folded, all sleep.

Alcman (translated by Walter Headlam), in Walter Headlam, A Book of Greek Verse (Cambridge University Press 1907).

Walter John James, "Evening" (1913)

As I was thinking about poetry as enlightenment or revelation, as the product of an evanescent moment, this appeared out of the blue:

   Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (Henry Holt 1923).  (A word of caution:  I am not suggesting that "Dust of Snow" is "about" poetry.  I am merely reporting its unexpected arrival on the scene.)

But let us return to a night in Greece two millennia ago.  Which is tonight.

                                     Vesper

Now sleep the mountain-summits, sleep the glens,
The peaks, the torrent-beds; all things that creep
On the dark earth lie resting in their dens;
Quiet are the mountain-creatures, quiet the bees,
The monsters hidden in the purple seas;
And birds, the swift of wing,
Sit slumbering.

Alcman (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951).  Lucas added the title "Vesper."

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "Nightfall"

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Two Linnets, A Dove, And A Lark

When I am out on my daily walk, I often hear brief rustlings, chirpings, or wing-flutterings from within the bushes on either side of the path, or from off in the dim light of the thick evergreen woods that lie beyond the bushes. This heard but unseen activity provides a comforting reminder of the unceasing life that goes on around us as we fret and fume in our human world, at a far remove from the vitality of such beautiful particulars, our minds ticking and humming along.  These hidden birds, they pay us no mind.

               The Linnet

Upon this leafy bush
     With thorns and roses in it,
Flutters a thing of light,
     A twittering linnet,
And all the throbbing world
     Of dew and sun and air
By this small parcel of life
     Is made more fair:
As if each bramble-spray
     And mounded gold-wreathed furze,
Harebell and little thyme,
     Were only hers;
As if this beauty and grace
     Did to one bird belong,
And, at a flutter of wing,
     Might vanish in song.

Walter de la Mare,  Motley and Other Poems (Constable 1918).

De la Mare makes a wonderful point:  the linnet graces the World (and, by doing so, gives us an unasked-for gift of beauty), yet, simply by being what it is, it also enhances and completes the World:  "And all the throbbing world/Of dew and sun and air/By this small parcel of life/Is made more fair."  These innumerable, tiny pieces (not a single one of them insignificant) all fit together.  (But, please, do not attempt to solve the puzzle.)  Where would the World be without linnets?

        Tenebris Interlucentem

A linnet who had lost her way
Sang on a blackened bough in Hell,
Till all the ghosts remembered well
The trees, the wind, the golden day.

At last they knew that they had died
When they heard music in that land,
And some one there stole forth a hand
To draw a brother to his side.

James Elroy Flecker, Thirty-Six Poems (Adelphi Press 1910).  An ignorant layperson's (i.e., my) translation of "tenebris interlucentem" (or "tenebris inter lucentem") might be "shining amid the dark" or "light amid the darkness."

"The trees, the wind, the golden day."  That is our World in a nutshell, isn't it?  One could go on and on, of course:  The sound of a river of wind in the leaves, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and shadow overhead, a blue and green paradise . . .  But, no, this is enough:  "The trees, the wind, the golden day."

Michael Garton (1935-2004), "Woodland Clearing"

This past spring, I had the pleasure of listening to an unseen dove (or was it doves?) cooing just outside the window of the room in which I am typing this, a room which also serves as a library.  Perhaps I am not sufficiently curious, but I never went out into the garden to investigate.  Was it a male cooing to attract a mate?  Or was it a nesting pair?  I will never know, for I didn't think it was right to intrude.

I felt the same way about the murmuring of the doves as I do about the small sounds I hear from the bushes and the woods while I am out walking:  the cooing seemed to me to be the vital spirit of the World, a World of which we are a part, and which is a part of us.  The presence of the cooing made the garden something different.  It made me something different.

"Bird of good omen, you are at home wherever you travel.  You perch here or there, or you fly for a short time; perhaps at night you fly farther afield, but whatever you do, it is as if nothing were lacking, as if you were the voice that moves up and down the rungs of the world, between earth and sky, never beyond, always in the infinite globe, free but inside it, over there, close at hand, where the silvered branches fork, awaiting nothing, fleeing nothing, traveller whom a second's joy, for no reason at all, steals from the journey's movement and leaves perched, at a halt . . . where?  in the light of the leaves that are soon to fall and give way to the sky, in golden October, dressed in air, suddenly unable to understand any word like going, leaving, frontier, foreigner.  Blessed, clothed in your native light."

Philippe Jaccottet, from "The Collared Dove," in Landscapes with Absent Figures (translated by Mark Treharne) (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), pages 43-44.

John Pearce, "Blackberries in August, Muswell Hill, London" (1980)

"Could you have said the bluejay suddenly/Would swoop to earth?" (Wallace Stevens, "The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man.")  This is how the World reveals itself to us:  in an unending series of miraculous and beautiful commonplaces.  (By the way, I never use the word "commonplace" in a pejorative sense.)

A few months ago, I was walking along a path between two rows of big-leaf maples:  one of my favorite tree tunnels.  Large open meadows of wild grass lie on either side of the path.  My attention moved between the shifting blue and green of the boughs overhead and the shifting patches of light and shadow on the path before me.  "The trees, the wind, the golden day."  As I walked, my eyes looking skyward, then earthward, then skyward again, I was suddenly surrounded by swallows, criss-crossing the path just above the ground as they dived and curved from meadow to meadow, going about their afternoon feeding.  Commonplaces.

               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, Choice or Chance (Cobden-Sanderson 1934).

Patrick Symons, "Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common)" (1981)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Eclipse

"Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily."  La Rochefoucauld (translated by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard), Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales (1665).  A wise observation, particularly when an eclipse comes your way.  Alas, "the path of totality" passed two hundred miles to the south of us, but we did experience 92 percent totality here in Seattle.

I had no desire to view the event through eclipse glasses.  Instead, as the time arrived, I walked out into the back garden to see how dark it would become.  It never became dark, only slightly dim:  an unusual smoky, dusky honey-gold yellow light.  As it turned out -- and to my surprise, never having experienced a solar eclipse before -- it was the ground, not the sky, that proved to be of greatest interest.

 Seattle Partial Eclipse:
Leaf-Veiled Light (Apple And Cherry) On Garden Stones

Does beauty most often make itself known in "the half colors of quarter-things"?  In crescents of wavering light on garden stones?  Or in the bright corona of an obscured sun?

He who has lived in sunshine all day long,
                    His happy eyes
From too much light defending,
                    He cannot duly prize
One gleam of light at the day's ending.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).  The poem is untitled.

Seattle Partial Eclipse:
Leaf-Veiled Light (Japanese Maple) On Pathway

I apologize for being too self-referential, but earlier this month I said this of the sun (not having the eclipse in mind at all):  "we come to know our star through its revelations, emanations, and creations."  My memory of the Great Eclipse of 2017 will be of lovely crescents of light strewn across the grey granite stones and pathways of the garden, set beside patches of green.

            The Brave Man

The sun, that brave man,
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
That brave man.

Green and gloomy eyes
In dark forms of the grass
Run away.

The good stars,
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
Run away.

Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
Run away.

That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.

Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (Alfred A. Knopf 1936).

Seattle Partial Eclipse:
Leaf-Veiled Light (Apple And Cherry) On Garden Stones

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Life

In March of this year, I shared E. K. Chambers's lovely poem written in memory of Thomasine ("Tamsin") Trenoweth.  I was reminded of Tamsin, rest her soul, when I came across this a few days ago:

Short is my say, O stranger.  Stay and read.
Not fair this tomb, but fair was she it holds.
By her name her parents called her Claudia.
Her wedded lord she loved with all her heart.
She bare two sons, and one of them she left
On earth, the other in the earth she laid.
Her speech was pleasing and her bearing gracious.
She kept house:  span her wool.    I have said.    Farewell.

Anonymous (translated by F. L. Lucas), in Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995).  The translation first appeared in an essay by Lucas that was published in The New Statesman on May 10, 1924.

The lines are a Latin funerary inscription that was discovered in Rome.  It is believed to date from approximately 135 to 120 B.C.  The inscription was engraved on a tablet or pillar, which has now disappeared.  E. H. Warmington, Remains of Old Latin, Volume 4: Archaic Inscriptions (Harvard University Press 1940), page 13.

Mary Hunter (1878-1936), "Hyacinths"

After discovering the inscription in the morning, I encountered the following single-sentence notebook entry by Philippe Jaccottet in the evening:

"The imperceptible movement of an invisible soul and the enormous sun."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 159.  Jaccottet made the entry in October of 1967.

It is often best to simply place two things beside each other and leave them be.

Fred Stead (1863-1940), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Sun: A Brief Addendum

It's funny how these things work.  My most recent post, on Monday, was a paean of sorts to the sun.  On the following day, for no apparent reason, I felt the urge to return to the poetry of James Elroy Flecker, a few of whose poems have appeared here in the past.  (For instance, here, here, and here.) After visiting a couple of favorites, I discovered this, which was new to me:

               A Western Voyage

My friend the Sun -- like all my friends
     Inconstant, lovely, far away --
Is out, and bright, and condescends
     To glory in our holiday.

A furious march with him I'll go
     And race him in the Western train,
And wake the hills I used to know
     And swim the Devon sea again.

I have done foolishly to tread
     The footway of the false moonbeams,
To light my lamp and call the dead
     And read their long black printed dreams.

I have done foolishly to dwell
     With Fear upon her desert isle,
To take my shadowgraph to Hell,
     And then to hope the shades would smile.

And since the light must fail me soon
     (But faster, faster, Western train!)
Proud meadows of the afternoon,
     I have remembered you again.

And I'll go seek through moor and dale
     A flower that wastrel winds caress;
The bud is red and the leaves pale,
     The name of it Forgetfulness.

Then like the old and happy hills
     With frozen veins and fires outrun,
I'll wait the day when darkness kills
     My brother and good friend, the Sun.

James Elroy Flecker, in John Squire (editor), The Collected Poems of James Elroy Flecker (Secker and Warburg 1946).

The poem was first published in 1910 in Flecker's Thirty-Six Poems.  In August of that year, he had become ill, and he soon learned that he had contracted tuberculosis.  In September he was admitted to a sanatorium in the Cotswolds.  He died on January 3, 1915, at the age of 30.  In view of these circumstances, the poem perhaps takes on a different aspect, particularly the final stanza and this line:  "And since the light must fail me soon."

Stanley Roy Badmin (1906-1989), "Bolton Abbey, Wharfedale"

But serendipity was not finished with me yet.  The past month I have been reading poems in The Greek Anthology and in other collections of Greek lyric poetry.  Last night, I came upon this:

I love delicate ease and softness;
     Born desire is mine
To behold things fair and lovely
     And the bright sun-shine.

Sappho (translated by Walter Headlam), in Walter Headlam, A Book of Greek Verse (Cambridge 1907).

Yes, "there's nothing like the sun till we are dead."

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)