Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"A Stranger Here Strange Things Doth Meet, Strange Glory See; Strange Treasures Lodged In This Fair World Appear"

On my afternoon walk, I often silently chide myself:  Stop thinking!  As I have remarked here on more than one occasion, thinking is highly overrated.  I thus harbor the quixotic notion that, one day, my stroll will be thought-free.  But, alas, the past, present, and future always intrude.

The mind is an unending source of distraction.  Yesterday I walked along a row of trees whose boughs were full of the hum of bees.  My first reaction was simple joy at the all-enveloping sound coming down from the green and blue spaces overhead.  But thinking soon intervened: "What kind of tree is this?"  Followed by: "the bee-loud glade."  Why couldn't I leave well enough alone?

                  A Passing Glimpse

I often see flowers from a passing car
That are gone before I can tell what they are.

I want to get out of the train and go back
To see what they were beside the track.

I name all the flowers I am sure they weren't:
Not fireweed loving where woods have burnt --

Not bluebells gracing a tunnel mouth --
Not lupine living on sand and drouth.

Was something brushed across my mind
That no one on earth will ever find?

Heaven gives its glimpses only to those
Not in position to look too close.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

I am reminded of Frost's "The Most of It," in which the universe suddenly and unexpectedly makes its presence known in the form of "a great buck" that emerges from a forest and swims across a lake -- "and that was all." Perhaps these glimpses are as much as we can hope for.  All the more reason to not obscure them with thought.

William MacGeorge (1861-1931), "Kirkcudbright"

The poems of Frost and Edward Thomas often seem like an ever-ongoing conversation between the two of them.  At times, the conversation consists of counterpoints.  At other times, they seem to be completing each other's thoughts.  Frost wrote "A Passing Glimpse" in 1926 or so.  Thomas had died nine years earlier.  But, if you will, imagine this as part of their conversation:


Yes.  I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

A train journey.  The same naming of the things of this World.  The same "passing glimpse."

I will never cease to be amazed and moved by the fact that Thomas and Frost found each other when they did.

William MacGeorge, "Water Lilies"

Attentiveness is difficult.  Which is one reason why we need poetry.  It helps us to pay attention.  Think of how many of us look more intently at the things around us by virtue of having one day come across "Adlestrop." We all know that poems and books are not life.  But they can be a finger pointing at the moon.

                       The Salutation

                    These little limbs,
        These eyes and hands which here I find,
This panting heart wherewith my life begins,
        Where have ye been?  Behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my new-made tongue?

                    When silent I
        So many thousand thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
        How could I, smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears, perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.

                    I that so long
        Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear and tongue
        To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Such eyes and objects, on the ground to meet.

                    New burnished joys
        Which finest gold and pearl excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs of boys,
        In which a soul doth dwell:
Their organized joints and azure veins
More wealth include than the dead world contains.

                    From dust I rise,
        And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes
        A gift from God I take:
The earth, the seas, the light, the lofty skies,
The sun and stars are mine; if these I prize.

                    A stranger here
        Strange things doth meet, strange glory see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
        Strange all and new to me:
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.

Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), in H. I. Bell (editor), Traherne's Poems of Felicity (University of Oxford Press 1910).  (A side-note: Traherne's contemplation of our soul's emergence from "so many thousand thousand years/Beneath the dust" brings to mind Arthur Symons's "The Soul's Progress" (which has appeared here previously): "It enters life it knows not whence; there lies/A mist behind it and a mist before . . .")

We ought never to lose the sense of strangeness (and wonder) articulated by Traherne.  This takes us back to the subject of my previous post: humility.  We should never take anything in the World for granted.  The final stanza of "The Salutation" is particularly beautiful, and provides a corrective "snap out of it!" whenever we are beset with feelings of boredom, dissatisfaction, or malaise.  Another of those true truisms, I'm afraid: existence is a miracle.

William MacGeorge, "River Scene Through Trees"

Friday, May 15, 2015


A week or so ago, I noticed the annual sign that Spring has arrived in earnest and that Summer is near:  tiny anthills began to emerge along the seams of the sidewalks.  We love Spring for its flowers and its blossoming trees, for its wide skies and its breezes, and for its changeableness.  But, for me at least, there is something reassuring, even touching, in knowing that the ants are once again going about their business.

Yes, I know there is a vast, clamorous World out there.  But, as I have observed on more than one occasion, there is something to be said for appreciating, and cultivating, the commonplace.


I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

John Drinkwater, Tides (1917).

We mustn't fall prey to the Pathetic Fallacy, we are told.  But I unabashedly confess that ants are "invested in my mood/With constancy, and peace, and fortitude."  I cannot help myself.  I wait for their reassurance each Spring, and I am comforted when they provide it.

Robert Lillie (1867-1949), "Flower Study, Narcissi"

I have an uneasy feeling that I am about to make a pretentious and annoying Pronouncement About Poetry.  So let me first say that I deplore Pronouncements About Poetry.  That being said, here is my Pronouncement:  one of the benefits of good poetry is that it teaches us humility.

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 (1869).  The poem is untitled.

William Blake preceded Tennyson:  "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower."  ("Auguries of Innocence.")  In our ironic "modern" world, this sort of thing is regarded as a cliché.  But it's all true, you know.

Robert Lillie, "Part of My Studio Mantel"

For real humility before the wonder of the World, consider this:

                              Morning Glories

By the well side, morning glories I transplanted,
wild tendrils climbing the rail, angling this way and that:
before I know it the well rope's been completely seized --
now I beg water from the house next door.

Rokunyo (1734-1801) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 48.

Rokunyo's poem was likely inspired by the following well-known haiku:

By morning glories
my well bucket's been seized --
borrowing water.

Chiyo-ni (also known as Kaga no Chiyo) (1703-1775) (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid.

Thus, perhaps Chiyo-ni and Rokunyo would not have plucked the flower in the crannied wall.  This is not intended to be a criticism of Tennyson, by the way.  I've plucked a flower or two in my day.  As it turns out, Japanese poets are themselves of two minds about whether flowers ought to be plucked.

     To pluck it is a pity,
To leave it is a pity,
     Ah, this violet!

Naojo (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 380.

     The violet:
Held in the hand,
     Yet more lovely.

Koshu (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 381.

Whether the flower is plucked or not plucked, the underlying lesson is one of humility.

Robert Lillie, "Japanese Anemones"

I know nothing about how to live.  I have no wisdom to impart.  But I have come to learn that truisms are, well, true.  The commonplace World -- the World right there in front of us at this moment -- is all that we need.  Its wonders are inexhaustible.  We owe it our humility.

                 Life Hurries By

Life hurries by, and who can stay
One winged Hour upon her way?
The broken trellis then restore
And train the woodbine round the door.

Walter Savage Landor, Dry Sticks (1858).

Robert Lillie, "The Paisley Shawl"

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"Begin Afresh, Afresh, Afresh"

It is time, dear reader, for me to beg your indulgence as we pay our annual visit to my "May poem."  To wit:

                  The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old?  No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

My daily walk takes me through a former army post (now turned into a park) on the bluffs above Puget Sound.  At one point, I pass beneath a long row of tall bigleaf maples that border the former parade ground, which is now an expanse of green that is mowed throughout the year.

Yesterday, a breeze came up as I walked beneath the canopy of boughs.  I looked up into the swaying branches against the blue spring sky, listening all the while to the rush of the wind through the fluttering leaves.  Larkin is correct:  "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh" is exactly what the leaves say.

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

We each have our own versions of Eternal Paradise.  A fit subject for reverie, I think.  I suspect that some of us would be content to spend eternity stretched out on the grass beneath a full-leaved tree, blue sky overhead, wind soughing through the boughs.  Sun and shadow would move back-and-forth across our face as we lay looking upward at the restless green and blue and yellow patterns.  For ever.

      Kayenta, Arizona, May 1977

I fall asleep to the sound of rain,
But there is no rain in the desert.
The leaves of the trader's little cottonwoods
Turn, turn in the wind.

Janet Lewis, Poems Old and New: 1918-1978 (Swallow Press 1981).

In Eternity, there will be no seasons.  Only the ever-moving colors of the sun and the leaves and the sky and the sound of the wind in the leaves -- a rustling, a sighing, at times a roaring.

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber 1987).

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

Perhaps you think that I have gone too far with these daydreams of Eternity.  Crossed the line into purple prose.  But every time I walk beneath a tunnel of whispering trees I cannot help but wish that the tunnel will never end.  I slow down as the exit approaches.  I glance backward.  My spirit droops as I emerge.

I suppose this is what Wallace Stevens is getting at in "This Solitude of Cataracts":  "He wanted to feel the same way over and over.//He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,/To keep on flowing."  Alas, we are all up against Heraclitus's dictum:  You cannot step into the same river twice.

But, in a World of popular culture ("entertainment" and politics) that consists entirely of chimeras and fantasies, is it madness to want to walk for ever down an avenue of trees?  And what if, as you walk, the leaves above you, and all around you, say this:  "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh"?

Who has seen the wind?
     Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
     The wind is passing thro'.

Who has seen the wind?
     Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
     The wind is passing by.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).

Robert Ball, "Mrs Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


"Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse, as Epictetus used to say."  So writes Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations, Book IV, Section 41 (translated by George Long).  An earlier translator (Jeremy Collier in 1702) puts it even more colorfully:  "Would you know what you are?  Epictetus will tell you that you are a Living Soul, that drags a carcass about with her."

A startling image, yes, but no cause for distress.  It simply states a fact. Integrating this fact into our daily lives creates an opportunity for freedom. It is ancient news, studiously avoided by most moderns.

Like dew that vanishes,
like a phantom that disappears,
or the light cast
     by a flash of lightning --
so should one think of oneself.

Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

The opening line of Emperor Hadrian's death-bed poem comes to mind: animula vagula blandula.

Hubert Wellington, "Overhanging Tree, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

Accurate though it may be, the image of one's soul carrying around a corpse or a carcass may be difficult to come to grips with.  Is it something to idly contemplate as you drift off to sleep, or greet the dawn?  I think not.

Still, we all inhabit "a temporary lodging."  Perhaps, then, this is more palatable:  envision your "little soul" as residing within a dwelling that will one day be abandoned.  Which begs the obvious question:  what will remain of us when the soul has flown?

               A Tale

There once the walls 
Of the ruined cottage stood.
The periwinkle crawls
With flowers in its hair into the wood.

In flowerless hours
Never will the bank fail,
With everlasting flowers
On fragments of blue plates, to tell the tale.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

Thomas later substantially revised the poem:

               A Tale

Here once flint walls,
Pump, orchard and wood pile stood.
Blue periwinkle crawls
From the lost garden down into the wood.

The flowerless hours
Of Winter cannot prevail
To blight these other flowers,
Blue china fragments scattered, that tell the tale.

Edward Thomas, Ibid.

The rhyming of "flowerless hours" is risky, isn't it?  But lovely.  I can understand why Thomas retained this phrase, while changing nearly everything else.  His revisions to the lines about the china fragments are interesting.  He abandons "everlasting flowers/On fragments of blue plates" in favor of "these other flowers,/Blue china fragments scattered." Thus, rather than painted flowers on pieces of broken china, we have blue fragments of china scattered on the ground, replicating the blue flowers of the periwinkle.

So there you have it:  another way of looking at our soul's dwelling-place. Will we leave scattered blue flowers of broken china for posterity?

Hubert Wellington, "Summer Day, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

Thomas never directly mentions the prior inhabitants of the abandoned dwelling, but their unspoken presence dominates both versions of the poem:  there is, after all, "A Tale" to be told.  But all that remains is a trail of china fragments on the ground.  And silence.

                  Meng-ch'eng Hollow

A new home at the mouth of Meng-ch'eng;
old trees -- last of a stand of dying willows:
years to come, who will be its owner,
vainly pitying the one who had it before?

Wang Wei (701-761) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

Wang Wei is the occupant of the "new home."  He will also, in the future, be "the one who had it before."  Vanished.  A subject of speculation and pity.  "Flesh, breath, and the Inner Self -- that is all."  Marcus Aurelius (translated by Gerald Rendall), Meditations, Book II, Section 2.

A corpse, a carcass, a dwelling.  But still the soul flits and flutters.


That man's life is but a dream --
Is what we now come to know.

Its house abandoned,
the garden has become home
     to butterflies.

Sogi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

Hubert Wellington, "The Big Barn, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How To Live, Part Twenty-Five: Senescence

When it comes to aging, we can learn a thing or two from the ancient Chinese poets.  Yes, their poems do occasionally evince a sense of regret for, and a stoic resignation to, the passing of time, the loss of youthful vigor, and the approach of death.  But there is none of that "do not go gentle into that good night" business.  Too histrionic.  Instead, the overall message is that the best way to live out one's closing years is with equanimity, propriety, and serenity.

     In Answer to Vice-Magistrate Zhang

Late in my life I only care for quiet.
A million pressing tasks, I let them go.
I look at myself; I have no long range plans.
To go back to the forest is all I know.
Pine breeze:  I ease my belt.  Hill moon:  I strum
My lute.  You ask -- but I can say no more
About success or failure than the song
The fisherman sings, which comes to the deep shore.

Wang Wei (701-761) (translated by Vikram Seth), in Vikram Seth, Three Chinese Poets (Faber and Faber 1992).

Here is another translation of the same poem.

          An Answer to Assistant Magistrate Zhang

In the sunset years of my life, all I desire is quietude;
The ten thousand affairs of this world no longer involve my heart.
As to my future?  I have no better plan
Than to retreat to my old forest.
There the pine wind will loosen my girdle
And the mountain moon will smile on me as I pluck my lute.
Sir, do you ask the principle behind success and failure?
Listen to the fisherman's song drifting up from the deep river estuary.

Wang Wei (translated by Chang Yin-nan and Lewis Walmsley), in Chang Yin-nan and Lewis Walmsley, Poems by Wang Wei (Charles E. Tuttle Company 1958).

This version sounds more formal and quaint than Seth's version, but I think it is lovely.  I particularly like:  "The ten thousand affairs of this world no longer involve my heart."  (A side-note:  "ten thousand," not "million" (as used by Seth), is the correct literal translation.  It makes sense that Wang Wei would use "ten thousand":  he was a devout Buddhist, and "the ten thousand things" is a phrase that is used in Buddhist thought to describe the distractions of the world.)

John Lawson, "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

English translations of Chinese poetry often end up sounding fairly relaxed and colloquial.  However, it is important to remember that traditional Chinese poetry was governed by strict rules of prosody relating to the number of lines, the number of characters per line, end-rhyme, and verbal and tonal parallelism within and across lines.  Wang Wei's poem is in the form known as "regulated verse":  an eight-line poem containing five characters in each line, with a single rhyme appearing at the end of the even-numbered lines.  In addition, verbal parallelism is required in the second and third couplets.

Bearing all of this in mind, consider a third translation of the poem.

     In Response to Vice-Magistrate Zhang

In late years I care for tranquility alone --
A myriad affairs do not concern my heart.
A glance at myself:  there are no long-range plans.
I only know to return to the old forest.
Pine winds blow, loosening my belt;
The mountain moon shines as I pluck my zither.
You ask about reasons for success and failure:
A fisherman's song enters the shore's deeps.

Wang Wei (translated by Pauline Yu), in Pauline Yu, The Poetry of Wang Wei (Indiana University Press 1980).

Yu's use of end-stopped lines of a similar length has the virtue of reproducing the image-by-image and thought-by-thought flow of the original text, and thus to some extent echoes the formal structure of the original.  When it comes to form, perhaps this is the best one can hope to achieve in translation, since the other prosodic features (five characters per line, end-rhyme, and tonal parallelism) are impossible to replicate in English.

James Paterson, "Moniaive" (1885)

As I was writing this post, the following poem by W. B. Yeats came to mind.

   The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water

I heard the old, old men say,
"Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away."
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
"All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters."

W. B. Yeats, In the Seven Woods (Macmillan 1903).

It is wonderful how one can read a poem in one's youth, have it lodge in one's mind, and then have it reappear when one least expects it.  I'm not saying that it came back to me in whole:  first the title floated up, then the phrase "their knees/Were twisted like the old thorn-trees."

Alas, I am not capable of drawing a brilliant parallel between Yeats's poem and Wang Wei's poem to Vice-Magistrate Zhang.  I'll have to simply leave the two of them side-by-side.  Which is perfectly fine.  This morning I looked out over the deep-blue waters of Puget Sound as row after row of brilliant white cumulus clouds moved slowly across a sky-blue sky.  This afternoon, I noticed that the lilacs -- creamy white and soft purple -- have come into bloom.

Sidney Vincent North (1873-1930), "White Houses"

As I have noted in the past, during the Edo Period in Japan (1603-1867) a tradition developed of writing poems in Chinese.  These poems are known as kanshi.  The poets who composed kanshi were steeped in Chinese poetry, and they strictly followed the requirements of Chinese prosody.  Not surprisingly, therefore, the best kanshi often sound like poems written centuries earlier in China.  Yet there is still a Japanese sensibility present, an underlying hint, say, of the unique concreteness and implication of waka and haiku.

The following poem was written by Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672), who is generally regarded as the finest of the kanshi poets.  It is his last recorded poem.

          Leaning on a Cane, Singing

Leaning on a cane by the wooded village,
trees rising thick all around:
a dog barks in the wake of a beggar;
in front of the farmer, the ox plowing.
A whole lifetime of cold stream waters,
in age and sickness, the evening sun sky --
I have tasted every pleasure of mist and sunset
in these ten-years-short-of-a-hundred.

Ishikawa Jozan (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

The poem is, coincidentally, written in the same "regulated verse" form as Wang Wei's poem to Vice-Magistrate Zhang:  eight lines, with five characters in each line.  More importantly, the mood of the poem is, I think, quite reminiscent of Wang Wei's poem:  equanimity, propriety, and serenity.

Robert McGown Coventry, "The Haven" (1908)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

From A Window

I am always skeptical of people who display a high degree of certainty about how the World works.  Such certainty is often grounded in politics, science, or theology.  Or narcissism.  Or madness.

How can they be so certain?  Part of me (a very small part) on occasion envies them:  such certainty makes things seem simpler.  It appears to provide an explanation for what confounds us.  (Seem and appears are the operative words.)  The World is beyond peradventure a confounding place, so I understand certainty's attraction.

Alas, my sole certainty is this:  the World shall for ever remain a mystery to me.  Take a look out the window.   Everything before you is a beautiful enigma.

                              From My Window

Now when the University students have abandoned
their game of bowls in the garden, with their cries of "Two" or "Six"
and the evening sky goes soured milk,

There are left the brightening windows of the rich owners of flats;
their meaningless finny gestures, dumb departures and entries;
a deaf man's theatre twenty times.

And quite indifferent towards the students or the rich
there are left the children of the poor, playing tag on a sandy waste,
and miles off southward ring the trams.

Alone on a building site a watchdog stalks by the fire,
wooed and repulsed by the jump-away flames, or raises its head
at a barking that chips a hole in distance.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder and Stoughton 1963).

Carlo Pedreschi, "View from Duncan of Jordanstone College" (1976)

The quotidian (I use "quotidian" in an entirely affirmative, non-pejorative sense) is suffused with ineffable mystery.  Each of us, for instance: quotidian souls, each with infinite value.

               From My Window

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews -- to contemplate --
Is it the sky above -- the stones below?
     Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
     Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
     Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
     So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate'er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
     I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
     A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest.

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

I admire Coleridge's deference and discretion.  She speculates, but she does not attempt to caricature or pigeon-hole the man.  And her speculations are gentle and lovely:  "I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs/A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,/And not unblest."

Cedric Morris, "From a Window at 45 Brook Street, London" (1926)

Do we ever truly know ourselves?  How, then, can we presume to know others?  The worst sort of certainty is that certainty which makes assumptions about the soul of another.


From the bay windows
Of the mouldering hotel across the road from us
Mysterious, one-night itinerants emerge
On to their balconies
To breathe the cool night air.

We let them stare
In at our quiet lives.
They let us wonder what's become of them.

Ian Hamilton, Fifty Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

James McIntosh Patrick, "The Tay Bridge from My Studio Window" (1948)

"A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn."  So writes Po Chu-i. Such a realization is a source of freedom, not a sentence of doom.

                                               At the Window

But then I drew up the curtain and looked out of the window.  Yes, there it still was, the old External World,  still apparently quite unaware of its own non-existence.  I felt helpless, small-boyish before it:  I couldn't pooh-pooh it away.

Logan Pearsall Smith, All Trivia (1934).

There it is.  Out into the World you go.

                          The Window

Looking through a narrow window day by day
They behold the world go by on holiday;
Maid to man repeating "Love me while you may,"
All go by them, none returns to them:  they stay.

They behold love pass, and life passing away,
And each day puts on the face of yesterday,
And their hearts are sighing "Love me while you may,
Love is lovely, life is passing:  'tis to-day."

All shall be to-morrow, still the elders say;
Many lenten morrows come and pass away,
And the world goes by, and as of old time they
Looking through a narrow window watch the way.

Arthur Symons, Love's Cruelty (1923).

Anthony Eyton, "Open Window, Spitalfields" (1981)

Monday, April 20, 2015


The fact that our life consists of a collection of moments, some more redolent than others, is not an argument for hedonism.  Hedonism gets in the way of appreciating the scene-by-scene movement of our lives.

The pursuit of pleasure or happiness or money or any of the other chimeras that are the staples of popular culture (and of its all-pervasive partner-in-crime, advertising) is an empty, ultimately unsatisfying, diversion. Frenetic hedonism has nothing to do with our soul.  We really ought to stop trying so hard.


Pino, a hill-top village, slanting street
and at the corner a wall where gossips sit
in a row at sunset, like migrating birds,
backed by the sky and forty miles of plain.

Buses heading for somewhere else; the words
cart wheels grind and jerk or a peasant cries
as the white oxen lift their swinging throats,
somnambulists with long Egyptian eyes.

The 'National' inn, the sleepy, smiling maid,
the queenly, fat Madame in a dress of spots;
simple kindnesses like that harsh strong wine;
and two weeks blank of great events.  In fine

A time of waiting.  Most of our life is that.
But waiting sometimes vivid with the sign
of things amazingly connected; whether some
day of thunder or night with the Plough slung over
the road of foreboding and of dreadful hope,
the road to the towns and what there was to come.

Bernard Spencer, Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose (edited by Peter Robinson) (Bloodaxe Books 2011).  The poem was probably written in 1947, although the date is uncertain. The village that Spencer writes of is Pino Torinese in the Piedmont of Italy.

Spencer has a wonderful habit of moving from exact, evocative description to a gently-realized piece of wisdom.  Not a "moral" intended for our edification, mind you.  Rather, the observations of a sensitive man thinking to himself; someone who has lived, and who now finds himself considering where his life has led him, and what he has learned.

Thus, the lovely passage beginning:  "In fine//A time of waiting.  Most of our life is that./But waiting sometimes vivid with the sign/of things amazingly connected . . ."  There is no pontificating or posturing.  This is simply the product of a life lived.

Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)

Think about the moments in your life that have the most resonance for you, that mean the most to you.  I'd wager that few of those moments were planned:  they just happened.

                              The Boats

Five boats beside the lake,
pulled bows first up the shore; how hard it is
to draw them, from each angle changing, elegant:
their feminine poise, the 'just so' lifting sweep
of the light timbers round the flanks sucked thin
into the thirsty bows;
                                          the same or nearly
as makes no difference, since men settled first
near these magnolias, lived the different life
that is always the same; fished, traded, hammered, gossiped
wanted their food and wine, appeased the Powers,
meditated journeys
or turned and turned in their minds some woman's image,
lost or distant.
                                            Near this bench and the keels
someone has scratched in the dust the name ELSA.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder and Stoughton 1963).

As I have mentioned in the past, Spencer lived a peripatetic life.  He was employed by the British Council, and his postings took him to Greece, Egypt, Spain, and Austria.  While on those postings, he holidayed in various countries in Europe.  Hence, his poetry can be seen as a travelogue of sorts, consisting of vignettes of his experiences along the way.

But the words "travelogue" and "vignette" are far too limiting:  Spencer's poems are never merely reportage of local color.  They are, as noted above, exact and evocative in their descriptions of places and people.  Yet -- as in the poems that appear in this post -- his observations of the particular nearly always lead Spencer toward a low-key truth about how we humans live.  "Near this bench and the keels/someone has scratched in the dust the name ELSA."

Algernon Newton, "Canal Scene, Maida Vale" (1947)

I am very fond of the following poem, which has appeared here before.  But, because it exemplifies what I have been attempting (inarticulately) to say about Spencer's poetry, now is a good time to pay it another visit.

                              On the Road

Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care,
it had brought us there
to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
if time any more existed, was that river
of so profound a current, it at once
both flowed and stayed.

We two.  And nothing in the whole world was lacking.
It is later one realizes.  I forget
the exact year or what we said.  But the place
for a lifetime glows with noon.  There are the rustic
table and the benches set; beyond the river
forests as soft as fallen clouds, and in
our wine and eyes I remember other noons.
It is a lot to say, nothing was lacking;
river, sun and leaves, and I am making
words to say 'grapes' and 'her skin.'

Bernard Spencer, Ibid.

If we have been fortunate and blessed, we know exactly what Spencer is talking about.  I first read this poem 25 or so years ago, but I have never gotten over these beautiful lines, and the truth they tell:  "We two.  And nothing in the whole world was lacking./It is later one realizes."

Algernon Newton, "The House by the Canal" (1945)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

One Thing Leads To Another

I am in the midst of one of my recurrent avoid-the-news-of-the-world periods.  To steel my resolve, I paid a visit to a favorite poem:

               No Newspapers

Where, to me, is the loss
     Of the scenes they saw -- of the sounds they heard;
A butterfly flits across,
     Or a bird;
The moss is growing on the wall,
     I heard the leaf of the poppy fall.

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

Stanley Spencer, "Bluebells, Cornflowers and Rhododendrons" (1945)

When it comes to poetry, one thing leads to another.  Thus, after I read "No Newspapers," I realized that I had not visited this poem in quite some time:

A newspaper is a collection of half-injustices
Which, bawled by boys from mile to mile,
Spreads its curious opinion
To a million merciful and sneering men,
While families cuddle the joys of the fireside
When spurred by tale of dire lone agony.
A newspaper is a court
Where every one is kindly and unfairly tried
By a squalor of honest men.
A newspaper is a market
Where wisdom sells its freedom
And melons are crowned by the crowd.
A newspaper is a game
Where his error scores the player victory
While another's skill wins death.
A newspaper is a symbol;
It is feckless life's chronicle,
A collection of loud tales
Concentrating eternal stupidities,
That in remote ages lived unhaltered,
Roaming through a fenceless world.

Stephen Crane, War Is Kind (1899).  The poem is untitled.

Newspapers still survive (barely).  But in their place (how fortunate for us!) we have any number of electronic purveyors of "news."  Of course, other than the technology of distribution, absolutely nothing has changed, has it?  "A court/Where every one is kindly and unfairly tried/By a squalor of honest men."  Exactly.  "A market/ Where wisdom sells its freedom/And melons are crowned by the crowd."  Perfect.  ("Melons are crowned by the crowd" is wonderful.)  "A collection of loud tales/Concentrating eternal stupidities."  Ah, yes.

Stephen Crane bucked me up:  I have abandoned The News of the World altogether.  I am quite certain that something is going on out there, but I have no reason to inquire.

Stanley Spencer, "The Ferry Hotel Lawn, Cookham" (1936)

But it turned out that I was not finished with Mary Coleridge yet.  I was preoccupied with newspapers and their ilk when I came to the poem.  But what stayed with me was the final line:  "I heard the leaf of the poppy fall."

Where would we be without poetic serendipity?  A week or so later, I happened upon this:

     The poppy flowers;
How calmly
     They fall.

Etsujin (1656-1739) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 318.

Imagine those two poems existing independently of each other, going about their beautiful business in their own perfect way.  And then, by sheer accident, they come together.  Their coming together does not change the World.  Events of this sort shall never appear in the daily news.  Which is perfectly fine.

Stanley Spencer, "Peonies" (1939)

Finally, this week, the poppies of Coleridge and Etsujin led to this:

The sound of the petals
     Sifting down together.

Chora (1729-1780) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 361.

Chora does not specify what sort of petals are falling:  he simply uses the phrase hana no oto.  Hana means "flower" or "blossom"; oto means "sound"; no means "of."  Hence:  "sound of flower" or "sound of blossom."  But the haiku is a Spring haiku, and thus cherry or plum petals are implied.

Do falling petals make a sound?  Perhaps so.  I know that falling snow can whisper.  I have heard it.

Does Chora's poem bring this excursion to an end?  Of course not.  This is how poetry works.

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)