Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: poetry (page 1 of 47)

Yosa Buson, “The old fisherman”

The old fisherman
Yosa Buson (tr. Kenneth Yasuda)

The old fisherman
unalterably intent…
cold evening rain

Comment:

An aged, withered fisherman, his desire turned into habit into obsessive, otherworldly focus, is image enough. “Unalterably intent” describes the fisherman’s gaze and behavior perfectly. Why bother with “cold evening rain?” After all, it threatens to make the image comically pathetic. What if he catches no fish? Or struggles to respond to a bite?

But Buson is himself out in the cold, evening rain. To observe and think and reflect are fishing in the dark, too. Only, if the fisherman gets a fish, he has food or money or an actual good. Prior to poetry, attentiveness to being human produces nothing, and a few beautifully wrought syllables are a questionable good.

Which brings us back to the combination of intensity and depression characterizing the fisherman. It sounds like a lot of times we’d rather forget. Pining over someone pointlessly, lingering in memory over one’s own story being more cause than effect. I wonder if Buson is wondering whether we have to become a bit embittered as we grow older. Bitter, more precisely, because we hope to mean something.

Seamus Heaney, “The annals say…” (Squarings: Lightenings viii)

triptych, central panel

“The annals say…” (Squarings: Lightenings viii, in Poetry)
Seamus Heaney

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

Comment:

A supernatural happening. Monks in prayer, visited by a ship flying, but for an anchor. The crewman sailing it wishes to be free. The monks obediently release him, told by their abbot he will otherwise drown.

Grief tells what is necessary. Fear almost acts the same, showing at least the destructive power of the imagination. Hope must exist, if only for the fact that a world drowning in sorrow may not always be so. The monks hope for a vision, a revelation. A ship appears, wondrous to them, the fulfillment of their longings?

The ship seems to have one crewman. It normally floats above. The ship is the poetic imagination. This is not a slap at belief. A divine order must translate into images; the anchor is the distance from us and those images. We could not believe without that distance.

What exactly is the value of belief? Here, its gentleness, its willingness to admit it is not knowledge. The abbot sees exactly what is happening. To make belief the literal fact of our world is to render it unintelligible, to destroy its value for everyone. What is marvellous for one sailing among truer images, perhaps a realm where all is revealed, is a realm where we can admit, perhaps even know, our ignorance.

Jane Kenyon, “Not Writing”

triptych, right panel

Not Writing (from Isak)
Jane Kenyon

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

Comment:

Stuck, angered, frustrated. In periods of not writing, you savage yourself. Muddied prose, cliche ideas, absent organization: these things constitute a critical eye as well as conspire to close the mind’s eye. It feels as if you cannot enter your own brain, which may or may not resemble a wasp’s nest. If you could enter your brain, you would have produced some good, marvelous thing. Or, at the very least, feel a bit better about oneself.

All the same, creativity may have an existence independent of us. Fear of our own selves is a wasp that “daubs.” Does this mean representation turns self-consciousness into something more?

Kobayashi Issa, “Dew evaporates…”

triptych, left panel

Dew evaporates…
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Kenneth Yasuda)

On the death of his child

Dew evaporates
and all our world is dew…
so dear, so fresh, so fleeting

Comment:

His child dead, the grief deepens and transforms. Dew evaporates; the nights and mornings laden with it also disappear. He has to confront the daylight, live in a world uncognizant of his loss, his child. As beautiful as the everyday can be, it is unforgiving and forgetful. It shows no concern for its own emerging, even though “all our world is dew.” There are things we must mourn, as life does not exist without them. The dew is at once his grief, his child, the whole world: so dear, so fresh, so fleeting. It is amazing Issa could think in the face of such loss, that he could articulate a most necessary thought.

Kay Ryan, “Insult”

Insult (from Persimmon Tree)
Kay Ryan

Insult is injury
taken personally,
saying, This is not
a random fracture
that would have happened
to any leg out there;
this was a conscious unkindness.

We need insult to remind us
that we aren’t always just hurt,
that there are some sources —
even in the self — parts of which
tread on other parts with such boldness
that we must say, You must stop this.

Comment:

“Insult is injury:” alone, a strong claim. Our emotional and mental well-being, perhaps our pride, is just as important as our physical well-being.

Immediately, a qualification. “Insult is injury / taken personally” introduces the more typical problem. What if we didn’t take injuries personally? Would we lessen our hurt in life, would we be stronger?

The poem begins to address those issues:

…saying, This is not
a random fracture
that would have happened
to any leg out there;
this was a conscious unkindness.

Ryan’s “Insult” speaks, and speaks weirdly. Not unjustifiably, we assume other people insult us. But other people may not be speaking these words. Perhaps they do think our specific legs deserved to break, which on one level is “insult,” sure. If such an idea rankles us, though, it does so because we are trapped in a cruel, bigoted climate where people can honestly believe their god hates others.

Maybe all insult, in a way, presupposes such a climate. “Insult,” speaking impersonally, is our perception, our reaction. One feels the universe against them, for in at least one case it empowered someone or something to cause harm to them alone.

These musings approach conspiracy theory. However, Ryan’s speaker realizes just how dangerous it is to posit that insult “is all in your head,” or some other dismissive tripe. If there is no insult, there is nothing capable of being insulted. That means we’re either gods, or we don’t exist:

We need insult to remind us
that we don’t always just hurt…

Insult reminds us that we’re real. We are not moral abstractions who cannot be injured. Degrees of hurt matter; that hurt can come from ourselves, another, or some part of society.

But what most questions our own reality, our own significance, is ourselves:

…there are some sources —
even in the self — parts of which
tread on other parts with such boldness
that we must say, You must stop this.

It’s not just in our head, but it’s up to us to stop it. That means in all cases making a decision, asserting ourselves against a part that wants to shut down or get obsessively angry. Maybe that means acting against the source of the insult external to ourselves. Still, first things first: we must show ourselves respect.

Basho, “Such utter silence!”

“Such utter silence!”
Basho (tr. Kenneth Yasuda)

Such utter silence!
Even the crickets’ singing…
muffled by hot rocks

Comment:

Right now, in Dallas: everything is wet, everything is cold, the whole place is a slushy mess of yuck. My disgust with the weather makes me insensitive to a number of other annoyances.

Basho speaks of oppressive weather. In his case, it’s the extreme heat of summer. Unlike me, he notes his awareness of it in a subtle, refined way. He might be actively listening for the crickets, finding that the heat has hunted them down. Or he might be more like me, wondering if the season has dulled his own senses.

I am tempted to think his senses have been dulled. “Even the cricket’s singing…” invites the question of what else has been affected by the heat. “Hot rocks” indicates how thoroughly it has permeated the world. If stone burns, what must the effect be on mere flesh?

Even indoors, one is only slightly more comfortable. My apartment has been drafty, forcing me to use the heater more. The result has been dry air, no fun for an asthmatic to breathe. I imagine Basho in a much more severe situation. He’s sweating, trying to get to sleep. And then he notices that crickets which usually irritate him aren’t doing so. He’s tired, he’s not quite himself, but his observation shows something. His faculties have responded to the situation. He has become more aware, he has an articulate thought.

What, then, to make of the “utter silence” that stirs him? On the one hand, it is surprise at how powerful mere temperature can be. Everything changes, and everything can change to completely disorient one and even the world in which one resides.

Still, the undertones of that situation are less dark and more comic. So on the other hand, there’s the fact he responded to the heat, that he takes note of his condition. “Utter silence” results in the truest speech. Not that the crickets are noise, but that he understands what is around him, however absurd it may be, just a bit better. Maybe he can even get a good night’s sleep, somehow.

Seamus Heaney, “The Rescue”

The Rescue
Seamus Heaney

In drifts of sleep I came upon you
Buried to your waist in snow.
You reached your arms out: I came to
Like water in a dream of thaw.

Comment:

Perhaps so-called higher ambition is meaningless. We need to produce food, so why bother going, say, to outer space? It does not help that many who profess higher callings make no attempt to justify themselves. They’re not curious about their own motivations or their own selves. If they were, they could embrace what should be an alien nature, at times standing aside for others who inspire. They would try to appreciate a different language of emotion or inquiry, instead of asserting themselves at every juncture.

“In drifts of sleep” presents a dreamlike, suspended state. Strangely awake, strangely alive, as the random contents of one’s mind are a void. From that void “I came upon you / Buried to your waist in snow.” Coldness, death, the indistinct are all associated with the buried memory of someone familiar. Our narrator has a certain boldness; he can see himself in difficult places, ready to rescue if need be. A hero of sorts, certainly a venturer. There is no such thing as everyday life without a beloved in the background; there is no such thing as exploration without the discovery of some hidden desire.

This poem functions not only as a love poem, but also as an expression of surprise at one’s subconscious curiosity. I hesitate to call it longing. The object of desire reaches out to our speaker, causing him to melt. The power of this image is most unexpected. “You reached your arms out: I came to / Like water in a dream of thaw.” Before, a somewhat unknown object, a hidden one. In my limited experience, those who long do so for another daydream, imagining all too precisely being loved back, forcing an epiphany. Pining loads expectations.

A narrator who remembers his dream with clarity, ascribing to himself an original purpose, finds himself newly wakeful. His quest has been transformed precisely because he undertook it. Most fascinating is his likening himself to water. Not just melting in the face of love, but becoming freer and freeing. Everything has changed because of this new knowledge.

Basho, “Here, where a thousand captains swore”

“Here, where a thousand captains swore”
Basho (tr. unknown)

Here, where a thousand
captains swore grand conquest…
tall grass their monument

Comment:

Mocking the irony of wanting to conquer others for fame and fortune – that’s easy. Our narrator looks out at a battlefield and sees what is: tall grass covering the bodies of the ambitious. Unless one was insane, one could not miss how a combination of planning and spirit – nearly the sum total of our so-called higher faculties, what makes us distinctly human – buried itself.

Any serious reflection starts not with casting aside figures like Napoleon or Genghis Khan, but understanding that all of us want to best others. Admirers of conquerors and tyrants exist always, and as problematic as they are, they can’t be faulted for dishonesty. A thousand captains, leaders of men, each made credible in the eyes of many through honors, virtues, and stories shared then and now. These captains gathered together and swore fealty in order to procure a greater victory. All those honors, virtues, and stories of each were united in loyalty, in combined strength.

Basho’s reflection is impersonal. A little imagination reveals that some of the people we most admire may be subject to the same critique. Attacking our own selves, strangely enough, is the easy part. Basho wants our attention to turn to our virtues and ideals. Conquerors and tyrants loom large in the imagination of some because they impose their will on the world. To what degree is virtue an imposition of will on the world?

There is no small solace in the fact that many do not mind tall grass as a monument. People sacrifice for each other every day. They sacrifice for causes they think will bring about a greater good. The funny thing is how the zeal of those most admirable entails moderation of a sort. Not entirely virtue, not entirely what is good for all, in order to sacrifice well. Whereas either to die for virtue purely, or for one’s own aggrandizement, seem to be two sides of the same coin. The reality of tall grass as a monument is the reality of the earthly.

Basho, “Lady Butterfly”

“Lady Butterfly…”
Basho (tr. unknown)

Lady Butterfly
perfumes her wings
by floating over this orchid

Comment:

All that happens: a butterfly floats for a moment above an orchid. Our narrator sets forth a few details of his choosing. The butterfly’s wings are infused with scent from the flower; it hovers over it, remaining some distance away; the flower is specifically an orchid. There are other translations of this poem which do not see the butterfly’s gender as an issue.

Whether or not we are dealing with “Lady Butterfly,” the personification remains an open question. One can say the butterfly is personified in the pleasure it takes from beautification. It lingers in the scent, taking on the property of another object in order to beautify itself and receive pleasure. Perhaps this is the most human of behaviors, as it becomes confident not through grasping the object itself but through imitating an aspect of it. I wonder, on this line of thought, if “orchid” is meant to be much more specific than “butterfly.” Does the butterfly remotely understand the flower from which it takes?

But personification may be a narrative imposition. It could be the case that butterflies are genuinely pleased by the scent of the orchid itself, wanting it for pleasures specific to themselves. The Greek kosmos not only means “universe,” but also “ornament.” Wearing what is appropriate for oneself speaks one’s precise place. To that end, the gentleness of the exchange might be the heart of the poem. The orchid gives off a scent, the butterfly embraces it. It will spread that scent with its own power. Both orchid and butterfly will be united, yet in this image, neither will have even touched the other.

Kobayashi Issa, “Yellow Autumn Moon”

Yellow Autumn Moon
Kobayashi Issa (tr. unknown)

Yellow autumn moon…
unimpressed the scarecrow stands
simply looking bored

Comment:

The bright moon faintly illumines the changed hues of trees, the subtle outlines of clouds, the slight motion of water. Under it bores like me are simply sleeping, lovers exchange knowing glances, the reverent still pray, the lustful enter dens of iniquity.

The fullness of life stretches toward night; the moon witnesses this, making it just visible enough. Yet Issa has us imagine a scarecrow in a field, bored with that moon, maybe sourly looking on it all.

I’m tempted to imagine the scarecrow as a specific example of the headline “old man yells at cloud.” People who mutter to themselves things like “caught in that sensual music all neglect / monuments of unaging intellect” are more interested in being permanent and useful than enjoying life themselves. Scarecrows are certainly both, as they merely mimic the human to protect crops. It is easy to hold in contempt what one might most want to protect.

The translator’s word for describing the scarecrow’s gaze is “bored.” What makes the moon majestic is its softly lighting a living world. The scarecrow finds itself “unimpressed” with humanity, which needs a point at rest, a celestial witness, to imbue its activity with a touch of divinity. He does not blame the moon for this, but cannot give it any credit either. The scarecrow is at work, always.

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