Friday, December 19, 2014

Brave Amaryllis

This amaryllis blooming in the Target Store, captured my heart with its brave attempt. Even though they were on sale for half price, all the other bulbs in the whole section were resting quietly, under the cardboard lid, on their disk of compressed planter mix, waiting for the signal of water. Only this one pressed its way out from under the lid to show its Christmas color to the last-week shoppers. Now I wish I had bought it, instead of the ones that were better-behaved. Some things just touch your heart, almost before you realize what is happening.


I gaze far and long
Not at cherry blossoms
Not at autumn leaves,
But only at a thatched hut,
By an inlet,
In the autumn dusk.

Fujiwara no Teika, (1162-1241) 

translated by Kenneth Rexroth,
One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese,
New Directions, 1974, 1976, page 54.

Over many centuries, this poem can still reach out and touch us deeply. I think it is about memory and about growing older. Rexroth was very interested in these short poems from long ago and made several small books of them. Because of Rexroth's sympathy and lyric gifts, these translated versions are very beautiful and have been loved by English-language poets ever since they appeared.

The task: to write a six-line poem of almost pure description that is saturated with memory, without describing the memory. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The home of my childhood

316 First Street, Scotia, New York. From one of my mother's slides.

When I was a baby we lived in the two-colored house behind the tree, in the rented apartment on the first floor. Just after Richard was born in 1943, my folks bought this place, and we lived there until the summer of 1950. They paid $6000 for a two-family house with a basement and attic on four city lots with a garage and a row of rental garages on Second Street. Some of their friends told them that they would never be able to pay for such an expensive house! The 1940 census has just been released and there we found that, at this time, my father was making $3000 per year at General Electric in Schenectady across the Mohawk River. The rent on the flat had been $35 per month. In 1950, they bought the farm (140 acres, 3 barns, substantial but derelict house, 40 acres was oak woodland.) for $11,400. At this point, I don't know what they sold the house on First Street for, but my heart often returns there.
The Inlet
In a dream I go
out into a sunlit street
and I see a boy walking
clear-eyed in the light.
I recognize him, he is
Billy Lippert, wearing the gray
uniform of the school
we attended many years ago.
And then I see that my brother
is with me in the dream,
dressed too in the old uniform.
Our friend looks as he did
when we first knew him,
and until I wake I believe
I will die of grief, for I know
that this boy grew into a man
who was a faithful friend
who died.
                Where I stood,
seeing and knowing, was time,
where we die of grief. And surely
the bright street of my dream,
in which we saw again
our old friend as a boy
clear-eyed in innocence of his death,
was some quickly crossed
small inlet of eternity.

Wendell Berry
Given; Poems, Counterpoint, 2005, page 12.

Here's the task now: begin a poem with the words, "In a dream I go . . ." When I do this, I will doubtless be walking along First Street. I admire the almost-stanza break midline, when the poem shifts out of the dream into the poet's thought about time. I think I will try syllabics for this, although Berry is not using them here, A task for the New Year: In a dream I go . . . .

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Saturday Night: Yuletide Delight

Don't know how, don't know why, but this horse-drawn equipage was going down the road in front of us as we came home through downtown Eagle, Idaho, Saturday night. The splendid white rumps and fetlocks shone in the headlights. I don't remember seeing a horse with quite these spectacular markings, and there were two of them! The vehicle reminded me of early cars, which were copied from horse-drawn vehicles in the beginning of the automobile era. 
The pace was slow and stately, which just gave me time to boot up the phone camera for a couple of quick and blurry shots--just as they turned off the main road onto a side street. 
This got me in the holiday mood! I want to go for a ride!

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
(Written on Christmas Day, 1863 in the midst of the American Civil War.)

This is a fine piece of writing, in a very consistent and pleasing form, by one of our classic Great American Poets.The poem wasn't set to music until about 1872 and has been set to other tunes and recorded many times in many different styles. I remember singing this many times as a child; it was a pleasure to re-encounter it every year. Singing Christmas music was one of my greatest pleasures when I was young.

I had forgotten the part about the cannons from the South. Our country has been through many trials and this war was one of the greatest of them. The longing for a peaceful world still exists everywhere, but we do not seem to be able to get there. 

Have a splendid holiday season, wherever you are and however you celebrate!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Johnny Appleseed's Canoe

You can spot the slender withe 
that is the trunk of the young maple 
(just left of the main trunk) 
that is grows in the shelter of an old wild plum. 
The plum seems to be on its last pins, but serves 
to protect the young tree from windstorms and other hazards.
I see this sort of thing quite often walking about
on the place in northern Michigan.
This photo was taken last October;
I picked it to go with Johnny Appleseed's canoe.

Nurse Log

The biggest trees in woods will fall
and knock down lesser trees and lie
out level on the slope beneath
a gap that spoils a canopy.
The trunk then rots inside its hull
of bark and floats in leaves for half
a century, a fallen god,
a relic of fertility.
The carcass hollowed out will spill
rich compost from its shell and house
a bear or host a fox or skunk.
But as the giant molders down,
and seeds take root in mineraled rot,
new sprouts appear along its length
and soon a line of saplings claim
the breast of the old corpse that bears,
like Johnny Appleseed's canoe,
a trove of seedlings in the wild
to land them on the future's shore.

Robert Morgan

Terroir; poems by the author of Gap Creek,
Penguin Poets, 2013, page 4

When I was young, I loved the story of Johnny Appleseed! I was particularly fond of apple trees because there was one outside our back door in Scotia, New York. It had a low, stout horizontal branch that was perfect for sitting on and reading. My mother wanted me to be outdoors more and I wanted to read all the time and this seat worked out well for me until we moved to The Farm in 1950. Terroir was recently recommended as a book by a poet who praised the outdoors, and the poetry is very good indeed. But the idea of Johnny Appleseed's canoe is thrilling to me. I have tried to plant apples several times using apples that grow wild in Michigan, but so far without success. So I wonder, did he plant the seeds, bury the apples, did Johnny dig up and loosen the soil first? Did any of these apples acturally grow?? Questions, there are always questions!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Winter Sun

We were out all afternoon gathering (metaphorical) nuts
 and berries for Christmas pleasures. Driving home, 
I reached for the iPhone camera to catch this beautiful winter cloud, 
and the peach slice of sunset beneath it, through the windshield.

I have been putting books away before we leave next week, and that definitely leads to sampling. Today's sample is from Makoto Ueda's very special Modern Japanese Poets.  Ueda puts Masaoka Shiki first among the bringers of a more modern sensibility to the writing of Japanese poems, even though Shiki mostly wrote in the old forms of haiku and tanka, but in a new way. I have read this chapter several times and find it wonderful to revisit for its excellent overview and deep understanding.

On January 8, 1900, the newspaper Nippon announced a tanka contest on the subject "forest." Shiki, the poetry editor of the paper, specified the contest rules. Rule number five was by far the longest, less a rule than a piece of advice for would-be contestants:

In writing a poem it will not do to borrow from classical tanka and use cliche phrases like "a legendary forest" or "a sacred forest." The poem would better depict a scene or express a feeling as actually seen or felt by a man passing through a forest. If you have the time to sit at a desk and read a book on tanka, you should instead pick up a cane and go for a leisurely walk along a path in the woods. When you are in the actual setting, look for some specific part of the landscape (such as a house, a village, a stream, a hill, a field, a tower, a bird, a paper kite, etc.) that you might combine with the forest in your poem. Observe also many other less conspicuous features of the forest (such as undergrowth, a grave mound, a small shrine, a temple, an animal, a watchman's hut, and so forth). When you think you have captured the "feel" of the forest, you can then return home. There you should begin composing many poems, bringing back the scenery in your mind's eye and focusing on one or another aspect of it. If you compose twn or fifteen different poems this way, there will be at least one or two poems that are good. You are not likely to come up with a good poem if you just write one or two.

     The passage illustrates Shiki's idea of the creative process in general, even though he was talking about tanka composition in particular.
     The passage emphasizes observation: a poet who composes from books cannot do shasei. [haiku "sketched" directly from nature] But Shiki wanted the sketching to be done at home rather than amid the actual setting. The time lapse was probably related to his idea of selective realism, since the poet needed time for the scene to settle, for certain aspects to select themselves out as the possible focus of a poem. The landscape had to be recollected in tranquility.

Makoto Ueda
Modern Japanese Poets and the nature of literature.
Stanford University Press, 1983, page 19. 
(Note: all the translations in the book are also the work of Dr, Ueda.)

So there you have it. Take a walk and notice! Then write, write a lot, and then choose. A task for the New Year coming up!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hard Frost

The west meadow in Michigan. The seasons are so clear here.

hard frost
the ping of brussels sprouts
into the colander
Hilary Tann

Dim Sum; Route 9 Haiku Group
2014/II, page 1

I am very pleased by the way this haiku brings indoors and outdoors together.

I have now two weeks to decide
 if I want to keep up this blog on a daily basis next year;
wish me luck and good hunting!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The life inside of stones

In honor of Ritsos' Greece, from which so much of our culture flows,
here is the lighted Parthenon from my hotel window in 2008.

Today, putting away some magazines, I found this poem. In these times of "no-fly lists" and so much in the news about the overreaching of the people whom we have trusted to keep us safe, it struck a chord. I'm now in search of something a little brighter for tomorrow, since I'm so happy to be going to visit grandchildren for Christmas.


Just as he locked the door, as he pocketed the key,
as he glanced over his shoulder, they arrested him.
They tortured him until they tired of it.
                                                              "Look," they said,
"the key is your key, the house is  your house,
we accept that now; but why did you put the key
in your pocket as if to hide it from us?"

They let him go, but his name is still on a list.

David Harsent
from "Three Poems after Yannis Ritsos"
in Poetry, December, 2012, page 348

I have had a poem by Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos on the blog before, but only once; here's the link.

Here is a link to a picture of Ritsos painting on stones.

And here is another link to someone else's blog with a fuller description of this activity.

And here is my poem inspired by reading about how Ritsos painted on stones when he was confined by the government in Greece. I sent the poem out, in the late 1980s, but I don't think I ever managed to get it published.

Baskets of Fresh Stones

He spent every afternoon and evening in the small room
drawing on stones: outlines of naked women, naked men.
Curled, backs outward, showing the nape, the shoulder blades,
vertebrae and buttocks hiding secrets below the belly,
they followed the shapes of river boulders; they crouched
in corners or in fetal piles by the table and bed.
Once he had finished drawing one, he would
rarely pick it up again. His brother, the priest,
brought him baskets of fresh stones from the river's bank.
And when she brought in his food she would stand
near the table watching him, compressing her lips
against a too rapid breathing, a sigh, or a moan.
She viewed him as he viewed them, focusing on his nape,
on the unnatural convexity of his backbone, imagining
his eyes. And when she knew she must fill her lungs again
she began a series of tiny rapid glissant steps 

that took her unwilling body out through the door.

June Hopper Hymas
all rights reserved

And here is one of those blue doorways that match the Grecian Sky.
This one was in Santorini.