A POEM IS NOT ALWAYS POETRY: MELVILLE’S MONODY

There are some noted writers who, to be quite blunt, were better at other kinds of writing than at poetry.  Thoreau is one of these, as is the fellow I want to discuss today, Herman Melville, the author of the awesome and dark Moby-Dick.

Herman Melville, American author. Reproduction...
Herman Melville

Melville was hindered in his poetry by the style so prevalent in the 19th century, which was overly florid in the manner we describe as “Victorian.”  The poets we generally remember from this time are those that broke free of that style to a considerable extent, notably Walt Whitman.

That Melville was not one of these poetic escapees is seen in Monody, his ode of lamentation:

To have known him, to have loved him
   After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
   And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

By wintry hills his hermit-mound
   The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
   Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
   That hid the shyest grape. 

Quite honestly, if this had not been written by Herman Melville, it would probably today be completely forgotten.

What is it about?  Obviously his affection for another man.  I will not go into the nature of that affection, but we can see it was deep enough to move him to write the poem.  Just who was the man?  Scholars speculate that it was likely Nathaniel Hawthorne, a good-looking and talented fellow.  Those who want to look into this possibility might like to go to this site:

http://www.steamthing.com/2010/08/melvilles-monody-probably-for-hawthorne.html

If the object of Melville’s affection was Hawthorne, that makes the poem even more of historical interest, though it does nothing to improve it as poetry, and that is my real subject now.

 After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
   And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

What we can determine from the poem itself is that Melville had long been lonely, then met a fellow he really liked, someone who eased his loneliness.  But they seem to have had a falling out, for which Melville gives each party equal responsibility.  And the death of the other man makes any reconciliation impossible.  Death, here personified, has closed the matter, has “set his seal.”  Melville is very saddened by all of this, which is why he hopes that writing this poem will help to ease the pain; and so he cries, “Ease me, a little ease, my song!

This first part of the poem is autobiographical, while the second part is mostly descriptive:

By wintry hills his hermit-mound
   The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
   Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
   That hid the shyest grape.

Melville uses Victorian funeral language.  The grave of the man is presented as isolated, a “hermit-mound” that is “draped” — ornamented and covered by snow drifts, as a coffin or a tomb might be draped with cloths at a funeral.  There the snow-bird flits “houseless” (how else, we might ask, was a snow-bird to flit?), “beneath the fir-tree’s crape.”  By his use of crape, more commonly spelled crepe, Melville refers to the dark cloths used not only in funeral wreaths but also for women’s dresses worn to funerals and for mourning, as well as the black crepe ribbons worn on arms and on men’s hats as a sign of mourning, and the crepe ribbon placed upon the outside of a door to indicate that someone dear to those within had died.  That is why even today, people who are gloomy and always predicting the worst are termed “crepe hangers.”  So here the grave of the dead is draped with snowdrifts and the dark boughs of the firs overhead provide the funereal crepe.

The last line seems to be a kind of hidden reference to the specific man of whom Melville was writing, and its connection with a reference in another one of his poems — Clarel — is an element that leads many scholars to think that man was Hawthorne.  In any case,  the icy “cloistral vine” seems to refer to the secluded place where the man lived or was buried (a cloister is a monastery, to be “cloistered” is to be enclosed and separated from the world), and the “shyest grape” to the man himself, who was shy like Nathaniel Hawthorne, and so possibly was Hawthorne himself.

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne had close ties to A...
Nathaniel Hawthorne

There is something very outdated for us in this rather unpleasant mixture of autobiography, nature, and funereal accoutrements, and some obvious awkwardness in such expressions as “And houseless there the snowbird flits.”  It reminds me of those old “mourning pictures” that were once painted or sewn, showing a sad figure standing beside an urn-topped tomb among rather depressing foliage.

It all only confirms the feeling that had Melville not written the poem, we would never have heard of it.  So again, today it is more of historic than poetic interest — something of concern to students of Melville’s life and writings, but not of much interest to anyone else.

David


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WIDENING COMMUNICATION: INTERLANGUAGES

As regular readers here know, I watch the site statistics.  Because of that, I have long been concerned that many people who do not have English as their first language are obviously trying to read this site, but with varying levels of success.  Many others, of course, cannot read English at all, so the Hokku site is a closed book to them.

I have always wanted to open this site — and the teachings of hokku — to as many people as I could, but it is neither possible or practical to post in every language.

Lately I have been exploring the possibilities of “inter-languages,” of created languages that act as a bridge between those with different native languages.  Interlanguages are “new” created languages, generally using a natural vocabulary but often simplifying the complexities of grammar commonly found in every natural language.

My first attempts have been:

1.  To find an interlanguage that would enable speakers of Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, French, etc.) to read my postings.  One interlanguage stood out right away, because it not only has a very simple grammar but also a very large, Latin-based vocabulary.   And further, it sounds very much like a natural language.  So for this purpose I have chosen Interlingua.  I am in the process of learning it, so what I post in Interlingua will no doubt be imperfect at first, with mistakes — but I hope it will nonetheless be understandable to speakers of Romance languages.

2.  My second search has been more difficult.  I have long wanted to communicate with the very large numbers of speakers of various Slavic languages, which, like the Romance languages, have the same origin but have developed differently over time.   I am still exploring this possibility.

It is rather amazing to me that in the 21st century, with instant world-wide communication, there is still no accepted world-wide interlanguage.  By default — partly due to economic and cultural reasons — English has filled that purpose to some extent.  But English is rather difficult and time-consuming to learn for speakers of some languages, so it is by no means understood everywhere and by all.

There was once an attempt to make an earlier constructed language — Esperanto — a functioning world interlanguage, but its usage has always been very limited, and lately it seems to have fallen even further out of use.  Its vocabulary — unlike those of Interlingua and the more practical attempts at a Slavic interlanguage — is too mixed for general immediate comprehension among any language group, so I see no significant advantage at present in using Esperanto for my purposes.

In looking at various interlanguages, my purpose is not to advocate for this or that “world language,” whether natural or created.  It would be great if everyone in the world could speak easily and directly to everyone else, but that is not the situation at present.  So it is left to each of us to communicate with speakers of other languages as best we can.  That is why it seems to me that the use of interlanguages here might be a good way to at least widen the range of communication.

Even if I am able to write — over time — in Interlingua and an inter-Slavic language, that will still limit my range to those speaking Romance and Slavic languages — in addition, of course, to those already able to read English.  That leaves a great many languages uncovered, and for that I am sorry; there seems no solution to that problem at present.  One does what one can.

I hope, at least, that by using Interlingua and possibly eventually an inter-Slavic language as well, I may at least make the principles and practice of hokku known to many more speakers of Romance languages as well as to many speakers of Slavic languages.  This is, of course, all an experiment, so we shall see how it goes.  It will all take time.

What the future will bring remains to be seen — whether English will become even more of a “world” language, or whether some other solution to the problem of inter-language communication will arise.

David

BASIC HOKKU PRINCIPLES: HARMONY OF SIMILARITY

Aspen Forest

THIS IS A BILINGUAL POSTING IN ENGLISH AND INTERLINGUA
ISTE ES UN ARTICULO BILINGUE IN INTERLINGUA E IN ANGLESE

Il ha un hokku interessante del comenciamento de autumno:

Le autumno comencia;
Depost un banio,
Le lassitude. 

Iste nos monstra harmonia de similaritate.  In le autumno, le energias de Natura se cambia; le energia Yang (active) decresce, e le energia Yin (passive) cresce.

Proque in iste hokku le autor — Taigi — nos relate que le autumno comencia, e anque que depost del banio ille se senta lasse?  Iste es simple quando nos apprehende le principio del harmonia de similaritate.

in le autumno, le energias del Natura decresce; depost del banio, le energia del corpore de Taigi anque decresce — ita, harmonia de similaritate.

Quando nos apprehende tal cosas, nos pote e scribe e comprehende hokku.  Assi scriber hokku no es como scriber le haiku; le hokku require plus del scriptor, e anque plus del lector.

Si tu pote comprehende lo que io scribe in Interlingua, dice me lo, si il tu place.

 English Version

There is an interesting hokku about the beginning of autumn:

Autumn begins;
The feeling of weakness
After the bath.

This shows us harmony of similarity.  In autumn, the energies of Nature change.  The Yang (active) energy decreases, the Yin (passive) energy grows.

Why does the author of this hokku — Taigi — tell us that autumn is beginning, and also that after the bath he feels weak?  This is simple when we understand the principle of harmony of similarity.

In the autumn, the energy of Nature decreases.   After the bath, the energy of the body of Taigi also decreases.  Thus, harmony of similarity.

When we understand such things, we can write and understand hokku.  So to write hokku is not like writing the haiku; the hokku requires more of the writer, and also more of the reader.

David

QUE ES LE HOKKU VERMENTE?

Que es le hokku vermente?

Le hokku como nos lo scrive hodie es un verso de tres lineas.  Illo nos mostra le natura de un station de anno per pauc parolas:

Illo es vetule
Ab le dia de su creation;
Le espaventaaves.

Nyōfu

Isto es un verso de le autumno, que exprime le diminution de le energias de le vita que occurre in iste tempo de anno.

Pote tu leger lo que io scribe qui?  Io spera que si.  Io apprende Interlingua, ma io es novicio.

What is all this?  Well, for some time I have noticed people from many countries translating the Hokku site via online translators.  It is not possible for me to post in every language, but I hope to expand the number of people who can read here — gradually — by learning Interlingua, which is a kind of simplified language for communicating with those familiar with a language descended from Latin — a “romance” language (meaning “roman-ish”).  If I can manage to learn enough Interlingua, I will be able to post both in English and Interlingua gradually, which will open the possibilites of reading this site to those with a background in any of a number of languages — Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Romansch, and Catalan at least.  That would expand the range of this site quite a bit.

We shall see how it goes.  I have a lot of learning to do before I can write in Interlingua correctly and proficiently, so do not expect it to happen immediately.

If you would like to learn more about Interlingua, go to:

http://www.interlingua.us/pakupaku/index.php?page=Interlinguaforanglos

There are also many other Interlingua sites on the Internet, such as:

http://www.interlingua.com/

David

 

Autumn fallen leaves of Zelkova serrata
Fallen Zelkovia Leaves

LOVE FALSE AND TRUE: W. B. YEATS AND PIERRE RONSARD

William Butler Yeats is a poet one likes in part, deplores in part.  He can give us interesting and pleasant lines, but all he writes is not woven of the same good thread — his poetry is unequal.

A good example is his well-known poem When You Are Old:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

That is how it begins.  The lines are musical, though romantic and somewhat sentimental in their melancholy.  But you would not know, if someone did not tell you, that Yeats has borrowed these lines from the 16th-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) who wrote in his Sonnets pour Hélène, (1587):

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant :
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle.

When you are very old, in the evening, by the candle [light],
Seated beside the fire, unwinding [yarn] and spinning [thread],
Speak, sing my verses, and be amazed:
“Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was beautiful.”

We need not follow Ronsard further in detail, because his poem tends to “cleverness” in the second verse, in which he says no half-sleeping servant would not wake at the sound of Ronsard’s name, to praise the lady’s immortal name (made immortal by himself, of course); but he continues the third thus:

Je seray sous la terre et fantaume sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos :
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.

I shall be beneath the ground and a phantom without bones;
In the shadows of myrtle I shall take my rest:
You shall be squatting by the hearth,

Regretting my love and your proud disdain;
Live, if you believe me, not waiting for tomorrow:
Gather today the roses of life.

In short, it is a rather superficial, earthy poem telling the lady that if she does not give him the romantic attention he deserves now, while she is young and beautiful, she will regret it when she is old and no longer so.

Ronsard’s poem is essentially the same in its message as that of the slightly later English poet Robert Herrick, who advised pretty young ladies in the beginning of his poem:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
   Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
   Tomorrow will be dying.

Herrick ended it with:

Then be not coy, but use your time,
   And while ye may, go marry;
For, having lost but once your prime,
   You may forever tarry.

Herrick was a bit more practical than Ronsard in advising the pretty young things to marry, telling them that if they missed their early chance, they would likely end up old maids — would “forever tarry.”

But back to Yeats, who, while he obviously based the first part of his poem on Ronsard, nonetheless  in the second verse takes his own road, changing the nature of the poem:

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

He tells the lady that many people had loved her gracefulness and her beauty, whether that love was “real” or not.  But one man — and here of course the one man is Yeats — loved her pilgrim soul — her adventuresome nature, her openness to new experiences — her “spirit,” as we would say, and loved also her changing moods over time: her face as it changed with the moment and with the years.  He is really saying that while others loved her only for her beauty, he loved her for her “soul.”

We can see that Yeats exhibits in these first two verses a love more serious and real than that of Ronsard — not just a “You’d better get me while you are pretty and can, because you won’t be pretty for long.”

Up to now, the Yeats poem has been simple and rather beautiful.  But I have always felt that in the last verse he loses his focus, loses his clarity, and lets meaning fall apart as the poem degenerates into pseudo-poetic blather:

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmer a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

The first line is fine, but the disaster comes in the second line, when Yeats personifies Love — indicated by the capital letter — and anthropomorphizes it:

…how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

It is this personification of love, this poetic abstraction that spoils the poem.  He jumps from talking about someone who really loved her — something concrete — into something abstract and scattered.  If he had told us that the young man who loved her had fled, if he had left her– his love unrequited — and had gone to live in the mountains, hiding his sorrowing face beneath a crowd of stars — that would have been fine.  But it is the unpleasant mixture of the first two straightforward verses with the personification and fogginess of the last that has always spoiled the poem for me.  No doubt others are more forgiving.

By the way, the photo chosen to head this posting is the lovely Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938).  She was an extraordinary person, and if anyone had beauty and moments of glad grace, combined with the sorrows of her changing face, and a wonderful pilgrim soul, it was she.  If you want to know more about her “and be amazed,” as Ronsard says, go to this site:

http://www.tkinter.smig.net/QueenMarie/index.htm

David


JOHN KEATS AND HOKKU?

Do you remember the key to writing and understanding hokku?

Reeds

THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.

There is a poem by John Keats titled La Belle Dame sans Merci — “The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy.”  It is a romantic poem, but it is not the poem as a whole that I want to speak of now — only these lines:

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

In fact we can omit the first two lines, because I want to concentrate on the last part:

The sedge has withered from the lake, 
And no birds sing.

The significance of these lines in relation to hokku — in fact to contemplative Nature verse in general — is that they manifest the character of late autumn very well.

First, we can look at them in terms of Yin and Yang.  Autumn is a time of increasing Yin.  Yin means the passive element, the cold, the retiring, the weakening, the waning, the quiet.  We see that easily in these lines:

The sedge has withered from the lake…

That shows us how Autumn is the time when Yang energies are draining out of visible Nature, “returning to the root,” as the old saying goes.  It shows us the waning of the life forces.

And no birds sing…

The air is silent, quiet.  That shows us the absence of the Yang forces of life and energy.

We could take those two lines and make another little poem of them about late autumn:

The sky is chill,
The trees all bare;
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing. 

Or we could make a hokku:

The sedge
Has withered from the lake;
No bird sings. 

The important thing is that we are manifesting the character of the season, of late autumn.  Both of our new verses do that, even though only the second is hokku.  To understand how that works, here is a brief review of the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, and, as I have said, in all contemplative Nature verse:

In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin.  That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature.  In the day, morning is growing Yang (declining Yin); noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang (growing Yin), and the middle of night is maximum Yin.  In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.

In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it begins to change into its opposite, and gives way to growing Yin.

Summer, then, is extremely Yang.  That is manifested in its heat.  Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness.  Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows.  Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows.  The same applies to moisture, which is Yin.  In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.

Consider all of this carefully.  We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology.  But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.

Now let’s return to the original excerpt from La Belle Dame sans Merci, and we will see that even Keats had some understanding — intuitively — of the effects of Yin and Yang and the season:

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, 
Alone and palely loitering? 
The sedge has withered from the lake, 
And no birds sing.

Well, of course we would not want the first line in Nature verse — it is from the Romantic school of poetry — but nonetheless we can see the effect of the whole in combination with the significant last two lines.

What can ail thee, knight-at-arms?”  That is in keeping with the declining Yang of the season.  It shows us that the knight is weakened, not in his full health and strength.

Alone and palely loitering…”  The paleness of the knight and his inactivity show us the draining of the Yang energies again — and his aloneness shows us the sense of solitude that is so much a part of autumn.

Of course Keats did not write hokku, and Nature verse was not his intent here either — but we can see that he had the intuition and the materials — just not the incentive.  He had other goals in this poem.

Nonetheless, this brief look at an excerpt from Keats can teach us a lot about how to write autumn hokku — verses that manifest the character of the season.

David

AUTUMN DEEPENS

I have been writing about hokku for so many years that I now find myself repeating the same verses — the very best verses — and leaving the rather dull ones alone.

Some people mistakenly think that all of the old “classic” Japanese hokku must be wonderful, but that is simply not true.  Even in reading old anthologies one notices that some verses stand out and are very pleasing and effective while others are just “there” and do not do much if anything for the reader.

That is the case, too, with our own English “classic” anthology, the finest, the volumes of R. H. Blyth.  Even though Blyth chose the  best of the old hokku to translate into English, there are among his selected verses some that are far better than the rest; so much better, in fact, that it does not matter if all the rest are ignored.

One very good verse by Taigi shows us the nature of autumn very well.  It is obvious on reading it that the old myth about hokku always being about a single moment’s experience is false.  Some hokku cover a substantial length of time, and that is the case with this verse, in which we see the progress of autumn, or as the old hokku phrase has it, the deepening of autumn:

Sweeping them up,
Then not sweeping them up —
The falling leaves. 

The best hokku show us the character of a season through what it manifests, in this case the falling leaves of autumn.  When the leaves first begin to fall, we go out with our rake or broom and we begin sweeping them up.  We do this day after day, but each day more leaves fall.  Finally there comes a time when we go out and realize that so many leaves are falling, so many are blowing into the yard or garden from all around, that it is pointless to continue sweeping.  We feel that we are overwhelmed with autumn, and let the leaves fall and lie where they are.

In just eleven words this hokku shows us the great change of autumn, the increasing of the yin force as autumn ages and deepens toward winter.

Falling Leaves

We see the increasing of the yin force also in this verse by Ryōkan, originally considered a winter verse, but appropriate to late autumn here:

Garden weeds;
They fall,
And lie as they fall.

One has to know that this is a verse of (as we treat it here) the autumn, because then we will see the garden plants as dry, lifeless stalks, brown and discolored by the rain of the season.  Eventually they just fall, and lie just as they fall.  That is the nature of things in autumn.

The original says kusa — a term that encompasses both grasses and other plants.  It is usually translated as “grasses,” and we could do that in our verse here if we wish.  But our gardens are not the same as those in Japan, and in the Fall here, they become gradually overgrown with weeds, and then the weeds die, leaving their stalks to age and fall.

We could also change the verse in any way we wish, for example, in a home flower garden:

Dead lily stalks;
They fall,
and lie as they fall. 

Or we can move it to the fields:

Scarecrows;
They fall,
And lie just as they fall.

That shows us the neglect of things as they die and decay in autumn.

Do not be surprised that I change and “play around” with old hokku.  They are not museum pieces that must sit forever untouched behind protective shields.  Instead they become a part of our own hokku practice, teaching us various aspects of writing and helping us to deepen our own practice of hokku.

That is why when we read old hokku, we must take them out of a Japanese context and make them thoroughly American or Welsh or Australian or Austrian or whatever our cultural environment happens to be.  There is nothing so likely to kill hokku as a living verse form than to keep it in a “Japanese” cultural context, unless one happens to be writing fresh hokku in Japan.  If we are writing it elsewhere — in the United States, for example — we must make it meaningful for where we are.  And we must use it in whatever way works best to help us create new hokku appropriate to our season and place.

David