LONE WANDERING, BUT NOT LOST: BRYANT’S TO A WATERFOWL

Last time, I talked about Thanatopsis, the best-known poem by American poet William Cullen Bryant, who some considered, in his day, the first American poet to meet what had become the “British” standard. Today we will look at the other well-known poem by Bryant — To a Waterfowl.

This poem illustrates a common gimmick used in poetry of Bryant’s time and earlier. If you wanted to write a poem about a certain subject and then draw a lesson or moral or conclusion from it, the way to do it was to write it as though speaking directly to the person or thing you were talking about. That is why so many poems of the 19th century are are titled “to” this or “to” that. And it is why Bryant’s poem is To a Waterfowl.

Before we go on, remember another characteristic of poetry in Bryant’s time: the general feeling was that everyday language was too common for poetry, so the poets tended to sprinkle their verses heavily with bits of Elizabethan English, with “thee” (you) and “thou” (you) and “thy” (your) and lots of old-fashioned forms and endings to verbs, such as “dost” for “do” and “seekest” for “seek.” All of this can seem just too overblown for modern readers, and it is all too easy to imagine such a poem being declaimed by some artsy fellow with forefinger on right hand dramatically upraised.

Once we realize, however, that such artificially “high-flown” and deliberately archaic language was just a characteristic of the times and the prevalent notions, we may see through it to what lies beyond.

So here, part by part, is To a Waterfowl:


Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?

Bryant is using the convention mentioned above of addressing the subject of the poem. It is an evening in December (as we shall see). The sky in the West still glows with the last light from the setting sun, and the ground is cooling, causing dew to form on the grasses and plants. In this setting, Bryant says to the bird, “whither (meaning ‘to where’) are you going on your way all alone?

“Whither” and its useful mate “whence” have unfortunately largely dropped out of modern English. I say “unfortunately” because they are very useful words, with “whence” meaning “from where,” and “whither” meaning “to where.” As the now largely-forgotten early Oregon poet Samuel L. Simpson wrote, life’s old questions are “whence” and “whither,” that is, where do we come from, and where are we going? As we shall see, that has a lot to do with today’s poem as well.

Vainly the fowler’s eye
Might mark thy distant flight, to do thee wrong,
As, darkly seen against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.

The fowler — that is, the fellow out to hunt birds — might “mark” (notice) the distant flight of the waterfowl to do it wrong, meaning to shoot and kill it, because the dark form of the bird stands out sharply against the red sky of evening.


Seek’st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chaféd ocean side?

Bryant is still on the “whither” question: He asks the bird if it seeks the “plashy brink” of a weedy lake. “Plashy” here means both wet and “splashy” — where the waters of the lake splash gently against its edges (brink), its shore. Or does the bird seek the “marge” or bank of a wide river, or perhaps where the “rocking billows” — the rolling waves — rise and fall by the “chaféd ocean side,” meaning the shoreline of the ocean where the waves constantly rub against it. Bryant indicates by the accent in chaféd that he wants us to pronounce it as two syllables — chay-fed — instead of the usual one.

Now comes the first of two stanzas in which Bryant tells us what the poem is really about (he leaves the second for last):

There is a Power, whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,—
The desert and illimitable air
Lone wandering, but not lost.

There is some Power in the universe, Bryant says, that teaches the waterfowl its way along the coastline, even though there is no marked path — a Power (he capitalizes it for emphasis) that guides it through the “desert” (empty, deserted) and illimitable (endless) air — through the empty sky, that is, as the bird wanders alone in its flight, alone and seemingly wandering, but not lost.

All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere;
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near.

The bird is on a long, migratory flight; its wings have flapped the air all day, up where it is cold and thin, yet the bird does not “stoop” (meaning “go downward” here) to the earth, though the bird should be weary, and dark night is near.

And soon that toil shall end,
Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest,
And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend,
Soon, o’er thy sheltered nest.

Soon, however, the toil (labor) of the long and wearying flight shall end, and the bird will find the end and goal of its migratory path in a land far in the South where the weather is that of summer, and it will then rest and raise its cries among other birds of its kind; and it will build a sheltered nest in a marshy place over which the reeds will bend.

Thou’rt gone, the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form, yet, on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart.

The bird Bryant has been watching is gone; it has flown out of sight, its form vanished in the great emptiness (abyss) of the sky (heaven), but the poet tells us that it has left a message in his heart (by which he means his mind) that will not go away but will long be with him.

What is that lesson? Here we come to the second of the stanzas in which Bryant tells us what the poem is really about:

He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.

The lesson, Bryant tells us (through the fiction of talking to the bird), is that the same Power that guides the waterfowl on a sure path from one place to another through the endless sky, will also lead the poet himself through life and beyond, will be the unseen guide on the unmarked path which everyone must walk for himself or herself.

Bryant refers to this “Power” as “He” in the final stanza, which is the traditional way of speaking of the God of Christianity, but to Bryant it is more the Deistic “Nature and Nature’s God,” as we saw in the discussion of Thanatopsis. That is why this poem seems so very akin to the writings of the Transcendentalists, in which everything that happens is guided by a transcendent Power. It is the same faith in “Divine Providence” that moved Thoreau to say, when asked on his death bed if he did not want to make his peace with God, “I am not aware that we have ever quarreled.” So even though Bryant was slightly too early to be considered a part of the Transcendentalist Movement, he was certainly a precursor and kindred spirit to it.

And not a kindred spirit just to American Transcendentalism. I cannot read To a Waterfowl without thinking of the much earlier poem written by the Japanese Zen Master Dōgen (1200 – 1253), which R. H. Blyth translates as:

The water-bird
Wanders here and there
Leaving no trace
Yet her path
She never forgets.

Though Bryant would never have even heard of Dōgen, To a Waterfowl seems like just a longer and wordier version of the earlier and much shorter poem, with both having the same sense that a transcendent Power guides all paths, whether of bird or human.

J.R.R. Tolkien said in a poem in The Lord of the Rings, “Not all who wander are lost.” Bryant and Dōgen would have said that none who wander are really lost, even though they may seem to be. It is just that some trust their steps are guided while others do not.

Though Bryant is said to have had the experience that led him to write this poem in December of 1815, on seeing a lone duck flying against the evening sky, the poem was not published until 1818, when it appeared in The North American Review. Bryant was 24.

Michael Schmidt relates that when Charles Dickens arrived from England on his visit to New York, he is reputed to have asked, when coming down the gangplank, “Where’s Bryant?” That is because, as mentioned in my earlier discussion of Thanatopsis, Bryant was, again as Schmidt says, “the first American-born poet to be accorded relatively uncondescending recognition” by the British.

David

SUBTLE STATES OF MIND: THE REASON FOR HOKKU

English: The Wind in the Willows. A breezy sum...

As all regular readers here know, a hokku is a sensory event set in the context of a particular season.  That is basic knowledge.  But did you ever ask yourself why?  What, after all, is the point of recording sensory, season-related events as hokku?

This matter is very significant in getting to the root of what hokku is all about, yet it is very simple.  Hokku have to do with the creation of very subtle states of mind in the reader.  The operative word here is subtle.  That is why hokku are not “war” verses, not “romance” verses, not “protest” verses, not “social commentary” verses.  And it is also why hokku has a deep connection with a meditative life, such as one finds in (traditional) Zen or Ch’an Buddhism, as well as with the kind of attitude toward life found in Transcendentalism, as in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Now what do we mean by “subtle states of mind”?  You already know.  You have just perhaps never heard it put that way before.

Here is an example.  When you read the words in this title of the old classic children’s book, they automatically create a “subtle state of mind” that you may not have consciously noticed, but were aware of nonetheless — subtly aware:

The Wind in the Willows

Just those words, with nothing added, arouse a certain nearly-indefinable sensation in us.  We see the willows, we see the wind blowing through the branches, and we may even feel the wind against our arms or faces.  But beyond that, there is a distinct, definite feeling created in our minds — a “subtle state of mind” that is aroused by the willows and the wind in them.

We can modulate that effect — change it — by putting it in the context of a season.  Look how different the “subtle sensations” are that doing so creates:

Spring — the wind in the willows

Summer — the wind in the willows.

Autumn — the wind in the willows.

Winter — the wind in the willows.

What a contrast between the fresh wind of spring through the young leaves, and the cold, biting wind of winter through the bare branches!

To appreciate such verse, one must be able to appreciate simple, understated things.  There is nothing grand here.  Hokku does not strive to be beautiful or conventionally poetic.  It merely records a sensory event in the context of a season, and that creates its own “poetry” in the mind of the reader.

In modern hokku we do not write the actual season name into every verse.  But we do label every verse with the season, so we know its context, and that enables us to experience it.

Of course in the “wind in the willows” examples, I have not put them in the form of a hokku, but we can see the relationship between those examples and real hokku if we look, for example, at this verse by Ryūshi:

Stillness;
The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

In old Japan that would have been a “winter” verse;  but it could also be an autumn verse,  depending on how we label it, and there would be a difference in feeling between the two, as we see if we add the season “label” to each:

(Autumn)

Stillness;
The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves

(Winter)

Stillness;
The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

Just by changing the season, we make it a different hokku, a different verse.  Yes, the words are still precisely the same, but the seasonal context makes a significant change in the subtle state of mind evoked.  It is not that one is “better” than the other, but rather that each has its own effect.

That is what hokku does.  It creates subtle states of mind in the reader by recording a sensory (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) event in its seasonal context.  And that is the “poetry” of hokku — not in the words, but as it appears in the mind of the reader.  For that to happen, however, and to have its full effect, the reader must be the kind of person who is open and appreciative of such subtle states of mind.

That is one reason why, as I often say, hokku is not for everyone because everyone is not for hokku.

David

ZEN AND HOKKU

Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China — and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

I consider a life of non-dogmatic spirituality inseparable from hokku.  And modern writers of hokku will maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began.   That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.

David