In honor of St. Patrick’s Day

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Back in college, I had a poetry professor who believed William Butler Yeats was the greatest poet the world had ever seen.

Dr. John A. Bernstein was one of those rare teachers who could instill a passion for the subject matter in the hearts of his students. And that suited me just fine because I was not taking the class to fulfill a major requirement or to get into grad school.

It was the early 70s. I was seeking truth, beauty and love. I was taking Dr. Bernstein’s class to immerse myself in the great poets of the English language.

We spent a lot of time with Dylan Thomas, with Yeats and with Robert Frost. I was familiar with Frost from my childhood. But Yeats was a new discovery.

Frankly, I did not share my teacher’s unbridled enthusiasm for this Irish poet. I was a spiritually promiscuous as anyone in those days, but Yeats’s forays into spiritualism and automatic writing freaked me out.

Besides that, his poetry simply did not resonate with me. Mostly. Except for his poignant poem, When You Are Old.

Almost certainly written for his lover Maud Gonne, who had rejected his proposal of marriage at least three times. It’s a fairly straightforward poem, but touching and one of my favorites.

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

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

Advertisements

Poets on poetry

George Herbert
George Herbert (1593-1633)

By all accounts, George Herbert was a cool guy. Our knowledge is limited because he lived long ago … more than 400 years ago. He only lived to the age of 39, but that was in the days before antibiotics and indoor plumbing.

I’ve chosen to write about this poetic champion because of how he expresses his art as a means of worship.

Born into a wealthy artistic family in Wales, he enrolled in Cambridge with the intention of becoming a priest. He seems to have gotten sidetracked by politics, became a supporter of King James, and served in Parliament.

But King James died, Herbert’s secular prospects dimmed, and he became an Anglican priest in his mid-30s. He was reportedly an attentive parish priest. He cared for his parishioners, looking out for the poor and ill. He was only to live a few more years before dying of tuberculosis.

When I recently asked my Anglican son for suggestions he suggested Herbert. Coincidentally, I already had him on my list. His poem The Quiddity has been one of my favorites for some time.

Quiddity is a Latin word for “the essence,” or “what the thing really is.” The poem is a poet writing about poetry. It starts out with a litany of things that a poem is isn’t.

But, at the end of the poem, Herbert gets to the point about what a poem really is. And for him, poetry is the thing that brings him close to God.

The Quiddity
by George Herbert

My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.

It cannot vault, or dance, or play ;
It never was in France or Spain ;
Nor can it entertain the day
With a great stable or domain.

It is no office, art, or news ;
Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall :
But it is that which, while I use,
I am with Thee : and Most take all.

Haiku, with feeling

Mother and father
Father cared for Mother through her decade-long ordeal with Alzheimer’s. After her death, he went downhill very quickly.

My recent infatuation with haiku master Issa, has led me to his poems about his family. Sad story. His mother died very early. His father remarried, but the new wife was not a warm, nurturing stepmom.

So, Issa leaves home early to wander and find his fortune.

Later, as his father was dying of typhus, Issa returns home to care for his father in his dying days. His verse about his father’s last days is a heartbreaker.

Last time, I think
I’ll brush the flies
from my father’s face.

I was reminded of my last contact with my father.  This is a different time and a different age.  Instead of being in the same room brushing away flies, I was 2,000 miles away.  I attempted to reach my father by telephone.

Last call to my dad.
Nurses wheeled him to the phone.

Couldn’t hear a thing.

 

 

Early spring haiku

Early spring -- a great day for a walk ... and poetry
Early spring and a great day for a walk

It is with great humility that I attempt haiku. I suspect I’m only scratching the surface.  Just barely.

When I consider the old masters, there seems to be so much more to it than just 5/7/5. For one thing, the lettering and drawings were part of the art of haiku. That pretty much eliminates me. My fine motor skills being what they are eliminated brain surgeon and artist from my career choices long ago.

Then there is the way the old masters looked at the world. They came from such a different culture, steeped in Zen. Like I said in an earlier post, I’m not sure I actually “get” haiku.

But then, from time to time, I catch that glimpse of beauty and truth, and I’m back in. Just when I think I’m committing fraud trying to compose haiku, I read something by Issa and I am reminded of this: He was just a human being. I’m just a human being. We’ve got a lot more in common than is apparent on the surface.

So, with that disclaimer, here are a few meager offerings:

Spring Haiku

Great day to walk, dog.
You poop, I’ll write some verse.
We’ll both be happy.

Old dog so blind and deaf
We’ll never finish our walk …
Sniffs every tree!

Plum trees bloomed early
For us old dog. I don’t mind
If we walk all day.

Pink trees everywhere,
So perfect, what could go wrong?
Uh oh … wait … a-choo!

Digging Issa, haiku master

Haiku master Issa self portrait
Issa self portrait. The poem reads: Even considered/in the most favorable light/he looks cold

Dropped my wife off at the airport this morning before dawn. The moon was full, and I was reminded why I like Issa most of all the old Japanese haiku masters.

Issa was so human and compassionate, despite the many losses and disappointments he experienced.

He certainly endured his share of suffering. He mother died when he was a young boy. His stepmother was manipulative and cruel. After his father died, his stepmother refused to recognize the will, which would have given Issa part of the estate. He saw all of his children die before him. And he outlived his beloved wife Kiku, who died giving birth.

At the risk of being misunderstood, I’ll quote one of his most touching poems, written after his wife’s death. By Issa:

The moon tonight —
I even miss
her grumbling.

There’s something so honest and sweet and human about that. He loved her and he loved even her imperfections. The sight of the moon brought it all back and stirred up his intense memories. He missed her and he missed all of her.

One other poem by Issa on this theme of loss:

Outliving them
Outliving them all —
Ah, the cold!

I cannot claim to comprehend Issa’s pain. My wife is still very much alive–just out of town for a few days. I’ve never lost a child. But having lost both parents and all my brothers, I have caught a glimpse of what Issa is saying about “outliving them all.” Just a faint glimpse.

I think of Issa’s poem. I think of that old Tom Waits song, “The last leaf on the tree.” I think of the oak trees from my Missouri youth. And all of this made me think of — and write — a new poem:

Late Winter Haiku

One grey leaf still clings
to the branch, curled up and dry.
Could fall any day.

Hawaii haiku — Green Sand Beach

Green Sand Beach
Green Sand Beach

Near the south end of Hawaii’s Big Island, which is the southern-most spot in the United States, is Green Sand Beach.

It’s a magical spot — and secluded. Unless you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you need to walk 2.5 miles from the closest decent road. When first come to the end of the path and get to the edge of the cliff, you almost can’t believe it. You survey a beautiful horseshoe-shaped bay, ringed by rocky cliffs, with the bluest water washing ashore on a perfect sandy beach.

Then, you have to clamber down the rocky cliff to get to the water. But it is so worth it.

The sand is literally green. Some miracle of volcanic rock formation has created just the right conditions for this little beach to have the most beautiful olive green sand. The day we were there was perfect. Hot and sunny. With a nice strong waves coming in, perfect for body surfing.

I tried to go with the flow of the waves and was body slammed into the surf more than once.  It was so much fun, I didn’t care that the waves were having their way with me.   I had green sand coming out of my ears for a month.

We learned that clothing was optional at Green Sand Beach. It’s so remote, who’s going to care? Or enforce rules?

And, of course, it led to haiku.

What kind of island
is this never-winter place?
Even the sand is green!

Young hippie couple
living how I’d tried to live
thirty years ago

“Would you mind if I
went topless?” she asked.  Why no,
not on Green Sand Beach!

Hawaii haiku

Kilauea
Surely this must be the roof of hell

I never really understood Issa’s haiku about the roof of hell until I visited Hawaii’s Big Island. We hiked for miles around the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

It was like walking on the moon. Except with full gravity. Over jagged rock formations. Boulder fields. Through pebble fields. Past sulfur-stinking steam vents. Up and down. A death march.  There were times when you could look around and swear you were on another planet.

It inspired a few syllables of my own:

“We walk the roof of
Hell,” said Issa. He must have
hiked Kilauea

Issa’s original poem went like this:

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers

Much more profound than mine.  But I appreciate his inspiration.

Issa was a poet and Buddhist priest who lived from 1763 to 1828.   Which means he was coming of age just as American was becoming a nation.

He’s considered one of the four great haiku masters along with Basho, Buson, and Shiki.

His full name was Kobayashi Issa, but he went simply by the name Issa, which literally means “cup of,” or “one cup of tea.”  What a great name for a haiku master!

I like his stuff and I’ll likely be coming back to it from time to time.