What Light Can Do

What Light Can Do


Robert Hass

I have been entertaining myself with Robert Hass whilst I wait for a book to arrive in the mountains.

Hass has something to say to me.  I want a poesy that responds to the hard grain of the world.  He does not shut himself away in the small particular.  He doesn’t just make pretty objects in exquisite form.  His friendship with Czeslaw Milosz and his work as a translator show that he crosses boundaries and frontiers, as a translator should, and lets in the big issues to his poetry and his prose.  He pushes at the boundaries of “something not sayable”, Winged and Acid Dark.  In that poem from Time and Materials (2008) a guard prizes the woman’s mouth open and there is a six line excursus by Basho who says “if the horror of the world were the truth of the world, there would be no one to say it and no one to say it to”, before spitting in her mouth (from Time and Materials).

timeandmaterialsYou may have read my musings on Basho.  Placing a quotation from Basho up against horror is appropriate because there is horror in Basho.  The question of what poetry can do is at the heart of Hass’s work.  The answers that come back are never clear.

What Can Light Do?

What can light do?  The phrase comes from the author’s note at the beginning of the collection of essays in a reading of Robert Adams’s photography.  “It is as if he thought his subject was the earth, when in fact it was the sky,” he says.  This leads him on to reflect on the themes of his own life’s work:  poetry of course; the violence of the century; an interest in the writers of his place; photography and landscape.

There may be other things as well that I am not noticing.  If there is a sky for me in this collection, it is the act of attention itself, trying to see what’s there, what light can do. (What Light Can Do, 2009)

The act of attention itself is not entirely to be trusted.  In The Dry Mountain Air, a long poem that describes a visit from his Grandma Dahling, I was completely fooled by the details, the attentive and loving description of the old lady removing her hat whilst the poet’s father moved her cases up the high steps to the entrance.  At the end of the poem, the poet’s brother, four years older, says this never happened and Hass finishes:

I thought it might help to write it down here
That the truth of things might be easier to come to
On a quiet evening in the clear, dry, mountain air.

So, the three pages of delicate description including not only the act of removing the hat, but the little presents that came from the train and the poet’s obscure terror of the Grand Canyon depicted on a paper mat from the dining car, which goes to his brother, is all something else.  It is literature and demands to be read, as does the fifth and last mat which shows the brooding angel, Shasta.  His memory is unreliable.

 The Truth of Things

The “truth of things” is a deceptively difficult phrase.  In Novoneyra the truth of things is taken so literally that he proclaims he will only talk about the things that he knows directly.  Normally we put the emphasis on truth and let things fold away.  But poetry does the reverse.  It gives us images where there really is something like truth in things: instead of the truth of things, we have the truth of things.  And if those things, so tightly described and rendered are imaginary, we are left with another consideration: that the literary text itself is the thing we need to attend to.  This, then, is reading: unpicking the truth of the things, the words, in front of us.


the-emperor-of-icecreamAs a reader I appreciate a writer who is also a reader: someone who can play with my expectations in this knowing way.  Everyone, it seems, writes, but readers are few.  When Hass talks about returning to Wallace Stevens’s The Emperor of Ice Cream, I feel at home with someone who has allowed the depth and texture of a poem to filter into the soil of his life.  First, he reads it as a young man on the beach with his friends, delighting in the sounds of the words, then he comes back and back to the words at different stages in his life.  They have not changed but he has, and the changes in his life allow him to see the words in different lights.  He falls away from them when he feels that history demands something more serious of his attention and returns with a mature understanding.IMG_2833-0


I am fifty-two.  There are poems that have followed me through my life in a similar way.  I go back to them with new eyes, shocked by the familiar and surprised by the details I did not see when I was seventeen, twenty-five, forty or fifty.  Are the readings better?  It could certainly seem so when, in moral indignation at Ted Hughes as a poet laureate, I rejected outright the poet who accompanied me through my teenage years.  Then I return with the biography by Jonathan Bate in my hand and unpick something more: the words have not moved, but I can see more connections; and I have grown in compassion towards the man.


An Oak Grove

The final essay in What Light Can Do is called An Oak Grove.  The subject is a grove of oak trees at the University of California at Berkeley, which was cut down to build a new sports facility.  Hass starts by saying that his subject is “thinking about nature and thinking about thinking about nature, and my thesis is that we don’t do it very well.”  This bald statement drew my attention because, if any subject demands attention today, the subject of our relationship to nature is crying out for revaluation.


If you are expecting a typical Romantic poet’s vindication of the natural world, you will be disappointed.  Hass shows that he has sympathy and understanding for the hippies, as the sports fans call them, who include some of the most venerable protesters, such as Sylvia McLaughlin, ninety-years-old and founder in the sixties of Save the Bay.  Yet, his investigations into the history of the foundation of the university, the planting of live oaks and their protection from dry rot that comes on the winds, leads him to see the trees of the campus as a garden.  Not wild nature then?


He turns to Theodor Adorno, who said that “Nature” was a concept developed by the middle class in the Enlightenment and early Romantic era: “an evocation of frankness and simplicity in manners, freedom and diversity in social arrangements, unstoppable force in social movements” and that, later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nature had returned to “its previous role as an irrefutable standard by which to justify various forms of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination.”  Adorno, it seems, makes scholars in the humanities tend to poo-poo the very idea of the natural.

 Nature and the Wild

To avoid sinking into radical scepticism he turns to a “wildlife biologist’s definition of ‘wildness’”: “an organism living in an ecosystem among most of the processes in which it evolved.”  The protesters thought they were defending nature but the grove was not wild, it was a garden.  “There might have been very good reasons for preserving it, but they were not the reasons in those young people’s hearts or on their posters.”


I imagine students coming out of the lecture where he declared the necessity of a “sense of urgency and patience, and a sense of complexity and everything they can learn about the processes of the natural world” with perplexed indignation.  Here a senior scholar folds poetry and history into a narrative that tells the story of an oak grove in the heart of the university, telling them that they have got it wrong, that the trees are not wild, they are a part of a carefully constructed image of the university.  It may be a shame to get rid of a garden, but it is not the same as getting rid of wilderness.  They are told that their teachers can give them the “gift of seeing what’s there.  They can give them some of the skills of distinction, discrimination, and description and give them concepts of enormous power to refine and organize their seeing.”


I imagine those students bridling at the mandarin pronouncements of an academic who, by his own admission, paid little attention to the issue in the beginning because, like the rest of the faculty, he was overburdened with work.  “Yeah, right,” they would say, “you have a vested interest in supporting the institutional way of seeing, don’t you?”

 DMZ Korea and White Cranes

He ends his piece by going back to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, which he had already described in Time and Materials (2008) in a prose poem that talks of the “sheer number of bodies” of dead in the Korean War, struggles with how to think about the young soldiers who efficiently herd them to look and get them back on the civilian bus.  Then finally, he sees a “flurry of white” “cattle egrets nesting in the willows.”  In the essay, he writes this out.  The DMZ has become “an immense, accidental game preserve” because no human being has entered it for fifty years (2009).


If there is ever peace between the Koreas and the threat of nuclear war is lifted, the DMZ will probably be developed and those two species, the white-naped and red-crowned cranes, will be that much nearer to being gone from the kinds on earth.


What is the DMZ?  Is it wild nature?  Or is it another kind of garden, albeit accidentally created?


Hass is a poet.  In his poetry and his writing on poetry there is none of the self-confident professorial tone of the speech about the live oaks.  The poems tell us that there may be a truth to things, but that truth is nowhere near as evident as we at first assume it to be: the narrator may not be reliable, themes may come from a deep well of reference, the text itself is the only truth and it may be fatally flawed.  In some of his poems he goes so far as to half-obliterate words to make the point clearer.  Turning this perception back on his speech about the oak grove, I can’t help but tweeze out the contradictions in the paladin certainties, masked as complexity, in his discourse.


death tractatesThe strongest image- and the one that I wish he had left at the end of the piece, instead of at the beginning- is the image from his wife Brenda Hillman’s poem Death Tractates:  “As an egret fishes through its smeared reflections”


“Every creature,” the entomologist E.O. Wilson has remarked, “lives in its own sensory world.”  And this must especially be true of humans, who have had the capacity to articulate this idea, though I have often wondered if it is not something that all mammals know about each other instinctively.  Still it must especially be true of human consciousness, which emerged in this world rather late to radically alter it, and to invent ingenious ways in which to study it, and to piece together the story of how human consciousness came to be the instrument through which the world thinks about the world that in the past century has come into the care of humans and their consciousness and unconsciousness entirely.”


This could be a comment on his own very ingenious ways of studying what was happening around him.

 The Cold Mountain Air

Here I am in a mountain village witnessing changes in the environment around me.  Some of these changes come on the tailwind of global problems- climate change, pollution in the oceans, economic crisis- and some of them are local- rural depopulation, an increase in tourism, the building of new roads and supermarkets.  The old paths choke up with fast-growing ash trees and untended fields become bramble patches.  Busy government employees devise ineffective plans to stimulate the rural economy.  They tout the region as a “Natural Paradise” and are happy to see more incoming tourism.  Old houses collapse under the weight of their own roofs.


What is the truth of these things?  What can light do?  How can thinking about nature and thinking about thinking about nature be done better?  I do not find the answers I would like to find in the story of the oak grove at Berkeley.  I feel, in an admittedly subjective way, an ululating sadness at the passing away of one world to be replaced by another that lacks the charm of the one it replaces.


The story of how we got here is beginning to seem irrelevant.

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Noriega: trees and language

It is a rivulet running
Sheltered through the shade
Of some dense pine wood:
Take this cover and it dies
Before it can reach the valley.

I am thinking about this verse today.  Noriega is talking about his own language, Galician.  Look at these two photographs of Galicia from the air and draw your own conclusions:

On the left you can see native woodland.  On the right you can see eucalyptus plantation.

Maybe I am a sentimentalist but I was affected by reading this blog:  esmola


Noriega tells us that language is tied to the landscape.  Can we repeat this picture around the world.  With every hardwood forest that is felled from Papua New Guinea to Brazil, what more is being lost besides the trees?  It is not just natural diversity that is destroyed but language, customs and culture.

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Our Language: Novoneyra and Noriega Varela

Our Language

The mountain man is coming now.noriega001
Why?  Oh dear heart!  He is blind-
He cannot see past the veil:
He is coming to speak Gallego
He is coming so that Gallego can live.

Our language is a little bird
The child will usually see
In the sky of the shaggy mountain;
Whether on a wild rose branch
Or the border of a fountain.

It is a flower you can’t take
From the heath, and well tricks
The one who goes after it
If, amongst the mountain gorse
Collecting, he gets pricked.
noriega varela

It is a rivulet running
Sheltered through the shade
Of some dense pine wood:
Take this cover and it dies
Before it can reach the valley.

It’s what dawn’s lustre breaks
Lit by trembling light;
And Our Lady sings to Jesus
in Gallego when he cries,
Lulling him to sleep.

Gallego is a whispering-
The most magical thing there is!
It is the loving language
In which to hear, “My son!”
From the lips of your mother.

It is a speech that illumines,
Moving our hearts
To take the shortest route
To the sighs of the poor
With the grace of charity.

It is such a restless language
That it manages to overcome
The yearning sorrows
Of the replete star
And the moonlit night.
May devotion and pain
Be always on your side
I revere you deeply, believe
That only in heaven
Could there be a better tongue.


When Novoneyra was doing military service with Manuel María in 1952, Noriega Varela was one of the poets they read together.  Noriega went to school at the seminary in Mondoñedo, a school for poets.  When he left he became involved in anti-cacique social protest and spent some time in exile from the landscape that gave him life.


If Novoneyra is indissociably associated with the Eidos of O Courel,  Noriega is similarly associated with Mondoñedo and the mountains around.  He was not a professional writer.  He worked as a teacher for most of his life, but his job doesn’t define him any more than your job defines you.  He was a man who walked in the mountains and enjoyed going to village fiestas.  He wrote out his poems in meticulous long-hand and was so scared by the Nationalists that he dropped the rebellious ideas of his youth.


The magic of Noriega’s poetry is timeless, even though the things he describes have passed away.  That image of the rivulet running through the centre of the poem is protected by the shade of the deep, pine wood.  It is sadly ironic that there are few pine woods around Mondoñedo now.  The town is trapped in the past- like Villafranca del Bierzo and countless other places in Spain that face backwards when the world is rushing forwards.


I was walking through Mondoñedo with my daughter admiring the old buildings and fantasizing with her about moving there and setting up a school.  When I mentioned the idea to a friend in Lugo, she laughed.


“What kind of school are you going to have there?” she asked.  “A school for old ladies?”


The Seminary where Noriega stayed is now a kind of hotel where you can rent out the basic rooms.  The rural economy has disappeared.  It is the same picture where I live in Grado, where I eventually did set up a school and suffer for my obstinance:  I refused to go to a city; refused, even knowing that I would have fewer students.


That metaphor is haunting.  You cut down the wood and you lose the stream.

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An Afternoon in Spring

IMG_2859An afternoon in spring
Murmured these words to me:
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world
Then put to death your words
And let your old soul speak.
Let the same white linen
That you are wearing now
Clothe you in your mourning
Clothe you at party time.
Cherish your happiness
Cherish your sadness too,
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world.
I spoke then my reply
To that spring afternoon:
You have told the secret
That is spoken in my soul:
I abhor happiness
Abhorring suffering.
But before I ever tread
Your flower-strewn path,
I would like to present
My old soul to you: dead.

Antonio Machado Soledades. Galerías. Otros Poemas (1907- I used the edition edited by Geoffrey Ribbans (Cátedra, 1993)).


I am returning to this poem by Machado.  When I wrote about it before, I said that Machado was concerned about being just a “useless poet” and was proud that he could earn his way in life once he got a job as a secondary school teacher: “I go to work and pay my own way”.


In a letter to Unamuno of 1903, Machado says, “I am beginning to believe, even at the risk of falling into paradoxes, which I dislike, that the artist should love life and hate art.  Quite the contrary to what I previously believed.”  And one year later he says, again to Unamuno: “We should not create a separate world in which to enjoy in egotistical fantasy the contemplation of ourselves; we should not flee from life to forge for ourselves a better life that is sterile to others.”


The relationship between life and art is something I live with.  Do you?


Machado, in both the poem and the letters, sets up the opposing forces of life and art that give him his contradictions.  He is hardly to be trusted when he says he does not like paradoxes!


Look at the poem:


Spring afternoon

Tells the secret of the poet’s soul

Poet Says
Put to death your words death = soul
Let your old soul speak Secret spoken in my soul
Cherish happiness Abhor happiness
Cherish sadness Abhor suffering
Seek flowery paths Dead soul before flowery paths


The poem as a literary object is elusive and paradoxical, arising from the Symbolist tradition that sometimes evades clarity on purpose.  I struggle to understand exactly what it means.  What is the “old soul” the poet should let speak?  And how will it speak if it does not use words?  The spring afternoon itself is murmuring words and the poet recognizes that the spring afternoon really does understand his soul: “You have told the secret/That is spoken in my soul.”  Tell and speak again.  So, when the spring afternoon says, “put to death your words” its meaning is not at all clear.


In these two documentaries there is some good guidance on Machado.


It cannot be that the spring afternoon is saying “love life and hate art,” though that was my first thought on reading it.  What is that tension between the spring afternoon, the poet and the old soul?


I showed the poem to Carmen.  The first part made some kind of sense to her and she wanted to explain it to me, but when the poet replies to the spring afternoon a frown came across her face.  “You’re right,” she said.  “Es enrevesado.”  The curiosity and the strength of the poem is the poet’s resistance to Spring, that eternal literary trope.  It reminds me of a poem by Auden, which starts with quaint songs and ends with despair:

If you have an opinion on the meaning of this poem- what it meant to you- I would be interested to hear it.

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You See, You Hear

In this Christmas post, I am thinking of you sitting at home with a brandy in your hand.  I want to share with you some of the sounds of the poetry we have been talking about.  And with that in mind, I have been researching some of the poets on You Tube.

First Novoneyra:

Cousos do lobo!
Caborcos do xabarín!
Eidos solos
onde ninguén foi nin ha d’ir!

O lobo!  Os ollos o lombo do lobo!

Baixa o lobo polo ollo do bosco
movendo nas flairas dos teixos
Ruxindo na folla dos carreiros
en busca da vagoada máis sola e máis medosa…

párase e venta
finca a pouta ergue a testa e oula cara o ceo
con toda a sombra da noite na boca.

(Domain of the wolf!// Gullies of the wild boar!// Lonesome places// Where no one goes nor should!//// The wolf! The eyes, the back of the wolf!//// The Wolf goes down through the eye of the wood//moving the branches of the yews//rustling the leaves on the paths//looking for the most lonely and most fearful stream…////It tracks along//stops and sniffs//pushes in its claws stretches out its head and howls with its head to the sky//and with all the shadow of the night in its mouth)

Now, R.S. Thomas:


And here is Richard Burton reading John Clare:


And, finally, a fascinating documentary by Llorenç Soler called The mountains are ours, which shows that the processes that enclosed the countryside and expropriated the peasants from communal lands in England were unrolling in Spain in the twentieth-century.



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Shakespeare’s sonnets

young_man_roses_hilliardThis week I took a rest from considering Novoneyra, the mountains and the countryside and gave myself up to

Reading Shakespeare

The sonnets start with a series in which the poet argues with a young man who is wasting his beauty by not having children.  The imagery seems appropriate to this time of year, as the poet’s talk of time passing and I see the trees around me losing their leaves.  I have put the readings with images.

Have a look and see if you like them:


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Novoneyra and the Shepherd’s Calendar

johnclareI left R.S. Thomas last week grumpily considering the distance between himself and the hill farmers of Wales.  I suggested that Novoneyra could represent that hill farmer.  It was certainly a part of the image he put out to the world: the man who is happy in the hills, the man who talks to farm labourers.  This week, however, I want to get closer to the ground by considering the English poet John Clare.  This consideration will allow us to see Novoneyra in another light: as an educated intellectual who rides the wave of modernist thought into the twentieth century.

John Clare is a unique poet.  He was born in the eighteenth-century in Northamptonshire just when the Enclosure Acts were transforming that landscape for good.

John Clare was a peasant farmer.  He is unique because peasants do not usually write poetry.  Our view of the countryside is overwhelmingly given by people who have an education, live in the same community as farmers, but are alienated from them.  The generations of peasant farmers that lived and died before John Clare do not speak to us in their own words.  They are given voice in curiously artificial creations like the “passionate shepherd” or in the melancholy observations of the lettered poets who were able to put words into their mouths.  They were often priests like R.S. Thomas (see previous post).

Clare was taken up by the Romantics.  Across Europe nineteenth-century Romantics showed a new interest in local traditions, languages and cultures.  (Regional languages, like Galician, were revived and brought into literary prominence.)  Peasants and their customs had always been the subject of poetry, but they were not thought of as artists or art.  Country people had songs, peasant dances and quaint customs that could be used by artists, but their creations were craftwork or handiwork: good when they followed traditional patterns; marred by anything approaching invention.   Clare then was exceptional.  He never moved up a social class.  He was always a peasant farmer.

I was drawn to think of the comparison of Clare and Novoneyra for several reasons.

  • They both write about things that are real, focussing on lived experience.
  • The poetic world of both writers is tied to specific places and both Os Eidos and The Shepherd’s Calendar follow the full cycle of the year through in one location.
  • They are both social critics who live through changes in the landscape that affect them deeply.

Clare’s poetry gives us a rich variety of linked images that show his close connection to the land.   Each month of The Shepherd’s Calendar is pricked out with details that bear the unmistakeable tint of direct experience.  They trot off the page one after the other in a succession of detailed observations.  In November, for example, the rainstorm catches a boy in the field:

[he] in hurry weaves,Shepherd's Calendar
Beneath an ivied tree, his sheltering seat,
Of rushy flags and sedges tied in sheaves,
Or from the field a stock of stubble thieves.
There he doth dithering sit, and entertain
His eyes with marking the storm-driven leaves;
Oft spying nests where he spring eggs had ta’en,
And wishing in his heart ‘twas summer-time again.


This is not the shepherd boy of pastoral who seems to exist in a rosy dreamland.  Even compared with Basho, whom we have looked at previously, this writing has a quality of unique lived experience; he identifies with the people in his verse; he is not a distant moon-figure.  There is an arresting sharpness to the picture of the child sheltering from the rain, making himself a seat of rushes under an old ivy-decked tree.  He can see the birds’ nests because the trees have lost their leaves and his meditation about the eggs he took in the springtime is wholly believable.  Clare is at his best when we get the vivid sensation that he is writing about experiences culled directly from his own life.

Compare this to Novoneyra:

Brilla a agua nas beiras…calzas do cuco
As calzas do cuco polas uceiras
I as bouzas dos outos boscos
Nos tesos núos e foscos
Viñeron os ventos de cara a Rodela
Viñeron as feiras
De ir a meniña insinala canela.
(Water sparkles in the eaves/cuckoo socks* on the moors/ and clumps of high woodland/on the naked and gloomy peaks.//The winds came into Rodela/the fairs came/so the young girl can go and sell cinnamon.  *Cuckoo socks: petticoat daffodils (narcissus bulbocodium) although my edition says this refers to the last snows of the winter.)

Novoneyra is more economical in painting his word picture than Clare.  Although he uses rhyme, rhythmically his line is more varied than Clare, who uses a predictable iambic rhythm and a regular syllable count for each line.  This shows that he lacks the literary sophistication of Novoneyra: he looks for that ti-TUM, ti-TUM rhythm and inserts extra words to preserve it; dithering, entertain his eyes.  Novoneyra does not shy away from rhyming, but his fragments carry the weight of a greater awareness of pre-existing literature.

He explicitly aligns himself with troubadour poets to construct his identity as a Galician bard of the mountains.  Clare does not.  The contrast between the two is striking and revealing.  Novoneyra works in an educated poetic tradition.  Clare, by contrast, seems strikingly naïve.  When I first read The Shepherd’s Calendar as a teenager I was disappointed.  I suppose I was hoping for something a little more like Novoneyra.  I wanted to believe that there was an authentic poetry of the people.  I imagined it would be less artificial than educated poetry, but the simple artifice of Clare’s poetry is declared in every line.

Consider this fragment, in which Clare is talking about enclosure:

The spoiler’s axe their shade devours,enclosure
And cuts down every tree.
Not trees alone have owned their force,
Whole woods beneath them bowed,
They turned the winding rivulet’s course,
And all thy pastures plough’d

The rhythms are ponderously poetic with their 8,6,8,6 syllable count, conventional rhymes and heavy iambic feet:

Ti-TUM ti-TUM// ti-TUM ti-TUM
Ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM

Popular ballads and children’s rhymes use the same heavy structure.

The same would be true of ballads in Galicia, in the Courel.  Have a look at this verse:

Maruxiña, Maruxiña,                  das montañas de León
Sete fillos que tuveche                e ninguno che foi varón
¡rebenteras tu con eles               xunto do teu corazón!

(Maruxiña, Maruxiña from the mountains of Leon/you had seven children and not one of them a boy/ you will burst with them along with your heart.)


This section of a verse from Flor de Romances de Cervantes e Pedrafita (Frouma, Santiago de Compostela, 2001, p.85) continues in the same manner for another 13 lines. Anabel Amigo, who went through the villages of the Courel collecting these verses, dutifully transcribes the different variants that she found.   You will immediately notice the heavy rhymes, the rolling rhythm and the caesura systematically placed in the middle of the poetic line.


These poems are part of an oral tradition.  The rhythm is essential to the mnemonic quality of verse that will be recited, learnt and passed on through generations.   Clare is faithful to the rhythms of popular poetry in a way that Novoneyra is not.


It was due to the fact that traditional poems were so easy to remember that they survived until the Romantics of the nineteenth-century discovered them.  When they did so they used the source material as building blocks for a different kind of poetry: authored poetry; poetry that connected to broader political ideas about the language.  They ignored the bilingual quality of the popular verses- many of them are in Castilian Spanish- and reframed them as essential components of a Galician identity.  They added in Celtic themes to promote this sense of identity.



A rare photograph of Clare

Let’s return to Clare.  Clare writes with the naïve rhythms of a poet who has had no formal literary training.  He cannot work at the level of Wordsworth whose ability to create a sustained argument over the course of The Prelude, putting the poet’s experience of the immanent Sublime in powerful and flexible lines that swell from conversational to ecstatic, is in a different league to Clare’s manner of proceeding.  Clare writes according to his own conception of what poetry is and should be.


The rhythms and the rhymes are one part of that.  The images are the other.  Clare explicitly says that the poet’s gaze is turned towards beauty.  In October, for example:

Nature now spreads around, in dreary hue,
A pall to cover all that summer knew;
Yet, in the poet’s solitary way,
Some pleasing objects for his praise delay.

He says that “every trifle will his eye detain.”  There is an obvious difference with Novoneyra here.  The Galician poet steers away from trifles and has set themes that run through Os Eidos, almost as though he were trying to build up a philosophy around the few concrete experiences that come to his senses.  There is a powerful metaphorical undertow with the wolf, the distant road, dreaming and the constant feeling of dissolution of the ego throughout the collection.   The few people that appear are rarely given much to do or say.  Clare walks through a populated world; Novoneyra is sunk into existential solitude.


Courel abandoned villageI will reflect on Novoneyra’s connection to modernism, Heidegger and fifties angst in my next post.  I want to finish this one, however, by considering the curious parallel between the experience of Clare, living uncomfortably in a world of change, and the experience of Novoneyra in the latter part of his life as he moved away from the mountains and towards Santiago.  Here is what he says in Antón Lopo’s A Distancia do Lobo:


Now the Courel is not even the way I remember it.  I prefer not to go.  Not to see it.  The seventies and the eighties ripped the heart out of the villages at a vertiginous rate.  The empty houses of Parada, of Moreda, of Meiraos, of Romeor, of Mercurín, of Esperante… There are even villages that ended up with their tendons exposed, anorexic and bloodless.


John Clare did not have the same options available to Novoneyra.  He was bitter about the effect of the enclosures on the traditional village life that he knew.  He refers to the commons as “the sweetest of gardens… loved as an Eden by me.”  Yet he was persuaded to cut out lines in his writing that implied social criticism so as not to offend wealthy patrons.


The rural economy ceased to revolve around village communities and coalesced around larger landowners and country houses.  Farming moved away from small-scale trading and self-sufficiency to farming as a business.  Some land was suitable to arable, some to stock.  It was more efficient for cattle to be moved around from field to field so that they were always eating fresh grass; it was more efficient to grow corn in large fields and not in strips.  The peasant farmer suffered in this reorganization of the countryside because self-sufficiency is not rational on a large scale.

Whole villages disappeared.

When I was a teenager and first picked up The Shepherd’s Calendar I hoped to find something different in its pages to what I encountered there.  The pretty and charming scenes seemed like a betrayal of what could have been a sharp and angular vision of a real countryman, like the taciturn woodsmen I met on my walks up onto the Blackdown Hills.  I could sense that there was a historical injustice in the very prettiness that I walked up those hills to survey and, in my own naivety, I imagined that the voice from the other side would be muscular in rage and condemnation.   Clare, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling hard to look for the pleasant, the pretty and the scenic.


It did him no good.  He went insane and finished his days in an asylum.

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R.S. Thomas: Wales and Galicia


R.S. Thomas- by Kyffin Williams

What makes a nation?  Ethnic identity?  Language?  Common values?  Or, is it just the peculiar result of accidental forces through history?  The questions are at the forefront of my mind, not because of Scotland or Catalonia or Kurdistan, but because of that grumpy old Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas.  Thomas is today’s lens for looking at the work of Novoneyra in Galicia.


Galicia and Wales have a lot in common.  Both have deep connections with a more powerful and arrogant neighbour: Castilla and England respectively.  Both have been sucked up into an imperial project: the Spanish Empire; the British Empire.  Both have mountains and coastline and look out onto a western sea with a longing for the return of legendary heroes who will right wrongs and restore justice.  Both have their own language.


somerset-mapI grew up in Somerset.  From the north coast you could look out and see the industrial towns of South Wales across the Bristol Channel.  Our little black-and-white television picked up HTV with some programmes in Welsh.  The language was impenetrable in both its written and spoken forms, but the lilting sound of it was unique.


In the comics I read and the action films I watched there was usually a Welshman who was called Taffy or Davies: devoted to his mum, good with a gun and with a charming provincial simplicity.  Not one of the officers; one of the men.  I knew that the Wales I could see was the industrial fringe of a land that rose up to mountains and valleys where the people increasingly spoke their own language, tended their sheep and resented the English.  They resented the reservoirs that were built to give water to the English Midlands.  They resented the holiday cottages that their richer neighbours bought in that sublime landscape.


Thomas grew up in the north of Wales where the Welsh language is more widely spoken.  Yet he did not grow up speaking Welsh:


England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger at my lips?
The Old Language p.25


He was a middle class child, not a hill farmer, and his parents thought it better for him to be brought up in English.  It was a source of pain to him through his life.   He became a country priest and spent his life serving parishioners I imagine to be a little like Galician hill farmers.  An Acre of Land  was published in 1952.  In this book Thomas develops themes that remain consistent throughout his subsequent poetry.  I am going to focus on this one collection even though I am using Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix, 1993) because it provides a direct parallel to Novoneyra: Os Eidos  was published in 1953.


Men of Wales… How I have hated you…


Thomas says this as a country priest whose attempts to bring an appreciation of poetry and culture to his flock wash against the flint faces of the hill farmers he has to deal with.  Yet he comes to realise that they have something that he lacks:R.S.Thomas


…I know, as I listen, that your speech has in it
The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
Bubbling from your lips
A Priest to His People, p.13


The Welsh language then is one of the founts of his respect for the nationhood of Wales.  Yet, he cannot participate.  This emphasis on the language makes for another point of comparison with Galicia.  Novoneyra might be one of the countrymen that Thomas is talking to: distant from the claims of the city and the town; heir to a tradition of lyricism in his own language that is as clear as that country rill.


Wales compares with Galicia.  For centuries Galician was seen as a language spoken by peasants in the hills and villages.  Even today it is more likely that you will hear Castilian Spanish on the streets of Santiago or Coruña.  Gallego is the language of the people in the villages by the sea or in the mountains.  The same is the case in Wales in spite of legislation making it obligatory to learn Welsh in school and to have mastered it for a government job.  In Cardiff or Swansea it is English you hear.


The old ways were hard.  People want to move to the cities.  As the traditional way of life in the countryside shrinks what is left of the roots of identity that made the idea of a nation?  We see that language is just one part of something bigger.  A way of life is fading and the language is going with it.


Thomas was witness to the depopulation of the villages in the hills.  In The Welsh Hill Country (p.22) he says it is  “too far for you to see”  the death throes of an old farmer with “the embryo music dead in his throat.”  He says we should “leave it, leave it” because these are the “last survivors”  (Depopulation of the Hills, p.28).


Or we can turn to Welsh Landscape:


Thomas Furious

Justin Wintle:  on my reading list

There is no present in Wales
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
…an impotent people
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.

Thomas is pessimistic.  He is famous for his identification of the Machine as the bringer of the ills that he sees around him.  The machine is not a single thing, but a multi-facted symptom of all the forces that drive the way of life that he comes to cherish to extinction.  In An Acre of Land the machine is represented by the tractor of Cynddylan:  “emptying the woods// of foxes and squirrels and bright jays.”  Thomas’s rejection of the machine has made him a saint of environmentalists (see Paul Kingsnorth or Dark Mountain Project).  Yet he lays the blame clearly on English industrialists:


in the corpse of a nation
for its congealed blood.  I was
born into the squalor of
their feeding, and sucked their speech
in with my mother’s
infected milk, so that whatever
I throw up now is still theirs.

There is no hope of reconciliation in his view of Wales.  He tries to emphasise common humanity- “listen, listen, I am a man like you” (The Hill Farmer Speaks, p.31) but there is scant comfort in that.  In the end he resigns himself to something that approaches the presence in Nature of Novoneyra:


We will listen instead to the wind’s text
Blown through the roof, or the thrush’s song
…   For nature’s truth
Is primary and her changing seasons
Correct out of a vaster reason
The vague errors of the flesh.


Thomas and Novoneyra follow different paths.  Thomas writes out his concerns in a way that Novoneyra does not.  I come back to the feeling that the Galician is one of the hill people that Thomas envies and admires.  Yet Novoneyra ended up in Santiago whilst Thomas never surrendered his rejection of what the machine offered him: he lived in a cottage with no central heating or modern appliances.  He pulled out.  He pulled back even though in grander terms he knew that it was useless.


What does it mean?  What does it mean for me, an Englishman living in a mountain village in Asturias?


Both Thomas and Novoneyra have something to say to me.  Here in the village the older people are dying off and the younger people do not want to live with cows and cowdung.  No one is a hill farmer like Thomas’s Prytherch.  The landscape is depopulated.  There are houses going for a song.  Even today a woman came from Oviedo asking about a house she wanted to buy for 15000€.  She probably paid more for her car.  There are elegant ruins in all the villages, testimony to a time when more people lived off the same land.  With the advent of the machine you cannot even live poorly off twice the land the rich people had in the past.


People slip a few words of Asturianu into their speech to sound like they belong but it is an affectation: they all have jobs where they speak Castilian and earn the money that allows them to own the privilege of this place.


And I imagine this dynamic repeated around the world.  Small communities of people with their own customs and language compelled by the logic of the times to surrender and head to the cities.  There, in the city, they have available all the good things- doctors, internet, shops and restaurants.  It is the great bonanza of modern life, for which we have to make the sacrifice of the old ways, which anyway come to seem unattractive and harsh.


What fool raises his cattle on the hard mountains?  There are vast barns where the animals wander over to troughs where the feed is laid on for them.  Mechanised milking makes the hand on the teat a thing of the past.


I don’t exclude myself.  I am writing a blog.  I will go down into town to put it onto the internet.  And you, dear reader, will have read it on a device that implies the same contraction of the variety of past lives.  So what is a nation?  What is a people?  What is a language and a culture?  I seem to myself to be a sad remnant of a Romantic tradition in my searches through literature to find a richer life that brings in the words and feelings of- what?- redemption?


Just as Novoneyra found his spirit reflected in the old songs of Galicia, Thomas looked back to the old literature of Wales and spoke about Abercuawg. I shall transcribe the poem of the same name below so that you can get the full texture of his thought without my comments.early welsh saga poetry



Abercuawg!  Where is it?
Where is Abercuawg, that
Place where the cuckoos sing?
I asked the professors.
Lo, here, lo, there: on the banks
Of a river they explained
How Cuawg had become Dulas.
There was the mansion, Dolguog,
Not far off to confirm them. I
Looked at the surface of the water,
But the place that I was seeking
Was not reflected therein.
I looked as through a clear
Windw at pebbles that were the ruins
Of no building, with no birds tolling
Among them, as in the towers of the mind.

An absence is how we become surerabercuawg
Of what we want.  Abercuawg
Is not here now, but there.  And
There is the indefinable point,
The incarnation of a concept,
The moment at which a little
Becomes a lot.  I have listened
To the word ‘Branwen’ and pictured
The horses and the soil red
With their blood, and have opened
My eyes on the sickly child, sticky
With sweets and snivel.  And: ‘Not
This,’ I have cried.  ‘This is the name,
Not the thing that the name
Stands for.’  I have no faith
That to put a name to
A thing is to bring it
Before one.  I am a seeker
In time for that which is
Beyond time, that is everywhere
And nowhere; no more before
Than after, yet always
About to be; whose duration is
Of the mind, but free as
Bergson would say of the mind’s
Degradation of the eternal.

And this seems to me to be a pretty good definition of saudade as defined by Ramón Piñeiro!

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Novoneyra and Saudade

starliliesWords that grow like flowers.  Last week we saw Basho’s bush-clovers linked with the moon; we saw a crying child, prostitutes abandoned on the road and the moon-poet weeping over dead princes.  Basho is vital and immediate.  His images plop onto the page like living facts.  These images link backwards through time so that his poetry at once talks about the present and the tradition from which it springs.  The first anthology he edited Kai Oi (1672) was a collection of hokku in pairs, his own reply to a master’s verse on the same page.  He was 28.

Novoneyra was born in 1930 in Parada de Moreda in the remote Sierra de los Ancares in Galicia.  He would have been six-years old when the Civil War broke out and lived out his childhood in the hardship and repression of the Franco regime.  Os Eidos, his most famous collection, was written in 1952-1953.  He was barely 23.  His poetry, like that of Basho, is vital and immediate.  And like Basho’s poetry it grows like flowers from its own rich culture.

In this post I am going to look for saudade, the wistful yearning that is so much a part of Galician literary culture, in Os Eidos.  The philosopher of saudade is Ramón Piñeiro, who was a close friend of Novoneyra, the moving force behind Editorial Galaxia, which published Os Eidos in 1955.  He declared the collection the clear beginning of a new kind of poetry that set aside the personal in favour of the communal and a faithfulness to the land itself.  The lingua, the language, was the common property of all galegos.  The dedication of the book, to Piñeiro and the artist Carlos Maside, reads:

The words of this book are true in the high, lonely hills of the Courel.  In them, so as not to do things an injury, I only name them or I let them go in their customary and natural movement.

Here he seems to be saying that the things he wants to put into his poetry have a life that defies description.  He will use them in the poetry, but he will not attempt to describe them or articulate them into bigger concepts:

Sources of Lubicieiras
Spurting from twenty mouths
Sounding a thousand ways!

He is like a young Basho coming to terms with previous poetry and laying out a new path that will adhere radically to the reality of the spoken language around him.   There is something here of Edward Thomas walking through the English country lanes of pre-World War I England talking with Robert Frost about the need to go back to the spoken language: out with high concepts, poetic diction and story-telling.  And, just as it is ironic that Basho could only come to the purity of his images by reflecting on the literary tradition before him, and Thomas could only come to his revindication of common speech through his deep reading of Shakespeare and English literature, Novoneyra could only pen Os Eidos through the singular coincidence of being who he was in the time he lived, with all that went before him channelled through his reading.

My use of the word “singular” is an acknowledgement of Piñeiro, who in 1951 published an essay called Significado Metafísico da Saudade  in the collection Presencia de Galicia, the first edition of Colección Grial, the very first publication of Galaxia.  Piñeiro maintains that the emotional appreciation of reality is at the very roots of saudade, which is a distinctively Galaico-Portuguese phenomenon, most perfectly to be seen in its lyric poetry.   After discussing metaphysics in other countries, he has this to say about saudade:

In saudade Man remains sunk in himself, isolated from all outside contact, free from all mundane contamination; he remains in a state of ontological purity.  What does Man discover in this interior space, when he arrives there on the path of saudade?  He discovers himself, but in this dark feeling of himself as a singularity he perceives his ontological aloneness.  To feel this ontological aloneness is to feel saudade.

Piñeiro contrasts the singularity of an individual being with the greater Being of which he becomes aware through his feelings.  As a singular being, man feels his ontological aloneness, that is to say, he feels himself.  This feeling of himself in his own original singularity (aloneness) is to feel saudade.  In this feeling there is no subject-object correlation, but a direct feeling of the subject.  Nothing intervenes beyond feeling, pure and spontaneous feeling.  There is no tint of psychological sadness.

Viña eu dos Calvares
Soñando no aire

Pasein su a Fonte
Cos ollos ó lonxe

Deiteime na erba
Cas maos nas meixelas

(I was coming from Calvares/dreaming in the breeze//I went below A Fonte/with my gaze in the distance//I laid down on the grass/with my hands on my cheeks.)

 Os Eidos reflects this perception of saudade in many places.

Os fíos da auga
Técense cos fíos do soño
Que eu soño

              (the thread of water/woven with the threads of the dream/I am dreaming.)

Dreams appear and reappear with the same regularity as the paths taken and not taken in the places the poet brings to bear.  He looks at the rain on the window.  He looks at the line of the hills.  He walks.

O aire ten unha cousa
Que se perde se un a conta

(The breeze has some thing/that is lost if one should tell it.)

Here, like Basho, Novoneyra resists the temptation to describe.  The rain comes.  The snow comes.  The wind comes.  He is a part of it.


There is a recurrent image of losing oneself:

Si o aire quer
Chegarein a non ser ninguén

(if the breezes wishes/ I will become no one)

On the face of it, this is the complete obliteration of the self in the natural world.  Yet I cannot help but think of that other Nobody, Odysseus (see Cunqueiro, Rivas) and reflect that a nobody in literature demands that we look very carefully at his literary antecedents.  When he wrote these verses he had just come from Madrid, where he had been studying, to do military service.  In his leisure time he read with Manuel María, who lent him work by Noriega Varela, Rosalía, Pondal and Curros.  They talked about their experiences of reading and what it meant to write in their language.  They must have reflected on saudade as an essential feature of the culture they belonged to.


The literary antecedents are clear to see in the twinned poems about the spinstress:

Fiandeira namoradaVan-Gogh-A-Fiandeira-1889-OST
Que fías detralo lume
Cos ollos postos nas chamas
Roxiñas brancas y azules.

Fiandeiriña que fías
Nas noites do longo inverno
As liñas máis delgadiñas
Co fío do pensamento.

Cai a neve quedo fora
Riba dos teitos calada
Mentras ti fías e soñas
Nunha cousiña lonxana…

(Spinstress in love/who spins beyond the light/with your eyes on the flames/ red, white and blue//Little spinstress who spins/on the long winter nights/the most slender threads/with the thread of her thought//The snow falls quietly outside/over the roofs in silence/whilst you spin and dream/on some small distant thing…)


I don’t want to suggest that the woman spinning is meant to represent Penelope: that would be a gross reading.  However, there is an archetypal image of the woman waiting for her distant lover that is one of the building blocks of the yearning that makes up saudade.  The troubadour lyrics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Galicia called cantigas de amiga, are written from the perspective of the woman thinking of her absent lover.  There is a type of cantiga called cantiga de tear, or chanson de toile in French, which was brought to the court of D. Denis in the fourteenth century by Estevan Coelho: Sedia la fermosa seu sirgo tecendo (A Cantiga de Amigo,  Mercedes Brea and Pilar Lorenzo Gardín, Xerais, 1998, p.231).  Novoneyra mentions this poem specifically in his list of poets in Os Eidos II.

This yearning is one of the roots of Piñeiro’s philosophy of saudade.

The structure of Novoneyra’s two poems, with their three equally-weighted verses, and, in the second of the pair the repetition of the last line of each verse in the first line of the following, shows an awareness, not only of the themes but of the forms of medieval poetry.  Novoneyra is doing something similar to Basho here: he is placing his own verse in the tradition that gives it birth.  Yet there are clear differences between his work and the cantigas.  He renounces the rhetorical formulation of older poets even in these examples that are closest to the grain of medieval lyrics.  The woman is alone and her thoughts are hidden from us.  We are presented with an undescribed image.  There is no development of an argument.  He leaves her with her dreaming and in this she mirrors him:

Sólo sein que eilí compre
O soño que estoun soñando…

(I only know that there is realized/the dream I am dreaming…)


He also has the experience of looking at flames:

Eu a ollar para o lume
I o lume a ollarme.
O lume sin queimarme
Fai de min fume…

(I start looking at the fire/and the fire looking at me/The fire without burning me/ turns me to smoke…)


Remember that when Novoneyra wrote Os Eidos he was 23.  The perfection of the collection is not the result of the studied meditation that makes the later work of Basho so pregnant with meaning at each turn of the image.  It is the intuitive reading of a young man steeped in his own culture.  “These words are true here,” he declares.  There is cocky self-assurance there.  After all these are not poems like the ones I find in the Flor de Romances de Cervantes e Pedrafita  (Anabel Amigo ed., Frouma, 2001).  They are distinctively modern.


Novoneyra is a young man who has gone away to study and returned.  After the publication of Os Eidos he will return to Madrid and only come back to Galicia to live in 1966 to take care of his parents in their last years.  He has opened his eyes to the modern world and returned to the Courel with a fresh way of saying old things.  It is extraordinary.  When I was 23 I was an adolescent: I was pedantic, irritating and clodhopped my way through the world dropping cultural clangers.  I am amazed by the assurance of this young man’s taste.  Nothing reveals this sense of taste better than the fact that the more adolescent of his poems, which were written at the same time, were excluded from Os Eidos:


O Laio

ESCURECEN os penedos.img_1840-0
Baixa a sombra do penedo
Aniárseme no peito.

Inorde un tras outro
Foron morrendo os meus soños
E quedein solo de todo.

Estoun solo como un lobo
Oulando cara a noite.
Angustia de morte!
Arelanzas de louco!

Ista door!  Ista door!  Ista door mina!

Berro caído nun couso.
A door alúmame todo
E ollo a morte no fondo…

(The Lament// The peaks go dark/the shadow comes down from the peak/to nestle in my breast//Slowly one after another/my dreams went to die/and I remained completely alone//I am as alone as a wolf/howling at the night/The anguish of death!/The desires of a madman!//This pain!  This pain!  This pain of mine!//I scream sunk in a ditch/The pain lights me all up/And I look into the depths of death…)


This poem from The Ditch of Pain reads like a typical adolescent lament.  “The pain, the pain,” could be an adolescent’s response to an intellectual reading of Heidegger; it does not have the immediate truth of the simple positioning of snow on roofs and rain in the valleys in Os Eidos.  Although it has a certain appeal, it was wise of Novoneyra to shuffle it off into a separate collection where it could find its own audience.  Rosalía has poems that are equally dark but it took her a lifetime of suffering to arrive at the nihilism of her later verse; this reads like a young man’s struggles to be deep.


I was sitting on a train as a young man going to Bristol reading a commentary by Philip Larkin on Thomas Hardy.  “You can read Hardy when you are young,” he said, “but he is a mature poet and you cannot understand him until you are older.”  Yet there is something in this: you cannot write The Darkling Thrush as a twenty-something; it would be self-indulgent.


This makes the achievement of Os Eidos all the more impressive.  I can read and reread those poems and not get to an end of them.   Novoneyra did something remarkable in putting down those images in the language that he grew up with.  As a young man of 23 he was able to pare back his adolescent effusions and leave us with a clearly thought-out year in the mountains of his childhood.  It is pregnant with the culture of the Ancares.  This culture came from his reading and from talking to the people he grew up with.


Antón Lopo has him say this:

A lingua non é una emoción baleira, nin vén dada pola ideoloxía.  Na lingua pervive todo o referido a ti e aos teus.  Por iso para min ten tanta significación o galego oral.  Non é a pura mecánica do idioma: é a mecánica do idioma unida á toda a carga de existencia e de memoria e de ritmo vivido.  Débolle moito a Rosalía, a Noriega, a Pondal, a Otero Pedrayo, Fole, Maside, Piñeiro e Celestino Fernández de la Vega, claro, pero a miña procedencia xorde do pobo e nunca falei máis pleno con ninguén ca cun labrego.

(The language is not an empty emotion, and is not given to us by an ideology.  In the language everything told to you and your people survives.  That is why for me oral galego has so much significance.  It is not the pure mechanics of the language: it is the mechanics of the language joined with the whole weight of existence and of memory and of lived rhythm.  I owe a lot to Rosalía, Noriega, Pondal, Otero Pedrayo, Fole, Maside, Piñeiro and Celestino Fernández de la Vega, of course, but my procedence arises amongst the people and I never spoke more fully with anyone than with a labourer.)


It is the willing identification with the people he grew up with that gives his youthful poetry such maturity.


Where does this meditation leave me?  I make no separation between my reading and my life.  I am picking away at Os Eidos trying to make sense of questions that trouble me.  One of these questions is precisely the one that Novoneyra brings up in that last quotation: the question of language and identity.  Where I live in Asturias there are few people who speak Asturianu and fewer still who read it.  There is a flight from the hills and the valleys to the cities and, more broadly, a flight from Asturias to other parts of Spain and Europe where the living is easier.


What is happening?  I ask myself.


At the same time, I am aware that Novoneyra’s description of the Courel is different from my own knowledge of it.  “The sources are drying up because there is not enough snow,” they told me in Viduedo last time I walked through.  Where is the snow that falls in Novoneyra’s poetry?  The Camino de Santiago brings life to a ribbon threading through, but the small towns and villages are seizing up with fewer children and families and small family farms closing up.  Is the vision of Os Eidos already past tense?  What is the future of the rural world he so lovingly described?


Next week I shall discuss this issue by looking at the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas to see what light he can shed on the deeper problems of another country with its own language and rural blight.


Follow if you are interested!

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Is Basho an arse?

imageThe poems are exquisite.  The sensibility is fine.  Basho is aware of his own importance.  He puts quotations from other writers into his work and allows his own writing to enter into dialogue with poets of the past.  He knows he is good enough to have a place in history.  Basho has a lot of poet friends who are always happy to see him, so he must have been a good dinner guest. How is it, then, that he can behave like an arse?

We can’t examine the question without looking at the evidence, so let’s dive in.

I am using The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches in the Penguin Classics edition (1966) with an excellent introduction by Noboyuki Yuasa.  I shall be comparing some of the poems with Uxío Novoneyra, Os Eidos Libro del Courel in the Árdora Exprés edition (2010; first ed. Galaxia, 1955).

As I was plodding along the River Fuji, I saw a small child, hardly three years of age, crying pitifully on the bank, obviously abandoned by his parents.

This is how Basho describes his encounter with a lost child in The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton.  What would you do in this situation?  What would you think?  And what would you write as you describe it to your audience?

Think about it for a little before you read on.

Basho gives the child some food, composes a poem referring to another poet and then makes this statement:

Alas, it seems to me that this child’s undeserved suffering has been caused by something far greater and more massive- by what one might call the irresistible will of heaven.  If it is so, child, you must raise your voice to heaven, and I must pass on, leaving you behind.

The “irresistible will of heaven” lets Basho off the hook rather conveniently so that he does not have to do anything further to help this abandoned child.  His conscience is clear because he gave the child some food.  He does not feel any moral obligation to help him.

Since Basho is a poet of a particular calibre, it is worth reading on to see what comes next.  First, he comes to the swollen river Oi and writes a poem that mentions his friends in Edo waiting for his arrival.  He follows this with the image of a horse eating Roses of Sharon:

Roses of Sharon
At the roadside
Perishing one after another
In the mouth of a horse.

It is hard to take.  An abandoned child has become another device in the poetic world of Basho.  We should not be fooled by the apparently humble title of his book: he believes that his friends should be waiting for him; he does not believe that he is under any obligation to help the child on the road; he has no qualms about mentioning the incident in a passage that includes a horse eating flowers as an image of flux and natural destruction.

I can see the literary value of the lost child.  Basho is showing us that aesthetic appreciation is not just for a namby-pamby intellectual waltzing along on a walk to look at the nice views.  We are in no doubts that he suffers on his walks, and he tells us what few possessions he has.  He has an extraordinary sensitivity to the linking of images in his poetry, so there is no question that he wanted this brutal harshness to be a part of his poetic world.  He wanted me to feel revulsion at him walking away from that child and wanted me to be horrified by the way he turns the reflection into an aesthetic meditation.

This is not the only time that he shows this harshness.  In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, there is a parallel story that seems to share a similar function.  He stops in Ichiburi where he is kept awake at night by the conversation of two prostitutes:

I sympathised with them, for as they said themselves among their whispers, their life was such that they had to drift along even as the white froth of waters that beat on the shore, and having been forced to find a new companion each night, they had to renew their pledge of love at every turn, thus proving each time the fatal sinfulness of their nature.

Seeing prostitutes as suffering from “fatal sinfulness” does not make Basho particularly appealing to a modern audience, but I am prepared to accept that there are different mores in different times.  After all, that other great arse, Pablo Picasso, also had a thing about prostitutes and he is still a great painter. Basho sympathises with them so he can’t be all bad.  He feels for them because the elderly companion they are with has to leave them unprotected on the road to return to Niigata with messages for relatives and friends.  It does not take long to find out, however, that his sympathy is not deep:

‘We are forlorn travellers, complete strangers on this road.  Will you be kind enough at least to let us follow you?  If you are a priest as your black robe tells us, have mercy on us and help us to learn the great love of our Saviour.’  ‘I am greatly touched by your words,’ I said in reply after a moment’s thought, ‘but we have so many places to stop at on the way that we cannot help you.  Go as other travellers go.  If you have trust in the Saviour, you will never lack His divine protection.’  As I stepped away from them, however, my heart was filled with persisting pity.

Basho recites a poem to his disciple, Sora, who immediately writes it down in his notebook:

Under the same roofjp_bclover
We all slept together
Concubines and I-
Bush-clovers and the moon.

The “persisting pity” of the poet was not strong enough for him to accompany the “forlorn travellers”.  In the poem he turns the event into an image.  Bush clovers (Kummerowia sgtriata) are from a genus of flowering plants in the pea-family.  They have pinkish-purple and white flowers that appear from mid-summer to autumn, so they are a fitting flower to represent these two prostitutes with Basho himself as the cold and distant moon.

In the following section he arrives in Kanazawa on July 15 and learns that the poet Issho (1653-88) died the previous winter.  This is his response:

Move, if you can hear,
Silent mound of my friend,
My wails and the answering
Roar of autumn wind.

There is a dramatic contrast between this emotion and his cool response to the two prostitutes.  In both poems he makes himself into a natural force: the moon, the wind.

The structure of the two incidents where Basho behaves like an arse are similar.  He responds to two situations that seem to demand human sympathy and warmth with pity and superior distance.  Furthermore, as he describes the second scene, he appears to have the earlier one in mind.  Just before he meets the prostitutes he is “crossing many dangerous places by the sea with such horrible names as Children-desert-parents or Parents-desert-children, Dog-denying or Horse-repelling.”

The freshness of Basho’s writing deceives me into thinking that it is not artificial, but as I pick away at the images I start to feel that his view is as natural as a bonzai tree.   There is a cool control of emotion and meaning in the structuring of events, images, feelings and the smallest touches of words.   The prostitutes are not the only ones to mistake him for a priest: there is something priest-like in his demeanour.  He presents himself as a living link with the past.  He weeps bitterly at the ruined house of Yasuhira, meditating:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.

Bush-clovers reappear in Sora’s farewell poem to Basho when he leaves because of an incurable pain in his stomach:  “I will fall to be buried among flowering bush-clovers.”  Towards the end of the book “the closing of autumn on the sea before me” is marked with “scattered petals of bush-clovers rolling with the waves.”


As you reread the book the structure of the images and the incidents makes a different kind of musical sense: the images are at once clear and precise in describing what they are, and yet stand for something else as well.  The bush-clovers, the prostitutes, the Rose of Sharon, the child, provide those deep notes in the aesthetic of Basho’s writing.


Is Basho an arse?   It is a troubling question.  I suggest that if you are not horrified by his behaviour you are not reading with your guts; if you do not think he is an arse, he hasn’t touched you.  However, to follow Basho beyond that moral judgement is to follow the path of the moon itself.  There is a troubling beauty to the poetry and the deep paradox is that, without the touch of cruelty, it might just be pretty.


It will take me another post to consider why Novoneyra left the angst out of Os Eidos.  I will dig through his images in search of saudade  the deep throb that makes the undertone of so much Galician poetry.  It leads on from the hard heart of Basho.  Follow and you will see.

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