Thursday, December 31, 2015


The other day, as I sat idly musing, it occurred to me that the number of New Years that I have greeted thus far in my life now greatly exceeds the number of New Years that I am likely to greet from here on out.  Yes, I know:  Lovely thought, that!  But this is the sort of thing that happens when one idly muses.

We duly note observations such as these and then continue on.  "Death is no different whined at than withstood."  (Philip Larkin, "Aubade.")  Or something along those lines.

I am reminded of a haiku that I try to revisit each year around this time (and which appeared here a year ago).

     I intended
Never to grow old, --
     But the temple bell sounds.

Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 202.

Blyth suggests that Jokun is referring to the Japanese tradition in which, commencing at midnight on New Year's Day, the bells in Buddhist temples are sounded 108 times:  once for each of the unhealthy desires that we should strive to rid ourselves of.  This makes perfect sense.  Despite "implacable fate, and panic at night, and the strumble/Of the hungry river of death," there is always room for improvement while time -- ever tolling, of course -- remains.

We have no choice in the matter, do we?  Hence, no whining is allowed. But we ought to remain mindful.

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Stromness Harbour"

The particulars of day-to-day life in the Orkney Islands provide the basis for the poems and prose of George Mackay Brown.  But there is nothing parochial about the Orcadian world of which he writes.  It stretches from the present back to the arrival of the Vikings, and then disappears into a mysterious (apparently Celtic) pre-history.

It is a time-bound, yet timeless, world.  Although most of us have never been there, it is our World.

                         Gray's Pier

I lay on Gray's pier, a boy
And I caught a score of sillocks one morning

I laboured there, all one summer
And we built the Swan

A June day I brought to my door
Jessie-Ann, she in white

I sang the Barleycorn ballad
Between a Hogmanay star and New Year snow

The Swan haddock-heavy from the west --
Women, cats, gulls!

I saw from the sea window
The March fires on Orphir

I followed, me in black
Jessie-Ann to the kirkyard

I smoke my pipe on Gray's pier now
And listen to the Atlantic

George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark (John Murray 1996).

Gray's Pier is located in Stromness on Mainland, in the Orkney Islands. "Sillocks" are young coalfish.  "Hogmanay" is the Scots word for New Year's Eve.  Orphir is a parish on Mainland.

Donald Morrison, "Stromness Pier" (1993)

The following poem provides the other half of the Orcadian world. (Although the phrase "the other half" is perhaps too reductive and too simplistic:  the "halves" are interwoven and inseparable.  Earth and stone and sea and sky.)


Come soon.  Break from the pure ring of silence,
A swaddled wail

You venture
With jotter and book and pencil to school

An ox man, you turn
Black pages on the hill

Make your vow
To the long white sweetness under blessing and bell

A full harvest,
Utterings of gold at the mill

Old yarns, old malt, near the hearthstone,
A breaking of ice at the well

Be silent, story, soon.
You did not take long to tell

George Mackay Brown, Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

In another poem, Brown writes of "Crossings of net and ploughshare,/Fishbone and crust."  ("Black Furrow, Gray Furrow," in Fishermen with Ploughs: A Poem Cycle (Hogarth Press 1971).)

Ian MacInnes, "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

Truth and beauty reside in the particulars of everyday life.  "Gray's Pier" and "Countryman" are emblematic of the wondrous way in which George Mackay Brown gives us his Orkney world exactly as it is, in its lovely (and sometimes harsh) particulars, while transforming it into the World in which we all live.  And die.

"A mystery abides.  We move from silence into silence, and there is a brief stir between, every person's attempt to make a meaning of life and time. Death is certain; it may be that the dust of good men and women lies more richly in the earth than that of the unjust;  between the silences they may be touched, however briefly, with the music of the spheres."

George Mackay Brown, For the Islands I Sing: An Autobiography (John Murray 1997), page 181.


Suddenly a stone chirped
Bella's goodness,
The numbers
Of Bella's beginning and end.
It sang like a harp, the stone!

James-William of Ness
Put a shilling
In the dusty palm of the carver,
Fifty years since.

Wind, snow, sun grainings.

The stone's a whisper now.
The stone will be silence.

George Mackay Brown, from the sequence "Seal Island Anthology, 1875," Voyages.

Stanley Cursiter, "Orkney Landscape" (1952)

Friday, December 25, 2015


Some people complain about the "commercialization" of Christmas.  Others complain that the season has been appropriated by the tackiest tendencies of "popular culture."  These complainers take themselves, and the World, far too seriously.

This is not surprising, for we live in the Age of Mewling.  A great number of people are aggrieved or offended by . . . well, nearly everything.  "Trigger warnings" and all that.  What a sad way to live.

The World is what it is.  On a daily basis, we have to pick and choose. Gratitude, not complaint, ought to be the basis for making our choices.

And there is always a larger context.

          Christmas Poem

We are folded all
In a green fable
And we fare
From early
Plough-and-daffodil sun
Through a revel
Of wind-tossed oats and barley
Past sickle and flail
To harvest home,
The circles of bread and ale
At the long table.
It is told, the story --
We and earth and sun and corn are one.

Now kings and shepherds have come.
A wintered hovel
Hides a glory
Whiter than snowflake or silver or star.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Ben Nicholson, "1930 (Christmas Night)" (1930)

Nothing about Christmas offends me.  In fact, most everything about the season delights me.  I'm happy to hear Bing Crosby sing "White Christmas" for the ten-thousandth time.  Likewise Perry Como and "Home for the Holidays" and Andy Williams and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

I love the fact that people string lights on their houses. What could be more wonderful than walking at night through a neighborhood that is full of colorful lights?  It makes me feel that all is right with the World -- like the sound of lawn mowers in the distance on a sunny Spring afternoon.  There is a great deal of truth and beauty in these simple human impulses.  Why not festively light up the night at the darkest time of the year?

                      Blind Noel

Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal a pattern.

Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out.  In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.

R. S. Thomas, No Truce with the Furies (Bloodaxe Books 1995).

Harold Bush, "The Christmas Tree" (1933)

Yes, there is always a larger context.  "We are folded all in a green fable." There is absolutely nothing to complain about.

          Maeshowe:  Midwinter

Equinox to Hallowmas, darkness
     falls like the leaves.  The
     tree of the sun is stark.

On the loom of winter, shadows
     gather in a web; then the
     shuttle of St Lucy makes a
     pause; a dark weave
     fills the loom.

The blackness is solid as a
     stone that locks a tomb.
     No star shines there.

Then begins the true ceremony of
     the sun, when the one
     last fleeting solstice flame
     is caught up by a
     midnight candle.

Children sing under a street
     lamp, their voices like
     leaves of light.

George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark (John Murray 1996).

Maeshowe  (also known as "Maes Howe") is a chambered tomb located on the island of Mainland in the Orkney Islands.  It was constructed in 2800 B. C. (or thereabouts).  In the twelfth century, it was broken into by Vikings, who left behind runic inscriptions.

The entrance passage to the structure is aligned so that, at the time near and after the winter solstice, the rays of the setting sun shine against the rear wall of the tomb.  Yuletide.

"A merry Christmas, friend!"

Robin Tanner, "Christmas" (1929)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


As a child growing up in this country, one of the first birds that one is likely to encounter is the robin.  Perhaps this is why I retain a particular fondness for them.  Call me sentimental, but I think of the successive generations of robins I have shared the World with as lifelong companions:  wordless, but not unspoken.

As we enter another winter together, I worry about them.  How will they fare in the cold and the wind and the gloom?  But there they are in the garden, flitting about in the trees and bushes, hopping along the paths, going about the business of being robins.

                 A Robin

Ghost-grey the fall of night,
        Ice-bound the lane,
Lone in the dying light
        Flits he again;
Lurking where shadows steal,
Perched in his coat of blood,
Man's homestead at his heel,
        Death-still the wood.

Odd restless child; it's dark;
        All wings are flown
But this one wizard's -- hark!
        Stone clapped on stone!
Changeling and solitary,
Secret and sharp and small,
Flits he from tree to tree,
        Calling on all.

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (1933).

Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)

De la Mare was writing in England, so his robin is a European robin, not an American robin -- a flycatcher, not a thrush.  But I like to think that the two share certain affinities:  a charming stolidity, staying power, and a cheerful stoicism.

And they both have their songs and notes.  Different songs and notes, of course, but perhaps the underlying message is the same.  "Synonyms for joy."

                 The Robin

Poor bird!  I do not envy thee;
Pleas'd in the gentle melody
     Of thy own song.
Let crabbed winter silence all
The winged choir; he never shall
     Chain up thy tongue:
          Poor innocent!
When I would please my self, I look on thee;
And guess some sparks of that felicity,
          That self-content.

When the bleak face of winter spreads
The earth, and violates the meads
     Of all their pride;
When sapless trees and flowers are fled,
Back to their causes, and lie dead
     To all beside:
          I see thee set,
Bidding defiance to the bitter air,
Upon a wither'd spray; by cold made bare,
          And drooping yet.

There, full in notes, to ravish all
My earth, I wonder what to call
     My dullness; when
I hear thee, pretty creature, bring
Thy better odes of praise, and sing,
     To puzzle men:
          Poor pious elf!
I am instructed by thy harmony,
To sing the time's uncertainty,
          Safe in my self.

Poor Redbreast, carol out thy lay,
And teach us mortals what to say.
     Here cease the choir
Of ayerie choristers; no more
Mingle your notes; but catch a store
     From her sweet lyre;
          You are but weak,
Mere summer chanters; you have neither wing
Nor voice, in winter.  Pretty Redbreast, sing,
          What I would speak.

George Daniel (1616-1657), "Ode XXIII," in Alexander Grosart (editor), The Poems of George Daniel, Volume II (1878) (spelling modernized).

"That self-content."  Call me an anthropomorphizer, a practitioner of the Pathetic Fallacy, but "self-content" is one of the traits that I admire in the robin.  "A robin with no Christian name ran through/The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew."  "All it knew"?  Yes, perhaps.  But:  "I am instructed by thy harmony . . . teach us mortals what to say."

Beryl Sinclair, "Winter, Regent's Park" (1941)

When I was young, we were taught to look for "the first robin of spring." But it has always seemed to me that quite a few of them stick around through the winter.  Their red-orange breasts are a welcome sight amidst the dark days, and add to the gaiety should snow arrive.  (Although I suppose that a snowfall is not necessarily a cause for celebration in the Robin-World!)  Thus, I think of robins not just as harbingers of spring, but as year-long reminders of the constancy and continuity of the World that surrounds us, a World that calls for our attention in even its humblest manifestations.


Clouded with snow
     The bleak winds blow,
And shrill on leafless bough
The robin with its burning breast
     Alone sings now.

     The rayless sun,
     Day's journey done,
Sheds its last ebbing light
On fields in leagues of beauty spread
     Unearthly white.

     Thick draws the dark,
     And spark by spark,
The frost-fires kindle, and soon
Over that sea of frozen foam
     Floats the white moon.

Walter de la Mare, The Listeners and Other Poems (1912).

Frederick Mitchell, "Greig Close in Winter" (1955)

Poets rhapsodize about nightingales and skylarks.  There are those among us who search the woods for cardinals, orioles, bluebirds, and others of bright plumage.  But the commonplace, quotidian robin deserves its own paean.  Please note that I do not use "commonplace" or "quotidian" in a pejorative sense.  After all, both words apply to each and every one of us, although we may like to believe otherwise.

We need to often remind ourselves of this:


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

As I have noted here on more than one occasion, we are all in this together. We each have our offices to perform.  Who among us is the humblest?  Who among us is of importance?  Who knows?  None of us is in a position to render judgment.

                    To Robin Redbreast

Laid out for dead, let thy last kindness be
With leaves and moss-work for to cover me:
And while the wood-nymphs my cold corpse inter,
Sing thou my dirge, sweet-warbling chorister!
For epitaph, in foliage, next write this:
Here, here the tomb of Robin Herrick is.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

"Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,/Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush."  Not a bad way to spend eternity, communing with robins and thrushes.

John Aldridge, "Winter" (1947)

Monday, December 7, 2015


I suspect that, by most people's standards, the speed at which I read poetry is slow and slothful.  As I have mentioned here in the past, I intentionally limit myself to one or two poems a day.  If a poem is lengthy, it may take me several days to finish it.  Thus, for instance, reading Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" will take me at least a week -- at 32 stanzas, four stanzas or so a day seems about right to me.

I am not stating this as a matter of pride, nor am I asking for plaudits.  This is simply the way it goes for me.  I need to mull things over.  I need to listen closely.  I need to let a poem sit.  I feel that I owe it to the poet and the poem to give them time and extended attention.

For the same reason, I return again and again to the old chestnuts.  I never tire of them.  Hence, the past few weeks I have been spending time with two of my favorite anthologies: The New Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Helen Gardner, and The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks.  The current century is of no interest to me.  I prefer to visit dear friends from long ago.

               The Coming of Good Luck

So good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow; or as the dew of night:
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are, by the sun-beams, tickled by degrees.

Robert Herrick, in Christopher Ricks (editor), The Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford University Press 1999).

David Macbeth Sutherland (1883-1973), "Drambuie, Wester Ross"

In browsing through the two anthologies, it was nice to be reminded how little poetry has to do with current events.  Of course, there are exceptions: "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" (Charles Wolfe), "England in 1819" (Shelley, as self-regarding, disingenuous, and mendacious as ever), "The Convergence of the Twain" (Hardy), "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (Hopkins), for instance.  But these are few and far between. The general themes are, as one would expect, Love, Death, the Game of Life, the Beauty of the World.

This makes perfect sense.  Who wants poets to write about the passing happenstance of The News of the World?  Think of all the wasted emotion and energy some people devote to cultivating, and propounding, what they perceive to be the "correct" political, economic, and social views about what is "wrong" with the World, and how it ought to be fixed.  Think of all the utopian chimeras that these same people (left, right, and Martian) preoccupy themselves with on a daily basis.  They will never be happy.  For them, something will always be wrong with the World, something will always need to be fixed.  And they (totalitarians at heart) have appointed themselves to be the fixers.  Good luck with that.

I, on the other hand, believe that the World is perfect just as it is.  Are human beings perfect?  No.  Am I perfect?  Certainly not.  But the misery we create for each other is never going to disappear as the result of somebody concocting a grand theory about How We Should Live.  We are best advised to tend to our own soul, while being mindful, and careful, of the souls around us.  This is the true subject matter of poetry.

                    Magna est Veritas

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world's course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

Coventry Patmore, in Helen Gardner (editor), The New Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford University Press 1972).

David Macbeth Sutherland, "The Breakwater, Stonehaven Harbour" (1950)

I am simple-minded.  I need to be reminded of certain things over and over again.  Although I do not believe that it is the function of poetry to set out to instruct or edify, I do believe that a good poem can embody human truth -- the truth of what it means to make one's way through the World as a unique soul, touching, and touched by, others.

                            An Epilogue

I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces,
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust, too.

John Masefield, in Christopher Ricks (editor), The Oxford Book of English Verse.

This is the sort of poem that I love to return to often.  Eventually, its truth gets through my thick skull, at least temporarily.  There are scores like this. Fortunately, the beauty of the poems is always there, regardless of my obtuseness.  Thus, returning to them is an everlasting delight.

David Macbeth Sutherland, "Evening in Skye, Loch Carron, Highlands"

Gratitude in the midst of evanescence.  This is poetry's ultimate message to us.

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam 

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
          Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
          We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, in Helen Gardner (editor), The New Oxford Book of English Verse.  The title of the poem comes from Horace's Odes, Book I, Ode 4, line 15, and may be translated as:  "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope."  Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (University of Birmingham Press 2003), page 225.

Poetry shakes us by the shoulders, gently, and whispers in our ear:  Pay attention.  Live.

David Macbeth Sutherland, "Plockton from Duncraig" (1967)