Thursday, July 28, 2011

Climbing Mount Kagu

Among the 4,500 poems which make up the Manyōshū ('Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves'), there is one attributed to the Emperor Jomei (593-641), called 'Climbing Mount Kagu'.  It describes the view from the mountain down towards the land of Yamato: 'Over the wide plain the smoke-wreaths rise and rise, Over the wide lake the gulls are on the wing...'  This translation, like others I have seen, omits the poem's descriptive epithet for Yamato, 'island of the dragonfly'.  The phrase refers to the way a dragonfly's tail touches its mouth to form a ring, like the circle of mountains round the plain of Yamato.  It is an example of a pillow-word (makura kotoba), which Geoffrey Bownas calls in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964) 'a qualifier describing, by tradition, certain nouns or concepts.'  Among other examples connected with actual places are 'rock running' for Ômi' (from the image of water gushing over rocks) and 'spring mist' used to modify Kasuga. Pillow-words are often likened to the Homeric stock epithet, although most of those describe people (ox-eyed Hera, swift-footed Achilles, laughter-loving Aphrodite) rather than places (Mycenae rich in gold).  According to Bownas the comparison fails to do full justice to the essence and purpose of pillow-words, whose 'alliterative or assonantal ring' ensure that the reader pauses on the word being qualified.  'Further, since many of the head-words are place names, it is argued that part of the purpose of the pillow-word in its early use in primitive society was to act as a talisman for the good fortune of the place in question.' He goes on to provide his own example poem in the form of a donnish joke about Oxford's 'Heaven-preserve-it Western By-Pass'.

 Pillow shot from Tokyo Story (

The phrase 'pillow shot' has come to be used to describe the short transitional images of landscapes, interiors and objects that are such a distinctive feature of Yasujiro Ozu's cinema.  There are many examples on the excellent Ozu-San website and a montage on Youtube (embedded below).  The first scene of my favourite Ozu film, Tokyo Story (1953), shows an old couple, the Hirayamas, packing for their trip to Tokyo.  The second takes place in the house belonging to their son, a doctor in the capital.  We do not see the journey itself - instead the scenes are intercut with three pillow shots showing smokestacks (see above), a railway crossing and the sign outside their son's office.  These are more than just establishing shots - as David Desser writes in his handbook to the film, 'careful examination of the exterior shots in the rest of the film reveals that the smokestacks and train station are, in fact spaces "connected" to Dr. Hirayama's, but nothing so indicates that at the start.'  This connection resembles the way that particular words in early Japanese poetry were given associative pillow-words.    

The ear/OAR label specialise in avant garde sounds and environmental recordings; landscape-related examples include Kiyoshi Mizutani's Scenery Of The Border, Francisco López's Trilogy of the Americas and the Phonography series.  In 2007 they released a compilation of music inspired by Ozu's pillow-shots.  A review in The Wire concluded that 'despite the range of idioms on display, from delicate electroacoustic tapestries (Bernhard Gunter) and meditative drones (Keith Berry) to bucolic field recordings (Kiyoshi Mizutani) and frequent uses of silence (almost all), each perfectly serves their respective image. Highlights include Steve Roden's beautiful pairing of chiming guitar and hushed percussive patterns; label owner Dale Lloyd's gently shifting gamelan shapes; and Taku Sugimoto's 'Tengu In Linguistics', where he drops six strident piano notes into a reductive vacuum, reflecting another of Ozu's themes, the eschewal of action in favour of the contemplation of the surrounding space.'  Yasujiro Ozu - Hitokomakura followed an earlier compilation dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky.  The sequence was completed last year with a tribute to Michelangelo Antonioni.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Face to face with sheer mountains of water

The main reason the last three posts have featured both James Wright and German literature is that I've been reading Wright's translations of Theodor Storm in The Rider on the White Horse, originally published in 1964.  Wright's involvement in translating poetry from Spanish and German influenced a transformation in style around the time of The Branch Will Not Break (1963), in which he abandoned traditional poetic forms for a free verse that has been described as 'pastoral surrealism, built around strong images and a simple spoken rhetoric.'  The second poem in that book actually begins with these lines of Theodor Storm: 'Dark cypresses- / The world is uneasily happy: / It will all be forgotten.'   In The Rider on the White Horse it is wonderful to have nearly three hundred pages of German literature translated by such a good poet.  It reminds me that another short novel that I've mentioned here, Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal, was translated in 1945 by Marianne Moore (with Elizabeth Mayer).  And Elizabeth Mayer also collaborated with Louise Bogan on books by Goethe and Jünger, and translated Goethe's Italian Journey with W.H. Auden. (That journey came up earlier this week in the comments to my post on landscape seen through windows, when Mike C referred to Tischbein's sketch of Goethe leaning out of a window in Rome).

The Rider on the White Horse contains eight stories, many of which share a similar theme of thwarted love recollected in old age, and also a common setting: the North Friesland coast.  'Aquis Submersis', for example, starts with a description of heathland with its sweet clouds of erica and resinous bushes, a village with one single tall poplar and, out to the west, the 'luminous green of the marshes and, beyond them, the silver flood of the sea'.  Maps and photographs of this distinctive landscape can be found on the Theodor Storm website. 'The Rider on the White Horse' (Der Schimmelreiter) is based on the legend of a horse and rider that appears when storms threaten the dikes.  The New York Review Books site, calls it 'a story of devotion and disappointment, of pettiness and superstition, of spiritual pride and ultimate desolation, and of the beauty and indifference of the natural world.'  It tells the life of Hauke Haien, dikemaster and rider of the white horse, who oversees the construction of a new dike only to see it threatened by the sea in a great storm.  He rides out to stand 'face to face with sheer mountains of water that reared against the night sky, clambered up over one another's shoulders in the terrible twilight, and rushed, one white-crowned avalanche after another, against the shore ... The white horse pawed the ground and snorted into the storm, but the rider felt that here, at last, human strength had reached its limit.  Now it was time for night to fall, and chaos, and death.'

The influence of landscape and weather is not confined to the end of this story - there is, for example, a winter festival (Eisboseln) on the frozen marshes, where Hauke wins acclaim for his victory in a game requiring a ball to be thrown across the fields towards a distant goal.  But the main reason this is such an interesting combination of landscape and literature is that the story itself is about the reimagining and reshaping of the environment.  It is a theme that can be written in practical or mythic terms, as is evident in Theodor Storm's blend of realism and Romanticism.  There are echoes of Goethe's Faust, who towards the end of the play, is rewarded by the Emperor with permission to reclaim land from the sea, only to find his progress impeded by an old couple holding out against the development (a story we still see repeated, as in Donald Trump's construction of a golf course near Aberdeen).  Storm describes the boy Hauke bringing some clay home with him, to sit by his father 'and there, by the light of a narrow tallow candle, he would model little dikes of all sizes and shapes; and then he would set them in a pan of water and try to re-create the beating of the waves against the shore.  Or he would take out his writing slate and sketch the profile of the dike - the side facing the sea - as he felt it ought to look.'  Then, years later, as the dikemaster he is able to contemplate his grand project:  'the tide was low and the golden sunlight of September gleamed on the naked strip of mud, a hundred feet or so across, and into the deep watercourse through which, even now, the sea was pouring.  "It could be dammed up," Hauke murmured...'

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Rome must be like the clouds

A reference to one of Joseph von Eichendorff's poems in that last post reminds me that I've not previously mentioned here one of my favourite Romantic Novellen, his 'Life of a Good-for-Nothing' (1826).  Its guileless hero makes his way to Italy... 'Eventually, when I had covered quite a distance, I gathered that I was only a few miles from Rome. This filled me with joy, for when I was a child at home I had heard many wonderful stories of the splendour of this city. As I lay on the grass outside the mill on Sunday afternoons and everything around was so quiet, I used to think that Rome must be like the clouds moving above me, with wonderful mountains and ravines going down to the blue sea, and golden gates, and tall gleaming towers on which the golden-robed angels were singing. Night had fallen long since, and the moon was shining brightly when I finally came out of the wood onto a hilltop and suddenly saw the city in the distance. The sea was glimmering far off, the immeasurable heavens were twinkling and sparkling with their countless stars, and below them lay the Holy City, of which only a long strip of mist was visible, like a sleeping lion on the quiet earth, while the hills stood round like dark giants watching over it.' (trans. F.G. Nichols)

He walks on over 'a wide, lonely heath' and on to the city where 'the tall palaces and gates and the golden cupolas gleamed in the bright moonlight.'  We have entered a Rome of the northern imagination here, with the same appeal as that dream image of 'Amerika' in Kafka's novel (which I quoted from here in an earlier post). Eichendorff's hero goes 'past a few small houses and then through a magnificent gate into the renowned city of Rome. The moon shone between the palaces and down into the streets as though it were broad daylight, but the streets were all deserted except for the occasional ragged fellow lying in a marble doorway in the warm night and sleeping like the dead. The fountains were plashing in the silent squares, and the gardens along the street were rustling and filling the air with refreshing scents.'  In Rome he encounters a painter and visits his studio in the attic of an old house, where we are given one of those images of the Romantic artist at the window I described yesterday. 'The painter flung the window open, so that the fresh morning air swirled through the whole room. There was a marvellous outlook over the city and towards the mountains, with the early sun shining on the white villas and vineyards. "Here's to our cool green Germany beyond those mountains!" cried the painter, drinking from the bottle he then passed to me. I responded to him politely and in my heart I thought again and again of my beautiful distant home.'

Friday, July 15, 2011

From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower

One of the James Wright poems in The Branch Will Not Break that I didn't mention in my previous post is 'From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower'.  The view through a window provides a natural frame for a 'landscape poem', although if a fixed point of view is required that  hammock at William Duffy's farm would do just as well.  Looking out of the bus in central Ohio, James Wright saw 'cribs loaded with roughage huddle together / before the north clouds', poplars, silver maples leaves and an old farmer calling 'a hundred black-and-white Holsteins / from the clover field.'  It would be great to compile an anthology of 'window poetry' like this, and from my landscape perspective I would be tempted to group them according to what was being seen: storms, sunsets, industrial landscapes, rural scenes, or just some cropped fragment of a city or the slowly moving branches of a tree. A more interesting arrangement might reflect the nature of the frame itself: windows open and closed, windows in castles and palaces, in suburban houses, office buildings, hospital wards, school rooms, prison cells, or the windows of trains, aeroplanes, buses, still or in motion.  A third version of the anthology would order poems according to the nature of the viewer: their identity, their attitude and their mood, projected onto the landscape beyond the window.

In his classic 1955 essay, 'The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism' Lorenz Eitner describes a favourite theme in Romantic literature: 'the poet at the window surveys a distant landscape and is troubled by a desire to escape from his narrow existence into the world spread out before him'  The example he gives is Eichendorff's poem 'Longing' where the golden stars and sound of a distant post-horn make the poet's heart ache to travel out into the summer night.  'The window is like a threshold and at the same time a barrier.  Through it nature, the world, the active life beckon, but the artist remains imprisoned, not unpleasantly, in domestic snugness ... This juxtaposition of the very close and the far-away adds a peculiar tension to the sense of distance, more poignant than could be achieved in pure landscape.  "Eveything at a distance," wrote Novalis, "turns into poetry: distant mountains, distant people, distant events; all become romantic."'

Eitner's essay was an inspiration for the Met's recent exhibition Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.  According to the exhibition notes, 'Caspar David Friedrich's two sepia drawings of the river Elbe of 1805–6 (View from the Artist's Studio, Window on the Right and View from the Artist's Studio, Window on the Left) inaugurated the Romantic motif of the open window. Unlike the stark balance between the darkened interior and the pale landscape rendered in these views, the artists who followed Friedrich created gentler versions of the motif. Their windows open onto flat plains in Sweden, parks in German spas, or rooftops in Copenhagen. Artists' studios overlook houses in Dresden or Turin, bucolic Vienna suburbs, or Roman cityscapes saturated with light. In several sitting rooms offering urban views of Berlin, the interiors evoke stage sets to satisfy the artist's delightful mania [sic!] with perspective and reflections. ... Even a barren landscape, when framed in a window, can be transformed into an enthralling scene. Some artists recorded actual sites—Copenhagen's harbor, the river Elbe near Dresden, the Bay of Naples—while others invented, or even largely blocked, the views from their studios or painted them in the chill of moonlight.' 

Caspar David Friedrich, Woman at a Window, 1822

One of the paintings referred to by Lorenz Eitner was Friedrich's Woman at a Window, in which the artist's wife looks out at the world beyond the shutters.  This painting was in the first of the Met's the four exhibition rooms, dedicated to interiors with figures; the second room displayed images of artists' studios.  These suggest another category for an imaginary poetry anthology: domestic scenes in which the window view is just one element.  And when you think about it such interior spaces could feature in a whole companion anthology where the position of the observer is reversed, to be on the outside, looking in.  As Charles Baudelaire says in his prose poem 'Les Fenêtres', 'Ce qu'on peut voir au soleil est toujours moins intéressant que ce qui se passe derrière une vitre. Dans ce trou noir ou lumineux vit la vit, rêve la vie, souffre la vie. (What we can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what we can perceive taking place behind a pane of windowglass. In that pit, in that blackness or brightness, life is being lived, life is suffering, life is dreaming.... )'

Friday, July 08, 2011

At William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

One poem I've never managed to persuade my wife to like is James Wright's 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota'. Our point of contention is not the twelve lines describing what the poet sees from that hammock: a bronze butterfly asleep on a black trunk, a field of sunlight between two pines, a chicken hawk floating over, looking for home.  It is the concluding sentence, 'I have wasted my life.'  Now I don't really feel that this is true of myself, but that doesn't mean the thought doesn't occasionally occur, particularly when I'm alone in a landscape.  It is an inversion of Rilke's memorable final sentence in 'Archaic Torso of Apollo': 'you must change your life' (Rimbaud is another possible source).  James Wright said to David Smith, 'I think that the poem is a description of a mood and this kind of poem is the kind of poem that has been written for thousands of years by the Chinese poets ... It is not surrealistic. I said, at the end of that poem, "I have wasted my life" because it was what I happened to feel at that moment and as part of the mood I had while lying in the hammock. This poem made English critics angry. I have never understood what would have so infuriated them. They could say the poem was limp or that it did not have enough intellectual content. I can see that. But I hope that it did not pretend to. It just said, I am lying here in this hammock and this and that is happening.'

This poem appeared in Wright's 1963 collection The Branch Will Not Break, named after a line in 'Two Hangovers' in which he emerges from sleep to laugh at a blue jay springing up and down, up and down, on a branch in a pine tree.  In 'A Prayer to Escape from the Market Place' Wright says he wants to 'renounce the blindness of magazines' and 'lie down under a tree'.  In 'Today I Was Happy So I Made This Poem' he finds solace in the permanence of the moon.  'Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me' finds him closing his eyes to listen to the sound of a cricket in the maple trees. And in the anthology favourite 'A Blessing', the sight and feel of two horses in a field just off the highway make him realise 'that if I stepped out of my body I would break / into blossom.'  However, that branch can sometimes seem fragile and Wright also describes his darker moods in poems like 'I Was Afraid of Dying', 'In the Cold House' and 'A Dream of Burial'.  The book opens with Wright thinking of Po Chü-i, the great Chinese poet 'uneasily entering the gorges of the Yang-tze', and of the tall rocks of Minneapolis building 'my own black twilight.'  Where, he asks 'is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness of the Midwest?  Where is Minneapolis?  I can see nothing / But the great terrible oak tree darkening with winter.'

Friday, July 01, 2011

Great green reflections in the blue satin of the sea

John La Farge, Diadem Mountain at Sunset, Tahiti, c1891

There was an interesting article recently by Christopher Benfey in the New York Review about John La Farge, an American painter also known for his stained glass windows, in which historian Henry Adams detected “infinite shades and refractions of light".  In 1890 Adams and La Farge traveled in the South Pacific, first to Hawaii and then to Samoa (where they met Robert Louis Stevenson).  There 'the two friends became connoisseurs of the so-called “afterglow,” when sky and surf were irradiated by the setting sun. Under La Farge’s tutelage, Adams became “gently intoxicated on the soft violets and strong blues, the masses of purple and the broad bands of orange and green in the sunsets.” La Farge took notes on the pattern of the waves breaking across a coral reef, then made a superb watercolor based on his observations. The best description of such scenes, at once overwhelming and elusive, comes from his own account, in what the art historian John Stuart Gordon, writing in the catalog, aptly calls a “stained-glass window of words”:
There was all the charm that belongs to the near coasting of land in smooth waters: the rise and fall of the great green reflections in the blue satin of the sea inside of the reef; the sharp blue outside of the white line of reef all iridescent with the breaking of the surf; the patches of coral, white or yellow or purple, wavering below the crystal swell, so transparent as to recall the texture of uncut topaz or amethyst; the shoals of brilliant fish, blue and gold-green, as bright and flickering as tropical hummingbirds; the contrast of great shadows upon the mountain, black with an inkiness that I have never seen elsewhere; the fringes of golden or green palms upon the shores, sometimes inviting, sometimes dreary.'
The catalog referred to above was produced to accompany the exhibition John La Farge's Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891.  Yale Art Gallery has a very good site where you can look at John La Farge's South Sea sketch books - the first one, for example, covers Samoa and includes a quick sketch of a view out toward the sea.