Now that the leaves are falling, and the hills are splashed with color, I’m reminded of an autumnal poem by the twelfth-century Japanese poet Saigyo:
INSECTS ON AN EVENING ROAD
On the road with not a soul
to keep me company,
as evening falls
katydids lift their voices
and cheer me along
hito naki michi no
koe nite okuru
In these lines the poet Saigyo, who was once a samurai and became a wandering monk, portrays himself as a solitary traveler. He takes comfort in the song of the kutsuwamushi, or giant cricket, which is known in Japan as the “bridle-bit insect” because its clacking sound resembles that of a bridle-bit in a horse’s mouth. Heard from a distance, the song of the kutsuwamushi makes pleasant company.
Saigyo was not the first Japanese poet to relish the sound of singing insects. As the Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn observes in his essay “Insect-Musicians” (1898), night-singing insects occupy a place of honor in Japanese poetry, ancient and modern, where they are often associated with autumnal melancholy. “With its color-changes,” writes Hearn, “its leaf-whirlings, and the ghostly plaint of its insect-voices, autumn Buddhistically symbolizes impermanency, the certainty of bereavement, the pain that clings to desire, and the sadness of isolation.” Like his forebears in the Japanese poetic tradition, Saigyo finds solace in the song of the kutsuwamushi, which assuages his loneliness and draws him closer to the natural world.
Something similar occurs in “Song,” a poem by the Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (b. 1939):
A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.
There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
In the first stanza of this poem, Heaney contemplates two trees with resonances in Irish legend. In Celtic mythology the European rowan, whose leaves and berries turn red in autumn, is known as the Traveler’s Tree. It is said to offer protection to the traveler. It is also associated with druidic culture, being the wood of choice for magician’s staves, divining rods, and magic wands. Encountering the rowan, Heaney also encounters the alder, from whose wood the ancient Celts made ritual pipes and whistles. In Irish folklore, the trunk of the alder is thought to conceal doors to the supernatural. In some Irish legends, the first man came from the alder, the first woman from the rowan.
As Heaney dwells in this place of origins, contemplating the intersection of human, natural, and supernatural worlds, his attention turns to language and music. In the phrase “the mud-flowers of dialect,” he suggests an organic connection between human speech and the local terrain, the flowers of human dialect and the mud from which they’ve sprung. Likewise, in “the immortelles of perfect pitch,” he evokes an intimate connection between the sounds of the natural world and human musicians with absolute pitch, who can reproduce those sounds without external prompts. And in his closing line, he recalls the legend of Finn Mac Cool, who challenged the warriors of the Fianna—accomplished poets, all—to name the finest music in the world. The music of the lark over Dingle Bay, suggested one. The laughter of a young woman, suggested another. The bellowing of a stag, suggested a third. No, replied Finn Mac Cool. The finest music is “the music of what happens.” The function of the songbird—and perhaps of the poet—is to “sing very close” to the reality of that music. Or, as Heaney has said elsewhere, to “stay close to the energies of generation.”
“Nature,” writes the American essayist Edward Hoagland, “seems to me infused with joy. Even the glistering snow is evidence, though burdensome by March, and October’s dying leaves, parched by an internal trigger before the first frosts, turn gratuitously orange, red, and yellow, as beautiful as any plumage.“ To close the gap between the mind and the energies of generation, the alienated self and the joyous natural world, is an aim of the contemplative writer and the Zen practitioner alike. And it is also a general human desire, especially in our time, when so many people live lives remote from the rhythms of the natural world. Not everyone can express that desire in exquisite verse. But any one of us can restore the unity of self and nature. We have only to step outside, collect our minds, and listen to the music of what happens.
(1) Saigyo, Poems of a Mountain Home, tr. by Burton Watson (Columbia, 1991), 79.
(2) Lafcadio Hearn, Exotics and Retrospectives, in Lafcadio Hearn, Elizabeth Bisland, The Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (Macmillan, 1922), 62.
(3) Seamus Heaney, Field Work (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976), 56. To listen to Seamus Heaney read “Song,” go to http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/heaney/song.php. For a discussion of the poem in relation to print and electronic media, go to http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/aandc/gutenbrg/exchange.htm.
(4) Edward Hoagland, “Small Silences,” Sex and the River Styx (Chelsea Green, 2011), 29.
Photo by Jonathan Billinger