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Posts Tagged ‘contemporary American poetry’

W.S. Merwin
1927-2019

Every morning, shortly after rising, I brew a pot of Japanese green tea. For this purpose I use one of my Japanese-made kyusus: small ceramic teapots with hollow side handles and interior mesh filters. The latter feature allows tea leaves to float freely while brewing, enhancing the flavor of the tea.

On most mornings I drink one of three types of Japanese green tea. Gyokuro, whose name means “jeweled dew,” is grown in the shade, is brewed for two minutes at a relatively low temperature (140-158F), and has a sweet and markedly mellow flavor. Sencha, a standard “daily” tea in its country of origin, is more bracing and astringent. Fukamushi, a variety of steamed tea, contains finer particles, is brewed for only 40-50 seconds at around 165F, and has (in my experience) the greatest depth of flavor. All of these teas come directly from a family-owned farm in Uji, near Kyoto, a region famous for producing superlative teas. And like green teas generally, all are at once stimulating and relaxing. In the winter months, while slowly sipping tea, I look out on our dark or moonlit yard. In the summer, when the sun is either up or coming up, I often see deer, or a skunk rooting for grubs, or, more rarely, a grey fox. The birds arrive a bit later.

The celebrated American poet W.S. Merwin, a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania and the 17th U.S. Poet Laureate, lived during the last decade of his life on the north coast of Maui, Hawaii. A longtime Zen practitioner and an able translator of Asian poetry, he too enjoyed green tea in the early morning. And in one of his last poems, he documents and explores that experience:

DRINKING TEA IN THE SMALL HOURS

            An unlabelled green from Korea

            second pick from the foothills of summer

            taste of distance and slight rustling of leaves

            on old trees with names hard to remember

            as I listen after heavy rain in the night

            the taste is a hush from far away

            at the very moment when I sip it

            trying to make it last in the knowledge

            that I will forget it in the next breath

            that it will be lost when I hear the cock crow

            any time now across the dark valley

In the story being told in these lines, elements of the past, present, and future intermingle. At the center of the experience is the taste of the tea. This present impression is accompanied, however, by a recollection of a recent event (“heavy rain in the night”), acknowledgment of the narrator’s imperfect memory (“names hard to remember”), and images of an envisioned future, in which the cock will crow, and the taste of the tea he is presently savoring will be lost and forgotten. In this respect, the poem is a kind of elegy in advance of an expected loss.

In similar fashion, evocatively rendered elements of the poet’s present locale—what is sometimes called “local color”—are interwoven with references to an imagined elsewhere. The tea is a “green from Korea” and bears the “taste of distance.” But that taste mingles with a present impression, namely the “slight rustling of leaves” on nearby trees. The taste is a “hush from far away,” but it is also vividly present on his palate. And though the cock’s crow will come from “across the dark valley,” it is soon to be heard in the here and now.

By attentively recording this present experience, in which memories, images from the future, and present impressions become threads in a single fabric, Merwin celebrates an extended moment of awareness. Beyond that, he transforms what might otherwise be regarded as an ordinary occurrence—an elderly man sipping his morning tea—into a form of sacrament. In Japan, the drinking of green tea has long been closely associated with Zen meditation and the Japanese tea ceremony. And in the consciousness fostered by Zen practice, the smallest actions performed in everyday life, be it the arranging of flowers in a vase or the hanging of a scroll, become profoundly ceremonial. However common it may seem, the experience Merwin recreates has the tone, if not the elaborate protocol, of a ritual occasion.

Drinking green tea in the small hours is, for many of us, a pleasant, gradual way of awakening the mind and body. But, as Merwin’s poem well illustrates, it can also become an act of contemplation, in which the present moment is seen to embody other times and other places. The taste of distance and the hush from far away coexist with our immediate surroundings. Grounding us firmly in those surroundings, drinking green tea with full awareness also discloses our commonality with a distant land and a foreign culture. Near and far become parts of a unified whole.

___________

W.S. Merwin, “Drinking Tea in the Small Hours,” Garden Time (Copper Canyon, 2016).

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