Thursday, December 25, 2014

Weeds and Poetry, Part One

There are ways that weeds resemble poetry.  In Ronald Blythe's A Year at Bottengoms Farm, he describes a picnic for bluebell viewing and his delight in seeing "banks of alkanet, a plant of absolute blue, though despised - 'You can't get rid of it'!"

Exactly.  It's absolute blue and you can't get rid of it. 

Blythe is disappointed in this attitude and tries someone else: "'Look,' I said, turning to my fellow sandwich-eater. 'Alkanet.' 'You can't get rid of it,' she replied."

Alkanet is Arabic for henna, he notes, and wonders if that abtruse information would change her attitude.  Hardly, he says.  "There is no more severe sheep and goats ruling than that which defines the acceptable and the non-acceptable flower" (and one definition of a weed is a flower in a place where it isn't wanted).  He then makes a slightly self-mocking flourish of praise to Pentaglottis sempervirens to end his short essay.

Pentaglottis sempervirens, says Wikipedia, is known as green alkanet because it is evergreen but has brilliant blue flowers; it's a member of the borage family but the useful member, also called Alkanet is Alkanna tinctoria, the source of a red dye; this is the plant most commonly called simply "alkanet."

So perhaps that's another resemblance?  Looks to be useful but then isn't?

Anyway, this reminded me of Bashō's comments about poetry in his Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel.    He describes having "a wind-swept spirit, for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind."  If "having" is the word since he makes a distance between himself and it.

He talks about how poetry began innocently and casually as an amusement and then became an addiction which didn't give this spirit any rest: "ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always wavering between doubts of one kinds and another."  

It may seem he is blaming poetry for this but it isn't that.  It's more that poetry creates too much sweeping away.  

He talks about the spirit's need for security, perhaps by taking service at a court and the need to be established in another sense by becoming a scholar.  

He talks about the way writing poetry could make the spirit dejected (presumably because his work was so poor compared to what he hoped for) or could make the spirit vain and egotistical when the work seemed to be better than the work of others (the ugly temptation!).  Two dilemmas that fling the thin curtain around and that might suggest why he was tempted (or it was tempted) by the thought of security as a form of emotional stability. 

The passage ends with what seems a noble conclusion. One that he promptly undercuts.  

He begins by saying the spirit's "unquenchable love of poetry" kept it from pursuing security in either of those other forms and then immediately pulls the rug out from under: "The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore it hangs onto it more or less blindly." 

In other words: absolute blue, can't get rid of it.

Blythe, Ronald. 2006. A year at Bottengoms farm. Norwich: Canterbury.

Matsuo, Bashō. 1966. The narrow road to the Deep North: and other travel sketches. Harmondsworth: Penguin. trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa 

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