Over the last month, I have been studying ancient and medieval Asian poetry with my students. In particular, the Japanese Kokinshu poems have been on my mind. They are poems of brevity, sometimes seasonal. They anticipate the haiku. Robert Bly often wrote poems in this style. Since we are all getting hit by a winter storm, I'd like us to each write a reflection on this winter poem of Bly's:
Watering the Horse
How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
The white flake of snow
That has just fallen in the horse's mane!
InlandEmpireGirl's reflection is here and Silver Valley Girl's is here.
My love and enjoyment of poetry has increased significantly as I have surrendered to and taken delight in the idea that poems create strangeness, not familiarity. I should have realized this a long time ago. After all, metaphors function to jar us out of our familiar ways of seeing things. In a metaphor, an object and something the object isn't are joined into union that works. A rose isn't love or friendship or grief. It's a delicate petaled, fragrant flower, but when looked at strangely, for what it's not, the rose comes to stand for love or friendship or grief.
If poems make the familiar strange, how fitting that Bly's poem should open with the words "How strange".
And what's strange?
The speaker feels the strangeness that he (or she) thought to give up all ambition. To think of giving up all ambition! In the United States of America! In our forward moving, striving, moving up the ladder culture! How very strange! Some might say it's subversive.
What moved the poem's speaker to think of giving up all ambition?
The rest of the poem tells. These three lines embody a moment. Just a moment. White snow falls in the horse's mane. That moment moved the speaker to think of giving up all ambition.
In this moment, the poem's speaker is fully awake. He entered fully into this one moment, "with such clear eyes." With clear eyes he sees this moment and it contains the whole world. The human, animal, and natural merge into a union. The beauty of this single flake of snow on the horse fully arrests the speaker's attention. Nothing else matters. All thoughts of ambition melt. There is only now.
And, then, as quickly, the moment is gone. Just like the poem. Just like the flake's melting. The poem's brevity replicates the brevity of this moment. Bly asks us to zero in on how the speaker sees this moment clearly. Concerns for the future vanish. The speaker is fully engaged with the only reality he can know: the present moment.
Ambition blinds one to the present. Ambition is focused on the future that isn't there at the expense of the present which is.
It's ironic, then, that the speaker would feel strange that he thinks of giving up all ambition. He should feel strange that he ever considered ambition in the first place.