Category Archives: verse and worse

Cuttings 2.0 by Peter Levine, cover

Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness

I began blogging on this site on Jan 8, 2003: 21 years ago. I’ve posted more than 4,000 times so far.

To celebrate last year’s 20th anniversary, I selected about 70 posts on a general theme: whether and how to pursue happiness. I edited and organized those posts so that the juxtapositions intrigued and pleased me.

Some entries are short philosophical essays, usually responding to a quotation from a classic work. Some respond instead to literary texts, especially poems. Some are translations; a few offer original verse. The entries are meant to relate to each other, but the transitions are loose and suggestive.

I used the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism as a scaffold for the whole work, even as some of the entries explicitly challenge some of those theses. The text is meant to represent gradually increasing wisdom and equanimity. Unfortunately, that arc does not describe the real me. I didn’t write the entries in the order they appear. Ethical or spiritual growth is a literary conceit, not an autobiographical report.

I did not seek to publish Cuttings 1.0, because I saw it as a work in progress. As planned, I am now celebrating 21 years of blogging by issuing version 2.0. I have added and subtracted substantial amounts of material and reorganized and edited the whole text to produce this new version. I plan to do the same again in the future.

You could download a PDF version of Cuttings 2.0, click to view a Google doc version, or download an .epub version, which requires an e-reader like iBook or Kindle and provides the best experience. If you want an .epub version emailed to a regular email address or directly to a Kindle, please enter that address here.

The new cover art, which is in the public domain, is a still life by the Master of the Vanitas Texts, ca. 1650. I chose it because it illustrates “cuttings” from both plants and texts. Although those snipped things are now dead, we might coax them to regenerate.

As always, comments–including critical ones–are appreciated and are really the best reward.

(By the way, this anniversary might be an appropriate moment to advertise that you can subscribe to this blog as a weekly email, just like a Substack, or follow it on Mastodon, Threads, BlueSky, or Twitter.)

The Robe (a retelling of The Platform Sutra)

The Patriarch spent almost all his time alone in his study. Everyone assumed he was in there meditating or reading, but usually he was worrying. The finances of the House were fragile; loans barely covered monthly expenses. Although he was the only one who understood the financial situation, everyone seemed tense and unhappy. The Patriarch often saw people whispering and scowling and scurrying away.

Years earlier, the Patriarch had experienced insights that had brought him peace. He still considered himself a person of wisdom, but its actual meaning was now dim.

“I wish I could retire!” he said aloud. “I wish I could give my red robe to someone else. Then I could return to my inner life, before it’s too late. But who would succeed me? Who has enough skill and integrity to keep our House intact? Would my successor even protect me physically? I wouldn’t it put past some of these people to stab me in the back–quite literally!–if I renounced my robe.” And he pulled it tighter around his skinny frame, as if for protection.

The next day, as he received the usual line of tattered pilgrims, the Patriarch mentally tallied the likely expenses of alms for the poor visitors versus any possible revenue from those who might donate, and his mood sank below even its usual level.

One of the supplicants looked particularly poor, a youth in rags who might also be a foreigner. “And what do you want, boy?”

“Sir, I am only an ignorant street beggar, but I heard a man recite a poem that spoke to me as if I had known it already. He said that it comes from a book that brings unlimited merit. I have traveled all the way here in the hopes of being taught to read this work and other classics.”

The Patriarch’s interest was piqued. “Which verse did you hear?” he asked. The boy replied:

A flash in the night sky, a breeze,
All other things are just like these.

The Patriarch thought: “It is very clever to quote this particular couplet to me. He’s hoping to be admitted to our House. Maybe he simply wants daily rations and a warm place to sleep. Or maybe he has been trained and coached by someone who hopes to profit from his advancement. Still, he has talent–or at least someone does–and talent is scarce around here. I will test his obedience and see if I can make use of him.”

The Patriarch assigned the boy to work in the kitchen and asked the head cook to report regularly on his attitude.

A few days later, after much anguished dithering, the Patriarch decided to move ahead with a succession plan despite his own grave reservations. At the daily House meeting, he announced it:

“It is time for your venerable Patriarch to retire so that he can better serve you through private mental exertions. Someone else may gain merit from holding this burdensome office. All of you, go to your cells and write verses that demonstrate your understanding of our essential teachings. The author of the best poem will take the red robe.”

All the brothers except one thought to themselves: “There is no point. S. will write the best poem, or at least, the Patriarch will prefer it to anyone else’s. S. is obviously his favorite. Let S. write something and become our new leader. Maybe he will prove more competent than the boss we have today, and our living conditions will improve at last.”

As for S., he paced back and forth in his cell, thinking, “I must write a poem, but it probably won’t be any good. The truth always seems to elude my words. Maybe my motivations are wrong: I am striving to succeed when I should cease to strive altogether. But then I would write nothing, and the Patriarch would be disappointed. Besides, someone else would take over, and who could possibly do a decent job? I will do my best and post some anonymous lines on the wall. If the Patriarch approves them, I will acknowledge that I wrote them. If not, life will go on as before.”

He spent the night hours scribbling and erasing, sometimes giving up for a while and even wailing, “I’m finished! I’m finished!” At last, near dawn, S. tiptoed into the long main corridor and wrote these words on the wall in the most generic handwriting he could manage:

The body is a holy tree; the mind is a mirror.
Polish it constantly; make it ever clearer.

He scurried away, feeling ashamed, and lay awake until the morning meal.

When the Patriarch went for his rounds, he saw the poem and recognized S.’s hand immediately. The results did not surprise him: two conventional similes. He made a show of enthusiasm, saying: “Everyone, gather around and read these lines. They will do you good.” Then he went back to his study and put his face in his hands and tried to steady his turbulent thoughts.

S. knocked on the door and the Patriarch admitted him. “I presume you wrote the couplet on the corridor wall?”

“I admit it, sir. Is it any good at all? I meant to express the value of continual polishing, not to imply that the mirror can ever be clean.”

“Perhaps it is good enough,” said the Patriarch, privately acknowledging that he could have done no better. At least his plan was unfolding as he had expected. Soon S. would shoulder the burdens of office. The Patriarch did not think that S. would allow anyone to harm him in his retirement–assuming that the House remained in business at all.

At just this moment, in the kitchen, the beggar boy (who was grinding grain as always) overheard a more senior cook recite S.’s new poem. He asked where it came from and heard the story of the competition to become the new Patriarch.

“May I see the verse as it’s written on the wall?” he asked. “I cannot read a word, but I would like to pay my respects.”

The cook thought that this foreign boy was a good kid, quiet and hard-working. He always accepted teasing in a positive spirit. He showed the lad the poem.

Standing before it, the boy said, “Do you think you could write something for me? I promise I will do your chores as well as my own for a whole week.” And with his guidance, the cook wrote these words on the wall:

What's holy is no solid tree; mind is always clear.
What kind of substance could ever leave a smear?

The boy thought to himself, “The Patriarch will sort of appreciate this. Whatever he may privately experience, he at least understands the logic of his own teachings, and this verse expresses the conclusion more precisely than that ignorant poem by some old monk. But maybe I can do better.”

He asked the cook to write just one more couplet below the previous one.

A mirror with no surface or back:
What could that suffer or lack?

The boy thought: “This is the best answer, I think. At any rate, a paradox is always the most intriguing kind of thought, and someone might actually benefit from pondering this one. I have many ideas for running this House, and surely my skills will now be recognized. I cannot believe how many times these brothers have listened to lectures and readings without learning how to write. Honestly, it’s not that hard to come up with an enigma.”

On his evening rounds, the Patriarch encountered a knot of brothers gathered around the three verses, arguing about their meaning and which one was best. He could tell from the way they treated the beggar boy that he added some of the lines. The Patriarch’s first impression was confirmed; this youth understood the moves that one ought to make. But the Patriarch was not sure what to do as a result.

“All of these are useful,” he said, “but none is truly satisfactory.” And he walked back to his study, cultivating a mysterious air.

This time, it was the youth who knocked on his study door and acknowledged having written the verses.

“You can have my robe,” said the Patriarch. “I certainly don’t want it, and it seems that you do. We can say that I transmitted my teachings to you tonight, although I think you already get the point.

“The question is whether you really want this job. I have not disclosed our financial situation, but you may not want to inherit it. And you must realize what a fractious, quarrelsome group we have here. Frankly, if I were you, I would accept the robe as a sign of authority and go as far from here as you can. Use my gift to justify founding a whole new house. But travel quickly and watch your back; I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our friends try to track you down and even kill you for the Patriarch’s mantle.”

“And what of you?” asked the youth. “How will you manage if this House has no leader?” He watched the old man with sudden sympathy.

“Ah” said the Patriarch,

A flash in the night sky, a breeze,
All other things are just like these.

Sappho 31

That guy       a god
who sits       near you
Your voice     your eyes
For him

My heart       it stops
My tongue      it's stuck
To watch       you there
with him

I sweat        I'm cold
I shake        I'm pale
I'm grass      that's bleached
I'm stunned

My lips        won't move
My ears        hear buzz
I spark        lit up
I'm done

This poem by Sappho, which survives in the fragment beginning phainetai moi (“it seems to me”), may be the best known and most often translated lyric from ancient Greece or Rome. Here are 43 translations, offering diverse responses to Sappho’s lines and illustrating the evolution of English since the 1500s.

I tried a compressed translation, with no adverbs, no adjectives as modifiers (only predicates), and the fewest words possible. I chose 30 iambs to stand for Sappho’s 202 syllables. I consulted the Greek text but had many difficulties with the dialect (Aeolic), so I leaned on previous translations. This is like an amateur’s sketch of a famous painting, merely recording the outlines.

I agree with readers who see three persons here: the narrator, a man, and the “you” who is giving attention to that man. If the narrator is Sappho (or has her gender) then the poem is spoken by a woman who loves “you,” and you could be a second woman. However, the genders of the narrator and the beloved are never specified and can be imagined differently.

In a somewhat less compressed version, the man mentioned at the outset would not be a god. The text says that he seems similar to a god, and the point may be that his situation is divinely fortunate. The narrator is paler green than grass; and a thin or delicate signal fire flows through her. (I can’t help thinking of an electrical charge.) At the end, she says it seems she’s nearly dead, the verb “to seem” echoing the first line.

But that wasn’t the end of the original poem. This is all we have of the remaining stanzas:

But things      go on 
[…]             The poor        
[…]

One of many debated points is whether the narrator is jealous. I doubt it. She (?) focuses on and talks to the other person, and perhaps neither of them cares much about the man. Hence my somewhat dismissive opening (“That guy …”).

Another good question is what Sappho wrote after the last words that survive: “But all is to be endured, and the poor man/person …” Our text ends there because this poem only survived as a quotation in Longinus’ On the Sublime, and Longinus left off in mid-thought. Although I blame him for the lost strophes, I also find this a moving place to stop. Things must go on; we know that. But how did Sappho actually go on? And what did she say about “the poor”?

See also: when you know, but cannot feel, beauty (on “The Ode to a Nightingale,” which is influenced by Sappho 31); “The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis,” the sublime and other people, and “Madonna è disiata in sommo cielo.”

shelter

Dog in a shelter
Startles at unknown noises
So he’ll be put down

So he’ll be put down
On the long roll of heroes
He goes over the top

She goes over the top
Merges right and sees the long
Straight way to the end

Straight away to the end
Of the action flies the mind
Neglecting the act

Neglecting the act
The startled noisy mind
Bolts from shelter 

See also: Nostalgia for Now; Mindlessness; When the Lotus Bloomed

Miles Horton & Paolo Freire in 1987, photo by Candie Carawan, in Horton & Freire 1990.

highways on the sea: from Machado to Paolo Freire

This is a perfect short poem from Antonio Machado’s Proverbios y Cantares (1912):

     XLIV

Todo pasa y todo queda:
pero lo nuestro es pasar,
pasar haciendo caminos,
caminos sobre la mar

Everything passes and everything stays,
But ours is to cease to be. 
As we go, we make a highway,
A highway on the sea. 

[revised on Dec 1, 2023.] 

Machado had already juxtaposed caminos (roads, paths, journeys) with el mar (the sea) in the second poem of the volume:

     II

¿Para qué llamar caminos 
a los surcos del azar?... 
Todo el que camina anda, 
como Jesús, sobre el mar. 

Why designate as highways
furrows left aimlessly? ...
Anything that travels moves,
like Jesus, on the sea.

The same pairing recurs in the most-quoted lyric of the whole book:

     XXIX

Caminante, son tus huellas 
el camino y nada más; 
caminante, no hay camino, 
se hace camino al andar. 
Al andar se hace camino, 
y al volver la vista atrás 
se ve la senda que nunca 
se ha de volver a pisar. 
Caminante, no hay camino, 
sino estellas sobre la mar.

Traveler, the highway
is your footprints, nothing more;
Traveler, there is no highway,
you make it as you walk.
As you walk, you make the highway—
and the path you see when you turn back
is the route where you'll never be.
Traveler, there is no highway,
save for stars upon the sea.

In 1987, the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire (then 66 years old) and the American organizer Myles Horton (82) interviewed each other at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which Horton had led. Freire says, “Myles, I think we could start our conversation by saying something to each other about our very existence in the world.” A little later, he adds, “It’s very important for Brazilian readers to have information about Myles. About me, they have already, but about Myles they don’t have and it’s very, very important.”

Horton adds, “Yes, but the people in this country need the same thing about you.” He then proposes to talk “mainly [about] the things that would help people understand where I came from in terms of my ideas and my thinking, what they are rooted in. Is that the idea?” Freire replies, “Yes. Everything you recognize as something important. I think that even though we need to have some outline, I am sure that we make the road by walking. It has to do with this house [Highlander], with this experience here. You’re saying that in order to start, it should be necessary to start.”

The resulting book, We Make the Road by Walking (Horton & Freire 1990), explains in a footnote that Freire is adapting “a proverb by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, in which one line reads “se hace camino al andar,” or “you make the way as you go.”

For activists, this phrase suggests that people can make new pathways by taking action, and perhaps that we should learn the trails that our elders have left for us. But I think Machado’s original point was apolitical. He meant that the stories we tell about ourselves are not permanent–or even important–and they vanish as we pass through them.

Translations by Peter Levine. Photo by Candie Carawan in Horton & Freire, We Make the Road by Walking (Temple University Press 1990). See also: Machado: Glory is never what I’ve sought; Lorca’s rivers