Spring air –
And plum scent.¤
Who should pop up on R4 the other morning but the great Juliet Stevenson, brought before the microphones to celebrate the Equinox She read Keats’s Ode to Autumn – beautifully, of course – said a few words, and was off. A casual, almost throw-away recital: It reminded me of Myra Hess’s lunch-time concerts during the War; Sarah Bernhardt or Lillie Langtry making brief appearances in barns and tents on the American frontier. It was just how a performance should be. A sudden splurge of splendour going up like a firework in the gloom; a few transient seconds of glamour and beauty in the darkness.
The Ode was a brief moment of uplift in a busy day. Poetry should illuminate the path, jolly us along, stimulate the ear and the brain. It presents emotions and situations in a certain way – a new way. Poetry offers revelations and, sometimes, solutions. Its pleasure should be taken for granted, easily and frankly like a music hall song. We needn’t wait for a poetry class or a formal recital – tags and lines and refrains can inspire and buck us up at any time, whether formally declaimed or just chuntered under your breath.
Now, doesn’t this sound remarkably like the role of perfume in life? A scent which may be startling, delicious, sprightly or hypnotic by turns but which seizes our attention and beguiles our senses. Price, value, composition and provenance really need not come into the matter. What’s vital is the sum of the thing: how the scent speaks to you, and how it affects your mind. Smell it, grab it, wear it. Stop analysing and start smelling. It’s like the sense of taste: quit taking those selfies of your dinner – eat it up!
When I was at school, aged ten or so, we had to learn a set poem weekly – “Home Thoughts From Abroad”, “Upon Westminster Bridge” and the like. No piece thrilled me much. All one’s energies and attention went into getting the thing into one’s noddle and then regurgitating the verses correctly, so as to avoid being snubbed by teacher in front of the precariously smug class. However, then as now, individual words, sounds and ideas of colour & smell caught the ear and excited the mind. The first line of Shakespeare that ever caught my fancy was Lady Macbeth’s wailing of the smell of blood and the perfumes of Arabia.
Presently one went up the school and a more enlightened schoolmistress got us writing haiku in lieu of learning other people’s masterpieces. That was kind of liberating – firstly because the haiku form is so short; and because observing the 5-7-5 syllable structure made us far less self-conscious about what we were composing. We were too busy trying to make the thing ‘fit’.
I see now that the essence of the haiku is in its moment of generation; those ideas it evokes in the exhalation of a breath. There is no analysis, no set or intended meaning: all is sensation and emotion, a moment of observation and insight as clear but transient as a dew-drop. Sometimes you see something akin to this in the PR blurb written by French perfume houses: translated into English the evocations are meaningless and bathetic. In the original they have a certain haphazard poetry to them. Same like the haiku.
Here are two observations of an orchid, by Basho¤ and Buson¤¤ respectively:
The white of its flower
Hidden in its scent
Into butterfly’s wings
Haiku can be not only surreally lovely but as droll, rude and scatalogical as a good limerick.
Issa¤¤¤, who lived a rather dreadful life of poverty and loss, wrote much about love and death but was also fascinated by the yowling of mating cats, bodily smells, soiled clothes & bedding, effluvia and excrement – “flies on the porridge…..piddle pattering down…the wild iris…”
Here’s another Basho haiku which smells both aspects of our fleeting existence:
In the garden
A sweaty shoe
Scent of chrysanthemum
You may take these two observations separately or link them as you will: but it’s true, chrysanthemums do have the sharp tang of perspiration to them. As Issa noted, they are redolent of tea, sake and urine. And here’s the typically ironic haiku paradox: they are also the Japanese national flower, quasi-sacred as they symbolise the Sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the divine ancestress of every Emperor. There have never been many chrysanthemum-based perfumes on the market. Maybe that’s because of this sour ambiguity and (in the West) the association of the flower with the dying of the year and hard-wearing funeral tributes. The Crown Perfumery once did a little gem – I forget it’s name; it’s long time ago. Serge Lutens De Profundis – a ‘Paris Only’ Exclusive – is probably the one to seek out.
How often will a neophyte come to try a much-touted new scent and exclaim –
“But it smells of my father’s bike! – like a cement mixer – like cleaning the baby’s bath..”
And there you are: to her, the perfume is defined for ever, caught in a flash of perception like a spider in amber. You can explain about the ingredients till you are blue in the face but it is the customer’s instantaneous and unique characterisation which is so striking: much more interesting than praising the quality of the jasmine oils. An integral part of haiku language is the use of an exclamation to punctuate a line – “ah!” – “o!” – “but!” – “pop!”. How rewarding and fascinating to hear these gasps and squeals at the shop as one reveals the latest treasure.
Ise’s shrine –
What tree can give
¤ Matsuo Basho 1644-1694; translations by Lucien Stryk
¤¤ Yosa Buson 1716 – 1784; translation by Stephen Addiss
¤¤¤ Kobayashi Issa 1763-1827; translations by Lewis Mackenzie.