Friday, February 25, 2011

We Came from the Breeze

I was talking about poetry with Shanna the other day, and she said she favored long narrative ballads, naming writers like Service, Kipling, Tolkien, and some Frost.

But you can see in the poems I've shown you, this driving, pounding beat, this rhythm that underlays the words and carries it strongly, til it almost echoes. That's why I got disillusioned with free verse. Sure, once in a while you find one that still manages that rhythm, but they're so far between, I just gave it up.

On the other hand, as evidenced by the Bashō quotation up in the top corner, I consider Eastern poetry a cornerstone of my poetic worldview; haiku was the first form that really enthralled me, especially for its connection to Zen Buddhism. When Buson says:

I go, you stay;
Two autumns.

The space in the poem is so vast, and with time being measured in "autumns", you get the sense of his melancholy without having to hear him say in so many words, "I'm lonely. I miss you." You feel his sadness without hearing the words that might numb you to it by dint of their familiarity. We hear those kinds of straightforward sentiments so often, we forget to really feel what they symbolize.

Robert Haas elaborated on this indirect way of expression:

The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku. The seasonal reference was called a kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it. In Bashō's poem quoted above, for example, the phrase aki fukaki, "deep autumn" or "autumn deepens" is traditional and had accumulated references from earlier poetry as well as from the Japanese way of thinking about time and change. So does the reference to snow—yuki, which can also mean "snowfall"—in Buson's poems. It is always connected to a sense of exposure to the elements, for which there is also a traditional phrase, "winter bareness." The practice was sufficiently codified and there was even a rule that the seasonal reference should always appear either in the first or third unit of the three phrase poem... These references were conventional and widely available. They were the first way readers of the poems had of locating themselves in the haiku. Its traditional themes—deep autumn, a sudden summer shower, the images of rice seedlings and plum blossoms, of spring and summer migrants like the mountain cuckoo and the bush warbler, of the cormorant-fisherman in summer, and the apprentices on holiday in the spring—gave a powerful sense of a human place in the ritual and cyclical movement of the world.

In a chapter devoted to the poet Issa, Sam Hamill pointed out the ubiquity in his poems of mono no aware (a sense of beauty intensified by recognition of temporality) and sabi (a kind of spiritual loneliness). Two of my favorites of his, both in honor of the deaths of his young children:

This world of dew
is only the world of dew—
and yet...oh, and yet...

A Buddhist equanimity tries to assert itself in the face of intense suffering, but the all-too-human emotions refuse to be pacified. Gets me every time.

Windy fall—
these are the scarlet flowers
she liked to pick.

Again, the indirect focus, not on his daughter, but on the memories attached to everyday objects. The pain of it seems to hit me harder this way.

The Eastern poets appealed to me because that's how so many of my insights appeared to me -- a sudden, intuitive flash, a widening of the eyes, a sharp intake of breath. The words came later, and sometimes just got in the way. I can appreciate a rhythmic story, but when it comes to getting at what seems to me to be the heart of the poetic experience, I tend to feel that the less words, the better. In this case, the poet's job isn't to lay it all out and say Here's what happened, here's how it happened, and here's why it happened, it's to place words sparingly around the experience without trying to land directly on it.


  1. So, I've tried a bunch of times to comment here on why I like my poets. I like yours too, at least, the ones you've shown me, but I'm afraid I am not sensitive enough for them; I look no deeper than the surface. What I'm really looking for is a good story written in a memorable way.

    My poets (I'm actually thinking of Walter Scott, today) takes the everyday and somewhat romanticises it. In the lay of the last minstrel, they can spend pages just on the livery of the horse that the knight was riding. Service spends a fair bit of time describing the scenery. Kipling waxes eloquent about the heat, the filth, and the pride if being involved in something greater than yourself.

    Your eastern poets seem to take the mundane and show it to you in such a light that makes it seem profound, a beauty never before seen by the eyes of man. And they don't spend whole pages on it, either, they simply bring it to the light and let it float back down.

  2. See? You do get it; it's just about adjusting your perspective. Neither one is "better", it just depends on how you're approaching the subject.

    Alan Watts:

    Here's an example: someone says, "Master, please hand me the knife," and he hands them the knife, blade first. "Please give me the other end," he says. And the master replies, "What would you do with the other end?" This is answering an everyday matter in terms of the metaphysical.

    When the question is, "Master, what is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?" then he replies, "There is enough breeze in this fan to keep me cool." That is answering the metaphysical in terms of the everyday, and that is, more or less, the principle Zen works on. The mundane and the sacred are one and the same."

  3. Cold teachers failed him
    Music gave gave Scribbler a clew
    A Man of Letters

    (Sorry, no sabi, but there's an elliptical season reference.)

  4. I had always dreamed of being the subject of a poem, and for it to be a haiku? Even better.

    In my fantasy, though, you were a buxom redhead with a lascivious gleam in your eye, and this was a coffeeshop. Huh. Ah, well, I'll take it. Bonus points for the clever play on clue/clew.

    Brian? Shanna? Looks like Noel's got a lock on Minion of the Month for February unless y'all can pull out a last-second surprise!

  5. Oh, I can share the title. I don`t want to be thought TOO obsequious, after all. Congrats, Noel. Lovely poem, peon ;)

  6. Aw shucks, thanks guys.
    In my fantasy, though, you were a buxom redhead
    Well, on the internet, anything is possible.
    I liked what you said about what a good haiku leaves out. Filling in the negative space, the reader has to participate more in understanding.

  7. Noel, poem, peon.
    Now there's a short poem. Let's call it "Jealousy". :)
    I'm thinking about how narrative poems can be just as profound as the sparse Eastern types.
    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    Our fear of death is turned on it's head: Wandering off into the woods seems pleasant, while life seems demanding. We're left recoiling from our own recognition of the attraction of the "woods", and so participate in the meaning just as much as if it was a haiku.

  8. To see the world in a grain of sand
    And heaven in a wildflower
    To hold the universe in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour

    Both lovely verses, profound in their own way, but the poet does not choose to let them stand alone. They are both excerpts.

  9. Eastern poems have empty spaces that echo with meaning. Western ones have running narratives that resonate with double meanings or unexpected feelings. Like Shanna, I have a stronger affinity for the latter, but it's probably a cultural predjudice.

  10. Thanks, Noel! That's what I was getting at. I think I'm going to steal it.

  11. This is one of my favorite comment threads.

  12. Cool. Seems strange that the vast internet would turn out to be just like real life: many acquaintances, but very few you really connect with.

  13. I have a lot more in common with my acquaintances on the internet than my friends in real life!

    Even you, Noel

  14. Yeah, and I'm just a computer program in Google space. Reza is right: our sense of community is changing.