Saturday, May 10, 2014

Armstrong Woods

Armstrong Woods

My fav’rite place on earth is Armstrong Woods.
Old growth groves of redwoods are very rare,
A slower flow of time is present there,
The constant cool and stillness of the air
Resembles a cathedral of quiet
With filtered sunlight scattered on the paths.

Walking on a winding woodland path
Under the giant trees of Armstrong Woods
I experience palpable quiet,
Something that in our noise-filled world is rare
(Ordinarily, noise fills the air)
But human noise is an intrusion there.

Once I found countless orchids scattered there
At the base of redwoods beside a path;
I heard a high bell-like sound in the air,
A soft rustling whisper at Armstrong Woods,
Like a song heard just once, a song that’s rare,
A sound, a song, that merged with the quiet.

There exists an interior quiet,
A grove that’s found within the heart and there
One enters into a stillness that’s rare.
It’s discovered by following a path
That resembles the paths of Armstrong Woods.
It’s our inheritance; we are all heirs.

It’s a grace, freely given, like the air,
A place where all human thought is quiet,
It is the mind and heart of Armstrong Woods
And if I could I would always stay there,
This grove of peace at the end of the path;
But in truth my spare moments there are rare.

But it’s enough to have this glimpse that’s rare,
To rest in the peacefulness of the air
After walking the meandering paths
That emerge in solitude, in quiet,
In luminosity found only there,
The grove of the heart, the grove of Armstrong Woods.

Scatter my ashes at Armstrong Woods,
Scatter my ashes on the quiet path that’s there,
In the cool air, in the quiet that’s rare.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Alaska

My Alaska

I have never really left Alaska.
Its geography is fixed in my heart;
How the aurora on a winter night
Will take flight, stretching across the whole sky,
Or how the sly midnight sun casts shadows
Across a free-flowing wilderness stream.

All I have to do is sit by a stream
And like a remembered dream, Alaska,
Appearing out of memories’ shadows,
Memories that lie deep within my heart,
Take shape like the moon in the autumn sky
When thin clouds depart on a windy night.

In winter the day hours are mostly night,
It’s easy to walk on a frozen stream.
An owl will take flight in the silent sky
Above the taigascape of Alaska
The Brooks Range, like a slowly beating heart,
Casts deep, dark, and slowly moving shadows.

When snow begins to melt in the shadows
And the flood of sunlight reduces night,
The sight of flowing water cheers the heart
And people launch canoes upon the streams,
Both great and small, that criss-cross Alaska.
Heading north, a flock of swans in the sky.

Days arrive, long and warm with sun-filled sky,
When it seems as if there are no shadows
To be found anywhere in Alaska,
And people sleep less during the brief night,
Listening to the sound of nearby streams
That seems to soothe a busy mind and heart.

Cold comes quickly and falls upon the heart.
Winds start to pull the leaves into the sky.
All those years have slipped by me like a stream
Increasingly covered by long shadows.
I’m swiftly approaching that endless night,
The sight of the tundra of Alaska.

An Alaska lives deep within my heart.
During the night while standing on the sky
Shadows from the past like a stream flow by.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Request for Assistance

Dear Friends:

At the Aha Poetry Forum, Alan Summers (who sometimes comments here) asked that any readers spread the following missing person request regarding Martin Lucas, former British Haiku Society President, via online social media.  I know from stats that I have British readers so you, in particular, are asked to do what you can.  But even if you are not British, please spread the word via your own social media and online contacts:

The British Haiku Society has been asked to help. Can you do your bit? Use social media, emails, there may be a British friend or colleague who knows someone in or close to Preston. It may make all the difference if a friend knows a friend to put this closer to their heart, rather than yet another newspaper article about a missing person.

Even American and other non-British members can help via Facebook and Twitter, or email British friends, family, penpals, someone might know someone who lives near Preston. Put a human face on this tragedy.

Martin has been missing since 10 pm Friday night. He is alone and highly vulnerable. He is not tough like some of us.

From the British Haiku Society:

Martin Lucas, former BHS president and current editor of Presence haiku magazine, has been reported missing. His family have asked us to help in appealing for information. If you have any information, please ring the police on 101. We can also pass information on to Martin's family if you have anything you think might be useful to them in their search. Please share this post to help. Visit the link below for further information:

Thank you, every little bit of help may help.

This is Martin:

More pictures, including images at British haiku events I was involved in or ran:

thank you,

Alan Summers

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Guide for English Language Tanka Poets

I have a great fondness for the Kokin Wakashu, particularly the translation by Helen McCullough.  My feeling is that it has not received the attention it deserves from those interested in composing Tanka in English.  The skill with which McCullough translates the Japanese tanka into English is amazing.  And the fact that she maps the Japanese syllabics of 5-7-5-7-7 onto English is impressive.

More importantly, the translation is itself a demonstration of the efficacy of adopting the syllabic shape of the Japanese onto English.  I feel the work can serve as a kind of textbook for those wishing to follow the traditional syllabic shape of the Japanese.

Hoping, in a minor way, to encourage more interest in this translation, I wrote the following review for Amazon and posted it today:

The Kokin Wakashu, compiled about 905, was the first Imperial Anthology of Tanka poetry.  It has had a huge influence on Japanese poetry in general, and particularly on the Japanese form of Tanka.  What we now call ‘Tanka’ today was, at the time of this anthology, known as ‘Waka’.  Tanka is the most important poetic form in Japanese culture.  It has had a continuous history of about 1400 years, and is still practiced by numerous Japanese poets at this time.

Japanese poetry is syllabic and the contours of Tanka have remained the same for its entire history: a five phrase (ku), or line, poem with the syllables distributed as follows: 5-7-5-7-7.  This gives the Tanka a total of 31 syllables.

One of the remarkable things about this translation by Helen McCullough is that she chose to map the syllabic count of the Japanese onto the English language in her translations.  What this does for the reader is to replicate the formal relationships that the poems have in the anthology.  I mean that in the original anthology all the poems have the same formal characteristics, the same syllabic count.  As you move from one poem to another a rhythm, or pulse, is felt.  This pulse is shared by all the poems no matter how different they may be in topic, image, and style.  McCullough’s translation replicates this relationship among the poems which is a great achievement.  And her translations are themselves superb; they are poems themselves.  I am in awe of how she was able to transform a Japanese poetic masterpiece into an English poetic masterpiece and retain the structural elements as she moved from one language to another.

The Waka Kokinshi consists of 1111 poems, grouped into topical chapters that include the four seasons, felicitations, parting, travel, wordplay, love, grief, and miscellaneous.  Because some topics have more than one chapter, the total number of chapters is twenty.  There are about 130 named poets, as well as numerous anonymous tanka.  The editors skillfully arranged the tanka so that they link to each other and there is a natural flow as one reads the tanka in sequence.  The skill with which the tanka are linked is amazing, considering the large number of poets.  The result is that each chapter is more than the sum of its parts.  In a way, each chapter resembles a beautifully crafted collage where all the parts contribute to an overall effect. 

If you are interested in Japanese poetry, this is an essential read.  The Waka Kokinshu became a textbook for how to craft Tanka.  Its poems are referenced allusively in countless poets down through the centuries.  The careful linking of the poems led to the emergence of renga, and out of renga emerged haiku.  So this collection of Tanka is in many ways the wellspring of Japanese poetry.

If you are an English language poet who has taken an interest in the tanka form, this work serves as an elegant teacher of how to craft a 31-syllable poem into a 5-7-5-7-7 structure in the English language.  Because McCullough’s translations are so elegant and so natively English, this translation serves as a guide for all those interested in English language tanka.

The book also contains two short, additional, works by the primary editor, Ki no Tsurayuki: the Tosa Nikki and the Shinsen Waka.  These two works give us a broader view of the main editor.  There are also excellent appendices that help in locating a specific poem you may be searching for.

This book was published in 1985.  Unfortunately, it has not received, in my opinion, the attention it deserves from English language poets writing in Japanese forms.  Part of the reason, I think, is the price.  My hope is that Stanford will issue this translation in paperback at some point in the near future so that the treasures found in this work can be accessible to a wider audience.

This is a grand work of poetry and one of the finest translations I have ever come across.  Lyrical, poignant, striking in its imagery, and universal in its humanity, it is a work that can nourish a lifetime.

Kokin Wakashu
The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry
Translated and Annotated by Helen Craig McCullough
Stanford University Press
ISBN: 9780804712583

Friday, February 28, 2014

Same or Different?

Same or Different?

I think a lot about how haiku in the English speaking world has blossomed into a number of forms.  Regular readers of the blog know that my view is that the word ‘haiku’, in English, now refers to at least three, possibly as many as five, different poetic forms.  I have been wondering if there is some kind of analogy, or some precedent, that would illustrate how this process has unfolded.  And a precedent that I think is helpful in this context is the guitar.

Compare the classical guitar to the electric guitar used in popular music today.  Are they the same instrument, or are they different instruments?  Similarities between the two are fairly easy to observe.  For the most part, they share the same number of strings.  Both the electric and the classical guitar are held in the same way, with the left hand on the neck, and the right hand plucking the strings. 

But the dissimilarities are striking as well.  For one thing, the sound of the two instruments is different in a way that is easily recognizable by the ordinary listener.  The classical guitar string, when plucked, has a short duration that rapidly fades.  For the classical guitar there is no way to sustain the note for very long.  This leads to a style of performance that relies on frequent plucking of the strings.  It is true that the sound box of the classical guitar provides some resonance; but compared to an instrument like the violin or organ, the duration of the pitch, once plucked, for the classical guitar is brief.

In contrast the electric guitar, relying on technological transformations, can sustain a pitch for a very long time; especially when compared to the classical guitar.  Thus it is not unusual for a performance of the electric guitar to have relatively sustained notes.

The tone color of the instruments is also different.  And the volume differs as well; the classical guitar is fairly soft; when recorded the classical guitar is often miced very close for this reason.  In contrast, the electric guitar can be literally deafening.

My tendency is to think of the electric guitar and the classical guitar as two different instruments.  They are historically related and they show a common origin in their shape and playing technique.  But the effect upon the listener is so different that I think it is useful to consider them as now simply different musical instruments.

The guitar family of instruments covers a number of variants beyond the two I just discussed.  The steel acoustic steel string guitar differs from the classical in that the strings of the steel string guitar are closer together, making it a better suited instrument for using a pick and for strumming chords.  The bass guitar often has only four, instead of six, strings and its range differs from the classical, acoustic steel string, and the electric guitar.  And there are other types which are even further removed from the classical ancestor.

When looking at these different instruments you can see, and hear, the connection.  You can understand why they are all called ‘guitar’.  But they are different instruments and they lend themselves to different types of music.

In a similar way, I think that the different approaches to haiku found today among English language haiku poets lend themselves to different types of expression.  Like the different types of guitar, you can see in the different types of haiku that they share certain features.  But they differ in their modes of expression, in the way they communicate, in their esthetic ideals, and effects they aim to impart.

This is not a judgment about one type being superior to another.  Just as excellent music is to found in the acoustic and electric guitars, so also excellent poetry is to be found in the variety of haiku approaches.  But over time they have drifted farther and farther apart, just as the music played on the classical and electric guitars has become more and more distinct.  This is not a bad thing.  It is just a process of unfolding and differentiation that happens in many areas of human life.  And I think it is helpful to simply acknowledge that ‘haiku’, in English, has blossomed into a number of distinct forms.

Saturday, February 15, 2014



I keep thinking of things that I should do
After work is done and the day is through,
But my mind works better in the morning.
My mind seems to shut down with the sunset.
I used to stay up all night with the owls.
Now I greet the dawn along with the larks.

The stark winterscape, the absence of larks,
Thinking about debt and bills that are due,
From the oak outside the hoot of an owl
Which lasted for hours is finally through,
Like the darkness at the edge of sunset
When the world pauses, a kind of mourning.

The stars pale, a warning of morning,
In summer the dawn is welcomed by larks,
A new day forgets yesterday’s sunset,
I check my new phone for things I should do,
I’ll stop for some gas as I’m passing through –
Overhead, silently gliding, an owl.

Athena is often seen with an owl,
Because dream wisdom flees in the morning
Unless with the dawn we have a breakthrough;
A new insight, or song, like the light-greeting lark,
Dispeller of dark, welcome of dew,
Whose hours are few, long gone by sunset.

Watching Dad build a campfire, his son’s set
On growing up fast.  The sound of an owl
Sounds like music. There is nothing to do
On a bridge of dreams until the morning
When they wake up to the song of a lark
As the stark rays of the sun cut the fog through.

I had a thought – it was a through and through.
It disappeared like the light of sunset.
There was a mountain – it’s gone like a lark
That is replaced by the night by the owl
Who in turn is gone at dawn, at morning,
When starlight can still be seen in the dew.

Life has obligations, things we must do;
Starting with morning on through to sunset,

From the song of the lark to the call of the owl.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Street Poet

Street Poet

A few weeks ago I was taking my lunch break.  I decided to walk over to Whole Foods to get something from their hot food bar.  Whole Foods is about three blocks from where I work.  As I was walking I spotted a young man standing in front of a store.  As I passed he asked me, “Do you like poetry?”  I responded, “I’m totally poetry.”  He said, “Would you like to hear one of my poems?”  “Sure,” I replied.  This sounded good.

He then asked me what topic I would like for my poem?  I hesitated, and he jumped in with a list: nature, work, politics, religion . . .  I said, “God.  I want a poem about God.  I’m a Quaker.”  I added the ‘Quaker’ bit to let him know where I’m coming from.  On the spot he recited:

the strongest force
i can think of is love
and I believe that it’s not
from a heaven above
it resides in each
& all of our hearts
i’m saying that god’s
not separate or apart.
mispelt god
is good within us all
add an ‘o’ to god
& deities fall
seein something beautiful’s
like lookin into a mirror
cause within you is a love
that’s radiantly pure
i once learned, now believe,
that evil has momentum
please embrace all you can
our good that i mention
you can help somebody out
create some righteous art
knowin god’s within
not distant or apart.

Tim Hale

Not bad, not bad at all. 

It turns out Tim is a street poet who has been on his own for some years now.  I’m not sure, but I think he’s in his 30’s.  He handed me a chapbook of his poems with the poem he recited in it.  And I gave him some money in return.

I love running into street poets, but it’s been a long time since I encountered one.  The last time I had a real encounter that included interaction, conversation, and some poems, was Julia Vinograd in Berkeley.  Love her work.  In some ways, Tim and Julia are cut from the same cloth.  Living on the fringes, unconnected with any poetry establishment, lacking MFA credentials or other tokens that get you published in the right journals or invitations to the right conferences.

Tim and Julia have very different styles.  Julia composes free verse, but with a deft touch to her lineation and a distinctive voice that is unmistakable.  Tim writes metrical verse; it appears to me from reading his chapbook that his poetry is strongly influenced by popular song; always a good sign. 

At another level, though, Tim and Julia are birds of a feather.  They both write from their encounters with life and express a point of view which is largely absent from more established poets. 

Here’s one more of Tim Hale’s poems:

The Kinship of Homeless

I slept between boats
Made money off poems
That summer in Seattle
I never was alone
I hung with the homeless
Took care of each other
I was closer to them
Than I am my own brother.
We dumpstered some steaks
Some forty-plus dollars
And fed them to dogs
Who roamed without collars
We gathered and shared
Meals every night
Round fires we’d rambled
‘till dawn brought us light.
There were dreamers and lovers
Addicts and thieves
We share with each other
Our deepest beliefs
About pain from the past
How life had been tainted
Or how life’s just a canvas
Waiting to be painted.
We talked of possibilities
That never really end
How the heart that’s broke the most
Would eventually mend
While some work for power
For gain and for gold
Our possessions were little
But rich was our soul.
Know moments our choices
‘tween love and ‘tween fear
If you open yourself
There’s family near
We weren’t each other’s siblings
Father or mother
Though all of us were family
In Seattle that summer.

I just went over to youtube and found a number of posts about Tim.  If you are interested you can take a look.

So there is poetry everywhere, and good poetry too.