Friday, January 22, 2016

Syllabic Tanka Day for 2016


Today is January 22nd.  I bet you didn't know that this is Syllabic Tanka Day!  Hooray.  It seems fitting that now that I'm plunging into Genji Monogatari, which has hundreds of tanka/waka scattered through the book, that I take a moment to celebrate this form which has been so rewarding for so many poets and readers down through the centuries.  In the anglosphere tanka has not yet taken root; instead what you have are people writing free verse poems (usually five lines) and then labeling them tanka for no clear reason.  That's OK; it's what is happening.  But for those of us who want to really engage with traditional Japanese tanka the syllabic count is essential.  Thankfully a small number of poets are slowly learning the syllabic shape and using it skillfully in English.

Here is a tank from my collection 'Tanka River', a landscape:

The hours before dawn,
Before the sun has risen,
Before the stars fade,
Before the world rushes in,
The hours of the morning calm

And here is one from a sequence on love:

By the ocean's edge
I wait patiently for more
Memories of you,
Riding the incoming waves
Or the last rays of the sun

And here is a tanka from one of the first tanka collections in English, 'Wind Five Folded', edited by Jane Reichhold:

Walking east, I watch
The moon rise, huge, smokey orange,
Almost full, alone.
Walking home, I'm almost used
To you being gone again.

John Gribble, page 65

And another one from 'Wind Five Folded':

Ginkgos are boring
Until autumn golding and
Persimmons taste tart --
The vague words of your language
Often mean less than they seem

Mimi Walter Hinman, page 77

Slowly a cache of syllabic tanka is being written.  My feeling is that the less a poet has taken on the narrow esthetics of official haiku, the more accessible tanka becomes to a poet.  I see tanka as more closely related to the Psalms and to hymnody than to free verse haiku.  There is the same quiet contemplation, the same sense of steady rhythm meant for chanting or singing. 

But to find these tanka you have to look beyond official tanka organizations and magazines because most of them (all?) were started by people committed to free verse and completely allergic to syllabics.  They seem also to have absorbed the nihinjinron based mythos of the specialness of the Japanese language.  But, again, that's OK.  They get to do that.  And we get to connect with the Japanese tradition by counting on our fingers: 5-7-5-7-7.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

On Genji -- Part 1

On Genji – Part 1

I’m rereading The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari).  I’m enjoying it immensely.  I first read Genji decades ago; I think it was at least 35 years.  And, if memory serves, I did not read the entire work at that time, finding myself overwhelmed by the immense cast of characters and the huge size of the novel (over 1,000 pages).  I admired the work at first reading, and there were passages of great beauty that spoke to me; but as an overall whole Genji eluded me.

This time I am responding differently.  I love it.  I think this is partly due to simply being older.  The understanding of impermanence permeates Genji at multiple levels.  The world of nature is one way that this expressed, but there is also the impermanence of human relationships both at a personal and political level.  I think it is easier for an older person to resonate with this; in any case it speaks more to me now than when I read Genji before.

The fickleness of human desire is another major theme in Genji and, again, I think this is something that is learned, if it is learned, over time.  All relationships end in parting, either by death or divorce; and though that is a universal truth, it is a truth that takes some experience to really comprehend.

I am also more familiar today than I was when I first approached Genji with the specifically Buddhist references found in the novel in every chapter.  References to past lives and karma, to the Lotus Sutra, and to the Pure Land add dimensions of depth and meaning to Genji that, I suspect, most westerners would miss.  Murasaki assumes that her audience knows these references, but a modern westerner, unless, like myself, he took a lot of time studying the Japanese Buddhist tradition, is unlikely to pick up on most of them.  And the Buddhism of Murasaki’s time differs in significant ways from Japanese Buddhism today.  Modern Japanese Buddhism is the result of the turmoil of the 13th century and ended up with strongly sectarian traditions that view each other with suspicion so that in Japan today you find institutionally separated traditions like Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren.  In the time of Murasaki (the 11th century), however, the Buddhist tradition had not yet fragmented into these mutually antagonistic sects.  There were divisions, naturally enough, but they were divisions found within an organization rather than divisions between organizations.  For this reason the understanding of Buddhism in Japan at that time was more singular and more pervasive than it is now; either in Japan or in the West.

I am also struck, at times amazed, by Murasaki Shikibu’s ability to comprehend and write about human psychology.  The world of Genji is in many ways strange to us.  It is an insular world, an elite world, a world of mannered gestures and coded complex customs that are no longer part of the world (either the western world or Japan’s).  Yet beneath these striking differences Murasaki uncovers motives and purposes that drive her characters and that we can fully recognize as operative in the world today.  That is how Genji can manage to speak to a modern audience.

In some ways I feel while I am reading Genji like when I am reading some sci-fi novel set in another world.  I am thinking, for example, of the Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Bradley constructs a world on a distant planet named ‘Darkover’, with groups and factions that differ from what we have on earth today.  Yet Bradley’s novels nevertheless speak to us.  Murasaki is a better author; but my point is that reading Genji  today has a similar, off-worldly, feeling to it; like you are dropping onto a planet (a Star Trek first contact) that is filled with strange customs and has a completely different history.  Yet, in spite of that, they are still humanoids and not only is communication possible, but it is surprisingly enriching.

And I am a more experienced poet now than when I first tried to read Genji.  Murasaki was not only a great novelist and storyteller; she was also a great tanka poet.  The world of tanka poetry is a major theme in Genji.  Numerous tanka from the imperial waka/tanka collections, such as the Kokinwakashu, are quoted.  In addition Murasaki herself composed almost 800 tanka that are scattered like jewels throughout the novel.  This integration of story with poetry has left a lasting impression on Japanese literature.

The English language world is blessed with four excellent translations of Genji.  The earliest one is by Waley and is still admired by many.  I am currently reading the Seidensticker translation which I find lucid with just enough footnotes to assist the reader with customs and references.  There is also a translation by Royall Tyler; it is more recent.  And late last year Dennis Washburn published a brand new translation through Norton.  In addition, there is a translation of all the tanka poetry found in Genji by Edwin A. Cranston found in A Waka Anthology, Volume Two: Grasses of Remembrance.  I don’t know enough Japanese (in fact, I’ve forgotten almost all of it that I used to know) to judge the quality of each translation.  (And Genji  is written in Japanese that is 1,000 years old.  My understanding is that modern Japanese read Genji in translations into contemporary Japanese because the Japanese of Genji is too remote.)  Each translation has its advocates.  If you are inclined to read Genji my recommendation is to go online and read from the translations and find out which one resonates most with you and go for it.

This is the first post about Genji I plan on writing.  In subsequent posts I want to address what Genji offers us in terms of insights into human nature, and the place of Murasaki’s poetry in Genji, which, I believe, hasn’t been fully recognized by her English language translators.  I think this can tell us something about our own poetic culture at this time.

More to come.

Monday, January 4, 2016



In the first imperial collection of Japanese Tanka, known as the Kokinwakashu there are a large number that are anonymous; meaning that we do not know the author of the tanka.  Here are two examples:


Now that autumn hues
tinge the bush clover’s low leaves,
will they not perhaps
find it hard to sleep at night –
those people who live alone?


If your affections
were to scatter like blossoms,
would I alone grieve,
wailing as a warbler sings,
to see the end of our love?

(McCullough translation)

According to McCullough about 40% of the poems are anonymous (Brocade by Night, page 176). 

The oldest collection of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs, (aka the Classic of Poetry, or The Book of Odes) is entirely anonymous.  This collection of poems is one of the Confucian classics and appears to consist, to a great extent, of folk songs and ritual poetry, all unattributed. 

It is more difficult to find anonymous poetry in collections of western verse.  Perhaps this reflects differences in cultural attitudes.  It is a fairly common observation that the west is more individualistic than the far east and the dearth of anonymous poetry in western collections may be a manifestation of that.

But in some of the more extensive anthologies readers do come across anonymous poetry.  In The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fifth Edition there is an early section of “Anonymous Lyrics of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries”.  But this is a very small percentage of the anthology; nothing like the 40% of poems found in the Kokinshu or the 100% anonymous poetry in The Book of Songs.

I bring this up because I want to touch on an incident that happened in 2014 in American poetry that, I believe, tells us a lot about how we approach poetry today.  I tend to avoid remarking about the various squabbles among contemporary poets and poetry institutions unless they directly impact syllabic verse and its place in English language poetry.  First, it is inherently unpleasant and, second, it is almost always unproductive.  For these reasons I refrained from remarking on the incident at the time it took place.  But now that more than a year has passed and it is no longer a ‘current event’, I’d like to make a few remarks.

The incident occurred when the American poet, Michael Derrick Hudson, found that he could not get his poems published.  So Hudson adopted a pen name, Yi-Fen Chou.  The result was that poems that had been repeatedly rejected were now accepted for publication, including one poem that had been rejected 40 times and was now accepted by Best American Poems of 2014.  This anthology was edited by Sherman Alexie, who is Native American.  Alexie admitted that he gave the poem extra credit for its minority source.  To Alexie’s credit, when the truth came out that the poem was written by a white guy using a nom de plume, Alexie retained its place in the anthology.

There was a lot written about this incident, mostly focusing on the political and ideological aspects.  Conservatives considered it an example of SJW thinking run amok.  Progressives, in contrast, viewed the author as engaging in a strategy of oppressive deception.  But what I would like to focus on here is what it tells us about how we, today, tend to read poetry.

To shed light on how we read poetry today, I want to consider is how we read an anonymous poem.  When we do not know the author, how do we engage with a poem?  How do we find an anonymous poem meaningful? 

In a way this is not a difficult question.  If we think of a poem as an artifact then we can make an analogy to other artifacts that we use in our ordinary lives.  I don’t know who made the mug I am drinking coffee from, but that does not hinder me from using it, admiring it.  I do not know who developed the particular type of rose in my neighbor’s garden, but that does not create a barrier to my appreciation.

In a similar way, I can admire a poem without knowing anything about the author.  The poem can speak to me, inspire me, offer me insight even though I do not know anything specific about the author or the circumstances which caused the poem to be written.

Take poem 220, quoted above, from the Kokinshu.  The poem comments on loneliness and isolation and uses late autumn as a seasonal expression of loneliness.  This poem speaks to us because loneliness is a common human experience and resonates with the fall season in a way that makes sense to us even though we are living in a very different culture and centuries removed in time.

Similarly, poem 798 is about the fear of losing the affections of someone we love.  Again, this is a common human experience; one that almost anyone can relate to (the exceptions being those who have never been in love).  This poem might have been written by a woman, by a man, by someone young, or someone older, by an aristocrat, or by a peasant.  Those details do not really matter because the experience transcends the specific autobiography of the author.

The tendency today is to read poetry through ideological categories; but I think that is a mistake.  Such a tendency imposes on the poem the specific intellectual apparatus of a time and place.  For example, the Confucian Book of Songs was often interpreted by later Confucians through the lens of their own Neo-Confucian ideology.  The result was to take a simple poem, what was probably a folk song, and turn it into an elaborate allegory on duties to the State and Emperor.  This kind of ideological apparatus, to my mind, actually creates a barrier to understanding the poem; rather than allowing a poem to speak to us directly we force the poem into our own preconceptions.  Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries scholars divested themselves of this Neo-Confucian apparatus.  It took a lot of work.  But it was worth it.

Ideological analysis always, always, always, diminishes our capacity for understanding art.  And I think that is as true today as it was in the past among the Neo-Confucians.  In the 20th century the ideologies that dominated were Fascism and Marxism.  In the 21st century the dominant ideologies seem to be Progressivism and Radical Feminism.  Running at a distant third place is an ideological Traditionalism.

The interpretation of poetry through an ideological lens dominates most University English Departments in the anglosphere at this time.  This is a primary reason that I recommend that young people interested in poetry not major in English literature or pursue an MFA in poetry.  There are exceptions and if you have found a specific teacher, or even an English Department, which has not been completely taken over by an ideological agenda, then ignore my suggestion.  But for the most part I suspect that my observation is correct.  My feeling is that a young person’s love of poetry will be badly deformed at most Universities today.  I say this because I regularly read contemporary literary criticism and it is as marked by ideological bias as the Neo-Confucian interpretations of the Book of Songs.  This is obvious to those who do not share the ideological biases of the authors.

How do we break free from this tendency to read poetry ideologically?  I believe that a significant step in that direction is to read the poem as if it were an anonymous poem.  For example, when you read Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost, never mind that it was written by someone we know about.  Read the poem as if the author was unknown.  Assume you have no idea if the poet is male or female; white, black, or asian; rich or poor.  And then get a feeling for what the poem is saying.  In other words, bracket the authorial specifics.  This bracketing of the authors specifics opens up the universal message of the poem.

You see, my view is that what all of us share is more significant than the specifics of our biographies.  And what is it that all of us share simply by virtue of being human beings?  We all share mortality; we are impermanent.  This is a central fact of human existence and poets have been speaking about this, and how it impacts our lives, in a multitude of ways that help us come to terms with this truth. 

We all share the experience of parting with those who are our friends and those we love.  Again, poets have illuminated this experience in many ways that resonate with us across time and culture.

We all interact with other human beings in ways that are both helpful and stressful.  We all have obligations that we are expected to fulfill.  And we are all limited in our abilities which can give rise to frustrations of various kinds or appreciations for our own and others’ talents.

Because these aspects of our lives are universal it is possible for an anonymous poet to speak to us about them, and to illuminate their meaning, even though they may be of a different race, class, sex, gender, and speaking a different language.  This is what ideological approaches to poetry miss.  And to my mind what they miss is the heart of what poetry is about.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Seven Deer

Seven Deer

Pervasive quiet
A glow in the eastern sky
Before the sunrise

The warmth of the windless air
The warmth of a dusty road

A bird sings in code;
Perhaps we don’t understand
The way of nature

Attending a long lecture
Regarding evolution

Waves by the ocean
Slowly transforming the coast
Transforming a pier

Seagulls suddenly appear
As the sun dissolves the fog

A passive prologue
To a thickly scheduled day
Of obligations

Heart-felt associations
That draw us into the world

Like a flag unfurled
Blowing in a constant wind
Next to the town square

An old car needing repair
Rusting in the parking lot

Something she forgot,
When she was a little girl
How she felt secure

How illness was quickly cured
By the concern of parents

How they paid the rent,
How they cooked and served her meals,
How they bought her clothes,

How they helped though indisposed,
Though they were very busy

Trapped in the city,
Trapped by fate and by karma,
By astrology

As the planets glide slowly
Singing their songs in the sky

Planet earth relies
On the seasons of the sun,
The wheel of the year

The Spring Equinox is here
By the stream are seven deer

The water is clear,
On the bank a well-worn path
Where young students walk

That is where they smile and talk
As they’re strolling hand-in-hand

They think life is grand,
That this will last forever,
That time will stand still,

But for better or for ill,
Though they thought that this would last,

Love becomes the past,
Even grasses do not last,
Even mist dissolves

As the second hand revolves
On the public courthouse clock

It’s time to take stock
At the local statue store
Deities galore

Gods and Goddesses implore
That we put an end to war

Turning to the four
Directions, finding a place
In the stream of space

An angel flies, filled with grace
Above the field of the past

Where our hopes, at last,
Join with dreams and hand-in-hand
Create our future

A dance of many creatures
On the ground and in the air

Where a white-maned mare
Gallops on a field of stars
While the planet mars

Steadily observes the cars
That fill the rush-hour highway

The night of payday
Two friends heading to a bar
Feel the fist of cold

Even though they are not old
They pull their gloves on tighter

The snow looks whiter
Than the snow from last winter,
Maybe that’s because

The snow was thin, it would thaw,
Mixing with exhaust and dirt

Where it would convert
Into shiny slick black ice,
Slippery, like vice,

Slippery, like promises,
Slippery, like last week’s cash

Or the drugs he stashed
Behind his favorite books
Where no-one would look

As the ancient moonlight shook
The foundations of his dreams

All his hopes, it seems,
Did not work out in the way
That he hoped they would

Like some badly knotted wood,
Like a garden that turned dry,

Like a friend whose sly
Words covered a deception
Like a poisoned meal

‘Come on, it’s not a big deal,’
As she turns and walks away

The sky’s touched by gray
By a subtle hint of light,
A prelude to dawn

He wakes in bed, then he yawns,
There’s the first frost on the lawn

As crisp leaves hold on
For another week or two
Prior to a storm

Whose wind totally transforms
The way that the garden looks

The flow of a brook
Carries a discarded chair
Planks of rotting wood

Like words we’ve misunderstood,
Given half a chance we could

Have made it all good,
But that was not meant to be,
Like one lost at sea

Or a cup of bitter tea,
Or a song that’s badly sung,

Or a bell that’s rung
Fading into the warm air
Of the afternoon

With the cherry trees in bloom
Outside of the living room

They’ll soon come to doom
Shaken from their branches,
The simple fact is

Years have passed and now I’m old
Like a moss covered oak tree

That she stops to see
Next to the new masonry
The shadows are long

As the sunrise sings its song
As the new grass grasps the light

Seven larks in flight
Disappear behind the sight
Of the dancing white

Cloud formations, the polite
Children at kindergarten

Watch the new fountain
That was finished yesterday,
That was donated

By a man who was fated
To always feel insecure

To not know for sure
What he should do or should say
And that was the way

That he lived day after day
So he became reclusive,

Someone elusive,
Like a sound that’s barely heard,
An unuttered word,

Like the moon behind a cloud,
Like a letter never sent,

Like a fabric rent,
Like a rock beneath the snow,
Like a dream that I

Can’t understand though I try
To unravel the meaning

It stays unyielding,
The mist of time concealing
What we are dealing

With, like incense dispersing
When the morning Mass is through

And there are a few
People sitting on the pews
Quietly in prayer

‘Times like this in life are rare,’
Two old friends are hand-in-hand

Like the cliffs they stand,
Monuments to endurance
As the seasons change

Like a fluid mountain range,
Like cool fog above a stream,

Things swirl, planets dream,
Things swirl, it’s the first frost’s sheen,
Things swirl, stars careen,

Things swirl, they are inbetween,
Things swirl, the wind stirs the trees,

Things swirl, falling leaves
Skitter past a silent fox
To a fence that blocks

A path to some glacial rocks
Lying at the farm-field’s edge

Near a shaggy hedge
By a new development,
Sixteen new houses

Empty, and the problem is
That no one can afford them

Words from an anthem
No longer seem to inspire
Like an off-key choir

After the divorce she’s mired
And the kids, though grown, require,

Because things are dire,
More assistance, more support,
Than she expected

Life is tough, things neglected
Have a way of coming back

Dark, the road is black,
The swift outline of a bat,
Slowly thunder claps,

Somewhere a twig snaps,
A feral cat eats a scrap,

Time bends, there’s a gap,
An angel looks at a map,
He must arrive at

A cop at a speeding trap,
On the street a missing cap

Like other things that
Disappear without a trace
Cities that vanish,

A conjuration banished,
An ancient sea now deceased,

An apartment leased,
A full eclipse of the sun,
Days of joy and fun

When we used to play and run
On the shore of Elbow Lake

August was a break,
A motorboat left a wake,
On our vacation

We would joke and would mention
How the night was filled with beasts,

They were friendly beasts,
Seven deer and fireflies
And the white-barked birch

Seemed to shimmer and give birth
To stories both new and old,

Stories always told,
Stories that I never heard,
Stories without words,

Stories that seem sometimes blurred,
Stories that the moss will tell,

Stories from a shell
That sails on the stream of time
Past all that is here,

Past all the things that appear
Beyond all that disappears

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Ghazal for Emptiness

A Ghazal for Emptiness

I recall a simple song in the Grove of Emptiness,
The lingering light of dawn in the Grove of Emptiness.

I suspect that you’ll soon leave, autumn colors don’t deceive,
Nothing lasts for very long in the Grove of Emptiness.

Lightning flashes in the sky, I’m waiting for your reply,
There is nothing right or wrong in the Grove of Emptiness.

In the morning you make me some toast and fresh roast coffee,
Gestures of caring are strong in the Grove of Emptiness.

Ecclesiastes said, ‘See, all of this is vanity’,
All our hopes and fears are gone in the Grove of Emptiness.

Notions appear and disappear like flowers from last year,
A mountain does not last long in the Grove of Emptiness.

An ancient stream shifts course, a child, now grown up, feels remorse,
But I feel that I belong in the Grove of Emptiness.

My name is Jim, all is clear, there is nothing that is dim,
I am dancing with a throng in the Grove of Emptiness.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Ghazal for December

A Ghazal for December

The sound of the steady December rain,
Leaves in an eddy and December rain.

The tick-tock of the clock seems to have stopped
While in stillness I remember the rain.

The world’s filled with the cruel and many fools,
But there’s the stochastic sound of the rain.

I read a tweet that I quickly delete
While I’m walking in the wind and the rain.

Awake at night, I turn on my room’s light
And there’s the fantastic sound of the rain.

I heave a sigh for a lover who died
And recall the lullaby of the rain.

My name is Jim, I seek shelter within –
There are so many voices in the rain.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Richard Wright Day -- 2015

Today is Richard Wright Day and this year I don’t have a long post or analysis of his work.  I’ve just been too busy.  Nevertheless I wanted to take a moment to pay my yearly tribute to Wright and to his contributions to English Language Haiku and syllabic verse in general.  It’s a good day to read Wright’s collection of superb haiku poetry, or maybe to compose a haiku tribute to Wright.

I spend time studying Wright’s work; there is a lot to learn from his approach to haiku and syllabics.  I am in the process of building a concordance of Wright’s published haiku.  I am almost finished with the concordance and several things emerge from this project.  First, the vocabulary is accessible by ordinary readers.  There are no high abstractions or obscure words, no made-up words.  The concordance appears to be dominated by nouns that name objects in the world that anyone can relate to. 

Second, the vocabulary is mostly short-count words.  Rarely you will find a word that has 4 counts or higher.  An exception is found in haiku 653:

You can see the wind
Absentmindedly fumbling
With apple blossoms

The word ‘absentmindedly’ is a rare 5 count word; but it works.  It’s an ordinary word, a word one hears in conversation.  So it fits the overall vocabulary.

Haiku 87 is another example that uses a 5 count word:

The cat licks dew-wet cobwebs
From between his toes.

Here the 5 count word holds an entire line.

Again, such words are extremely rare, but when Wright does use them they don’t cause the reader to stumble.  They read smoothly and fit in with the overall sense of the haiku he is writing.

Another aspect of Wright’s haiku that comes through in the concordance is the ordinary syntax that Wright uses.  Articles appear in almost every haiku, as do prepositions.  Unlike many ELH haijin that have been influenced by the cerebral construction of an artificial syntax that is pushed by official haiku (what I refer to as 'Haiku Hybrid English'), Wright’s haiku accept the English language as it is.  From my perspective that is one of the chief virtues of his haiku and it is an ideal that I would like to see many more ELH poets adopt.

I will have more to say about what the concordance shows.  But for now this is enough.  Let’s take a moment of appreciation for Richard Wright and the haiku he has bequeathed us.