Monday, August 17, 2015



The hot morning air –
All the flowers are wilting
Above brown-dry grass

A butterfly is searching
For drops of dew and nectar

Thin clouds, mere specters,
Dissolving before her eyes
Into the vast sky

Seasonal time won’t comply,
(Unlike our calendar years)

Oak leaves, crisp and sere,
Tumble down without a sound
On the sloping mound

No wind, falling to the ground
As daylight hours grow shorter

It’s the last quarter
Of a life of many years
Ghosts of friends appear,

Ghosts from times that I hold dear,
Ghosts of songs that I still hear,

Ghosts that linger here,
Ghosts from dreams, from other spheres,
Ghosts calm and austere,

Ghosts from streams that disappear,
Ghosts resembling a shy deer,

Ghosts from a frontier,
Ghosts are time and time is near,
Ghosts like distant trees

Seen through a cold howling freeze,
Seen through thickly falling snow

Streetlights barely glow
As a neighbor trudges home
After work is through

There was something he should do,
Something he has forgotten

The note he placed in
His shirt pocket has fallen
Out onto the street

When he paused to stop and greet
An old friend he had not seen

For years, though it seemed
That it was just yesterday
When it was routine

They would meet day after day
Exchanging quips and wordplay

But time eats away
At all our expectations,
Time burns like a fire

And all that is required
Is that she waits patiently

Hoping she will see
In the park where they once walked
His approach, his smile

But she’s surrounded for miles
By an emptiness that’s vile

Blossoms fall like tiles
Torn from the plum trees’ branches
In a bitter wind

He offers incense for his sins
And freshly picked daffodils

The courtyard is still
Something glows in the distance
Passing the roofline,

Like a musician keeping time,
Coursing through the dream-filled air

Moonlight, bright and fair,
Waning from full, like a sigh,
Surrounded by clouds

Hovering, like a thin shroud,
Angels’ wings don’t make a sound

Monday, July 27, 2015

Into Great Silence: Richard Wright's Haiku 743

Into Great Silence

There are haiku which depict a scene in a way that open that scene to a luminosity that reverberates in the mind and heart of the reader.  Richard Wright’s haiku 743 has that effect on me:

In the still orchard
A petal falls to the grass;
A bird stops singing.

The haiku is in 5-7-5. Each line is a grammatical unit.  Lines 1 and 2 form a complete sentence.  Line 3 is also a sentence.  The two sentences are linked by the use of a semi-colon which indicates that line 3 is an additional part of lines 1 and 2.  I think you could read line 3 as saying that the petal falls to the grass as a bird stops singing; the two are happening at the same time. 

The setting is an orchard in spring.  The season word is ‘petal’ and with that single word the season is established.  The word ‘grass’ narrows the focus a little; it would seem to be mid-spring or the height of spring.  For this reason I think of apple blossoms rather than plum when in my mind’s eye I depict the scene.

The orchard is still; there is no wind.  Into the stillness there is the smallest movement; a petal falls.  At the same time a bird stops singing, deepening the stillness with silence.

The entire haiku depicts a movement into silence and stillness.  Line 1 gives us an orchard untouched by the wind.  A petal falls, then comes to rest on the grass.  The movement of the petal ends in stillness.  A bird has been singing, but then stops.  The falling petal moves into stillness, merging with the stillness of the orchard.  The bird ceases its singing, moving into silence, merging with the stillness of the orchard.

I often go for a morning walk.  I live in a rural area of Northern California.  My walk is on a rural road which isn’t very wide; if two cars meet one of them has to pull over to the let the other one pass.  For this reason, drivers go slow and there is not much traffic on the road, so I don’t have to worry about speeding cars or crossing traffic. 

I usually walk in the hour before sunrise.  I have, now and then, noticed that just as the sun sends its first rays over the horizon sometimes there is a pause, of maybe 20 seconds, in the world around me.  For example, where I live there is a lot of bird life.  In the morning they are all singing and chattering.  But just at that moment when the sun first appears, sometimes there will be a pause, the birds will fall silent for a bit.  If the sky is cloudy, or the morning is misty, this doesn’t happen.  But on a clear morning I have observed this on a number of occasions.

This haiku reminds me of that experience; when nature moves into a silence and stillness and offers us a vision of that realm.  This vision of that realm of silence and stillness beckons us, and suggests to us, that there is a realm of silence and stillness that can be found within.  This haiku can be read as an allegory for that interior experience of silence and stillness; that realm where thoughts fall and come to rest on the ground of being, where feelings and desires cease their seductive singing, and we experience the inner serenity that can be found within.  This is a haiku about return; returning to the primordial silence and stillness out of which all things emerge.

The realm of nature and the realm of the mind within are porous to each other; they resonate with each other.  I think that is one reason why some haiku can be so moving to us; because they unite these two dimensions of our experience.  It is difficult to articulate the realm of mind because it is so close to us.  Haiku offer us a way of comprehending the interior realm through depicting nature and inviting us to see how nature and mind are part of the same vastness; that there are seasons of nature and that there are seasons of the mind, that there is a stillness found in nature which is the stillness that can be found within, in our own minds and in our hearts.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Sound of a Rhyme

The Sound of a Rhyme

Warm sixth month morning
Winding pathways in the park
Cloudless sky, earth dust

Fluctuating sunlight rays
And the sound of rustling leaves

Whispers that deceive
Journos statements on T.V.
In the afternoon

Standing on a low sand dune
By the Pacific Ocean

The cliff’s corrosion
As the wind dissolves the stone
On a cloudless night

The full moon’s achingly bright
Shadows from an owl in flight

A brief dream-like sight
Above a construction site
Clouds slowly gather

“It doesn’t really matter,
You’ll do what you want to do.”

A stain of mildew
His anger steadily grew,
It almost consumed

But as the warm wind resumes
After months of chilling cold

As the spring foretold
Day by day snow fades away
From the tangled quince

“I don’t need to be convinced.
I know you have your reasons.”

The ice-cold season
Like regrets that won’t depart
From my memory

There is a discovery
Like an ancient hidden scroll

As colored leaves roll
Past the ancient monument
Surrounded by trees

The young newlyweds are pleased
With each other and with time

The sound of a rhyme
From a poem that they have shared
Hovers in the air

Sweet incense, a scent that’s rare,
Beauty that dispels despair

The old couple stops and stares
While cherry blossoms scatter

Monday, July 6, 2015

Monte Rio

Monte Rio

I lived for awhile at Monte Rio,
A tiny town on the Russian River;
A bar, a grocery store, and not much more;
Oh yeah, there was a movie theater,
A small, refurbished comfy Quonset hut
That stood near a quiet intersection.

Time and season are an intersection
Like when the quince bloom at Monte Rio
Beside a falling-down, abandoned hut,
Beside the smooth-flowing Russian River,
Where old growth forest remains a theater
Whose ever-changing scenes always promise more.

I’ve heard several times that less is more –
A deer is crossing the intersection
Which looks like an abandoned theater,
The ghosts of burned out buildings at Monte Rio,
The moonlit flow of the Russian River,
The silent presence of an empty hut.

A crow lands upon the roof of the hut,
The ‘caw’ of the crow, silence, nothing more;
There’s a glass-smooth silence from the river,
An angel crosses the intersection,
No cars on the bridge at Monte Rio,
Closed doors at the Quonset hut theater.

Raccoons dance on the beach, like a theater,
As a possum exits a nearby hut
Bats fly swiftly above Monte Rio
While a feral cat looks for a few more
Scraps at the town’s only intersection
Not far from the moon-filled Russian River.

There are seasonal moods of a river,
Watching them’s like watching a theater,
Or people crossing an intersection,
Or shadows on the wall of an old hut,
Shadows on the wall that won’t last for more
Than a few hours as the sun sets at Monte Rio.

At Monte Rio the Russian River
Flows for eons like an endless theater

Past the hut at the intersection of dream and time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Ghazal for Our Dreams

A Ghazal for Our Dreams

I visited you in the land of dreams
I learned what is true in the land of dreams

A polluted stream, a nightmare, a fiend,
A distorted view from our waking dreams

On the sidewalk they meet, they kiss and greet,
Love is always new in the land of dreams

Dry leaves are clinging, an old man’s singing,
Our days here are few in the land of dreams

A tree becomes a bird without saying a word
Everything’s renewed in the land of dreams

From a cloudless sky, a message, a sigh,
Karmic debts are due in the land of dreams

A mountain’s life is brief, time is a thief,
Like the summer dew in the land of dreams

My name is Jim, sometimes life is grim,
I bid you adieu from the land of dreams

Monday, June 29, 2015

Unexceptional Part 6

Unexceptional Part 6 – Mongrel Languages

The tendency among ELH practitioners is to focus obsessively on the micro aspects of the Japanese language.  Usually this means a focus at the level of the phoneme.  Because the phonemes of Japanese and English differ it seems plausible, at first, that there is some essential difference between the two languages.

If, however, one shifts focus and looks at English and Japanese from a macro perspective, from a larger context, the similarities between the two languages become evident.  One similarity between the two is that both languages have a large percentage of borrowed words.  Consider the following from Language and Society in Japan:

“No language exists in a vacuum.  All are influenced to varying degrees by others with which they have contact.  We need only think about the number of widely-accepted Americanisms or words and expressions from non-English languages current in Australia today to see this in action.  Any native speaker of English . . . even without detailed knowledge of or contact with Japan, will know what sushi means . . . The two major linguistic influences in the case of Japanese have been Chinese and English.  Around 60% of today’s Japanese vocabulary, or at least of that part of it found in dictionaries, is made up of loanwords from other languages.  Around 6% of these are from western languages, but the vast majority come from Chinese.  Kango, Sino-Japanese words, reflect the long history of language and cultural contact between China and Japan since the fifth century.”

Language and Society in Japan
Nanette Gottlieb
Page 11

The high percentage of loan words in ordinary Japanese resembles the high percentage of loan words in ordinary English used today.  If Anglo-Saxon is taken as the foundational language out of which modern English emerges, thousands of Anglo-Saxon words have fallen away over time. Many of these words have been replaced, and new words added, over the centuries from French, Latin, Scandinavian, other European languages, and more recently non-European languages.  In the U.S., Spanish is making a significant contribution to the spoken English vocabulary.

Some sources suggest that 45% of modern English vocabulary consists of loanwords; this means words that are of non-Anglo Saxon origin.  It is not always clear as to whether or not a loan word came first from French or Latin, or a mixture of the two, but the influence of French on the English language is, in many ways, comparable to the influence of the Chinese language on the Japanese language.

In other words, both Japanese and English are mongrel languages.  By ‘mongrel’ I mean a language whose identity is essentially a mixture.  Like a mongrel dog, a mutt.  Japanese and English are mutt languages.  Neither Japanese nor English are ‘pure breeds’, to continue with the analogy.  Both Japanese and English are essentially a mixture of numerous linguistic influence that have become so thoroughly interwoven that the average person has no inkling of the linguistic source of these numerous loanwords.

“Most Japanese hardly think of these as loanwords, however, as over the centuries they have become absorbed so thoroughly into Japanese as to seem not at all foreign.”

Ibid, page 11

The same can be said for English.  English speakers, unless they are linguists themselves, simply speak what they consider to be English.  The fact that what they are speaking is a mongrel language, a mashup of Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, etc., etc., is irrelevant to everyday conversation.  And the fact that when Japanese speak it is a mashup of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, English, etc., etc., is irrelevant to everyday conversation in Japan.

For those who think of Japanese as an exceptional language, these considerations would seem to undermine that stance.  If Japanese is a uniquely unique language, then how does the Japanese language manage to borrow such a huge number of loanwords?  In order for language X to borrow from language Y, the two languages need to be porous to each other, to share common features; otherwise borrowing would not take place.  That is why English has been able to borrow so many foreign words.  And that is why Japanese has been able to borrow so many foreign words.

Again, we see that Japanese is unexceptional.  Just like English, and many other languages, the Japanese language is a mixture, a hybrid, a mongrel, a linguistic mutt, a mashup of numerous linguistic influences and borrowings that have become thoroughly interwoven.  To close with a less abrasive metaphor, both English and Japanese are like vast oceans that easily absorb the rivers of numerous languages as they pour into their respective waters.  This gives both English and Japanese enormous expressive resources that would be absent had either language remained ‘pure’ due to isolation.  As poets, both Japanese and English writers are greatly blessed by this history of borrowings and influence.  It is an expressive feature which both English and Japanese share and which both benefit from.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Way of Form and the Way of Nature

The Way of Form and the Way of Nature

The natural world unfolds in cycles that we recognize by the periodic appearances of forms.  Every month there is a full moon.  Every day there is a sunrise.

The seasons are marked by cyclical appearances.  It is the appearance of these seasonal markers that speaks to us that the season is changing.  In late winter the quince bloom.  In early spring the plums blossom and birds begin to build their nests.  In autumn, the fur of animals becomes thicker and in some cases changes color.

Formal verse follows this way of nature.  We recognize a particular form because each time it appears there are certain markers that tell us that the poem is in a particular form.  We know a flower is a tulip because tulips replicate certain formal features each time they appear.  We know a tree is an oak because each oak replicates, or instantiates, certain features that cue us into recognizing that this tree is an oak even if we have not seen that particular tree before.

In a similar way, we know a poem is a sonnet because it has certain markers, or features, that let us know that the poem is a sonnet.  We know that a poem is a tanka because it has a certain syllabic shape.  We know a poem is a triolet or villanelle because of the refrains that mark those forms.

This kind of repetition is following the way of nature.  Each full moon shares certain features with other full moons, but each full moon also has its own unique displays: some are brighter and some are dimmer; some are obscured by clouds and some appear in a cloudless sky.  In a similar way, formal poetry replicates the features of a form yet, at the same time, displays unique aspects that previous instantiations of the form did not have.

Cyclical appearances emerge due to causation; they are dependent appearances.  Plum blossoms appear as the days are getting longer and somewhat warmer.  The plum responds to these changing conditions by blossoming.  As the days get shorter and colder, animals respond by their fur growing thicker and many birds respond by migrating to warmer regions.

The forms of poetry depend on human beings for their regular appearance.  The crucial causal dependency of poetic forms is human interest.  If human beings are interested in a form then some of them will take pen to paper, or keyboard to computer, and compose in that form.  Like natural phenomena appearing when causal conditions are conducive to their appearance, poetic forms also appear when causal conditions are conducive to their appearance. 

Interest in specific poetic forms seems to ebb and flow.  There are periods, for example, when English poetry was heavily focused on the sonnet, and other periods when the sonnet was not so central to poetic creativity.  The sestina has a similar ebb and flow, with periods of complete lack of interest in this form followed by energetic involvement in its possibilities.  This ebb and flow of interest replicates the ebb and flow of natural phenomena.  Just as there are seasons of flowering there are also seasons of a particular form.

From this perspective, poetic forms are not so much human creations as they are creations of nature wherein nature uses human beings as a causal basis for their appearance.  Poetic forms are human creations in the sense that human beings are a necessary condition for the forms to appear (along with many other causes and conditions).  But in another sense poetic forms are nature, or the cosmos, or the network of causal relations and dependencies, or the web of existence, or creation, using human beings so that certain types of forms will be materially embodied and be present in creation.  Creation uses soil, rain, sunlight, etc., so that certain flowers will appear at certain times.  Creation uses human beings, along with those aspects which human beings depend upon, so that certain poetic forms will appear.

When composing in a poetic form there is often the experience of an expanded sense of sharing and presence.  At first this feeling is a sense of connectedness with other poets who also write in the form, with other people who appreciate the form, a sense of contact with an extended human community.  But this sensation of plugging into something larger, something beyond individual expression, has other dimensions, which are more subtle and, at the same time, more persistent.  If the poet pays attention to this sensation of an expanded presence what opens up is a shared sense of the way of nature and creation itself.  Formal poetry leads us to an understanding of the way of creation; but not through an intellectual understanding of the way of nature.  Rather this understanding of the way of nature is learned through participation that way.  Through composing a formal poem the poet enters into the same manner of creation that creation uses when the moon becomes full, when leaves turn color in the fall, when the tide ebbs, and when the sun rises in the morning.