Sunday, January 31, 2010

Not So Sweet Lorraine: Issa's Sunday Service, #40

The album Electric Music for the Mind and Body by Country Joe and the Fish is probably one of the 10 best albums of genuine 60's West Coast psychedelic rock. And we are talking some pretty heavy company: Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Love, Moby Grape, The Doors, The Byrds, Steppenwolf and on and on. "Not So Sweet Lorraine", this week's featured track at Issa's Sunday Service, is probably one the strangest and more salient pieces of spot-on satiric psych rock of that era. One might trace the history of songs about goth girls from the moment of this song's inception. For those who think that the 60's was all flowers and light, think again:

The joy of life she dresses in black
With celestial secrets engraved in her back
And her face keeps flashing that she's got the knack,
But you know when you look into her eyes
All she's learned she's had to memorize
And the only way you'll ever get her high
Is to let her do her thing and then watch you die,
Sweet Lorraine, ah, sweet Lorraine.

The joy of life, indeed. But if you want to really find joy, as in "Now I've just found joy", look no further than Nat King Cole, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Ray Ellis, and the incomparable Coleman Hawkins for the one and only original "Sweet Lorraine."

And, ya know, sometimes it just all comes together, as in this issue of Nick Fury, Agent of Shield, with CJ & the Fish singing the verse from "Not So Sweet Lorraine" that got it LitRock status, with its reference to one of the greatest books of any culture, The I Ching:

Nick, uh, didn't like 'em so much. Nuff said.


This week's feature, two poems from Lilliput Review, #64, December 1994. Enjoy.

Who Is To Be Master
Time to let
the husky words you wrestle
pin you down.
Tom Riley

Calculated Risk
Some poems never get written:
living them through was enough.
Kate Stewart

And, in the same spirit, a gentle reminder from Issa:

are a waste of time...
translated by David G. Lanoue


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Richard Brautigan: Two Poems

Today is the anniversary of the birthday of one of the most original, reviled, inventive, maligned, loving, oft summarily dismissed, American poets of, well, all time: Richard Brautigan. Here are two poems from his late volume, June 30th, June 30th, a poetic journal of his first trip to Japan.

Japan begins and ends
----with Japan.

Nobody else knows the

. . . Japanese dust
in the Milky Way.
May 18, 1976

Homage to the Japanese Haiku Poet Issa
Drunk in a Japanese
May 18, 1976

All these years later, we still miss you, Mister B.

And two birthday poems for Richard by Master Issa

paying no heed
to Buddha's birthday...

Buddha amid birthday flowers--
even the moon
deigns to rise
translated by David G. Lanoue


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiku, edited by Peter Washington

Currently, it is very difficult to find a complete 4 volume set of R. H. Blyth's historic Haiku for under $200 (though you might be able to cobble together individual volumes for less @ abebooks - and at the moment there is this bargain for a set in fine condition) and this is really a shame. This seminal work is like an in-depth, life-long seminar in the essence of haiku, with arguably the most qualified teacher that has ever lived. The set includes hundreds of haiku translated by Blyth and one might say it is the most comprehensive collection of haiku translated into English. In addition, but of equal importance, this 4-volume work contains the history, context, and, Blyth's revelatory running commentary on all things haiku.

If you need schooled in old school, as we would delicately put it here in Pittsburgh, this is it.

Which is the long way round to introducing the book Haiku, edited by Peter Washington, part of the familiar Everyman Library series of Pocket Poets. Here's why.

Haiku is divided into two sections: Japanese Haiku and Western Haiku. Section one takes up over 200 pages of the nearly 250 page book. The vast majority of the pages contain 3 haiku. The Japanese haiku section, containing approximately 600 poems, is translated in its entirety by R. H. Blyth, all the translations coming from his own monumental 4-volume study cited above.

So, the good news is that a huge chunk of Blyth's translations from the Japanese haiku masters is now contained in one available volume, for the whopping price of 12.50 brand new, with copies going for as low as 99 cents on amazon. That's some savings.

The bad news is no commentary. How bad is that news, really? Well, for me the commentary is better than the translations. Sacrilegious, you might ask? But I would hasten to add that the translations are among the most valuable there are, which gives you some idea of how I feel about the commentary.

I'll leave it there, as far as good and bad news is concerned. What I would say is this: the books shouldn't be compared, they are two different animals sharing one lineage. Still, it would be criminal not to note how very important the original source of these translations is.

From the Blyth translations, I marked down an incredible 81 poems I considered strong enough for an in-depth look. The shorter Western haiku section also had over 30 very impressive pieces. Here's a sampling of very superlative haiku, indeed, from the sections on Buddha-nature and the moon:

Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down
Just like that?


The puppy that knows not
That autumn has come
Is a Buddha.

Has the tail of a horse
The Buddha-nature?
The autumn wind.


Looking at it, it clouds over;
Not looking, it becomes clear.

The thief
Left it behind -
The moon at the window.


Tonight's moon -
That there was only one.

The next section is on birds, and so much more:

The voice of the pheasant;
How I longed for
My dead parents.

In one single cry,
The pheasant has swallowed
The broad field.


The wild geese having gone,
The rice-field before the house
Seems far away.

Now that the eyes of the hawks
Are darkened in the dusk,
The quails are chirping.


The wren is chirruping
But it grows dusk
Just the same.

Other sections include haiku in the following categories: Happiness, Birds, Creatures, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and the New Year. The Western Haiku selection is divided into Traditional and Modern styles. Interestingly, within the traditional section Washington includes some of Blyth's "found" haiku from Western masters, such as Wordsworth, Hopkins, Shelley, Housman etc. In addition, he includes some of his own found pieces, but unfortunately does not indicate which selections are his and which are Blyth's. In my reading of the original Blyth volumes, these found pieces are among some of the most delightful moments; there is a synchronicity, a delving into the well of the collective unconscious that at once dazzles, fascinates, and astounds. Here are a few samples:

With the Green World
They live in

John Keats

In the broad daylight
Thou are unseen
But yet I hear thy sheer delight.
Percy Shelley

I will touch
A hundred flowers
And pick not one.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

A violet
By a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye.
William Wordsworth

The moonlight steeped
In silentness
The steady weathercock

Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

It is no coincidence that these selections favor the Romantics; along with Thoreau, Whitman and Emerson, they far out weigh all others. Nature, of course, is the connection; we flow from it and it flows back from us. The Romantics and 19th century Americans, with their tentative connections to Eastern philosophy, are as steeped in it as Coleridge's weathercock in moonlight. Though these poetic greats did not write in the form, they did write from the feeling, the essence.

If you are a casual haiku reader or if you have read haiku all your life, this is an essential volume.

Provided, of course, you don't already have Blyth's 4 volume masterpiece.


This week's featured broadside is entitled The Plot by Albert Huffstickler and was published as #136 of Lilliput Review. The broadside was in the hopper awaiting publication at the time of Huff's death. It is comprised of 7 brief poems (or 7 stanzas of the same poem), a loose sequence, each of which addresses the question of the plot. You know which one. Here is the cover photo by Sue Mendelsohn, taken of the "Pronto Food Mart," just down the street from where Huff lived, very shortly after his death:

The broadside is tiny, 2.75 x 4.25, yet poignant and powerful. What follows is the text in its entirety. This is a neat, teeny little booklet to have, available for a measly buck or, as an online special, a simple SASE. Even better, here it is in its entirety, sans hard copy:

The Plot
It's about how
we lose ourselves
then find ourselves again

It's about finding
the hidden language
which isn't a
language at all

It's about
those moments when
everything makes itself known
then hides itself again

It's about
how all language
is misdirection
and how
without language
we are lost

It's about that
condition lurking
behind the word Love
never revealing itself

It's about loss,
about searching for
what was lost,
not knowing what it was,
finding it,
not recognizing it,
losing it again,
the search continuing

It's how the days
weave themselves
into tapestries of time,
fading. . . .
Albert Huffstickler

From one ancient master to another:

blades of grass--
lost among the raindrops
autumn dew
translated by David G. Lanoue


Monday, January 25, 2010

Bingo Gazingo: R.I.P.

Friend and local novelist/poet Karen Lillis informed me last night of the death on January 1st of the NYC poet, Bingo Gazingo. Today, she sent along this YouTube video of Bingo's impromptu performance of the J-Lo song at the Astor Place subway station. The reaction of the street musician behind him says it all ...

Rest in peace, Bingo.

for the poor
there's not a spring
without blossoms!
translated by David G. Lanoue


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pride of Man: Issa's Sunday Service, #39

John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service

Trimmer, non-ugly version

This week's Issa's Sunday Service selection is from one of my favorite bands from the 60's, for which I took a lot of riding from my friends: Quicksilver Messenger Service. The song is the opening cut of their debut album and was written by musician/actor Hamilton Camp. It's another LitRock song that takes its storyline from the Bible; it's lead guitar line, by the late John Cipollina, comes directly from heaven, no intermediary necessary, thank you very much.

The lyrics are simple yet powerful. Quicksilver's take matches that power; as a folk tune, it has a different kind of power. Still, it works just fine both ways. Here's Gordon Lightfoot's version for comparison. And here are those lyrics:

Pride of Man

Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Can't you see that flash of fire ten times brighter than the day
And behold the mighty city broken in the dust again
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Babylon is laid to waste, Egypt's buried in her shame
Their mighty men are beaten down, their kings have fallen in the ways
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Terror is on every side, though the leaders are dismayed
Those who put their faith in fire, in fire their faith shall be repaid
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Shout a warning to the nations that the sword of god is raised
On Babylon that mighty city, rich in treasure, wide in fame
It shall cause thy tower to fall and make it be a pyre of flame
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

Oh thou that dwell on many waters, rich in treasure, wide in fame
Bow unto a god of gold, thy pride of might shall be thy shame
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

And only God can lead the people back into the earth again
Thy holy mountain be restored, thy mercy on thy people Lord

For a taste of what the band was like at its peak, here they are covering Bo Diddley's Mona with a two guitar attack and lots of groovy dancing!

You will notice that the Grooveshark widget, above, has gotten decidedly ugly. There doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it at the moment; perhaps I'm just caught between changes or the GS people are just looking for some more real estate. All I can say is that you should have seen it before I edited it down. However, working with the old lemonade from lemons theory, I am going to try the reverse and whip up a giant widget covering all the songs featured to date. Stay tuned. (*** The decidedly less ugly version became available, so I've posted it side-by-side above ***)


This week's selection comes from Lilliput Review #61. While looking through this issue, I was struck by the presentation of art and poems over these two pages so thought, for a change, I'd scan them in for perusal. The poems are "How She Slumbers" by Albert Huffstickler and "After Sex" by John Grey. On the left, the artwork is Huff again and Guy Beining on the right.

Click the image to read poems & see artwork close-up

And the final words to Master Issa:

wind blows--
the wild boar's sleeping face
so innocent
translated by David G. Lanoue


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stone Buddha by Karma Tenzing Wangchuk

We all know the old saw: form dictates content. By extension, artistic concept also dictates content, arguably in more restrictive way. I'm not much for a whole particular set of poems about "blah," especially if the poems are all written by one poet. Even more especially when the form is haiku.

There you go, my quirks, laid out on the line, for all to see.

And for one to prove decidedly erroneous.

That one is Karma Tenzing Wangchuk and the volume in question is Stone Buddha, put out by John Martone's exemplary tel-let press. Each volume from this press is unique; as you may see above, Stone Buddha is handmade, with a sort of papier-mache cover, front and back of which has a whole leaf (actually, the back has leaves) embedded beneath a thin layer of handmade paper. My cover, which has traveled back and forth in my satchel from work to home, is beginning to fray a bit. Two little tiny ends of leaves disengaged from the cover and now adorn the desk where I sit.

It feels as though the book wishes to return from whence it came and how very right that feels.

The poet's concept or conceit is that each poem is about or addresses a stone buddha. In his short but prescient foreward, Stanford Forrester observes that, utilizing this single object, Tenzing looks at "Time, impermanence, temporality, existence and many other concepts are explored playfully in these pages ..." I would only add playfully, yes, and very seriously also. There are over 50 stone buddha poems in this wonderful little collection. Here's a few that grabbed me and wouldn't let go:

no thought best thought stone buddha

see no evil here no evil speak no evil

----------stone buddha

the wind
not always at his back
----stone buddha

losing weight
one grain at a time-
stone buddha

like everyone else
empty of self-substance-
stone buddha

stone buddha-
never a thought
for himself

In the first one-line ku, immediately the blending of humor and seriousness is apparent. A poem of a mere six words is working on 3 levels that I can discern: a riff off the famed Beat Writer mantra "first thought, best thought," the fact that in meditation the ideal state is to cease thought or break the cycle of obsessive thinking, and, of course, lumps of stone don't think, I think.

The second ku plays off the famed pictorial proverb

and, of course, is once again literal. Still, the literal is the embodiment of the principle, again as in the first.

The third reminds me of timelessness and change - in terms of a lump of stone, it may be only one grain at a time, but like all things, including man, it tends to entropy, no matter how slowly. Buddhism does have a response to entropy; at least a handful of my own ashes will be sprinkled in the garden. We all reincarnate somehow; I tend to lean to the literal and, well, there is really nothing quite like a fresh, off-the-vine garden tomato.

The fourth ku has some deep philosophical resonance and, I suspect, is the one many people might have the most trouble buying, philosophically speaking. Still, again the goal of Buddhism is no-self and, though we are all very conscious of ego and"who we are," perhaps it is a lesson being taught here by Master Stone Buddha.

The last of my favorites from stone buddha takes us back to the first: no thought, never a thought. The literal again brings the humor, resonance elicits the depth.

I'm not sure if there are any copies of stone buddha available if you are interested or what they might cost if they are. If you are interested, try contacting John at the above link at tel-let. Meantime, here's another stone buddha poem I found at Mann Library's Daily Haiku. Click the previous and next buttons for other poems by Karma Tenzing Wangchuk - there is still another stone buddha poem, it is one of my favorites and it's not even in the book.


This week's featured broadside is #140, October 2004, entitled For Cid by Alan Catlin. For Cid is a 7 poem suite in memory of Cid Corman, who had recently died. Broadsides are available for $1 apiece or, for this featured series, a simple SASE. They may also be purchased 3 for $2: here are the details. Finally, enough with the jabbering, already: here are 3 little beauties from that collection:

So still this night
a lone dog’s bark
is swallowed by the moon

A fade of light in tall
marsh grasses-still

water thick with refuse;
nothing moves.

Deer prints in fresh
fallen snow-

frozen scat where he
stood-no path forward

or back

--- Alan Catlin

And caught by the precise eye of Master Issa, that which isn't even there:

bush clover sprouting--
when people aren't looking
the deer eats

translated by David G. Lanoue


Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Issa's last home

Sometimes technology just sneezes. Since we were heading out to the woods for three days this past weekend, I thought I'd schedule a post for Sunday. Simple little task, no biggie.

Well, with Blogger, nothing is ever really simple. This go round, when I came back late Monday I discovered the formatting kerflooey and the youtube video pulling a Godzilla all over the page. So, my apologies, folks, I've reposted everything with corrections.

Of course, this gives me the opportunity to say we had a great time hiking in the woods, reading, and generally cavorting around the lodge where we stayed. It also gives me the chance to pass along two Issa snow-related translations by the David G. Lanoue:

he's also in no mood
to sweep the snow...

first snowfall--
it too
becomes Buddha
translated by David G. Lanoue


Sunday, January 17, 2010

April: Issa's Sunday Service, #38

For those familiar with the group Deep Purple, their selection in the LitRock category might be a head scratcher: isn't this the head banging, hard rock, heavy metal band of "Smoke on the Water" and "Space Truckin'"? And right you would be, 70's classic rock mavens. However, Deep Purple started out a bit differently and this cut is probably the apex of that difference: a near 13 minute suite that combines rock, pop-rock, heavy classical, and, yeah, literary pretensions, the later being used in the strictly non-judgmental sense. This after all was the edge of experimentation; rock operas, suites, the cross-pollination of genres, album length songs etc. Here is their intro to the piece from the liner notes:

A sort of 3 part concert about the month of April. The first
section is played by just Jon and Ritchie. Jon played piano
and organ, and Ritchie played acoustic guitar (a rhythm
pattern and a double tracked lead pattern) and electric
guitar. The choir was added afterwards. The whole section
used about 11 different tracks. Also Ian on timpani can be
heard in the background. The second section is Jon's
orchestral description of April. The instruments used were:
two flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, two violins,
viola and two cellos. The third section is a treatment of the
chord sequence of the first section in a more "Purple" way.
As a whole, we hope April hangs together as personal
evocation of a beautiful, but sad (to us) month.

And the lyric (which, be forewarned, does not kick in until around the 8:45 or so mark):

April is a cruel time
Even though the sun may shine
And world looks in the shade as it slowly comes away
Still falls the April rain
And the valley's filled with pain
And you can't tell me quite why
As I look up to the grey sky
Where it should be blue
Grey sky where I should see you
Ask why, why it should be so
I'll cry, say that I don't know

Maybe once in a while I'll forget and I'll smile
But then the feeling comes again of an April without end
Of an April lonely as they come
In the dark of my mind I can see all too fine
But there is nothing to be done when I just can't feel the sun
And the springtime's the season of the night

Grey sky where it should be blue
Grey sky where I should see you
Ask why, why it should be so
I'll cry, say that I don't know
I don't know

The literary allusion here is, of course, to Eliot's "The Waste Land" and its infamous opening line: "April is the cruelest month ..." It is amazing that this song has stayed with me for 40 years. The lyric itself is feather light, but the striving for something else in the rock medium is not and, I believe, they pulled it off in a way so many genre bending/blending experiments did not. The album from which this comes is the self-titled third album, "Deep Purple," the original cover of which was a detail from the Hieronymus Bosch painting "Garden of Earthly Delights," pictured above (It now inexplicably looks like this.) Bosch, you probably know, is responsible for the Lilliput logo at the top right of this page. Some of the rest of the album has some LitRock connections: "Why Didn't Rosemary? (Ever Take the Pill)" rather glibly alluding to the then culturally resonant Ira Levin book, Rosemary's Baby, and the successful Roman Polanski movie adaptation, and the cut "The Painter," referencing both art and writing.

And, because we are here, an odd bit of business: a mashup of T. S. Eliot reading the opening section of The Wasteland" (Burial of the Dead) with an excerpt from the biopic about Joy Division lead singer, Ian Curtis, entitled Control:


This week's poem comes from issue #59, in August 1994, 5 other poems from which may be found in this post. This one is from the inimitable Albert Huffstickler, on one of his favorite subjects: rain.

Grey Rain Day
Grey rain day in Austin, Texas.
The soul slips in and out,
never straying far
as though fearing the rain might catch it.
I dream over coffee,
something in the back of my mind,
some final perfect thought
that eludes me finally,
slipping away
into the grey rain air.
Albert Huffstickler

And from that other master of the elements, Issa:

the winter rain
dumps and dumps...
Buddha in the field
translated by David G. Lanoue


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Robinson Jeffers: Love the Wild Swan

To read the 4/4/1932 story, click the cover

This past Sunday was the birthday of the poet Robinson Jeffers, whose work I've been avidly re-reading over the last month or so in preparation for a forthcoming discussion with the group 3 Poems By. I'd been meaning to post this poem, which I think succinctly hits a number of Jeffers's major themes and still manages to be an excellent poem for all that.

Love the Wild Swan
“I hate my verses, every line, every word.
Oh pale and brittle pencils ever to try
One grass-blade’s curve, or the throat of one bird
That clings to twig, ruffled against white sky.
Oh cracked and twilight mirrors ever to catch
One color, one glinting flash, of the splendor of things.
Unlucky hunter, Oh bullets of wax,
The lion beauty, the wild-swan wings, the storm of the wings.”
—This wild swan of a world is no hunter’s game.
Better bullets than yours would miss the white breast,
Better mirrors than yours would crack in the flame.
Does it matter whether you hate your...self? At least
Love your eyes that can see, your mind that can
Hear the music, the thunder of the wings. Love the wild swan.
Robinson Jeffers

In his general disdain for man and love of the natural world, Jeffers has been caught up in accusations of misanthropy. I see him almost as an instinctive Buddhist; it is the realization of our place in the world that is the essence of what he is after, not the wholesale writing off of mankind. In addition, like so many artists, he is pigeonholed and, like so many artists, he grew and changed in his vision and interpretation of what was around him.

What cannot be denied is his passion. He put it all on the line for his beliefs and he didn't back down. He went from being one of the most popular and esteemed poets in America to being much reviled, and, finally, into near obscurity. Of recent times, his environmental themes have been taken up by the movement but one can't help but think this would not afford him any real amount of pleasure. The process of selectivity required to produce such a legacy ignores a great deal of what he was about. Initially, he was known for his epic book-length works, as in the era of the above Time magazine article, but currently it is his short work that he is most remembered for.

Ultimately, his beliefs were broad enough to contain all the beauty and all the terror that is nature, that is our existence. Think stern but loving parent. Think tough love.

Think Bodhisattva.


The next broadside I'd like to feature from the Lilliput series is Spiral by the poet Christien Gholson. Since this short 4 part poem can't really be excerpted, here it is in its entirety (minus the tactile dimension, the colorful paper, and the nifty Bosch spot illustrations). If you'd like a copy to hold of your very own, it is available for a measly dollar or an even more thrifty SASE.


The missing will return.

The train horn scythes the sky in half,
leaves a door for them
to leap through.

They swing down the sickle moon,
ride the back of a grey and white humped-back mosquito
through a sickly sweet over-ripe
jasmine vine.

The dead will return.

They poke their heads up from the sea,
eyeing the shoreline,
moon burning their scales

From a train window
I saw the glistening roll of their backs
across the black surface
of the bay.

The frenzied legs of a mosquito-catcher
jangle across the lampshade,
across the center panel of a Bosch print,
settle at the foot of St. Anthony.

Every flame is searching for an altar.

At the furthest edge of the night
a wall of white noise hides the first word.
Bones in red dust on a mesa-flat
begin their journey back.

Where the bones used to be,
a solitary seed-husk blown in circles.
Christien Gholson

And the final word to Master Issa, reminding us why it is important not to do certain things we are supposed to do:

that grass over there
won't be cut...
translated by David G. Lanoue


Sunday, January 10, 2010

1984: Issa's Sunday Service, #37 (Plus Best 2 Out of 3: Vidal vs. Mailer)

January 8th was the birthday of LitRock prince, David Bowie, and what better way to celebrate than with the retro-future tune 1984, this week's selection for Issa's Sunday Service?

And here is a stylized, very mannered live performance of the same, on the Dick Cavett Show; what it loses in studio perfection it more than compensates for by seriously rocking out.

Of course, when I think of Dick Cavett I think of one of the most amazing pieces of live television I've ever seen in my life, an excerpt from which follows:

What didn't come out until the very end of the show, was that in a review by Vidal in the New York Review of Books of Mailer's book, Prisoner of Sex, Vidal had lumped Mailer in with Henry Miller and Charles Manson (whom he referred to as the 3M's throughout the balance of the article); Mailer took the Manson mention to be a reference to Mailer's stabbing of his wife and this was what he took umbrage to and was unable to articulate until the end, when he got up in a threatening manner, from which Vidal recoiled. It seemed they both behaved rather despicably, Vidal all refinement and venom and Mailer all, well, repugnant, crass, and loaded; of everyone, Janet Flanner came off best, closely followed by Cavett, with his gallant attempt to defend his guests and himself.

That, folks, is reality TV.

Here's Cavett's 2007 remembrance of that show.


This week's feature poem comes from Lilliput Review #57, June 1994, several poems of which were highlighted in a previous post. This one seems to dovetail perfectly with the early 70's bit of footage, noted above:

Child of the 70's
I was
a bad

Keith Higginbotham

Our friend, Issa, seems to see through us all:

boars and bears
are my neighbors...
winter seclusion
translated by David G. Lanoue


PS For all 37 Litrock selections, check out the webpage Litrock at Issa's Sunday Service. Please note if you subscribe by email or a reader you may not see the grooveshark player or occasional youtube video, so just click through to hear and see what's up.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Of This World: Issa's Life and Poems

In recent weekly posts, I've been strolling through my poetry shelves to find all manner of treasures hidden there. And, it would seem, the occasional clunker. The stroll has been alphabetical through the Asian anthology section, so the focus has been interesting and pointed. The clunker I ran across is entitled Chinese Love Poetry, a British Museum book with lovely illustrations. The less said about the 40 plus poems the better. I only marked two as outstanding, those being famous poems by Li Po and Wang Wei, the former being "Drinking Alone Under the Moon" and the later being Wang Wei's truly moving inquiry of a passing stranger (page down for English translation) as to whether a winter plum was in bloom back in his village. The art work is really beautiful, printed on high quality paper; unfortunately, it feels as though the poems were chosen to illustrate it rather than vice versa.

So, I've decided to punt and take a look at another oddish item I picked up at the library, entitled Of This World: A Poet's Life in Poetry (1968)by Richard Lewis (pdf), with photographs by Helen Buttfield. Why oddish, you might ask? First, Issa, whose poems are responsible for the primary content of the book, is not named on the cover, the title page, or the rear flap, where the author info resides. In addition, R. H. Blyth, whose translations are used throughout, appears only in micro font on the copyright page. What then is Mr. Lewis responsible for?

Lewis has divided the book into 4 parts, the poems having been arranged in a sort of impressionistic evocation of Issa's life. Each of the sections is proceeded by a brief prose accounting of Issa's life by Lewis, with the whole having an equally brief introduction. Throughout, the book is very nicely illustrated with the photographs of Helen Buttfield. Most pages contain a single poem or two, or a single photograph or two, with a handful containing 3 poems or a poem and a photograph. Interestingly, some bookstores and libraries have classified this as a childrens' item though nowhere is this said to be the stated intent. Children, however, might in fact be an ideal audience, with their openness to experience and imaginations capable of filling in the impressionistic gaps.

The Blyth translations are fine and highlight both his many strengthens and few weaknesses; in fact, the weaknesses are most likely those of this reader than a translator as fine and renowned as Blyth. In the coming weeks I hope to look at another volume that collects Blyth's translations, primarily from his monumental 4 volume classic, Haiku.

I think Blyth's translation of this, one of Issa's most famous and cherished poems, is the finest I've ever read and the best in this particular selection:

The world of dew
Is the world of dew,
And yet . . .
And yet . . .

Another outstanding poem is

-----The autumn wind;
The shadow of the mountain

In these eight words, Blyth captures the full mystery of existence I believe Issa was after with his poem. Here is another, even more mysterious, and as such, for me, equally appealing:

----Getting older,
the song of the earthworm also
----Dwindles every evening.

And, finally, the poem Lewis closes the volume with, and rightly so:

-----In the wintry grove,
-----Of long, long ago.

There are many other fine poems, familiar and otherwise, 77 in total, a quite sizable amount. As to the implied intent in the subtitle, it was an interesting premise that is at least partially successful. Lewis's biographical summary is, though minimal, serviceable and Buttfield's photographs are quite lovely. The poems themselves are the real gold here; their author and translator should have, however, been accorded a degree of respect that goes beyond the actual text itself.

Without the poet, and his able translator, the book would not exist.

Mr. Lewis and Ms Buttfield went on to collaborate on another haiku book, The Way of Silence; The Prose and Poetry of Basho. For another take on the Issa volume, see this review.


click image for close-up

This week's featured broadside is entitled Shorties by Jack Collom and is issue #154 from November 2007 . The 8 page broadside features a mix of 19 poems, including found quotes and one hand-drawn poem, and one graphic anomaly - you have to see that one to "get it." In addition, the cover pictured above is beautifully hand-drawn by the poet himself. Here is a small selection of Shorties:

WISH: ----- I think.
LIE: ------- -Therefore,
DREAM: -- I am.

One syllable
of the word "human"
is not significant

-- Aristotle


(A shortie at one point handed to Ted Berrigan
----------------for his opinion)
--------I'm willing to let my
--------desires settle
--------around you like birds

And Issa's last word:

seeing the inn's
inner garden, the lark
translated by David G. Lanoue


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Spell (Footnote to Howl): Issa's Sunday Service, #36

This week was the birthday of one of the premiere rock poets of all time, Patti Smith. In celebration (and to shelve all those Lawrence Welk and doo-wop shows for at least a week), public TV has been airing the documentary film Patti Smith: Dream of Life on POV. Appropriately, this week's litrock selection at Issa's Sunday Service is her rendition of the final part (or addendum, for purists) of Allen Ginsberg's masterpiece, Howl: that section, entitled "Footnote to Howl," Smith recorded as "Spell: (Footnote to Howl)."

Happy birthday, Patti. The two shows I had the privilege to attend here in Pittsburgh that she gave were two of the best rock shows I've ever seen and I've been going to concerts since 1968. The outdoor show with just a couple of hundred people in a light, cold rain was every bit as intense as the one she gave for a couple of thousand. Her connection to the audience is remarkable.

As a footnote to Howl and Footnote to Howl, here is a 2 part video made by Karen Lillis as part of her internship at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. In it, she highlights all the resources on the poem Howl and Allen Ginsberg at the library. In addition, she interviewed three folks at the library intimately engaged in poetry as to what the poem means to them: Barry Chad, Renée Alberts, and myself. The video is static, the information dynamic. If you have interest in the poem and/or Ginsberg, I think you'll enjoy it.


Public television is also going to be airing, at least in Minnesota, a show entitled The Poetry and Life of Cold Mountain, about the master Chinese poet, Han Shan. You can read more about it here.

There is small animated segment in the show. Perhaps these wonderful poems, whimsically rendered, will entice you to watch:


Finally, a poem from Lilliput #56, April 1994, six poems of which were featured in a previous post. This little gem, by Charlie Mehrhoff, gives "flash fiction" a run for its money:

¶ nothing heals.
the doctor bends low
to kiss a whisper into the corpse's ear:
it was i who needed you
it was i who needed you
Charlie Mehrhoff

playing doctor
for the silkworms...
little girl
translated by David G. Lanoue


Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Haiku/Tanka Challenge Winners

Thanks very much to all for sending along poems with barely 12 hours of open reading time, on New Year's Eve to boot. The winning poem (haiku) is

Snow blurs tracks
From year
Just past
Russell Libby

And here are 3 runners-up ...

New Year’s Day —

the wreath has fallen

between the doors
Scott Metz

end of the year--
not enough fingers and toes
to count my blessings
Karma Tenzing Wangchuk

ashes, few embers—
enough for a fresh fire though
this New Year’s morning
Joseph Hutchison

Once again, my sincere thanks to all who sent work along. It was all solid and a nice way for me to start the new year.

Happy New Year to all.

And from Issa, a reminder: Edo is the ancient name for Tokyo, but we all may fill in the name of our own town ...

homeless, too
seeing in the new year
in Edo
translated by David G. Lanoue