Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lucky Life Interview: Lee Isaac Chung

Last year, Lee Isaac Chung made a full-length feature film of Gerald Stern's poem Lucky LifeHere is a charming 4-part interview with Chung, which is at once personal and honest and insightful.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Here is the trailer from the film:

If you missed last Friday's post with the short film on Gerald Stern, you can check it out here.


Mother I never knew,
every time I see the ocean,
every time ...
translated by Robert Hass 


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Goodbye Newport Blues: Issa's Sunday Service, #71

It's a slow blues Sunday with a song composed by one of our great 20th century poets, Langston Hughes. Here is the story behind "Goodbye Newport Blues":

In 1960 boisterous spectators created a major disturbance, and the National Guard was called to the scene. Word that the disturbances had meant the end of the festival, following the Sunday afternoon blues presentation headlined by Muddy Waters, reached poet Langston Hughes, who was in a meeting on the festival grounds. Hughes wrote an impromptu lyric, "Goodbye Newport Blues," that he brought to the Waters band onstage, announcing their likewise impromptu musical performance of the piece himself, before Waters pianist Otis Spann led the band and sang the Hughes poem.   Newport Jazz Festival, Wikipedia.

This performance by the great Otis Spann capped one of the most memorable sets of live blues ever recorded and released on record, Muddy Waters at Newport.   Legend has it when it came time to take a picture for the cover, Muddy grabbed the first guitar at hand, which happened to be John Lee Hooker's.  We are lucky enough to the have following performance captured not only on record, but on film.  Stick around for the encore to see Muddy do some amazing moves, including a sachet across the stage with James Cotton and his harmonica microphone wire:

Well, I guess we can't just stop there:

Here is a slightly abbreviated performance of "Hoochie Coochie Man" which, like the previous cut, captures Muddy's Delta Blues picking style translated to electric guitar:


This week's feature poems, cause there's two, come from Lilliput Review #106, September 1999.  The first is timely, metaphorically, the second eternal, in every which way (and is presented in caps, as it was originally):

Recycled murky oils of ancient responses
Float on clear, liquid now
Preventing spirit from entering
James Livingston

Joe Staunton

in cherry blossom shade
there are even those
who hate this world
translated by David G. Lanoue 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Found Items Friday ...

Found in a used copy of Carl Jacobi's Revelations in Black

Herein, some misc items, seen around the web and in print, for your perusal while I knuckle under, working on the 4 presentations I have to do in the next 8 or so weeks: they are specifically on haiku, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, and, for work, customer service as a vocation or a way.

This first item, found in an old paperback copy of a horror novel I picked up probably 10 years ago, shows a shopper, on a meager (probably early 70's) budget, who has her priorities straight: Books, Drinks, Shop, and Food.  We can only hope that the remaining $45 was as wisely allotted.


A Wallace Stevens quote found somewhere on the net:

"Poetry and surety claims aren't as unlikely a combination as they may seem," observed Wallace Stevens.

Ancedote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness

Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Wallace Stevens


Here is the short film, in three parts, on the magnificent Gerald Stern, entitled Still Burning.   He has a brand new volume, Early Collected Poems, 1965-1992, which contains the books, Rejoicings, Lucky Life, The Red Coal, Paradise Poems, Lovesick, and Bread Without Sugar, his first six.  It not only contains some of the best, most accessible, heartrending American poems of the 2nd half of the 20th century, but it is dedicated "To the Sorrowful."

You know who you are. 


To complement the Stern film, an interview with his old pal, Jack Gilbert, another fine poet, from the Paris Review.


In a very positive review (link is an excerpt) of the debut collection by Evgenia Citkowitz entitled Ether: Seven Stories and a Novella, Joyce Carol Oates pulls a great quote from W. H. Auden:

This [collection] is not elevated tragedy or even the more familiar fissures of domestic drama but the stoic-melancholy vision of W. H. Auden, for whom "the crack in the teacup opens / a lane to the land of the dead."

It is amazing, how a brief quote from a longer work can open up its world, ironically not unlike the little crack in the little teacup ...

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
"Love has no ending.

"I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

"I'll love till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

"The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world."

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

"In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

"In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today.

"Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver's brilliant bow.

"O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

"The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

"Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

"O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

"O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With all your crooked heart."

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.


Here's a 49 second visualization of the haiku by Moritake, "drifting back to the branch:"

"drifting back to the branch" by Moritake from arjuno kecil


This week's feature poem from the archive comes from Lilliput Review #132, July 2003.  Enjoy.

at the edge of the world
to ask
           why the wave drowns
           the fisherman
is to give
           the wave
and to take
           away our own
Jeff Stumpo

And Issa, to wrap it up:

hey boatman
no pissing on the moon
in the waves!
translated by David G. Lanoue 


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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tobacco Road: Issa's Sunday Service, #70

Though largely forgotten today, there was a time when Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road was a publishing and cultural phenomenon. In this excellent review for Slate by Dwight Garner, his assessment moves from a "greasy hairball of a novel" to

Yet Tobacco Road's cultural reach—thanks in part to a folksy Broadway version of the novel—is long and complicated. You can trace the intensity of Caldwell's vision in Tobacco Road right up through the undervalued and largely out-of-print novels of Harry Crews, and even through those of—though it is mildly heretical to say this—Cormac McCarthy. Without Tobacco Road, it's almost impossible to imagine the arrival of Hee-Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies, not to mention Deliverance.

within two graphs.  He notes that Faulkner and Cowley admired it and Saul Bellow thought Caldwell should have gotten  the Nobel Prize.

The roller-coaster effect is duly noted.

The Blues Magoos are something else again.  Their influence on bands to come might justifiably be compared to  Caldwell's above - this is a band that put the g in garage and p in punk, at least in terms of who listened and learned.  A staple of psychedelic 60's compilations and charter members of the Farfisa Hall of Fame, this band may qualify as the first professional rock band I ever saw:  they played a mixer at my high school.

That's right, we were all up there and dancing.  It was all low lights and trippy and the Marist Brothers had not yet gotten a clue ...

"Tobacco Road" was a song that seemed to be recorded by every rock band, sharing only its title with Caldwell's novel which seems not to have been its inspiration.  Inspiration or no, the title is certainly more than a coincidence and so qualifies the song for this week's Sunday Service.  For a bit of history on the song, check out this website of songs by its composer, John D. Loudermilk.  Scroll about halfway down for the dope.   Here is Loudermilk performing it for the BBC in 1984:

While looking around for a live version of the Magoos best known song, "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet" (or really anything live from the 60's - there was a lot of lip-psyching going on back then), I stumbled on this live performance of "Tobacco Road," introduced by Jack Benny.  When the song ends, Benny comes back and does a routine with the band that is so painful it just can't be missed.


Today's feature Lilliput archive poem comes from issue#105, back in September 1999.   It is by the stellar Ohio poet Mark Hartenbach, who shines in the long lyric form.  This is one of his rare short poems.  What isn't rare is how good it is:

the maya meat-wheel
takes me everywhere
but where i need to be
Mark Hartenbach

in a dewdrop world
singing of dewdrops...
summer cicada

translated by David G. Lanoue 


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Friday, September 17, 2010

Haiku: The Poetry of Nature

A few years back while in London, I purchased a beautiful little haiku book at the British Museum simply entitled The British Museum: Haiku.  You will see, however, that the title of this post is Haiku: The Poetry of Nature and you would be correct to wonder why.

The reason is simple: when the book was published here in the U.S. it was retitled.  In addition, it was given a new cover, as pictured above.  Here is the volume I purchased in London:

So, all you marketing wizards out there: what's up with this?  I've thought about it and it just breaks my brain and, frankly, for awhile caused me some considerable confusion.  Why confusion?   Well, while browsing at the library, I ran into the 1st copy pictured above and spent some lunch hours pouring over the poems and incredible illustrations from the British Museum collection.  I jotted down some notes to consult the copy I knew I had at home so I could pull together some things to share in this post.

The trouble was when I got home, it took awhile to find the book with a different title and different cover, amidst all the piles thereabouts.  When I found what I thought was the book (I wasn't sure because my notes only referred to poems and not editor etc.), I only knew I had the exact book when I read this distinctive and insightful opening sentence of the introduction:

One can know the main facts about Japanese haiku without having much feeling for them; and one can feel quite deeply about haiku without knowing many facts - intuition sometimes supplies important insights. 

A great opening for a decorative, gift-bookey looking item, with gorgeous British Museum reproductions.  Who'd a thunk it'd have a spine (sewn, too)?

In the acknowledgments by editor David Cobb it is noted that many of the translations are by R. H. Blyth, some of which Cobb and his partner, Sakaguchi Akiko, received permission from Hokuseido Press "to edit [them] to a more contemporary standard of layout and punctuation."  This carefully prepared statement says nothing about changing the words of Blyth's translations, which may be some consolation for traditionalists.  Blyth's indenting has been abandoned with all the poems left justified.  In addition to Blyth, 7 other translators are represented in the collection, including 5 poems rendered by Makoto Ueda, with the remainder translated by Cobb.   

Of the 71 poems presented, I noted 19 or so for further inspection.  Why the or so?  Sometimes, when I'm not sure, I simply put a question mark so I'll return to the poem to see what I think later.  In addition to the poems, every page has a facing classical artwork, some running over onto the poem page, taken from scrolls, wood block prints, and books. The paper is heavy, the binding sewn, as noted above, and the colors of the prints are fine.

Two poems on the same page, facing a triptych woodblock illustration entitled "A Picnic on the Beach" demonstrate the care and precision that went into this volume:

on the ebb tide beach
everything we pick up
is alive

spring loneliness -
it falls short of the surf
this stone I toss
Suzuki Masajo

Both of these poems address the kinds of thoughts the ocean evokes.  The first has deeper philosophical implications; it reminds me of a wonderful Peggy Heinrich haiku I reprinted recently ("ebb tide / turning to look back / at my footprints"), both poems being reflections of past and possibly future things, in the present moment.  Not quite the "being there" of the Buddhist moment but it is being everywhere in the momet, if you will.

The 2nd haiku treats another common feeling at land's end, the sense of loneliness and the feeling of being very small in the larger context of things.   I'd almost prefer the poem without the first line, though in either case it reminds one of the basic sadness that seems to underlie all things.

A little further in comes another poem which has a similar subject as Suzuki Masjo's:

alone in the spring -
hurling a javelin, and the
walking after it
Nomura Toshirō

Anyone who has played any competitive sport on their own knows this feeling.  There probably is nothing more solitary than hitting a baseball alone and chasing it, or throwing a ball up in the air continually with no one there to catch it but yourself.  The feeling reminds us very sharply what we are missing.

The theme of loneliness pervades the collection:

a summer shower -
a woman sits alone
gazing outside

The following is an unusual poem that pushes the limits of traditional haiku - I'm really not sure at all what the poet is after:

buckling in the heat
where the A-bomb burst
a marathon
Kaneko Tota

The whole poem rides on whatever it is that is buckling. Certainly the reader knows what the buckling is an allusion to. Is it a runner the narrator sees or the narrator herself who buckles? Is it an illusion, as heat shimmering off pavement, creating an appearance of buckling, recalling that other buckling? I'm at a loss but the mood is both mysterious and haunting.

It never fails to amaze me that I go from book to book, anthology to anthology, concerning haiku and still there is another "unread" Bashō poem:

the beginning of poetry:
the song of the rice-planters
in the province of Ōshū

The reason for the quotes around unread is that I've read the complete Bashō via Jane Reichold and I don't recall this one.  Hardly surprising, I guess, since there are so many radically different renderings of classical poems but, still, you'd think I'd have even a tiny clue.  In any case, I really like this haiku for many reasons, not the least of which is that this thick-minded Westerner now senses the visceral reason for the many rice singing haiku of Issa.

Duh, my dad said!

Here's a couple of mosquito poems one each from Issa and Bashō, both translated very well by Mr. Cobb:

mosquitoes by day
the Buddha hides them all
behind his back

at my poor hovel
there's one thing I can offer -
skinny mosquitoes

The first one I don't recognize at all, the second I believe to be a haiku that has been translated many different ways previously.  I like them both, the first making a big picture point, the second a little more personal.  The next poem by Bashō is one that almost everyone translates, but this simple, stripped down version by Blyth is
still the best:

the moon:
I wandered around the pond
all night long

Longer versions of this poem tend to emphasize the moon's journeying as well as the narrator's all-night rambling - the implication is there in the simple version and anything additional is really superfluous.  The colon says it all, performing the function of the cutting word in the original Japanese and very clearly emphasizing the comparison conjured by the poem's dichotomy.  Just a perfect little poem with cosmic qualities that are at once lyrical and scientific.

grasshopper -
do not trample to pieces
the pearls of bright dew

Issa recounts in haiku lots of instances of saving grasshoppers, ants, and flies from being trampled so here is an ironical turn. Thinking on Issa's other two poems about dew recently highlighted in a post and how dew seems to represent the ephemeral nature of life, there is much resonance in this little piece, again masterfully translated by Blyth.

I can hear those 4 volumes of Blyth's calling me as I type.

bush-clover flowers -
they sway but do not drop
their beads of dew

he says a word,
and I say a word - autumn
is deepening

The first haiku reminds me of Issa's poem "as it falls / the peony lets drop the rain / of yesterday," or if stated in the proper order, Issa's should remind us of Bashō's. In one case the precipitation doesn't drop, in the other it does. Though these pieces are imagistic and beautiful in their own right, they also remind us of the interconnectedness of all things. Beyond that, Kyoshi's poem is deeply moving, rendered as it is by Makoto Ueda. In this case, everything hinges on the single word autumn, in its placement and its implications. There is almost a sense that the word said and repeated is "autumn," though admittedly that seems a stretch. Still, if that isn't the word(s), its meaning and implication is clearly what the topic of conversation is about.  A beautiful, stunning haiku, certainly.

low over the railroad
wild geese flying -
a moonlit night

This is a poem about movement, about travel, and, I imagine, also about sound, perhaps as it fades into the distance.  There is a blending, perhaps, of the two sounds as they move away.  Mr. Blyth is a master translator and, like a master painter, sketches in a few brief brushstrokes a world entire.

Here's a Buson piece I've missed previously:

the beginning of autumn:
what is the fortune-teller
looking so surprised at?

Indeed.  We are right now at the beginning of autumn in the Northern hemisphere and we know what that means.  There is a fine humor here, though the macabre is not very deep below the surface.

no escaping it -
I must step on fallen leaves
to take this path
Suzuki Masajo

Some of the previous poems prepare the reader for the full implications of this poem.  Autumn is the season of ending, the season of dying, and we all must walk on fallen leaves to do what we are doing and arrive where we all arrive.  "No escaping it."

These 3 haiku follow one upon the other:

a sudden squall
and the bird by the water
is turning white

the angler -
his dreadful intensity
in the evening rain!

the sea darkens -
the voices of the wild ducks
are faintly white

The first and third poems are familiar but the placement of them together really underscores their difference as much as their similarity.  "A sudden squall" has Buson's painterly quality, while "the sea darkens" utilizes the technique of synesthesia I touched upon in a recent post on Issa, which adds a whole other dimension to the scene.  The intensity of the storm in "the angler" dovetails nicely with the fisherman's own intensity and conjures the picture rather than paints it, which would be Buson's usual approach.  All three together like this remind the reader of Japan's island culture and dependence upon the sea.

this one eye sightless
but on that side also
I polish my glasses.
Hino Sōjo

Curious about Hino Sōjō, I did some poking around and there wasn't much except the occasional poem here and there.  There is a Wikipedia article, but only in German.  Using the google translate function, you get this horrific piece of work:

      Google translation from German to English of Wikipedia article:
Hino Sojo was born in Ueno, Taito, Tokyo township.

During studies in law from Kyoto University, he called the common Haiku Society of the University and the third high school to life. In 1924 he graduated and became a clerk. As a haiku poet he was trained at the Takahama Kyoshi literary magazine edited by drew at the age of 21 years of attention, as written by him to Haiku on the first page of Hototogisu reached. 1929, at the age of 28, he was finally included in the fixed circle of the magazine.

In 1934 he published in the journal Haikukenkyū (俳 句 研究, GV "Haiku-research") the haiku Miyako Hoteru cycle, in which he first wedding night of two newly weds, described, and thus sent a shock wave through the world of haiku poetry. It acted Although this is a purely fictional story, but this gave rise to the so-called Miyako Hoteru dispute in which Kusatao Nakamura and Kubota Mantaro practiced sharp criticism Saisei Murō contrast, appeared as counsel.

1935 brought together the three journals Sojo somato from Tokyo, Osaka and from Seiryō Hiyodori from Kobe and founded the new journal KIKAN, of which he became.

He called for a modern form of haiku without words and broke so final season with the conservative Takahama Kyoshi, which excluded him in 1936 from among the Hototogisu.

1949, after the Second World War, Sojo went to Ikeda (Osaka) and founded the magazine Seigen.

29 January 1956 Hino Sojo died as a result of tuberculosis disease, by which he had been since 1946 on his sick bed. 

Besides emphasizing how horrible machine translation is (and providing the occasional howler), this translation does give up some intriguing details.   I am fascinated in his proposal of a poetic form of "haiku without words" (not only no finger, but no moon!). The first garbled sentence is very perplexing - if anybody's got a clue, I'd appreciate it.

The haiku itself, "the one eye sightless," has a quality which gives a glimpse into the quirks of human nature.  There is humor, sadness, and I think a sense of human resilience that makes this poem special.

Overall, this is a collection that may be visited again and again, with some fine translations and excellent art.  Though I don't link to amazon, there are quite a few copies available there for 46 cents and up.  I do link to abebooks and you will find excellent copies there for even less when you factor in the amazon shipping.   Very good and fine copies for $3.97 and $4.00 respectively, beating amazon out by 50 cents.

Definitely well worth the price ...


This week's feature poem from the Lilliput archive comes from #133, October 2003.  Enjoy.

    Oxford Cemetery
You thought because
the trees moved
and the stones didn't
you understood
the meaning of the wind.
Louis Bourgeois

autumn wind--
Issa's heart and mind
translated by David G. Lanoue 


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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tamamushi-Iro: Issa Bug Haiku

This incredible little short film was put together by Mike Hazzard of "The Center for International Education" out of St. Paul, Minnesota, the organization responsible for the film "The Poetry and Life of Cold Mountain," a clip from which was featured in a previous post.  Created by 25 students from grades 1 through 8 at the Capital Hill School in St. Paul and they are magnificent.  Kids, as always, cut through the nonsense (a/ka/ my typical posts) and get right to the core of haiku.  I got misty, I laughed out loud, I loved this little film.  I ordered it from CIE and plan to use it in this fall's haiku class for seniors.

I first ran across it at the site "Moving Poems" and traced it back to the CIE site for more info and to place an order. Though this youtube video is the film in its entirety, supporting CIE seemed a great thing to do.


Even with insects,
some can sing,
some can't.
translated by Robert Hass


Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Walk on the Wild Side: Issa's Sunday Service, #69

For anyone from (or who has spent lots of time in) the NYC area, today's Sunday Service selection hardly needs an introduction - still, there is the rest of the planet to consider.  Since Wikipedia says it reached #16 on the Billboard charts in 1972 and is #221 in Rolling Stone's "Top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time," maybe I'm wrong about that

Guess those 500 songs must mean 500 "rock songs" cause, well, the Cole Porter and Irving Berlin seem to be missing.

Just saying ...

Lou Reed has told the story that the song originated from a supposed planned musical of the Nelson Algren classic novel of the same name.   A novel about the down and out, the alienated and alone, A Walk on the Wild Side, along with The Man With the Golden Arm, cemented Algren's reputation as an important mid-20th century American novelist. About Walk, Algren noted, "The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives."  The New Orleans down and out are the direct antecedents for Reed's cast of NYC's disaffected, a group that comprise some of the most memorable ever portrayed in a rock and roll song.

Of course, there is nothing new in the world - one only need look to the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter to find a slightly earlier versions of Algren and Reed's powerful characters.

Here is the amazing title sequence from the 1961 film adaptation of Walk on the Wild Side.  An exquisite use of black and white (the cat's shadow as it walks in the opening moments is astounding) and visual metaphor.


This week's featured poem comes from Lilliput Review #103, April 1999.   Ray Major passes the word: instructions are optional.

Cooking Rice
If I gave you two handfuls of rice
You would figure it out,
The size of the pot and how much water.
You would not starve
You would learn how to cook rice
And see that for the miracle it is.
Here then, here
Are two handfuls of words
Let us eat together.
Ray Major

though overlooked
the rice field grows...
summer moon
translated by David G. Lanoue 


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Friday, September 10, 2010

Poems from Dew on the Grass: Issa

Makoto Ueda, the author of Matsuo Bashō: the Master Haiku Poet (while searching for this link, I found this example of a google books scan gone kerfuffle) and Bashō and His Interpreters among other seminal works on Japanese poetry, wrote a book on Issa entitled Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa that some folks know about and not enough have seen.  Fortunately, my library has a copy so I have gotten to see it.  There are 15 copies available via, both used and new, starting at $129. There are 11 copies available via abebooks at the lower rate of $105. Evidently books from Brill's Japanese Studies Library are priced liked this right from the get-go.

Welcome to the world of Haiku Academia.

If anyone's analysis is worth this kind of dough, it is Makoto Ueda.  His biography of Bashō is a master work and belongs on the shelf of any serious student of haiku.  I am looking forward to settling in with Dew on the Grass sometime in the near future.

In the interim, I did get the opportunity to read the 200 plus translations that Makoto Ueda has provided in Dew.  It is always a great pleasure to find new translations from the vast store of 20,000 plus haiku Issa wrote.  Despite such a large body of work, we often read the same relatively small set of poems translated again and again.  We are regularly reminded by the experts that Issa wrote a lot of mediocre verse; anyone who has spent time exploring David G. Lanoue excellent massive database of Issa's poems (or has signed up for his "Issa Haiku-a-Day" email service as I have) knows there is some truth to this statement.  It is amazing to me that anyone could write 30, 40, 50 or even more poems that survive for posterity; Issa has certainly done that and, as such, will forever be a pillar of the haiku canon.  Think of the volumes and volumes of verse by the great poets of all countries and persuasions from which we remember a handful to a dozen poems at best and we realize what an accomplishment this is, not in spite of all their bad verse, but because of it.

Think of all the mediocre cabinets the master cabinet makers built before they excelled in their trade. 

Here are 19 poems that got my attention in Dew.  I've tried to highlight ones I've never seen rendered before, though there are the occasionally familiar poems that I couldn't resist since they reveal new dimensions in Makoto Ueda's astute translations.  I also recalled a couple of poems while reading these, which I transcribed from memory, that felt related in either subject or mood.

to tell the truth
I too like sweet dumplings
better than blossoms

Ever honest, Issa tells it like it is.  Evidently, from the phrasing he seems to be watching someone (or perhaps others) at dinner or a festival digging in with relish and recognizes their humanity in himself.

"Get ready to die,
get ready to die," so say
the cherry blossoms

This is a haiku that has been translated before and is one of Issa's most important.  The significance of the cherry blossom in Japanese culture can hardly be over emphasized.  Though Westerners see the beauty in them, they don't necessarily contemplate the full implication, the wabi-sabi, of the tradition of cherry blossom viewing.  Here Issa reminds us that in the cherry blossom we see how very brief life is, whether measured in mere days, as with the blossoms, or years or decades.  Beautiful and transient, lovely with a deep shade of sadness, the cherry blossoms touch the soul. 

the loneliness---
whichever way I look
wild violets

Haiku often have two distinct parts, which the poet uses for contrast and comparison.  Sometimes, the link is not apparent and this is when we must feel or sense what the poet is after.  Beauty and loneliness, like beauty and transience, are in contrast here and the messages are related.  To paraphrase Issa's famous death verse ("a bath when you're born / a bath when you die / how stupid!"), you're born alone, you die alone, how poignant.

cicadas' screech---
so utterly red
a pinwheel

I pulled up when I read this one.  The imagistic style of Buson immediately comes to mind.  This feels as if the moment truly wrote the poem, evoking the idea of synesthesia, a common enough stylistic device with Buson and even Bashō .  The cicadas in Pittsburgh were certainly bright red this summer.

blown away
by the horse's fart
a firefly

Well, Master Issa always likes to have his bit of fun and here it is.  High art?  Maybe not.  Pointless?  Definitely not.  Humor in Issa is of great importance.  If the loneliness highlighted by wild violets is almost unbearable, the stupidity of life itself maddening, the sadness of cherry blossoms overwhelming, the humor of life is all-important.  Humor in fact is the answer for many a great philosopher and the refuge of the humble.

Plus, this just must have been a moment to see!

for each fly
that's swatted, I call on
"The Merciful Buddha!"

This seems slightly different than Issa's poems about swatting mosquitoes while praying to Buddha or sending a mosquito off to its next incarnation.  The sentiment is there; the contrast of praying and killing is one that speaks to the essence of human nature.  So many wars are waged in the name of major religions.

brushing the flies away
from his prostrate body---
today is the last time!

This poem written at his father's death is deeply moving; to be thinking this during the very moments of dying evokes at once the sadness and prescience which can be so often muddled in the rush of emotions surrounding the death experience.

in the blue sky
I scroll letters with a finger---
the end of autumn

Another poem that caught me by surprise from Issa and one I have no idea about.  It feels as if there is some cultural implication that I'm unaware of, yet the image is striking enough to be moving in itself.  The act of creation here is portrayed as fleeting as the season itself, the creator truly seeing the work in the larger context.  Art, too, is transient.

as it falls
the peony lets drop the rain
of yesterday

Makota Ueda nails this one which I've seen translated a variety of ways.  The peony has held the water for a day, since yesterday's rain, and the moment when the weight overwhelms the flower captures in miniature the cycle of all things.

moss in bloom
on his little scars---
stone Buddha

Again, this is a familiar haiku that is extremely evocative in Makota Ueda's translation.  It all turns on the word "scars," which I don't ever recall seeing previously in the context of this poem.  Truly a perfect poem, dovetailing as it does philosophy and lyricism.

that loner
must be my star---
Heaven's River

There are a number of poems about the Milky Way (Heaven's River) in this collection, ones that have been variously rendered by well-known translators.  This one, however, is new to me and quintessentially Issa.  Even in the great pattern of the stars, the Milky Way, Issa spots the loner that he identifies with, just as he does with lone sparrows and bugs.

life on earth
is as evanescent as dew---
why kill yourself?

Here is a philosophical poem with highly charged emotional and psychological underpinnings.  This from the same poet who gave us "The world of dew / is a world of dew ... / and yet, and yet ...," written on the death of his daughter.   There is a very real, very powerful connection between these two poems, if I'm not sorely mistaken.  "The world of dew" is almost universally present in selections of Issa's work; I've never seen any version of "life on earth" that I know of.

There is nothing more transitory than dew, which is what brings such force to "The world of dew" haiku.  The world is simply a world of dew, "but a moment's sunlight, fading in the grass," and yet, and yet ... is there something else?  It is a wish one suspects Issa sorrowfully doubts, which gives the poem its pathos.  By the same token, that very doubt is what gives strength  to "life on earth."

he is careful
not to sit on the blooming grass:
the wrestler who won

Another traditional senryu/haiku, not very typical of Issa - but so wonderful.  The massive sumo wrestler's respect for delicate new grass is poignant in apparent contrast with his profession.  Perhaps there is a hint here of sumo's origins in Shinto religion and observance.

a wild duck in my yard
when I arrive back home
glares at me

This seems to be all about ownership or, more precisely, not about ownership.  Nature in Issa's work is about interacting, no laying back and observing here.  My guess is that our protagonists talked this one out.

as I hug my knees
another leaf falls

It takes but a single leaf for Issa to tell exactly how cold and desolate he feels this late autumn night.

the morning glory---
no human face is pure
of blemishes

There have been other versions of this poem that I have seen and enjoyed but this one sidesteps an overt comparison of its two elements, feeling more objective in its execution.  This is a favorite of mine, as are morning glories and, yes, human faces.

"How mean it looks!"
blowfish must think, gazing
at a human face

Another haiku that is new to me.   I'm not for the anthropomorphic approach in any poetic form, especially haiku.  Still this gives the reader insight to what Issa feels people think about blowfish and what Issa thinks about people.

bright like a gem
the New Year begins to dawn
on my lice

Even for the lice it is a bright beautiful New Year's - from this translation it is difficult to gather the mood, but knowing Issa and his reverence for his bug menagerie, I'm thinking upbeat.

mother I never knew---
each time I look over the sea
over the sea

This is a poem that transcends culture, language, and lyrical boundaries - to repeat 3 words in a 14 word poem, leaving only 8 to sketch it out and to compose a masterpiece of love, emotion, and longing, well, this is why Issa is Master Issa around here.

The repetition breaks the heart.


This week's featured poem is by Britain's David Lindley, whose fine work has appeared in Lilliput quite often, and originally appeared in #134, in October 2003.

On the stream we float
little boats made from walnut
halves with paper sails.

All that has ever been is
still endlessly voyaging.
David Lindley

"Look! Plum blossoms!"
the little boat
turns around
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Who Wrote Holden Caulfield: Issa's Sunday Service, #68

Artwork by Carmela Alvarado

I received a number of suggestions for the Sunday Service this week and so free issues of Lilliput Review are winging their way out to folks (what's up with that?) .  I thought I'd feature one of those suggestions to encourage people to keep 'em coming.

Here's is Green Day's homage to J. D. Salinger's legendary anti-hero, Holden Caulfield.  Does it capture the breadth and depth of the decrying of all things phony?  Nope, not even close.  Is it a rock song, does it capture a certain something about one of literature's greatest j.d.'s?  Yup, hence slack duly given.

Actually, good ol' Jerome has been on our collective minds of late with this intimate bit of memorabilia going up for auction recently.

Not up your street, you say?  Well, along with the above song, here is a nicely energized live version to take away all the nasty thoughts.  Sort of .




Today's feature poem comes from Lilliput Review, #101, January 1999. Touched as it is by memory, it's an appropriate end of summer poem. Enjoy.

at seventeen
I remember how dark the sky was
over my little home town
how warm the hood of Dad's '68 Fairlane
against my narrow back as I lay there
gazing up at the Milky Way all those
bright crowded stars strewn up there
so carelessly so abundantly for me
like a million easy choices
every one so easy to see
Michael R. Battram

Oh, here's another from 101 for luck, capturing the feel of the cool breeze that has broken the heat wave here and hints at things to come:

still life with poet
to touch a leaf, its
veins, to catch
a cloud, an edge of land
to pin it down
forever, a web, a wing
a rush of cold
Lonnie Hull Dupont

How lovely it is
To look through the broken window
And discover the Milky Way


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Friday, September 3, 2010

"The scissors hesitate:" Buson by Hass

Buson, known as the artistic or painterly poet among the haiku masters, is a master of precision.  Reading through Robert Hass's renderings of Buson, I've been most impressed by two things: the concision Hass manages to use with Buson, to great effect, and Buson's own intense concentration on the moment.

The later point connects Buson to the verse in a spiritual way  that is often marginalized when considering his work.  Of course, we all share the moment, atheist and believer alike, which is a simple truth.  However, we don't all necessarily live in it or celebrate it and, though the present moment is one of the tenets of fine haiku, in I didn't expect it to manifest itself to quite the degree it does in  Buson's work.

Some of what I've selected from Hass's translation are frequently anthologized pieces and I won't apologize for that; they are selected by many an editor for good reasons.  Yet, still, there a number of poems perhaps not quite as familiar.  That was certainly the case with me.

       I go
you stay;
       two autumns.

 While reading up on critical approaches to haiku, one tenet proffered the question: "Where does the poem resolve, in the mind of the poet, on the page, or in the mind of the reader?"  Certainly this haiku isn't spiritual in the Buddhist sense but there is deep emotion here.   There will be two different autumns because the two people of the poem will be in two different places.  The idea that even the season itself will be different accentuates the distance between the two friends or lovers.  6 words, one large parcel of loneliness.

      The cherry blossoms fallen-
through the branches
      a temple.

This is the painterly Buson who is so often mentioned.  With the blossoms gone, the temple appears.  There is a spiritual quality to this, ennui or sabi, if you will.  The season passes, impermanence is heightened, yet, even at that, something is offered by way of a solution.  Is there an acceptance here of the need to move away from attachment to attain the end of suffering?  Or is it just another pretty picture?

      Autumn evening-
there's joy also
      in loneliness.

I've highlighted this particular haiku because, though one may sketch in all manner of naturalistic details to fill out a picture, the main argument here to me is philosophical.  Autumn has come, winter is coming, the season of death, yet still there might be joy.  What is the joy in loneliness?  It is something most of us have felt and, though elusive, that joy, it is of great import.  

       on the temple bell

Perhaps Buson's most famous poem (here's a post on it from way back - actually, there were two), the image is powerful, because, I believe, of the implication and not the allure.  Again, the word temple conjures a spiritual mood.  The sleeping butterfly recalls Lao Tzu's dreaming butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming of Lao Tzu?  Here the moment is captured a little bit more effectually than, for instance, in "Cherry blossoms fallen."   The problem with the later may be the tense of the rendering.

      Flowers offered to the Buddha
come floating
      down the winter river.

This is painterly, indeed, and the image may overwhelm the message, yet still there is a message.  It is the passage of time and seasons, as the flowers of spring and summer flow down in winter into the river that, in a way, reminds me of Issa's wonderful insects on a branch, floating down river, singing.

      Not a leaf stirring;
      the summer grove.

This is, as rendered, is a potent piece. The minimalist approach puts all the weight on the swing or gate word, frightening, which modifies both the opening and closing line, and, standing alone, as one imagines the speaker in the forest, becomes very powerful, indeed.   Fear is not often the subject of classical haiku and rightly so.  Normally, the exact same scene is sketched quite differently, a quiet, serene country scene.  Here, though one's attention is riveted because it is too quiet, and the narrator's animal instincts take over.  Negative as it is, still, it is one of my favorite Buson haiku.


      Escaped the ropes,
escaped the nets-
      moon on the water.

This is, perhaps, too imagistic but, having  lived a long time by the sea, it does have a certain romantic appeal.  Dipping a little beneath the surface, one discerns a classic theme of human being versus nature and, per usual, human loses again, as the moon escapes.  Yet, the poet captures the moon, among other things, and all is not lost.  Or not.

      Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
      a moment.

This may be my favorite of Buson.   The pause is physical and intellectual and emotional - a beautiful picture, if conjured properly in the mind, about to become un-beautiful in the next moment.  Still, the lesson of death is repeated, and beauty, too.  Desire is the cause of all longing, all suffering.  Yet, we repeat the cycle no matter how many times we learn the lesson.

      People visiting all day-
in between
      the quiet of the peony.

Once again, philosophy and art meet each other halfway.  The poem, perfectly balanced on the fulcrum of its second line, eventually tilts toward the silence that is its resolution.  Without noise, there is no silence, so we are truly "in between."  What tilts it for me, you ask?  Well, the poem might be rendered "The quiet of the peony - / in between / people visiting all day."  In meditation, it is silence which informs the sounds of life and all its complications.  Truly, it is the balance we need; there is no yang without ying.  Pretty as one might find the poem, its message is every bit as potent as its beauty. 

The poet, like everyone else, needs no church or temple to be religious.  The way which may be walked is not the eternal way. 

      A tethered horse,
      in both stirrups.

This is, indeed, too, painterly, yet it is exactly that quality that appeals to me.  There seems to be only image, evocative as it is, without underlying spiritual or philosophic motive.  What I like here is exactly what I like when seeing a great painting or reading a piece of flash fiction.  I imagine the ride through nasty weather, in any emergency or an important meeting or a lover's tryst, the long discussion in a warm lodging while the horse patiently waits and all the color is gradually removed from the scene.  This is at once what Buson is most criticized for and what he is very best at.  Does it have the appeal of the layered, probing work of Bashō or emotive, resonant poems of Issa?  Surely not.  Does it have it's place in the world of poetry in general and haiku specifically?

Most definitely so.

                              Early spring ...
      In the white plum blossoms
night to next day
      just turning.  

The last Hass rendering I'll pass on, this is another coupling of stunning image with a perfectly conjured moment.   This very specific light, caught in this very specific moment, in the texture particular to white plum blossoms, is perfection itself.  As to the moment: what is better, to live the moment and the moment only or simply to talk about it?  As far as spirituality goes, there is no Zen.  There is no plum blossom.  There is no light.  First, there is no mountain.

Then there is.

Buson, I have been seduced.  Mister Hass is to blame.


This week's featured poem from the Lilliput Review archive comes from #135,  published in January 2004.  Let's make that this week's two featured poems: enjoy.

The Zen Review
seeks poems that focus clearly
on nothing.  Avoid references
to nonexistent past and future.
Present tense only, please.
We value poetry that depicts truth
about time, captures the essence of breath.
Overstocked with poems about sore knees,
monkey minds and one-hands clapping.
Peggy Heinrich

Landing Road
Old pine trees
line the road

so many tongues
for the wind 
Michael Kriesel

when the nightingale
moves into the pine...
voice of the pine
translated by David G. Lanoue 


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ed Baker: Full Moon Pointing

Support your local artist: click to buy at special price

Last week, Ed Baker, poet, artist, and raconteur of the first degree, responded to the Robert Hass/Bashō post with some nifty "finger pointing" at the moon artwork which I thought I'd share. Here's a little shrine's worth. Be sure to click on the images to read all the short work that accompanies the art, fine examples as they are of haiga.  Enjoy.

Cover image for the premier issues of  moonset, 2005


hazy moon in the pine--
passing through
passing through
translated by David G. Lanoue