The Annotated Country Western Shakespearean Love Sonnet

  • A recently discovered sonnet by Billy Shaksper. An annotation has been included to help English speakers with the Country Western dialect.

Baby, your eyes ain’t nothin’ like the sun;
My coon-dog’s tongue is redder than your lips;
One boob’s still ‘tryin’ but the other’s done;
Ain’t double-wides wreck traffic like your hips.
I seen the kinda’ gal that men call meek,
Well-mannered, mild, but you? Hell no you’re not.
Skunked beer spilled on a lime-green shag don’t reek
Near half so bad. Your breath? — like eau-de-rot.
But sugar-plum I’d sell my gun, I’d kick
The dog and turn my Mama out the door;
I swear, so help me, never drink a lick
‘Cause I got you and don’t need nothin’ more.
···Man never writ nor loved if this ain’t true:
···Ain’t been no man so lucky lovin’ you.

1. Baby dear, honey, lover , a term of endearment. The term was applied to both men and women during the country western era. Much scholarly debate has examined the infantilizing endearment in this highly paternalistic culture. 2. ain’t a contraction for am not, is not, are not, has not, and have not in the country western vernacular. This archaic but very common contraction could indicate both the singular or plural verb form (see ain’t). 3. coon-dog  Coon dogs were bred to hunt raccoons and other small animals. These coon hounds were trained to chase animals up trees to ease hunting while drunk. A favorite companion for men known as “rednecks” (see CoonDawgs.com). 4. boob breast, female mammary gland. Most country western men were noted boob-men (see Dolly Parton). 5. double-wide There is some uncertainty surrounding this passage’s meaning. Some scholars suspect textual corruption. The Shaksperian scholar B. Vickers has offered the most convincing explanation: double-wide being a reference to the twin, “double”, gluteal muscles of a woman’s rear-end, the gluteal muscles being a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus muscle, gluteus medius muscle and gluteus minimus muscle (see Cultural History of ButtocksThe female buttocks have been a symbol of fertility and beauty since early human history…). 6.Hell  Believed by scholars to refer to an absence of beer, barbecued ribs and ESPN. 7. skunked beer spoiled beer having a sulfurous taste. Scholars debate the type of beer country westerners preferred, some finding evidence for Coors Lite, others Bud Lite. 8. lime green shag  a type of thick wall-to-wall carpeting, often  accompanied by faux wood paneling, The lime green color was preferred for its ability to blend well with any possible stain, including vomit and affairs with the neighbor’s wife (see rugstudio.com).  9. eau-de-rot an offensive perfume 10. I’d sell my gun a prized possession and status symbol among country westerners, often associated with the phrase: “my cold, dead fingers” 11. kick the dog the country western male’s love for his dog was second only to his gun 12. Mama mother, third in line after guns and dogs, though some scholars place country western Mamas after pick-up trucks, football and beer. 13. Ain’t been no man so lucky lovin’ you. The double negatives in the concluding couplet have frequently called the meaning of the final couplet into question. If what he says isn’t true, then no man ever ‘wrote’, and yet the assertion is a palpable falsehood. (See, Vendler, Sonnets.)

The authorship question: There are some who assert the Sonnet could not have been by the uneducated Billy Shaksper, but by Eddy Oxfrord, the son of a well-heeled rancher who matriculated from a local community college. Most Shakspereans reject the attribution out of hand, noting that Eddy Oxford died in a freak bowling accident some years before the sonnet was published. Eddy’s defenders claim the sonnet was actually written a decade earlier, and was only published when the risk of embarrassment to the Oxford family was minimal. Few, if any scholars take the Oxfordians seriously. Oxfordians respond by accusing Shaksperians of conspiring to conceal the truth in order to preserve their socio-academic status. Shakspereans respond by calling Oxdordians idiots and morons.  The noted scholar Gary Taylor claims the sonnet is actually by Tommy Middletown and is said to have wept upon reading the poem. Donald W. Foster fed the sonnet to Shaxicon and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Other attributions include Franky Bacon, and Lizzy, the era’s most popular, country western stripper and drag-Queen, respectively.

pick up

Richard Wright and Haiku: A Review

richard wright and haikuThe worst “scholarly” book I’ve ever read.

The title might lead you to think this book is about Richard Wright and Hiaku; but I guess only fools judge a book by its title. The book is actually a loose collection of essays of which the first four, 76 out of 150 pages, (or just over half the book) has nothing whatsoever to do with Richard Wright.

My mistake, I suppose, was in not taking the book jacket’s back matter at face value:

Richard Writing and Haiku  is presented in two parts. In the first, Hakutani traces the genesis and decelopment of haiku in Japan, discusses the role of earlier poets — including Yone Noguchi and Ezra Pound — in the verse’s development in Japan and in the West, and deals with both haiku and haiku criticism written in English.

Given that the title showcases Richard Wright’s name as the centerpiece of the cover jacket, I mistakenly thought that these first “chapters” — really distinct essays with embarrassingly facile edits meant to draw them together — might somehow relate to Richard Wright. They don’t. So, keep that in mind if you decide to consider this book. The first half of the book isn’t about Richard Wright.

Getting on to what really irritates me: the poor writing and the banal, facile “scholarship”.  The writing is so poor that I first thought the author, Yoshinobu Hakutani, must be Japanese. Were that the case, much could  be forgiven (and more blame to the publishers for poor editing); but the opposite appears to be true. According to the inside cover, Hakutani is Professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar at Kent State University in Ohio.

Good God.

The first thing the reader will notice is the bizarre repetitiveness of the book. In the Introduction, the third paragraph will start:

By 1680, when Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote the first version of his celebrated haiku on a frog jumping into the water…  [p. 1]

The fourth paragraph of the first chapter will start:

By the time Basho wrote his famous poem on the frog jumping into the cold pond… [p. 20]

Later, Hakutani will repeat an entire two sentences within the space of a page. To whit, Page 80:

In 1953, Wright traveled to Africa and published Black Power the following year. In 1955 he attended the Bandung Conference of the Third World; two years later he was a member of the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers, which met in Paris in September. During the same period he liked to work in his garden on his Normandy farm, an activity that supplied many themes for his haiku.

And Page 81-82

Back in 1953, Wright attended the Bandung Conference of the Third World; two years later he was a member of the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers, which met in Paris in September. During the same period he liked to work in his garden on his Normandy farm, an activity that supplied many themes for his haiku. Of his experience in this period, Wright’s travel to the newly independent Ghana… & etc.

But maybe that’s an honest editorial ctrl+cctrl+v-mistake? As he hurriedly moved paragraphs around he forgot to delete the source paragraph (try ctrl+x next time?). Distinguished Scholars and Professor’s of English do this sort of thing all the time. Less obviously, but still needlessly repetitive, are Hakutani’s repeated assertions that Wright was influenced by  R.H. Blythe’s four volume study on haiku:

Harold G. Henderson, in An Introduction to Haiku, gives thanks to R.H. Blythe, with whom he had personal contact, and refers to Blythe’s “monumental four-volume work on haiku.” And William J. Higginson, the Haiku Handbook, refers to the American writer Richard Wright and says that he had studied R.H. Blythe’s books and “wrote several hundred [it was actually more than four thousand] haiku during the last year and a half of his life.” [p. 80]

In the late 1950s Wright borrowed R.H. Blythe’s four volume book of haiku from Sinclair Beiles, a South African Beat poet. [p. 108]

When Wright studied R.H. Blythe’s four volumes on the art and history of haiku…  [p. 135]

Just as tragedy is considered a higher genre of literature than comedy, haiku is classed higher than senryu. R.H. Blythe, from whom Wright learned how to write haiku and senryu… [p. 142]

In studying R.H. Blythe’s volumes of Japanese haiku, Wright was deeply impressed with the Buddhist theory of trimigration… [p. 150]

How many times do we need to know that Blythe’s works were “four volume”, or that they were “volumes”, or that he studied them (as if he hadn’t already told us)? This kind of repetitiveness is probably a result of each coming from a separate essay — or “chapter’ —  but avoidable if Hakutani had taken the time to re-arrange the essays into a cohesive book. Am I nitpicking? But the larger problem is the astonishingly poor, hardly undergraduate-worthy, “scholarship”. Let’s go chapter by chapter (skipping the introduction).

Chapter 1, The Genesis and Development of Haiku in Japan, is vaporously uninformative.  No one without a prior familiarity with haiku is going to learn anything whatsoever about their genesis or development. Consider that it takes Hakutani all of two paragraphs (of the opening three) to move from “The genesis of haiku can be seen in the waka…” to  “By the time Basho wrote his famous poem on the frog…” There’s zero discussion of Waka, other than to mention that it’s a 5-7-5-7-7 verse form. Renga, from which Haiku really got started, aren’t even mentioned.  So much for the “genesis” or “development” of haiku. But Hakutani apparently decides he’s covered it. The next seven pages are essentially a checklist with examples: “human life in association with nature”, “unity of sentiment”, yugen, sabi, Shiki’s “modernist challenge”, wabi. Hakutani’s habit is to print a haiku, then breifly analyze it — but his analyses are embarrassingly obvious – barely worthy of a high school student. In discussing Sabi,  Hakutani offers the following haiku:

In the hospital room
I have built a nest box but
Swallows appear not.

Then writes:

Not only do the first and third lines express facts of loneliness, but also the patient’s will to live, suggested by the second line, evokes a poignant sensibility. 

And that’s that. This is what a distinguished scholar gives you. Nothing of a haiku’s uniqueness is conveyed. By the time we’re done with the first chapter, the uninitiated reader will have learned only that haiku can be like the thinly explained yugen, sabi, and wabi, and will have learned nothing about their genesis, development or what distinguishes them from western poetic practice. Hakutani writes: “Haiku traditionally avoided such subjects as earthquakes, floods, illnesses, and eroticism — ugly aspects of nature or humanity. Instead haiku poets were drawn to such objects as flowers, nests, birds, sunset, the moon, and genuine love.” Which, when you think about it, makes the entirety of the Japanese poetic tradition seem like nothing more than a meeting of the Victorian Ladies Poetry Society.  La!  Most importantly, Hakutani is flatly wrong. Some of Japan’s most striking haiku touch on the ugliness of nature. For example:

A flying squirrel
munches a small bird’s bones
in a bare winter field 

~ Buson

Chapter 2 is called Basho and Haiku Poetics. The essay doesn’t so much as mention Wright. It examines Basho’s Haku for their “affinity with nature” 28-30, Confucianism 30-33, Buddhism 33-36, Zen 36-39, “juxtaposition of imagery” 39-41, and “unity of sentiments” 41-43. That’s all well and fine, but there’s a checklist feel to the essay’s progression and any explanation of Confucianism or Buddhism, for example, is of the most generic kind.  For instance:

A Zen point of view enables one to see things in humanity and nature more objectively. Zen teaches us to gain freedom from our ideas and desires. Basho expresses this notion in his haiku:

To be rained upon, in winter,
And not even an umbrella-hat, —
Well, well! 

From a human point of view, being rained on when you do not have an umbrella is uncomfortable. From nature’s perspective, however, rain provides water for all objects in nature; water, nourishing plants and animals, creates more life on earth. [p. 39]

First of all, it’s not even clear that this was Basho’s intention. Rain “in winter”?  What plants need a nourishing rain in winter, but then again perhaps Basho wrote this in a more tropical clime? We don’t know because Hakutani doesn’t do any of the work that might inform us. Out of curiosity, I checked the weather forecast for Atsuta, Japan (it’s presently the middle of January) and came up with the following:

atsuta forecast

So, it’s a safe bet that since Basho was walking to Atsuta (he wasn’t flying in from a northern clime) the rain was a comparatively warm one (compared to New England).

Another translation from here, reads:

[143]

no rain hat in the winter showers? well, well!

kasa mo naki / ware o shigururu ka / ko wa nan to

A later footnote adds the following literal translation and explanatory information: 

hat even is-not / me ! winter-shower ? / this as-for what

• Winter: winter showers (shigure*). 1684–85. In another version, the last line is literally “what what” (nan to nan to).

shigure (verb:shiguru): early winter showers. Brief, intermittent, cold showers or drizzle of early winter and sometimes late autumn. WINTER.

Matsuobasho-wkd offers the following translation:

笠もなきわれを時雨るるかこは何と 
kasa mo naki ware o shigururu ka ko wa nantono

rain hat
in the winter showers?
well, well!

~ Tr. Barnhill Written in 貞亨元年, Nozarashi Kiko, on the way to Atsuta. Winter of 1684/85

He was surprised by a sleet shower on the road.

shigure 時雨 is not simply a kigo for winter, it also expresses the important “fuuryuu 風流” furyu – “poetic elegance” in Japanese poetry. ko wa nan to – short for nan to nan to shows his great way with choosing words.

 Of the word fuuryuu, the site Jaanus has this to say:

Lit. refined taste. An aesthetic ideal implying traditional elegance, chic stylishness, creative ingenuity, and sometimes, eroticism . The term is derived from the equally broad Chinese, fengliuu 風流, which originally meant good etiquette, but eventually came to signify the opposite, and later referred to various types of beauty. In 8c Japan, fuuryuu was used to mean urbane manners but soon came to refer to things elegant, tasteful, or artistic. By the Heian period, fuuryuu could indicate either an elegant object or a cultivated person. In later centuries fuuryuuevolved several quite distinct meanings and usages. The word was used frequently in the poetry of the Zen priest *Ikkyuu 一休 (1394-1481) who, drawing upon the range of Chinese implications, used it to mean alternately the rarified beauty of monastic life, the essence of an eremitic existence, and the charm of sexual relations. The sensual side of fuuryuu emerged in the Momoyama period fad for the fuuryuu dance found in *Houkokusai 豊国祭 screens. More broadly, the concept of fuuryuu can be seen as the operative aesthetic in 17c genre painting *fuuzokuga 風俗画. The term fuuryuu was also used to distinguish popular styles of arts such as garden design, flower arrangement, and *chanoyu 茶湯. For example, the style of *wabi わび tea was often refered to as wabifuuryuu わび風流. In the Edo period literature of the floating world *ukiyo zoushi 浮世草子, also called fuuryuubon 風流本, fuuryuu implied an up-to-date stylishness, often with erotic implications. It is related to the aesthetic ideals of *sui 粋 and *iki いき. fuuryuu often appears in titles of *ukiyo-e 浮世絵 prints, particularly parody pieces *mitate-e 見立絵.fuuryuu was also applied to haiku 俳句 and to southern paintings *nanga 南画 where it implied a work based upon a past style. 

So, perhaps this shows some small measure of the cultural knowledge a Japanese reader can bring to a single haiku. Hakutani communicates none of it. And I’m also not convinced by Hakutani’s reading or translation  — is it Hakutani’s? But my overall argument with Hakutani is that he conveys none of the subtlety or complexity  of haiku. He prints a given haiku, then gives facile summaries that usually amount to no more than two or three sentences. He’ll write that a given haiku portrays Basho’s loneliness, and “that a living being is connected to another”, and that therefore the haiku reminds him of the loneliness in a Langston Hughes poem — the kind of thing I’d expect from a grade-school book report. But why stop there? Surely it also reminds him of every other poem, in just about every other language, that’s ever been about “loneliness” and ‘connected beings’.

His next two essays — Yone Noguchi and Japanese Poetics and Ezra Pound, Imagism, and Haiku — examine the poetry of Noguchi, then make the circumstantial argument that it was Noguchi who was responsible for Pound’s  theories of imagism — “Direct treatment of the thing … (or object)”.

  • Noguchi was born in Japan and learned English as a second language. He eventually emigrated to California and being a deep admirer of western poetry, began writing it. (While Noguchi’s poetry isn’t all that good, one does have to admire anyone who can write passable poetry in foreign language).

But to the first of the two essays. Hakutani’s weakness as a reader of poetry comes to the fore when he attempts to trace the influence of Japanese poetic aesthetic in Noguchi’s poetry.

…more importantly [Noguchi] is suggesting that Japanese poets always go to nature to make human life mmeaningful to make “humanity more intensive”. They share artistic susceptibility where,as Noguchi writes, “the sunlight falls on the laughter of woods and waters, where the birds sing my the flowers.” This mystical affinity between humanity and nature, between the beauty of love and the beauty of natural phenomena, is best stated in this verse by Noguchi:

It’s accident to exist as a flower or a poet;
A mere twist of evolution but from the same force;
I see no form in them but only beauty in evidence;
It’s the single touch of their imagination to get the embodiment of a poet or a flower:
To be a poet is to be a flower,
To be the dancer is to make the singer sing.

The fusion of humanity and nature, and the intensity of love and beauty with which it occurs, can be amply seen in haiku… [p. 54]

Yes, the fusion of humanity and nature can be amply seen in haiku, but it can also be amply seen in poetry straight back to Chaucer (let alone Blake or Whitman). Noguchi is writing firmly in the Western tradition — no need to reference haiku. And there’s nothing uniquely Zen in a poet’s desiring union with nature, though Hakutani seems to think so (as if that’s all that Zen were about). A page later, Hakutani will claim that personification and anthropomorphism is somehow a unique indication of haiku’s influence:

An empty cup whence the light of passion is drunk! —
To-day a sad rumour passes through the tree
A chill wind borne by the stream,
The waves shiver in pain;
Where now the cicada’s song long and hot?

Such images as chilly wind and the shivering waves are not used to signal the passing of summer. Rather the chilly wind and the shivering waves themselves constitute the passing of summer. Similarly, such phrases as “the light of passion” and “the cicada’s song long and hot” are not metonymies of summer, thereby expressing nostalgia or some sort of sentiment about summer; instead they are the summer itself. In Noguchi’s poetry, then, as in classic haiku, poetry and sensation are spontaneously joined in one and the same, so that there is scarcely any room left for rationalism or moralism. [p. 56]

  • Personification n. A figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are endowed with human qualities or are represented as possessing human form, as in Hunger sat shivering on the road or Flowers danced about the lawn. Also called prosopopeia.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare:

“When well-appareled April on the heel
Of limping winter treads.”

Was Shakespeare also influenced by classic haiku?  

Hakutani then goes on to assert that Pound was influenced by Noguchi. Pound was strongly influenced by Chinese and Japanese aesthetics (as far as he understood them); and Pound’s famous haiku “In a Station of the Metro” put into practice what he learned — a “Direct treatment of the thing”. (Stevens and Williams, respectively, would later write:”Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself” and “No ideas but in things”.) So, if Noguchi was a  primary influence on Pound’s poetics then by extension Noguchi is partly responsible for Imagism and western poetry’s modernist movement (hence Hakutani’s interest in the subject and his effort to trace the influence back to haiku). He highlights some of the apparent affinities between Pound and Noguchi’s poetics (which may or may not indicate familiarity between the poets), but only waits until the end, with a single closing paragraph, to make his central argument:

Noguchi’s English poems had been widely circulated in London well before September 1914, when Pound’s vorticism essay appeared, and Noguchi’s essay on hokku in Rhythm and his book The Spirit of Japanese Poetry were published in January 1913 and March 1914, respectively. The material in the essay and the book was delivered in a series of lectures during his stay in English from December 1913 to April 1914. In these circumstances it is hardly conceivable that the imagists did not acquaint themselves with Noguchi’s ideas. Even though Pound’s modernist theory might partly have derived from other sources, one can scarcely overlook the direct link between haiku and Pound’s imagism through Noguchi.

Yes, I suppose anything is possible. We go from “hardly conceivable” to “might partly have” to “one can scarcely overlook the direct link”. Unfortunately, the only evidence to support Hakutani’s assertions is circumstantial (it’s typical academic legerdemain to skip so lightly from the vacuous “hardly conceivable” to a therefore “direct link”). Hakutani overplays his hand, and it’s unnecessary. But what does any of this have to do with Richard Wright?

Chapter 5 finally begins a discussion of Wright, a ten page essay called Haiku and Haiku Criticism in English. This essay efficiently enumerates the haiku books Wright and others might have read. Hakutani’s version of examining criticism of Haiku in English literally amounts to nothing more than quoting, verbatim, two pages of Higginson (which are actually some of the more insightful passages on Wright).

The next five essays are essentially “the book” you thought you were buying: Wright’s Haiku as English Poems, Wright’s Haiku and Classic Haiku Poetics, Wright’s Haiku and Modernist Poetics, Wright’s Haiku and Africa, Wright’s Haiku as Senryu. What’s absent in these chapters is any sense of Wright’s personality or of his place, as a living breathing poet, among other poets of the day. There’s no human interest. As is Hakutani’s habit, each essay is a checklist of observations — in this haiku we see X, in this haiku we see Y, etc… The comments tend toward the utterly banal:

The path in the woods
Is barred by spider webs
Beaded with spring rain.
(Haiku 76)

On which Hakutani writes:

“The Path in the Woods” portraying a scene of spring where insects live in their natural environment, creates an image of beauty. [p. 92]

And that’s that. That’s the flavor of all the comments from this distinguished scholar. The banal summaries add nothing to our understanding of Wright and they often miss the deeper sublimity of the poems:

In a drizzling rain
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.
(Haiku 415)

The dreary scene of a drizzling rain is brightened by a flower shop, but the unhappy vision of a prostitute would make the viewer disillusioned. [p. 148]

He seems to completely miss the comparison between the girls and flowers, both for sale. And what is being compared to what? And when Hakutani’s not telling us what’s already obvious he seems at a loss, making observations that aren’t so much obvious as just plain sophomoric:

Wright also learned how to express loneliness from Issa, who wrote haiku such as this:

For you fleas too,
The night must be long,
It must be lonely.
(Issa)

Wright composed the following:

For you, O gulls,
I order slaty waters
And this leaden sky!
(Haiku 2)

While Issa employs the image of a flea to express human loneliness, Wright describes gulls, slaty waters, and leaden sky to create a visual effect of loneliness. [p. 111]

The notion that Wright learned how to express loneliness from Issa is just aggravatingly absurd — but Hakutani has to write something and at first glance — maybe — the assertion looks substantive. A page later Hakutani will claim that “Wright substituted English punctuation marks for cutting words. For example” Hakutani writes “the exclamation point at the end of the first line is a substitute for the cutting word, ya, a sigh of admiration:

Look, look, look!
These are all the violets
Left by last night’s rain!
(Haiku 435)

The assertion is beyond silly. As if every poet who ever wrote a haiku in English decided: “Hey! Why don’t I substitute punctuation marks for kireji! I wasn’t even going to use punctuation marks!” But it’s this sort of assertion (which I can only assign to his being at a loss for anything better) that repeatedly mars Hakutani’s essays. Again and again he’ll link this or that word, image or sentiment to the influence of Japanese poetics, sensibility and culture when there’s simply no need to. It’s forced, concocted, and distorts Wright’s poetic practice. For instance, how much did Wright really know about or understand Zen? Hakutani never discusses the matter and yet, in a footnote, he can confidently assert the following:

As my anger ebbs,
The spring stars grow bright again
And the wind returns.

In this haiku, Wright tries to attain the state of mu, nothingness, by controlling his emotion. This state of nothingness, however, is not synonymous with a state of void, but leads to what Wright calls in Black Power “a total attitude toward life.” “So violent and fuckle,” he writes, “was nature that [the African] could not delude himself into feeling that he, a mere man, was at the center of the universe.” In this haiku, Wright relieves himself of anger, he begins to see the stars “grow bright again” and the wind return. Only when he attains a state of nothingness and achieves a “total attitude toward life” can he perceive nature with his enlightened senses. [p. 197]

Zen in English LiteratureWithout any background or biographical support, the explanation could just as easily be cut from whole cloth. There’s no compelling reason to think that Wright’s haiku drew on such an intimate knowledge of Zen. Here’s what I mean: Among the many books R.H. Blythe wrote on Oriental poetics was Zen In English Literature and Oriental Classics in which he extracted haiku/zen-like passages from poets and writers of the western canon. Does this mean that Keats or Blake studied Zen or that Zen influenced their poetry? No. It means that poets and writers have realized the same insights without the Zen.  Zen systematized a certain kind of philosophy, but much (if not most) of Zen’s sentiments are not unique.

tao and the bardOr consider a little book I recently picked up on a lark: The Tao and the Bard: A Conversation. It’s a great little book. And what’s eerie (and amazing) is how Shakespeare’s phrasing and thought so closely parallels Lao Tsu’s.

Lao Tsu:

Out of tao comes the One,
out of one come two,
out of two, three.
From three all things come.

Shakespeare:

Why railest thou on thy birth? the heaven and earth?
Since birth, and heaven, and earth, all three do meet
In thee at once. [p. 68]

If a distinguished scholar like Hakutani got hold of the book, one wonders whether he’d soon be adumbrating Shakespeare’s indebtedness to Lao Tsu and the philosophy of Toaists (as if poets weren’t capable of sublime insight without Zen or Taoism). It’s nonsense; and a book like The Tao and the Bard demonstrates why. The difference of course is that Wright read Blythe and was exposed to the philosophy of Zen — but to what degree? Japanese scholars, even among themselves, debate the degree to which Basho’s haiku are really indebted to Zen.

The bottom line is that Hakutani makes assertions that are, for all we know, entirely baseless. That makes his insights into Wright’s poetry questionable (a more responsible author might simply draw attention to the parallels between Wright’s poetry and Zen). To ascribe Wright’s insights to “Zen” risks distorting and even diminishing Wright’s poetic accomplishment.

I can’t recommend the book, let alone for the $50.00 dollar asking price. The quality of the scholarship doesn’t merit it. If you can pick up the book for five dollars or less, then maybe. In the meantime, I’ve ordered the following from Amazon:

The Other World

 My hope is that this will be the book that Hakutani’s book should have been.

Poetry and Politics in New Hampshire

How about this for an exciting new kerfuffle: A New Hampshire politician, “someone on the legislature”, has decided the state needs an official “State Poem”. The choice is potentially going to be made this Thursday — apparently. How did I get wind of it? Another local poet, Dave Celone, forwarded the following:

Dear NH Poets and Readers,

There is a proposal that there be a state poem, being considered this week, on Thursday.

I am writing to you to ask if you would read this and get in touch with your representative (see info below) about it. My feeling is that this poem is inappropriate for a number of reasons. One is that, in a state where Jews (such as myself), Muslims, Buddhists, and people of other faiths, as well as agnostics and atheists, live, a poem that speaks of “Christ our Lord” is not a good choice. Even our Governor speaks passionately of inclusion. Other reasons not to choose this particular poem include the fact that it simply is an amateur work, and we live in a state that has fostered, and continues to foster, serious, skilled poets.

Yes, one could argue that there is much that is lovely, heart-felt and NH-based in this poem; but, for a number of reasons, I, along with other poets I’ve spoken to, including the president of the NH Poetry Society, Don Kimball, would like to see a different approach to this interesting idea of a state poem.

My proposal is that it would be wiser, and more exciting, to put out a state-wide call for entries. These could be poems already written, that poets and readers in our state would like to submit for consideration, or ones that we NH poets write. A committee made up of a team of knowledgeable readers and writers would choose from among the “candidates” submitted, looking for a worthwhile poem, with language that would inspire more inclusion as well as reflect the best in NH, to represent poetry in our state, and make a recommendation to the legislature.

Please read the proposed poem and contact your state representative. If you agree with me, let him or her know that this is not the poem for NH today or for the future, and that you would like to see implemented a process such as what I’ve outlined above, in order for us to make an informed, valid choice for this consideration of a state poem. Remember, the vote happens this Thursday morning! Thank you. And please spread the word!

The email goes on to cite the bill: “HB 152, the one proposing establishing a state poem, is scheduled for discussion in the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee on Thursday 1/22 at 11:00 AM in the Legislative Office Building, Room 306.I was skeptical at first — my chain-mail alarms were going off — but, no, the bill’s for real. Here are the details, taken from the New Hampshire’s legislative website.

HB152
Session Year 2015
Bill Docket
Bill Status
Text [HTML] [PDF]
Title: establishing a state poem.

G-Status: HOUSE
House Status: IN COMMITTEE
Senate Status:
Next/Last Comm: HOUSE EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND ADMINISTRATION
Next/Last Hearing: 01/22/2015 at 11:00 AM    LOB 306

Just back in July, and down south, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory nominated — by executive/royal fiat it seems — Valerie Macon. For an artistic form that nobody cares about, all hell broke loose. The typical complaint leveled against Macon was the following:

“Valerie Macon is a beginner in her poetry career. Laureate is for people with national and statewide reputations. If you don’t honor that basic criteria of literary excellence and laureates being poets at the top of their game, than what’s the purpose of the laureate position?” [Melville House]

The counter-example was North Carolina’s prior poet laureate Joseph Bathanti, six books of poetry in tow and a recipient of awards and fellowships. Personally, I’m not the least impressed by Bathanti’s poetry. A count of books published is next to meaningless; and awards and fellowships are a dime a dozen. If poetic quality were ever a requirement for Poet Laureate-ness, then we’d have few, if any Poet Laureates. So, I personally wasn’t buying the she’s-not-a-good-enough-poet objection. Neither was Bathanti (and neither is our current Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey). They’re competent.

The real complaint (and not without some legitimacy) can be summed up as follows:

“Pat McCrory made his selection with no input from the North Carolina Arts Council – which oversaw nominating and vetting in previous years – North Carolina’s poetry community reacted to her appointment with swift vehemence.” [&newsobserver.com]

In short, McCrory passed over the self-appointed guardians of literary-choosing — they who sit on the North Carolina Arts Council. How dare he. It does need stating, however, that there is no law requiring a governor to vet his choice with the Arts Council. That said, neither side, in my opinion, handled themselves well. Those offended by McCrory’s decision saw it as a partisan Republican snub, presumably, of liberals’ self-appointed, artistic pretensions:

“…this particular maverick political act doesn’t rank with McCrory’s legislative disdain for women, children, the middle and lower classes or the environment, but his cultural disdain for the people of North Carolina is almost as insidious. …could McCrory be sacrificing the hapless Macon in an effort to eliminate the laureate program altogether? You can anticipate his smug 2016 statement: “We’ve evaluated the effectiveness of the poet laureate over the last two years and have decided the position no longer merits taxpayer funding.” The budget line item is, however, tiny—the News and Observer reported the laureate’s stipend as between $5,000 and $15,000. That’s around 5 percent of the taxpayer funds McCrory had planned to spend to renovate his Executive Mansion bathrooms until public furor flushed his boondoggle last year.” [Chris Vitiello: IndyWeek]

While accusing McCrory of boorish manners, the same crowd eviscerated the hapless poet Valerie Macon — and that’s what nettles me. The North Carolina Arts Council (and individuals like Chris Vitiello) had a chance to step up. They could have accepted Macon, encouraged her, and shown some real class and humanity. Instead, they decided the whole affair was about them,  and effectively eviscerated Valerie Macon. Sure, she may have self-published her books — so what? — and she may not have been the recipient of awards or fellowships — so what? — but she might have been a great Poet Laureate. It doesn’t take much to be a good Poet Laureate — writing decent poetry is not a prerequisite. In the meantime, Macon appears to have closed her website and withdrawn from public view. That’s a shame.

The best post I’ve found on the subject has this to say:

“North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory is a Republican and most definitely not a fan of the liberal arts. He’s also anti-gay, hates the Affordable Care Act, cut unemployment benefits, has been accused of voter suppression and believes the “educational elite” (that’s GOP code for pinko, homo, commie, hippie liberals) have taken over the schools and universities. So, his selection of Valerie Macon as the new state poet laureate should come as no surprise.

McCrory bypassed the North Carolina Arts Council and selected Macon on his own. Some believe that McCrory picked Macon because she’s a fellow Republican who speaks and writes in a voice far removed from the “elitists” he disparages on a regular basis. Of course, by selecting the hapless Macon, the governor has made her both a political and artistic football. Despite her political leanings, I have no doubt that Macon is mortified and hurt by the vitriol unleashed upon her by fellow poets, the press  and on social media. By all accounts, Macon was just as surprised as anyone else by her appointment and was not seeking the job.”

And getting right to the point:

“The North Carolina Arts Council has seen its budget slashed, which is a typical move in Republican controlled states. Reading accounts of last year’s political maneuverings, it’s obvious that if the GOP had its way the arts council would cease to exist. So, it also comes as no surprise that McCrory would not seek the advice of a council that he would like to abolish. When pressed by the media about appointing Macon, the governor made some remarks about opening up opportunities for people who aren’t part of an “elite group” (note the use of “elite” again) and that he believed it was a good idea to “welcome new voices and new ideas.” [Collin Kelly: Modern Confessional]

But getting back to Governor Pat McCrory, the bruhaha demonstrates just how thoroughly anything and everything can become partisan. And that brings us back to New Hampshire. What kind of poem might the New Hampshire legislature adopt? Here it is:

 My Homeland Sea

Sitting alone on a coral beach,
I looked far out to sea,
And memories cherished reflected then,
Of days that used to be.

The wintry blasts, the summer calm,
The quiet woodlands, the New England farm,
The sleeping pines, the springtime thaw,
Are only a few of the visions I saw.

Thanksgiving day and Christmas morn,
The day that Christ, Our Lord, was born,
New Years – birthdays – weddings – and births,
Burning embers in hand hewn hearths.

Will I see them again, I then asked of myself,
These things man can’t buy with material wealth?
Will I again see those mountains and the valleys below,
All covered in winter with a blanket of snow?

Will the church by the roadside with its white steeple high,
Still be sheltered by willows beneath the blue sky?
Will the robins in springtime still play on the lawn,
And the sleeping flowers blossom at each waking of the dawn?

The air of pines, the morning fog,
The singing loon on the cranberry bog,
The rockbound coast, my homeland sea,
Will they still be there awaiting me?

And the lovely lass I left behind,
Those memories, too, are on my mind.
Will she still be there when war is done,
And proudly sailing home we come?
And clouds once dark turn fleecy white,
And men no more for freedoms fight.

When human hearts rejoice in peace,
And America ours for life to lease,
When guns are silenced and lands are free,
The answers then will come to me.

Richard T. Hartnett
Navy Patrol Bombing Squadron 16
Saipan, Marianas Campaign
November 1944

It’s a wonderfully heartfelt poem written by a poetaster.  To the extent that it’s a private poem, I have no quarrel with it. But as a poem thrust before us as the poem of the state of New Hampshire? I reluctantly critique. It’s a well-meaning poem rife with all the expected flaws of an amateur poet – mawkish, sentimental, precious. What’s not to love if you’re a politician?

And memories cherished reflected then,
Of days that used to be.

newhampshire1895As always, there’s a difference between writing poetically, and writing poetry. Hartnett’s poem is a prime example of the former. The archly poetic phrasing of “memories cherished reflected then” is so precious and syntactically contorted as to be almost incomprehensible. Nobody talks like this. Experienced poets don’t write like this. This is the kind of stuff that made Ezra Pound cringe. It’s a throwback to the aesthetics of the Victorian era.

Thanksgiving day and Christmas morn,
The day that Christ, Our Lord, was born…

The poem obviously presumes a Christian readership — and that surely appeals to a certain brand of politician. If the poem is to be the representative poem of New Hampshire, then the message is clear: We are a Christian state and Christ is “Our Lord” — and your Lord too (by the way). But setting that aside, more of the author’s amateurishness is on display. What else is Christmas morn but the day that Christ was born? It’s more than a little redundant. The two lines come off as mawkish with a touch of Sunday-school pedagogy. The truth of the matter is that born rhymed with morn. Hartnett, like any amateur poet, sacrifices quality for the easy rhyme.

Will I again see those mountains and the valleys below,
All covered in winter with a blanket of snow?

Hartnet wants to rhyme with snow, so he writes the completely gratuitous below. Ask yourself, when has a valley ever been anything other than below? Mountains below? Valleys above? The next line descends further into rank amateurishness. All covered as opposed to covered? A thing is either covered or it isn’t.  Hartnett is simply padding the line. So, the valleys are all covered, but even that’s not enough. Hartnett then adds the superfluous blanket. There’s not much going on in these lines.

Will the church by the roadside with its white steeple high

A grammatical inversion for the sake of rhyme. The hallmark of the amateur formalist.

Still be sheltered by willows beneath the blue sky?

When has a steeple been anything other than beneath the sky? More gratuitous redundancy.

…waking of the dawn…

Pure cliché.

The air of pines, the morning fog,
The singing loon on the cranberry bog,

Possibly the best lines in the poem. No redundancies. No syntactic pirouettes for the sake of rhyme.

 Those memories, too, are on my mind.

As opposed to where? Where else would those memories be but ‘on his mind’? More gratuitous padding.

And clouds once dark turn fleecy white…

Yes, the cliché of clichés — ‘fleecy white’. It doesn’t get better than this if you’re a connoisseur of clichés.

When human hearts rejoice in peace,
And America ours for life to lease…

The second of the two lines is a syntactic disaster, utterly distorted and almost incomprehensible — all for the sake of a bad rhyme.

My advice? This is a wonderful, personal poem written by a young soldier yearning for an end to war. Leave it at that. It was never meant to be New Hampshire’s state poem. There are much better poems, better written and more inclusive. What about Robert Frost’s New Hampshire, written in Vermont?

In the meantime, I notice that another poem has been forwarded as an alternative, one by Andre Papillon.

New Hampshire Impressions

This bridge of land has been unlocked
From careful hand to masts of rock
That loom and stretch the ribboned road
Has quarried most, that green she coats
Then inks to black where eyes of doe
Flit swift and cold near boulder’s throne

By cutting gullies, frothing white
The heads of moss poke holes through night
And burdened there with cat-like eyes
Are sparkler brights on country heights
Whose patient rovers crossing lanes
Drop tracks of rolls and coffee stains

& Etc…

My apologies to Andre Papillon, but this isn’t any better. The use of meter and rhyme does not excuse poor grammar and incomprehensible syntax. If we take the first stanzas and turn them into prose, this is what we get:

This bridge of land has been unlocked from careful hand to masts of rock that loom and stretch the ribboned road has quarried most, that green she coats then inks to black where eyes of doe flit swift and cold near boulder’s throne by cutting gullies, frothing white the heads of moss poke holes through night and burdened there with cat-like eyes are sparkler brights on country heights whose patient rovers crossing lanes drop tracks of rolls and coffee stains (period?) …

This is doggerel. My advice to poets writing traditional poetry is this: If it’s not readable prose, then it’s not going to be readable poetry. A passage that utilizes rhyme and meter should withstand a turn to prose. That is, the rules that govern prose govern poetry. E.E. Cummings, you object! Yes, but E.E. Cummings choices were a careful and deliberate departure. It’s not easy, and there’s only been one E.E. Cummings. Emily Dickinson? Sometimes she’s successful. Sometimes not. Despite her genius, her poetry can be incomprehensible without annotation.

Beyond that, Papillon’s poem suffers from the same flaws as Hartnett’s, in one instance indulging in precisely the same gratuitous excess (for the sake of rhyme):

A cloud of crow, a wash of dove
Round heights that ice has gripped above

Just as with with Hartnett’s “valley’s below”, Papillon gives us ice that has “gripped above”. As opposed to where? Below? This kind of gratuitousness is the hallmark of the inexperienced rhymer — the sort of thing that makes free verse practitioners groan.

My advice to the New Hampshire legislature: Make it an inclusive poem, yes; but make it a good poem. If you’re not a carpenter, you might want to think long and hard before you build your own house. Likewise, don’t be embarrassed to ask for advice from those with some experience in the poetic trade. It’s not about elitism. It’s about choosing a poem that represents the best in poetic craftsmanship — and New Hampshire.

Written from up in Vermont: January 19th 2015

Or as Robert Frost once put it:

It’s restful to arrive at a decision,
And restful just to think about New Hampshire.
At present I am living in Vermont.

Poet-Robert-Frost-in-Affable-Portrait-Axe-Slung-over-Shoulder