August 30th 2017

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Last night I had nothing to write. Nothing at all. I started at several minutes past ten o’clock and at several minutes past midnight wrote yesterday’s haiku—wrote something, anything—and was dissatisfied. The haiku lacked, and perhaps still does, that association that moves the reader beyond the observed. I returned to it immediately before starting tonight’s post.
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I picked up a beautiful book at the Crow Bookshop in Burlington, Vermont last weekend. The book’s title is Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature. The book’s several chapters are each devoted to a twentieth century Japanese poet, the first being Masaoka Shiki. There are surely some readers who must think (or wish) I would return to writing and writing about western poetry, but I find the lessons of the haiku to be equally applicable to what I value in the best of western poetry.
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I don’t like abstract or intellectual poetry, and I mean that in a very specific sense—not one I’ll be able to explain in a single post. Loosely, I don’t like poems expressing ideas unless, paraphrasing Pound, they’re ideas expressed through the concrete, through the world we live in. The best poetry expresses ideas through observation, not through statement. Write through the image. When Robert Frost wanted to express ideas of loss, despair perhaps, exhaustion and wonder, he wrote Stopping by Woods. He could have simply stated that he was tired and that perhaps he wanted to stop in the dark woods and go no further, but instead let us see what he saw, and by doing, because of our shared humanity, he allowed us to experience, in some measure, what he experienced. This is the indirect art and heart of poetry.
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The best Japanese haiku are no different. Without wanting to sound conceited, I’ve noticed the same strain of thought in the Japanese poets. Shiki wrote:
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Shasai or realism means copying the subject as it is, but it necessarily involves a degree of selection or exclusion… A writer sketching a landscape or an event should focus on its most beautiful or moving aspect. If he does this, the subject described will automatically begin to live its own life. It should be noted, however, that the most beautiful or moving aspect does not necessarily correspond to the most substantial or conspicuous or indispensable part of the subject. The aspect I speak of often lies in the shade, showing itself only partially in ones range of sight. [p. 12]
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Shiki qualifies what he means by a landscape’s “most beautiful or moving aspect”. After all, a landscape’s most moving aspect may not be its most beautiful. The point is that if the skilled poet wants to communicate emotion, he or she doesn’t state what that emotion is, but evokes it through the selective observation of the landscape. The art of poetry is not in what it says, but in what it observes.
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When I read western haiku made abstract by certain kinds of metaphor and abstractions they lose their immediacy and vividness. They are, in my view, a misunderstanding of the way that poetry works.
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under
····the sleeping butterfly—summer’s petals slip
········away
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242 August 30th 2017 | bottlecap
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6 responses

  1. I concur. I learned from it as well.

    And it helped explain to me why I’ve decided not to renew my decades-long subscription to Poetry. For years I have dutifully open the plastic sleeve on arrival and immediately perused it for something that might grab me and not let go. I finally realized last month, as B.F. Skinner might have said, that the reinforcement has been too excruciatingly intermittent. Better to go to Crow or its equivalent, even if only once a year, browse for the “grab,” and when it happens lay down a twenty, and take home what grabbed you for a later stove-side treat.

    Your ‘haiku a day’ has proven much more rewarding to me than my soon-to-lapse subscription, and the blogging on your travail when you offer it far more enlightening.

    The beauty of writing as a life-long commitment, even when it feels sometimes like backing into brambles, is the belief there are still blackberries somewhere in there to savor — and also possibly stain (leaving what Calvin might have called an external even if soon-to-fade sign of one’s internal disposition!). You illustrate how a writer can turn his craft momentarily to a different puzzle (even if not the one we set out on) and have at it. When work is play, returning to it is its own reward.

    Thank you, Patrick.

    • I love your blackberry analogy. Just this morning, for breakfast, I went out and picked through the wild raspberry bushes. Still enough to put on my müsli. I’ve always been taken by haiku. Writing them is part diversion and part a return. On the other hand, I could never have written these until now—I don’t think.

      I know what you mean about ‘Poetry’. The journal was actually on its way out, close to shutting down, before Ruth Lilly bequeathed it 200,000,000. Too bad in a way. The donation meant that a lot of poor judgment became entrenched, never had to answer for its failures.

  2. I get it about Frost–he is the perfect folk philosopher. But can share with me two or three “canonized” poets or poems that exemplify the abstract or intellectual defects you dislike?

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