“Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship” : Review

byron and shelleyJust last night I finished may latest biography on the romantics, by John Buxton. This biography chronologically picks up where Ian Gilmour’s Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets, leaves off, though Buxton’s is written a few decades before Gilmour’s (1968). The difference between the two biographies is drastic. Where Gilmour digs in and gives the reader a real and eye-opening sense of Byron and Shelley’s milieu, Buxton’s tone comes from a completely different era — decorous with a hint of the Victorian sensibility that slips, every now and then, into an almost starry-eyed and exculpatory praise for his subjects.

I almost didn’t make it through the book.

The biggest problem I had with Buxton as that he wrote the book without offering a sense of personality — of his subjects, the places where they lived, friends, acquaintances, etc. The book feels like a checklist of events. They did this, at this time, at this place, wrote this, discussed this, and then this happened, & etc. I never got the feeling that I was in the story. (Gilmour is still the best I’ve read so far).  No discussion of culture or politics, which is especially relevant to Shelley.

I read Amy Lowell’s biography of Keats, many years ago, and the most salient aspect I remember is her fine-grained analysis of Keats’s growth as a poet (which apparently takes another poet to accomplish). That’s something that none of the biographies (I’ve read so far) come close to accomplishing. They write about the poets’ lives — what they did, where they were, who they met — but are bizarrely silent on the one subject which, after all, is the only reason we read about them — their poetry. Lowell is the only biographer, I’ve read so far, that pulls it off (though I’ll soon be reading more). Vendler, as far as I know, doesn’t write biographies (though I’m not a big fan of her ‘Vendlerization’ of poets and their poetry).

Buxton tells us repeatedly that Shelley and Byron were friends and deeply influenced each others poetry, but never once demonstrates how.  In fact, Buxton waits until the death of Byron, within 10 pages of the end of his book, to suddenly take us on a whirlwind summation of their poems. We end up with paragraphs like this:

Manfred, therefore begun while Shelley was with him, and continued after Monk Lewis had translated Goethe’s Faust to him, denotes the state in his poetic development which Byron had then reached: he had been made aware by Shelley of new possibilities of human experience, but his own self-knowledge had brought him to realize, however regretfully, that they were not for him. In form also the play is Shelleyan, rather than Aeschylean, lyrical drama, and owes nothing to Byron’s practical experience of the theatre. It is a precursor of Prometheus Unbound, where, in turn, Shelley is often indebted to Byron; but the relation between the two works is too complex for brief discussion. [p. 263]

Too complex? Yeah, I guess so, especially if the author waits until the last ten pages of a 268 pages book to do it. But that brings up another tone that annoyed me. There’s too much of the hoity-toity in Buxton’s writing; it smacks of arrogance. One gets the sense that his intended readers are already Byron & Shelley cognoscenti. He drops individuals into the narrative without the least effort (or minimal) to explain who they are or their relationship to the poets. He presumes we know who these personalities are. I mean, come on, does he really have to explain who Scrope Davies is? Seriously? He may briefly explain them once, only to reintroduce them a hundred pages later without a shred of reminding: Does he really have to explain who they are again? Buxton also doesn’t bother translating anything. Obviously, his Oxford educated readership spoke Latin, Greek, Italian, German and French; and if you or I can’t read classical Greek, then he can’t be bothered to condescend. So, for instance, he’ll write:

Byron was very kind, she told Maria Gisborne in writing to tell her that they would soon meet in England. ‘He promises that I shall make my journey at ease, which on Percy’s account I am glad of.’ But she could not leave until after Marianne Hunt’s confinement, which Dr. Vacca had predicted might be fatal to her. After eleven months in the country this stupid and commonplace woman could not speak a word of Italian, and need Mary’s help. [p. 249]

Never mind that Hunt’s wife probably didn’t want to be there, had four children to take care of (while the men were off riding, shooting, sailing, and being altogether lost in their self-absorbed literary vanities); and seemingly suffered the confinement of a near fatal illness. Buxton has no sympathy (and can’t be bothered with that kind of insight). Didn’t she know she was in the presence of geniuses? The stupid and commonplace woman should have learned Italian by now — and the same goes for the readers of his biography (one guesses). Worse yet, Buxton relates that Hunt’s children marred Lord Byron’s furniture and walls with dirty fingers.

The horror.

Any of the historical personalities that dared criticize Shelley or Byron are summarily dispatched by Buxton, while the author breezes over (if mentioning them at all) any of the poets’ more controversial behaviors. (We barely get a hint of Byron’s sexual proclivities.) On the other hand, those who appeared to treat Byron and Shelley with due deference, loyalty and respect, like Edward Trelawny, are treated with a tolerable sufferance by Buxton. The author  repeatedly praises Shelley’s gentlemanly, aristocratic and generous behavior, and encourages us to bask in the glow of Byron’s good humor, brilliance and masculine appeal.

So, would I recommend the book? Probably not. It’s either a victim of its author or its time. (I think the former.)  The lives of Byron and Shelley, their influence on one another and the era’s obsession with the two poets, await a better biographer.

Scott Donaldson’s biography of Edwin Arlington Robinson is next.

up in Vermont : February 1 2015

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.

Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets

 

Byron_ShelleySo, the other book I read was Byron & Shelley in their Time: The Making of the Poets. This is written by Ian Gilmour. Gilmour’s writing is much different from Sisman’s. Whereas Sisman’s narrative voice is more generically reportorial, Gilmour packs his narrative with subjective opinion and analysis – revealing a knowledge of culture and politics that Sisman nowhere matches.  Gilmour digs in, hard, giving opinions on both Byron and Shelley’s behavior — and doesn’t pull any punches. I frankly like Gilmour’s style of writing more than Sisman’s. If Gilmour thinks Shelley was  being ridiculous, he says so. And there’s plenty of opportunity. Interestingly, it strikes me that Gilmour repeatedly dismisses Shelley’s atheism and I do have to wonder whether part of that is because of his having been a Conservative MP from 1962 to 1992, “having served as Secretary of State for Defense under Edward Heath and then as Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.”  I don’t know if a conservative MP is the same thing as a conservative in the United States (those in the United States never saw a problem the Bible couldn’t fix.)

The downside to Gilmour’s biography is that there’s relatively little poetry. He spends much of his time on Byron and Shelley’s politics (which makes sense, I suppose, given his background) and sexual proclivities, speculating time and again on whether their various physical ailments were due to STD’s. To be fair, the lion’s share of the biography takes place before they had written anything memorable, and yet some influence on their later work ought to be demonstrable. If you visit Amazon you’ll see that other readers thought Gilmour dwelt too much on the “biography” and too little on the poetry.

As for myself, the whole book was an education on the brutal Lord of the Flies that was the British educational system, and the incompetent, self-interested, cruel corruption that characterized the rule of the aristocracy. What really struck me is how, in certain respects, little has changed. We still see the same forces battling each other today, including in the United States. The aristocrats have been replaced by monied conservatives and Republicans. The Republicans of Byron and Shelley’s day, on the other hand, have become our modern liberals. Just as the authoritarian English aristocrats felt they were entitled to their money and status (and didn’t owe a shred of their wealth to the less well off) so it is with modern authoritarian conservatives — whose cries of socialism are little more than an affirmation of Social Darwinism (which is all well and good when the money’s in their pocket).

The British  government didn’t serve the people; it was the other way around and knowingly so. And Religion, by the way, really was the opiate of the masses. The upper classes knowingly expected the Church (which has almost always enjoyed the status of an aristocracy) to uphold the social order:

Together with Napolean and many others, Edmund Burke was convinced that only if religion was able to keep the poor, if not contented, at least quiescent, could great inequalities of wealth survive. Thus to the Church — long an important part of the state — fell the task of providing ‘divine cement’ to hold society together by urging the poor to seek their consolation in the next world, not this one. [p. 48]

In our own time, the parallel is to the elevation of unregulated Capitalism. Just as the poor were urged to seek consolation in the “next world”, the poor in the United States are urged to seek consolation in the promise that they too, given the right  circumstances, could enjoy the ‘next world’ that the wealthy and rich already enjoy — the ‘divine cement’ of modern America is the illusion of “equal opportunity” or rather, the notion that all opportunity is equal, that the same wealth can be had by all — promised (though through different means) by both Republicans and Democrats. Gilmour goes on to add:

William Wilberforce, who took a much stronger line on slavery, of course, also urged the poor to be grateful for having to withstand fewer temptations than the rich, consequently they should be content to have ‘food and raiment’ (even though many of them did not have enough) since ‘their situation’ was better ‘than they deserved at the hand of God.’ [p. 48]

And for comparison’s sake, here’s Tucker Carlson of Fox News:

 “All of us should be happy about one thing, and it’s that for the first time in human history you have a country whose poor people are fat.  So this does show this sort of amazing abundance.  For the last however many millennia, poor people starved to death.  And this is a country that’s so rich, whose agriculture sector is so vibrant and at the cutting edge technologically, that our food is so cheap, poor people are fat! I mean, I don’t know. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”

It’s the same monied aristocracy alive and well today. By today’s standards, Shelley would be a scrappy progressive writing blistering jeremiads for far left think tanks, giving Republicans dyspepsia (he reviled marriage before settling, it seems, for an open marriage), and Byron would be the well-heeled Democratic Senator from Massachusetts (a devastatingly handsome, brilliant, womanizing, Ivy-League progressive with a gated colonial at Martha’s Vineyard). Both Shelley (and Bryon especially) came from aristocratic families, and both were active in their political leanings. For example, the British law of the entail requires that the passage of (a landed estate) [be limited] to a specified line of heirs, so that it cannot be alienated, devised, or bequeathed.” This meant, by law, that Shelley was entitled to his father’s inheritance and estate (and none of his sisters). And, as it turns out, William Bysshe Shelley was the first and only eldest son and aristocrat, in the history of England, who tried to disinherit himself — so disgusted was he by the whole system. Shelley’s father, Timothy Shelley, a cold, disinterested and inept father of strong conservative conviction would have been equally happy to disinherit his son:

Shelley had had no word from his father. As soon as Timothy received his son’s letter of 25 August, posted by Charles Grove (which, as we have seen, boorishly demanded his belongings), he hastened to London to consult Whitton, his solicitor. He would have liked to disinherit his son, but Whitton showed him that the entails ruled that out, much as they had ruled out Shelley disinheriting himself. [p. 280]

And that was that. Gilmour also devotes a chapter to Shelley’s trip to Dublin, Ireland.

The object of his Address to them, which he had written at Keswick and revised in Dublin where it was printed cheaply and shoddily, was to ‘awaken… the Irish poor’ to the evils of their present state and suggest ‘rational means of remedy — Catholic Emancipation, and a Repeal of the Union Act, (the latter the most successful engine that England ever wielded over the misery of fallen Ireland,)… Hence, Shelley had ‘wilfully vulgarized its language… [to suit] the taste and comprehension of the Irish peasantry who have been too long brutalized by vice and ignorance.’ [p. 306]

Gilmour goes on to assert that Shelley misjudged the Irish only insomuch,  it seems, as he was too progressive. “Shelley further offended his target readers by telling them that the gates of heaven were open to people of every religion, which was not the general view in a country where, as Byron had written… ‘jarring sects convulse a sister isle'” [p. 307] Byron, on the other hand, is portrayed as a more practical personality with a more  even-keeled intelligence. And that’s where I discovered that I liked Byron after all, and more than Shelley (though I don’t dislike Shelley).

Byron’s ill-repute is based on his womanizing, his  incestuous relationship with his sister, and his aristocratic hypocrisy (while decrying the undeserved entitlements of the ‘nobility’, he nevertheless took offense at the most trivial slights to his own). In another biography of Byron and Shelley (I’ve just started) the author, John Buxton, puts it this way:

Charles Hentsch, the banker, who at twenty-six was already well known [in Geneva] came [to Byron] to apologise for not recognizing Byron when he visited the bank on the previous day. He had the tact to say that he had had no idea that he was then speaking to one of the most famous Lords of England. Byron took to him at once (as he would not have done had Hentsch called him one of the most famous poets of England… [p. 6 Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship]

That made me laugh. And I’m inclined to agree with Buxton. The thing about Byron though (and this is also true of Shelley) is that one has to consider his upbringing before judging his adulthood. Byron was born with a club foot (or an abnormality that was inaccurately diagnosed as such). As a child, he had to wear a brace (concocted by a quack) which was ostensibly meant to correct the leg but only caused extreme pain and possibly worsened Byron’s leg. Once Byron landed in school, a brutal environment where a hundred boys might be ‘disciplined’ by a single adult, he was bullied mercilessly because of it  (like Shelley for smallness, eccentricity and effeminacy). Sex between adolescent boys was, if not rampant, tacitly accepted. Boys were expected to grow out of their homosexual experimentation (if not desperation) once they reached manhood. Education for the young men of the aristocracy was a brutal affair, a true Lord of the Flies tale of bullying, favoritism and ruthless hierarchy. Shelley learned to identify with the downtrodden, as did Byron, who pointedly protected younger students from bullying once he was old enough (another reason I like him).

Byron was also sexually exploited [abused?] as a child by his nurse, May Gray:

According to Byron, he ‘certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; yet he had sexual experiences. These were provided by his nurse Mary Gray. As the boy subsequently told his solicitor… his sternly Calvinist nurse ‘used to come to bed to him and play tricks with his person… [p. 35]

Add to this the extremes of anger and affection that characterized his mother, the utter abandonment of his gold-digging (if not sociopathic) father, and the Gordon and Byron family history of murderous dysfunction  (too much to go into), it honest-to-God makes George Gordon Lord Byron look like a Saint (compared to who he could have been). If incest and aristocratic hypocrisy are the worst of this crimes, then I love the man. As to Byron’s seemingly “misogynistic” attitude toward women, this was not unique to Byron, but was shared by nearly all men of the age (except perhaps the ‘pantisocratic‘ Coleridge). Women, by in large, were considered light-brained, trivial beings, incapable of much beyond macramé and sugar plums.

The opinion I have of the generality of women–who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar plum than my time, forms a barrier against matrimony which I rejoice in. ~ John Keats

And if we’re fair, women chased Byron with as much alacrity as he chased them. It’s not as if Byron thrust himself on them (or his sister). The Byron that I discovered (more so than with Shelley I think) was a deeply intelligent man, inquisitive, gentle, sensitive to the suffering of others, compassionate, with a fixed sense of right and wrong, but also proud, quick to take offense, and volatile. In his maiden speech to the House of Lords, prompted by the 1812 Frame Breaking Act, he could write the following:

But suppose it past,—suppose one of these men, as I have seen them meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame ; suppose this man surrounded by those children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault than he can no longer so support; suppose this man—and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your victims,—dragged into court to be tried for this new offence, by this new law,—still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jefferies for a judge!”

 The force of Byron’s personality (which he captured in the heroes of his poetry) led to the neologism: Byronic.

“…a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection” ~ Lord Macauley

All that said, if Shelley walked through the door, I’d drop everything: my best wine, a four course dinner. and maybe my lover if he asked. I mean, come on, it’s Shelley and Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Maybe, at some point, we’d discuss poetry; but to spend the evening with that keen and impatient idealist — and intelligence — would be pretty cool.

So, anyway, this post is just some brief impressions and the renewal of my friendship with Byron. Gilmour’s book ends just before Byron and Shelley meet, so while I can guess at the mutual attraction (similar backgrounds, sympathies and politics), I haven’t read the biography. Fortunately, John Buxton’s  Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship (written earlier) will pick up where Gilmour left off. I’ll report on that book too, when I’m done with it.

The Friendship: Wordsworth & Coleridge

Wordsworth&ColeridgeI’ve been reading about Wordsworth and Coleridge —  gaining perspective on their works and accomplishments. (I also read a biography on the friendship of Byron and Shelley which I’ll talk about in a later post — the curious thing is that I ended up disliking Shelley and liking Byron, and that was completely unexpected.) My dislike for Wordsworth, unfortunately, has only been reinforced. Now, not only does Wordsworth’s poetry exasperate me, but I find his person (at least as revealed in Sisman’s biography) more than a little dislikable. I don’t blame Sisman. He treats Wordsworth equitably, but it’s hard to ignore the man’s narcissism, self-centered’ness and the execrable way he treated Coleridge. The “friendship”, after all, appears to have been predicated on both mens’ idolatry and love of Wordsworth (and for  that, Coleridge doesn’t go Scott-free).

Wordsworth was prolific and produced poetry with apparent ease. Coleridge, initially, produced almost as much poetry as Wordsworth, but struggled to a degree that Wordsworth didn’t. Writing didn’t come as easily; and Coleridge was also afflicted with self-doubt (and self-recrimination) in a way that Wordsworth never was. As the friendship progressed, Coleridge fêted Wordsworth’s ego by calling him the era’s great genius and comparing him to Milton, which in some quarters was higher praise than to be called the “next Shakespeare”. On the other hand, Coleridge was considered the far greater poet by his peers and the general public. He was an extempore speaker of genius. He possessed a photographic memory and could recite from memory any piece of writing having read it once. Coleridge’s impression on his peers is hard to overstate.

And so Coleridge’s self-doubt and ceaseless self-recrimination is especially hard to swallow. I, myself, consider Coleridge to be the better and greater poet, despite his minuscule output (as compared to Wordsworth). In my opinion, there’s nothing in all of Wordsworth’s output that compares to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, or Kubla Khan. The Rime was initially published alongside Wordsworth’s poems in a joint publication called Lyrical Ballads. The critical reception of the anthology wasn’t good and was especially hard on Wordsworth’s poetry (Wordsworth was a nobody in those days); and Wordsworth didn’t take criticism well. Sometime later, though, Wordsworth and Coleridge decided to reissue the Ballads. Despite their poor critical reception, they continued to sell (if not as well as they would have liked). And this is where it gets hard to rationalize Wordsworth’s behavior as anything other than cruel (or not to characterize him as a self-serving liar — plain and simple).

The initial plan for the reissue was to include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, for which Colerdige had now written two parts. Wordsworth and his sister were initially ‘Exceedingly delighted with the second part of “Christabel”‘. (p. 320) Or at least they pretended to be exceedingly delighted, for the very next day Wordsworth decided to exclude it from the reissue. Not only that, but as plans developed, Wordsworth informed Coleridge that he would be publishing the joint venture without Coleridge’s name on it. Furthermore, Wordsworth would be taking any and all proceeds, income, money from their publication, despite Coleridge’s Rime being one of the most extensive poems in the collection. Wordsworth had concluded, self-servingly and with little to no evidence, that it was Coleridge’s poetry that had sunk the first collection (not his own). What did Wordsworth substitute for Christabel?

“Meanwhile, Wordsworth was writing a new poem to fill the vacant place at the end of the second volume, ‘Micheal’ was the very antithesis of ‘Christabel’, a pastoral poem evoking the sturdy qualities of the sheep farmers among whom he was now living.”

La! Sheep farmers. There you have it — one of our language’s great poems traded for a didactic poem on sheep farmers. It makes me want to climb into a time machine to  throttle him. Worse yet, Wordsworth, having deluded himself into thinking that his rightful genius was unrecognized solely because of The Rime, persuaded Coleridge to rewrite the poem . Coleridge, by now thoroughly pickled in the Kool-aid of Words-worship, obediently complied. The rewrite prompted the following from Charles Lamb:

“I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his Ancient Marinere ‘a poet’s Reverie’ — it is as bad as Bottom the weaver’s declaration that he is not a lion but only the scenical representation of a Lion. What new idea is gained by this title, but one subversive of all credit, which the tale should force upon us, of its truth? For me, I was never so affected with any human Tale. After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it for many days…” (p. 316)

According to Sisman, Lamb summed up his opinion of the second volume (of the original edition) stating “that no poem in it had struck him so forcibly as the ‘Ancient Mariner’, ‘The Mad Mother’ and ‘Tintern Abbey'”. This, apparently, is not what Wordsworth wanted to hear. Wordsworth’s riposte is lost, but not Lamb’s.

“The Post did not sleep a moment. I received almost instantaneously a long letter of four sweating pages from my Reluctant Letter-Writer, the purport of which was, that he was sorry his 2nd vol. had not given me more pleasure (Devil a hint did I give that it had not pleased me), and was ‘compelled to wish that my range of sensibility was more extended…’ — With a deal of Stuff about a certain Union of Tenderness and Imagination…” (p. 317)

Then Lamb goes on to mention a letter received by Coleridge:

“Coleridge, who had not written to me some months before, starts up from his bed of sickness, to reprove me for my hardy presumption: four long pages, equally sweaty and more tedious, came from him; assuring me that, when the works of a man of true genius, such as W undoubtedly was, do not please me at first sight, I should suspect the fault to lie ‘in me and not in them’, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. What am I to do with such people?” (p. 317)

Truth was, there were a number of Coleridge supporters who were very nearly fed up with Coleridge’s cult-like idolatry of Wordsworth, including Josiah Wedgwood, who had generously patronized Coleridge. Wedgwood’s intent had been to encourage Coleridge’s own literary efforts, not subsidize his subservience to Wordsworth. Even so, Coleridge spent the next several months editing the reissue of Lyrical Ballads, his thanks to Wordsworth for Wordsworth’s removing his poetry, his name, and any recompense. And as if Wordsworth weren’t delusional enough, he decided to preface Coleridge’s Rime with an apology to the reader:

“Wordsworth added an apologetic footnote to the ‘Ancient Mariner’ acknowledging the many criticisms of the poem, which ‘had indeed great defects’. He elaborated these defects before listing what he considered to be the merits of the poem. He claimed credit for its continued presence in the volume, ‘as the Author was himself very desirous that it should be suppressed.'” (p. 315)

Such was the gratitude Wordsworth extended to his “friend”. Sisman points out  that in another note written contemporaneously, Wordsworth “warmly defended his own poem “The Thorn” against the criticisms it had received”. Wordsworth’s interest in poetry that wasn’t his own was marginal, if nonexistent. (It’s said that Wordsworth died with an unopened copy of Keats’ poetry in his library.) While Coleridge devoted his time and energy to furthering Wordsworth’s career at every opportunity, Wordsworth’s thanked him by snubing his “friend’s” poetry and career (and especially if he thought it could benefit his own). Such was Wordsworth’s almost sociopathic narcissism. In fairness to Wordsworth, Coleridge seemed to “cheerfully” go along with it, but this was not the decision-making of a healthy man. It’s clear that Coleridge suffered from psychological issues that would gradually degrade his health and mind, manifested, in part, by an addiction to the pain killer laudanum. Wordsworth, in later years, would express deep concern over Coleridge’s health, but one questions whether his concern was for an erstwhile friend or an erstwhile admirer.

Sisman sums up the waning of their friendship this way:

“Wordsworth apologists have claimed that Coleridge accepted the rejection of ‘Christabel’ ‘cheerfully’, and quote his own self-justificatory letters afterwards in support of this argument. They cite Dorothy’s comment on Coleridge’s next visit to Dove Cottage; ‘we were very merry’. But Dorothy, though very fond of Coleridge, was blind to the possibility that her brother might be at fault. And Coleridge tried to put a brave face  on his disappointment. In reality he had suffered a mortal blow; his spirit was broken; he would never be the same man again. ‘I have too much trifled with my reputation,’ he reflected sadly to Poole….

Colridge concealed his distress from the Wordsworths, and perhaps they remained unaware of its true cause. His mind would no longer be wholly open to them. The wound continued to fester. As the years passed, entries critical of Wordsworth began to appear in Coleridge’s notebooks. Though the friendship remained warm a long time, it could never recover the same closeness…” (p. 325)

Sisman then concludes the chapter quoting Coleridge’s letter to Godwin:

“‘If I die, and the Booksellers will give you any thing for my Life, be sure to say — “Wordsworth descended on him, like the γνῶθι σεαυτόν from Heaven; by shewing to him what true Poetry was, he made him know, that he himself was no Poet.’

Colreridge’s confidence was in ruins. As he told Godwin, ‘the Poet is dead in me’. He was twenty-eight years old.” (p. 326)

This is a lot to lay at the feet of Wordsworth, but if Wordsworth had reciprocated with even a fraction of the generosity and encouragement devoted to him, Coleridge’s life and poetic output might have been very different. But my heart goes out to Coleridge. Everyman ColeridgeI feel like I’ve discovered his poetry all over again. I see myself in him: Frustrated by a feeling that I haven’t done enough, by self-doubt, self-recrimination, inadequacy. I wish I could have been Coleridge’s friend. His surreal poetry appeals to me like no other poet’s and I can’t help thinking we share a kindred spirit. I love his poem Frost at Midnight. I would trade a hundred pages of Wordsworth for another like it.

Wordsworth’s poetry, meanwhile, continues to leave me cold. As I wrote in a hotly contested previous post criticizing The Prelude, I find all but a handful of his poems tedious, repetitive, full of triviality and above all, exceedingly poorly written. At the close of Sisman’s book, the author quotes Coleridge once again, referring to Wordsworth, and this time the veil is lifted:

“Never does he turn round, or ponder, whether one has [already] understood him, but each word is followed by three, four, five syn- or homonyms, in a tiring sequence of eddies, and in this manner for three, four hours… I was repelled by the infinite number of dissonances which his way of thinking, feeling and arguing created with my own — the worst being his great worries over money and trifling money matters. Recently, all the shortcomings, which marked him in his early manly years, have increased considerably; the grand flourishings of his philosophic and poetic genius, have withered and dried. (p. 424)

 

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Three Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Haiku for Lovers edited by Laura Roberts
  • Erotic Haiku by Oliver Grant
  • erotic poems: E.E. Cummings

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

On the Poetry of William Logan

I probably haven’t looked hard enough, but while I’ve found lots of criticism of William Logan’s criticism, I haven’t yet found criticism of his poetry. Perhaps one exception is an article in Slate magazine by Eric McHenry. McHenry demonstrates what others have only claimed, and that’s that Logan’s criticisms of others could be equally applied to his own poetry. McHenry writes for example:

“Then there’s the matter of his own poetry. The author of five collections, Logan tends to write a chilly, impersonal line. His poems have all the erudition of his reviews, but little of their vitality and swagger. And he commits offenses for which he’d pillory any other poet. Logan loathes contrived drama in poetry; how would he treat the lines, “The Spanish moss like hunger/ hangs from the dogwood tree,/ and no one pays the phone bill/ of eternity” if they’d come to him in a review copy, rather than in a moment of inspiration?”

I think the impetus behind this kind of commentary, sometimes, is the wish that the critic William Logan would turn his knives on the poet WilliamLoganWilliam Logan. That way, at least, all the rest of the poets he’s gutted could console themselves. But it’s a peculiar argument.  It’s true that Logan doesn’t always live up to the standards of his own criticism (if ever some might say) but what does this prove? Does this really exonerate the poets whom he’s criticized? Is it fair to accuse the critic of hypocrisy? Probably not, in my view. But it does raise the question: Why can’t he apply his own standards to his own poetry?

Criticism and artistic creation are two different abilities, it seems. It’s a peculiar oddity that though one may have the talent to recognize what is good or poor writing in others, that talent doesn’t always translate into the ability to produce art according to those same standards. You would think that it would, but apparently a superbly honed critical eye, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of any given art and its history isn’t enough. There have been any number of brilliantly prescient critics who were mediocre artists. In short, a capable critical mind is something different than the creative mind. It takes both faculties to result in the genius of a Shakespeare, Mozart or Bach.

  • The fact that certain MFA programs often seem to spend so much time fussing over history and criticism (as in critical schools) has always perplexed me. As if knowing Feminism, from Marxism, from Structuralism/Semiotics has anything whatsoever to do with how to write a good poem. Frankly, some of this criticism is, to me, like reading a credit card agreement. If I ever see evidence that a thorough knowledge of semiotics produces a good poem, I’ll change my tune.

Anyway, in lieu of Logan committing ritual seppuku by the tip of his own sword, the establishment (it would seem) chooses to ignore his poetry. (Though Maybe I should add a question mark after that, but it is a matter of record that Logan’s criticism has been variously blackballed.)

The Poetry

The first aspect I notice in Logan’s poetry says more about me than Logan, perhaps. I detest poetry written in the second person singular (because they almost always fall apart under close inspection) and my response to it might go some way toward illustrating why. In the poem On the Wood Storks, the reader (in this case me) is informed that they (I) have “walked to where you [I] wanted to be alone”.

Behind the movie theater’s neon beau monde
cooled the dank waters of a retention pond,

cyclone fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown.
You walked there when you wanted to be alone.

For weeks nothing stirred the blackened reeds,
which were enough, those days you felt in need.

Well, that’s funny, because I have no memory of this. Though I wanted to be alone, the evidence suggests that I wasn’t. William Logan (wow, I really have no memory of this) was obviously not going to let me be. While nothing was stirring in the blackened reeds, he was obviously being a complete butt, scribblng his little, black observations about my every move and thought. Later in the poem (presumably I’m still trying to be alone), Logan observes that a “black-edged wing, in search of food” somehow breaks my “somber mood”. Well, Logan has a fix for that. How about a timely reference to Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment?

Yet on they marched, like Dante’s souls through Hell,
awaiting the Last Judgment’s redeeming bell,

working their way in silence, fallen aristocrats.

Christ, no wonder I wanted to be alone. Apparently (again I have no memory of this) I mumbled something conciliatory.

You said they looked like ladies’ hats,

white as the color of love, if love has color—
bright white, you meant, only a little duller.

“Yes, like love — I mean, you know, if love even has a color. I’m not saying it does, but if it did, maybe bright white? —  I mean, not bright white, but duller, okay? Will you leave me alone now?” Ladies hats? I must have been drunk out of my gourd. What analogy was he going to dredge up next? Where do you go after Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment? So, anyway, this is why I detest poetry written in the second person singular. It reminds me of my days before Alcoholics Anonymous—the black-outs, the binges, the benders—and all those damned poets following me around.

But what about the poem, technically? It hints at Iambic Pentameter but the meter (if it can be called that) is like a finicky bird trying to land on a nervous twig. There are too many irregularities. I notice that one can read each line as having five stressed beats. In that case, one could call the lines accentual. It’s a nice feint, but that in itself doesn’t distinguish the verse from prose.  It’s the couplets. The rhymes aren’t always full rhymes but I like them like that. The accentual lines along with the couplets move Logan’s poetry beyond the usual pablum of his peers.

Something else worth noting about the poem — it’s practically a study in colors. But here’s the thing, and it’s a quality that  I notice again and again, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. There is one description after another and I can’t help be somewhat reminded of Ted Hughes. Any sense of narrative progression is undermined by one seemingly unrelated simile after another.

When bankers review their fat portfolios,
they draw such dark beaks open and closed,

There is, of course, a history behind this kind of writing, but the average reader isn’t going to know or care. The reader is only going to wonder why a banker and his fat portfolio materialized in the middle of a retention pond. There’s something almost Monty Python about it. No matter how the poet rationalizes it, the effect is to make the poem feel more like a patchwork quilt than a unified whole. The other factor that undermines a clean narrative are adjectives. Logan uses adjectives far more than he should, (a whole line is nothing but compound adjectives), and the effect is positively rococo: neon, dank, “cyclone-fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown”, blackened, gathered, Alpine, white, fat, dark, invisible, pale, newly, black-edged, somber, redeeming, fallen, bright.  Add to that the adverbs and you’ve got a poem that makes pea-soup look like a noble gas. Consider a poem like A Valentine for Matthew Arnold:

The Seas of Faith are full again with vain
Philosophies, empty orders of gods,
Demons of the mind and heart supplanting
The slow angers of love with hollow stares
And rhetoric. These are not days to love,
When the rare expectations of morning
Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…

If the poet is going to throw this many adjectives into the line, make them good ones, not borderline clichés. As it is, one gets the impression that Logan needed to fill out the line lengths (and there is nothing easier or more expeditious than adjectives). But adjectives are to verse what cholesterol is to a beating heart. Unfortunately, it’s a habit of writing that typifies all the poems that I can find online. One would expect a critic of Logan’s caliber to know better. The oddest thing of all is that Logan’s poetry reminds me of passages in Hart Crane. But no, I’m not going there.

Logan’s choice of imagery is repetitive. There are twenty-six of his poems hosted by the poetry foundation. Let’s take a black & white look:

from Punchinello in Chains: VI. Punchinello Dreams of Escape

“The dream of life is just another dream…”

A Valentine for Matthew Arnold

“Philosophies, empty orders of gods…”

“The slow angers of love with hollow stares…”

“Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…”

Anamnesis

“The white robe of the communicant…”

“The cold and the age of the season. Now
“The shirr of the lake under cold wind”

“A hollow loon cry from the water…”

“To the lake, a late walk on a dark road…”

Animal Actors on the English Stage after 1642

“in frenzied howls accepted empty purses…”

“though Cromwell’s ass just muttered empty phrases…”

In December, Thirty-One Moons

“The dark invades the pines…”

“Now the snow in the thin light pales the sky…”

In the Gallery of the Ordinary

“treated that blank pasture of the “heavens”…”

“or sunset a dull, worn-out gilt…”

“The nights there were scumbled with light…”

Joseph Conrad

“Hypnotic moon on black water…”

(Notice how black is frequently associated with water.)

“Under a blank sky…” (There it is again.)

“In the uneasy light” (The word light will reappear again and again as pale, thin, dimly etc…)

“Against Aeneas and his dark Trojans…”

Medusea

“…the first tentacles of dreams…”

“I dream of a wide sea…”

“I dream of you…”

“And wave in a shifting light…”

“I wake to cold…”

“I see your black hair a snaky tangle…”

Monocular

“…and the fainter stars wink
Dimly around them…

On the Wood Storks

cooled the dank waters…”

“…nothing stirred but the blackened reeds…”

“…through the gathered gloom…”

“eight white ghosts floated faintly…”

“the waters like a chessboard scattered with white pawns…” (The implication being, here, that the waters are, you guessed it, black.”

“the draw such dark beaks open and closed…” (Beaks also appears in a previous poem, but one can only illustrate so much repetitiveness.”

“The pale birds…”

“One lifted black-edged wing…”

white as the color of love…”

“bright white, you meant, only a little duller.”

Over the Dead Flatness of the Fens

“I watch the canvas of that underpainted sky” (Think “blank”.)

Queen’s Square

gilt silhouettes, the bars of soap..”

Song

It’s darker out and starting to snow…”

The Age of Ballroom Dining

“The hour’s thin contemplations recruit…”

“The flaking mirror wraps gilt faces…”

“they awake from the dream of ambitions”

The Desert of Reminiscence

“…The fragile, unreachable water
“Surrounded us, held us in the arms of the cold.”

The Moth Disturbs the Night

“…the inside light that glows/Duller…”

“Penetrating their white…”

“From a dark wall, a moth has/Fallen…”

“…it resembles/ The black clay…”

“…is as fragile as the/Feathers of blood…”

The New (Upper) Assembly Rooms

darker in these winter days…”

The Object

“in the weak/Reflection of light at dawn or sunset…”

The Other Place

“The sky revealed no sun.” (Yet another euphemism for emptiness or blankness.)

The Tree Frogs

“like dreamers awaking…”

“they hovered abovc the speckled pond’s black mirror…” (Yet again, the black waters…)

Thoreau

“as the fall’s chancels/ darkened…”

To a Wedding

“Miami sky turned gray as a blanket…” (Think blank or that it ‘revealed no sun’…”

Totenlieder

“..inviolate as the sulfur sky…” (This theme of sameness and hellish imagery runs throughout Logan’s poetry…”

“These notes, cast down the dark corridor…”

“…a woman/With black hair…”

“…back into the pale saffron dust…”

“Her husband and daughter under a/Cloudless sky in which no wind stirs,/and no music…” (In so many words, blank.)

“…which is like shouting, Shouting into the deaf light.”

So, these are just the poems at Poetry Foundation. It doesn’t take long before the reader starts having that repetitive deja vous feeling all over again. Each poem seems to be assembled from the same little grab-bag of whatnots. Each poem seems to borrow from the other. There’s a monotonous sameness to their imagery and ideas. Has Logan ever seen a sky that wasn’t blank? Has Logan ever seen water that wasn’t black? Although I didn’t isolate every example, the imagery of “dreams” keeps popping up — again and again. Logan’s use of adjectives is unimaginative. Adjectives like black, dark, white, and dull are done to death. It’s no wonder McHenry refers to Logan’s lines as “chilly”. The landscape of Logan’s poetry, at least in this selection, is unremittingly dark, bleak, blank, dull, soiled, oily, black, cold, faint, pale, etc… In Christmas Tree, his parents kiss for a last time. In the ostensible re-write of the poem, The Box Kite, Logan just about repeats the very same closing line, respectively:

“I saw my parents kissing,/perhaps for the last time.”

“…the last time they stood at ease with each other.”

If this is any indication of Logan’s corpus, I think I could spot a poem by Logan a mile away. It would be unremittingly dark, bleak, dank — wait, I’m repeating myself. This too illustrates the problem with adjectives. It’s bad enough that they’re bland. It’s bad enough to use them too much. It’s a criminal offense to use them over and over in poem after poem again and again, repeatedly. Logan once wrote that Cape Cod’s wildlife should get a restraining order to keep the poet Mary Oliver out of their lives. Likewise, I strongly recommend that adjectives, especially a select few, should consider a restraining order to stop Logan from fondling them. Similarly, Logan’s palate of imagery seems to always veer back toward colors, light, dark, black, green, red ,water, liquids, grime, blood, etc…

I mentioned before that Logan’s poems never seem greater than the sum of their parts. My stab at an explanation is that because Logan’s habit is to pile on adjective after adjective, simile after simile, metaphor after metaphor, any real sense of narrative unity is lost. One metaphor or simile may have little or no relationship to the next. Logan seems to write whatever pops into his head.  Consider a poem like Christmas Tree. It’s ostensibly a narrative poem — it’s telling a story. But watch what happens. Every time Logan gets just a little bit of momentum, just a little, he gets sidetracked by a simile. It’s like he suffers from a special kind of Tourette syndrome. Instead of barking out obscenities, he barks out similes (in italics). And then there’s the repetitive prepositional phrasing that keeps popping up  like whac-a-moles (underlined).

Christmas Trees

How should I now recall
the icy lace of the pane
like a sheet of cellophane,
or the skies of [like] alcohol

poured over the saltbox town?
On that stony New England tableau,
the halo of falling snow
glared like a waxy crown.

Through blue frozen lots
my giant parents strolled,
wrapped tight against the cold
like woolen Argonauts,

searching for that tall
perfection of Scotch pine
from the hundreds laid in line
like the dead at Guadalcanal.

The clapboard village aglow
that starry stark December
I barely now remember,
or the brutish ache of snow

burning my face like quicklime.
Yet one thing was still missing.
I saw my parents kissing,
perhaps for the last time.

Any sense of narrative flow just doesn’t stand a chance. Besides that, the repetitive phrasing lends a formulaic feel. If we take out all the bric-a-brac, we end up with a very short poem and that’s part of the problem. Logan appears to get so lost in verbosity that he forgets that the snow was falling (and his face was being brutishly burned) and refers to the December night as being “starry”. So what was it then? Was the snow falling or was it a starry December night? Is all that bric-a-brac to keep the rhyme scheme?

There’s a difference between writing poetry and writing poetically. To judge by his writing, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that, to Logan, poetry is nothing more than adjectives, a string of similes and a cup full of metaphors. Compare this to one of the greatest poems in the English language:

robert-frostStopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There’s not a single simile in the whole thing. In truth, the whole poem can be read as a metaphor, and has been treated as such. That was one of Frost’s gifts. You’ll never find (or at least I can’t think of one at the moment) a Frost poem invaded by a bus load of similes, verbal and prepositional metaphors. It’s a peculiar thing that the very talent that makes Logan’s criticism a guilty pleasure to read is the pill that poisons his poetry. Here’s Logan dismantling our current Poet Laureate [sigh…], Natasha Trethewey. I’ve italicized all the little touches that ripple like cluster bombs in the black waters of his prose.

Though fond of form, she fudges any restrictions that prove inconvenient, so we get faux villanelles, quasi-sonnets, and lots of lines half-ripened into pentameter—most poems end up in professional but uninspired free verse. Trethewey wears the past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just [like] the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing—the slaves might just as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset. Trethewey’s moral sunniness has all the conviction of Scarlett O’Hara gushing, “As Gawd is mah witness, I’ll nevah be hungry agai-yun.

“Half-ripened into pentameter” is brilliant. I love that. Why can’t he write his poetry like this?  And that’s another strange dichotomy. There’s a wicked sense of humor in Logan’s prose. His timing is perfect. His poems? Maybe I’m supposed to read that line about the banker’s fat portfolio as a moment of wry, self-conscious, maybe ironic humor but the timing is all off. There’s a bleak, moribund and oppressive quality to his poems. They’re the place where the wickedness of his humor implodes. Think of the poem “In December, Thirty-One Moons”. Logan sets the mood right away: “The dark invades the pines.” Substitute poetry for pines and you’ll catch my meaning. From there we go to “ruined columns”, “a sky heavy/With clouds”, “chalky moon”, a distant bird, an “arbitrary order”, the moon’s “starved shape”, a “thin light” that “pales the sky”, and then he wonders “if Death is a woman”. Yoiks! “Amid this dormant life,” he writes, “she is a friendly thing.” If we take the poem’s voice as Logan’s, then the poem could easily speak for Logan’s art.

  • It’s interesting to note that Logan has criticized Mark Strand’s poetry as being “shorn of metaphors and similes, prosaic as a paper bag”. Logan proves you can go too far the other direction.

If I were to draw an analogy, I would compare a poem by Logan to the music of a composer like Salieri. The center rarely holds. All the right ingredients are there, but all in the wrong proportion. The cake never rises. Haydn once referred to Sammartini (the true father of the symphony) as a “note spinner”. Logan’s poetry can be like that. I haven’t yet read a poem possessed by an over-arching idea, a central metaphor that could be compared to a symphonic melody (or theme the holds the entirety of the piece together). He doesn’t seem to think that way. He piles on his imagery like a John Fletcher (and that’s going to be an equally meaningless allusion so I’ll explain).

A Shakespeare scholar, William Spalding, was one of the first scholars to methodically wrestle with authorship questions in Shakespeare. In an essay called “A Letter on Shakspeare’s Authorship of the Drama Entitled The Two Noble Kinsman“, Spalding uses internal evidence (stylistic) to identify which parts of the play are by Shakespeare and which by John Fletcher (they collaborated to produce The Two Noble Kinsmen). Of direct relevance to Logan’s poetry is the following passage:

John_Fletcher_from_NPG[Shakespeare’s] poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the truest which tries the presence of the faculty [talent for poetry]; metaphor indicates strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it that the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forget the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which tis highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. His descriptions are sometimes beautifully romantic, but even then the effect of the whole is often picturesque rather than poetically touching; and it is evident that lengthened description can still less frequently be dramatic. In his descriptions it is observable that the poetical relations introduced in illustrations are usually few, the character of the leading subject being relied on for producing the poetical effect. Fletcher’s longest descriptions are but elegant outlines; Shakespeare’s breastfed metaphors are often finished paintings. Where Shakespeare is guilty of detailed description, [Fletcher] is very often labored, cold, and involved; but his illustrative ideas are invariably copious, and it is often their superfluity which chiefly tends to mar the general effect. [p. 17]

While Fletcher and Logan are obviously very different poets, and an aesthetic is being applied to Fletcher that can’t fully be applied to a 21rst century poet, there are still certain rules that apply. 2oth century poets have chosen to utterly ignore them, if not flagrantly defy them, but we all know how wildly popular contemporary poetry is. I think the majority of the public would rather have their teeth filed than read a book of contemporary poetry from beginning to end. What gravity is to the architect, the human mind is to the poet. What architecture can do successfully is constrained by the laws of gravity. Likewise, what the poet can do, successfully, is constrained by the reader’s capacity to comprehend him. All this is a simplistic way of saying that what made a poem great in the 16th century still makes a poem great in the 21rst century. The observations concerning Fletcher are applicable to Logan.

  • If you choose to listen to Logan’s reading, at precisely 1 minute and 17 seconds, a “blank sky” will show up. I kid you not, preceded by “drowned light”. Lest I’m accused of reviewing unrepresentative poetry, this reading is from 2011 and from his latest book. Also, the first poem he reads will end “Of all the things you were, perhaps that would be the last.” There’s that same idea as in the Christmas Tree and the Box Kite. It’s deja vous all over again. In the second poem the lake (read water) is gray rather than black. All the usual primary colors will show up. One could almost make a drinking game out of Logan’s poems. Another black haired woman shows up at 8 minutes. At about 9 minutes a “polluted pond” will appear. I assume that means it’s black or gray? Is there ever such a thing as potable water in his poems? When he reads Summer 1968 at the 12 1/2 minute mark, you’re definitely going to recognize the Logan-ean grab-bag  of imagery.

Beneath that chalk-blue sky with iron
stirred through it, the whitewashed windows
burned in faint phosphorescence.

It’s all there. We’ve already seen “chalk” applied to the moon. The light, once again, is faded or pale. In this instance, faint. Do I belabor the point? I guess I’m just surprised by how limited Logan’s pallet remains.

This and That

I think very highly of Logan.  He’s brilliant and prolific. His review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost was so matter-of-fact’ly devastating that rumors suggested the book would be withdrawn from sheer embarrassment (or at least until Robert Faggen’s monumentally bad editing could be corrected). I could only wish I were as capable.

I suspect that if Logan is remembered, it won’t be for his poetry.

I’ve exchanged some e-mails with him but I doubt he knows me from Adam. He’s unlikely to ever review my poetry simply because my latest poems will probably never make it into book form. Certainly no publisher has ever deigned to publish my poems individually (and not for lack of trying). At the moment, it’s no longer something that interests me — and was the reason I initially created this blog. So, all this is to say, I’m not too worried about being in his cross hairs. I should be though. I think it’s a pity that he hasn’t delved into the world-wide web. We can all guess the rationale. Poetry that hasn’t been screened by the publishing industry (read editor), is probably poetry not worth reviewing (let alone reading). However, since he seems perpetually disappointed by what he reads anyway, what’s the difference?

I would encourage him to look around.

You should try it, Mr, Logan. There’s more to poetry than is dreamt of in your book catalog.

Not One Thing

A while back I ordered a book by poet and author Carolyn Locke. The book is called Not One Thing: Following Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. Locke’s book is modeled after Basho’s famous Haibun, Narrow Road to the Interior. Haibun is genre in which haiku alternate Locke_NotOneThing_lgwith prose passages. Basho’s haibun is alternately translated as The Narrow Raod to Oku or Narrow Road to the North or Narrow Road to a Far Province. In a translation by Hiroaki Sato, the first paragraph of the forward begins thusly:

Carrying a pack with his writing materials, a few pieces of clothing, and several gifts from friends who saw him off, the poet Basho set out on a hike to the wilds of northern Honshu in the spring of 1689. With his close disciple Sora, he planned to visit places famous as wonders of nature or significant in literary, religious, or military history—and he wanted to spread to the poetry lovers he would meet in the  towns and villages along the way his methods of writing renga, the communal linked verse that was his passion and greatest concern in life. [Basho’s Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages, p. 9]

Many of the “famous places” that Basho was going to visit were called Uta-Makura. Later in Sato’s introduction to his translation, he explains their significance this way:

In Japan, where the first large-scale collection of verse dates from the eighth century, a great many places were routinely described or mentioned in poetry from the outset, and many of these came to be known as uta-makura, “poetic pillows.” Uta-makura then acquired the same significance as kidai or kigo, “seasononal subjects” or “topics,” each representing a certain idea or sentiment or a trigger thereof. For Basho the purpose of visiting such places was, as he said to Kikaku in a letter, furuki uta-domo no makoto a kan(zu)—to “feel the truth of the old poems.”

Basho is considered by most to be Japan’s greatest poet (their Shakespeare) and his haibun, Narrow Road to the North, is considered a masterpiece of world literature. I’ve read it,  in translation, and was moved by its humanity. Because of Basho’s fame, and because most of the landmarks he visited remain and continue to be enjoyed, a little tourism industry has arisen for those want to retrace his  footsteps (by bus).  And so it was that Locke wrote in her diary: “If I ever return to Japan, the one thing I’d like to do is follow Basho’s travels.”

“Now, six years later, Laurel Rasplica Rodd, the director of the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, was calling fro applications for a Fullbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Seminar in Japan. Sixteen teachers from kindergarten through post-secondary levels would be selected for this month-long “Journey to the Interior,” during which they would study Basho’s famous journals and haiku, and travel through northern Honshu, following the footsteps of one of Japan’s greatest poets.”

Locke was accepted. Her book, Not One Thing, is a haibun  modeled after Basho’s. Unlike Basho’s haibun, Locke includes many full-colored photos. In a sense, one could also say that her book has elements of haiga. Strictly speaking, a haiga is a style of painting that incorporates the aesthetics of the haiku. Buson, not Basho, was considered Japan’s greatest master of this form (and also considered, by a few, to be a greater poet than Basho). Buson’s paintings, accompanied by his own haiku, are considered masterpieces of the form. In the 21rst century I don’t see why photographs can’t be an alternative to paintings, and Locke’s haiku are sometimes paired with a photograph.

So, what do I think?

I think that you have to be predisposed to enjoy haiku, familiar with Basho, and be minimally acquainted with Japanese culture to enjoy Locke’s book. She herself states:

“What you will find here is a work of love that explores and honors one woman’s encounter with one of the world’s most incredible cultures ans well as her journey into her own interior world. Written in the form of haibun—a combination of prose, haiku, and images—it does not pretend to be an academic study, nor does it offer a complete explanation of all terms, concepts, and historical references.”

The lack of explanation will probably leave the unacquainted reader somewhat perplexed. On the other hand, that same attribute might spur a reader’s curiosity. I think that if one hasn’t already read Basho’s Narrow Road,  some of the enjoyment might be lost. Even so, being intimately C. Lockefamiliar with haiku and having read several translations of Narrow Road, I was mildly disappointed that there weren’t more photographs of the actual Uta-Makura. The photographs we do find, let’s admit it, are rather amateurish. They are nicely reproduced but amateurish. Personally, I find that somewhat charming and engaging. This isn’t a pretentious book. You will find pictures of snakes (which terrified Basho), irises, sandals and her own feet in a brook. I was reminded of an older era when the next door neighbor would have a slide show while they soliloquized about their adventures. Locke’s photographs do give the reader some sense of the landscape she traveled through. They’re quirky.

Basho describes his journeys and laments. He can write passages like this:

“The most loyal among his loyal vassals were selected and put up in this castle, but their fame lasted only for a moment and turned into clumps of grass. “The country destroyed, the mountains and rivers remain. In the castle it is now spring and the grass has turned green.” Sitting on our hats laid on the ground, we shed tears for a while…” [Narrow Road to the Interior, Sato, p. 87]

Or this:

“If left alone the seven treasures would have scattered, the jeweled doors torn in the wind, and the gilt columns decayed in frost and snow, the whole thing turned into dilapidation and empty grass in no time…”

There’s something in the tone that almost hints at Shakespeare’s King Lear. The feeling of loss, transience, and “beautiful sorrow” suffuses Basho’s work — or wabisabi. It’s this quality of Basho’s poetry and writing that lends it humanity and power.

While visiting this same area, Locke writes:

“On our trek up to Chuson-hi, we pass one souvenir shop after another, each with glittering charms, prayer plaques, and fluttering banners. Sunday visitors swarm the paths, and it’s difficult to feel any spirituality here. All the glitter and even the gold in the chapel leave me untouched, but I am moved by the scent of the lilies at the foot of the guardian Jizo, by the lotus blooming in the pond, and by the hint of lavender on my Matsushima hat, to which I have added a pink wildflower from the field below.”

Whereas Basho always seems to begin with the particular and move outward, universalizing, Locke more often does the opposite. She begins with the general and often ends by turning her gaze inward. The risk with this kind of writing is that some of the passages can feel a bit like navel-gazing. We sometimes know less about about what she saw than how she felt when seeing it. In this sense, Locke’s book can often feel more like Bashos Narrow Roada personal diary than something meant to be shared. This format may be enjoyable for some readers. As for myself, one of my favorite passages was her discussion of the Saint Tetsumonkai who, according to legend, methodically mummified himself, burying himself alive as part of the process. 1000 days later, he was exhumed and lacquered. Every 12 years his clothes are changed (which, by coincidence, is about as often as my children would like to change their socks) . The passage is an exception where, contrary to her forward, she “offers a complete explanation”. I enjoyed it.

R.H. Blythe, if her were still alive, would have a hard time with Locke’s haiku. Blythe preferred objective haiku and considered subjectivity (a trait he misogynisticly associated with women haiku poets) slanderous. She also hews to the 5/7/5 rule of haiku-writing that has been largely discarded by most Western writers of haiku. The result is that her haiku can feel wordy compared to the average Japanese haiku in translation. This reason for this is discussed in the link above but briefly, Japanese syllables are not the same as syllables in English. Writing 17 syllables in Japanese is roughly equivalent to 12 in English.

However, the West has no tradition of haiku. Asserting that we should write haiku a certain way is a bit pompous. If Locke wants to write haiku that are a full seventeen syllables, then why not? But anyway, here’s what I mean by subjective:

Last monk in the curve
of wind—lonely trout swimming
the Nakagawa.

The classical Japanese haiku poet would normally avoid using words like loneliness, words the describe an emotion. Further, the ascription of emotions to animate or inanimate objects ran counter to the aesthetic of the haiku (and to the Zen influenced culture in general). The Japanese poet would normally let the context cue the emotional response.  You will also find personification and metaphors (italicized) in Locke’s haiku—techniques much more typical of western poets.

Outside the window
a red roof, slick with misty
mountain tears

Blue umbrellas bob
along the road—shy flowers
bowing to the iris

Swift waters stirring
river mist, sulfur mists:
deep mountain breathing.

Sometimes the haiku can feel more like footnotes than actual poems:

Bracelets of clover
woven in the fields below
graces an old stone.

Nine centuries—curved
lines pooling around one sqaure
in this shallow plate.

Page 34

I don’t make these observations as criticism but more as an effort to describe the kind of haiku Locke writes. I enjoy the variety and experimentation shown by Western writers of haiku, even if the aesthetic spirit of the original form is often lost — whether by choice or inexperience. In Locke’s, the joy she takes in writing haiku, in the Japanese culture and the experience of visiting in Basho’s footsteps, is wonderfully communicated.

Not One Thing is hard to classify. It’s not a book to buy if you want a modern tour and description of Basho’s  road to the interior (despite the book’s subtitle: Following Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior) . You will likely be disappointed. The photographs surely have strong and enjoyable associations for Locke, but they can leave the reader a with polite smile and perplexed gaze. Part of that is probably due to her decision to omit “a complete explanation of all terms, concepts, and historical references”.  I guess the best way to classify the work is as one of those old slideshows in book form. Locke will share from her dairy and read poems as she clicks through the photographs.

You will get some sense of what it’s like to follow Basho’s journey in modern Japan, little glimpses of what you will see; but mostly, if you read the book, you read it to share in Locke’s enjoyment and enthusiasm. To be honest, that was enough for me. I read it in relaxed moods and enjoyed it. I admire the effort and care she took to put her experience to paper.  I’d like to see more poets make this kind of effort. The West could use its own haibun.

Victories & Foibles: Some Western Haiku  by David Seegal

victories & foiblesOn the subject of haiku by Western poets, I couldn’t resist adding Seegal’s book to the post. I found this yesterday at our local used bookstore. What a fun little book. My copy was “Made in Japan” according to a little sticker, and was published by Charles E. Tuttle Company of Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan in 1977. (Vermont and Japan, you know… We have a lot in common.) First of all, the physical appearance of the book is lovely. If you can get a good copy, it’s slip case is bound in rice paper and the hardcover binding is cloth. The pages themselves are a rainbow of subdued colors: cream, yellow, brown, blue and various shades of green.

The haiku themselves? They’re more like haikai, I think. In the preface to the book, Seegal makes no secret of this flavoring.

“The following haiku verses, written in an American style, are departures from the exacting nature of this Japanese poem. By relaxing the restraints upon subject and style, the American poet gains the opportunity to experiment with and to possibly enhance the classic Eastern examples.”

Now let’s define understatement.  If “American style” means glib, tongue-in-cheek, and smarmy, then Seegal is the acknowledged master of the American haiku. He’s almost managed to turn the haiku into a kind of harmless and truncated limerick. Expect lots of exclamation points—a bit like those folks at the party (whom we’ve all met) who nervously laugh at their own jokes as if to remind you that you should be laughing.

Night on city street
strangers excuse bumps in fog…
…no man an island!

Butterfly recalls
former caterpillar days—
“Those were ugly times!”

Sunny spring morning
there’s that same old frog winking
at me…. I wink back!

One gets the impression of an author who is inordinately pleased with his own cleverness. Every once in a while Seegal takes a stab at something like seriousness, but even there, one isn’t quite sure:

Excavating for
new courthouse in Salem town—
a frayed hangman’s noose

Or how about this little gem:

Prison gate behind—
walking in spring sun he stops
to touch dogs, horses…

The etcetera at the end of that haiku should worry us all. I ask you, will the dogs and horses need years of therapy?

And then there are the hallmark moments, the kinds of one-offs that belong on those little signs hung on kitchen walls:

Ah the warm pleasures
for aged upon finding
new facts and new friends

Why no exclamation point? — I ask myself. Anyway, the book is an object lesson in how not to write haiku if your aim is anything remotely related to the Japanese originals in either substance, style or merit (let alone poetry in general). So why do I mention the book? Because it’s so bad it’s a work of genius. It has to be intentional.  It’s irresistible It’s like an 82 car pile up (the number pages). You just can’t stop watching. You can’t. The way each hurtling haiku demolishes the next arouses an almost morbid fascination. Or think of it this way: The entirety of the book could be compared to a compilation of YouTube fail videos. You know how each little video is going to end, but you just can’t stop watching, cringing, and grimacing with a voyeuristic delight.

You just can’t consistently back into this kind of genius.

The book is a masterpiece of irony and satire. We can only mourn the fact that it wasn’t illustrated by Edward Gorey.

patternprintsjournal05gorey

Boston Orchestra
kettle drummer misses beat
…thousand backs stiffen!

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Four Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Persian Love Poetry edited by Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis and Sheila R. Canby
  • Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
  • Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
  • one thing leads to another by Wanda D. Cook, Larry Kimmel and Jeffrey Winke

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss

The Art of Haiku: Its History Through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters

Art of Haiku

I have to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve been so sorry to finish a book. I may have to read it again, starting today. If you enjoy haiku, then you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s beautiful. Addis gives the reader a necessarily adumbrated tour of Japan’s most influential Haijin (haiku poets). His overview is chronological and begins with the tanka. The tanka was a centuries older form of poetry, also brief, but five lines rather than two. The syllabic pattern (Lee Gurga refers to  the Japanese syllable — an on — as a “sound” rather than syllable) was 5-7-5-7-7. It’s those first three “lines”, or that syllabic pattern,  that was to eventually be transformed into the haiku.

As Addiss’s overview progresses, he offers brief biographies of the various poets along with samples of their best haiku — mostly just a small handful or even two to three. That’s enough, though, to give the Western reader a flavor, perhaps, of the many different poets who contributed to the haiku’s development.

It’s when Addiss gets to Basho, Buson and Issa that he slows and examines. These three poets comprise the lion’s share of the book; and what makes his discussion enjoyable is his attempt to explain their greatness. More often the poets are translated, presented and their greatness is presumed. The Western reader, unfamiliar with the haiku’s history may well be  perplexed. What about a frog jumping into a pond is so special? Addiss tries to explain.

I do have some small gripes. The first is with his translations. Since I can’t read Japanese, I can’t say whether his translations are more or less accurate but I do know good poetry when I see it (and have other translations for comparison). By way of example, here are three different translations of one of Issa’s most famous haiku:

The snow has melted away —
A village-full
Of children.

Translated: Takafumi Sato and William R. Nelson

Snow melting —
the village is full
of children

Translated: Stephen Addiss from Haiku Landscapes: In Sun, Wind, Rain, and Snow

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children

Translated: Robert Hass

snow melts
and the village is flooded
by children

Translated: PDF

Of all the translations, the last is the best. The translations by Addiss, Saito, and Nelson are possibly more faithful to the letter, but Hass’s translation turns the haiku into poetry (and the last translation accomplishes the same with fewer words). Why are the last two better? Because the verb flood, whether or not it was in the original, plays on the idea of the snow melt turning into children. The first two translations don’t even vaguely imply the same. It’s possible that in the original the implication is more strongly felt; but without the word flood, in the English translation, the haiku is reduced to nothing more than a banal observation: When snow melts, children come out to play. Flood turns that observation into poetry. I can’t say whether Addiss’s other translations suffer the same flaw, but it does make me wonder. My own subjective opinion is that literal translations of poetry aren’t always the best translations; and that sometimes the best translators of poetry are themselves poets. They translate the poetry rather than just the words.

My other small complaint is that Addiss’s overview of Issa’s poetry is rather perfunctory in comparison to Basho and Buson. Whereas Basho and Buson’s haiku are discussed in the context of their lives, Issa’s biography is quickly dispensed with. Addiss himself entitles his short biography: A Short Biography. He follows this with several pages of haiku, one grouping after another, with headings like Views of Nature, Issa and People, Animals, Frogs and Snails, Insects etc… That’s all well and fine, I suppose, but I don’t know why Addiss treated Issa differently than Basho or Buson (except, perhaps, that he favours Basho and Issa). One does get a sense of Issa’s originality, but I can’t see how this couldn’t have been accomplished with a richer biography.

My last observation would be that, to my knowledge, there’s no other book like Addiss’s. The only exception, perhaps, would be R.H. Blyth’s two volume A History of Haiku. These two books are much denser, consider far more poets and discuss culture and biography in a way that Addiss, writing a much briefer and arguably more accessible book, does not. Addiss also considers Japanese painting in the context of haiku, something Blyth does not.  If you like haiku, or are interested in learning about them, and want a more general and readable overview of its history, I can’t think of a better book than Addiss’s. If Addiss’s book piques your interest, then move on to Blyth’s two volume set. After that, you will have to learn Japanese.

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