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.


Boston Orchestra
kettle drummer misses beat
…thousand backs stiffen!