POEMS — Your Topic. Your Price.

Street scene at the Ballad Market

This whimsical scene at Seattle’s Ballard Market the other day made me smile. This pair of poetical hustlers are bittersweet reminders of the plight of poets everywhere.

They brought to mind the funny (but not-too-funny) little poem by Hayden Carruth, written when he was studying and writing about the Japanese haiku master, Basho, who lived and wrote in the late 1600s.

Basho, you made
a living writing haiku?
Wow! Way to go, man.

This pair at the market did not appear to be doing much business, but they were earnest and eager, and I wish them the best.

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Haiku Haiku

The haiku master
explicated his own work.
So I could do worse.


NOTES:  You could get the idea in sophisticated poetry circles, that it’s low-rent to indulge in writing poetry about yourself or discussing your own work.

You can almost hear a schoolmarmish voice laying out the ground rules.

“Best to write about concept and ideas, and always with an ironic detachment lest you should be accused of wallowing in sentimentality.

“Do not indulge in personal poetry. And, whatever you do, be sure to let the poem speak for itself. Don’t commit the sin of talking about your work or trying to explain what it means. The work is what it is, and it means what it means to the reader.”

Well, I say hogwash to all that.

And my first expert witness is none other than Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master.

Like every fan of haiku, I had read Basho’s poems, but I couldn’t say that I had really gotten to know Basho until I stumbled across his travel diaries.

If I have some free time on a weekend, one of my favorite pastimes is to duck into our local used bookstore to see what new poetry books have trickled in. A couple of weeks ago, I spotted “The Essential Basho” translated by Sam Hamill.

After thumbing through a few pages, I knew I had to have it.

What I learned was that Basho made several walking journeys around Japan in the 1600s. Often accompanied by a student, he walked from town to town seeking out shrines and temples, natural landmarks, and other artistic souls along the way.

And as he went he not only wrote haiku, but he kept a journal. He would explain where he was and what he was seeing as he wrote his poetry.

Sometimes he would quote an ancient poem written about the same view he was seeing.  Sometimes he would write his own poem.  But sometimes he would humbly decline to add anymore.

Basho hired a boat at a town called Yoshizaki so he could sail out to see the famous pine trees at Shiogoshi.  He was well aware of the poem written some 500 years before by Saigyo.

All the long night
salt-winds drive
storm-tossed waves
and moonlight drips
through Shiogoshi pines.

Basho declined to write a poem of his own.

“This one poem says enough,” Basho wrote. “To add another would be like adding a sixth finger to a hand.”

But, when he does write his own poems, Basho often provides the setting to give the reader enough context to better understand the meaning.

For example, when he writes this haiku, it is possible to get a feel for what is going on from just the text itself:

If’ I’d walked Walking-
stick Pass, I’d not have fallen
from my horse.

But it means much more when you read Basho’s explanation.

“They say the ancient poet Sogi nearly starved to death in the high village of Hinaga,” Basho wrote. “I hired a horse to help me over Walking-stick Pass. Unfamiliar with horses and tack, both saddle and rider took a tumble.”

In other cases, without the poet’s explanation, you won’t really understand the poem at all.

On the second day,
I’ll rise early to welcome
the oncoming spring.

On the surface, this seems like a sentimental, but shallow little seasonal poem.  But when you read Basho’s context, it becomes a much more interesting and humorous glimpse into his soul.

“Reluctant to see the year-end,” Basho wrote, “I drank until well past midnight on New Year’s Eve, only to sleep through the morning on New Year’s Day.”

It turns out Basho missed the first morning of the new year because he was hung-over.

If he had been alive today, I’m pretty sure Basho would have been a blogger. I’m happy he left behind his journals to help us understand his work.

With such an illustrious example as his, I resolve to be less sheepish about providing commentary on my own poetry.

Crow haiku

Japanese Woodblock Print by Kyosai (1831-1889)
Japanese Woodblock Print by Kyosai (1831-1889)

Crows show up in some of the most poignant haiku. They are such marvelous creatures, it is not surprising they captured the notice of the haiku masters.

My favorite guy, Issa, wrote this:

The crow
walks along there
as if it were tilling the field.

Perhaps the most famous crow haiku is Basho’s Autumn Crow:

A crow
has settled on a bare branch —
autumn evening.

Spring came early to western Washington this year. On a recent walk, I encountered some crows who were very upset about my presence.

Relax, noisy crows,
I mean your babies no harm.
The cat, however …

Hawaii haiku

Kilauea
Surely this must be the roof of hell

I never really understood Issa’s haiku about the roof of hell until I visited Hawaii’s Big Island. We hiked for miles around the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

It was like walking on the moon. Except with full gravity. Over jagged rock formations. Boulder fields. Through pebble fields. Past sulfur-stinking steam vents. Up and down. A death march.  There were times when you could look around and swear you were on another planet.

It inspired a few syllables of my own:

“We walk the roof of
Hell,” said Issa. He must have
hiked Kilauea

Issa’s original poem went like this:

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers

Much more profound than mine.  But I appreciate his inspiration.

Issa was a poet and Buddhist priest who lived from 1763 to 1828.   Which means he was coming of age just as American was becoming a nation.

He’s considered one of the four great haiku masters along with Basho, Buson, and Shiki.

His full name was Kobayashi Issa, but he went simply by the name Issa, which literally means “cup of,” or “one cup of tea.”  What a great name for a haiku master!

I like his stuff and I’ll likely be coming back to it from time to time.

How now, haiku!

Haiku
Can we really say we understand haiku?

My friend and colleague Seth La Tour is a brave soul. He has started a blog “one poem every day,” which is pretty much what it sounds like.

He writes a new poem every day and posts it. Mostly he writes haiku.

I’m not sure I get haiku. By which I mean I really don’t get haiku. It comes from a cultural tradition so different from my own that I hesitate to claim any knowledge.

But, every now and then reading haiku, I get a glimpse of something … a whiff … a hint.

Seth wrote one a few days ago that gave me that twinge:

old, red butter dish/

doing your one job so well/

on the countertop

Something about its directness, its simplicity and its sheer concreteness gave me that feeling I get when I think I have apprehended the best of the haiku from Japan.  For me, it’s a little like catching a glimpse of something in peripheral vision.  When you look at it directly, it’s gone.

There was a significance in this simple moment.  There was “something” the poet perceived and recorded.

I sensed the same sort of thing when experiencing a Japanese Tea Ceremony.  It was so simple, yet precise.  There was something there.  But I couldn’t quite apprehend it.  (Then my knees started to ache and I had to stand up.)

We know that haiku master Basho also followed the Way of Tea, so there is clearly a deep connection.

I have tried haiku, but am not satisfied I have the clarity and tranquility required.  Here’s one I didn’t burn:

As night turns to day

Summer’s last full moon slips down

Making not a sound