Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Sense That Time Is Passing

No moon
Ancient light
I am older
A stream surrounds a moss-covered boulder

Friday, October 30, 2009

Poetry and Song 3

Poetry and Song 3

Here is a hokku by Basho:

fūryū no hajime ya oku no taueuta

roots of elegance
on this trip to the far north
rice-planting song

Translated by Jane Reichhold, Basho: The Complete Haiku, page 136, Kodansha International, 2008

beginnings of poetry –
the rice planting songs
of the interior

Translated by Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams, page 125, Stanford University Press, 1988

the beginning of all art –
in the deep north
a rice-planting song

Translated by David Barnhill, Basho’s Haiku, page 91, State University of New York Press, 2004

This hokku is from Basho’s famous journal, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (Oku no Hosomichi). Basho had just passed the Shirakawa barrier and met up with some friends. Basho produced this hokku on the occasion of their meeting. Basho’s friends were all poets and this hokku was used as the opening verse of a Renga they composed on the spot; one of three they would compose together that evening.

It is unusual for an opening verse for a Renga because it expresses Basho’s view of where poetry, or art, comes from; the root that nourishes poetry. Normally an opening verse for a Renga expresses season and place; but expression of opinion, or displays of emotion, are rare and some would consider them inappropriate for an opening verse (they could appear in the middle section of a Renga). In a personal conversation I had with Jane Reichhold she agreed that this was unusual for an opening verse, a hokku, but her take on this is that all of the people with Basho in this situation were students of Basho, so Basho used the occasion to impart some basic insight into the nature of poetry and art.

In my imagination I think of Basho, with his trusty traveling companion Sora, hiking into the wilderness of the far north of Japan, crossing the Shirakawa barrier, and there in the field were women planting rice and singing a traditional rice-planting song. This, I think, is a kind of “aha” moment. The rice-planting song is poetry, but it is poetry that is spontaneous and natural song. It is not deliberately cultivated poetry. It simply emerges from the rhythmic activity, the planting of rice, and the culture. It is a natural part of being a human being.

One of the reasons I like Reichhold’s translation is that it emphasizes the idea that this kind of song is the root of poetry not just in the historical sense, but also in the sense of a root continuously nourishing a plant. Poetry is what we see above ground, but the natural expression of song is the root upon which poetry depends.

One of the points I think Basho was trying to make for his students is to not get too far away from this root, to remember that poetry is dependent upon song. The context is one of Renga, or linked verse, which as it developed in Japan became a highly complex, rule-bound poetic form. In such a situation it would be easy for a poet to forget the root. The root, the beginning, the origin of even the most complex and refined types of poetry remains in the simple, natural songs spontaneously given voice to by ordinary, uneducated, people. This is the voice of humanity.

Basho’s hokku is rich in meaning and each time I look at it I discover new reverberations. I think it was Basho’s ability to remain grounded in this nourishing source which kept his poetry alive, fresh, and natural. And I believe that it is still true today that song is the nourishing root which gives life to poetry.

After the Concert

After the concert
The full moon in the clear sky
And the autumn wind

Though it is late in the night
The musicians are hungry

Crowds are gathering
For the restaurant opening
And the five-star chef

All alone in the alley
Asleep in the packing crate

The shelter is full
Ice grips the streets and sidewalks
She buys a new scarf

Harsh static from the cellphone
Leaves a question in the heart

Patiently he says,
"I have told you many times
How much I love you."

A dozen wine red roses
In an antique crystal vase

The lengthening days
Bring the first warm afternoon
After months of cold

"Why don't you go out and play?"
(mom wants some time by herself)

In the summer heat
Dodgeball in the public park
And the radio

"I think they grow up too fast,"
Says the soldier with one leg

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Wheel Turns

New moon,
A cloudless sky,
Vast fields of endless stars,
A once rich homeless man looks up
And sighs.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Poetry and Song 2

During the Tang Dynasty in China, (618 to 907 C.E.) Chinese poetry reached unprecedented heights of beauty and expression. During this period their emerged two short forms of verse. Both of them were Quatrains (four line poems), or Jueju. One consisted of five characters per line, wujue, for a total of twenty characters; and since the characters in Chinese are one syllable long, twenty characters also means twenty syllables. The other Quatrain form consisted of seven characters/syllables per line, qijue, for a total of twenty-eight characters/syllables. (For the sake of simplicity I will refer to the “wujue” form as the “Five-Four” form and the “qijue” form as the “Seven-Four” form.) These taught, concise, structures became the vehicles for some of the most famous poems in Chinese history. Such poetic luminaries as Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu, along with many others, poured their considerable talents into these highly restricted forms.

Chinese poetry in general is rooted in song. The oldest surviving collection of Chinese poetry, put together by Confucius, is often title the “Book of Songs” or “Book of Odes”. That is because in many cases what we are reading are song lyrics; some of them from folk sources, others from more aristocratic origins.

The Tang Dynasty continued that association. I don’t mean to say that Chinese poets were writing songs in the Tang Dynasty; rather I am suggesting that the pulse of song, and I suspect specific melodies, underlay, or permeated, the poetic landscape so that the connection between poetry and song was never really broken. The two categories, “poetry” and “song”, remained porous to each other.

In the book How to Read Chinese Poetry, by Zong-Qi Cai, there is confirmation of this in the following quote:

“The rhythm of the heptasyllabic (seven-syllable) line . . . differs from that of the petnasyllabic (five-syllable) line, which has implications for how poets approached it. When pentasyllabic poetry is chanted, it rather naturally falls into eight beats per line:

tum, tum, tum, tum, tum, (rest, rest, rest);
tum, tum, tum, tum, tum, (rest, rest, rest).

The length of the silent rests gives the overall rhythm a slow and stately quality, which implicitly suggests that the content is weighty and important. When heptasyllabic poetry is chanted, it also naturally falls into eight beats per line:

tum, tum, tum, tum, tum, tum, tum, (rest);
tum, tum, tum, tum, tum, tum, tum, (rest),

. . . [T]he single beat of rest at the end of the heptasyllable gives the impression that each line rushes into the next. Thus heptasyllabic poetry has a distinctive flow, continuity, and lightness. The best poets of qijue (quatrains consisting of seven syllable lines) carefully crafted the sound quality of the syllable combinations, employing alliterations, internal rhymes, and reduplication more frequently than in the pentasyllabic line.”

(How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology, by Zong-Qi Cai, page 223, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008)

The author implies rests at the end of the poetic lines, but it is also possible that the last syllable of each line was held, lengthened, to fill in the eight beats. In this case the last syllable of the seven syllable line would be held for two beats, while the last syllable of the five syllable line would be held for four beats. This would replicate what was described in Part 1 of this series on Poetry and Song; that is to say the way that the rhythm of five syllable and seven syllable lines are handled is the same for Chinese Quatrains and for Japanese Tanka.

The convergence between the two cultures in the handling of the rhythm for the two types of lines even extends to the meaning given to these two. Takashi Kojima refers to the seven syllable line of a Tanka as “breezy”, while Cai refers to the seven syllable line as having “lightness” as compared to the five syllable line.

This can’t be coincidence; Chinese poetry had a huge influence on Japanese poetry. I wish I knew more about the specifics of the historical interaction of these two poetic cultures, but these hints are sufficient to suggest a connection. The differences are also striking. Japanese Tanka uses both five and seven syllables lines in its Tanka. Chinese Quatrains use either five syllable lines or seven syllable lines, but not both. Thus the Chinese Quatrains have four lines of repeated rhythm, while the Japanese Tanka has alternating rhythm, concluding with two seven line rhythmic units. Try chanting out these rhythms yourself, just to get a feel for how they differ.


Take enough Vitamin C, they tell me,
And you can end up living forever.
However, leaving aside forever,
You can, they say, live a very long time.

Taoist immortals ate cinnabar,
Many searched for the fountain of youth,
Many prayers to heaven beg for more years,
Such endeavors bring only dust and tears.

Where the soaring rocky mountains now stand,
Grand ocean waves once shifted shore side sand.
Where desert heat now endlessly shimmers,
Once a green fern forest quivered with life.

The mayfly lives but a single season,
Can you tell me the seasons of a star?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Canine View

Bark a lot
Not for good reasons
They do not give it much thought
When people object they bark, "Why the hell not!?"

Monday, October 26, 2009

Poetry and Song 1

I came across this passage in a book of translations of Tanka from the Manyoshu, the earliest collection of Japanese poetry:

“Japanese poetry finds its origins in poetry sung to quadruple-time music, and the Tanka retains the traits of an elegant quadruple-time song. The five 5-7-5-7-7-syllable lines are equal in duration both when read and sung. This is the basis of the euphony of Japanese poetry. In the 7-syllable line, one syllable is sustained for two beats. In order to make the 5-syllable line and 7-syllable line equal in length, three syllables in the shorter line must be lengthened. In reading, all five lines are lengthened to the same eight-beat duration. This formality of poetry recitation results in the 5-syllable lines sounding rather drawn out, while the 7-syllable line sounds somewhat breezy. It is this contrast that contributes to the emotionality of sung or recited Japanese poetry.”

(Written on Water: Five Hundred Poems from the Manyoshu, translated by Takashi Kojima, page 14, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont, 1995)

I understand this passage to mean that each line of a Tanka consists of two measures of 4-4 time; that is to say each line of a Tanka occupies eight beats. In a five syllable line, the last syllable would be held for four beats, or one entire measure. In a seven syllable line, the last syllable would be held for two beats, or one half of a measure.

I have known for some time that the Tanka form is rooted in song. The earliest name for the Tanka form that I know of is “Uta”, which means “song”.

To non-musicians the point being made here may seem difficult to grasp. The point, however, is simple and easily applicable to reading a Tanka. (Note that the author states that the lines are of equal duration whether they are read or sung.) Basically, the idea is that each line of a Tanka has the same duration. In practice what this means is that at the end of a five-syllable line there is a significant pause, or caesura. At the end of a seven-syllable line there is a very brief pause, just a slight touch. These pauses fill out the line such that both the five-syllable lines and the seven-syllable lines have the same duration.

The best way of understanding this approach to Tanka is to try reading Tanka in this way. The pauses referred to are not exaggerated; they should sound natural, yet they should also be present. In my own study of Tanka, once I got the hang of reading Tanka in this way what emerged was what I refer to as the “Tanka Pulse”. There is a beautiful, steady, flow in Tanka that emerges from taking Tanka’s origin in song into account when reading Tanka. This particularly applies when one is reading a series of Tanka, such as one finds in the classic collections like the Kokinshu. Given a series of Tanka on a particular topic, like Spring or Parting, reading Tanka in the series in the way described gives the reading an underlying pulse which carries the reader along, like the flow of a stream, from Tanka to Tanka.

This way of reading also applies to Renga because the overall syllabic structure of Renga verses follows that of traditional Tanka. Finally, this way of reading also applies to Haiku for the basic syllabic structure of Haiku follows the 5-7-5 of the first three lines of Tanka.

The author describes the effect of this way of reading Tanka is a kind of euphony. I have found this to be the case. This way of reading Tanka is pleasing to the ear, gives the reader a sense of rhythm and flow, and reveals an inspired lyricism at the heart of the Tanka tradition.


Of brick
Are so thick,
Even stronger --

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What I Do At Dawn

First light
As night ends
A sense of calm
I contemplate the beauty of the Psalms

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Field of Wonder

On the mountain path
I walked on and on and on
At the great cliff's edge
I stepped onto the moonlight
A traveler in space

Friday, October 23, 2009

For David Bromige

I was googling around the internet last night, searching for poetry blogs of interest. I discovered on this blog: that yesterday was David Bromige's 76th birthday. Go to Ron Silliman's blog for great coverage of events in New York centered around Bromige's birthday.

I live in Sebastopol, where David lived. I manage a book and tea shop (you can find it here: ) that was in walking distance of David's home. He used to stop by for tea; he liked herbal chai. He read at the store on a few occasions as well. He was enthusiastic about Many Rivers Books & Tea. One thing which really struck me about David was the easy and charming way he would offer his support to other poets. This support was always genuine, articulate, and meaningful.

So this is a brief thanks to David and to his legacy of generosity.

Thanks, David --

Jim Wilson


The grove of redwoods;
Silent, an ancient stillness,
Soothing and serene --
I once saw a goddess there,
Eyes of night and starlight hair.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Poetry as Craft

I have an overall view of poetry. My view is that poetry is a kind of craft. I refer to the craft of poetry as “shaping words.” Poetry is the deliberate shaping of words into specific forms. Seen in this way poetry resembles other crafts such as carpentry, which is the shaping of wood; or baking, which is the shaping of flour; or gardening, which is the shaping of plants into attractive forms and placements; or composing, which is the shaping of sound into melodies and musical forms; etc. A carpenter shapes wood into tables and chairs and desks. The poet shapes words into sonnets and sestinas and tanka and cinquain.

The task of the poet is to learn the tools of the poet’s trade in the way that a carpenter learns the tools of the carpenter’s trade, in the way that a baker learns the tools of the baking trade. A carpenter learns how to use a saw, hammer, nails, and how to measure, along with many other skills. The baker learns about flour, yeast, sweeteners, ovens, along with many other skills. The poet learns about lineation, meter, rhythm, metaphor, simile, resonance, rhyme, the formal structure of specific types of poems, along with many other skills.

At the beginning, a carpenter will make many mistakes; measurements might not align, nails might not hit their mark, etc. But over time, through practice and concentration, a carpenter becomes more familiar with the tools of carpentry and learns from mistakes and becomes more skillful.

At the beginning, a baker will make many mistakes, the bread may be too dense, the cake lopsided, the seasoning too strong, etc. But over time the baker becomes more familiar with the tools of baking and learns from mistakes and becomes more skillful.

At the beginning, a poet will make many mistakes, line count may be off, rhymes absent or misplaced, rhythm may not flow, or the choice of words may not be communicative, etc. But over time the poet becomes more familiar with the tools of poetry and learns from mistakes and becomes more skillful.

Found in a Closet

Fossils from a mountain top
Signs of life from ages past
The first gift you gave to me
When I thought our love would last

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On a Clear Night When the Full Moon was Very Bright

Moonlight on my bed
Wakes me from my dream
Memories of you
The sound of a stream

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I stand
By the ocean
White sand
Almost like dust
In the palm of my hand
And the motion
Of the pulsating wind
Like a remembered melody
Heard many years ago
The words of the lyrics long gone
Only a few fragments now remaining
Along with the mood of the song
Mingling with the laughter of three children
Running directly into the relentless surf
Diving into the sunrise of their lives