Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why I Pray

For people
Locked in hatred
Unable to find that which is sacred

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Golden Gate

Just after sunset
Crossing the golden gate bridge
Sky from blue to dark

Friday, January 29, 2010


Behind drifting clouds
Light from the almost full moon
Above bare branches

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I'd swear
I saw you there
Sitting at the table
But it was just a daydream that
Took form

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Long Rain

After days of rain
The silent winter returns --
The sound of sunrise

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 3

Book 1 – Spring

3. Anonymous. Topic unknown

Where are we to seek
The layered haze of springtime
While snow still falls
In the hills of Yoshino,
The hills of fair Yoshino?

Comment: The approach of spring is sometimes hinted at by a kind of haze that lifts off the snow or the cold ground. When it is really cold there is no haze, rather there is a crisp clearness to the air. So haze is an intimation of spring, a very early sign that spring is coming.

This Tanka links with Tanka 2 in this emphasis on very early signals of approaching spring. Tanka 2 focused on melting frozen waters, which often happens before there are buds or other more obvious signs of spring. Tanka 3 focuses on the spring haze. If one reads both Tanka 2 and 3 together, they form a complete landscape of the earliest signs that spring is coming.

‘Yoshino’ was a short-lived district (716-738), carved out of the Yamato district, and fairly quickly reabsorbed into Yamato. It is located in present day Nara Prefecture. The Yamato district was central to the development of Japan both culturally and politically. The last two lines referring to the ‘hills of Yoshino’, therefore, have a special meaning. This kind of meaning roughly corresponds to a phrase like ‘purple mountains majesties’ in the song ‘America the Beautiful’. This Tanka, therefore, seeks to express the particular beauty of Japan for the Japanese people.

A word about the author, ‘anonymous’. According to the translator, Helen McCullough, in her book on the Kokinshu, “Brocade by Night”, ‘Anonymous’ is the author of 460 poems in the Kokinshu collection. This is by far the largest group of poems. As mentioned previously, the largest group for a named author is Ki no Tsurayuki at 102 poems. So Anonymous has more than four times as many poems as the most frequently named author. This means that over 40% of the poems in the Kokinshu are by unknown authors.

It is interesting to speculate as to the sources of these unknown authors. Tentatively there seem to be a number of possibilities. Some of the anonymous Tanka are probably from very early sources and Tsurayuki did not know the actual author.

Some of them are likely to have been folk songs, or verses extracted from folk songs. Like the Sonnet, Tanka has its origin in song; the earliest name for this type of verse is simply ‘uta’, which means song. I think it is possible that this Tanka, Tanka 3, is a kind of folk song whose origin is in the people native to the Yoshino/Nara area. The last two lines have the kind of repetition that one often sees in folk songs and I can easily think of it as a refrain of a longer, multi-verse, song. There is a strong precedent for the inclusion of folk songs because Confucius included large numbers of these kinds of poems in his collection ‘The Book of Odes’.

Another possibility for Anonymous would be known authors who were currently out of favor at court. The editors may have wanted to include a Tanka by someone for whom it was politically dangerous to be associated with. And so the name ‘Anonymous’ could be a way out of this difficulty. Remember that the Kokinshu was an Imperially commissioned collection, with all the political implications that such sponsorship implies.

Finally, ‘Anonymous’ may designate a member of a rival house of poetry. In Japan during this period there were rival houses, or extended families and their students, who specialized in the art and way of poetry. They all vied for official recognition and the fortunes of patronage. To include a Tanka from a rival house would be to acknowledge that other tradition’s worthiness, causing difficulty among the associates in one’s own house and tradition. But it would be possible to slip in a Tanka from a rival house, assuming one admired it, by claiming that one did not know the author.

All of the above are possibilities. But the wonderful thing about all of these anonymous Tanka is that by including so many it guarantees that we get to hear a multitude of different voices. Think of how different the Kokinshu would have been if the editors had decided to only include named Tanka, those Tanka with secure attribution. There would have been fewer perspectives, and a more limited range of expression.

The result of including so many Anonymous Tanka is that as one progresses through the Kokinshu one moves from Tanka that are obviously sophisticated, penned from someone trained in literary technique, to Tanka that are simple and unsophisticated. So the Kokinshu retains the full spectrum of Tanka styles that were current at that time, offering us a window into how Tanka were treated by a wide range of different people.


The full moon hovers
Just above the horizon
In the freezing air

Howling for a few minutes
A few dogs in the distance

With great insistence
They argue with each other
About politics

"I don't mean to contradict,
Then again, maybe I do."

Perhaps they are through,
Perhaps she will try again,
A refreshing wind

The apple tree, once again,
Tosses blossoms in the air

At the County Fair
Couples prance in the line dance
To a steady beat

In the early evening heat
Sipping tea and lemonade

His is still afraid
They won't be interested,
He maintains silence

Noting the correspondence,
Patterns of the earth and sky

As oak leaves defy
The deepening autumn cool
She closes a door

This hasn't happened before
A road that's unknown beckons

Monday, January 25, 2010


Smoke filled sky
A baby cries
What is this blindness that destroys our lives?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Silence

Silence is a place
That lies in the heart
Silent is the Lord
Like an ancient hearth

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Tree Branch

The tree branch falling
As I looked out my window
I saw you walking
Farther and farther away
A swan flies over a field

Published in Modern English Tanka #10

Friday, January 22, 2010


Clouds in the distance
In the field filled with stubble
Some patches of ice

Before setting off for work
He scrapes the car windows clear

Time to get in gear,
It will be a busy day
There is lots to do

The building construction crew
Balancing on the high beams

She's amazed, it seems
He always knows what to say
To show he loves her

A gift of a new sweater
Days before the first cold breeze

The bright sun deceives,
It's lacking a basic warmth,
The November air

"Please do not bother, and spare
Me all your lame excuses."

He just refuses
To notice things like blossoms
Of the apple tree

Moonlight, a common beauty,
Windows rattle in the wind

It happened again,
A dream of freedom and peace,
It seemed very real

They partake of a fine meal,
A gathering of old friends

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Policeman in the Cafe

The policeman sits
Sipping his coffee
A gun on his hip
Music plays softly

Published in Issue 2 of Concise Delight Journal of Short Verse

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


After the thunder,
All the glistening needles
On the Douglas Fir

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 2

Book 1 – Spring


Spring has arrived
While the old year lingers on.
What then of the year?
Are we to talk of “last year”?
Or are we to say “this year”?

2. Ki no Tsurayuki. Composed on the first day of spring.

On this first spring day
Might warm breezes be melting
The frozen waters
I scooped up, cupping my hands
And letting my sleeves soak through?

Comment: The second Tanka answers the questions raised in the first Tanka. The first Tanka is ambivalent about time and season, but the second Tanka makes the assertion that this is the first day of spring. It does so by pointing to the melting of frozen waters; in other words, we know it is spring because nature tells us it is spring. Gone, in Tanka 2, is the tension between the human calendar and the seasonal display.

The Kokinshu’s inquiry into the nature of time can be framed in this way: is time a vessel in which things happen or is time the happening of things itself? The tendency is to think of time abstractly, as a kind of scale along which things happen at certain points. The view of the Kokinshu is that the seasons are time; in the sense that time is the emerging and disappearing of things in the world. If this is true then time can best be grasped through attentiveness to the world around us and through the journey of the seasonal changes.

I also think that the choosing here of the image of melting can be thought of as a metaphor for the melting of fixed human conceptions. The human mind creates fixity, but nature is flowing like warm breezes and ice melting. If we let nature “soak through” our human tendency to fixity, then we can find ourselves more at home in the world.

A note on the author: Ki no Tsurayuki was the primary editor of the Kokinshu. The anthology contains 102 Tanka by Tsurayuki, more than any other named author (“anonymous” is the most numerous group). I feel that by placing this Tanka as number 2, and using it to respond to the questions raised in Tanka 1, Tsurayuki is communicating to us his editorial stance and, perhaps, more broadly, his basic sense of life.


Intermittent rain
On the branches of the quince
There's no sign of spring

Monday, January 18, 2010

When Someone Asked Me a Question But I Knew They Wouldn't Like the Answer

There isn't much that I know,
You should question someone else,
Someone who knows quite a lot,
Where doubt's touch has not been felt.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Inner Light

Stepping into the beyond
Stepping into the unknown
Tracing back the radiance
To the source, to our true home

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Analogs -- Part 2

In “Analogs – Part 1” I compared the Five-Four Quatrain with the Tetractys. Both of these forms have a syllable count of twenty syllables, but distribute the syllables differently. In Part 2 I’m going to compare the Seven-Four Quatrain with the Prime. Both of these forms have an overall syllable count of twenty-eight syllables. Once again, the syllables are distributed differently. In the Seven-Four Quatrain each of the four lines has seven syllables: 7-7-7-7. In the Prime, the five lines distribute the syllables as follows: 2-3-5-7-11. Here are two examples on the same theme. First, the Seven-Four Quatrain:

Winter rain and the thunder,
Summer skies and the full moon,
Here I stand filled with wonder
For this life that ends so soon.

And now the Prime:

Has appeared
As I grow older
I am more and more amazed
Filled with gratitude for the years, months, and days

I think the reader can see that the relationship between the Seven-Four Quatrain and the Prime is similar to the relationship between the Five-Four Quatrain and the Tetractys. In each pairing we have one form that has a regular, repeating, line count, contrasting with another form in which the syllable count is different for each line. In both the Tetractys and the Prime the forms start with a very short count then gradually open to longer and longer lines. In both the Tetractys and the Prime the last line is long.

Again, one can get a feel for the differences in these forms, and their rhythmic meaning, by reading each line at a steady pace, allowing for the same amount of time per line. I have found that with the Tetractys and the Prime, the last line often overflows into a second pulse. When I am practicing I often force the last line into a single pulse; but when I move to a more relaxed reading, I don’t adhere strictly to that. It is enough to have a pause after each line, a natural pause, nothing dramatic, to frame the lines so that the listener will get a sense of the overall shape of the form.

Here’s a possible experiment: write two poems on the same subject, one in the Tetractys form and one in the Prime form. The differences between these two forms will be more subtle than the differences between a form that has a steady, regular line length and a form where the line length continuously changes.


When the night is filled with peace
Planets drifting on their course
All the cares of the day cease
With the angels I discourse

Friday, January 15, 2010

Homage to Heraclitus

The river flows to the sea
Events become history
The swirl of the galaxies
Time's flow is eternity

Thursday, January 14, 2010


There is not much that I need;
A strong roof over my head,
A few books for me to read,
At night, blankets on the bed.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Propaganda is the norm
In the news there is no truth
They just want to start a storm
And set up a torture booth

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Winter rain and the thunder,
Summer skies and the full moon,
Standing here filled with wonder
For this life that ends so soon.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Analogs -- Part 1

One of the distinctive aspects of a syllabic approach to poetry is that form has meaning. That is to say, that syllabic forms have meaning that transcend the specific content of the poem being read. The different forms of syllabic verse are felt to carry a rhythmic shape and that shape itself is considered to be part of the meaning of the poem.

One way to access this form-meaning is to look at what are referred to as form analogs. Form analogs are two or more syllabic forms that have the same overall number of syllables, but those syllables are distributed differently, over a different number of lines for example. To illustrate this I will use the forms of Tetractys and the Five-Four Quatrain. Both of these forms have twenty syllables. In the Tetractys the twenty syllables are distributed over five lines as follows: 1-2-3-4-10. In the Five-Four Quatrain the twenty syllables are distributed over four lines as follows: 5-5-5-5.

The meaning of the forms can be accessed by using an example of each form where the topic of the poem is the same. I will use two examples of my own, both on the topic of a Quaker Meeting for Worship.

First, the Five-Four Quatrain:

I can feel the light
On First Day morning
When Friends are gathered
It is transforming

And now the Tetractys:

Inner light
And the presence
Of the everlasting truth and essence

The Five-Four Quatrain has a regular line, five syllables per line, and proceeds at a steady pace. The Tetractys, in contrast, has a different number of syllables for each line. The first line is one syllable and feels like a kind of seed out of which the rest of the poem grows.

One way of sensing in the body the differences between the two forms is to recite the poems out loud, giving each line the same amount of time. At first, recite slowly; you might even want to clap your hands or snap your fingers to maintain a steady beat. This will sound a little artificial at first, but it helps to create a sensory awareness of the pulse of the form. In the Tetractys each pulse is gradually fuller, until the last line, which is the most dense. In the Five-Four Quatrain each line has the same density of count. After getting a feeling for the beat, try speeding it up a bit to make it more natural. There still remains the rhythmic difference between the two, even when one is speaking at a normal conversational rate. The key is to give each line the same amount of time in the reading.

The meaning of the form is a sensory meaning, not a meaning in the sense of an intellectual understanding. That is why it is a good idea to take two poems on the same topic, so that one doesn’t get sidetracked by intellectual differences. One needs to feel the pulse of the form in the same way that one feels the particular pulse of a dance.

If you are a poet one way to access these differences is to take a topic and then write poems in different syllabic forms on that topic. The moon or the seasons are good, standard, topics to work with. But any topic will do. Decide on a topic and then write a poem on that topic in two or more syllabic forms; say syllabic Haiku, Cinquain, Tetractys, and others if one wishes. This approach to understanding the feeling of a particular form is from the creator’s side. I’ve used this exercise quite a few times and I’ve found that it deepens my understanding of the meaning of the form.

Sky View

A few days ago
The moon vanished from the sky,
They put it somewhere;
Scientists had determined
It interfered with progress.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

First Day Meeting

Inner light
And the presence
Of the everlasting truth and essence

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Relationship to the Printed Word

Well read
On my desk
And by my bed

Friday, January 8, 2010


January dawn --
The bare branches of the trees
Dark against the sky;
The music of your laughter
Disappearing with my dream.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tundra Wind

All across the sky,
Aurora Borealis,
And the tundra wind,
And the endless tundra night,
And the beating of my heart.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Still Life With Couch

A book lies open
On the old three-person couch
A coat has been tossed
Over one of the armrests
The light from a reading lamp

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 1

Book 1 – Spring

1. Ariwara Motokata. Composed on a day when spring arrived during the old year.

Springtime has arrived
While the old year lingers on.
What then of the year?
Are we to talk of “last year”?
Or are we to say “this year”?

Comment: The Kokinshu begins with a poem that questions the nature of time. In the traditional Japanese calendar, based on the Chinese calendar, the New Year began on the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice; which turns out to be the New Moon in Aquarius in Western terms. This is the Chinese New Year which takes place sometime between January 21st and February 20th. Traditionally this was thought to be the beginning of spring (the Solstices and Equinoxes were thought to be the mid-points of the respective seasons, rather than the beginning of a season, which is how we tend to regard them in the west).

But while the calendar says “New Year”, or that the New Year is approaching, the rhythm of the seasons and the natural manifestations don’t always match up with human ways of framing the flow of time. Spring has arrived before the official calendar date for spring. The Tanka highlights the artificiality of human constructs, and how tentative they are, contrasting them with the presentation of the natural world. Does the word “spring” mean a date on our calendar or does “spring” mean when certain appearances emerge; plum trees in bloom, quince blossoms, melting snow, the first warm breeze, ice cracking, buds on the branches of the trees, wearing lighter clothing, etc.

I think the Kokinshu starts out with this Tanka to signal the reader that it is going to take a stance with nature; that is to say that nature precedes the human and is the context in which humans dwell. It is this larger context that the Kokinshu will focus on, particularly in the first six books devoted to the seasons.

The Last to Know

"That son-of-a-bitch!"
Tears of betrayal flowing
In the winter wind

Monday, January 4, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- Introduction

I’ve decided to add a new series to this blog; a commentary on the Kokinshu.

The Kokinshu is an anthology of Tanka, which in those days were called Waka. For this reason the full title of the Kokinshu is “Kokinwakashu”, but it is usually referred to as simply Kokinshu. The title means “Collection of Ancient and New Japanese Poems”. The anthology consists of 1,111 poems, all but nine of which are Tanka. It was put together around 915 c.e. It is the first of the twenty-one imperially commissioned Tanka anthologies. It has exerted an immense influence on Japanese poetry at every level; in terms of technique, in terms of topic, in its influence on subsequent anthologies, the Kokinshu is unrivalled. Right into the modern era poets in Japan would memorize large numbers of Tanka from this collection. Its esthetic was considered definitive for many centuries. Even today the Kokinshu is studied assiduously.

The Kokinshu was commissioned by the Emperor Daigo who reigned from 897 - 930. He selected the following editors; Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Ooshikoochi no Mitsune, and Mibu Tadamine. It is generally believed that Ki no Tsurayuki exerted the greatest influence on the anthology.

After the individual Tanka/Waka were selected, they were topically arranged. The result is that each of the twenty chapters of the Kokinshu is a series of poems by different authors that are so skillfully arranged and placed that one can read them as a single, unified poem, or one can read a single poem by itself. The remarkable skill with which the poems are linked to each other is one of the most influential features of the Kokinshu and it is one of the reasons the anthology is such a pleasure to read. Because of the success of this linking together of Tanka by different authors, the precedent was set for the later development of Renga, the linked verse of Japan which was deliberately written by a group of authors in series.

There are two translations of the Kokinshu into English; one by Helen McCullough published by Stanford, and one by Laurel Rasplica Rodd, originally published by Princeton, reissued by Cheng and Tsui. They are, by all accounts, both excellent. Both translators successfully mimic the syllabic structure of Japanese Tanka in their translations; that is to say they both strive to produce in English the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure of the Japanese original. This is remarkable, all the more so because their translations are so good. I have decided to use the Helen McCullough translation simply because I prefer the English which strikes me as smoother than the Rodd translation and because McCullough has also published some commentarial material, “Brocade by Night”, which I may want to use. So this will be a commentary on the McCullough translation.

This commentary will not be scholarly. I do not know Japanese; though I did study in Japan decades ago. But the Kokinshu is medieval Japanese and the Japanese language has changed a great deal since the tenth century. So it is truly a specialist’s task to offer scholarly insights.

My intention is to offer a poetic commentary. I hope to keep the comments conversational, like I’m speaking to good friends who share a mutual interest rather than lecturing in a classroom. Since I discovered the Kokinshu about five years ago I have been reading it more or less continuously; a little bit at a time. I am, obviously, a Kokinshu enthusiast. As Tanka spreads to non-Japanese countries, I hope this commentary may awaken in others an interest in this ancient work which has done so much to shape the world of Tanka.


This road
Through the village
With other roads
With other villages
With other towns
Trucks and cars and busses
Constantly moving back and forth
Spring, summer, fall, winter
Around and around and around
A moment of silence followed by sound
Coming, going, ebbing, flowing
Mountain ranges replaced by the ocean
Uncountable stars in celestial motion
Drift past my window on a moonless night

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Only Don't Know

Life and death, a mystery
Beyond my comprehension;
Where we come from I don't know,
Or what's our destination

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Visions of Triumph

Demons in the sky --
The morning the sun went down
Jackels feasted on
A field of countless corpses,
Those who died from 'Shock and Awe'

Friday, January 1, 2010

A New Year's Day Poem

January dawn
The start of the year
To all my good friends
I wish you good cheer