Sunday, November 28, 2010

Better Worlds

Frost covers the grass
By the bridge over the stream
Homeless people dream

Richard Wright Day

Today is the anniversay of Richard Wright's passing. He died on November 28, 1960, fifty years ago. Wright is famous for works such as 'Black Boy' and 'Native Son.' His autobiographical writing, his novels, and essays vividly chronicled the effects of racism on the black community.

During the last years of Wright's life he was living in Paris. He became enamored of Haiku. According to his estate, Wright composed over 4,000 Haiku in less than two years. That's an incredible pace. Before Wright died he selected 817 Haiku for publication. But publication didn't happen until after he died.

The publication of Wright's Haiku collection, 'Haiku: This Other World', took everyone by surprise. Wright was well known as a novelist and passionate advocate for minorities, but only a few people were aware of Wright's interest in poetry and Haiku specifically.

Wright wrote syllabic Haiku. In my opinion 'Haiku: This Other World' is the finest collection of English language Haiku yet written. It is a collection I frequently refer to, learn from, and model my own Haiku writing on.

I remember when I first encountered Wright's collection of Haiku. My immediate reaction was "At last! Haiku that are in English. I mean by this that there are no 'Japanisms' in Wright's Haiku. I also mean that Wright's Haiku sound like vernacular English, natural English. Wright's Haiku are so good that one feels that Haiku is actually an English form of poetry, rather than a transplant from another culture. All the articles are there, the normal English syntax is present, yet it is all crafted and shaped into the syllabic structure of 5-7-5 syllables.

Here's something intriguing about Wright that I only recently discovered. Both Wright and Basho share the same death day anniversary. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, Basho died on November 28, 1694. What a wonderful coincidence! Because Wikipedia is not always reliable, I checked with Gabi Greve, who lives in Japan and has practiced traditional Haiku there for years. She said that actually there are several dates used. This is because when Japan switched from the lunar based calendar to the western solar based calendar, sometimes people had different ideas as to how to do this. So in some cases you get alternative datings. But one of the dates used for Basho's anniversary is November 28. This kind of coincidence is just so cool -- Basho and Wright, two giants of the Haiku form.

I wanted to post a long essay on Wright, with samples from his Haiku and other observations. But right now I am very busy, so an extended essay will have to wait for another time. My suggestion for people interested in English language Haiku in general, and in syllabic Haiku in particular, is to take some time today to read some of Wright's Haiku or to purchase a copy for your own library. It can be found here:

This is a collection of Haiku that you will return to over and over.

With deep appreciation for Wright's Haiku, I dedicate this day.



Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reasons for Hope

Stars at night
A clear view
Ocean waves
Dreams come true

Fortuna's Power

The homeless man
Counting his change,
Once he was rich,
Now he's deranged.

Fibonacci Day

Good Friends:

Today is Fibonacci Day, a day set aside to celebrate the Fibonacci form of poetry. This is Fibonacci day because 11-23 are the four numbers for the syllable count of the first four lines of a Fibonacci: 1-1-2-3.

I have written only a few 'Fibs' (as they are affectionately called), but there is a thriving community of poets who really enjoy this form. Take a moment today to visit the Fib, the online zine devoted to the form. You can find it on my list of blogs and sites I like. Just click on 'Fib Review' and you can find out what the Fib Poets are up to.

Better yet, write a Fibonacci. The linneation is as follows: 1-1-2-3-5-8 . . . Since it is based on a mathematical series that keeps expanding, if you are adventuroues you can go past the six lines:

1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-34 . . .

If you want to write some of the really long lines, my suggestion is to think of Proust and his beautifully crafted long lines. He's a good model for the longer lines of the Fibonacci.

Sonnet poets have written a lot of Sonnets on the Sonnet. So here is a Fibonacci on the Fibonacci that I wrote just for fun to celebrate this special day:

Fibs --
Poems --
Not lies --
Poetry --
Based on a series
That slowly unfolds like a seed,
At first you hardly notice that the Fib has started,
Then the lines that were once so constricted suddenly open like branches of a tree,
This is its nature, its ever-expanding essential meaning and centrifugal motion of the exhilarating Fibonacci!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Book of the World

Silence is my scripture,
Stillness is my true home,
Solitude my palace --
The peace within my soul.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Turning to Nature

Moonlight on the parking lot
After seeing a movie
Leads me to forget the plot --
Immersed in awesome beauty

Winter Begins

Gray skies
Cold days
Dusk wind
Life fades

Signs of the Changing Season

A sun-filled morning
In mid-November
High clouds in the sky
Winds hint of winter


A vegetarian quiche
For breakfast Monday morning
With a hot cup of coffee
In the oven, bread's warming

A Critique of Pure Reason

Is a virtue,
It can tell us what's true
But some things reason can't see to --
Like love

Holidays Busy

Good Friends:

I will be posting less frequently on this blog through the end of the year. As the holiday season picks up my job at the store becomes more consuming.



Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Red and yellow leaves flutter
In the steady morning breeze
Clouds across the sky skitter
Shadows form and then they leave

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Open Secret

There's nothing esoteric,
Nothing hidden or withheld,
God's presence is like music,
A song that the heart knows well.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

At the Village Bakery

It's nice to find a quiet spot
That doesn't have background music;
It's easier to talk and share
Without distractions melodic


Saturday morning is busy
People are coming and going
At the warm Village Bakery
Children and parents look happy

At the Village Bakery

Saturday morning
At the bakery
An island of warmth
In the cold fall air

Thursday, November 11, 2010


The wind this morning
Is strong and steady
A river flows by
Leaves in an eddy

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Keeping Track

Of the moon
When I've time to look
Appointments marked in my datebook

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Almost winter
I wear a sweater
There is frost on the ground
Birds are gone, there is less sound
Than one hears in other seasons
The morning is more quiet, I have found,
As I leave the house on my morning rounds

Almost winter
At this time of year
My mind is less scattered
I am more focused and clear
And even though the nights are long
I don't think of the season as drear --
I contemplate the cosmos' sacred song

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Neal Henry Lawrence: Tanka Poet

Neal Henry Lawrence, Tanka Poet
Born: January 22, 1908
Died: November 3, 2004

A white haired lady,
Bent over, walked with a cane,
A white haired man helped.
Gaily they talked as though cares
Existed not – still in love.

Today is the anniversary of the passing of Neal Henry Lawrence. Lawrence was the first American poet to write a substantial body of Tanka in English. In that sense Lawrence was the pioneer of the form in English.

He was born in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1908. He went to Harvard and Columbia Universities, receiving degrees in Business, Public Law and Government.

During World War II Lawrence served in the Navy. He participated in the invasion of Okinawa, seeing firsthand the terrible destruction that war brings. Later, at the conclusion of the war he became a diplomat. In 1948 he was with the first group of U.S. officials to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1960 Lawrence was ordained as a monk in the Order of Saint Benedict at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota. He then went on to serve at St. Anselm’s Priory in Tokyo, Japan. It was while serving at St. Anselm’s that Lawrence became enamored of Tanka.

The transmission of Japanese poetic forms to the west did not follow the history of those forms in Japan. Tanka is by far the oldest poetic form currently written in Japan. Tanka has a written history of about 1400 years. In contrast, Haiku has a history of about 200 to 300 years.

But it was Haiku that first attracted westerners. Then Renga followed, though the interest in Renga was, and remains, small in comparison to Haiku. Tanka did not gain a following in the west until the late twentieth century.

The reason for this is primarily a belief that Tanka was too intimately intertwined with Japanese culture for westerners to write it. This was sometimes stated explicitly and sometimes simply assumed. Tanka does play a central role in Japanese poetry; it is the root of both Renga and Haiku. Tanka anthologies such as the Kokinshu, and the Tanka found in the earlier collection, Manyoshu, were studied carefully by Japanese poets. The Kokinshu was nearly memorized as it set the standard for how to compose poetry for many centuries. It is still very influential.

Thus one can see how people would consider Tanka to be a kind of quasi-religious following. It didn’t hurt this view that many of the famous Tanka poets were committed religious. Saigyo is a very famous example, as is Sogi. Being a poet in Japan, at a certain level, for many centuries, almost required taking Buddhist orders if one was going to travel, teach, and visit students and patrons.

I think that one of the reasons Lawrence was immune to this attitude is that he was outside of the official poetry organizations in the west that were dedicated to Japanese poetry. As far as I know he had little to no contact with the nascent Haiku Societies just beginning in the west. It seems that Lawrence noted the pervasive cultural presence of Tanka in Japan and while living there for many years, teaching, learning Japanese, he simply became enamored of the tradition.

Lawrence took a syllabic approach to English language Tanka and that makes his contribution particularly valuable. His work demonstrates the efficacy of taking a syllabic approach. When I say Lawrence took a syllabic approach to English language Tanka I mean that he mimicked the syllable count of the Japanese Tanka, applying it to the English language. Just as the Japanese form is in 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, so also the English Tanka of Lawrence are also in 5-7-5-7-7. It works very well. This isn’t really a surprise since Japanese and English share many characteristics, allowing for such a smooth transmission.

Lawrence published four books of Tanka:

Soul’s Inner Sparkle – 1978
Rushing Amid Tears – 1983
Shining Moments – 1993
Blossoms in Time – 2000

In addition, ‘Soul’s Inner Sparkle’ was later republished in an edition with both the original English Tanka and Japanese translation. I believe that this makes Lawrence the first English Tanka poet to have a book of his Tanka translated for a Japanese audience. In this edition there is an essay by Lawrence, ‘Why I Write English Tanka!’ which provides valuable insights into Lawrence’s views. He wrote, “I write English tanka poems, 31 syllables in five segments as in Japanese tanka 5-7-5-7-7, because I discovered for some mysterious reason that it was a compatible way for expressing ideas and experiences of a lifetime. On April 5, 1975, I wrote my first tanka in English riding on a bus on the way to Boeki Daigaku near Mt. Fuji. Being in cherry blossom time, the countryside and mountains were a panorama of magnificence. I have been writing ever since almost daily at times and in spurts when especially inspired.”

Father Lawrence was fortunate in that he was encouraged in his endeavors as a Tanka poet by such people at Atsuo Nakagawa, founder of the Poetry Society of Japan and others. As he continued others noted the quality of his work. In 1985 he represented Japan at the World Congress of Poets which was held on the Isle of Corfu, in Greece, that year.

When I read Father Lawrence’s work I notice a learning curve. Some of his very early work contains ‘Japanisms’, usually they are in the form of an awkward English syntax which mimics Japanese usage. I refer to things like leaving out articles (because Japanese does not use articles) and sometimes a confusion of tenses (because Japanese has a different approach to tense). As Lawrence became more confident, his Tanka become more clearly English and there are less of these grammatical peculiarities. Here is an early example of what I mean from ‘Soul’s Inner Sparkle’:

Autumn Equinox:
Carrying broom and bucket,
Each family clean tomb,
Places fresh flowers in honor
Of those who have gone before.

It is an affecting scene and the lack of articles where one would normally expect them does not fatally damage the Tanka. That has been my experience with some of these early efforts; the image and the idea override the eccentric grammar.

One of the refreshing things about Lawrence’s work is the great range of his subject matter. The traditional topics of season, nature (he had a great interest in gingko; there are a lot of Tanka about that particular tree), and love are there; but there are also a surprising number of political Tanka that remark on current events. Some of these are dated, in the sense that the events the Tanka refers to are no longer current. If these books are reprinted, my hope is that the editors will take the time to footnote these Tanka, as it is worth knowing the context.

Naturally, a lot of Father Lawrence’s Tanka reflect his religious commitment:

The church walls echo
Sounds of Gregorian chant
Of the Easter Mass,
Lovingly cling to each note
Then release reluctantly.

Here is a Tanka on a classic nature theme:

Like a bridal veil,
The flower-festooned branches
Of the cherry tree
Flow gracefully in an arc,
Lighted by the morning sun.

This, I think, is particularly well done; the rhythm is natural and the whole Tanka flows effortlessly.

Here is one about the gingko, one of Father Lawrence’s favorite topics:

The sacred gingko,
Its bare branches tapering
Into the heavens,
Traces its own ancestry
To the age of dinosaurs.

It’s a nice touch, adding that dimension of deep time. I sometimes think it would make a nice little collection if all of Father Lawrence’s gingko Tanka were brought together under one volume. Here’s another Tanka on the gingko:

Each so beautiful
I stepped gingerly between
Golden gingko leaves,
Bedecking the frozen ground,
To prolong such gift of grace.

Sometimes Father Lawrence will intermix his favorite themes of nature and religion:

In the soft moonlight
A bank of white iris stands
Behind the chapel,
Ghostly guardians of faith,
Witnesses to God’s grandeur.

I admire the way the Lawrence can see the presence of God in the natural realm. It is one of the aspects of his Tanka that I find particularly appealing.

Here’s a humorous Tanka:

Hop, hop, hop, hop, hop.
The squirrel made his way cross
The blanket of leaves
A ripe acorn in his mouth
Seeking his winter storehouse.

Wouldn’t that be great in a collection of Tanka for children?

Father Lawrence writes eloquently on the topic of love which, I think, contain some of his finest Tanka:

Tread softly my love
The night is clothed in moonlight
With breezes gentle
All the harshness of the day
Is forgotten when you come.

I’ll conclude this series with a contemplative Tanka:

Why do I love you?
Mysterious attraction
Reflecting God’s love.
God loves all He created
And all who will ever be.

Father Lawrence, as you can see, wrote in a traditional style. In addition to the traditional syllabic form he also begins each line with a capital letter; the standard procedure for English language poetry until very recently. His use of punctuation is abundant, especially by current standards, an aspect of his Tanka which I think should be emulated. Each Tanka ends in a period.

I have found reading Lawrence’s Tanka to be a contemplative experience. There is a peacefulness about them which I enjoy. Father Lawrence was not, for the most part, a dramatic poet; that is to say he seems to have enjoyed contemplating the ordinary and the beauty found therein.

The only one of Lawrence’s books currently in print is ‘Shining Moments’ available from the publisher or from Amazon. Used copies of his other work are available online. It is my hope that Father Lawrence’s work will be reprinted as the English language Tanka community would benefit greatly from his steady, classically oriented, command of traditional Tanka. In addition, it is my hope that in the future more of Father Lawrence’s Tanka will be published. What is currently available is only a tiny fraction of what he wrote. It would be a wonderful service to English language Tanka poets to have more available.

I think of Father Lawrence as the Patron Saint of English language Tanka. He demonstrated that a traditional approach to Tanka in English is efficacious and it is with deep gratitude for his efforts, which have made my own so much easier, that I dedicate this day.

In 1993 Father Lawrence received the ‘Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette’ for his teaching at Japanese Universities. He would continue to teach and write Tanka almost to the end of his life. Though he died on November 3, he had stated that he wanted to be buried at sea. So on Saturday, April 8, 2006 the ashes of Father Lawrence were scattered in the East China Sea; 61 years to the week after the invasion of Okinawa.

I want my ashes
Scattered at sea to join all
In peaceful oneness;
To follow the ebb and flow
Of tides for billions of years.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Autumn leaves
On the ground
The sun's rays
At sundown