Friday, May 31, 2013

Unexceptional: Part 5 -- Are Japanese Syllables Too Short?

Unexceptional: Part 5 –
Are Japanese Syllables Too Short?

One of the bases for the idea that the Japanese language is uniquely unique is the brevity of the Japanese syllable.  The implication is that the Japanese syllable is so short that in comparison to English the difference results in a qualitative distinction.  This is one of the reasons why some ELH Haijin will refer to Japanese as using ‘morae’ (plural of ‘mora’) as opposed to English which uses ‘syllables’.

For example, in a 1993 paper by Anne Cuttler and Jacques Mehler, Mora or Syllable? Speech Segmentation in Japanese, the authors write in the Introduction:

“When Japanese poetic forms such as the haiku are rendered in other languages, an approximation to the prescribed form is usually achieved by specifying the number of syllables per line . . . But morae do not necessarily correspond to syllables.  Consider the first line of the haiku: shinshin-to.  Although it has the prescribed 5 morae (shi, n, shi, n, to), it has only 3 syllables (shin, shin, to).  The mora is a subsyllabic unit . . .”

To my mind, and not a few linguists, this is simply confused thinking.  As I have noted in previous posts in the Unexceptional series, the concept ‘syllable’ is not defined by the specific acoustic features of any particular language; that is to say the fact that Japanese count acoustic features, such as a concluding ‘n’, that English does not count does not mean that the Japanese are not counting syllables.  What it does mean is that Japanese count sounds that English speakers do not count.  But that is true of many languages, as I have noted in previous posts.

To my way of thinking the idea of ‘mora’ is a distinction without a difference.  If morae are subsyllabic, then what about the English syllable ‘it’; a very brief syllable.  Does the brevity of ‘it’ make it subsyllabic?  If it does not make it subsyllabic, then why would a Japanese ‘n’ be subsyllabic?  And what about other languages that also have shorter syllables than English; languages such as Spanish and Italian?  Does Spanish and Italian use morae or syllables?  Seriously; is this distinction of any help at all?  The idea of ‘mora’ is one of those academic conjurations that is little more than jargon posturing as insight.  It should be noted, though, that there is little agreement among linguists about this topic; if you look up papers on syllabic timing and usage you will find a whole range of differing opinions.  There does not seem to be any consensus.

There is a lot of literature in linguistics on the topic of syllable duration in various languages.  Much of it is highly technical.  But I don’t want to get side-tracked into a technical discussion when I believe that, for the most part, these technical considerations do not clarify; rather, in my opinion, they create a conceptual fog.  However, I think a few non-technical remarks are worth considering.

First, Japanese is not the only language which flows by at a more rapid rate than English.  Spanish and Italian, for example, are also more rapid than English.  When I say ‘more rapid’ I mean that the average syllable duration of Italian and Spanish is briefer than the average syllable duration of English.  In fact there are a great many languages that are more rapid than English.  Japanese, once again, is not unique in this regard; Japanese is unexceptional in its pacing.

There are also languages which are slower than English; tonal languages tend to be slower than English because speakers need time to enunciate the tone.  For this reason Chinese flows by, generally speaking, at a slower rate than English.

In other words, English is roughly in the middle when it comes to how fast the sound units, or syllables, of various languages flow by.  It is neither the slowest nor the fastest.  And speaking of being in the middle range; while Japanese is more rapid than English, from the studies I have read there are languages that are more rapid than Japanese.  Again, from the studies I have read, Thai consistently rates as the most rapid.  In other words, Japanese seems to occupy a speed that is only slightly faster than Spanish and Italian, but is surpassed by other languages such as Thai.

This puts both English and Japanese in the mid-range for speed of syllabic flow.  In other words, English and Japanese share the middle ground; neither of these languages is at the extreme.  Japanese is middle-fast, while English is middle-slow; but neither English nor Japanese is exceptional in its pace.

Before going further, I want to make a few remarks about the studies I have read.  First, many of the studies use a very small sampling; more than a few use a single speaker.  Statistically this leads me to be skeptical of the value of these studies.  I suspect that larger samplings would yield different results.

Further, some of the information about speed that is used by ELH Haijin is completely anecdotal, including some of the most often cited supporting claims.  Anecdotal reporting has its place and should not be dismissed out of hand.  But anecdotal reporting needs to be supported by further investigation if one is going to use these reports to make broad claims about language speed.

In addition, I have found that few studies take into account dialect variation.  Some studies I have read take British English as their standard of the pace of English syllable flow.  British English may differ from other types of English usage in terms of syllable pace.  Anecdotally, I strongly suspect that this is true.  When I was working construction, many years ago, I worked with many men from Texas as well as those from the Louisiana Bayou.  The long, slow-paced drawl of the Bayou dialect, I suspect, is significantly slower than standard British English.  On the other hand, I once had a forewoman on an assembly line who was Scott by birth.  Her English flew by at a rapid clip that took me some time to key into.  Again, I suspect the pace of Scottish English differs from that of standard British English.

The effect of dialect is not a minor consideration.  Millions of Indians speak English either as their primary language, or as a significant second language.  The steady flow of Indian English seems to me to differ, and to be more rapid, than that of standard British English.  Given what appears to me to be the wide variation in the pace of syllabic flow among different English dialects, I am reluctant to accept the generalizations about the pace of English verses the pace of Japanese when they are based on very small samplings of a single type of English.

Dialect further complicates the situation when one takes into account that there are regional dialects in Japan.  The question is, do these regional dialects effect the pace of the flow of the Japanese syllables?  Again, studies that do not take this into account make me inclined to regard their findings as of limited value; not valueless, but limited in terms of what kind of conclusion we can draw from their studies.

And finally, I think it is worth pointing out that context will effect pace.  If a subject knows they are being studied for the purposes of determining the pace of their language, this will inevitably effect their performance.  It will not be an example of a ‘natural’ interaction.  In addition, people change the pace of their output depending on the situation.  Speaking to children people tend to speak more slowly.  Speaking to long-term friends, people might speak very rapidly in comparison to their normal interaction.  When speaking to an audience this will also effect pace.

This last remark about audience is significant because some of the anecdotal stories about how rapidly people speak are derived from poetry readings.  Poetry readings are a highly specialized situation; they are not a normative use of a language and it is unlikely, I feel, that significant generalizations can be drawn from anecdotal reports of how people speak when reading their poetry.

None of this is to dispute the general conclusion that Japanese syllables are, on average, briefer than English syllables.  All the studies I have read support this conclusion.  The reason I bring up the above caveats is that even though it is true that Japanese is more rapid than English, one should not exaggerate the differences in the pacing of the two languages.  English and Japanese both occupy, as mentioned above, a middle ground when it comes to pacing.  They are not really so far apart when one looks at the full spectrum of language pacing.  I think this point needs to be emphasized because when reading some of the claims by ELH haijin one gets the impression that Japanese syllables are super-fast, or extraordinarily brief.  But that simply isn’t the case; rather Japanese occupies the middle ground with some languages just as fast and some faster.  And English also occupies this middle ground with some languages, like French, at roughly the same rate, some, like German or Chinese, slower, and some, like Italian, Spanish, and Japanese, faster.

All of this is very interesting, no doubt, for linguists.  But I would like to suggest for the readers’ consideration that all of this discussion about syllable duration is, quite simply, colossally irrelevant.  Consider the transmission of poetic forms from one culture to another, from one linguistic context to another.  When Latin poets in Rome began to write in hexameters they were imitating Greek; no one worried about the relative duration of Latin and Greek syllables.  When the Sonnet moved from Italy to England and France and Spain, no one felt that syllable duration was a factor of concern; it is never mentioned.  And perhaps most telling, when Japanese poets wrote in Chinese forms, using Chinese characters, what are called Kanshi, the Japanese were unconcerned with the fact that Chinese syllables are longer than Japanese syllables (and Chinese syllables are longer than English syllables as well).  Only in the case of the transmission of Japanese forms such as Haiku and Tanka has this issue been raised.

I find this revealing; and it only makes sense if one views the Japanese language as uniquely unique, as so completely different from other languages, from any other language, that one is compelled to treat it differently.  In other words, the foundation for the idea that the Japanese don’t count syllables, that they count something else, is, once again, nihonjinron, the highly problematic, and highly suspect, idea that the Japanese people and culture are estranged and distinct from the rest of humanity.

But there is another reason why the relative pacing of syllable duration is irrelevant: my view is simply that this idea that English (or other languages) should match the duration of Japanese poetic forms is a misunderstanding of how we should comprehend duration.  I would suggest for the readers’ consideration, especially for readers that have bought into the idea of the significance of Japanese syllable duration, that what we should be looking at is the relative duration within each linguistic context, not the absolute duration of the Japanese as a measure for non-Japanese languages. 

If Haiku in Japanese are written in 17 Japanese syllables and Haiku in English are written in 17 English syllables, the relative duration within each linguistic context is the same.  It is not that English and Japanese Haiku have the same absolute duration; in this they differ.  Rather it is that within each linguistic context their relative duration within their respective contexts is the same.  And, I would suggest, it is this relative duration that matters.  Notice, though, that if one approaches the issue this way, then all the discussions about syllable duration, syllable versus mora (or onji, or jion, or sound unit, or whatever term is currently in fashion) simply fall away.  Things become much simpler, much less cloudy, much more direct.

This is why I regard all these studies on duration to be a kind of huge mistake: it is completely unnecessary and does nothing to clarify the relationship between Japanese and non-Japanese using Japanese poetic forms.  In fact, there is a great advantage to the relative duration view: it is that for each language the same count will apply.  It will apply equally to German, Russian, Spanish, Hindi, Zuni, and Bantu.  The Haiku in all these languages would simply be constructed using the count of 5-7-5 syllables however each language counts, whatever sounds they count as a syllable.  Very simple.

In other words, and in conclusion – it doesn’t matter if Japanese syllables are shorter, longer, or the same as English syllables.  It is an irrelevant consideration.  It is time to simply put this line of reasoning aside. 

Music from Haiku: A Musical Setting of Richard Wright by Judah Adashi

Recently I found that some of Richard Wright's Haiku have been used as the basis for some music.  Judah Adashi, a composer who is new to me, has used eight of Wright's Haiku as the basis for a suite of eight movements.  The composition is called "Suite: Eight Haiku by Richard Wright".  These are not songs, that is to say the Haiku are not sung.  Rather, the eight Haiku by Wright have been used by Adashi for their atmosphere which Adashi then translates into a musical medium.  The Suite is for violin and marimba; a pleasing combination, by the way.  I noticed that for the most part the violin is confined to its lower register which means that the violin and marimba often share a close relationship in sonic space.  The compositions vary as to pacing, rhythm, and harmonic content.  Yet there is also a strong sense of unity among the movements.  I think my favorite, after having listened only twice, is the second of the set: The harbor at dawn :/ the faint scent of oranges/On gusts of March wind.

I have often found Wright's Haiku to be lyrically and rhythmically compelling; so it makes sense to me that a composer would find them to be a good resource for composition.  Some critics have suggested that there is an infusion of blues elements in Wright's Haiku.  Wright had a longstanding interest in blues, so this connection is not surprising.  This musical aspect of Wright's Haiku is one of the primary reasons that they are so attractive.

Fortunately, the Suite by Adashi is online at soundcloud.  Here is the link:

And here is Adashi's online home page, if you want to know more about him:

P.S.  For some reason the link to soundcloud doesn't seem to be working.  Go to google and put in the search terms: Haiku Adashi Cloud.  That should bring up the soundcloud page at the top of the search, then you can click on that and it should take you to the composition; at least it worked for me.  If people have problems locating the page, let me know.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Afternoon Pause

An afternoon pause
Over a cup of hot tea
In the cool spring breeze

Petals drift through the doorway
Onto the bookstore's carpet

Under the table,
Taking an extended nap,
The eight-year old cat

"Could you cut the lawn today?
The grass is getting too long."

The flies are buzzing
Over the freshly killed corpse
Of a garden mole

In the dust by the oak tree
Leaf-filtered rays of sunlight

Glare from the window
Of a passing S.U.V.
Harsh upon the eyes

Of the two lovers walking
Silently, and hand in hand

In the full moon's light
Across the old wooden bridge
Through the gusts of wind

The Big Dipper slowly turns
Around the North Star's pivot

As the falling snow
Comes to rest on the branches
And on the windows

She offers her sister toast
While they talk of family news

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What I Learned in Solitude

Alone at sunset,
The vault of heaven is seen
And the spacious heart

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Luminous Presence

A Luminous Presence

I only discovered Edith Shiffert recently.  Since finding her I have enjoyed spending time with her poetry.  She writes in two styles.  The first is in free verse and it appears to me to be an approach to free verse that has much in common with Kenneth Rexroth.  Shiffert’s second approach to poetry is syllabic.  Her syllabic poetry is focused primarily on syllabic haiku; though there is also a single, and superb, example of a syllabic Hyakuin Renga (100 Verse Renga).  It is intriguing to me that when Shiffert decided to compose Haiku she adopted the traditional 5-7-5 syllabics rather than the free verse approach to lineation.  But perhaps this is not so surprising after all.  I have noticed that free verse poets who turn to Haiku tend to distinguish their Haiku from their other poetic efforts by adopting the traditional syllabic structure; think of Haydn Caruth as a good example. 

Here is one of Shiffert’s Haiku that I have come to really love:

I feel my spirit
glowing in a dark forest
like the last red leaves

(The Light Comes Slowly, by Edith Shiffert, page 92, the ‘December’ Chapter)

This is a richly textured Haiku using multiple layers of metaphor and simile.  The Haiku begins with an opening sentence: ‘I feel my spirit’, which could have a period at the end of it as it is a simple statement.  This is then followed in line 2 by the metaphor, ‘glowing in a dark forest’.  Line 2 is then followed by a simile, ‘like the last red leaves’.  Line 1 states the experience which is followed in Lines 2 and 3 by images that help the reader to comprehend what it means to ‘feel my spirit’.

This Haiku is completely an interior experience.  Its focus is inward.   When we talk about our interior lives, our emotions, our tendencies, and our spiritual experiences, we almost always rely on the tools of metaphor, simile, analogy, etc., to communicate to others those experiences.  This is because we are unable to point to the interior object in the way we can point to objects in nature or objects that are human made.  If someone doesn’t understand what I mean by ‘chair’ I can point to one to explain what I mean, or I can draw one.  But if someone doesn’t understand what I mean by ‘love’, I can’t point to my inner state.  Instead I have to illustrate this by making an analogy, metaphor, or tell a story which, hopefully will elicit the same interior reaction in the hearer and thereby bridge the gap that has appeared between us.  This strategy doesn’t always work, but no one has found a better one and it is the approach we naturally rely on.

I have found Buddhist psychology helpful in placing this kind of Haiku within the tradition of Haiku in general.  In traditional Buddhist psychology there are six senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind (small ‘m’ mind).  The idea here is that mind perceives interior objects in the same way that the eye perceives forms and colors, in the way that the ear hears sounds.  That is why we can say “I feel angry”, or “I am happy for you”; because we have the capacity to perceive mental states in the same way that we perceive rocks and clouds, in the same way that we hear birds and passing cars, in the same way that we smell incense and toast, etc.  (For those who may know a little about basic Buddhist categories of analysis, the six senses and their realms of experience fall under the aggregate (skandha/khanda) of ‘perception’, not under the category of ‘feeling’.  The feeling aggregate has to do with attraction, repulsion, or neither-attraction-nor-repulsion.)

In other words traditional Buddhist psychology lays a foundation for experiencing internal states on an equal footing with our experiences of the external world of forms, colors, sounds, and other sensations.  If this view is adopted, then interior states, as much as exterior objects, become material for Haiku.  In this way it is possible to incorporate into our Haiku our emotional responses and feelings in our encounters with nature because such interior states are part of the landscape, as much so as mountains and streams.

Shiffert’s Haiku takes a step farther into the interior of our lives.  This Haiku is entirely interior; there is no exterior occasion to which the Haiku refers.  In other words, this Haiku is not about our emotional responses to an exterior appearance; rather it is about the interior realm as such: It is an exploration of our interior lives.

Let’s look at this Haiku line by line.

Line 1 is ‘I feel my spirit’.  This announces the topic of the Haiku, the spirit.  Shiffert notes that she ‘feels’ her spirit, that is to say the presence of the spirit is known through feeling.  This makes the experience a heart-centered experience.   Recognizing the presence of spirit is a matter of feeling, not of analysis.  It is also a personal experience, hence the use of the first person pronoun ‘I’.  Yet this personalization of her experience makes it more accessible to all of us.  That is one of the paradoxes about the interior; that we most clearly communicate our interior experiences to others when we personalize them, rather than talking about them in terms of abstractions and generalities.  Imagine if Line 1 had read, ‘The presence of spirit’, or ‘One feels the spirit’, or ‘Know spirit by feeling’.  It is the first person pronoun which allows us to also enter into Shiffert’s experience and compare it to our own.

Notice how the absence of a pronoun in the first and third rewrites I offered is actually more oppressive; they take on the tone of an argument or an adopted position/view.  The second rewrite uses the abstract pronoun ‘One’; and again such usage makes Line 1 argumentative, like I am telling people how they should experience the presence of spirit.  It is the use of the first person pronoun which keeps this Haiku humble and because of that humility gives the overall Haiku a tone of discovery rather than argument.  And because the tone is one of discovery, the Haiku is an invitation for us to also enter into this interior realm.

Line 2, ‘glowing in a dark forest’ is a metaphor that explains to us what Shiffert means by feeling the presence of her spirit.  The presence of the spirit resembles something glowing in a dark forest.  I found this description just right.  When I turn to the interior at times, fairly often, what I perceive is a tangled darkness; very much like a dark forest.  Yet if I persist, over time, the presence of the spirit is felt.  How is it felt?  It resembles a glowing, interior light, understanding that light is also a metaphor.  This experience of the inner light is found in many traditions.  I suspect it is universal in the sense that it transcends culture; not in the sense that everyone has had this experience, but in the sense that everyone has access to the experience.  I am reading this Haiku through my own Quaker Faith and Practice where the experience of the inner light is foundational for the whole tradition.  I even brought this Haiku to the attention of my Meeting as I thought it so well depicted what many Quakers have described as their relationship to the inner light.

Line 3, ‘like the last red leaves’, is a simile that suggests to the reader what Shiffert understands by ‘glowing in a dark forest’.  The interior glow of the spirit resembles the experience we have of seeing the last read leaves of late autumn/early winter.  Line 3 gives this Haiku the traditional seasonal reference of Haiku.  I find it revealing that Shiffert places this Haiku in the ‘December’ Chapter (the collection of Haiku is structured with twelve chapters, one for each month of the year).  This further places the Haiku in a seasonal context.

I picture Line 3 as early December.  I am walking through the woods.  The leaves have all fallen.  I am walking on a winding path that goes around large bounders that are here and there on the forest floor.  I come around a boulder and there in a clearing stands a maple tree with red leaves; the last tree in the forest that still has its leaves.  The red leaves glow, their presence is beautiful. 

And this leads to another aspect of Line 3: the function of beauty.  Just as the last red leaves are beautiful and attractive, so also the glow of the spirit, the inner light, is attractive.  That is why, even though at times we feel like we are lost in a dark forest when we turn within, even so we persist in the interior quest.  We persist because the presence of the spirit is inherently attractive.

Without explicitly saying so, Shiffert is pointing to the intimate connection between beauty and the transcendent which is the presence of the spirit in the individual.  If we follow beauty to its source, which lies within, there we find the spirit glowing.

This is a masterfully constructed Haiku.  Each Line draws us deeper into the interior of our own lives, and offers us, in a sense, a roadmap to that experience of spirit which Shiffert opens with.  All the traditional elements of Haiku are present: the syllabic count, the seasonal reference, the clarity of lineation.  At the same time, this Haiku is fresh and new in its subject matter.

This is a Haiku to savor and contemplate.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


A prayer for peace
Fluttering like the mountains
Where the sand dunes cease

Saturday, May 25, 2013


The violet sky
The last light of the May sun
Names I've forgotten

Friday, May 24, 2013


An elegant fox
As the May sun is setting
On all of my fears

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Unexceptional: Part 4 -- Clap Your Hands!!

Unexceptional: Part 4

One way of looking at the relationship between Japanese and English syllables is through what I am going to refer to as a ‘performance definition’.  In Japan Haiku and Tanka poets count syllables on their fingers.  I think of this as a performance: the movement of the fingers is an embodied performance of what a syllable means. 

In a previous post Dan, a follower of this blog, who is a grade-school teacher, commented that he teaches his classes the meaning of an English syllable by clapping hands.  As Dan recites a sentence out loud, the class claps with each unit of sound, i.e. each syllable.  This is very easy to do and the kids like it.  Dan also noted that there are instances of ambiguity: for example, some kids will clap twice for the word ‘fire’ (hearing the word as something like ‘figh-er’, or ‘fy-er’), and some will clap once.  This can also be fun for the kids to discuss.

In both instances, counting syllables on one’s fingers, and clapping one’s hands for each syllable, we have an embodied performance of what a syllable means.  In both instances it would be easy for those involved to switch the procedure.  Although Japanese are not used to clapping, it would not be difficult to offer instruction and instead of counting on their fingers have the Japanese clap for each syllable of their Haiku or Tanka.  Similarly, Americans are capable of counting syllables on their fingers; I have observed Americans counting on their fingers when counting change, for example, or counting the number of days until an appointment.

What I want to suggest is that these embodied procedures for counting syllables reveal that, in fact, the Japanese syllable and the English syllable are the ‘same thing’ at the level of this kind of embodiment.  That is to say if you observed Japanese counting syllables on their fingers while composing a Haiku, and then you observed Americans counting syllables on their fingers it would appear that they were doing the same thing.  I would argue that, in fact, they are doing the same thing.  And the same would be true if one observed the two groups clapping hands to mark the flow of their syllables.

It is only when we become obsessed with abstractions and the micro-level of the two languages that the idea that Japanese and English are counting different things appears.  I would suggest, for the readers' consideration, that this is an example of the abstract mind causing confusion rather than clarifying.  At the level of embodiment it is obvious that English speakers and Japanese speakers are doing the same thing: that is to say they are both counting syllables.  Yet another indication that the Japanese and English languages are not so different after all.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Panta Rhei

Panta Rhei

As I have recently posted, I am spending more time with the haiku of James Hackett.  Here is an example of his Haiku that I find particularly striking:

As twilight tolls,
petals fall into the dark stream
revealing its flow.

(Haiku Poetry: Volume One, James Hackett, page 27)

I find it to be a truly fine example of the craft of haiku.  The line count is 4-8-5, for an overall count of 17 syllables.  Each line ends on a single syllable word.  Lines 1 and 3 are united by a subtle rhyme: tolls/flow.  Line 1 makes use of alliteration with ‘twilight tolls’.  This is a single sentence haiku, each line is a grammatical phrase, all three phrases combine to form a visual and energetic unity.

The time is set as twilight.  The season is set as spring with the use of the seasonal reference ‘petals fall’.  Spring is normally a time of increasing warmth, or yang, energy.  But with the phrase ‘petals fall’ this brings to the haiku a more somber cast and reveals the yin presence within the yang season.  This sense of somberness is reinforced by the time (twilight) and by the phrase ‘dark stream’ and by the falling motion of the petals.

There are three types of motion in this haiku.  First there is the time of twilight, when the sun is visibly declining.  Second, there is the falling motion of the petals, which replicates the falling of the sun.  And then there is the horizontal motion of the stream, whose motion adds a counterpoint to the motion of the time and the setting of the falling petals.

In fact, everything in this haiku is in motion, though at first the reader might not realize it.  Twilight, at first, appears still, but it is soon over.  And then there is the motion of the petals and the motion of the stream.  But the motion of the stream is a hidden motion; in this aspect the hidden motion of the stream resembles the hidden motion of the twilight.  Both are constantly moving and shifting, but it is not always clear to our senses that this is so.

In my mind’s eye I think of this as late March or early April.  I see the petals as apple blossoms.  The stream is full from the spring runoff.  When a stream is full and moving at a steady pace, it sometimes will appear glass smooth even though it is moving rapidly.  No waves manifest to give the viewer a sense of movement.  So I think of myself as watching this stream, perhaps the Russian River or one of its tributaries, at the end of the day.  Then there is a brief breeze; I interpret the ‘tolling’ of the first line as a gentle wind.  And the wind touches the apple tree and petals drift down from the tree onto the water, and suddenly the petals are swept away on the rushing current of the quiet river.

The true nature of the river is uncovered when the petals suddenly recede into the distance.  As a metaphor, this haiku has a lot of resonance.  I think of examples like how our bodies are constantly changing, aging, but we don’t recognize it until that change is shown to us in some incident, reflected back to us.  This can be a casual comment someone makes, dropping like a petal onto the river of our lives. 

Or we have in our minds the house we grew up in, and then we go to visit it again, after decades, and we see how much it has changed, and by implication, how much we have changed. 

This haiku has many resonances in our lives and illuminates what I think of as the rivering nature of the world in which we live.  But we often do not realize the constancy of change in which we live and which we are.  Just like the river which at fist looks motionless, but is actually constantly flowing, so also our lives, which may feel static at times, are in constant motion.  This haiku is like one of the petals falling into the stream; but the haiku falls into the stream of our mind, revealing its flow.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


A stillness settles
Among the boulders and oaks
Warm wind, now and then

Sunday, May 12, 2013


I am off on a retreat and won't be posting for about a week.

Best wishes,


Friday, May 10, 2013

The Table

In the city park
The rhododendron blossoms
In the full moon light

The water from the fountain
Resembles a melody

At the intersection
With the windows wide open
The radio blast

Conversation disrupted
By the insistent cell phone

The savings are gone
Retirement reconsidered
There are doctor's bills

Will we ever be content?
Waiting for the cold to end

Restless bare branches
Swaying in the constant wind
The sign at the door

Tourists at the knick-knack store
Purchasing a memory

Statues of Kwan Yin
Come in various sizes
Just like compassion

A stranger helps an old man
At the new mall's parking lot

Starlings in the July heat
Pecking at scarps in the dust

The path from the road
Meanders to the river
Slowly flowing by

At the bottom of the cliff
A pile of broken boulders

Casting long shadows
Capturing the morning light
Capturing the time

Painting a watercolor
Of his lover's smiling face

As she sits at the table
They have shared for many years

Thursday, May 9, 2013

At the City Square

The flow of traffic
By the petal-strewn fountain
Dogs sleep in the sun

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Twelve-tone music
At the University
By the rose garden

Monday, May 6, 2013

Time's Prolation

The warm Wisconsin lake,
Dad took us there in Summer
And last night's dream

Sunday, May 5, 2013

On Enoch

When Enoch walked with God as the sun rose
And the night closed, they trod
As the wind made the trees nod
Creatures ev'rywhere were awed

Saturday, May 4, 2013


The silent river
Through the desert of the mind
To the heart's harbor

Friday, May 3, 2013

On Quietism

The ocean is calm,
A gentle wind fills the sail --
The presence of God

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Grove of Time

Silent redwood trees --
For centuries I have stood
Beside their cool calm