A Fire Was In My Head

Haikuiforms from the Road
28 October 2008, 3:17 pm
Filed under: New Poetry | Tags: , , ,

The wet and the cold have converged on Philadelphia today.  (The rain succeeded in suspending even the World’s Series.)  What better to warm your hearts and bodies than simple, concentrated poetry?  Our minds give off a heat exhaust when they are left to ponder, and, generally, it spreads even to our most nether extremities, to say nothing of the residual warmth strewn by its broad course everywhere else.

In the summer of 2008, Dave, Owen, and I behaved stupidly: namely, we braved brimming gasoline prices for a month of road travel spanning a majority of the contiguous 48 states.  Seeking a way to convey the experience, I found that a straightforward narrative functioned inadequately.  I discovered an appropriate guideline in the travel narratives of Basho.  A fragmented storytelling style succeeds because it does not diminish the moment in favor of the arc–this, I think, is how I view our journey.

What follows are not haiku, but they are certainly relatives.  An extracted sense dressed in a new gown, if you’d like to think of it that way.  I did not impose any formal syllabic restrictions, but I made every effort to minimize those word-bricks.  Additionally, I referenced and (usually) adhered to some of the substantial rules of haiku in an effort to focus the scope of each moment.  The result, I hope, adds potency that a prose or long-form poetry account would lack.

I plan to present them here in installments of three (and stay tuned for an announcement on some site construction to accommodate a compendium of them post-release).  So, the first batch:

We rode dawn to the Badlands.
The banded earth lay
in low sunlight, exposed,
the farmer’s nightmare.

At the close of June,
Dave falls in love with crickets.
He whistles in the morning,
furls our tiny tent.

Though I’ve known it for years,
the Dalles in clean daylight
confirms all suspicions.
There is only one.



More from Basho
22 October 2008, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Essay | Tags: , , ,

Another of Basho’s poems:

It is spring,
Even nameless hills
Are decorated
With thin films of morning mist.

(translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

This excellent poem owes its power to the word “nameless.”  Far from employing it simply as an unexpected adjective (although its weirdness handily invites a closer look), Basho packs that strange lump with two functions.  The first is an artful description of the weather that morning: here, he uses “nameless” as a synonym for “lower” or “smallish”–after all, when it comes to hills, size merits significance, and significance merits nomenclature–to emphasize just how superlatively low the vapor hung.

The second function adds depth to the fine image already at hand, a depth illuminated via the juxtaposition of “nameless” against “decoration” in the following line.  We see small hills explicitly decorated in mist as if by a kind atmosphere–and the description of what they have got enhances the notion of what they haven’t got.  Names, then, become linked in metaphor with fog and implicated as a mere subset of decoration.  This idea is a worthy one, yielding conclusions expansive and tumultuous.

Two Translations
22 October 2008, 12:07 am
Filed under: Essay | Tags: , , , ,

Here are two English versions of the same haiku by the celebrated Japanese poet Basho.  I have no Japanese, so I can hardly comment on their fidelity to the original, but let’s take a look anyway:

The first, translated by Lucien Stryk

How pleasant –
just once not to see
Fuji through the mist.

And the second, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa

In a way
It was fun
Not to see Mount Fuji
In foggy rain.

Obviously, both generally communicate the same atmospheric phenomenon: haze obscuring typically overbearing Mt. Fuji.  But the devil remains, as ever, in the details.

Stryk’s three-line translation represents a more standard form of haiku.  Visually he achieves the style’s characteristic restraint, even as he chooses not to retain haiku’s syllabic measure (and who can blame him for avoiding that exacting task?).  He has, to be blunt, presented a thing that appears haiku-y.  The language, too, especially in the words “pleasant” and “mist,” rings with the kind of solemnity frequently associated with “the distinguished writer”–a boring and suspect idea.  These lines are as dead as their translator’s clichéd literary reverence.

To treat these words so austerely is to deny the poet his life.  Basho was a restless farmer’s son.  He traveled constantly and uncomfortably, happy to rely only on the hospitality of those he encountered.  To be sure, Basho strove for harmony and thoughtfulness, but he was not an absentee of the world.  He wrote vividly about rheumatism, urine, lice, and his own tears–all of which are as essential to nature as any unspoiled pond or field.

Yuasa’s interpretation is cruder and more successful.  The lead, “in a way it was fun,” evokes appropriate delight and contemplation; “how pleasant” is tired and tiresome and probably insincere.  And  “foggy rain” has more grip to it, more urgency, and for that is memorable where Stryk’s use of the more traditionally poetic word “mist” only exposes a paucity of real meaning (i.e. “mist” in this instance conveys only a vague, hand-me-down poetic essence and ignores the need for a phrase that actually describes a unique weather occurrence).

Perhaps more necessary to the poetic effect is Yuasa’s willingness to shirk established formal rules in his translation.  I am drawn to his four-line presentation, especially as, it seems to me, English is a much wordier language than Japanese and so requires more space.  And it allows the poem a hinge (the line break after “fun”) that subtly enhances the surprise (the suddenness of “not”).  (Too few writers take true advantage of a poem’s physique.)  It is a technique elegant in its simplicity, especially in comparison to Stryk’s clunky italics–italics that draw early attention to and ruin Basho’s quick subversion.

It was not my intention in this post to demonize Lucien Stryk or his work.  Rather, I hope this post highlights the necessity for live writing, writing willing to strain for meaning, writing steeped in unidling ideas.  The consequences of dead language are severe, and not just for readers left hungering for substance.  The subject, too, suffers: by translating to the cliché, Stryk perpetuates a devastating false exoticism of East Asia, similar to Westerners’ too-longstanding perception of the Near East so thoroughly detailed and analyzed in Edward Said’s Orientalism.

[For a concise and readable history of haiku, consult Nobuyuki Yuasa’s introduction to the Penguin edition of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Other Travel Sketches by Basho.]

Balancing the Seas
19 October 2008, 4:41 pm
Filed under: New Poetry | Tags: , ,

Balancing the Seas

While other children dreamt of planes,
I dreamt of Panama.
And day and night I’d drown beneath
the steely, shifting ocean salt.

A boat atop each wet plateau
Sat patient in the sluice,
While I would tinker with the locks
And, grinning, flood the tankers loose.

A thrill to steer the in-betweens,
To stay the freighters’ lives,
To steward through the flat canal
That thrust upon which commerce thrives.

But now, awake, I write and think
The cut across the land
Was dug among the buried nerves
That run between my head and hand.

Each journey in the turning,
Tender isthmus
For me is greater glee than
Even Christmas.


A Bright Expanse Looms
16 October 2008, 3:07 pm
Filed under: Announcement | Tags: , , ,

Welcome to you all.

Borges claimed, perhaps not famously, that “books are only occasions for poetry.”  Then let this, too, be an occasion.

This is a new space devoted to my poetic output and its public consumption.  In the coming months, you should expect to read new poetry I have written, as well as essays on various greater and lesser poetic goals.  Additionally, I will profile influences of mine (literary and otherwise) from time to time.  I attempt candor and vulnerability in all of my writing because I believe in the intimacy of text.

From this corpus I intend to construct a fleshy document, one that functions at once as workspace, performance venue, portfolio, record of composition, guide, panel discussion, tribute, network, and constant self-statement.  In contrast to traditional print, the soft-published format leaves the project more mutable and responsive; it is to my advantage in these early stages to diminish the lag between composition and criticism.

The space takes its name from a line in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by Yeats.  The sense of magic Yeats evokes in this poem is a poignant summary of my creative ambitions.

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry on a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
and walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Finally, I encourage an active readership, so please do not hesitate to comment on anything you read here.