I count myself extremely fortunate that I was able to take part in a Zoom conference about haiku recently. It was organised by Upaya Institute Zen Centre, Santa Fe and the main speakers were Roshi Joan Halifax, Kazuaki Tanahashi, Clarke Strand and Natalie Goldberg.
This was an in-depth exploration lasting nearly six hours, with breaks. There was the opportunity to ask questions but with 370 participants the hosts had to be selective.
One of the most interesting discussions was about translations from Japanese (or Chinese) into English – the best translators didn’t try and squeeze the syllable count into the 5-7-5 format thereby avoiding artificiality. When haiku are written in English some thought the 17 syllable constraint encouraged creativity and added an extra punch. In the end there seems to be no hard and fast rule. As Natalie Goldberg said, “It’s whatever kills you!” (Rather like Emily Dickinson’s remark that good poetry should blow the top of your head off!)
Everyone agreed that a really effective haiku wasn’t easy to write although superficially they can appear simple. Reading a haiku is also a learned skill and cannot entirely be separated from writing one. Both reading and writing require attention to detail, effort, a quiet mind and awareness of the depths of the mysteries of existence. There is usually something implied underneath the literal words.
One aspect I didn’t mention in my previous post was the element of ‘turn’ – an unexpected change of direction, sometimes an understated touch of humour or allusion to the ineffable.
Traditionally four elements weave in and out of haiku to suggest depths of meaning beyond the words. These are, sabi (isolation) wabi (poverty) aware (impermanence) and yugen (mystery).
After such an exposure I feel a certain trepidation in offering mine. Please keep in mind that some of the Chinese and Japanese masters rejected many of their attempts and even in present-day Japan haiku-poets may choose one out of every hundred they write.
I might pick three or four out of mine. I’d be interested to know if any stand out for you.
Nightingales have a special significance for me; when I first saw and heard one in France I had an experience of the ‘numinous.’ I describe this briefly in another post titled, Keats’ Nightingale.
I even coined the term, ‘the nightingale effect’ to describe any time and instance when we see the world anew, with child-like eyes, completely devoid of pain or disharmony.
John Clare (1793-1864) used to be described as a ‘peasant poet’ because he had not had much of a formal education, if any. However we must remember Bernard Shaw’s quip about his own education, that ‘the only time my education was interrupted was when I went to school.’ The education Clare received from Nature, like Wordsworth, was life-long and deep. Maybe his vision was kept pure because he hadn’t been ‘corrupted’ by the stultifying educational system of his day.?
It’s strange how we have books on our shelves unread or unremembered. I have a 1966 anthology of Clare’s poetry and prose and I certainly have read it. However, I can’t remember this poem, The Nightingale’s Nest, having such an effect on me as when I read it today. It works on a number of levels as all good poetry does. It parallels my own experience of searching for this ‘wonder-bird.’ I wasn’t looking for its nest but simply looking and listening to see if I could find the bird. People who are not birders (to use the American term which has been adopted here in the UK) may wonder what all the fuss is about. This would require an article of its own but for me it combines many things including a sense of the chase, making a list, a sense of achievement, furthering the trait of curiosity, aesthetic pleasure and self-transcendence, if that latter is not too pretentious a term. (Actually, readers now can appreciate this, as witnessed by so many in this unprecedented lockdown situation. Presenters on TV, such as Chris Packham, have talked of the healing power of nature.)
To get back to Clare, the lines, I’ve nestled down/And watched her while she sung – and her renown/Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird/
Should have no better dress than russet brown. . . exactly parallels my response when I first saw one singing. (I’ll add my short poem at the end just to show this similar response.)
The genius of Clare is that he writes of the particular but in so doing he uses the specific as a jumping of platform into a spiritual dimension. (Strictly speaking there are not two things here; the experiences he writes of are all of a whole; the specific and spiritual are two sides of the coin.) Of course, he has this in common with Blake, Wordsworth and many other poets. But, perhaps he is the more consistent in his adherence to his ‘local patch’. Wordsworth travelled a lot in comparison. Anyway, I’ll leave the poem to speak for itself.
The Nightingale’s Nest
Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove, And list the nightingale – she dwells just here. Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear The noise might drive her from her home of love; For here I’ve heard her many a merry year – At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day, As though she lived on song. This very spot, Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way – And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got, Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails – There have I hunted like a very boy, Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn To find her nest, and see her feed her young. And vainly did I many hours employ : All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn. And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down, And watched her while she sung ; and her renown Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird Should have no better dress than russet brown. Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy, And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy, And mouth wide open to release her heart Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me Did happy fancies shapen her employ; But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred, All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain: The timid bird had left the hazel bush, And at a distance hid to sing again. Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves, Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain, Till envy spurred the emulating thrush To start less wild and scarce inferior songs; For while of half the year Care him bereaves, To damp the ardour of his speckled breast; The nightingale to summer’s life belongs, And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs, Are strangers to her music and her rest. Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide – Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush – For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest, Her curious house is hidden. Part aside These hazel branches in a gentle way, And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs, For we will have another search to day, And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ; And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows, We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook : In such like spots, and often on the ground, They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look – Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here, Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by – Nay, trample on its branches and get near. How subtle is the bird ! she started out, And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh, Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near Her nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear, That might betray her home. So even now We’ll leave it as we found it : safety’s guard Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still. See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough, Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill. Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives. We will not plunder music of its dower, Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall; For melody seems hid in every flower, That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ; And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves, Seems blushing of the singing it has heard. How curious is the nest ; no other bird Uses such loose materials, or weaves Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves Are placed without, and velvet moss within, And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare, What scarcely seem materials, down and hair; For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win. Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives Homes for her children’s comfort, even here; Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near That loves such pleasant places. Deep a down, The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell. Snug lie her curious eggs in number five, Of deadened green, or rather olive brown; And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well. So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong, As the old woodland’s legacy of song.
* * *
Last day in France – binoculars at the ready – after sudden rain I walk along steaming tarmac into pine forest shade, pulled by bright sobbing and glissando glide – I know you’re there by your jazzy come-on; I’ve tuned my ears to see round corners! My first glance upwards towards the telephone cable over-shoots – the bird on the wire looks so plain – I don’t catch on to your whispered tones. When I catch up, you’re magnified in a circle – I marvel at your modest plumage, warm brown tail and throbbing throat. A little brown jizz! Your bel canto leaps, your triplets and tremolos are a high wire cabaletta – heard only by me.
Maybe tomorrow you’ll fly south, silently tracking the fine line between light and dark, between seeing and not seeing, while I fly north towards grey skies, terraced houses and blackbirds in the park.
The Clare anthology I have is Clare, New Oxford Series, Edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield. (1966) It has a wide selection of poems and prose so you can read the prose description and the subsequent poem.
I don’t pretend this amounts to much as poetry – more of a rant? But I needed to get it off my chest. I think it was Carl Sagan who referred to planet Earth as being a dust mote caught in a sunbeam. Voyager took this photo as it hurtled away from the solar system. The image was recently chosen by Sky at Night as one out of ten iconic/significant images taken by telescopes/cameras.
What came to mind was the insignificance of the Earth on the cosmic scale and comparing its relative physical size with our triumphs of the spirit and our depravities – which of course were not recorded on the gold disc in the Voyager space craft! So although it is unlikely that any intelligent aliens will ever come into contact with it they would get a rather sanitised picture of what we are like. Perhaps I tend to be pessimistic about humanity but on the other hand I think it is important to acknowledge the dark with the light. That’s just being realistic!
a blue marble spinning in space
enveloped in a dirty thin skin
fish swim in 59th street
whales gasp on the shores
we’ve spoken an inanimate grammar too long
the plankton the trees the fish & the whales
feel lonely so lonely
they long for our love
I wrote this after listening to a podcast given by Dr Robin Wall Kimmerer, an ecologist/evironmentalist working in the USA.
Gr-r-r – there goes my heart’s torment,
take your damn easel for a walk, do –
if hatred could kill men, Vincent,
God’s blood, would mine not kill you!
What? You’re going to pick sunflowers –
well, don’t bring them back to the sink,
I don’t want you painting here for hours.
Well, thank God, that lunatic’s gone –
he not only paints in oils but eats the stuff too!
Last night he went for me with a razor –
he slashed a canvas which I had to mend with glue.
He can only paint what’s in front of him;
I use my imagination as well as chrome yellow
while he complains of being a victim!
I expect you know he sponges off his brother?
Poor Theo has to send canvas and paints,
Vincent spends half the money on gin,
it’s enough to try the patience of saints,
I don’t think I can stand it much longer:
I’m in danger of committing a mortal sin
I don’t want to end up in the slammer.
Ah, I know what I’ll do, if you please,
I’ll pack up my things while he’s out –
I’ve always wanted to go to the South Seas;
the hot sun will be good for my gout!
Yes, I’ll paint native Tahitians – after they undress.
I’ll become famous for my Gardens of Eden
while mad, bad Vincent will die—penni-less!
The starting point for this was Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister from which you will see I’ve filtched the first two lines. Browning may be thought old fashioned and ‘Victorian’ but his trade mark dramatic monologues still feel original and alive to me.
It is well known that Van Gogh and Gauguin shared a house – the Yellow House in Arles – for a while and wondered about setting up an artists’ colony. The two artists were pretty temperamental characters and predictably they soon got on each others nerves!
Gauguin wrote a biased account of their time together which blames Vincent for everything that went wrong. As usual reality was more complicated. The stereotypical ‘crazy artist’ gets in the way of the actual complexities. I’ve always warmed more to Van Gogh’s paintings (than Gauguin’s ) and by reading his Letters, realised while he must have been hell to live with, he was well- read, a visionary like Blake, intellectually and spiritually inquisitive and sensitive to suffering – but of course mentally unstable. There are many theories about this latter point. One of the more recent biographies is The Love of Many Things by David Sweetman which I have yet to read (apart from dipping into it). I would also like some day to visit the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The incidents in the poem are based on real events.
Do you remember
your journey through space and time,
JFK slumped in the rear seat
(Yes, you remember your space-time coordinates then)
-the impossible dimensions of TARDIS
echoing your own body/mind conundrum,
The Ghost in the Machine?
After the atoms began to dance
who’d have foreseen
the special effects,
the synaptic pyrotechnics,
or villains of the peace?
Enter the Time Lord Superheroes!
William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and
Jon Pertwee (united against a common enemy)
regenerated from disassembled selves.
The Amazing Story of Your Regeneration!
Can you find
Your Own Original Face,
shake hands with your cameo roles:
one peeping at daleks from behind the sofa,
one colliding with that impossible catch at silly mid on,
one shivering in shackles,
one reaching for the stars?
Later Tom Baker
popping jelly babies
in times of danger,
confounding Time’s Arrow.
Thatcher’s Britain; time-slipped
into a mutant phase of consumerism,
strikes and candle-lit teas.
The glug-glug noise of alien monsters,
the polystyrene peacemakers,
the ping-pong goggle eyes.
Will you ease yourself
into the cinematic roller coaster,
over and over?
When the horror show pales,
will you lead your fathers
to the land of clover?
You, You and You!
Can you stop:
step out of your TARDIS
and be where the dance is?
I spend a fair part of my time walking in moorland where I can enjoy such sights (and sounds) as curlew, golden plover, lapwings, buzzards and hobbies.
My feet squelch as I stride
in slow motion over and into
the dark peat, purple
and green earth.
One woman’s up to her knees,
but she’s got short legs so it’s a bit of a joke.
We pull her arms and she gurgles
like an emptying sink!
All this commotion stirs up
an ancient smell of carboniferous trees
and prehistoric smoke.