Monday, August 31, 2009

A Poem A Day #5

On Mondays this column will feature several very short poems. Today we'll start this series with a sampler of the ultimate in short poetry, the haiku.

The word "haiku" is a relatively new invention which came into vogue in the 20th century. Before that it was known as "hokku," which means "starting verse." Originally the hokku was the first part of a two-part stanza called the haikai (it is by combining these two words that modern critics coined the term "haiku"), which means "unusual" or "offbeat." Haikai was a social activity, similar to some drinking songs or the hoedown at the end of "Who's Line Is It Anyway?," in which the participants each improvise a verse of a collective poem. The resulting haikai-no-renga poems were often hilarious and scatological, and the style was a popular alternative to the austere formality of the waka/tanka poems of the Court nobility, or the powerful Shoguns. Around the end of the 17th century, Basho and his followers began to take the hokku section on its own, and turned it into something entirely its own, which retained some of the wit and surprise of the haikai poems, but took on a new sensitivity and gravity.

Everyone knows the haiku form, which in its traditional form is a single poem of 17 syllables, typically divided into three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. Additionally, strict tradition demands that the poem be on the subject of nature and contains a seasonal reference word, or kigo, to establish a context in the time of year. This could be the actual name of a season, or something more subtle, like a mention of birds' nests to indicate late spring/early summer. And, almost uniquely among poetic forms, traditional haiku is impervious to revision. The poem is to be written at the moment of inspiration, without conscious filtering, and once committed to paper is indelible, not to be changed.

These are fairly stringent requirements by the standards of modern poetry, and there are many things on the internet and off that ignore some or all of the rules and call themselves haiku. I will not disagree, but I will note that there is another relatively new word that was created specifically to address this new breed of poems that do not contain 17 syllables, or present kigo, or address a subject other than nature, or use the first person. The word is "senryu," and it generally connotes more comic verse, but traditionalists will apply it to anything that doesn't meet the above criteria.

I'll devote this column to a selection of traditional period haiku (or rather, hokku) poems. Future columns will address other traditional zen forms, as well as senryu, tanka and others. Attention will also be paid to Western short forms and short poems. But for now, here are some haiku. Keep in mind that translators of Japanese verse often ignore the 17 syllable rule in pursuit of representing the image in a way that is as sharp and beautiful in English as in the original form.

Green willows
paint eyebrows on the face
of the cliff

- Arakida Moritake (1472-1549), trans. Cheryl Crowley

What a beautiful moon! It casts
the shadow of pine boughs upon the mats.

- Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707), trans. Asatoro Miyamori

Under the rainclouds
The plum blossoms seem like stars
Despite the daylight

- Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738), trans. Cheryl Crowley

Even after waking
From the dream
I'll see the colors of irises.

- Ogawa Shushiki (1669-1725), trans. Alex Kerr

The evening breezes -
The water splashes against
A blue heron's shins.

- Yosa Buson (1716-1783), trans. Donald Keene

Under cherry trees
there are
no strangers

- Kobayashi Issa (1763-1867), trans. Lucien Stryk

The tree cut,
dawn breaks early
at my little window.

- Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), trans. Janine Beichman

Tomorrow, something modern.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Poem A Day #4

As promised, today I have a poem from the star of yesterday's piece, Charles Baudelaire.

This also presents an opportunity to examine an angle that has always interested me, and that I'll come back to whenever possible: translation. Baudelaire wrote primarily in French, as is the case with this poem, and whenever we read his work in English, we're actually reading a kind of de-facto collaboration, or in some cases we're actually reading the work of another poet, the translator. Here, for reference, is Baudelaire's original pseudo-sonnet, in French:


Comme les anges à l'oeil fauve,
Je reviendrai dans ton alcôve
Et vers toi glisserai sans bruit
Avec les ombres de la nuit;

Et je te donnerai, ma brune,
Des baisers froids comme la lune
Et des caresses de serpent
Autour d'une fosse rampant.

Quand viendra le matin livide,
Tu trouveras ma place vide,
Où jusqu'au soir il fera froid.

Comme d'autres par la tendresse,
Sur ta vie et sur ta jeunesse,
Moi, je veux régner par l'effroi.

— Charles Baudelaire

I know a piddling amount of French, but I could hardly claim to be able to make proper sense of his complex, poetic phrasing, certainly not enough to be able to read it as a poem and not a strenuous exercise. So we'll start with two translations from 1952 and 1954, respectively, that seem to be fairly literal, in a basic match-the-word sense. They seem closest to the actual French of those I found, with a few notable changes. Personally I prefer the first, by Roy Campbell, for its dedication to the meter and rhyme of the original and the form, and I believe the juxtaposition of the last lines in Aggeler's translation was ill-advised, and takes away the power of the last line. Campbell's is not without it's oddities, however ('brown delight,' anyone?).


Like angels fierce and tawny-eyed,
Back to your chamber I will glide,
And noiselessly into your sight
Steal with the shadows of the night.

And I will bring you, brown delight,
Kisses as cold as lunar night
And the caresses of a snake
Revolving in a grave. At break

Of morning in its livid hue,
You'd find I had bequeathed to you
An empty place as cold as stone.

Others by tenderness and ruth
Would reign over your life and youth,
But I would rule by fear alone.

- trans. by Roy Campbell


Like angels with wild beast's eyes
I shall return to your bedroom
And silently glide toward you
With the shadows of the night;

And, dark beauty, I shall give you
Kisses cold as the moon
And the caresses of a snake
That crawls around a grave.

When the livid morning comes,
You'll find my place empty,
And it will be cold there till night.

I wish to hold sway over
Your life and youth by fear,
As others do by tenderness.

- trans. by William Aggeler

But there's another style of translation, where the translating poet allows his or her own personality a freer reign over the writing, and the original work is thus transformed somehow by the will of the translator into a kind of collaborative poem, one poet's vision seen through the haze of another's. The following two translations are this kind of thing. The first is still similar in shape and rhythm to the original, but the translator demonstrates a much more colorful and idiosyncratic approach to choosing words and phrases (a grave becomes a cistern, 'phantom-wise,' etc). The second is even more of a break from the original. The four stanzas become two claustrophobic blocks of text, and the language is more urgent and ominous. It increases the effect of the poem quite nicely, but how much of that is Baudelaire, and how much is the translator?


Like angels with bright savage eyes
I will come treading phantom-wise
Hither where thou art wont to sleep,
Amid the shadows hollow and deep.

And I will give thee, my dark one,
Kisses as icy as the moon,
Caresses as of snakes that crawl
In circles round a cistern's wall.

When morning shows its livid face
There will be no-one in my place,
And a strange cold will settle here

Others, not knowing what thou art,
May think to reign upon thy heart
With tenderness; I trust to fear.

- trans. by George Dillon


Like angels that have monster eyes,
Over your bedside I shall rise,
Gliding towards you silently
Across night's black immensity.
O darksome beauty, you shall swoon
At kisses colder than the moon
And fondlings like a snake's who coils
Sinuous round the grave he soils.

When livid morning breaks apace,
You shall find but an empty place,
Cold until night, and bleak, and drear:
As others do by tenderness,
So would I rule your youthfulness
By harsh immensities of fear.

- trans. by Jacques LeClercq

That's quite a bit of Baudelaire for one weekend. Tomorrow, something else.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Poem A Day #3

Since it's Saturday, and I've got some time, a couple little departures.

First: I'm not tagging anyone on these anymore. It takes almost as long to go through the list and pick out people than it does to type the article. Plus, I don't want to pollute everybody's profile with one of these every day, until your entire wall is just a bunch of my notes. That's just uncalled for. So, I'll just post it, and hope that those who are interested will find it on their own, now that they know where to look.

Second: the poem today is a fairly long one, but it's a well-built machine and generates a fantastic return on your investment for reading it. Our poet is Richard Brautigan, better known as a novelist, but I prefer his poems for their linguisic brutality and lissome wit. He was of the more journalistic imagist school, relying for effect on pure images, and letting the connotations and meanings be inferred from the resulting mental tableau, a style of which yesterday's poet Robert Bly sternly disapproved (to his loss, perhaps).

The following poem is an extended play on this style, each image a vignette-style mini-poem within the whole. There's very little in the way of meaty poeticisms, the language is plain and unobtrusive, and the entire success or failure of the pieces, and of the whole, rely on the absurdity, humor, or poignancy of the vignettes. It succeeds for me, but perhaps I am tricked, so amused by the idea of taking already absurd, hippy-dippy situations and anachronistically inserting Charles Baudelaire that I miss that there is no poetic endoskeleton under the absurdity. What do you think? Is it a cosmic joke or just cosmic? Is Robert Bly right?


The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
Part 1

Baudelaire was
driving a Model A
across Galilee.
He picked up a
hitch-hiker named
Jesus who had
been standing among
a school of fish,
feeding them
pieces of bread.
"Where are you
going?" asked
Jesus, getting
into the front
"Anywhere, anywhere
out of this world!"
"I'll go with you
as far as
said Jesus.
"I have a
at the carnival
there, and I
must not be

The American Hotel
Part 2

Baudelaire was sitting
in a doorway with a wino
on San Fransisco's skid row.
The wino was a million
years old and could remember
Baudelaire and the wino
were drinking Petri Muscatel.
"One must always be drunk,"
said Baudelaire.
"I live in the American Hotel,"
said the wino. "And I can
remember dinosaurs."
"Be you drunken ceaselessly,"
said Baudelaire.

Part 3

Baudelaire used to come
to our house and watch
me grind coffee.
That was in 1939
and we lived in the slums
of Tacoma.
My mother would put
the coffee beans in the grinder.
I was a child
and would turn the handle,
pretending that it was
a hurdy-gurdy,
and Baudelaire would pretend
that he was a monkey,
hopping up and down
and holding out
a tin cup.

The Flowerburgers
Part 4

Baudelaire opened
up a hamburger stand
in San Fransisco,
but he put flowers
between the buns.
People would come in
and say, "Give me a
hamburger with plenty
of onions on it."
Baudelaire would give
them a flowerburger
instead and the people
would say, "What kind
of a hamburger stand
is this?"

The Hour of Eternity
Part 5

"The Chinese
read the time
in the eyes
of cats,"
said Baudelaire
and went into
a jewelry store
on Market Street.
He came out
a few moments
later carrying
a twenty-one
jewel Siamese
cat that he
wore on the
end of a
golden chain.

Salvador Dali
Part 6

"Are you
or aren't you
going to eat
your soup,
you bloody odd
cloud merchant?"
Jeanne Duval
hitting Baudelaire
on the back
as he sat
out the window.
Baudelaire was
Then he laughed
like hell,
waving his spoon
in the air
like a wand
changing the room
into a painting
by Salvador
Dali, changing
the room
into a painting
by Van Gogh.

A Baseball Game
Part 7

Baudelaire went
to a baseball game
and bought a hot dog
and lit up a pipe
of opium.
The New York Yankees
were playing
the Detroit Tigers.
In the fourth inning
an angel committed
suicide by jumping
off a low cloud.
The angel landed
on second base,
causing the
whole infield
to crack like
a huge mirror.
The game was
called on
account of

Insane Asylum
Part 8

Baudelaire went
to the insane asylum
disguised as a
He stayed there
for two months
and when he left,
the insane asylum
loved him so much
that it followed
him all over
and Baudelaire
laughed when the
insane asylum
rubbed itself
up against his
leg like a
strange cat.

My Insect Funeral
Part 9

When I was a child
I had a graveyard
where I buried insects
and dead birds under
a rose tree.
I would bury the insects
in tin foil and match boxes.
I would bury the birds
in pieces of red cloth.
It was all very sad
and I would cry
as I scooped the dirt
into their small graves
with a spoon.
Baudelaire would come
and join in
my insect funerals,
saying little prayers
the size of
dead birds.

San Fransisco
February 1958

-Richard Brautigan

Tomorrow there might be Baudelaire himself.

A Poem A Day #2

Yesterday's first column featured a translation of Basho by Robert Bly, which got me wondering about Bly himself. Turns out Robert Bly is one of the great 20th century American poets, founder of the Mythopoetic Male movement, and is still writing and lecturing today. If we were to meet, I would have much to ask. There are so many differences in his opinion and aesthetic philosophy and my own (his famous essay "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry" denounces the sleek beauty of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams in favor of the anguished and overwrought work of Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, for example) that it would seem unlikely that his work would appeal to me. But in just less than an hour's search through some anthologies and his own website, I have already found it difficult to narrow down the field of excellent pieces to just one that I want to post. There was one from the book "Silence in the Snowy Fields" that is about Wallace Stevens that would have made a strange double-connection to yesterday's column, but that will have to wait, because this poem just muscled its way to the front of the line after reading it a couple times. And 'muscled' is the term for it - this poem is direct, rippling, while still remaining effortlessly lithe.


Merchants have multiplied more than the stars of heaven.
Half the population are like the long grasshoppers
That sleep in the bushes in the cool of the day:
The sound of their wings is heard at noon, muffled, near the earth.
The crane handler dies, the taxi-driver dies, slumped over
In his taxi. Meanwhile, high in the air, executives
Walk on cool floors, and suddenly fall:
Dying they dream they are lost in a snowstorm in mountains,
On which they crashed, carried at night by great machines.
As he lies on the wintry slope, cut off and dying,
A pine stump talks to him of Goethe and Jesus.
Commuters arrive in Hartford at dusk like moles
Or hares flying from a fire behind them,
And the dusk in Hartford is full of their sighs;
Their trains come through the air like a dark music,
Like the sound of horns, the sound of thousands of small wings.

- Robert Bly

It's also interesting that today's poem should namecheck Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It's Goethe's birthday.

Legal notice:
Some may feel that the inclusion of works not in the public domain is a violation of the fair-use doctrine of US copyright law. I obviously do not agree, but I will gladly defer to the wishes of the rightsholder, and if anyone wishes for a post of their work or work for which they own the intellectual rights to be taken down, they may ask for its removal and it will be so. I claim no ownership and have no rights as to the works I will be posting, save for any that were written by me.

A Poem A Day - First Edition

I've decided that since I'm home sick tonight, and reading lots of interesting things, I'd come up with a way to share some. I've been meaning to do something along this line for a while, and why not? So I will start a regular, daily column, and provide you with a poem or two I've discovered, or an old favorite, for your reading enjoyment, and perhaps with a brief discussion. Also, we will see if I am able to maintain this daily practice for any length of time. I give it until this weekend, but nevertheless I'll try to post daily.

I will choose freely from any and every source I can find, including famous and not-so-famous poets, people I know and myself, and try to offer as broad a selection of styles as I can gather, keeping in mind that the collection is governed by my own taste. I will tag anyone that I think might be interested.

The inaugural poem is by noted insurance salesman Wallace Stevens, not my favorite of his but a nice one to start on, as there is much going on. Keep in mind also that this was written back in the glory days of sexism, and Stevens, for what we know, was Don Draper. And that's interesting, but the thing that draws me to this poem can best be experienced thus: read it aloud. Feel the sounds in your mouth.


Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

-Wallace Stevens

And since it's the first column, I'll do another, one of my very favorite pieces ever and a real treat the first time you read it. It's the frontispiece of Mary Oliver's "A Poetry Handbook," which is a masterpiece in itself. The poem is the embodiment of what great haiku is capable of, great leaps of imagination and broad expansions of visual power using the very smallest and subtlest of tools. Great haiku is like a great magic trick: there's the first stroke, a brief setting up; the second stroke, things that are not are shown to be, the reader is not deceived but directed; and the third stroke, the entire context of the piece's perception is altered, subverted, simply and quickly and without pretense. It's even referred to as the "aha!" moment. Take a deep breath, and go:

The temple bell stops -
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.

-Matsuo Basho, trans. by Robert Bly

More tomorrow.

Legal notice:
Some may feel that the inclusion of works not in the public domain is a violation of the fair-use doctrine of US copyright law. I obviously do not agree, but I will gladly defer to the wishes of the rightsholder, and if anyone wishes for a post of their work or work for which they own the intellectual rights, they may ask for its removal and it will be so. I claim no ownership and have no rights as to the works I will be posting, save for any that were written by me.