Sunday, March 6, 2011

Readings & Reflections: Simic, Haiku, and the Blues

I plan to kill at least two birds with the one stone that is this post. Or rather, to eliminate the violent imagery, let’s just say that I plan to settle at least two perceived debts. (Fly on and be well, little bird!)

Item #1: I wish at this time to give an overdue plug to the beautiful blog, Life at Willow Manor, and to Tess Kincaid who writes it. It was this post at that blog which introduced me to the wonderful work of Charles Simic—an investigation that I’d been putting off for years. (At this point, I would usually find a link to a site somewhere dedicated to Charles Simic. But I’m not going to do that. Persons who take the trouble to make that inquiry themselves shall be doubly rewarded by encountering Simic, as well as by their sense of accomplishment in having made the effort.)

Item #2: I had stated to my Facebook friend, Phillip Maguire—after Phillip posted a haiku—that I would dig out some examples of haiku that I wrote years ago and share them. My primary reason for doing so was to provide a demonstration of why I stopped trying to write haiku many years ago. It was my contention that, as a Zen art form, haiku is beyond my ken. The Zen sensibility necessary to successfully and authentically work within the form is a thing which I do not possess, since I do not practice Zen. I have some intellectual knowledge of Zen, true. But I cannot claim to see my world through the eyes of a daily practitioner of that religion. I got some blowback on Facebook for voicing that contention, but not a whole lot.

Segue: Now here is how Items #1 and #2 come together: In the pursuit of my new-found interest in both the poetry and the prose of Charles Simic, I came across a short essay entitled “No Cure for the Blues” in the anthology of his “essays and memoirs,” The Unemployed Fortune Teller. [highly recommended] Consider the following excerpt from that essay in the light of the comments I just made above concerning haiku:

The blues prove the complete silliness of any theory of cultural separatism which denies the possibility of aesthetic experience outside one’s race, ethnicity, religion, or even gender. Like all genuine art, the blues belong to a specific time, place and people which it then, paradoxically, transcends. The secret of its transcendence lies in its minor key and its poetry of solitude. Lyric poetry has no closer relation any where than the blues…etc.

The key sentence here is, of course, the first, which would seem to proclaim “the complete silliness” of my expressed point of view regarding haiku.

However, while I must admit that it calls my perspective into question, I would still argue that my position is a valid one. It is not that my background is Christian while that of, say, Bashō, is Zen Buddhist, which makes haiku inaccessible to me. It is rather that the writing of true haiku constitutes actual practice of Zen Buddhism. It is not merely an art form within the context of a particular cultural perspective; it is an act of worship. I can, therefore, write something which looks like a haiku, but it will be a hollow form; an imitation.

In Western poetic forms, we are addicted to the practice of metaphorical observation. For us, a falling leaf is almost never merely a falling leaf. It becomes of butterfly, or a fleeting dream or aspiration; or perhaps a harbinger of impending death. The falling leaf is a piece of a puzzle which we are trying solve. In haiku, as I understand it intellectually, the falling leaf is Zen poet/practitioner, puzzle, and solution, all in one—but still very much simply a falling leaf. I can understand that intellectually—kind of—but I can’t do it.

Here are two examples (from a group of eleven) of pseudo-haiku that I attempted before I gave it up. Two will be more than sufficient to prove my point. In reading them, keep in mind that I had read (in English translation) hundreds of haiku by Bashō, Issa, and other Japanese masters, prior to making these lame attempts. I had also studied the Japanese language for a couple of years in college, and could add a patina of linguistic understanding to the purely aesthetic surface level:

xxxa blank sheet of sky—
distant wisdom of the crow—
xxxmy wife is sleeping—

This is terrible. Of the three lines, both the first and the second contain metaphors. The sky is not a blank page, presumably waiting for me to come along and fill it with my brilliant words. And crows have no capacity for wisdom. Or, even if they do, I have no way of knowing from its cawing that this particular crow is wise.

This one may be the best of a bad lot:

xxxbuds bursting sunward—
with a quick thrust a crow drinks—
xxxmy shoes bind my feet—

The primary thing wrong with this one is that buds “burst sunward” only over time. This line depicts an event which is not of the eternal moment, but of an elapsed time which does not fit into the context of essential immediacy demanded by a practitioner of haiku. It is an observation where an epiphany is called for.

So I rest my case with regard to the possible refutation of my position on haiku as embodied in Charles Simic’s praise of the blues. And I simultaneously affirm my complete agreement with Simic’s assessment and praise of the blues. Thank you— Charles Simic, Phil Maguire, and Tess Kincaid—for having come together to provoke these stimulating and enriching (for me anyway) thoughts and conjectures.