Haiku

Haiku in translation often require a fairly extensive set of notes or even scholarly apparatus in order for the reader to “get” the insight payoff that is the point of the form. For instance,  in this poem by Kikaku (1661 – 1707)

At a grass hut
I eat smartweed —
I’m that kind of firefly

the Western reader really needs the note provided by the editors of The Classic Tradition of Haiku: “Tade is smartweed, knotweed, or knotgrass. Thorny and stinging, it is spurned by insects, except for summer fireflies. Kikaku, who was a rich doctor’s spoiled son, debauched with heavy drinking and whoremongering, here likens himself to the brilliant firefly that stays up all night enjoying the bitterness and dangers of overindulgence and promiscuity. The poem refers to the proverb “some prefer nettles. . . ”

Another poem by Kikaku, though, comes across the spatial, temporal, and cultural distance without any additional information:

“It’s my snow”
I think
And the weight on my hat lightens

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about haiku lately because I’ve been writing short poems. My old teacher Donald Justice once told me he thought I was best with longer forms, but when I’m busy or preoccupied as I have been lately I resort to short poems. And what I’m looking for in a short poem is the condensed essence of the lyric or the joke — a setup and a pay off. A lot of Western haiku read like translations in need of notes, not because there is a cultural obscurity but because the poet hasn’t understood the need for the snap at the end of the whip. Sometimes this fault is excused, I think, as subtlety, but I don’t buy it. a successful haiku (or haiku-like poem) performs a delicate balancing act between closure and openness, between wit and mystery.

Ekleksographia

Ekleksographia is a very cool new online poetry publication. And I’m not just saying that because my friend Anny Ballardini has selected some work of mine to appear in the forthcoming issue. The inimitable Jesse Glass of Ahadada Books is the spirit behind the effort and as with all his projects, Ek (as I am affectionately calling it), has a smart/sweet (as in sweet spot) vibe to it. Ek has the potential to be the new century’s Kayak. And not just because of the letter K, either. Anny has selected the opening section of my version of the 18th century Vietnamese poem, The Lament of the Soldier’s Wife (Chinh Phu Ngam), which I had worked on years ago when I was in Vietnam and recently pulled out again to see if I could get back into it — the original is more than 800 lines long!

Another Reason to Celebrate Modernism

I had not known the work of the architect Charles Gwathmey until I read his obituary in the NY Times.The photograph of the small house he designed for his parents in 1966 is breathtaking and reminds one of the aesthetic power of the Modernist vision, in architecture, which I know only casually, and in poetry, which I know professionally. Things have changed, of course; Modernism has been replaced by the hodge-podge amalgam of post-modernism. The Times quotes a friend of the architect: “‘A lot of people jumped ship, but Charlie was loyal to Modernism’, said Peter Eisenman, the architect and theorist.” Given my preference for pluralism over any form of authoritarian Tradition, I should be happy about the passing of Modernism, but it produced so much great art that I not so secretly long for a return to the vision quest of the Modernist project, to put something together out of the fragments of the past as it has come down to us, though I have perhaps a more catholic appreciation for and acceptance of the sort of fragments that might be useful than the old Modernists.