The great Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote in maxims to avoid being circumlocutious. [That's a word that absurdly describes being wordy.] Be like Confucius, not like this verbose doofus.
Category Archives: Literature
BOOKS: Echo & Critique by Florian Gargaillo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Out Now (May 10, 2023)
This book examines seven poets’ attempts to halt the proliferation of clichés, euphemisms, doublespeak, etc., words and phrases that not only corrupt the language but are often used to disguise bad behavior or to camouflage dismaying truths. It focuses on a technique, echo and critique, in which the poet employs one or more of these disconcerting words or phrases (or clever variants of them,) but does so in a way that reveals the chicanery within them.
The poets whose work is discussed are: Auden, Randall Jarrell, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Robert Lowell, Josephine Miles, and Seamus Heaney. These poets go head-to-head with cliché and doublespeak in the form of bureaucratese, propaganda, political speak, and business talk — with particular emphasis on war, race, and politics.
The book makes some interesting points. There are more readable discussions of the subject of corruption and manipulation of the English language, though none that I’m aware of on this particular approach to combating it. This volume is largely aimed at scholars, and not so much the popular readers. That said, I found it well worth reading.
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Five Great Yarns from Kahlil Gibran’s The Madman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Project Gutenberg Page
The Madman is a collection of poems and short fiction (often micro-fiction) of a philosophical nature. The protagonist claims he became a madman when a thief broke into his house and stole his masks, the masks that people wear to fit into society and appear “normal.” Beyond the thread created by this mad character, the entries meander along, each with its own moral and with little discernible overarching plot.
There are many clever stories in this collection, offering food-for-thought on religion, philosophy, and psychology. I’ll discuss five of my favorites:
“The Sleepwalkers” A mother and daughter are both sleepwalkers. When they are somnambulating, they speak to each other in horribly cruel terms, but when they wake up, they display (at least a veneer of) love and affection. Besides demonstrating the nature of the aforementioned masks, the loss of which gets one designated “crazy,” this story encourages the reader to discern the differences between conscious and subconscious mental activity.
“War” This one presents an analogy for war in which a thief breaks into the wrong building, walks into a machine, pokes his own eye out, and then takes the building owner to court seeking “justice” for his lost eye. The craftsman / shop-owner says he can’t lose an eye because he won’t be able to do his work, but he knows a neighboring craftsman who could have his eye removed without great loss of productivity. This story builds upon the well-known “An eye for an eye…” Bible verse with the added absurdity of violence being doled out randomly and without concern for whether the victim had anything to do with the events in question.
“The Wise King” A disgruntled witch poisons a city well with a substance that makes drinkers insane. The King avoids the well water and is spared insanity. However, the townspeople begin to plot against the king because, in their insanity, they believe him (as one who acts differently) to be insane. The king eventually drinks the well water in order to come back into synch with his subjects. This entry speaks to the arbitrary nature of classification of sane and insane, an idea that has been discussed in modern times by mental health experts such as R.D. Laing.
“The Two Cages” A bird is caged next to a lion. The bird’s confidence provides the central lesson, knowing they’re both imprisoned separately, the bird refers to the lion as “fellow prisoner.” The power dynamic has changed from that of the jungle. Perhaps, the bird has even happily exchanged its freedom — either for safety or to tear the lion down a little.
“The Eye” In this story, the other sense organs mock the eye after it comments upon how grand a mountain is. The ear can’t hear the mountain and the skin can’t feel the mountain. Therefore, the other senses assume that the eye is either lying or is delusional. This tale speaks to the risk of denying something based on one’s own limited perception.
This book was originally published in 1918 and is in the public domain (most places.) It’s definitely worth the short time investment required to read it.
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Ikkyū’s Poetry: The John Steven’s Wild Ways Selection / Translation
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the John Stevens selection and translation of poetry from Ikkyū’s Crazy Cloud Anthology. Ikkyū was what might be called a mad sage of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. He once showed up at a temple in his vagabond rags and was turned away, when he came back the next day in the ceremonial robes that revealed him as a preeminent monk and was subsequently treated like royalty, he took the robes off and told the abbot that it was apparently the robes that were honored and deserving of a meal. Ikkyū was known not only for his rejection of dogmatic and highfalutin approaches to Buddhism, but also for his love of sex, brothels, meat eating, and poetry. Much of the poetry touches on those two subjects (disdain for dogma and pretension and love of pleasure,) though there are also poems that explore nature and the kind of imagery one might be more likely to expect in Japanese poetry.
Ikkyū mostly wrote in quatrains, using a Chinese style of verse. Though Ikkyū was no more dogmatic about following poetic protocols than he was following monastic precepts, and often went with the flow.
I read the Stephen Berg translation, Crow with No Mouth several years ago. I would put this one on par with that one. There are actually several translated selections from the Crazy Cloud Anthology poems that are available. If you are interested in Ikkyū’s poetry, this is as good a place to start as any. It should be noted that while some of the poetry is around sexuality, it’s not particularly graphic but more suggestive.
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Orwell’s Politics and the English Language
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Available online at The Orwell Foundation
In this essay, Orwell decries a scourge of weak writing in the English language, writing marked by cliched phrases, imprecise descriptors, meaningless words, and pretension. In short, he tells us that writing is becoming simultaneously more verbose and less meaningful.
While the essay isn’t as fun to read as George Carlin’s rants on the same subject, it’s a clear and well-organized discussion of this flaw. Orwell presents the problem, offering examples of random unreadable passages and discussion of where each goes awry. He also contrasts a clear and concise Biblical passage with how its message would sound translated into this corrupt modern form of the language. (That’s the most comedic portion of the essay.) Next, Orwell offers writers simple questions they might apply to making their writing less bloated and more impactful. The key insight of the essay is that thought corrupts language, but language also corrupts thought.
The essay is almost eighty years old, but the problem persists — particularly among politicians, a class of people who love to both sound impressive but without saying anything definitive, anything that might pin them down. That said, since Orwell we’ve developed new linguistic afflictions unique to the internet age, and the essay could probably use updating. Still, it’s an excellent place to start one’s reflection on what’s going wrong in the English language.
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Of Samurai & Cats: Issai Chozan’s Neko no Myōjutsu
Cat & Lantern (1877) by Kiyochika Kobayashi
BACKGROUND: Issai Chozan’s Neko no Myōjutsu (“Eerie skills of the Cat”) was published in the book Inaka Sōji in 1727. It’s an example of dangibon, a light-hearted form of instructional short story, a form for which Issai Chozan is said to have been one of the originators. On the surface a story of rat-catching cats, in reality it’s a lesson in strategy and philosophy of combat.
SYNOPSIS: I’ll include citations and links below, so you can read the story in its entirety, should you choose to do so. But for now, a brief synopsis: A samurai, Shoken, has a rat in his house, and it’s driving him crazy. Shoken’s housecat is terrorized by the rat. The samurai brings in the best rat-catching cats from the neighborhood, and each is soundly defeated by the rat. Shoken decides to take matters into his own hands, chasing after the rat with a wooden sword (bokken,) but the rat evades each attempted strike and, ultimately, bites the samurai on the face. Finally, Shoken brings in a legendary elder cat from across the city, a cat who doesn’t look like much, but who effortlessly evicts the rat from Shoken’s house. The balance of the story is a conversation between the successful old cat and three of the skillful younger cats who’d failed to catch the rat (as well as with Shoken.) Each of the three explains its approach to achieving victory, and in turn the master cat explains the limitations of each one’s approach. The old master goes on to explain how when he was younger, he’d met a tomcat who slept all day, and yet no rat would come within miles of it. He asked how the tomcat achieved this, but the tomcat was unable to explain it.
THE LESSON: The first cat, a young black cat, explained that it was a master of technique. The black cat was agile and strong in movement of all kinds and practiced diligently to streamline and perfect all of its techniques. The old cat pointed out that focus on technique still left the black cat with too active a mind, thinking too much about how it would defeat its opponent. The master went on to say that there is value in technique, but it can’t be allowed to be the extent of one’s abilities. He emphasized that one’s clever actions must be in accord with the Way.
The second cat, a tabby, proudly proclaimed that all of its effort went into building its energy or spirit (ki, also called chi,) and that it could defeat most rats with a gaze (though not the one in question.) The old master explained that spirit is a fine thing but being too conscious of it hurt the second cat’s ability. The master went on to say that one can never be sure that the opponent won’t have more spirit than one, and so complete reliance on ki can lead one to a defeat.
The third cat, a gray one, said that its philosophy relied on yielding and never forcing a fight. The old master explained that this was a misunderstanding of the principle of harmony, and that this kind of yielding was a man-made contrivance that was not in accord with nature and often led to muddiness of the mind. While the old cat goes on to say that none of these elements (technique, ki energy, or yielding) is without value, it’s clear as he continues that the answer isn’t as simple as being a combination of them, but rather requires a completely new way of being, of experiencing and perceiving the world.
To Shoken, the old cat explained the importance of not thinking of swordsmanship as a means to defeat an enemy but, rather, a means of understanding life and death. The old cat went on to discuss mushin (i.e. “no mind,”) a serene state of mind that allows one to be flexible to whatever comes along. The old cat emphasized the importance of eliminating distinctions of object and subject through a process of self-realization and explained that the process of seeing into one’s being one can trigger satori (sudden enlightenment.)
Matheson Trust for Comparative Religion translation, available online at: https://terebess.hu/zen/neko.pdf
Ozawa, Hiroshi. 2005. The Cat’s Eerie Skill. Essence of Training in Japanese Culture: Technique Acquirement and Secret of Kendo. Online at: https://tenproxy.typepad.jp/recent_engagement/files/essence_of_training_in_japanese_culturee.pdf
Suzuki, D.T. 1959. The Swordsman and the Cat. Zen and Japanese Culture. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 428-435
Wilson, William Scott. 2006. The Mysterious Technique of the Cat. The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts. Tokyo: Kodansha International
The poet Alexander Pushkin challenged twenty-one duels with no win. But just that one loss, put him under a cross. Perhaps, he'd have lived if his skin weren't so thin.
The Bohemian writer Franz Kafka, more conflicted than Queen Jocasta, wrote tales, absurd -n- surreal... yet how factual they feel.
BOOK REVIEW: Braided Creek by Ted Kooser & Jim Harrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
20th Anniversary Edition Release Date: August 15, 2023
This is a twentieth anniversary re-release of a collection of short poems — on the scale of haiku or tanka — exchanged between Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison over many years. The poems are unattributed and, famously, literary critics who boldly proclaimed they knew which poems were written by which poet have been proven wrong.
While the length of the poems is similar to that of haiku and tanka, if one were going to categorize them in terms of Japanese verse, most would be more like senryū or kyōka (the poetic genres that match haiku and tanka [respectively] in form, but allow for humor, humanism, abstract metaphors, and freedom to deviate from juxtaposition of natural imagery.) But even that categorization would be deceptive because these poems tend toward a uniquely American voice.
That said, there are a few that fit the Japanese style well, e.g.:
In the morning light, / the doorknob, cold with dew.
The cups of the tulips / tip forward, spilling their snow.
There are also a few that are more like ko-an than like poems. (A ko-an is a Zen “riddle” designed to help practitioners break the hold of logic and reason on the mind. Typically, the ko-an looks like a question, but it can’t be thought out to an intellectually satisfying answer as most questions can.)
Is this poem a pebble, / or a raindrop coated with dust?
My wife’s lovely dog, Mary, kills butterflies. They’re easier than birds. I wonder if Buddha had dog nature.
But one hears an American voice in such examples as:
On my desk two / indisputably great creations: duct tape and saltine crackers.
Rowing across the lake / all the dragonflies are screwing. Stop it. It’s Sunday.
There are philosophical pieces, such as:
Only today / I heard / the river / within the river.
How tall would I be without my enemies to measure me?
This anniversary edition has a beautiful introduction by Naomi Shihab Nye and a brief epilogue by Kooser, but is otherwise the same.
If you like light and whimsical poetry that can make you laugh, or – sometimes – make you think, you should check out this collection.
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A Quick & Dirty Guide for Reading William Blake’s Prophetic Poetry
It’s been said that Blake’s poetry is nearly impenetrable. When people say this, they’re referring to a series of long poems that are often called Blake’s “prophetic books.” It’s not that people struggle much with Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, or The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I doubt anyone is stumbling their way through “The Lamb” or “The Tyger.” In fact, some of Blake’s poetry is highly readable for eighteenth century work.
The challenge is that Blake created his own mythology and he launches in with all these characters that have no sticking power for a reader. This is unfortunate as Blake remains well worth reading for his ideas, his language, and his sui generis worldview. [Even if he doesn’t win you over, Blake will give you something to think about that you’ve probably never considered before.] Blake’s mythology forces the reader to choose between a painstaking read (making notes, re-reading sections multiple times, stopping dead to make connections, etc.) or a casual read that misses most of what Blake is saying because it floats over the connections he is making.
As I’m re-reading Blake, I constructed a chart that helps me track who’s who and what each major character is about. I won’t claim it makes Blake’s prophetic work completely simple and transparent, but it has made reading it more productive and insightful. If you’re reading “Valas,” “Milton,” “Jerusalem” or any of the other prophetic books, I hope it will benefit you as well.
Em/F: these are emanations (i.e. characters that flow from the character from which the pointer originates.) Some refer to these as the feminine forms, hence the “F.”