Ikkyū’s Poetry: The John Steven’s Wild Ways Selection / Translation

Wild Ways: Zen Poems of IkkyuWild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu by Ikkyu
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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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.)

CITATIONS:

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

BOOK REVIEW: Braided Creek by Ted Kooser & Jim Harrison

Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry: Expanded Anniversary EditionBraided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry: Expanded Anniversary Edition by 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.
Or,
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?
Or,
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.
Or,
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.
Or,
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.”

Five Wise Lines from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” [Plus Five Lines, More]

No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

william blake

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

William blake

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.

William Blake

The fox condemns the trap, not himself.

William Blake

Exuberance is Beauty.

William blake

Without Contraries is no Progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

William Blake

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

William blake

The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.

William Blake

I also asked Isaiah what made him go naked and barefoot three years. He answer’d: ‘The same that made our friend Diogenes, the Grecian.’

William Blake

The most sublime act is to set another before you.

William blake

NOTE: William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven in Hell” is available in many collections of his poetry, and is in the public domain and available via Project Gutenberg at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45315

Five Wise Lines from Leaves of Grass

Why, who makes much of a miracle? As to me I know of nothing else but miracles.

Walt Whitman, “miracles”

The American contempt for statues and ceremonies, the boundless impatience for restraint…

Walt whitman, “Song of the Broad-axe”

I exist as I am, that is enough. If no other in the world would be aware I sit content. And if each and all be aware I sit content.

walt whitman, “Song of myself”

I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.

walt whitman, “song of myself”

If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred.

Walt whitman, “i sing the body electric”

NOTES: Numerous editions exist between the 1855 and 1892 (deathbed) edition. It’s available for free on Project Gutenberg at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1322

Five Wise Lines from Tagore’s Stray Birds

The stars are not afraid to appear like fireflies.

Stray birds — #48

By plucking her petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower.

Stray birds — #154

The eyes are not proud of their sight but of their eyeglasses.

stray birds — #256

I carry in my world that flourishes the worlds that have failed.

stray birds — #121

Delusions of knowledge are like the fog of the morning.

stray birds — #14

CITATION: Tagore, Rabindranath (1916), Stray Birds, New York: McMillan, 92pp.

Available on Project Gutenberg at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/6524

BOOK REVIEW: The Translations of Seamus Heaney by various [Trans. by Seamus Heaney / Ed. by Marco Sonzogi]

The Translations of Seamus HeaneyThe Translations of Seamus Heaney by Seamus Heaney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 21, 2023 [for the reviewed edition]

I’d read Heaney’s approachable yet linguistically elegant translation of Beowulf long ago, and was excited to see this collection of his translations coming out. The one hundred pieces gathered make for a diverse work, from single stanza poems to epic narratives and timed from Ancient Greece through modernity. The pieces include works from well-known poets such as Baudelaire, Cavafy, Dante, Brodsky, Horace, Sophocles, Ovid, Pushkin, Rilke, and Virgil. But most readers will find new loves among the many poets who aren’t as well-known in the English-reading world, including Irish and Old English poets. I was floored by the pieces by Ana Blandiana, a prolific Romanian poet who’s a household name in Bucharest, though not so well-known beyond.

I’d highly recommend this anthology for poetry readers. Besides gorgeous and clever use of language, the power of story wasn’t lost on Heaney and his tellings of Antigone (titled herein as “The Burial at Thebes,) Beowulf, Philoctetes (titled “The Cure at Troy,”) and others are gripping and well-told.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Haiku Translated by William Scott Wilson

A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Haiku: Major Works by Japan's Best-Loved Poets - From Basho and Issa to Ryokan and Santoka, with Works by Six Women Poets (Free Online Audio)A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Haiku: Major Works by Japan’s Best-Loved Poets – From Basho and Issa to Ryokan and Santoka, with Works by Six Women Poets by William Scott Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 28, 2023

This is a delightful, nicely arranged, and well-translated anthology of haiku. A couple things should be clarified off the bat, given the book’s title (particularly for haiku neophytes.) First of all, “Japanese Haiku” may sound redundant, but the point is that this collection is entirely haiku translated from the work of Japanese poets – historic and modern. There’s been a huge international production of haiku for quite a while, and even national sub-styles such as American Haiku, but this anthology includes none of that.

Secondly, one needn’t put too much stock in the “beginner’s” wording of the title. I understand their point. If you’ve done a lot of haiku reading, you will see quite a few familiar poems, and there are none of the related forms (e.g. tanka, kyoka, renga, haibun, etc.) However, with respect to the first point, the beauty of good poetry is that one can re-read it and get something new out of it each time, and this is especially true if it’s a different translation, which allows one to both take in something of the translator’s perspective as one applies one’s own. Furthermore, this book has many fine features that will particular benefit experienced and analytical haiku readers. For one, it has the original poem both in Japanese characters as well as Romanized phonetic Japanese. (The latter makes it easy to see how the poet worked sound and syllabic arrangement.) There’re also brief biographies for all the poets, which is both useful for knowing what informed their craft, but also interesting in that a surprising number of these haiku poets lived colorful lives.

There are three sections to the book that work in the direction of increasing levels of obscurity. It begins with the big four of haiku (Bashō, Shiki, Buson, and Issa.) Then there’s a section with a large number of notable, but not Bashō-level poets. Finally, there are lesser-known poets, many of whom were quite prolific and had unique takes on the form. The latter two sections include poets that span from the contemporaries of Bashō to twentieth century poets.

If you enjoy haiku, I’d highly recommend this collection. I learned more about suspensive form in haiku and the varying styles of free verse haiku poets in Japan just through careful reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Crabwalk by Günter Grass

CrabwalkCrabwalk by Günter Grass
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story is narrated by its lead character, Paul Pokriefke, a journalist who was on the ill-fated ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, being born on a rescue ship immediately after his pregnant mother was among the small proportion of survivors to escape that most deadly maritime disaster in history. The sinking of the Gustloff is the book’s center of gravity, it’s around that event – and the events that led to it and that sprang from it – that the story swirls.

The strange title, “crabwalk,” can be taken in a number of ways. For example, the author uses the term when he advances the story by moving in some direction that isn’t chronologically forward. However, the central crabwalk is the failure of a segment of the German population to move forward in the aftermath of the Second World War. This is shown through the narrator’s son, Konrad Pokriefke, a neo-Nazi of sorts who has an obsession with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and the incident by which that huge ship got its name (Gustloff being a Swiss Nazi who was assassinated by a Jewish student named David Frankfurter.) For much of this story, Konrad’s obsession plays out on the internet, in chatrooms and on websites that Paul covertly monitors – Paul being estranged from his son, a misfortune that he often blames on his own fatherless upbringing.

One confounding element of the story is the apparent cold rationality of Konrad Pokriefke. To clarify, the young man doesn’t exhibit sound reasoning, but he has this rationale in his mind (nutty as it may be) and he is dispassionate about doing what he believes he needs to do. Konrad isn’t the red-faced, spittle-flying Neo-Nazi. At first, it felt implausible for Konrad to have such a set of views and to be so coolheaded about them. That said, I suspect the author wrote it that way intentionally, and eventually it came to feel true – if horrifying [i.e. the idea that this cold version of hatred might be more sustainable than the intensely angry variety and that it might also retain more hatred in the face of interaction with “the enemy” (it being harder to maintain generic hatred of people with which one has an up close and personal interaction.)]

I found this book, which mixes factual events with fictional characters, to be compelling and thought-provoking. It did have a slow burn at the start, but it makes up for it with greater intensity as the story climaxes.


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