Spring is here, and, with it, a volume of Japanese Death Poems (compiled by Yoel Hoffmann) sent to me by Andrew Griffin. This book sat on my shelf for a few weeks as I gradually overcame my distaste for the prominent placement of the Zen word* on its cover. I took the Death Poems for a coffee and a walk today, sat outside in the soft spring wind and started reading the Introduction. I’m glad I managed to get by the whiff of Buddhism seeping from it.
*I consider Buddhism to be a fatuous and flatulent religion, right up there with Deism as a gaseously thin and useless theological exercise, explaining nothing. I suppose I should resign myself to the inevitability of people farting it into discussions of science, fact, life, and console myself with the knowledge that its redolence is momentary and is always swept away by the next faint gust of logic.
Any reading of a text evokes some sort of response in the reader. A close reading invokes a deeper or stronger or more prolonged response—the better the writing and the more closely we read it the more it resonates. A well-written text is worth reading well and when this happens we and the text ring out together like a perfectly-cast bell. We then absorb that resonance and hold it for use in our own future work; it’s in this way that good reading leads to, and is integral to, good writing, and it’s what I mean when I say “art is theft.”
I wasn’t far into Hoffmann’s introduction before coming across the following tanka by Ki-no-Tsurayuki (870-945 CE) and a challenge implicit in the introduction’s text to distill a haiku from it:
through the shaded grove
my robe with
the scent of blossoms
I’m a competitive son of a bitch by nature, so I stopped right there before seeing Hoffmann’s own distillation
with the scent of blossoms
Two Haiku for April 22
The spring wind moves through
bare trees, but leaves you scented
Spring winds* suffuse you
with a scent of magnolias.
The trees are still bare.
*I’ve brought in a Chinese trope here—in Classical Chinese poetry, the spring wind is usually a reference to physical desire.
Hoffmann and I come from different directions and so achieve different results. He, being (I assume) a student or scholar of Japanese poetry and steeped in centuries of verse, form, and authorial intent as well as having fluency in the Japanese language itself and therefore being more sensitive to its rhythms, nuances, and connotations, is able to conform to the haiku form’s tradition of one image while forsaking the arbitrary rigidity of imposing the syllable count on an English version. Whereas I, not having that fluency, stick to the count while breaking the form by condensing both of the tanka’s images into the haiku.
One of the problems with writing haiku in English is that the form has become contaminated by Buddhist thought.* I’m of the opinion that haiku, or a version of it, can work as a form in English. But it must be aired out well to take the stench off it. So my first piece of advice to anyone who wants to write haiku is this: Step away from the Buddha.
*Buddhist thought—now there’s a oxymoron—consists, as far as I can tell, mainly of inanities masquerading as profundities.