According to Jane Hirshfield, in the “Art of Haiku,” a Haiku is a poem composed of 17 syllables or sound bites containing vivid imagery. The traditional Haiku poem should evoke a particular season, although western Haiku writers don’t always follow this proscription.
The original meaning of the Japanese word Haiku, according to Hirshfield, is “Playful verse.” The celebrated Japanese poet, Basho, raised Haiku to new levels of significance by adding a spiritual and emotional dimension.
Basho wasn’t too strict about the form. He advised that you can have an extra syllable or two as long as the poem sounded right. If the sound was off, then a re-write was in order. He also said it was important to see the world with new eyes and to write down the present moment.
Here are three Haikus that I wrote that I would like to share with you.
The monk stumbles from
The Black Mountain Demon’s Cave
To find the world one bright pearl.
The sound of the dragon
Singing in the withered tree
Comes to my ear.
The empty boat returns
From its long Journey abroad
Full of moonlight.
My soul she shrieks and flings me down
The wind picks up and lifts her dress
Teasing and pleasing me
All is nothingness, so she says
As she pins me to the bed
With a silver shaft of cold, cold steel
She runs me through and through.
When I was a young man, much younger than I am today, I dated a girl by the name of Kimberly. She was much younger than I was and quite beautiful. She was of Italian decent and had that kind of classical beauty that you only find on the walls of museums in New York City. Pictures that were painted during the Italian Renaissance.
Kimberly left me with some permanent damage and I have the scar tissue to prove it.
On the weekends she would invite me over to her place to spend the night. After an all-night bacchanal we slept late the next morning. Upon arising we ventured into the kitchen in search of some victuals to break our fast. I found some frozen bagels in the freezer and proceeded to prepare them for eating.
I selected the sharpest knife in the drawer and stood the cold bagel on edge in order to cut it in half so that it would fit snugly into the toaster. I grasped the bagel in one hand to steady it and the knife in my other hand and bore down on the knife to make an impression on the bagel.
The bagel wasn’t having it. As I applied pressure to the knife against the upright edge of the bagel, the bagel slipped sideways and the knife plunged into the side of my left index finger cutting rather deeply and immediately producing a spurt of bright red blood.
“Oh, I think we better get you to the hospital”, Kimberly said.
So off we went to the ER.
Luckily, this was a small town in Indiana and the emergency room was not crowded. They took me right away. First they soaked my finger in betadine solution for half an hour and then the attending physician come in and took a look.
I explained about the knife and the bagel and left out the part about the all night bacchanal.
A wide smile spread across the doctor’s face as he began to sew sutures into my ruptured finger and closing the wound.
“Oh, we have been seeing quite a lot of this lately. We even have a name for it. We call it, ‘Yuppie Syndrome.’”
He sewed five stitches into my finger and I still have the scar.
It wasn’t long after that that Kimberly and I broke up. It seems she didn’t want to be tied down to an exclusive relationship with an older guy. I couldn’t blame her. But, she did break my heart. And I have the scar tissue to prove that too.
Once Nelson Algren accompanied Studs Terkel to see Billie Holiday perform. Here’s how he tells the story. Billie’s voice was shot by that time but the gardenia in her hair was fresh. Ben Webster was backing her on tenor sax. There was only 10 or 15 customers in the joint. Sad. Lady Day sang “Fine and Mellow,” and “Willow, Willow Weep for Me.” I was crying and I looked around and all the other customers were crying too. She still had something that distinguishes the artist from the performer.
After her performance Nelson and I met with her in her dressing room which was in reality just a storeroom. Lady bade us to sit. Nelson slouched in the shadows against the wall. She patiently answered all my questions which I am sure she had been asked a thousand time before. When the conversation ended she looked over to the slouching figure in the darkness and asked, “Who is that man?”
Nelson explained that he and she both had the same publisher. “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “Lady Sings the Blues” had both been published by Doubleday.
“You’re all right,” she said to him.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“You’re wearing glasses.”
He laughed. “I know some people with glasses who’ve got dollar signs for eyes.”
“How can you tell?”
Andrew O’Hehir writes in his Salon piece that “The Hunger Games,” and “Divergent” are propaganda. Then he says they are not propaganda in the usual sense of the word but rather propaganda in the service of “individualism.” Individualism, according to O’Hehir, is the central idea behind consumer capitalism and is the bogey man we are all to fear. This is rubbish.
I would suggest that going from a young woman’s view of present day society as a glorified high school drama about not fitting as is the case with “Divergent” to political agitprop is a dangerous leap and a bit of a stretch.
O’hehir goes on to say that we must accept the premise that all imagined worlds of the future must be about the present; a dubious conjecture at best. Where, he asks, are the fascist forces demanding conformity? Where is the segregation of society to be found? Where is the regimentation that we see depicted these movies? Is he serious? One just has to open one’s eyes and look around to see plenty. Look at the paramilitary swat teams that have grown up in so many cities across America. Look at the spying on citizens that goes on by the NSA, Facebook, and Google. The pressure to conform has never been greater. Society is most certainly segmented into strata and classes. From the highest to the lowest, by race and by gender. And let’s not forget about the struggles of the LBGT community. In the workplace, if you don’t conform you are out.
I would argue that the oppressive societies shown in the “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” are in fact allegorical to our present day times. They are cautionary tales as to what the future may hold. The central message presented by “Divergent” is to beware of labeling or “pigeon holing” people based on personality traits or some form of arbitrary and rigid caste system that offers no upward or lateral mobility.
The place where I would agree with O’Hehir is that “Divergent,” while entertaining, was unsophisticated and simplistic. But what do you expect? It was based on the first of a series of novels written by a young woman geared for a young adult audience. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for a well- intentioned, well made, good effort that had much to offer including a strong female lead that was empowering to her and presented a good role model for other girls to follow. This, I think, is a good trend.
If you want to see real capitalist agitprop, check out Howard Roark’s speech in The Fountain Head, a movie based on the Ayn Rand novel of the same name. In this speech you can catch a glimpse the ideology of the individual versus the collective that O’Hehir is so agitated about.
“The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt is a book that holds special significance for me. It is a book about a book hunter who lived in the 15th century, Poggio Bracciolini. It resonates with me because I too am book hunter.
I know how Poggio Bracciolini must have felt when he came across a dusty scroll hidden away in the library of the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda in Germany. This scroll was one of the few remaining copies extant in the world and the only copy that had surfaced to that point. It consisted of an important poem, “On the Nature of Things,” written by Lucretius in 50 BCE. This book would change the course of human events.
“On the Nature of Things” is a poem about the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicurus, a Greek philosopher living in Athens in the third century B.C.E, was a proponent of the theory of atomism. This theory rests on the idea that the basic building blocks of matter are tiny invisible particles called atoms. Epicurus was also a proponent of the pleasure principle. He believed one’s primary aim in life should be enhancing one’s pleasure and avoiding pain. The pursuit of happiness should be the goal of life. Liberated from superstition, you would be free to pursue pleasure. Peace of mind is the key to enduring pleasure. The Church of the 15th century however, thought otherwise. “On the Nature of Things” was considered to be a radical and dangerous document.
“The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” is a book about books. Greenblatt goes into the history of writing books and bookmaking, libraries, and book storage. He discusses the readers of books and the owners of books from antiquity. He describes these readers to be few in number and usually the wealthy elite. They were a cultivated society of men and women whose homes had rooms designated solely for the purpose of reading books.
“The Swerve” is also a history of the times in which Poggio lived. He lived in Florence during the 15th century. He became secretary to Pope John XXIII. These were wild times for the Church. There were actually three Popes at the time all claiming legitimacy. Pope John XXIII (Baldassare Cossa) was eventually deposed after being accused of simony, sodomy, rape, incest, torture, and murder.
After the Pope was deposed and imprisoned, Poggio unemployed, considered himself to be free. Free to hunt books. Free to read and free from all cares and worries of worldly affairs. He withdrew into the quarters of his private library in his castle. Books delighted him. According to Poggio, time spent with books takes our minds away from our troubles.
The most important impact the book had for me was to answer two burning questions: Is the world determined? And, do we have free will?
Determinism conflicts with the doctrine of free will. Lucretius suggests that atoms tend to swerve randomly (Clinamen). When atoms fall straight down through space they deflect a bit here and there, at uncertain times and places, slightly changing their motion. This swerving action creates the free will that we all take advantage of in our daily lives and allows us to have purpose.
The other important legacy Lucretius leaves us with is the idea that the highest goal of life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. Life should be all about the pursuit of happiness.
We find the echoes of these ideas in our own Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. In it he declared man’s right to life, freedom, and also to “the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson owned many editions of “On the Nature of Things in various translations. It was one of his favorite books.
Don’t tame my spirit
Come to me like before
When my lover left
And help me be calm.