Matsuo Basho, “Climb Mount Fuji”

Climb Mount Fuji (from Modern American Poetry)
Matsuo Basho (tr. Robert Hass)

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.

Comment:

Before we discuss Basho’s cryptic plea to a snail, I want to highlight two recent encounters with friends. First, one rather pointedly asked why I write on poetry rather than politics. This caused me to raise an eyebrow, because as far as I know, this friend does not like to read. I’m almost certainly sure he doesn’t read what I write – if he does, I am glad for the readership and welcome his response. Second, another has the means to buy something that would launch his career to new heights. He not only has the means to buy this thing, he could buy it an additional 1000 times if he wanted. For whatever reason, he’s decided that talking about buying what he needs is far more interesting and important than actually getting what he needs.

It is with some relief, then, that I turn to Basho’s snail. It is busy climbing no less than Mount Fuji at its own pace. It’s not going to get to the top, not even close. But the snail does what the snail wants to do. Basho addresses it, then, with full respect for its being: “Climb Mount Fuji, O snail, but slowly, slowly.” He lets the expectation that climbing only matters if something is actually climbed stand ridiculous, instead encouraging the snail to slow its slowness.

Of course, there is more to consider. Basho presents himself as a wanderer, someone who has gone out of the city, through the country, into nature, to find his own being. Does he actually think he’s found a truth considering the snail? The snail is as the snail does; whatever it is, it must be weighed relative to Basho himself. That he asks the snail to climb more slowly reflects his advancing age, his own inability to keep up. That the snail’s lack of speed allows it to take in the Earth one grain at a time reflects his aspiration, to see the whole in the smallest of things, to understand where he fits in the cosmos. Thus, I would say he’s giving himself this admonition: Despite my advancing age, I should work to slow down more myself. The poem states a means of contemplation. There is no defense of it, other than this is the way of life he has chosen.

Let’s descend from the cosmic to the practical. I could defend my choice of writing on poetry by speaking about the relation of literature to political sentiment and thought. But that’s really a waste of my time, and not truly descriptive of what’s happening here. More true is that I’m searching for something important, day-by-day, and if you were searching for something important, you might try reading more. It’s not the only way to know better, but it is one way, and as longtime readers of this blog know, knowledge builds. In that vein, what I’m trying to do is make sure I have what I need for what I want to do. I’m not dodging the themes of politics, but investing in my thought. When we discover a theme that must be explored, it won’t be found artificially, through questions, for example, that resemble stoner logic: “If I’m going to be original, I need to be away from society, because society tells us what to think, right?” When one has invested, the larger questions are revealed in their permanence. You know more fully how society has told you what to think and how you yourself have broken some of those bonds. You wonder what it means to think yourself original in any way, given that you see most of what you think in thinkers of the past. The funniest thing about that snail climbing slowly is that it makes progress, and that stands as ludicrous as it does true.

Kobayashi Issa, “Mosquito at my ear”

Mosquito at my ear (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

Mosquito at my ear–
does it think
I’m deaf?

Comment:

“About suffering they were never wrong, [t]he old Masters,” declares Auden. An irritating mosquito might be a far cry from suffering, but both masters Auden and Issa have set to work. Auden doesn’t just describe a scene, he details paintings and a painting itself in “Musée des Beaux Arts”. There, a comment about suffering is a comment about art and poetry, how our moral intuitions are provoked and shaped by what could be ignored. In essence, Auden asks how the painting paints, how art asserts its relevance, speaking beyond its time.

Auden pulls a neat trick. He keeps his tone cool throughout, while speaking of the horrors seen on canvas. He asserts the old Masters weren’t wrong about suffering. In doing these things, he arouses the indignation of the reader, leaving him sputtering. When that happens, there’s a chance the reader might become aware of the trick pulled, self-aware of the moral notions relative to his time. He might wonder on what suffering he has turned his own back.

Issa focuses on nuisance. “Mosquito at my ear– does it think I’m deaf?” Nuisance allows reconstruction of the speaker. He is progressively getting irritated, urging himself to lash out completely. He does not want to deal with the mosquito, because if he truly wanted to deal with it, he would have done so. Instead, he asks if the mosquito thinks he’s deaf, rhetorically asking if the mosquito fails to notice his awareness of all the other irritants in his life. The minor comedy of the haiku is prelude to something that could well be a tragedy.

The moral criticism of the haiku centers on a lack of self-awareness. They may not have had psychoanalysis in Issa’s world, but the speaker’s unresolved issues are very clear at least in Hass’ translation. “My ear,” “it think,” “I’m deaf:” the speaker of the poem resolves into objects and states. A self speaks but denies agency. “I” am overwhelmed, only the mosquito thinks.

However, the self is very much there, ready to take command. On that note, Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” has disappointed at least one person I know. He felt his moral sentiments were manipulated, that it would instead be better to understand Auden as showing a cold world indifferent to suffering, one which artists of a more pious age readily accepted. Isn’t that better than showing morality relative, not so much a Truth or Law, but more like a sneaky discourse across the ages concerning how we see? I’ll say this: we need expectations and standards, and we need people held to them. That has a very definite limit, though, and maybe all ages have done more harm than good in not recognizing that limit. Self-aware people ready to step beyond nuisances and confront suffering are also needed. They don’t dismiss the pain or ambition of others, knowing how hard it is to simply see.

Emily Dickinson, “I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know —” (224)

I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know — (224)
Emily Dickinson

I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know —
So I keep bringing These —
Just as the Night keeps fetching Stars
To our familiar eyes —

Maybe, we shouldn’t mind them —
Unless they didn’t come —
Then — maybe, it would puzzle us
To find our way Home —

Comment:

This “love” thing in which humans engage never ceases to amaze. “Hard to get” seems to be the major game regarding love, as it causes desire, but “hard to get” in some ways is less about love and more about status, rarity, opportunity. But if you explain love through status, rarity, opportunity, it looks like you’re too reductive. Some people do simply love, after all.

So here’s Dickinson, playing coy before a beloved: “I’ve nothing else.” I have nothing else here besides me. The sexual tension rises sharply, and she deflects. “I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know.” Truth is, she’s been deflecting for a while, that these encounters with the beloved have been constant, and yet in some way, she has not been accepted:

I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know —
So I keep bringing These —
Just as the Night keeps fetching Stars
To our familiar eyes —

Maybe, we shouldn’t mind them —
Unless they didn’t come —

She’s been “bringing These” to their encounters, just as the night keeps bringing stars for their eyes. There have been many nights of star-gazing, many nights of effort. She feels wronged, musing if the stars are given adequate attention. Their eyes are too familiar, perhaps. Perhaps they would be noticed if they didn’t come.

You could say Dickinson is playing hard to get, but she’s clearly frustrated with the situation. She’s been bringing these – let’s just say gifts of tenderness – night after night. I should say I don’t know how sexual “bringing These” ultimately is. It is sexual, sure, but it definitely refers to her giving as much as she can, giving what is in some sense beyond her. “I’ve nothing else” is in a sense the opposite claim: I want to be accepted for who I am, I want to be loved for who I am.

You could say that the beloved knows damn well who she is, as “I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know.” That only deepens the puzzle of being loved simply, though. She is known, her efforts are known, and she isn’t loved. Now, to be loved for who she is, she needs darkness to lead him back to them, not just her:

Then — maybe, it would puzzle us
To find our way Home —

Again, the sexuality of these lines is striking, and heightens the problem of “I’ve nothing else” and “bringing These.” A lot of tenderness and love has been shown, and she promises to show still more, being lost in the dark together. Or maybe “unless they didn’t come” means she’ll do nothing. We know, at this point, that he’s a rather dense beloved. What of her? I suspect there’s more than sexual pleasure at stake, as the poem has been so forthright about it already. She does think the beloved can appreciate her for who she truly is. The funny thing is how complicated a proposition that is. Being known in some way, she had to put forth efforts that were not fully appreciated. Now she has to pull away those efforts or intensify them in order to create more togetherness. With that togetherness, they “find our way Home.” Is she herself found? “I’ve nothing else.” I say get a new boyfriend. “Hard to get” might be a stupid game, but whether it works or not, it isn’t this much hassle.

Batsirai Chigama, “Democracy”

Democracy (via Prairie Schooner, with thanks to Omar Sakr)
Batsirai Chigama

I see you like to wave him about
Like a magic wand
to make all evil disappear instantly

Remember son
He is a senile, ancient one
Who uses human bones
For a walking stick

Comment:

Unfortunately, some prophetic warnings have been uttered in less poetic forms. The lack of artistry begat forgetfulness: the divine voice mute, a civilization razed.

Ms. Chigama does not suffer fools. She is a slam poet from Zimbabwe who knows evil when she sees it, speaking wisely and infallibly against. Her first sentence/stanza sharply accuses: “I see you like to wave him about like a magic wand to make all evil disappear instantly.” I do not think I need to detail how the invocation of democracy is used to excuse or justify great evils. Even the worst U.S. History student remembers the words “popular sovereignty.” More attentive ones can explain how absurd it was for a state to vote twice or more on the legality of slavery, until, of course, the South got the Senators it needed to preserve their peculiar institution.

You might quibble with the notion that democracy can advance evil. A properly functioning one has rules which confer rights and privileges impartially. It can allow everyone to be heard and given dignity. So if we speak of bad democracies, are we speaking of democracy at all? Certainly we are! Democracy in general acts as a “magic wand,” as it allows the casting of a spell, the rewriting of morality itself. “The people have spoken,” we say, and they make law, enshrine their accomplishments, set themselves as the ancestors of proud generations. Those generations will look back and revere their ancestors for what they did. “We the people” bind the future to pay homage to us. If we, say, effect a crude nationalist revolt based on years of conspiracy-mongering, we do so thinking those most deserving of honor – in some cases, the police, pastors, the military – will look to us in gratefulness. They and their children understand the hard choices we made against so-called “progress” or “change.”

Democracy can be misused because it allows “the people” to set themselves the arbiter of everything. Chigama understands this intimately and depicts Democracy as a demon come to life. A pact with the Devil makes the Devil incarnate. Use that magic wand, you seal your fate:

Remember son
He is a senile, ancient one
Who uses human bones
For a walking stick

The most striking word in this stanza is “senile.” That democracy can create great evils, evils which tear apart the social fabric, loose the blood-dimmed tide, we know. But so far I have spoken of agents within a democracy purposefully pushing those evils. Here, Chigama echoes an ancient wisdom, one which I must revisit. Socrates speaks early on in the Crito about the ultimate powerlessness of the many; Machiavelli says a mob without a head is useless. A demon is senile, as he may know how to corrupt and take over someone, but then he acts as someone thousands of years old would. Right now, it does feel like senility reigns supreme in the United States. Chigama, I think, understands something more. What exactly that is, I’m not sure. The prophet demands interpretation, and only time will truly tell.

Kobayashi Issa, “The snow is melting”

The snow is melting (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.

Comment:

Wryly, Issa takes in what is around him. “The snow is melting:” he feels the release of the cold, sees his village liberated. You would think this an occasion for joy. I recall writing not so long ago about another poem of Issa’s, where “New Year’s morning” meant the transformation from winter to spring.

Rebirth is strongly implicit despite Issa’s cynicism, but if there’s joy, it’s buried underneath snark and sarcasm. “The snow is melting and the village is flooded with children.” On the one hand, this can be seen as the ranting of a bitter old man. On the other, it concerns what is naturally good. It’s a good thing that snow melts, watering the ground and restoring rivers. It’s good that the village has children who emerge as if to flood it. But what is naturally good can be annoying to us, to say the least. It need not concern our short-term good, our perceived good. Maybe in the long-term, those children will remember a man wanting silence so as to write poems, and with that model, embrace a bit of discipline. That we ourselves live such a short time, though, can make us wonder if short-term goods are the only goods there are.