Matsuo Basho, “Even in Kyoto”

Even in Kyoto (from Modern American Poetry)
Matsuo Basho (tr. Robert Hass)

Even in Kyoto —
hearing the cuckoo’s cry —
I long for Kyoto.

Comment:

“Even in Kyoto… I long for Kyoto” brings to mind the never-ending invocation of real America. Everyone is searching for it, apparently, from journalists knee-deep in coal mining country to union organizers among city transit employees. I’m mocking this notion of “real America,” but we do use it quite seriously, quite often. Sometimes, it serves as a crude club with which we beat opposing partisans. A much better use is when it introduces skepticism about conventional wisdom, trying to see through sloppy data or select anecdotes.

Still, “real America” only superficially resembles Basho’s cry. “Real America,” at its best, tries to see beyond partisanship to justify, um, partisanship. “Even in Kyoto — hearing the cuckoo’s cry — I long for Kyoto” concerns something far deeper. How do we find that concern, though? The haiku gives us so little to work with that it invites all sorts of speculation. It’s alright to make mistakes in interpretation – there is no such thing as an absolutely “correct” interpretation – and enjoying the work of an author does not require rigorous amounts of historical detail. This poem, however, is ripe for quickly going off the rails.

The safest way to proceed is by putting ourselves in the speaker’s place. He’s in a large, populated city which either bustles with activity or sleeps. Whether he’s watching shoppers crowd a marketplace or the moon illuminate rooftops, the cuckoo cries, breaking his experience. “Hearing the cuckoo’s cry” brings him into another present; Kyoto subsides, becoming merely a place.

Why is the cuckoo so significant? The Internet, in its infinite wisdom, tells us that the cuckoo could signal the beginning of summer, or that its call might be that of the “spirits of the dead.” The latter fits the poem, but radicalizes what’s happening. Before, it was possible to say that the cuckoo naturally interrupted an urban reverie. Now, one has to identify nature with death, as Basho hears the cuckoo cry and realizes the life of the city is only cyclical – people in motion, people at rest – to a point. Everyone in the city will permanently pass away. This truth is natural inasmuch there is an order to the world beyond our conventions and creations.

He ends the poem with a short cry of his own: “I long for Kyoto.” All things will pass away, but what of what we have made? What of our whole investment? His desire is not for permanence or the realization of an ideal. What is most significant is that the desire for Kyoto itself is justified. Life not only exists, but also gains a certain grandeur in the face of death. What’s funny is that death does not steal away that grandeur.

Amiri Baraka, “Legacy”

Legacy (from Poetry)
Amiri Baraka

(For Blues People)

In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night. Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee. Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black. Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretended sea.

Comment:

Exiled in one’s own country, perpetually moving from edge to edge, how is a legacy possible?

Baraka begins homeless, wandering in poverty:

In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night.

Only “early mysterious night” conveys any majesty or romance. Otherwise, the south disowns blues people: they sleep and moan on the streets, their stumbling only witnessed by stars beginning to emerge.

“Sleeping against the drugstore,” “growling under the trucks and stoves,” “stumbling through and over the cluttered eyes” brings to mind another tale of wandering and homelessness. In Seamus Heaney’s “Shifting Brilliancies,” a wanderer/poet is almost dazzled by the beauty of it all before being brought back to earth, confronted with poverty and misery. The first stanza of Heaney’s poem:

Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light
In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.

The difference between Heaney and Baraka in one regard instructs. Heaney separates his speaker/poet from the beggar, and the rest of his poem attempts to bridge that separation, trying to find the truly human between mystical wandering and unjust circumstance. Baraka, on the other hand, identifies with “blues people.” They are truly his. Baraka’s poem, to be sure, almost convinces us otherwise:

…Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee.

“Frowning drunk waving moving a hand or lash” presents a pathetic, broken alcoholic. His lack of self-control progresses from euphoria to confusion and finally exhaustion: “Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting a hand rest in shadows.” A more fundamental confusion underlies all this, as the lack of dignity pushes him to lay waste where he eats, “squatting to drink or pee.” It all seems a far remove from poetic reflection, the comfort of writing, words remembered.

But Baraka identifies the alcoholic’s journey with his own:

Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black.

The blues people have failures, ambitions, and dreams, just like the poet. They imagine, putting themselves into a western, “stretching to climb pulling themselves onto horses near where there was sea.” Not just any western, the western, from one coast to another in the New World. This is an epic journey, one which must be sung, one in which they believe. “The old songs lead you to believe.” He joins them singing everywhere they go, “riding out from this town, to another, where it is also black.”

Is he their legacy? Only inasmuch as he is a son of the blues people. The songs he sings are truly theirs, as he works exclusively at night:

…Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretended sea.

The poet and the wandering blues people are one, but can be differentiated. Those riding horses believe the old songs, but then there’s the issue of the songs themselves. At some point, he is alone, journeying “down a road where people are asleep.” I read this as everyone else being asleep. He does as they do, but it means something slightly different for each. Both chase dreams, “towards the moon or the shadows of houses,” working in darkness. The poet, however, only works in darkness. “Towards the songs’ pretended sea” is a fiction he recalls and composes himself. For the other blues people, it is what they will make real. This is their new world.

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.