I was rather surprised, and not pleasantly so, by Rexroth’s selection of poems in One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. This is the first collection of Japanese poems, or Chinese poems for that matter, I’ve ever read that contained so many “love” poems.

This poem by “The Mother of the Commander Michitsuna” seems rather typical of a considerable number of poems in the selection:

Have you any idea
How long a night can last, spent
Lying alone and sobbing?

Sounds like love to me, but there’s little to the poem that seems striking to me. Unfortunately, too many of the other selections strike a similar note.

That’s not to say, though, that there aren’t a number of memorable poems in the collection, like this one by “The Prime Minister Kintsune:”

The Flowers whirl away
In the wind like snow.
The thing that falls away
Is myself.

Even the best of the poems for me seldom reach the level of poems by Basho, Buson, or Issa.

While this collection might be interesting in a historical sense because it’s one of the earlier translations by a major American poet, personally I’d consider my $11 could be better spent on a collection like Sam Hamill’s The Sound of Water, a small book that cost me $4.98 and includes poems like Basho’s

Seas slowly darken
and the wild duck’s plaintive cry
grows faintly white.

or, one of my favorites, particularly since I happen to keep this small volume by the toilet, Buson’s:

Nobly the great priest
deposits his daily stool
in bleak winter fields.

More Dumb Luck

Perhaps my favorite poem in Sam Hamill’s Dumb Luck is the poem “Dumb Luck” itself, but I’m not going to discuss it here. I’ll just say that it might be worth the price of the book all by itself.

In light of yesterday’s entry on technology, I decided that this poem was more appropriate:


I never wanted
a cell phone or electronic
mail, a Cadillac
or a limousine to cruise
the Information Highway.

A dusty back road
through obdurate relics of
is where I’ve built my retreat.
Give me a California

Job Drawer, a press
I can ink by hand, cotton
fiber paper made
by hand in France, Italy
or Japan, and let me be.

I like the feel of
the poem as it takes shape
in my hands, the smell
of damp paper, oil, type wash,
the hum and clunk of the press.

Technology is,
of itself, neither good nor
evil, but bequeaths
and reveals what’s in the heart
already: whether pine breeze

or voracious
appetite. It’s not that I
reject the comforts
of modern technology-
I want my running water,

a warm house in deep winter.
More is not better-
not always. The marketplace
attracts a gaggle of thieves.

Rats seek the rice bowl.
I’ve spent a lifetime getting
a little out of
line, content with solitude,
half a recluse, a throwback,

building with my hands
this little Buddhist retreat
we named Kage-an,
Shadow Hermitage, under
the dark cedars of the North-

west coast. This is not
a retreat from the world’s ways,
as some Buddhists think,
but an entryway, a door
opening on the real world.

I keep things simple
in my hands and heart. I was,
from the start, a fool-
stubborn, happy in my work,
making a gift no one wants

and giving it all
away. I still remember
the first time I heard
a single alder leaf fall
through autumn trees, a click, click

as it tumbled down.
You can’t give away that sound.
You can hold the moon
between your hands, but you can’t
hold it long. The simple fact

of poetry is
astonishment enough. That
and life’s ironies
duly noted as I write
this epistle on my Mac.

Now, I know few of you are old enough to have ever set real type, but I took a printing class in junior high and must admit a certain fondness for the feel of lead type. When you’re setting type by hand you’re more apt to limit the special effects because of the extra work required, especially trying to fit in the extra ems and ens.

Though I’ve never built my own house, I have built most of my furniture and enjoy the feeling of having made a house my own. I’d certainly agree, as noted before, that “More is not better-/not always.” Anyone trying to keep his blog free of spam would certainly understand “Rats seek the rice bowl.”

If I didn’t agree with Hamill that “The simple fact/of poetry is/ astonishment enough” I would never have devoted so much time to it in this web site.

Of course the line that really convinced me I had to quote this poem is “That/ and life’s ironies/ duly noted as I write/ this epistle on my Mac” since, as everyone who reads me knows, I write all of these entries on my Mac.

Although I sometimes find myself wishing that Hamill’s poetry was more lyrical, I’m also surprised how often I find myself saying “right on” when I read his poems. Our interests and attitudes are so similar that I’m sometimes tempted to drive a little ways up the road to Port Townsend and hunt him down just to say hello.

Of course, being an INTP that’s an unlikely scenario, and personally I wouldn’t want to get arrested for being a stalker, not just a fellow poetry lover.

Sam Hamill’s Dumb Luck

I’ve decided to take a break from Chinese and Japanese poetry and refocus on Western poetry for awhile. Luckily, Sam Hamill’s Dumb Luck makes the transition rather easy. If you’ve been following for awhile, you might remember that I discussed several of Hamill’s translations, and this volume of his own poems, like the previous one I discussed, also contains a number of translations.

The book is divided into four sections. Section one includes poems that generally seem written in the western tradition, though a number of my favorites include allusions to Eastern poems as does this one:


As Chuang Tzu would say
when some good Confucian talked
about righteousness
and virtue, “Not quite there yet,
eh?” knowing that words can say

only so much, that
behind the words are more words,
and more behind those.
What the old man understood
is that each word names, and by

naming, it divides:
this from that and on and on.
But the Tao is one.
What is good is good for whom?
Do dogs have Buddha nature?

Say yes or say no,
and Buddha nature is gone.
The practice refines
itself. All the words I’ve loved
so many years? Going, gone.

Buddha nature, Tao,
the practice of poetry-
going, going, gone.
Present mind and future mind
lie beyond what is contained.

What mind do we bring
to the poem or to bed?
Stuck in samsara,
dreaming of truth and virtue,
just who is that butterfly,

just who is that man
who says again with a grin
and shake of the head,
“Struggle and judgment and pain-
still not quite there yet, eh?”

Having just spent most of the summer focusing on Chinese and Japanese literature, references to Chuang Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha all take on a new meaning, one that relates directly to the paradoxical nature of trying to write about Buddhism. Each word attempts to describe a small segment of “reality;” words are by their very nature “divisive.” How, then, can one use them to convey the idea of the underlying unity of our world?

And in the end, of course, no matter how much I read once I am drawn back to the “real” world, and particularly the world of politics, I find myself muttering “still not quite there yet, eh?”

Still unsure whether I want to shut out the whole world of politics or, like some Buddhist monk protesting the Vietnam war, sacrifice myself to help create a world that I would want to live in.

The second section of the book is entitled Lives of a Poet: Saigyo’s Soiitude. My favorite poem in this section is:

On the clear mirror,
just a single speck of dust.
And yet we see it
before all else, our poor world
having come to what it is.

Although I suspect that there are more than a few specks of dust on my mirror, it’s good to be reminded that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from our original purpose by those imperfections. If we are, we will forget that the purpose of the mirror is to reflect ourselves so that we can see ourselves as we truly are and continue our journey of becoming.

Hamill’s A Dragon in the Clouds

Although I didn’t like Sam Hamill’s A Dragon in the Clouds nearly as much as I did Margaret Chula’s Grinding My Ink, I did enjoy reading this short collection of Chinese and Japanese inspired poetry.

My favorite poem in the book is, as I understand it, a translation of Ryokan’s

I never longed for the wilder side of life
Rivers and mountains were my friends.

Clouds consumed my shadow where I roamed,
and birds pass high above my resting place.

Straw sandals in snowy villages,
a walking stick in spring,

I sought a timeless truth: the flowers’ glory
is just another form of dust.

It may be that the poem merely provides a nice contrast to these hectic days of getting ready for Christmas, but I suspect that this particular poem holds a much deeper truth for me than that.

The first two lines could perhaps serve as a succinct summary of my own life, and the next two lines describe most of the mountains I hike here in the Pacific Northwest. While I have never hiked in the snow with my sandals, I have hiked many a mile around Mt Hood in them, with and without my hiking stick. It’s the last two lines, though, that come closest to conveying my life-long spiritual journey.

Though I think I found Hamill’s “translations” most inspiring, I did find a number of his original poems interesting, too. My favorite it is probably:

Wanting one good organic line
I wrote a thousand sonnets

Wanting a little peace,
I folded a thousand cranes.

Every discipline a new evasion;
every crane a dodge:

Basho didn’t know a thing about water
until he heard the frog.

It’s obvious that Hamill and I share some common goals, and we’ve even attempted to attain those goals using some of the same techniques. I’ve practice origami and sumi painting not so much for their own sake but to learn a self-discipline I often find lacking in myself, only to discover that these attempts at self-discipline were more apt to be an escape from boredom, an indulgence in “newness,” than a path to true enlightenment.

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