Friday, April 05, 2013

Haiku in the morning

I dug a battered cardboard box out of the shed a few days ago. Written on the side was the word Poetry.

I'd been looking for this box and now I've found it.

I unpacked my old books and stood them on the shelves near my reading chair. Sort out the Gary Snyder in one section, William Carlos Williams in another.  Then the haiku.

I have the habit of starting the day with a mindful cup of coffee and some random reading.  I grab a book from my shelf and turn to any page. I try to read the poems with a mindful focus. I'd been reaching for books that weren't there.  Now they are.

Just this morning I was reading about the life and work of the great Japanese Haiku poet Issa.  I was introduced to this form, and Issa in particular by my high school English teacher Denis Huckaby. Now, fifty years later the echo of that first discovery is still faintly ringing my inner ear.

I do not memorize poetry.  I have no facility for remembering verse.  However I do have one Issa down pat:

Oh snail,
Climb Mt. Fuji
But Slowly, Slowly

That's my memory of it.  I was pleased to see this Haiku referenced in a Wikipedia article about Issa.

"One of Issa's haiku, as translated by R.H. Blyth, appears in J. D. Salinger's 1961 novel, Franny and Zooey:
O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
The same poem, in Russian translation, served as an epigraph for Snail on the Slope (published 1966–68), by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, also providing the novel's title."
Give or take a little punctuation and I seem to have recalled it quite accurately.

The book I pulled from my shelf is an ancient college text called An Introduction To Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki.  I was amused to see the book is still in print and available from Amazon with used copies from only 1 penny.

My edition, complete with scribbled notes from my days as an English major at Berkeley is worth far more than a penny  (to me).

Skimming the selection of translations I came across my one memorized poem, translated by Henderson:

Snail, my little man,
  slowly, oh, very slowly
    climb up Fujisan!

The literal translation is included:

Katatsuburi | soro | soro | nobore | Fuji-no-yama
     snail  | slowly  | slowly | climb-up | Fuji-mountain

50 years ago Mr. Huckaby gave me a haiku assignment.  I went to North Hollywood Park, across from the library and wrote a dozen haiku as I sat with my back against a very old eucalyptus tree.  I was hooked on catching 17 syllable moments.

Later at Berkeley I wrote another sequence (featuring Katatsuburi) that got me a conversation with the instructor. This long gone teacher, name forgotten, was larger than life to me. He was poet, a teacher and a former Montana smoke jumper ready to dive into forest fire hot-spots.  I wish he'd been Gary Snyder.

But he wasn't.

When I was solo climbing, I'd some time think of Issa's stead slow climbing snail.

On long up hill slogs with a full pack
I'd pace myself with a climber's rest step,
chant gaining Sierra elevation.

I learned from my resurrected Haiku text that Issa was also a trained artist who often signed his brush work '... and Issa too."

Henderson mentions an atypical Issa haiku "written in very pompous and old-fashioned 'epistolary " language (sorobum), which was then commonly only used in stage performances. "

He who appears
   before you now--is the Toad
       of this Thicket.

Henderson goes on to explain that the position of a sitting toad is like the one assumed by Japanese when they squat on the floor for a formal greeting. He concludes with a description of a painting of a famous frog like theater manager who was a contemporary of Issa, Miyako Dennai III.  (I know a killer keyword sequence when I see it.)

This is the picture:

I love how the Internet makes it possible to see the arcane and obscure.  All you need are the questions and the keywords.

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