A Hard Rain

Over the last few years, I’ve been watching and contemplating a revival of the Civil Rights Movement. And while I have not been silent, I have also wanted to be sure I knew my song well before I started singing, because the hard rains are gonna fall. We are entering a hard, painful, trying time in our history, religiously, nationally and culturally. We are trying to heal a divide that has existed for millennia, and the hard truth is that none of us will live to see it fully healed.

I am 72 years old. I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Jim Crow had to die. The struggle was long and hard. People bled and died in the struggle. Friendships and families were broken. Hearts were broken. And people were called upon to see their worlds differently. Not everyone could do that, though more could than couldn’t.

By about 1970, many of us, mostly Euro-American, thought that the work was essentially finished. We thought that all that remained was working out the details and correcting the oversights. We thought the world had changed. We were, of course, wrong. What was changed was the law, not the souls of the Euro-American people. And that is the task we face today: changing the soul of white America. What we are being called to do is to let go of a consciousness that we do not even know we have.

Before it will be possible for white privilege/white supremacy to evaporate into no privilege at all, the world that we Euro-Americans build out of our deep and unknowing racial consciousness, must die that a new world can be built. This cannot happen without struggle. It cannot happen without people being offended, hurt, and angered. It cannot happen without good and well-intentioned people saying things that are wrong, misunderstood, offensive.

Some will insist that things are moving far too slowly, that they cannot wait because people are dying. Some will insist that things are moving far to fast, that they cannot change their consciousness that quickly. Both will be right.

This is a time when compassion and strength will often be in conflict, because all of us will be called to do what we cannot do. Our compassion will sometimes fail, and our strength will sometimes fail.

There will be times when we want to throw up our hands n despair and give in to the violence that lurks with the hearts and souls of all of us, kept in check only by our commitment to a greater love and a cleansed world. And sometimes we will question that very commitment.

Each of us will falter and stumble sometimes. When that happens, may we have the humility to reach out to those strong hands and hearts walking beside us. And each of us will sometimes be the strong and the faithful. In those times, may we reach back to those who falter and stumble.

The newer, cleaner, just world call us, though it is over the horizon. The journey to that world is long and hard and filled with stumbling blocks. And the hard rain is falling. It stings our eyes and threatens to blind us. But that world is there. Its song calls us onward.




Stiff with death, last summer’s corn
Rattles as a breeze invites it to dance.
As aimless as fog, I wander through the field
To a marsh at its edge. My heart is empty.

The marsh is cold and lonely, the color of fall.
The breeze drifts through broken cattails.
A flock of starlings has settled into the rushes,
Each bird speaking its own complaint.

All is silence except for the rattling corn,
The shaking cattails, the complaining birds.
Afternoon falls, silently and deliberately,
Carefully into evening. My heart shivers.

Shattering the silence, a distant dog barks.
My heart stops like music reaching a cadence.

Shards of birds explode out of the marsh.
They gather into a flock that comes alive.
It turns on itself, each bird knowing
What to do and when to do it.

Obeying unspeakable commands from no one,
The flock whirls and weaves, twirls,
Makes undulant patterns in the sky,
Birds moving together, many and one.

I stand on the edge of the marsh watching:
This living flock, these birds,
This air, these unspoken patterns.
The dog barks again. The flock returns.

The gateless gate opens.

On Unearned Privilege

Something happened Thursday within Unitarian Universalism that has the potential to shake our foundations. The President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA) resigned just three months before the end of his term of office. Now, this might appear to be no big deal. “So? The President of the UUA resigned a little early. So what?” The big deal is that this resignation is actually the tip of a much larger iceberg. It is an expression of something that has been a wound in our religious body politic I assume for as long as there have been Unitarian and Universalist churches, but certainly since 1961 when the two denominations merged to form the UUA.

The issue behind the visible issue is unearned privilege: unearned white, male, straight, cis-gendered privilege. Like so many institutions in America, especially churches, unearned privilege seethes in our ranks. It is usually barely noticed and unaddressed. The controversy that led to the President’s resignation centered on unearned privilege in hiring UUA staff. This, though, is only one expression of unearned privilege in our movement.

I have spent the past 10 years researching slavery and my family’s involvement in it, and in the course of that research, I have learned a lot about unearned privilege. Among other things, I have learned that unearned privilege is nearly invisible to the privileged but painfully obvious to unprivileged. As an example, unearned privilege is part of the sea we Euro-Americans swim in. As a result, it is very difficult for us to see this water. For some, it is impossible. But people of color swim in a different sea, and they see our privilege every day of their lives.

The typical reaction to being called out on unearned privilege is first to be defensive, denying any privilege and trying to point out why it can’t possibly be true. Then we try to explain everything we have done to counter the oppression in question. And finally, we start to attack the person calling us out, using increasingly aggressive language. And finally we walk away angry, mystified, feeling misunderstood and unappreciated.

How do I know this is how people react when called out on unearned privilege? Because I have seen it in myself more often than I want to admit. This is how I have reacted over and over, and this is what I constantly struggle to overcome. And, struggling with it in myself, I have learned to see it in others.

So what happened at the UUA Thursday? Precisely this drama was acted out over a period a few weeks. A top leadership staff position came open, and the short list contained two fully qualified candidates. One was a white, male, minister; the other was a Latina, female, lay Director of Religious Education. The white male minister was hired. Reaction to this hiring was been loud, careful, and articulate.

It was clearly pointed out that the reaction was not at all about the person who was hired. He is fully qualified, and he will do a fine job. No one has any qualms about that. The reaction was about how this hire perpetuates a pattern of discriminatory hiring, especially at the upper levels of the UUA staff. The UUA was being called out on unearned privilege, and discussion swirled for a couple of weeks. And then the UUA President joined the fray and acted in exactly the manner I described above. The response to his behavior was quick and sure, and Thursday he resigned.

The reason that this has the potential to shake our foundations is that there is a pattern in our congregations when controversy arises. The pattern is quite simple. Someone is offended or hurt by something they see happening and speaks out. In response, there is a flurry of expressed concern, breast-beating and promises to deal with the issue. But then the flurry dies down; the breast-beating stops; and the promises are forgotten. And nothing happens. The congregation has managed to ignore the issue by pretending to address it.

Essentially the same thing happens at every level of our structure. But this time we have the opportunity to change that pattern. Our Bylaws state that when there is a vacancy in the Presidency, the Board will fill the vacancy until a new President is elected. The Board’s next regular meeting is in about three weeks. So a new President will be appointed by late this month. Since the next regularly scheduled election for President will occur this June, this appointed President, whoever it is, will be a caretaker. On July 1 we will have a newly elected President.

Both the appointed interim President and the new President have the opportunity to open a genuine conversation about how unearned privilege is expressed in our movement and to act to correct it. And that would shake our foundations to a fair-you-well. One of the Presidential candidates has already published what she would do about this were she elected. I call on the other two candidates to do the same.

We have an opportunity to make major changes in the ways that we Unitarian Universalists carry out our mission. Let us not simply fall back into to old patterns that do nothing to heal injustice within our own ranks.

無 Thoughts on Joshu’s Dog

The first koan most beginning students are given is Joshu’s Dog: two monks were arguing about whether or not the dog has Buddha-nature. Unable to reach an agreement, they decided to ask their Roshi, Joshu. Joshu looked at them and grunted “Mu!”

A koan is not so much to be understood as it is to be grasped, and that is a matter strictly between the student and the Roshi or Sensei. And so while an intellectual analysis can be helpful it is not the same thing as grasping the koan. This, for what it is worth, is my understanding.

To begin with, this “Mu” is untranslatable into English, because it is not really a word since it has no independent meaning. Rather it is what linguists call a negating particle, because it turns a positive statement into a negative. Some Indo-European languages have such a thing. Russian is a good example. But, alas, English does not. At least formal English does not. Perhaps the very informal version of English that allows double negatives has something similar, as in “He don’t know nuthin’.” So how are we to understand Joshu?

At one level, he appears to be agreeing with one of the monks that the dog has no Buddha-nature. But how could that be? A basic Buddhist teaching is that the only thing that is real is Buddha-nature. So either the dog is not real, or it must have (or is nothing but) Buddha-nature. Surely Joshu knew that perfectly well. So what is he saying to his monks?

I ask myself what it is that Joshu is Mu-ing. Is it that basic Buddhist doctrine? Seems unlikely to me. What then is it? Let’s go back to those hapless monks. Seems to me they are falling into an unfortunate dualism on at least two levels. First they are assuming that one of them must be right and the other wrong. Dualism. But suppose right and wrong are both equally beside the point. Suppose being right is irrelevant. What then? Mu!

Now, consider the two monks separately. The one who claims that the dog does not have Buddha-nature clearly thinks that there is Buddha-nature and there is the dog, two different things. Dualism. What about the other, the one who says that the dog has Buddha-nature? This monk also assumes that there is a distinction. Why? Because to have something that thing must be different whatever it is that has it. I have an eye; I have a nose; I have a house; I even have a lovely little dog. They are all different from me. But I do not have myself; I am myself. So both monks are assuming there is a distinction between the dog and Buddha-nature. Dualism. But suppose there is no such distinction. Suppose the dog and Buddha-nature are the same thing. What then? Mu!

I suggest that Joshu is mu-ing the whole argument as pointless, not an effective means of achieving Enlightenment. Forget about right and wrong. Forget about the dog. Forget about the monks. Forget everything but Mu. And learn to Mu whatever appears to be this and that. In fact, Mu even Mu.

Into my own pond,
Old Bashō’s frog—

To Honor the Dishonorable

There is a problem I have been wrestling with for many years. One of the refrains I hear over and over among people working for racial reconciliation is the necessity of honoring the ancestors and the insistence that the ancestors are helping us in our work, especially in the unraveling the intricacies of enslavement and its genetic and cultural legacy.

Well, let me tell you a little about my ancestors. The earliest any of them arrived in the New World was 1609, when a young ship’s carpenter’s apprentice named John Powell arrived in Jamestown aboard the Swallow. Thus began my mother’s family history. The first Collier, Isaac Collier, arrived in York County, Virginia about 1655, and just about the first thing he did was to establish a plantation. His grandson, Charles Collier, purchased 350 acres nearby in what is now part of Langley/NASA and established his own plantation there. I am directly descended from this Charles Collier.

The Colliers enslaved Africans and African Americans from the very beginning until Emancipation in 1865, and my grandfather’s cousin was actively involved in Jim Crow activity in the 1920s. As far as I can tell for sure, the Powells did not hold anyone in slavery until the late 18th or early 19th century. Benjamin Powell, my 4th great grandfather willed several enslaved people to his son, George Cader Powell, in 1833. And somewhere along this line, some Sub-Saharan genes entered my gene pool.

The legacy of this slaveholding is a line of racism running through my family. The most virulent post-Emancipation racists that I have actually encountered were my paternal grandmother and an uncle by marriage, but I have no reason to believe that the others, all of whom benefitted from both slavery and Jim Crow laws and practices, did not share some degree of this racism. The first people of whom I am sure fought against it were my parents. Yet, of course, they had an enormous uphill battle and never completely overcame the racism they grew up with.

And here is my problem. My ancestors were not honorable people. One was so cruel that his enslaved people rose up and murdered him, slowly to insure that he suffered. So how do I honor these dishonorable ancestors, these ancestors whom I see as undeserving of honor? How does one honor the dishonorable?

Last night a solution to the problem occurred to me. Anne and I were watching the film “Amistad” for about the third time. Shortly before the hearing before the Supreme Court, Cinque speaks eloquently about his ancestors, and says that the line of his ancestors all the way back will stand with him and help as they can because he is the culmination of their line. They act in history through him, and they are honored by his honorable actions and life.

And there is my answer. My ancestors’ crimes against humanity (and what else is slavery but a crime against humanity?) cry out for redress, for atonement, for being set to rest. When I was very young and she was very old, I met that last living person to have been enslaved by my family. She died in 1961 “about 100 years old”. And so neither my ancestors nor the people they enslaved are still living. So how can these crimes be atoned for? And by whom?

By me. The task falls to me, and this why I am called so powerfully to work for racial reconciliation. My ancestors call out from beyond the grave for me to atone for their crimes, and I honor them by confessing my family’s sins and working to repair the damage they inflicted on so many people. I think again of my racist grandmother whose hatred was so deep that I am sure she did not even acknowledge the humanity of people of color. How can I forgive her for the racism she planted in my heart? I forgive her by working to erase the very racism she embraced.

When I talk about my family’s slaveholding history, I can count on being told that it’s not my fault or my responsibility because I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. So I should get over my guilt trip. My response is that this misses the point entirely. Of course I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. But I am responsible to my descendants and to my culture to extinguish the legacy of despair and racist hatred that my ancestors handed on to me. And now I realize that I am also responsible to my ancestors to expiate the guilt and shame their actions created.

I know that I will not be able to erase the hatred of racism entirely, and that realization can be a temptation to freeze and do nothing. But if I give in to that temptation, then I dishonor my own ancestors, and I dishonor those they enslaved and their descendants. And I dishonor my own children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. I dare not do that, for then I take on my own guilt. I cannot do it all, but I commit myself to do whatever it is that I can do. For to do nothing would be a crime before God and against humanity.

The Theodicy of Endo’s “Silence”

St. Francis Xavier travelled to Japan in the mid 16th century and began a successful missionary movement. In 1582 it was estimated that there were about 200,000 Christians in Japan. This new religion was tolerated at first, at least in part because the Spanish and Portuguese traders that came with the missionaries also brought lucrative trade. But it did not last.

When the Tokugawa shogunate took power in the early 17th century, the Shoguns began to be uncomfortable with Christianity. They saw how the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese were colonizing China and Korea, and worried that if Christianity continued to grow the same thing could happen to Japan. And so in 1614 all Catholic missionaries were expelled, though a few priests were allowed to remain. Lay Christians were required to swear at least nominal allegiance to the shogunate by registering at a local Buddhist temple.

This was the beginning of the end, though. The colonization of China and Korea continued. The French joined the Spanish and Portuguese, and the Protestant English and Dutch were just as aggressive. And so, by the mid 17th century all forms of Christianity was outlawed, all missionaries and many lay Christians were expelled. Any remaining Christians who refused to renounce their religion were executed. This persecution drove the few remaining Christians underground where they remained until Commodore Perry force Japan to re-open itself to trade in 1853.

In the 1960s Shusaku Endo, reflecting on this history, asked himself what a Jesuit priest would encounter if he smuggled himself into Japan in about 1640s, after the Tokugawas forced Christianity underground. The result was what most critics rank as his masterpiece, the novel Silence. Martin Scorsese has made the novel into, as they say, a major motion picture. I have not seen the film and so I have nothing to say about it. The novel, though, is a different story. It is a wonderful book.

Endo’s main character, the Jesuit priest Father Rodrigues, smuggles himself and a colleague into Japan. Eventually he is captured and is forced to watch as believers are tortured and executed in the most heinous ways. Much of the book is taken up in his agonized reflections on God’s silence. How can God permit such evil to continue? Why does He not intervene? Where is God’s love, God’s justice? Does not His very silence condemn Him as complicit in the evil? Yet how can God be evil? How can we understand the extreme silence of God?

Endo is hardly the first to turn these questions into great literature. Think of the silence of Christ in the face of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Think of the enormous literature of The Holocaust that wrestles with the very possibility of religion in the face of the silence of God. “Where is God?” is Elie Wiesel’s agonized question in Night, and the haunting answer comes “There. On the scaffold.”

In the early 1970s Wiesel and the French composer Darius Milhaud collaborated in writing the oratorio Ani Maamin. The Three Patriarchs confront God with The Holocaust, yet God remains silent. Each tells a story of suffering and after each story, God remains silent. When they are finished, a voice demands of them,

Does not God have the right
To question you, in turn,
To ask of man:
What have you done with my creation?

They are dumbfounded and return to Earth. This time they see faith, infinite hope, flourishing in the midst of suffering. They do not realize that God has come with them, and weeps for the faith of the Jewish people. The oratorio closes with an affirmation:

I believe in you
Even against your will.
Even if you punish me
For believing in you.
Blessed are the fools
Who shout their faith.
Blessed are the fools
Who go on laughing,
Who mock the man who mocks the Jews,
Who help their brothers
Singing, over and over:
Ani maamin. [I believe.]

At the end of Silence, Rodrigues wrestles one final time with God and says, “Lord, I resented your silence.” And God answers, “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” This is also Wiesel’s answer. Rodrigues is comforted by the realization that even Judas suffered. Even Judas was in anguish. Even those who desecrate God’s creation, in their very acts of evil, suffer. And God suffers with them. The books ends with Rodrigues saying to himself, “…Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this point would have spoken of him.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said this: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” This infinite hope, I suggest, is the very essence of faith. Both Endo and Wiesel, out of their own traditions, are telling us that it is, ultimately, the answer to the apparent silence of God. I agree with them. Read the book.

Thoughts on Getting Old

Life after death does not much interest me. It will be what it will be, and, as I wrote last time, I am content to let it take care of itself. This life is enough for me. Or, as Thoreau, I believe it was, said, one life at a time. Death, on the other hand, is another matter. If life interests me—and it does—then surely its end should also interest me. And it does.

I am currently re-reading Steinbeck’s marvelous novel, East of Eden. (Why most critics think Grapes of Wrath is his best novel is beyond me. But then maybe that why I’m not a critic.) East of Eden is one of those novels you—or at least I—have to read and re-read and then read once again. Every time I read it, it is a new novel. The first time I read it, I read it through the eyes of the young men, the young Adam and Charles, the young Samuel Hamilton, the young Lee, Aron and Caleb. Then I read it through the eyes of the middle-aged parents, middle aged Lee and Adam and Samuel. This time I am reading through the eyes of the aging Samuel Hamilton and, when I get to that section, the aging Lee.

The other night I read Chapter 23, sections 2 and 3, and it made me cry. This is the passage in the novel when Samuel realizes that he is getting old and that his days are numbered. There is a big family re-union at his “worthless” farm. (We in California would call it a ranch.) As hosting all such event does, it requires a lot of work and takes a lot out of Samuel. He exhausts himself and goes to bed before his children. Steinbeck writes, “He was puzzled at himself, not that he had to go to bed but that he wanted to.” (Page 282 in my edition—the scholar in me won’t quite let go!) His children then realize what has happened and what it means. And that is when I cried.

It surprised me. I may have cried at this section before because of the beautiful and tender writing. This time it was different. The beautiful writing was still there, to be sure. But this time, reading it through Samuel’s eyes, I saw what he saw. (And isn’t that the point of all great fiction, to lead people to see through eyes expanded by the eyes of the novel’s characters, these newly created people who will live far beyond our few years?) This time I saw my own life beginning to edge close to its conclusion, as Samuel’s life began to edge to its end. I am approaching my 72nd birthday. (March 26—and I expect all of you to wish me Happy Birthday!).

My parents are buried in the cemetery that surrounds the church in which I grew up. Several years ago I visited their graves and found myself wandering through the cemetery, looking at the graves of people I knew. My sister-in-law. Her parents. A few others. There are people buried there who I knew as young, as middle-aged, or as elderly. At least one was in high school with me when he died. Suddenly I realized that I was seeing the graves of people I thought of as old when I was a growing up, and yet they were younger than I am now when they died. It was a shock.

I have no idea how much longer I will live. None of us does. But when we are young and when we are middle aged, our death always seems remote, out there, real but not very, an abstraction. At my age, that changes. Now, I fully expect to live another 15 to 20 years. It could be less, and it could be more. Of course. And most of those years I expect to be productive in one way or another. There are the books I am writing, and there are the others that I expect to write. Now though, the writing of them begins to seem more important than the publishing of them.

I have performed all if my children’s weddings, and I dearly love watching their lives unfolding over the years and becoming real apart from me. I love even more dearly watching my grandchildren growing from infancy into adulthood. I have every expectation of holding great-grandchildren in my arms eventually, welcoming them into this beautiful world, and wishing them the love of life that I have known.

And we all know where this leads. Age beckons. I cannot hold my great-grandchildren in my arms and be 25 years old. I will be somewhere between 75 and 85 before I hold the first of these beautiful children. And the chances of them actually remembering me is minimal. And that it as it should be.

I have lived a life surrounded by the love of more people than I can even imagine. They have all taught me how to love, how the myriads ways of love weave a harmony of such glorious music that it enthralls us and enraptures us and reveals to us something of the divine within each of us. What a gift life has given me! If I could thank personally each person who has loved me I would have to live to be a very old man indeed. It would take me that long, and even then I would never be finished. But the dearest of you know who you are, and you know how deeply grateful I am and how deeply I love you.

I love this life and this beautiful world. And even as I love it, I know that the time will come for me to leave it, to pass it on completely. I have swum through life in a sea of love and beauty. No matter how it is that I may die, I will die into that love and beauty. And that is enough for me.

Why I Don’t Worry about R-Incarnation

A lot of people seem to think about re-incarnation from what strikes me as an egoist point of view. Consider. When considering future lives, they seem to think that when this body dies, my ego will go forward into the future and be reborn into another body. But I will still be I, only within a different body, a body answering to the name of, let us say, Griffith Powell living in Corwen, North Wales, in the 22nd century.

When considering past lives, people seem to think in essentially the same way. This ego that is inhabiting my current body used to inhabit a different body, a body answering to the name of, let us say, Pavel Grigorevich Ivanov, living in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 17th century. But this Pavel Grigorevitch is still me.

Griffith and Pavel Grigorevich are just a little confused about whom they really are. They think they are somebody else, but they are really me, me in disguise if you like. It is not that I am Pavel Grigorevich in a future life but that Pavel Grigorevich is me in a past life. By the same token, it is not that I am Griffith in a past life but that Griffith is me in a future life. Somehow this way of thinking doesn’t strike me as very likely. I’m reasonably sure neither Griffith nor Pavel Grigorevich would see it that way.

Now consider the Buddhists insight that there is no enduring ego. What we call “I” is just another thing that comes together and so will also come apart. Whatever “I” am, “I” will no more survive than will this living body that I call mine. This makes sense to me, and it is on this that I build my view of death.

But Buddhists also seem to put great store by re-incarnation. If “I” has no enduring reality, how can there be any re-incarnation? They must think about it differently. Consider this metaphor. Your ego, your self, is a burning candle. As you live your life, it leans now this way and now that way, slowly approaching another, unburning, candle. You get closer and closer to that other candle, and at the moment of your death, your flame ignites the other candle and then goes out.

“What about Karma?” I can imagine someone asking. “How does karma fit into this candle metaphor?” First, contrary to popular opinion, karma, I think, is not about what goes around coming around. It is about the direction of one’s life. At the risk of pushing the metaphor to the breaking point, karma, I think, is what determines the direction one’s candle happens to be leaning. This way; that way; another way; it’s all about the karma one builds up until eventually, at one’s death, one’s karma pushes one’s candle all the way to another candle and ignites that new candle.

Clearly, like all metaphors, this has its limitations, but consider. Is the flame in that new candle the same flame as the flame in the old one, or is it a new flame entirely? And even more important, why does it matter? Why does any of this matter? What difference does it make what metaphor of death moves you?

So far, so Buddhist, eh? But wait. There’s more. One hears Buddhists saying that Life and Death is The Great Issue. Yet I have found all this concern about re-birth, re-incarnation, karma, and the like is simply so much idle speculation and not a skillful means at all. After all, none of this is something that any of us will ever know anything about, at least not until we actually do die. So why worry about any of it?

It seems to me far more important to direct my attention to this very life I am leading right now, this very moment. Is it not more important to direct my attention to leading an authentic life as I am living it and rather than to worry about whatever may or may not happen next or what may have happened previously? I’m afraid Griffith and Pavel Grigorevich will just have to take care of themselves, as, of course, they will whether or not I waste any time thinking about them.

Instead, I am impressed with what Christians call prayer without ceasing and Zen Buddhists call sitting while not sitting. This, it seems to me, is what it means to live an authentic life: to break the wall between spiritual practice and day-to-day living, making of every act an act of spiritual practice, every word spoken or even thought a prayer, every breath a meditation. To the extent that I do that, what possible worries might I have about death? And to the extent that I do not, shouldn’t this be where I exert my effort?

Why You Can’t Write Haiku in English

Have you ever noticed how the best translations of haiku often pay little attention the conventions of writing haiku? Seventeen syllables? Who’s counting? Three lines? Who needs ‘em? Consider this translation by Kenneth Rexroth of a haiku by Basho (from his book One Hundred Poems from the Japanese):

Autumn evening—
A crow on a bare branch.

Only twelve syllables and two lines. Or this from the same book, a haiku by Issa:

In my life
As in the twilight
A bell sounds.
I enjoy the freshness of evening.

Twenty syllables and four lines!

So what’s happening here? Japanese poetry is very rule directed, but its rules and conventions evolved out of the structure of the Japanese language. As a result the rules don’t make a lot of sense when taken directly over into another language, say English. Why? Because some of these rules and conventions are built on structures that have no counterpart in English.

Consider, for example, the use of what are called pillow words. A pillow word is a little bit like a euphemism in that it is used in place of another word. Unlike a euphemism, however, a pillow word is not intended to lessen the impact of the avoided word. “She passed away” hits us rather more gently than “she died.”

A pillow word is very different. It has well known and recognized associations with the word it replaces, and so it suggests the power of both words while using only one. For example, ashibiki, tiring to the feet, is a pillow word for yama, mountain. The skillful use of the first in a poem instead of the second invokes the fatigue of climbing a mountain. There is nothing even remotely like this in English, and so the power of the pillow word just disappears in translation.

And so it goes. Very few of the principles, even the core principle of the correct number of syllables, do not come over unblemished into English. This is not all that strange, when you consider how radically different English is from Japanese. Thinking in the other direction, how would you write a sonnet in Japanese? Since almost all syllables in Japanese end in a vowel, rhyme is unrecognized. It is almost automatic. And since there is very little difference in emphasis from one syllable to another, the strong rhythmic nature of English disappears. So where is your 14-line iambic pentameter poem with a regular rhyme scheme?

I would suggest that it is no more possible to write genuine haiku in English than it is to write a genuine sonnet in Japanese. And for the same reason: the structures and conventions of the two languages prevent it.

And yet people translate the one into the other. And yet people are moved by these translated haiku, at least the good translations. And yet, moved by those translations, people write, in English, what they call haiku, and many of these poems are also very moving. What’s going on here?

I think that what is going on here is that the form of a short, evocative poem exists in most, if not all, languages. Consider, for example, this famous one by Carl Sandburg:

The fog comes
On little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
And then moves on.

So all is not lost. I’d prefer that we not call such poems haiku, and I’d prefer that we not try to mimic the conventions of Japanese poetry in English. But maybe that’s just me. I don’t think of myself as doctrinaire or pompous, just careful. And I do want to encourage people to write their own short evocative poems however they wish to and to call them whatever they wish. Personally, I prefer the phrase “in the Japanese style”. Here are two of mine, taken from my recent book How To See Deer (available from Amazon or directly from me).

Pear blossoms in mid-winter
Falling as white as sea foam
Meditation bell rings

Raven in cedars;
Hoarse laughter;
Old bullfrog croaks.

Art and Structure

A couple of weeks ago, Anne and I attended a concert by Camerata Pacifica. The first part of the program was designed to illustrate how Bach’s fingerprints are all over music to this day. Appropriately, it began and ended with Bach, the 2 Part Invention in F Major, BWV 779 and the Trio Sonata in G Major, BWV 1038, at the beginning, and the Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue in d minor, BWV 903, at the end. In between there was Elliot Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello & Harpsichord and Henri Dutilleux’s Les Citations for Oboe, Harpsichord, Double Bass, & Percussion.

Now, I am not a great fan of Elliot Carter’s music, not on aesthetic grounds but as a matter of person taste. This hearing was different, though. Perhaps it was the lecture given before the concert by Adrian Spence, the Artistic Director of Camerata Pacifica, or maybe it was hearing it right after the Bach pieces. I don’t know why, but this time as I listened to the Carter, I began thinking about structure in music in particular and in art in general.

I was able to hear the structure of the Carter piece in ways that I had missed before. It was very different from the structure in Bach, but it was there, created not so much out of themes interlacing with one another or the movement from one key to another, but out the textural differences in the sounds of the instruments themselves. Carter revels in texture and creates structure in his music, or at least this music, by passing the sound around the instruments, sometimes in a pointillist fashion, sometimes by trading musical lines, sometimes in other ways.

Realizing this, I began to ask myself what creates structure in art, any art. I thought first of poetry and how critical structure is to poetry. Unstructured haiku is an oxymoron. Even E. E. Cummings’ poetry is highly structured, albeit it is often a rather playful and decidedly non-conventional structure. Consider this poem, for example:






If you unpack this you get

A leaf falls

Maybe, but there is little power in this version, little of the actual feel of loneliness. So instead of writing it this more conventional way, Cummings wraps the falling leaf around the word “loneliness”, and in doing so evokes the melancholy of autumn. The structure is not about syllables or the rhythmic or rhyming pattern of the words as in most poetry, but in the visual pattern of the poem itself on the page. Maybe structure is built out of pattern.

Then I thought of the Disney Concert Hall and realized that any pattern in the building is by suggestion only. As you look at the curves of the walls, you begin to realize that Gehry rarely repeats a curve. The structure emerges out of the flow of the curves, not so much out of the pattern of them as out of the fact of them.

But why is structure so essential to art? Could there be an entirely unstructured work of art? Could one legitimately call a random collection of words a poem? Could one call random notes scattered about in time music? How about paint splattered randomly on a canvass? Would that be art? Well, what about Jackson Pollock? Isn’t that exactly what he did?

Actually, no, it isn’t what he did even though a cursory look at his paintings might suggest otherwise. If you look carefully, you will see how there is texture, flow of color, even a kind of symmetry to his work. His paintings are actually highly structured, and I think it is that hidden structure that creates the impression of randomness, and therein lies the art. His art is about structurally created randomness.

I am convinced that without structure there is no art. It may be hidden or obvious; it may be conventional or avant-garde; it may be built out of the nature of the materials used to create the art or be imposed on those materials. But it is always there if we take the time and care to see it. Elliot Carter’s work is still not my cup of tea, but now I understand the art of his music.