Koi for Li-Po

Koif or Li-PoLi Po has been the best known Chinese poet in  Asia for about the last thousand years.  He was a huge influence on the haiku poets — and is credited with being the seminal influence in the language of Tanka and Haiku.  He was one of those wandering, searching poets who worshipped nature. He was so great a poet that there are volumes of poems by other poets proclaiming their devotion to him:

Today I laid bare before you
all things stored in my heart.

are the final lines from an anonymous poet in a verse dedicated to Li Po.  His poems are like an electrified arcing kite-string connecting him and Basho to modernist poets like Ezra Pound who was profoundly influenced by  the writings of the Chinese poets of the 6th and 7th centuries, but in particular, Li Po.

One must remember that Li Po was a poet of what was considered the cultural age of enlightenment in China; the 300 years or so that constituted the Tang Dynasty.  The greatist artistic attainments of this age were poetry.  There were no plawrights or novelists; only poets; and  there were poets up the wazoo.  As the quote goes, “If there was a man, he was a poet.” The Chinese  held poetry in very high regard, and Li Po was the best of the best back then. When one reads Basho, one cannot help but realize the restraint and acuity of Li-Po hovering over the totality of Basho’s output.  That one was Japanese and one Chinese and separated by a thousand years does not deter the idea of these two spirits being distant mirrors of the other.

My friend Beth Keegan taught Chinese for years at the Latin School and she is forever correcting me on the pronunciation of Li Po’s name.  She pronounces it “Li BOUGH” and ennunciates the second syllable as if it were two.  Those who revere Chinese writing are very protective of it. After reading Li Po, I  get it.  It is a cultural treasure; one largely forgotten and one that, regrettably, nobody gives a fuck about anymore.  It’s a shame.  There is such joy and earthy gratitude in Li Po’s, “To Tung Tsao-Chiu:”

And comlier still are the green eyebrows when the new
moon shines.
The  beautiful girls sing anew and dance in robes of thin silk.

Li Po liked a good time.  After writing a letter in which this verse appears, he “sends it a thousand miles, and years, remembering.”  It is lines like this that make me feel alive.

Published in: on October 3, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Shinjuku Sparrow

Shinjuku SparrowIn the Shinjuku district, there is most of the cool shopping in Japan, with bold graphics and bling everywhere.  You can walk by a window of a dizzying variety of Nike shoes, complete with every color of the swoosh one can imagine.  There are watches upon watches upon watches.  The weirdest ice-cream cones imaginable; not really cones the way we know them, more like sweet, thin wraps  stuffed with every kind of sweet cream and fruit and nuts and syrup.

Shinjuku is blinding color and motion, though not nearly as loud as other cities.  It is a culture of consumers, just like ours.  There are odd knock-offs of American products and Hello Kitty shit everywhere. I have to admit, I rather like the Hello Kitty stuff, as it is very comics-like.  There are a lot of young Japanese artists whose styles are greatly indebted to comics and manga.  It is the visual lingua-franca of their culture; much like comics, tattoos, Mad Magazine, and horror movies were for me.

As a kid, I remember having a Ratfink figure, one of those masterpieces of hot-rod culture that Big Daddy Roth gave us.  I was seven or eight and this was my favorite thing in the world.  I remember having to fight this oafish asshole who tried to take it from me on the playground.  Eddie Josephi tried to  grab it from me.  The prick. Needless to say, I left the playground with my Ratfink and Eddie ran home like a bitch with a bloody nose.

Shinjuku made me think of childhood a lot.  This part of town is very rooted in youth culture and you can find comics and books everywhere here and in the Chiyoda district, I found three volumes of gorgeous Japanese birds and paid a fortune for it and lugged the heavy bastards back to Chicago.  But what a score!  Whoever illustrated this book really loved birds.  As a kid, I drew birds incessantly.  Our yard was full of sparrows and finches and cardinals, red-wing blackbirds, and mourning doves.  The birds of Japan are exotic to me.  I don’t know a lot about them, and when I look in these books, it is like being there.  The parks are full of ravens and cranes and every kind of songbird.  In Ueno Park you can watch ravens gobble down cicadas in the late summer, and see cranes standing still as glass in the lagoon.  I think Japanese parks are quiet so one can hear the birds and the water.  In what little public space there is in Tokyo, nature is observed and revered.

Small ghost singing
In a Tokyo alley
Broken mirror songs.

Published in: on September 19, 2009 at 6:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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Bird of the Falling Planets

Bird Of The Falling Planets

In the Haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson, as well as other Japanese monks, there are sometimes passages about death. In fact, on their death-beds, most Haiku monks wrote “Death Poems” and many of them are haunting and beautiful and not at all sad. . .on the contrary. . .more often they are sublime affirmations of life.  The Chinese and Koreans also write death poems.  It is an ancient custom in Japan for literate persons to write a “jisei” on their death beds.

Poetry in Japan goes hand in hand with religious practice.  Haiku poets were almost always monks.  The poems were rooted in nature and emotionally neutral, with the spirituality of Shinto and Buddhist teachings being a thematically unifying element.

After the passing of my father I wrote about 50 Haiku.  They were, in my mind, his death poems.  My father wasn’t much on poetry, though for some reason he could recite The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by heart. I think maybe it was a sailor thing.

Many “jisei” are written before ceremonial Seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide).  In fact, Yukio Mishima, the great Japanese writer and playwright, wrote one before committing Seppuku.

I’ve written about 40 death poems, in case at the moment of the “big Adios,” I’m not feeling it.  I didn’t write them out of any morbid notion; just curiosity and the idea of being able to exercise an economy of words and emotions at the wet-ass hour.  I like this one:

Glad Reunion:
Me, Red Birds, White Flowers
And Falling Planets.

I always loved that the Japanese pared down the human experience to the idea that we are part of nature; no bigger in the universe than rocks, birds or flowers.  ‘m not a Buddhist, but of all of the religions (and I adhere to none of them)  they seem the most sane.  This one is funny too:

A bath when you’re born
A bath when you die
How Stupid.
– Unknown

I’m going to Japan in a couple of weeks.  I’m not sure what I am looking for; I just know I need to go there.  I’ve been reading Haiku most of my life.  I know about Edo (What Tokyo used to be called), I know about the gardens and temples, I know Ronin stories and the code of the Samurai, the honor. . . I’ve read the tale of Genji.

I’m 50 years old.  It is time to see an older world.

Published in: on July 17, 2009 at 10:13 am  Comments (1)  
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