Last week I introduced my Creative Writing students to haiku, and to something of Zen Buddhism, the religion which has been closely associated with the writing of haiku. I explained that I’d had a somewhat troubled relationship with both Zen and the haiku artform.
Intrigued by the writing of Richard Von Sturmer, and by his earlier contributions to New Zealand film and music, I enrolled, a few years ago, in a short course in meditation at the Auckland Zen Centre, which Richard and his wife manage. I found myself sitting with my legs uncomfortably folded facing a brick wall, a few inches from the tattooed biceps of a young man who explained that he had decided to learn to meditate because he was “tired of getting so angry all the time”. As soon as we began our first exercise in meditation the angry man fell asleep and began to wheeze and snore loudly. When our instructor tapped the man firmly on the shoulder he jumped off the floor, shrieked, and looked about confusedly. After we resumed the exercise, I found myself taking nervous half-glances at my colleague, and wondering whether it might be better to let him sleep.
Despite the urgings of our teacher and the positive examples of Richard’s books, which describe him navigating various levels of consciousness and unconsciousness in the same languorously graceful way that an albatross cruises a summer sky, I was unable to meditate properly. We had been instructed to throw all random and quotidian thoughts – thoughts about money, or sex, or dinner – away; freed from these dead weights our minds would rise to new heights, in the same way that hot air balloons rise higher into the sky after sandbags or superfluous passengers have been tossed overboard. Alas, I found trivial thoughts a hard pleasure to abandon. I tried to imagine my mind as a room, and my thoughts as furniture. I opened a window and hurled out televisions and sofas, in the manner of the young and stoned Keith Richards. Every time I turned around and searched my room, though, a new object – a scruffy bookcase or blown stereo or luxuriant potplant – had made itself comfortable in one corner or another.
My inability to meditate is perhaps linked with my inability to write haiku. Zen Buddhism holds that the gap between the individual human consciousness and the world is artificial, and the haiku, along with meditation, is considered a way in which the distinction can be defeated. Through its concreteness and brevity, a haiku is supposed to take us out of the prisons of our minds into the ‘real’ world. A haiku about an oak tree should make us an oak tree; a haiku about the sea should immerse us in the sea. Similies and metaphors are, traditionally, barred from haiku, because they draw attention away from the unique objects and scenes that haiku are supposed to focus upon. A reader can’t merge with oak or leap into the sea if she’s busy comparing and contrasting an oak with a power pole, or making the sea into a symbol of flux.
Unfortunately, as I confessed to my students last week, I’m addicted to metaphors and similies. I can’t think about one thing without almost immediately thinking about something else. Perhaps it is this associative mania which gives my conversation, as well as some of my writing, a rambling quality.
I call many of the short poems I produce ‘anti-haiku’, because they seem to consist mostly of metaphors and similies. I wrote this latest set of anti-haiku after taking the ferry back from ‘Eua Island at the beginning of last week. We rode the ferry out to ‘Eua through blue, well-behaved water, but on our journey home the Tongatapu Channel turned a metallic shade of grey, and threw twelve foot swells in our direction. The old, miniscule, wooden ferry would have been battling to stay afloat, but on the handsome new steel vessel we worried about losing our lunches, rather than our lives. I’m heading back to ‘Eua at the end of the month with my students, who will be – I hope – writing haiku and pursuing research assignments involving ancient forts and contemporary land disputes. If anyone feels like joining us on the island of exiles then they’re most welcome.
Ferry from ‘Eua: thirteen anti-haiku
bird, sikota, on our prow
on the receding coast of ‘Eua
caves make the cliffs yawn
did someone push that old bastard Basho
these clouds know Tongan -
their raindrops are shaped
where the farmers left their fruit
the wind picks a green banana
a wave like an upturned metal dinghy
is as wet as the boards of Black Pete’s Bar
I feel like a cheap drunk
the sea rocks our infant son
their chests puffed up with pride
a launch full of snapping tourists
as if the island were a surfacing whale
this reef needs a dentist
on the asphalt acre by Salote’s wharf
car doors applaud
Footnote/apology: Anyone who read the recent entries on this blog could be forgiven for assuming that I have been spending all of my time in Tonga talking and writing about literature, movies, dreams, and other subjects that hard-bitten sociologists and political economists tend to consider ‘soft’. In fact, I’ve been doing some fair dinkum sociological research over here, and the seminar I gave at ‘Atenisi the other week was full of unpoetic terms like modes of production and proletarianisation.
I’ve blogged at some length about the peculiar and fascinating sociology of Tonga in the past, but now that I’m actually exploring the subject systematically, with the help of the linguists and genealogists at ‘Atenisi, I realise how much I have to learn, and how dangerous hasty generalisations can be.
The distinctive thing about literature, of course, is that it doesn’t rely on systematic studies of reality, but on subjective impressions. As I keep telling my Creative Writing students, we don’t assess the generalisations of a poet or a novelist by looking at a stack of statistics. Epeli Hau’ofa published his classic book of short stories Tales of the Tikongs a few years after penning his treatise Corned Beef and Tapioca: a report on the food distribution systems in Tonga. Both books tell us much about Tonga, but they communicate in very different ways. That’s my excuse, anyway, for putting so much dodgy poetry on this blog…
Footnote (2): In search of a reliable internet connection, I just stepped out of the twenty-eight degree heat of Nuku’alofa into the permanently temperate climate of Escape Café, where expats, diplomats, conmen, agents of the International Monetary Fund, shirtless beachcombers, and other flotsam and jetsam of the Pacific gather to plot over watery flat whites. (There’s a table near the back of the café, within a few yards of a door, which is more or less reserved for a couple of grizzled and permatanned German-Tongans. Unlike other members of their tribe, who are busy running businesses, these gentlemen spend almost all their time idling in cafes and bars around Nuku’alofa. One of them grimly counts and recounts a pile of tattered notes; the other sits with a succession of unlit cigarettes in his mouth. Rumour insists that the pair are bitter and unrepentant exiles from Nazi Germany).
I’m sitting at a low table a few feet from the dapper Japanese ambassador to Tonga, who visited ‘Atenisi a couple of weeks ago in his black shiny SUV to thank us for hosting an exchange student from Okinawa. The ambassador is a learned man who was fascinated by the works of Japanese literature in our library, but I dare not show him my anti-haiku, for fear of sparking a diplomatic incident…
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]