Monday, May 06, 2013

Zen and seasickness

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

instead of a carved atua 


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

like glottal stops 


on the open deck

where the farmers left their fruit

the wind picks a green banana 


a wave like an upturned metal dinghy

smashes against the prow 


the sea spills drink

after drink

until the deck

is as wet as the boards of Black Pete’s Bar 




I feel like a cheap drunk



the sea rocks our infant son



lifejackets stacked

beneath the stairs

dream of disaster

and heroic deeds:


of dragging strangers

through the surf,

their chests puffed up with pride 


a launch full of snapping tourists

circles ‘Eueiki

as if the island were a surfacing whale 


chipped pillars

of brown and black

between gaps

where the tide runs

like a tongue:

this reef needs a dentist 


on the asphalt acre by Salote’s wharf

rellies hug

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]



Anonymous roaming yoda said...

if your not prepared to submit to the spiritual DISCIPLINE of buddhaism please don't mess with his forms...

2:51 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I tried meditating without success (found it very hard to keep mind form thinking of nothing, but there were some good aspects, also muscle relaxation is very good coupled with positive self messages) but I have a zen art book that is great to read through. I also read Basho's diary of his travels. Interesting is to link up Japanese and Chinese poetry and the long tradition. I cant read Chinese but the best of it in English is very good. Some of the very ancient poetry is beautiful and quite moving. The Haiku was only one form.

I can see the idea of it and as you know I have done some. I think the idea of leaving out similes is that they are usually inaccurate (but that can be used for comic effect say in descriptions by Flannery O'Connor or Charles Dickens, but they are prose writers of genius, but not poets. So ideally there is a concentration at the image. Meaning is implied paratacticaly from one thing or image or idea to another. Or an action is described.

Haiku are interesting and I have done some but prefer the wider forms.

One early one I did was an exercise in a Teach Yourself Book (Creative Writing) and it was to take a description and slowly make it more concise. This wasn't to say the original was "bad" : It was just an exercise in control (of too many adjectives etc.

So I brought it down to:

Girl and laughing boy
Old one knows
Moon must fall.

But I should dig out the whole thing as it shows what I was doing. This was ca. 1988/9 or so.

10:58 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Richard, I remember some of your haiku from the '90s:

sunshower on my windscreen
the wipers were mad
with excitement!

everything must be remembered,
even forgotten things, even
the death of a spider

Pretty good, I think. It is very interesting throwing different styles of writing at the students here and seeing what resonates and what doesn't. I have three very keen students who are willing to have a go at anything, but who definitely prefer certain forms over others, and a number of less enthusiastic students who are occasionally stirred. The section of the paper devoted to psychogeography, which had students dumped by taxi at a huge junkyard on the fringes of Nuku'alofa and then invited to 'get lost' as they found their way back through the city, was a hit.

9:50 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, you yourself created some of my "Haiku" by editing for SALT although others got into Spin.

I wanted to show how one I put up here developed as it is (much like that Imagist poem 'At the Metro' (?) which he developed (or devolved) from a page of writing by cutting stuff out.

There are indeed many ways to know or learn. The technical and the informational actually (in a complex way) ultimately shakes hands with the "artistic" or intuitive. Nothing is ever completely objective or subjective. There obviously needs to be a subject.

Poetry art and all the rest are NOT necessary, nor is music even. We could all have been deaf and still live well. (Some people born blind find that it is a tragic mistake to have their sight restored, Oliver Sacks writes about one person who was perfectly adjusted to a "sound world" (he saw by sounds) and was wrongly persuaded to have his sight "restored". He couldn't cope with the world thus and soon committed suicide.

But we can use art and music. Novels. Even say novels by Barbara Pym about 4 (superficially uninteresting) clerks in London ("Quartet in Autumn") can extend us into worlds we both recognize and are not quite familiar with.

At the other extreme perhaps are writings generated by the psychogeographatic effect of junk yards. Wystan Curnow and others ("New Art" ed. Jim Allen and Wystan Curnow, Heinemann 1976) wrote some fascinating things (or happenings etc) in the 70s about going into abandoned or "uninteresting" places or to Mt. Eden and recording their experiences. And imagination is still a big component as well as "experience" whatever that is.

For writers etc: reading. Reading, thinking, wandering, studying, experiencing, writing and reading. Living.

10:55 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I forgot that poem. I wrote it as an exercise in reduction using a 'Teach Yourself Creative Writing' book which was very good. But it ended with:

Trapped in amber time
Girl and laughing boy
Old one knows:
Moon must fall

I like that one.

I like this one by you:

these clouds know Tongan -
their raindrops are shaped
like glottal stops

You have some humour also. By the way perhaps part of our problem with some Chinese poetry is that it is quite distant from English, and or that translators have not always done it justice. But Basho is interesting as a writer of diaries thus giving some insight into the times he lived in.

8:41 pm  

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