Monday, July 15, 2013

The Poet in Japan

I wasn't really writing poetry in 2006 and hadn't been for some time, so I don't have my own poem from the trip.  I am going to add two poems below from poets that were visiting Japan.  Both of them were considered for inclusion in the "Poet Far From Home" section of my anthology which was a bit of a grab-all section for poems about far-away places but that didn't focus quite as much on the means of transportation there.  The Harvey Shapiro is more or less in line with his other late poems, but I decided I liked the shorter and funnier "Goodbye, Rio" better.  The Robert Creeley just didn't mesh well with my (and perhaps the potential readers') view of what Creeley's poetry is all about.  The short lines are there, but the topic "feels" wrong.  I do kind of like it as a poem but just didn't feel it should represent Creeley in an anthology.

What is interesting is that Creeley implies he is on a junket to read some poems in Japan.  One thing that generally doesn't seem to translate well to Japan is anything related to writing, at least not not in translation.  So it is particularly hard for me to imagine the Japanese lining up for a poetry or book reading.  Obviously I could just not be aware of this phenomenon, but it doesn't strike me that English-language based authors ever make it big in Japan.

Creeley first.  This poem is from his collection So There (1998) comprised of poems written between 1976 and 1983.  It is taken from a journal he kept in 1976, so really a bit before Tokyo really became Tokyo (around the mid 80s perhaps).  It isn't really that much about Tokyo at all, though he does riff a bit on Japanese spirituality/religion.  (Very hard to believe they were referencing it, but the "happy/sad" line below (12 stanzas in) is also the title of a single by Pizzicato Five -- one of the quirkier Japanese bands that had crossover success in the 90s.)

                               for Ted Berrigan 

Wake up.
Go to sleep.
Sit zazen five days
in five minutes.

to the beauty next to me
on plane, go-
ing to San Francisco.

Think it’s all a dream.
“passport, wallet and ticket”
to man I’d taken them from.

No mistakes.
This time.
Remember mother
ashed in an instant.

No tears.
No way, other than this one.
Wander. Sing
songs from memory. Tell

classical Chinese poet
Bob Dylan’s the same.
Sit again in air.
Be American.

Love. Eat
Unspeakable Chicken
“old in vain.”
Lettuce, tomato—

bread. Be humble.
Think again.
Remy Martin is
Pete Martin’s brother?

Drink. Think
of meeting Richard Brautigan,
and brandy, years ago.
(All the wonder,

all the splendor,
of Ezra Pound!)
Don’t be dismayed,
don’t be cheap.

No Hong Kong,
no nothing.
Be on the way
to the way

to the way.
Every day’s happy,  

sad. “That’s the way”
to think. Love

people, all over.
Begin at the beginning,
find the end.
Remember everything,

forget it. Go on,
and on. Find ecstasy,
forget it.
Eat chicken entirely,

recall absent friends.
Love wife
by yourself, love
women, men,

Drink, eat
“and be merry.” Sleep
when you can. Dogs

possibly human?—
not cats or birds.
Let all openings be openings.
Simple holes.

Virtue is people,
mind’s eye in trees,
sky above,
below’s water, earth.

Keep the beat
controls.” Think man’s
possibly beauty’s brother,

or husband.
No matter, no mind.
It’s here, it’s around.

Love all relations,
be father to daughters,
sons. Respect

wife’s previous residence
in Tokyo, stories
she told. All time,
all mind, all

can’t exist
by definition—
are one.  

Harvey Shapiro's "Visiting Japan" is from the late 90s when Tokyo had become one of the world's most complex and interesting cities.  However, Shapiro is seeking out the older Japan in shrines and temples near Kyoto.  Even there some of the contradictions of modern Japan emerge, and the poem delves into a number of them.  This poem is found in the 2001 collection How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems.


The young man behind me
on the bus to Ohara, in the hills
above Kyoto, wears a sweatshirt
reading “Dreams Exciting Sweat!”
What can it mean? I’m on my way
to see a Zen priest in his temple.
I rehearse the scene. He will ask me,
What is it you want? And I will say,
to feel at home in this world.
But in his temple, where he lives alone,
a visiting Zen nun serves us lunch,
a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken,
which is preceded by the chanting of a sutra,
and the talk is mainly of the lack
of enlightenment among their superiors,
the Abbot in particular. Then we sit
on the porch of the temple watching
fog drift through green mountains.
The next day, in Nara, two university students,
members of a rock group called “Mushroom Salad,”
are my guides as we visit Giant Buddha
and the more beautiful buddhas, some
dating back to the 7th Century.
In the local museum, before each statue
that is also a sacred object, there is a single
white chrysanthemum in a slender vase. It seems
strange to go to a museum and then to pray there.
These people do. In the evening
for dinner at my friend Hirata’s house,
we have Yosenabe made by his mother.
A large pot of broth bubbles on the table
into which she puts rice cakes, fish cakes,
vegetables, tofu, clams and clear noodles.

In a corner of the Japanese room adjoining
the Western living room in which we sit after dinner
there appears to be a Shinto shrine—
a small knee-high altar with food offerings and pictures
of relatives. A kind of shrine, my young
friend tells me. It is a homemade world
even in Japan. Rice fields
among the parking lots.

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