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The poetry of death


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Akashi GidayuMostly unheard of in Western culture, where the document most commonly associated with death is a will—a binding legal document descriptive of property but little poetry, jisei, or death poetry, is a poem completed near the time of death; a profound, personal epitaph for a once in a lifetime event—suitably fitting farewell to one’s life.

While death as a theme in poetry is not uncommon; witness death as one of the main themes of Emily Dickinson:

More than the Grave is closed to me
More than the Grave is closed to me —
The Grave and that Eternity
To which the Grave adheres —
I cling to nowhere till I fall —
The Crash of nothing, yet of all —
How similar appears —

Emily Dickinson

or as sublime meditation on the nature of reality:

I and Death
My body saw death
Without fear.
My heart conquered death
With love.
My soul embraced death
With compassion.
I employ death
With no hesitation.

Sri Chinmoy

—a poem written to mark one’s own death, or more accurately, to uniquely commemorate a life lived, is a practise that reached its eventual refinement in Japan, in Zen Buddhism in particular. It was also common in China until the twentieth century.

Jisei by convention are written in a graceful, natural manner, and never mention death explicitly, using instead metaphoric references to nature, often in the form of sunsets, autumn or falling cherry blossoms:

When autumn winds blow
not one leaf remains
the way it was.

Togyu

As elsewhere in Japanese art, feelings of bitter-sweetness and impermanence dominate, a feature of the Zen Buddhist informed aesthetic mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), a conception of beauty virtually part of the national character.

While the popular image of jisei is as a part of ceremonial seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide), death poems were also written by Zen monks, haiku poets, and from ancient times literate people on their deathbed.

Poems were not always composed the moment before death; respected poets would sometimes be consulted well in advance for their assistance, and even after death one’s poem could be polished or even rewritten by others—a deed never mentioned lest the deceased’s legacy be tarnished.

Had I not known
that I was dead
already
I would have mourned
the loss of my life.

Ota Dokan

Yukio MishimaNormally highly poetic and somewhat oblique, jisei could also contain elements of a traditional will; not the mundane affairs of an estate to be settled, but for example reconciling differences between estranged relatives.

Prominent exponents of jisei include the famous haiku poet Basho; Asano Naganori, the daimyo (fuedal leader) whose forced suicide was avenged by the forty-seven ronin—now almost a national myth; and Yukio Mishima, prominent Japanese writer of the mid-twentieth century who inexplicably committed traditional seppuku in 1970:

Yukio Mishima’s Death Poem
A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate

Yukio Mishima

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Find your true voice as a writer


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Jack KerouacFinding one’s voice as a writer is the difficult but necessary first task facing every new author—spelling and grammar perhaps excepted. While there is no better or other way to become an authentic, original writer than to write, and write, and write… the practise of making perfect, of being true to yourself by finding your own true voice can be aided and abetted in a number of ways.

7 ideas to discover your true writer’s voice

1. Avoid over-analysis and intellectualisation
Inspiration is like a sky rocket, a fast moving, suddenly lit firework; ride it heavenwards while the flame burns bright; ride it without care for length of journey or name of destination.

If inspiration is a sky rocket, excessive intellectualism is surely a fire extinguisher; suspend the dampening effect of critical thought by putting aside the intellectual mind, and its tendency to doubt, limit and measure—listen instead to the voice of inspiration within. The more you let it take its own form and course, to speak unhindered, the more fruitful and authentic your writing will be.

2. Seek inspiration in silence
Jack KerouacInspiration can also be sought in silence and in depth, just as in the practise of meditation. Some writers talk of the process of learning to write as “finding their voice,” an experience analogous to the subtle, instructive inner voice sought in meditative discipline. In a contemplative, instructive vein, Jack Kerouac advised “Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.”

You can find your true writer’s voice, and in fact the source of creativity itself in stillness of thought. With patience, wait for the ripples upon the mind’s surface to subside; there you will see inspiration and creativity staring back at you. Listen always to their whisper.

3. Form and technique are destructive, not constructive
Don’t get distracted by technique in the beginning; the pen should be the instrument of your inner voice—not the other way around. On a computer, ignore layout, font-size and line-spacing; just let words pour forth. Form can be addressed at a later date, and often more constructively from a suitable distance. When starting out, stay up close and focused, one word at a time.

4. Writing is a conversation
View writing as a conversation. If you imagine yourself as writing for an audience, which really is the point of writing—having something worth saying to somebody worth saying it to—writing becomes not a solitary act but a communication, talking in silence with potentially the entire world. Imagine and then feel a conversation with another as though they were actually present, like a best friend, close inside your heart; then the words naturally will come. This technique is one to way find your true writer’s voice—you give it expression in the act of talking to an imagined other.

This method is also used in television and in radio, where the reality of being in front of millions of people can produce fearful paralysis. Also for actors, who use their imagination to aid a more natural performance, to ‘just be themselves’ in front of a lifeless camera. It is no different writing at a computer—not always in truth an environment conducive to natural, expressive conversation.

When done well, writing is a conversation, but with you as listener, dictating a voice that speaks from within.

5. Be courageous
Be courageous, even if you have to lie to yourself; convince yourself that you are brilliant! You are a writer—imagination is your chosen weapon, so use it to your advantage. A blank page can be daunting, a failure of ideas discouraging; if imagining yourself as a great writer gives you the necessary courage and self-belief to be able to write, then do so.

As meditation teacher, poet and writer Sri Chinmoy explains, “Insecurity goes away when we acquire the capacity of identification.” If you can identify with the capacity to write well you are half-way to actually doing it. Repeat bravely with Jack Kerouac “You’re a Genius all the time,” for almost anything goes when you have an empty page to fill.

6. Be your best critic, not your worst
If a word or idea refuses to come you, a sentence denies completion, and ‘next’ remains an unanswered question, the worst sin is to get caught up over it. Negativity, worry and self-doubt are an anathema to creativity; anything that stops you moving, progressing forward should be shunned. Remember this as a maxim: “keep moving, keep moving.”

Like Jack Kerouac again, who would imagine himself heroically as author-athlete, his writing an act of physical and mental athleticism. Arguably his best novel, On the Road was written in a single three week sitting, a Herculean effort of endurance which required an unbroken ream of typewriter paper 120 feet in length. Obviously this is somewhat extreme, and to continue the sporting analogy, it is suggested that his performance was illegally ‘enhanced,’ but the analogy is good; like an athlete keep moving, keep writing—skip a paragraph, write back to front if necessary or in order of thought; even move on to a completely different project—writers often have scores of works on the go simultaneously, awaiting the muse of inspiration for their completion.

7. First-thought, best-thought
Allen GinsbergThe “first-thought, best-thought” aesthetic of Zen Buddhism is one well-practiced technique used to find the authentic writing voice, a technique borrowed from meditation to bypass the filter of intellectual mind, appropriated but not invented in the modern era by the Beat poets and writers—Allen Ginsberg most famously. First thought here is considered to be ‘true’ thought: perception unmediated by the distorting lens of intellect or the surface personality. It is another way of describing intuition, and is the basis of the saying “First impressions don’t lie.”

Formalised as “spontaneous prose” by Kerouac; and by Ginsberg, “spontaneous, fearless telling of the truth of naked, authentic experience” to paraphrase, developing spontaneity and intuition in your writing will work miracles for your creativity, not to mention sense of authenticity and authorial power. Discarding rationality and reason is a hotline to your heart as a writer, and getting your heart, your authentic voice and self on the page is the only way to move and inspire your readers.

The final word goes to Allen Ginsberg:

“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That’s what poetry does.”

In its capacity to convey truth and feeling, prose written from the heart may just save the world as well.

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Search Engine Haiku


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Found poetry is the rearrangement of words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages that are taken from other sources and reframed as poetry by changes in spacing and/or lines (and consequently meaning), or by altering the text by additions and/or deletions. The resulting poem can be defined as “treated” (changed in a profound and systematic manner) or “untreated” (conserving virtually the same order, syntax and meaning as in the original).
Wikipedia on Found Poetry

Basho’s Crow by Marie TaylorI am not new to search engine serendipity—Through the Google Glass and Follow the rainbow both exercises in found poetry and random prose, and among the most read articles on this site—but Sumangali.org has gone one better and invented “Keyword Haiku,” the random, zen-esque art of creating poetry from Google-generated keywords.

Poets of yesteryear took words out of the ether or dictated disembodied voices in their heads. In this 21st century approach to inspiration, the creative process is aided by the random chatter of a million computers. With chance and serendipity the goals, surely both approaches are equally valid.

The rules to Keyword Haiku are simple—take your top 25 keywords and arrange them in any order to create a poem:

A Sensitivity to Things Keyword Haiku

the smallest of you knew
how interesting
in world and weight

things sensitivity to
o being needs
a meditation sun

supergiants
are much light me

Keyword haiku yes, but is the above really haiku?

Technically no. While haiku is conventionally termed as poetry comprised of 17 syllables arranged in 5-7-5 form—length and structure somewhat different from the rules of keyword haiku—when written in Japanese haiku uses not syllables but rather ‘on’ or sounds—a unit of language close to but not exactly the same as a syllable.

This fact combined with words in Japanese being polysyllabic—that is composed of multiple, very short sounds (like ‘radio’ in English)—means that haiku should more accurately be written with 10-14 syllables in English.

Whatever.

Haiku or not, it is probably safe to say that poet and father of the 17 syllable form Matsuo Basho, who wrote, shortly before his death and with spirit heavy, “disturbed by others, I have no peace of mind,” would find little peace still in this search-engine spawned derivative…

now then, let’s go out
to enjoy the snow… until
I slip and fall!
Basho (1688)

Keyword haiku elsewhere

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Make your writing effortless


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jackkerouac-ny-1953.jpgHaving written all of half a dozen blog posts in a handful of months, it might seem likely a less than timely time to write about how to make one’s writing effortless, but maybe this is a kind of reverse serendipity—for right now effortless writing is just what I need.

Read on—where these seven ideas are concerned, I for one will definitely be taking my own advice…

7 ideas to make your writing effortless

Writing doesn’t have to be hard; in fact it can be as easy and natural as spoken conversation. All writers struggle in the beginning to develop creativity and flow; use the following seven tips to sharpen your talent and reach your goals.

1. Carry a notebook

Carry a notebook with you at all times; when inspiration hits, seize it and your notebook with both hands. All writers recommend carrying a notebook; use it for the surreptitious jotting of thoughts when and where ever they might appear.

Jack Kerouac, foremost writer of the Beat movement of the 50’s and ’60s—a moniker and eminence he was deeply uncomfortable with—carried one everywhere, forever sketching poetry and novels to be in the most unlikely of places—”Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy” in his words. Likewise Walt Whitman, 19th Century ‘Father of American Poetry’ and inspiration to Kerouac, who went one step further and carried an entire manuscript, a paperweight sized bundle that would one day be his Leaves of Grass.

2. But use it in the right place

walt whitmanFunnily enough, this oft revised and reworked masterpiece was the cause of Whitman’s dismissal from at least one job—fired from the Department of the Interior by an enraged employer upon closer inspection of the ‘paperwork’ on his desk. Which suggests that some places are better to write in than others, although in Whitman’s defence, most writers can relate to the truth that inspiration may strike in the most unexpected places.

3. Make writing a good habit

Writing is a good habit which can benefit from a little encouragement. To this ends, many writers recommend a specific place to write, almost like a meditation shrine, dedicated to this solo, inspirational practise. For some a specific time of day is conducive—a daily regimen just like eating, sleeping and exercise. Creativity can wax and wane like the passage of the moon; take time and place of writing as two aids to assist obstructing clouds to part.

4. Regularity builds the muscles of writing

Make an attempt to write every day, without thought or judgment for the quality you produce. Writing is like a creative flow; it will not begin if you do not turn on the tap. One method is to write like a river bursting its dam, words spilling over onto the paper before you. Follow the rivers’ flow as far as you can, and in time the distance you travel will grow. Look not at this metaphorical river’s banks or rocks ahead of you; flow forth like water, always moving.

5. Writing is like meditation

Writing can be like the act of meditation itself, a secret known to centuries of haiku poets who were also meditators, and practised it as such. Write regularly, in silence and with one-pointed focus to achieve your goal. Furthermore, the discipline of regular practise, as in meditation, encourages an ever deepening flow of creativity, and a more fruitful, productive experience.

6. Suspend critical thought

Suspend judgment during a first draft, even if your mind screams that you are writing poorly. More important is to write, write, write; regardless of quality let the words pour upon the page—revising and polishing are for a later date. The editing process is a different mindset from that of writing, which requires creativity to flow directed but unimpeded; for the sake of creativity leave this more critical part of your being to one side. It is not without reason that professional writing seldom sees the occupations of writer and editor in a single person.

7. Exercise your body, not your mind

Running, and exercise in general, will actually help your writing. Meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy calls running meditation for the body; it clears the mind and purifies the emotions in the manner of a breath of fresh air, dispersing anger and depression as though clouds in the sky. Negative qualities are an anathema to creativity—it’s total polar opposite; take physical exercise as a simple tool to clear the road ahead when you are writing. It also makes a good time out.

Writing is like running in a sense; the hardest part is getting under way, but once started a momentum is built which will carry you along. Surrender to this and your writing may one day become effortless.

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Spoilers


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Introduction to Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows opens, or more accurately is preceded, by two poems. The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus, and More Fruits of Solitude by William Penn.

The Libation Bearers
Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the haemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

But there is a cure in the house
and not outside it, no,
not from others but from them,
their bloody strife. We sing to you,
dark gods beneath the earth.

Now hear, you blissful powers underground—
answer the call, send help.
Bless the children, give them triumph now.

—Aeschylus


More Fruits of Solitude

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still.
For they must needs be present, that love and live in that whch is omnipresent.
In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.
This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

—William Penn
(read the full poem at PoetSeers.org)

I think that tells us more than enough about this final instalment in the Harry Potter series…

Anyone doubting J.K. Rowling is a real, or serious author, should put that poorly titled book away right now. Any author who can quote Aeschylus, let alone has even heard of William Penn (one of the founders of Quakerism and namesake for the state of Pennsylvania), is worth all the pounds in the Bank of England.

I must say I am tiring of prose somewhat—the writing of it that is—for tiring of its reading would be a strange thing to say indeed, 607 pages of The Deathly Hallows still to be turned.

Prose is so precise, and therefore so unimaginative. You can joyfully throw precision out the window with poetry—although in the reading that is, definitely not in the writing, which requires an act of concentration at least deeper, if not stronger than in prose. With poetry you can let your imagination paint the words, and the lines in between.

I have been writing prose almost non-stop for a year now—the first substantive piece of writing in my entire life (Airport Anxiety) written a year ago during a visit to Japan, and am starting to tire of it’s up and down, black and white limitations; it’s tendency towards haranguing and shouting, as compared to poetry’s soft whispers, varied meanings.

Perhaps this is why I had a recent piece of writing declined for publication (Miracles out of Mountains out of Molehills); the editor said obliquely, and not completely helpfully, that he preferred my more simple, straightforward stories. Not so simply, I am growing tired of words in a straight line, trying my best to break them apart gracefully.

There will probably be some dreadful experiments to come.

I wrote my first poem in about a decade earlier this week—a rush of emotion-bourne words born upon listening to a song, and staring, at the same time, dream-like into a photograph. I then, by habit now an unrestrained shaper of prose, began to prune and rewrite, to my later regret. It will now probably not see the light of day.

Ever the melodramatist, I dare saw I am really only a little tired of prose. No doubt, to either benefit or regret, I have thousands of words inside me left.

And thousands more to read in The Deathly Hallows. I still haven’t made it past the opening poems…

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Going Potty for Harry Potter


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Harry Potter movie stillAs I write, the seventh and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, has just gone on sale. Here in New Zealand, readers are queuing in the mid-winter, mid-morning rain, while in Potter’s birthplace the young and often not so are lining for their copies at midnight. No matter where it is bought, or read, I suspect all will be up the following night reading—if the non-stop, reading-marathon intentions of one fourteen year old acquaintance are anything to go by.

I will be buying my own copy shortly, avoiding queues but paying a few dollars more at a reputable small bookstore rather than loss-leading chain, because I am difficult that way. I can afford to be so precious.

A friend who can likewise afford to buy The Deathly Hallows at whatever cost is not going to—he just called to request first place in a fast-forming queue for my own. While J.K. Rowling—or publisher Bloomsbury as well for that matter—definitely do not need his money, neither in truth does he—and in a fit of self-righteous indignation at his Scrooge-like spirit, on a day that for many is akin to Christmas, I will be lending The Deathly Hallows first to another, a friend and family who can only afford one copy. Although 47 years old, I suspect my friend will be reading book borrowed before two desperate daughters.

Harry PotterI came to Potter later than most—the week before book four, The Goblet of Fire was first released. Harry had somehow passed me by—on a broomstick perhaps—and an argument could be made that this self-created, purveyor of “high art” resented jumping on a bandwagon not his own. Whatever the reasoning I soon made up for lost time, lost an entire week to Potter-mania in fact. Book one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was bought on a Monday; a day and sleepless night later I was back for the second and third instalments; by the end of the week—sleep deprived but thoroughly entertained—purchased the fourth on first day of release, devoured it in a single sitting on barely noticed intercontinental plane ride.

As much for my own benefit as for anyone else, and by way of jogging out of shape, at times “potty” memory, here is a quick recap of the books to date, my read-just-a-single-time fleeting impressions, and several predictions for the final book soon to be acquired.

  • Favourite book to date
    Book five: The Order of the Phoenix. Aside from the brooding, introspective first two hundred pages, this is my favourite book of all—albeit followed closely by The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Chamber of Secrets and The Philospher’s Stone in that order. My least favourite was the most recent: The Half-Blood Prince; which to this occasional literary critic appeared narrative and enjoyment constrained—too transparent, perhaps necessary plot machinations to set up a series finale; major plot workings clunking away at the expense of telling a story. Like millions of distraught readers, I resented the beloved Dumbledore dying in this book—admittedly a twist I didn’t see coming—but will claim some after-the-fact prescience on the “Is Snape evil or really evil?” revelation—Rowling had been signaling this change of allegiance since the beginning of book one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
  • Favourite character
    It’s a toss up between Ron and Hermione—the latter is always the most interesting, not to mention most intelligent; the former—along with assorted siblings always the funniest. It is in many ways a shame neither were raised with a fortunate lightening shaped scar.
  • Least favourite character
    Harry. Really—if Harry is still brooding and being a boring teenager in The Deathly Hallows I may just start skipping pages. Get over yourself Harry—grow a backbone along with a few more inches, or I’ll soon be cheering for (heaven forbid) Draco Malfoy. Funnily enough, and I know I’m quite the snob, mine is the firm opinion that Harry’s screen alter ego, Daniel Radcliffe, can’t act his way out of a paper bag.
  • Predictions
    Rowling has revealed two major characters will die in The Deathly Hallows. I doubt one will be Harry—even though it would be the most shocking ending in all of literature since novelist Yukio Mishima fell upon his own samurai sword. Harry dying would also for the majority of readers be more than unsatisfying, and I do not get the feeling J.K.Rowling, unlike Mishima, is a literary sadist—or intent on ruining the childhood of millions. Snape is a definite option for death however—and you just know he has it coming. Likewise He Who Can’t Be Named—how can the series possibly end without a kill or be killed, good versus evil, mother of all showdowns? At longer odds for untimely character assassination are Ron or Hermione—major, beloved characters, but each in the end narratively dispensable.

Predications now aside, I beg to be excused. I have a book to go and buy.

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Through the Google Glass


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hepi-ichikoIt is a constant joy, near form of poetry to read the search engine phrases that, month after month, click after click deliver readers to this site. Like absolute strangers on a train, mundane queries like“sensitivitytothings.com” and“really good writing that I will bookmark and read every day” sit alongside absolute gems—pennies from internet heaven too precious to ignore: “canada state electronic flash churches,” “delusions electricity sensitivity” and “i afraid of three things.” Admittedly one of those phrases might be made up…

My site statistics tell me the most visited post on this site is the deliberately surreal, first exploration of search engine serendipity, Follow the Rainbow, a post inspired by one vistor’s mind-blowing, reality confounding search phrase,“Seeing a rainbow in your living room means what?,” which to consider the irrational rational, abandon serendipity for cause and effect was one assumes ipso facto attracted to these pages by Sri Chinmoy’s intriguing explanation of the spiritual significance of rainbows. The cause, rather than destination of this seeker’s query however is a matter for speculation—but I hesitate to ask for a serving of what they are having.

I can’t say with certainty why other people enjoyed Follow the Rainbow, but for its author it was most enjoyable to write. An exercise in chance, serendipity and the random, it was written during something of a dry spell—inspiration, ability for anything structured or thought through lacking. So often the portrait of an artist as a procrastinator, I have literally dozens of pieces on the table at any one time, awaiting inspiration or moment of clarity for completion, sometimes comprehension; yet find it usually the unplanned, unstructured I enjoy most—probably the reason why so many remain unfinished. Like a fickle child, I am all too easily entranced by the latest shiny, flashing toy.

Now hopelessly distracted, viewing and reviewing my search engine phrases once more, shall we follow the rainbow again?

“john gillespie”
john gillespie mageeTopping the list of Google queries, admittedly by margin smaller than people you can fit into an average car, is“John Gillespie.” Hmm, that name does sound familiar…

Long in search of the true John Gillespie, I hope dear Google user you also found what you were looking for; but should you have been searching for the University of California biologist, failed Republican Congressional candidate from the year 2000, a London based actor, the Canadian hair transplant surgeon or artist from the nineteenth century, I’m little worried—it seems aside from the politician, my namesakes are all worthy of the seeking.

Especially so John Gillespie Magee, Jr, whose all too brief 19 years crash-landed in a 1941 spitfire accident over Roxholm, England, yet lives on in a poem said to be a favourite amongst astronauts and aviators, quoted by a US President following the Challenger Shuttle disaster:

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, —and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

This John Gillespie would almost bargain a fiery, cockpit leaping death to have written that…

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Kokoro No Tomo (bosom friend)


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Yukio Mishima and Donald KeeneEighty-five years old next week, Donald Keene is a man described as having done more for Japanese literature and culture than anybody in the world. A former wartime translator, author of 25 books in English and 30 books in Japanese, he is Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University and holder of eight honorary degrees.

Serious credentials in anyone’s book. Yet despite eminent qualifications, I have to confess that it is only Donald Keene’s status as friend and translator of writer Yukio Mishima that piqued my interest in him. I doubt he would be offended—he is I am sure long resigned to being known for his connection to the most famous, perhaps infamous Japanese author of the twentieth century.

About midnight on the night of the incident, the telephone rang in my apartment in New York. The call was from a Yomiuri reporter in Washington. He informed me briefly what had taken place a few hours earlier in Tokyo and asked my impressions (kanso). I was too stunned to make a coherent reply. The telephone rang all night long, from many Japanese newspapers and magazines. Each asked the same question, and I gradually grew more articulate in my response, until I felt as if I were reciting lines from a play.

As is obvious from his output and recognition—the first non-Japanese to receive the Yomiuri Literary Prize and only the third non-Japanese person to be designated“an individual of distinguished cultural service” by the Japanese government—Keene is a fine writer in his own right, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the following account of an attempt to rewrite Mishima’s modern No plays for their first ever staging outside of Japan:

The producers were unsuccessful in raising the money, with or without strings. They decided that the problem was that the three modern No plays they had chosen for a program were too similar in tone, and suggested to Mishima that he write a modern Kyogen to be played in between“Aoi no Ue” and “Sotoba Komachi.” Mishima was aware of the difficulty of preserving in a modern adaptation the humor of Kyogen, which depends so heavily on exaggerated gestures and inflexions of speech. He decided nevertheless that it might be possible to make a modern version of “Hanago,” with the daimyo of the original changed into an industrialist and Tarokaja into a butler. The Zen meditation scene could be rewritten as yoga, then popular in New York. Finally, knowing of my special interest in Kyogen, he asked me to write the“kindai kyogen.” He recognized that certain passages in the original, quite normal expression in medieval Japan, would not be tolerated in a modern play. For example, when the master threatens to kill Tarokaja if he does not obey his command, this would not seem comic to a modern audience. On the other hand, Mishima thought that when the daimyo’s wife threatens to beat Tarokaja if he does not reveal why he was sitting in meditation, this was amusing and could be retained. Even today a woman carried away by anger might say the same.

Mishima gave various other tips, but I was unable, even with great effort, to do what Mishima always did so easily. I tried everything, even making it a comedy in the manner of Moliere and giving the characters Greek names. Nothing worked. I confessed my failure to Mishima, who thereupon bought a notebook of the kind American junior-high school students use and wrote a modern Kyogen, based not on“Hanago” but“Busu.” He dashed off the manuscript at full speed, changing hardly a word.

The producers attempted to find backers with the new combination of two modern No and a modern Kyogen, but they still had no success. This time they decided that the problem was that Americans did not like one-act plays. They asked Mishima to rewrite three of his modern No plays as a single play. I thought this was virtually impossible, even for Mishima. The plays have entirely different characters and atmosphere. How could he join them into a single play? But Mishima was so desirous of seeing the plays performed in New York that he did the impossible: he made one play of the three plays. He gave the new play an English title with a double meaning—“Long After Love.”

One of only three people to receive a personally addressed farewell letter from Mishima, Keene is frustratingly reticent in his recollections of his friend of sixteen years, and understandably defensive. He describes himself as not a“kokoro no tomo” (bosom friend) of the writer, who from the outset of their friendship made it clear that he did not desire what he called“sticky” relations—the sharing of vulnerabilities or emotions.

We did not share secrets or ask each other for advice. We enjoyed meeting and conversing, whether about literature, the state of the world, or mutual acquaintances. It was also a working friendship. I translated not only Mishima’s serious works of fiction and plays but also amusing essays he wrote for American magazines.

Our relations were always rather formal. This was mainly my doing. He once asked that we drop polite language and talk in the informal manner of old friends, but I found this difficult and somehow unnatural. I did not grow up in Japan and had never talked Japanese to my family or to classmates. Calling Mishima kun instead of san would not have made me feel any closer, and might have sounded affected. Mishima, noticing that I did not respond to his request, never again asked me to speak more informally.

Although we were unquestionably friends, his politeness was unfailing and extended to every aspect of our relationship. He was my only Japanese friend who always answered letters promptly. He was never late for an appointment. When he invited me to dinner, it was invariably to a fine restaurant, even though I often suggested we eat in less expensive places. His conversation gave me greater pleasure than any meal. While eating, we laughed a great deal. Sometimes his laugh rang out so loudly that other diners in the restaurant turned in our direction. Yoshida Kenichi once said that Mishima laughed with his mouth, but not with his eyes. Perhaps this was true, but sincere or not, Mishima’s laughter was infectious.

In the summer of 1970 Mishima invited me to Shimoda where he was accustomed to spend August with his family. He normally worked on his writings every day from midnight to six, slept from six to two, then went to kendo practice or to some gathering until it was time to return home and start writing. He spent little time with his children, but he made up for the neglect by devoting to them the month of August.

I almost cancelled my trip to Shimoda because of a painful attack of gikkuri-goshi (slipped disk), but I was instinctively certain that Mishima had planned every moment of my stay in Shimoda from arrival to departure and I could not bear to upset his plans. On the train I debated whether or not to mention my gikkuri-goshi, but when I saw him on the platform, sunburned and cheerful, I decided I would act like a samurai and keep the pain to myself.

We had lunch at a sushi-ya. Mishima ordered only chu toro. Afterwards, I was able to guess the reason: he had no time to waste on lesser fish. That evening we were joined by the journalist Henry Scott Stokes who later wrote a book about Mishima. Mishima took us to a restaurant where lobsters were served out of season. He ordered five dinners for the three of us. When the five dinners appeared, he ordered two more, not satisfied with the quantity. I thought this was peculiar, but no doubt he wanted to be sure we would have our fill of lobster at our last meal together.

The next day Mishima and I went to the hotel pool. He did not enter the water, but he was pleased to display his muscular body. We talked about his tetralogy“The Sea of Fertility” that was approaching completion. He said he had put into the work everything he had learned as a writer, adding with a laugh that the only thing left was to die. I laughed too, but I must have sensed something was wrong. Violating our pledge not to discuss“sticky” matters, I asked, “If something is troubling you, why not tell me?” He averted his glance and said nothing. But he knew that three months later he would be dead.

I’m going through something of an extended, on again off again Mishima phase at the moment—an interest encouraged by his sensitivity, aesthetics, effortless writing ability and preference for action over ideas; utterly discouraged by his fascination come obsession with violence—if read literally.

Yet in reading about Yukio Mishima I have inadvertently discovered Donald Keene—writer of some of the most lucid, insightful commentaries in existence on his tragically flawed friend, but much more than that as well.

Keene’s fascinating essays on Mishima form only a small part of Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century, a series of forty-eight, serialised installments written just last year; each well worth reading aside from their compelling insights into a most famous author.

I have often regretted that I haven’t kept a diary. A diary would surely help me to recapture much of the past. But perhaps it is just as well to have forgotten so much. If I remembered everything, I would recall things that frightened me when I was a small child, teachers I disliked at school, friends who I thought had betrayed me, people I loved who did not love me. No, it is probably better not to try to remember. I hope that this chronicle, for all its deficiencies, has at least suggested how one human being spent an essentially happy life.

The following is one of my very favourite passages, admittedly from only a very small sampling of Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century, yet more than adequate representation of the author’s life-long pacifism and love of Japan—either of which are enough to make me his kokoro no tomo, and unabashed fan:

One day I noticed a large wooden box containing captured documents. The documents gave off a faint, unpleasant odor. I was told that the little notebooks were diaries taken from the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers or found floating in the sea. The odor came from the bloodstains. I felt squeamish about touching the little books but, carefully selecting one that seemed free of bloodstains, I began to translate it. At first I had trouble reading the handwriting, but the diaries, unlike the printed or mimeographed documents I previously had translated, were at times almost unbearably moving, recording the suffering of a soldier in his last days.

Members of the American armed forces were forbidden to keep diaries, lest they reveal strategic information to whoever found them; but Japanese soldiers and sailors were issued with diaries each New Year and were expected to write down their thoughts each day. They were aware that they might be required to show their diaries to a superior, to make sure the writer’s sentiments were correct, so they filled their pages with patriotic slogans as long as they were still in Japan. But when the ship next to the diarist’s was sunk by an enemy submarine or when the diarist, somewhere in the South Pacific, was alone and suffering from malaria, there was no element of deceit. He wrote what he really felt.

Sometimes the last page of a Japanese soldier’s diary contained a message in English, asking the American who found the diary to return it to his family after the war. I hid such diaries, though it was forbidden, intending to return the diaries to the diarist’s family, but my desk was searched and the diaries were confiscated. This was a great disappointment. The first Japanese I ever really knew were the writers of the diaries, though they were all dead by the time I met them.

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So he goes


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Kurt Vonnegut died several days ago.

I was planning to write something in commemoration, and have been staring at a New York Times Books section obituary-commemoration piece for several days now to this effect, but the shameful truth is I have never actually read one of his books, and thus am poorly qualified.

There is a list, a long list of things I must do before I too pass on, and reading Kurt Vonnegut has been added to it, but until that time there are many people far more qualified to comment and commemorate—people who have not only read this great modern American author but have actually met him, including writer Dennis Perrin of Red State Son (“Beneath These Hideous Screams Lies A Love Supreme”)—his subtitle alone makes him deserving of further investigation.

Along with the trackback, sense of being informed by association and a new appreciation for a writer I haven’t read, I will also steal a YouTube video link from Dennis’s site, and the assertion that Kurt Vonnegut was an atheist who believed that instead of the Ten Commandments, public buildings and courtrooms should display the Sermon on the Mount, surely reason enough to display same here:

The Beatitudes from The Sermon on the Mount

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”


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You can also read an account of Kurt Vonnegut’s last public speech here.

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Writing Peaks


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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9kejvxRokg

Sensitivitytothings.com hit the big time recently, or at least its author thinks so, his review of David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity being published by blogcritics.org, and from there syndicated to outer space, or at least anywhere under roof, stars and internet connectivity.

David LynchI may be highly susceptible to faint praise, but am wearing proudly two comments posted by blogcritics editors G.L. Hauptfleisch and Natalie Bennett, who commended my first submission as “Nice review, well expressed” and “This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!” respectively. Thanks for that—I do appreciate being appreciated.

You can of course still read the review here, but I’ll forgive you if you want to read it there:

Now that I mention it, it seems I have an excuse to post another clip from David Lynch’s alternatively sublime, alternately surreal Twin Peaks, a rare moment of beginning of the 90’s television lucidity so out of the ordinary it might not be entirely of this world…

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