For years I’ve had a mild yet persistent interest in writing a play. I like the limits of the stage just as I like the limits of haiku because when there’s only so much I can do behind a closed curtain or on a page with three lines those limits become creative restrictions. And yet I have thoughts that there’s no point writing a play unless it’s guaranteed to be produced. What are those thoughts? Why is it so important to have a guarantee before starting?
A while ago Alan Jacobs wrote a three act play based on the friendship and correspondence between J.R.R. Tolkien and W.H. Auden. I have no idea if the play is any good because I don’t yet have playwriting standards (the mark of a true amateur perhaps?) but I admire that he gave it a shot and then published the play on his website as if to say it didn’t need to be produced by a stage company to be validated.
Sometimes I find that rather than trying to identify what feelings are holding me back from starting, in this case, a play, it’s easier to group them together under the umbrella of ‘resistance’. Could those thoughts be fear disguised as reason? Yes. Could those reasons be valid? Yes. But I suppose, if I really wanted, I could find a good reason not to do anything if I thought about it long enough.
Perhaps the creative impulse never “makes sense” because it doesn’t always lead to money and recognition in an artist’s lifetime (or ever) so I may never find an airtight reason to fulfil that need. And yet, it still makes me happy and I still need to do it, with or without guarantees.
When Leonard Cohen ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996 he received the Dharma name ‘Jikan’ which, according to Michael Dylan Welch in his essay ‘Going Nowhere: Learning Haiku from Pico Iyer’, means “the silence between two thoughts”. In haiku this silence or space between the poem’s two juxtaposed parts is called ‘Ma’ and this idea is crucial to the form’s power. Welch also refers to ‘Ma’ as the “dreaming room […] where the best haiku find their deepest reverberations.”
Before Covid struck England and shook the economy I worked as a tour guide in St John’s Beacon, the second tallest building in Liverpool. Up there you could see the River Mersey, the Irish Sea, the Welsh mountains beyond the Wirral and, on clear days, Blackpool tower. In summer we had queues waiting outside for us to open and there was scarcely enough time to catch a breath between taking old customers down and bringing new customers up. But in winter, when fog pressed against the gallery windows and the tourists were gone, there were very few customers.
One winter’s day with the city covered in fog my friend on the tour team and I decided on a whim to write a renga. In Japanese poetry the renga is a collaborative form of linked verses that two or more poets complete together. The introductory verse to a renga became what’s known today as haiku after Matsuo Basho pioneered that verse as a form unto itself. On breaks at work I would sketch haiku and tell my friend about it. Sometimes he would count syllables with his fingers and, apropos of nothing, recite a haiku he had probably been mulling over for the past half hour. Once, when I got stuck in a lift with customers for an hour, he wrote a haiku about it because of course he did.
I forget the exact verses of our renga but I remember, by some strange twists and turns, Bigfoot showed up at the end. Why not? Meanwhile, thanks to wind blowing down the Welsh mountains, the fog began to part and the familiar landscape came slowly into view.
Hi, I’m starting a monthly newsletter on writing, creativity, philosophy, poetry, etc. Essentially anything I find interesting that you might also find interesting. I’ll throw some book recommendations in there too. If that tickles your fancy the link is here. First issue is out 30th April.
The moon is waxing gibbous tonight. It’s hard not to notice its brightness. Tomorrow it’ll be a full moon and the day after that begin its waning phase. In the unusual circumstances of a once in a century pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns we’ve had to endure, the sight of the moon doing its thing, perhaps ever since our solar system came to be, is a welcome sight.
[…] you will find many ways to say ‘moon’ in Japanese saijiki [a dictionary of seasonal terms used by haiku poets]. For example, the full moon may be called gyokukon (round soul) or sasaraeotoko (small but lovely man – a nickname for the moon).
So keep your eyes open tomorrow night. You’ll see a small but lovely man in the sky.
A couple of years ago I bought a used copy of Masaoka Shiki’s selected poems from Amazon and found a dedication on the front page in pen to a previous owner. In pen. At first I was annoyed because, according to Amazon’s standards, the book was in ‘very good’ condition but I think what really irked me was that the book didn’t feel like my own any more even though I bought it used. As long as there are no traces of their passage I can ignore that other people have owned the book, but once I spot something I can’t erase (like an asterisk in pen) I feel it spoils the book, though not necessarily the knowledge within.
I can’t bring myself to scribble or doodle in a book (even lightly with a pencil) and I guess that’s because the perfection of the book is somehow more important to me than my potential learning. I remember I once owned a hardback copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations by Loeb Classical Library. It was a beautiful book. One day I got a smudge on one of the pages and, to this day, it still bothers me. Yet I also own What Do You Say After You Say Hello? by the late psychiatrist Eric Berne and that copy is dog-eared, underlined and falling apart. But I’m not bothered, and I think that’s because it’s a mass market paperback. Ew.
My argument for not writing in books is that I could change my mind and, if I do, then I’ve got to rub it all out. But do I have to rub them out? In Brain Pickings Maria Popova quotes Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book and he says, “Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it -which comes to the same thing- is to write in it.” I also love Sam Anderson’s quote that marginalia was a way to “fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with the author on some primary textual plane.”
In ‘The Marginal Obsession with Marginalia’ Robert McCrum asks “What happens to marginalia in the age of the Kindle?” There are trade-offs for sure. My problem vanishes but for some the essence of marginalia is lost. McCrum says it “feels all wrong: something about having to call up a menu and type a note on the keypad, with its stud-like plastic buttons, makes the whole process seems forced and contrived. Marginalia are supposed to be spontaneous and fluent.” Me, I’m not so fussy.
Photography to me is like haiku. They both draw their power from what they evoke or imply because a photo can only show so much and three lines can only say so much. I don’t feel their forms are impoverished because they could say or show more. Photography doesn’t need to be film and haiku doesn’t need to be a novel. All forms have their merits.
In an article in The New Yorker (where this post gets its name) Peter Schjeldahl says Stephen Shore’s photography is subliminal, understated and, quoting Walt Whitman, artless. Whitman recommended poets adopt “a perfectly transparent, plate-glassy style, artless” and this reminded me of Cor van den Heuvel’s introduction to The Haiku Anthology when he said:
Haiku, for the reader, is wordless because those few words are invisible. We as readers look right through them. There is nothing between us and the moment.
I’ve been a fan of Shore’s photography since I discovered him years ago because his work reminded me of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. The father and son in that story journey through midwest America to reunite their family and the towns they stop off at along the way are just like those in Shore’s work. (They may be the very same places.) When I see those photos I feel the melancholy of Paris, Texas and like haiku those photos always stay fresh because they’re incomplete and I, who completes the poem by reading it or the photo by viewing it, am a different person each time.