Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Vincent Tripi, Paperweight For Nothing.
Tribe Press: Greenfield, MA, 2006.

"The mark of the sage will be that his expressions—whether calligraphy, poetry, philosophy—
are initially attuned to natural configurations.
" 1



The first poem in this collection of Vincent Tripi's haiku is:

Where I first
catch a glimpse of the mountain
waterfall sound

Standing in the mist, the poet's ancestor appears. It is Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), aging and bow-legged, a man who, like many of our best contemporary poets, was not well-known while he lived. However, a century later he was, and continues to be, one of the most praised and quoted poets in the history of Japan. His world-famous take on a frog jumping into a pond, breaking its surface’s tension with a plop, to Tripi’s ear is a waterfall, in which each of the ten thousand sounds is woven with all the others, displaying the power of the omni-voiced psyche.

Although there are perhaps thousands of Western haiku poets, a few of them, like Vincent Tripi, are extemporary. It still seems as if haiku must be defended as a legitimate genre in Western Poetics. I don't think it's the language, as a translation from any language is bound to miss the poem's heart, which is cultural. So it must be the culture's aesthetics, that was, in effect, closed to the West during the centuries when haiku was blossoming. Even haiku written in English sound somewhat foreign to the ear. This, I suggest, is because they strive for direct apprehension—the fewer words the better—, not the flowery, or cognitive, language the Western mind has developed. In fact, a mistake often made when one reads a haiku is that it is a quick study, while it is actually a poetry of lingering depth with deceptive consequences. As Lance Esplund wrote of Henri Matisse, “He gives us just enough so that we have it all.” 2

hummingbird      a lifetime...

But Western culture has become divorced from the "natural world," the traditional focus of haiku, that we can't have it all without re-calibrating our senses. Whether we live in a city or not, we all participate in the same circulation of biotic and climatic events, on, above and below the earth's surface, a living system in which the deceased, too, circulate.

Paperweight for Nothing is Vincent Tripi's fourteenth solo book, many of which have been published in beautifully-designed limited editions. Ironic, because before the 17th Century literary texts in Japan "had been transmitted only in hand-written manuscripts of limited quantities and were almost entirely the possession of a small elite group of aristocrats, priests, and high-ranking samurai." 3 However, around the middle of the century a new socioeconomic structure that promoted a more general education and "print capitalism" arose. By the time Bashō began writing, over 650 books of haiku, then called haikai—a popular form of linked verse that preceded haiku—, had been commercially published, an amount second only to Buddhist texts.

To this day, the spirit of Zen Buddhism thrives in haiku, especially in the West, and many haiku poets practice some form of Buddhist meditation. Although Tripi is one of these, much of his work, at least in this book, cannot be called Zen poetry, as often they are written from the standpoint of the poet's persona—

What can someone
mouth full of potatoes say
about the winter moon?

That is, the poem doesn't say, but poses a question. This is the Baconian strategy that has been so successful in developing Western science and our present predicament. It is not a Buddhist view of the world, which, as a haiku, would juxtapose a potato and the moon without someone in between. Zen is not a liminal, in-between, state of being. It is a way of suchness. Bashō himself said that in order to write about bamboo one must first be bamboo. Completely objective, with no persona in the way. This doesn't make Tripi's poems less important, only more psychological. If anything, contemporary haiku needs to respond to where we presently are, and not so much to the ideal that Zen inspires. Where we're at is where we begin.

In his Author's Note, Tripi gives his philosophy as: “Everything changes but the heart of each moment." This is reminiscent of the mendicant Zen priest and poet, Taneda Santōka (1882-1940), who wrote, "Anything that is not present in one's heart is not haiku." In his introduction to Santōka's poetry, John Stevens added, that "while others maintained haiku to be literature or art, Santōka felt that haiku was life itself." 4

          barn owl's business
                with moon

Even from those well-known American poets who have worked in the genre of haiku—the list is long—these poems by them are not recognized as significant, as they seem to academic critics nothing more than an hiatus between major works. While in Japan, haiku has deep etymological roots, "in which the reconstructed or imagined past intersect(s) with the immediately observed present." 3 Especially after its subject matter was broadened by poet and critic Masoka Shiki (1869-1902), and later the free-verse haiku of Santōka, it remains serious foliage. Transplanted in the West, especially by a few of the American Beat Poets of the 1950s, along with scholars like D.T. Suzuki, R.H. Blyth and Harold Henderson, it still struggles to find the proper soil for, as Tripi puts it, "a small place assured / in the summer woods."



Place itself plays an important role in haiku aesthetics. The philosopher Edward Casey wrote, "It is becoming increasingly evident that place can indeed exert an active influence on us (though this is nothing new to pilgrims) and we have begun to understand just how it can do so via memorability and its tie to the human heart." 5 The Japanese word, utamakura, literally, "pillow of the song," refers to "places made famous in the cultural tradition, with specific associations known to most all readers." 6

Visiting utamakura is a Japanese tradition that goes back to the 7th Century, and verses collected in the Manyōshū, "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves," the first anthology of Japanese poetry and other ancient texts. Sam Hamill describes the poet setting out on his last, and most famous, journey, described in Bashō's, Oku no hosomichi, which Hamill aptly translates as "the narrow road within" (or) "the narrow way through the interior." That is, he sees it as much a psychological trip as a topological one—

"Because of poor health, Bashō carried extra nightwear in his pack along with his cotton robe or yukata, a raincoat, calligraphy supplies, and of course hanamuke, departure gifts from well-wishers, gifts he found impossible to leave behind."7

Hamill makes the legendary poet more human, with his pajamas, robe, and the raincoat that Lesley Downer described as "a strange matted tattered garment like an ancient pelt or the discarded feathers of some enormous bird.” 8

      testing his cape

Becoming a poem, a place is dis-placed, not only because each person reads a poem differently, but also because every a place is in midst of changing. So that, in effect, to be in a place is to be between places. Although countless books have been written on the notion of place, what a place is remains hypothetical, except in the brochures of travel bureaus and Chambers of Commerce, who sell the idea of a place. In reality, as every description of a place has already been displaced, the gifted poet—one who spends a lifetime learning how to make a poem—uses particulars metaphorically. Thus, changes are accounted for in the body of the work, and one doesn't strive to limn reality.[Tripi quotes H.D. Thoreau: "All change is a miracle to contemplate..."]

In Paul Cézanne's paintings, fruit ceases "to be edible altogether, that's how thinglike and real they become, how simply indestructible in their stubborn thereness." 9 In fact, from comparing the matter-of-fact journal Bashō's friend and traveling companion, Sora, kept of their journey with the published Oku no hosomichi, we know that Bashō turned mundane places into poetic spaces, just as Thoreau made a secluded pond into a utamakura.

And what about the light blue lines Tripi puts into his book? Such as,

What if the wild geese never left & we were truly here!

What is interesting here is that the poet sees himself as a wild goose. To be truly here, then, one's imagination must be free, shape-shifting between what we call "human" and the balance of the world; stones included. As C.G. Jung wrote, reminiscing on when he was a boy:

"Often when I was alone I sat down on this stone and began an imaginary game that went something like this: I am sitting on top of this stone and it is underneath." The question then arose, "Am I the one who is sitting on the stone, or am I the stone on which he is sitting?" 10

It is unlikely that at that young age Jung knew of Chuang Tzu's famous dream of the butterfly: in psychology, a symbol of the soul; in physics, of how we are all connected.

Between apples,
            between apple trees,
                    between orchards



In 2005, I attended the Haiku North America Conference at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, WA, an old Army post, cold and gray that weekend, wooden rectangular buildings with the same lack of character most old military reservations deploy. One morning, as a group of us were walking in the surrounding woods, past rusting cannons and crumbling battlements, the poet Christopher Herold and I found we had attended the same Zen monastery and knew some of the same personnel. I recalled black robes, shaven heads, and the chasing of enlightenment like one's shadow on a moonless night. This was one of my youthful pursuits. So now I wonder about Vincent Tripi's biography, as I've seen none, not even an interview, even though he's been writing and publishing for more than 20 years. As all writing is in some sense autobiographical fodder for literary historians, is it important that we know more than what we can imagine from a poet's work?

Ah lightning
      when you were a firefly
             & i was a boy!

A drawing of Tripi on the back flyleaf shows a smiling man, bald, with hair flying up from both sides of his head like flames, and in a poem he admits to a Brooklyn accent (probably like my own). But it seems to me that, when it comes to an artist, the proper question is, "Whose autobiography?," as an artist lives within both a personal myth and a universal one. Tripi hints at this by using a lower case i, placing his temporal persona within a larger story. "Like Bashō, Santōka believed that the poet and the scene he or she observes should fuse with each other until they become a single entity." 11 Few haiku poets reach this ultra-phenomenological state of awareness, but they at least have it as an ideal to work toward. I think this is important because, as we search for more earth-friendly ways of living, the less otherness we feel toward nature the more likely we are to harm it. So that the study, and perhaps the practice, of haiku is worthy of being taught not only in literary courses, but in the Earth Sciences too. This brings us to the problem of Western languages when they attempt the construction of haiku.

In his essay, "Zen and Haiku," Japanese philosopher Daisetz T. Suzuki, one of the earliest authorities on Zen Buddhism to publish in English, comments on a poem by Kobayashi Issa (1763-2827): Ō-botaru / Yurari-yurari to, Tōri keri. Using a translation by R.H. Blyth: "A huge butterfly, / Waveringly, / Passes by," Dr. Suzuki opins that for the Japanese words yurari-yurari to, probably there is no English word equivalent," as all the words tried in various English translations (such as William Hugginson's, "wobbling, wobbling" 12) are conceptual—

"whereas yuari-yurari to, no doubt describing a discontinuous movement, is very much more than that; it suggests feelings of freedom, unconcernedness, dignity, not being hurried by anything external, leisurely taking one's own time." 13

Suzuki also claimed that "(East Asians) live closer to the pristine experiences of reality than those peoples who have highly developed their systems of analysis and abstraction." Like many Japanese Zen Buddhists of his generation, he also believed that Westerners weren't capable of serious meditation practice (zazen). Thus, while writing extensively on satori (enlightenment), Suzuki almost always left out the means to obtain it. Given this attitude, how could someone not Japanese be expected to write haiku!

Since then, however, several Westerners have received inka (confirmation of one's insight) from Japanese Zen Masters. There is even a second, perhaps a third, generation of American Zen Masters. And although translation from ideographic languages into alphabetic ones will always fall short of the latter's "beguiling vagueness," as Suzuki puts it, there are many examples of excellent haiku written in English and other Indo-European languages. Although, like with every artist, the quality of Vincent Tripi's work is uneven, his best is among the best, as with this one that radiates with a soft painterly glow—

Moth outside—
    the midwife works
         by candlelight



1- Lamarre, T. (2002) "Diagram, Inscription, Sensation." In, B. Massumi, Editor, A Shock to Thought. London: Routledge.
2- Esplund, L. (2005) “Resurrecting Matisse.” Harper’s Magazine, December.
3- Shirane, H. (1998) Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
4- Stevens, J. (1982) Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku by Santōka Taneda. New York: Weatherhill.
5- Casey, E. (1982) "Getting Placed: Soul in Space." Spring: An Annual of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought.
6- Barnhill, D.L. (2005) Bashō's Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
7- Hamill, S. (1990) "Bashō's Ghost." A Poet's Work: The Other Side of Poetry. Seattle: Broken Moon Press.
8- Downer, L. (1989) On the Narrow Road: Journey into Lost Japan. New York: Summit Books.
9- Rilke, R.M. (1985) Letters on Cézanne. New York: Fromm International Puiblishing Corporation.
10- Jung, C.G. (1962) Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Pantheon Books.
11- Watson, B. (2003) For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka. New York: Columbia University Press.
12- Hugginson, W. (1985) The Haiku Handbook. London: Kodansha International Ltd.
13- Suzuki, D.T. (1991) "Zen and Haiku." Zen and Japanese Culture. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.