Monday, January 5, 2009

Poetry and Old Age


I’m slowly reading a wonderful book, Murmured Conversations: A Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei, translated (and including a gracefully written commentary) by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, a professor of Japanese Literature at the University of Michigan. Murmured Conversations was written in the 15th century as a guidebook or training manual for composing renga (linked poetry). The book is frightfully expensive at $70, which puts it clearly outside the price range of poets, the audience for whom this book was originally intended (and a group with notoriously low purchase power). Of course, there are many formal poetic structures available to poets in addition to renga, and following someone’s instructions—no matter how well intended they might be—won’t necessarily result in a decent poem, but the text is also a very clear statement of the Japanese Buddhist aesthetic—a stance or view of the world that has always seemed both attractive and sensible to me. So the book is really a twofer, as we say these days.

I was particularly intrigued by a chapter entitled One’s True Poetry Emerges in Old Age. “The Way is made precisely to be cultivated by the calm and liberated spirit,” Shinkei tells us. “Therefore one can begin to practice it properly and with keenest discernment only after one has passed middle age. Old age is indubitably the time when the verse that is truly one’s own emerges.”

This is definitely good news as far as I’m concerned. I’m passed middle age and, although I don’t write many poems these days, I probably have a few more lurking around somewhere in the shrinking limbic area of my brain. Thanks to Shinkei’s encouraging teisho, they may still see the light of day.

In addition, this chapter caught my eye because I’ve been reading two books of poetry that—while very different—are written by older people, and I think Shinkei’s thesis tests out.


The first book is The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto by Norman Waddell, published by Counterpoint Press. It is a translation of poems and prose by Baisao and includes a long biographical sketch. After 38 years as an Obaku Zen priest in a temple in southern Japan, Baiso left for Kyoto, where he opened a small tea shop (which he named Tsusen-tei—“the shop that conveys you to Sagehood”). He enjoyed moving around the Kyoto/Osaka area with his tea equipment. In various scenic places he brewed tea for people who had come there to enjoy nature. He didn’t fix a price and allowed customers to pay what they would. Perhaps this wasn’t the wisest business decision, but Baiso was a religious nonconformist who embraced a life of poverty. He died at the age of 88, beloved by many people.

I don’t read Japanese, but the poems translated into English are direct, spare, plain. What’s not essential has been removed:

Seventy years of Zen
got me nowhere at all
shed my black robe
became a shaggy crank.
now I have no business
with sacred or profane
just simmer tea for folks
and hold starvation back.

Baiso’s life and his poems are fine examples of how to deal with the double adversities of old age and poverty—welcome help in this difficult historical moment. Given the collapse of Supercapitalism we need new models, and The Old Tea Seller is filled with bracing advice. It would make a fine gift to those folks stiffed by Bernard Madoff


This April Copper Canyon Press will publish In Search of Small Gods, new poems by Jim Harrison, who will be 72 this year. I can personally testify that he fits all of Shinkei’s criteria—he’s a liberated spirit, he possesses the keenest discernment, and he’s calm (although I believe his pulse starts to race when he encounters good food and drink). He also possesses a fine sense of humor and has a sharp awareness of the tragic human condition. In addition, he’s carefully read the great backcountry Chinese and Japanese poets and he’s familiar with the various Zen koan collections.

All of this is evident in the new collection, his twelfth book of poetry (and my favorite so far). These influences get transformed by the landscapes of Michigan, Montana and the Arizona/Mexico border country into poems that are distinctly American. In Search of Small Gods contains fish, birds, death, peonies, many beloved dogs, a book of poems by Su Tung-p’o, various wacky speculations, a few regrets and tall tales that wander off into strange dreams. The world and all these things shine through this book.

“What am I to make of this?” Harrison asks, as if these details threaten to overwhelm him.

No matter. “The heart of Poetry is like heaven-and-earth giving rise to teeming phenomena and a myriad mutations,” Shinkei says. It’s enough that Harrison has so playfully and skillfully called all this to our attention.

1 comment:

julia said...

all three books sound very encouraging to those of us feeling older. thanks for writing about them.