December 2, 2012

James Fleming


We don’t normally think of cops as having much to do with poetry. During my 30 years with the Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau, my interest in it was at least tolerated. I was editor of the police union newspaper and was able to use that medium for expressing what poetics I might think appropriate to the union cause. I admit straying from time to time from unionism in order to expose the readership to the joys of poetry for itself.

I never received any complaints about doing this. A fellow officer would sometimes ask me to explain what in hell I was trying to say. It seemed to me that this is about as much as any poet can expect from his or her readers. Someone had read the stuff and reacted to it.

* * *

Cops actually do have more in common with poets than one would think. Police officers are always writing. They used to do it in donut shops, but now on computers. Relevant detail must be written down, with strict regard for detail and accuracy. Isn’t this what a poet does?

It’s a task for both poets and cops to render experience into words. As with the poet, the cop must be a careful observer. The initial police report is where all investigation must begin. The success or failure of an investigation can be determined by the writing ability of the first cop on the scene.

I taught report writing to cops at the police academy and always asked that they write a poem. I would offer comment as if it were a poetry workshop. I believe the experience taught them the importance of careful writing. They produced some remarkably good poems.

* * *

If the street cop is called to investigate a crime, his report will wind up in a Detective Division detail according to the type of crime committed, which could be burglary, auto theft, larceny, homicide, fraud or something else.

I once worked in the Larceny detail as the detective in charge. In some ways, it was like being an editor for a literary magazine. Reports (submissions) from street officers would flood in, and it was my job to reject or accept what would merit further action. Literary merit (a well-written report) would catch my eye. It meant we could depend on the report and the officer as to the facts and their reliability in a prosecution.

* * *

One might say that police reports should be free from passion and personal opinion, two things poets freely indulge in. But good poetry should evoke passion, not talk about it. And a sparse, carefully written police report can evoke tears.

* * *

On a weekend night a district cop can spend his shift racing from one “family disturbance” to another. Drinking and fighting seem to be a weekly ritual in some households. The arrival of the cops can be the dispute’s climax. It’s when the participants have someone to judge the merit of their grievances against one another.

As routine as these calls might be, they would occasionally evolve into something quite unexpected. When I worked the street, I could count on a weekly call to the home of a particular family. I came to know the scrapping husband and wife, and would try to advise them on the futility and even hazards of their way of life. But their fighting seemed to be as addictive as their drinking. My arrival was part of the way the scene had to play out.

Once, when I got my usual Saturday night call to the house, the husband, quite sober, invited me in. “Emily is leaving,” he said. “We wanted you to know.” She sat on the couch crying, a suitcase at her feet. I was stunned. I wouldn’t see them again.

* * *

“A policeman’s lot is not a happy one” runs a refrain from The Pirates of Penzance. The observation is regrettably still true today, although we would probably feel uncomfortable with a cop who took joy in his work.

We are wary of the police in the way we are wary of poets. They are both reminders of the strains and hazards of being human. We think of criminals as lacking in humanity. Those I’ve known are remarkably ordinary people. They have human needs which they fulfill in all-too-human ways.

Cops are either protectors or thugs, depending on the authority they work for. Like soldiers who can’t choose their battles, they go after whomever their superiors say they should. Poets aspire to act freely. As expansive as language is, poets can only work within its limitations. Knowing the limits and possibilities of your material is a basic requirement for any art. It’s called creativity.

* * *

Cops work within the law and are confined by it. Within those limitations, it’s surprising how much creativity goes on.

When I was a detective, I took an under-cover assignment as a means of effecting an arrest on a Mr. Jim Elkins (now deceased), who had earned the reputation of Portland’s crime boss. Being the pro that he was, he had avoided all police efforts toward putting him in jail. I posed as a petty crook and was eventually able to not only meet Elkins but to be accepted by him as a close companion. For months I shared the criminal life with him. I was able to avoid a criminal act myself, but while I was trying to catch “Big Jim” and others on charges that would stick, I enjoyed a privileged and favored lifestyle as personal friend to a high-level crime figure. When I finally arrested him, it felt like a betrayal—which it was.

* * *

There is also isolation. It’s a condition for all writers trying to get the right words down. For cops it’s more of a lifestyle. Part of it is that they do a lot of shift work. It’s surprising how much this puts you out of phase with the rest of the world. Like many people, cops like to go out after work to have a drink and relax. I knew cops who worked the graveyard shift and would gather at a tavern at eight in the morning. To be awake when most everyone else is sleeping is a particular kind of isolation. If you work the swing shift, you don’t have the evenings for normal socializing, and you hang out with other swing-shift cops.

* * *

Cops and poets are intruders into other people’s lives. They both probe for character, motive, history. They both eavesdrop and want to know what people are up to. A person of interest can wind up in a poem or in jail. In any case, the interest is self-serving. Cops and poets take what they need from their person of interest and move on. Whatever other problems are uncovered in the process are for someone else to deal with.

* * *

In the old TV series Dragnet, the detective Joe Friday was always asking witnesses for “just the facts.” During my detective years, I came to realize why he would say this. As soon as people learn they may become part of a crime investigation, many of them will try to exaggerate their part in it. People also will see an interview as an opportunity to explain to an authority figure how they themselves had been the target of injustice, straying away from the relevant details. Cops, like poets, appreciate words used sparingly and to the point.

* * *

At one time in my police career, I was assigned to Radio Dispatch. It was before the use of civilians for such duty. The system was quite simple then. A phone call to the one police number connected you to a knowledgeable woman at a switchboard. She sent calls for help to us in Dispatch. We would first start a district car to the address. In the time it took the car to get there, we would keep the caller on the line and extract as much information as we could so that upon arrival, the responding officer would have a complete and up-to-date idea of what was going on.

I once talked to a caller who could hear a prowler breaking into her house. She told me she had a gun. The man coming onto your porch now, I told her, is a police officer. Don’t shoot him. The need for the right use of language here was obvious.

* * *

Poets seldom advise us on how to behave. The police do. But poets also try to get to a truth that applies to everyone, which is what the law does.

* * *

Poets and the police bring the world to account. Both try to hold us to hard truths about what our behavior says about us.

* * *

There’s sort of a complementary opposition to the way cops and poets deal with emotions. The poet tries to evoke them, and the cop tries to calm them. In order to do either, both cop and poet have to know something about the human psyche. Motive is always an element in the investigation of any crime. There are crimes of passion and crimes of opportunity. Behind both is a human emotion, hate or greed perhaps, which the police investigator looks for.

Poets take no responsibility for what legal consequence their writing may stir up. But the law is based upon an assumption the poet also makes. It takes the view, as the poet does, that human behavior is consistent enough to be predictable. A crime or a poem says something about all of us.

from Rattle #37, Summer 2012
Tribute to Law Enforcement Poets

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October 16, 2012

Art Beck


Note: Part 1 of this essay appeared on October 9th and can be read here.

IV. Colonialism, language and love.

For the sake of argument, let’s presume that poetry mutates and germinates as it migrates. And that the translator’s ability to create literature in the target culture is at least equally important as foreign language literacy. Even so there’s still an implicit question Parks didn’t get into that seems worth exploring: Why or how would anyone get interested in translating from a language in which they’re not fluent? Is it a kind of cultural colonialism, akin, say, to mining diamonds?

Exploitation is an obvious factor, but poetry translators aren’t crass commercialists. Rather, I think they’re trying to transplant a heartbeat, to scoop a living fish from one stream and set it free in another.

Might the imperfectly schooled translator’s motivation be better described as “inspired opportunism”? Consider the proverb about lovers: “One kisses, the other offers the cheek.”  The unworthy bumpkin translator receives the barest lip of a kiss on the cheek and wants to explore?

There are, of course, translators who translate out of a deep regard for the source language and its literature. Francophiles, Russophiles, Sinophiles, etc. etc. They’re like lovers who study and absorb the object of their affections. Lovers who labor to make themselves worthy. Because the “one who kisses” is a devotee, sensitive to the nuances of the beloved. Are they the ideal translators? Sometimes it works like heaven on earth. But, alas,  “the one who kisses” is just as often spurned and even more often pained. Conversely in life, that careless ignoramus, who “offers the cheek,” is always rewarded and never suffers.

Until of course, as sometimes happens to the most brazen of cheek-offerers, the trap is quietly sprung and they’re astonished at how quickly they fall and dangle in love. If “world literature” indeed exists, it’s a kind of fertility–so love should be no surprise.


V: Exophonic authors: the opposite of dark, the most attentive kiss

Let’s wander out of the dark for awhile into the ultimate brilliance of fluency: where translation turns inside out and one goes beyond translating a language to translating oneself. Most everyone who’s ever tried to learn a foreign language experiences a quantum degree of difficulty between reading and comprehending and trying to speak, much less write, in that language.

Even so, throughout history, untold millions, maybe billions or more, of immigrants have become fluent in new languages in the process of making new lives. The fluency of immigrants comes in degrees, of course. My grandparents on both sides were minimally educated Poles who emigrated in the teens of the last century. They spoke well enough to get along–work, shop, listen to the radio and, later, watch television in English. But they read only Polish newspapers and their ability to write in English probably never exceeded the most rudimentary post card message.

That’s a far cry from the not-unusual immigrant in the corporate or business world, whose English skills, accented or not, may be several cuts above that of the native born clerical staff. But over the ages, how many of this great migrating horde have written classic literature in their new language? Out of the billions or trillions, are we talking in the thousands? In any case, some number infinitely more infinitesimal than 1%. If World Literature exists anywhere, it’s certainly present here, at the extremes of cosmopolitanism.

There’s a February, 2011, article in the Guardian by Dan Vyleta (who’s described as a “Czech-German-English-Canadian” novelist) listing Vyleta’s pick for the top ten “exophonic” books. For me there’s something too academically trendy about the term “exophonic,” but, lacking a better word, it will have to do. Among Vyleta’s authors is Joseph Conrad who Vyleta characterize as “the patron saint of exophonic authors.”  And, of course, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Koestler, Joseph Brodsky (a poet in Russian and essaysist in English). And the non-Eastern Europeans Ha Jin and Samuel Beckett.

Beckett switched to writing primarily in French the second half of his life, to the extent that when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969, the New York Times noted: “It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Beckett should be regarded as an Irish or a French winner.” The subsequent official award presentation speech by Karl Ragnar Gierow doesn’t much clarify the matter:

Mix a powerful imagination with a logic in absurdum, and the result will be either a paradox or an Irishman. If it is an Irishman, you will get the paradox into the bargain. Even the Nobel Prize in Literature is sometimes divided. Paradoxically, this has happened in 1969, a single award being addressed to one man, two languages and a third nation, itself divided…


VI. The divided dynamics of transformation.

One exophonic writer who Vyleta misses is Apuleius whose 2nd century novel Asinus Aureas (“The Golden Ass,” originally entitled “Metamorphoses”) remains an often-translated classic. The rambling story of Lucius who was magically turned into a jackass and after many adventures restored to humanity is still read as much for pleasure as scholarship today. And the last lines of its short prologue seem particularly apropos to this discussion: Iam haec equidem ipsa vocis immutatio desultoriae scientiae stil quem accessimus respondet. Fabulam Graqceanicam incipimus. Lector intende: laetaberis.

Roughly in English:  “But then, for my part, I’d respond that this desultory interchange of language is precisely the literary discipline required. It’s a Greek story we’re commencing: Reader, pay attention. You’ll be glad.”

There’s a practical  translation challenge in these lines that I think is very difficult to solve–an essential image that didn’t come across in my translation above. An image perhaps central to the exophone experience and to that ephemeral concept, “world literature.”

To put the lines in context, we need to back up into the Prologue. The first-person narrator describes himself as a non-native Latin speaker, formally educated in Greece, who later came to practice law in the Roman courts and taught himself workplace Latin with great difficulty. The speaker’s path somewhat resembles Apuleius’s.

You’d expect Apuleius–who before going to Greece grew up as a child in Roman North Africa–to have been exposed to Latin well before he arrived in Rome to practice law. However, Jack Lindsay, a late-Latin scholar and translator of the work, notes in his 1932 introduction that Punic and Greek were also widely spoken in the North African provinces. So no one really knows what language or dialect prevailed in Apuleius’s childhood home and neighborhood. And the first-person narrator who introduces himself in the Prologue might well be taken as somewhat of a proxy for Apuleius, just as the protagonist’s later conversion to the Isis cult is identified with Apuleius’ religious beliefs.

In the Prologue, the narrator apologizes and begs indulgence for mistakes he may make as a foreigner attempting literary Latin. But then he realizes that since it’s a Greek story he’s telling, his Greek accent is just the thing. It’s as if Andre Codrescu declared himself uniquely qualified to write a new version of Dracula.

What’s hard to bring across, however, is the imagery Apuleius uses to describe the switch in languages: vocis immutatio desutloriae.  “Desultory” in English derives from the Latin “desultor.” But it’s forgotten its roots. The English word means to sort of idly wander back and forth. The Latin root denotes an acrobat in the circus (the horse races), a trick rider who vaults back and forth between horses and chariots.

If that image could be conveyed, all kinds of things might come to life. The galloping power of two languages (and their underlying cultures). The discipline and grace of the artist as acrobat–and outsider. The “scientiae” of Greek studied in the academy and Latin learned in the school of hard knocks. The serious play and risk of the work at hand. The ringmaster announcing a spectacle well worth the reader’s attention.

Apuleius knew full well he was a master of Latin. He may have been educated in Greece, but he chose to write in Latin. The enrichment of Latin with Greek was nothing new. Some 200 years earlier, Horace staked his claim to fame on being “the first to bring Greek meter into Latin verse.” Similarly, Apuleius, re-inventing the Greek novel in Latin was, like Horace, creating not an imitation but a new Latin genre.

It’s easier to describe than translate the image. But a description loses the compressed energy of the Latin. The following is no more than a stab. “But then I tell myself that like an acrobat leaping between horses, this is just the accent and experience the story needs. It is, after all, a Greek tale we’re commencing. Reader, pay attention: you’ll be glad.”


VII: A Polish Novelist?And so, no Nobel.

On December 3, 2009 a friend forwarded Garrison Keilor’s Writer’s Almanac  post for the day. It included this note:

It’s the birthday of the man who wrote: “It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream–alone.” That’s the Polish writer Joseph Conrad…born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857). By the time Joseph was twelve, both his parents had died of tuberculosis.

So he went to live with an uncle, got a good education, and then went off to sea with the French merchant navy at age 17, and a few years later, joined the British (mercantile) marines…

I found myself crankily emailing back:

John–I was glad you noted Conrad’s birthday. A chance to think about him again and realize what a giant he was. The anti-Kipling, etc. I think he pretty well defines the underside of colonialism and also – in Nostromo, for instance – sniffs out the fascism lurking in the young century. A hundred years later, he doesn’t seem a bit dated. His world still inhabits ours. But sometimes I find that Garrison Keillor–in his literati pose–annoys me no end. … “The Polish writer, Joseph Conrad…” ??  Someone who’d never heard of Conrad (and we probably both know more than a few people who haven’t) would never realize reading Keillor that Conrad wrote in English. Conrad is about as much of a “Polish writer” as Tom Kryss and I are Polish poets.

I should first of all apologize to Garrison Keillor. Browsing The Writer’s Almanac, I find he’s done other posts on Conrad that both more than clarify the issue and very intelligently comment on Conrad’s work as a master of English prose. Apart from wondering if the “Polish writer” soubriquet wasn’t the work of an intern that slipped past, my response was also driven by the memory of a Conrad biography I’d read some years earlier. Again, I find myself unable to properly cite because I’ve forgotten the name of the work, but stuck in my memory is the biographer’s description of Conrad’s quiet elation at hearing he was shortlisted for the 1907 Nobel Prize which was going to be awarded to a British writer. And his later dejection at the whisper that he’d been ultimately rejected in favor of Kipling because the committee had doubts about whether a foreigner writing in English could be an “English author.”

The official 1907 Nobel presentation included the following:

In the cycle entitled The Seven Seas (1896) Kipling reveals himself as an imperialist, a citizen of a world-wide empire. He has undoubtedly done more than any other writer of pure literature to draw tighter the bonds of union between England and her colonies.

In 1899, Conrad published Heart of Darkness in a three part magazine serial. The novella is a still widely read meditation on the mad underside of colonialism. Early on in the work, Conrad’s recurring alter-ego narrator,  Charlie Marlow, offers: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

In 1899, Kipling published a poem dedicated to “The United States and the Philippine Islands.”  Posterity, obviously, hasn’t viewed Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” kindly. But it’s striking that the 1907 Nobel committee used the term “imperialist” as a compliment not the pejorative it’s become. Reading the Nobel presentation, you get the sense that “The White Man’s Burden” was a reflection of the prevailing culture, and Heart of Darkness an outlier. If Conrad was, indeed, short listed, it would be instructive to read the minority argument.

Although it’s not all that simple. Kipling’s literary scope far exceeded his imperialist jingoism. And Conrad has been notably criticized by the acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who found reading Heart of Darkness to be a painfully racist experience. Achebe’s view has, of course, in turn been criticized. But when I read his response to Heart of Darkness, I find myself empathizing–not that Conrad’s novel is racist, but that its portrayal of Africa is sharply Eurocentric. From what other perspective was Conrad qualified to write? It’s Kurtz, who’s “gone native” and lives among the severed heads of his conquests stuck on poles, who’s the subject of the story. Not the Congolese natives who cherish Kurtz like a demi-god, a “simple people” with a predeliction for cannibalism, who quail at the screech of the steamboat whistle.

From the standpoint of the colonized, this may be a technical quibble. Most of Conrad’s Europeans are real, the Congo is real, but his “natives” today seem no less symbolic than Kurtz, whose darkness we also never really fathom. Like a poet groping for metaphors among the savage myths of antiquity, he appropriates their alienness. Is the dark pulse of his narrative any less vital for this?

And after reading Conrad’s 1912 memoir A Personal Record,  I recently found myself more in sympathy with someone else: Garrison Keillor (or perhaps the intern?) who dubbed Conrad a “Polish writer.”  A Personal Record opens with some literary philosophizing, but it’s not a writing career memoir. From a narrative standpoint, it begins and effectively ends at the point in Conrad’s life when he decides he can become a novelist. Like most of Conrad’s narratives, it circles awhile – before bringing us to his childhood in Eastern Europe and tales of his grandparents, granduncles, parents and other relatives. All “citizens” of a country that hadn’t officially existed for generations before Conrad’s birth. Orphaned at an early age, Conrad’s ancestral and personal early memories seem tangled; interwoven with clotted pain and futility. And the unquestioned need to look elsewhere for any sense of home.

Presumably, as with every human, Conrad’s first years imposed their indelible imprint on his psyche. But with Conrad it’s as if that inescapable inner-child could never risk expression in the language of his broken childhood. Or even in French, a language he was reportedly fluent in since boyhood. He needed workplace, seafaring English, and, ultimately, England to, finally in his 30s, begin to speak from the heart.

James Joyce could only fully flower as an Irish writer in self imposed exile, but he still wrote in his childhood tongue. Conrad seems to have been born an exile. In a 1919 “author’s note” to a re-issued edition of A Personal Record, he again revisits the alienation of his childhood, the death of his parents and “the fact of my not writing in my native language.” Something he himself acknowledges as “freakish.”  After some discussion, he concludes that it wasn’t he who “adopted” English, but that the English language adopted him. And that: “All I can claim after all those years of devoted practice, with the accumulated anguish of its doubts, imperfections and falterings in my heart, is the right to be believed when I say that if I had not written in English, I would not have written at all.”

I believe him. And I also agree with him that the phenomenon is “too mysterious to explain…as impossible as trying to explain love at first sight.” Implicit in Conrad’s description is a sense that language is elusively, but no less powerfully, alive. And that culture is born to travel. Conrad has described what English brought to him. But what did Conrad bring to English? An outsider’s loner sensibility, a refreshment, a slightly strange lilt, the energy of a man suddenly changed by falling in love with a tongue entirely new to him–all those things that translation brings? And like a translated poem coming alive in a new language, his energy seems stirred more by some still-forming future than either English or Polish tradition. The kind of art that wants to go where it’s going, not where it’s been.

Conrad and Apuleius weren’t translators per se, but what they have to say about language dynamics seems to me to bear out my–wholly personal–inclination to dismiss the arguments both for and against “domestication” and “foreignization.” I think the two exophones would consider both to be false choices. Apuleius galloped his Greek tale into Rome in masterful workaday Latin. And Conrad’s rich English–Captain Charlie Marlow’s everyday language painstakingly acquired like a sea bag full of gold–became the ransom that finally released his choked-back, childhood voice.


VIII: Imagine a deep freeze and whirled peas.

But enough theorizing, let’s get to the supernatural and dead poets.  And in case you’re getting tired of all this wandering among the novelists, I’ll play the part of  the  typical poet unwilling to relinquish the stage at a reading and beg your indulgence for just one last “world literature” segment, beginning with yet another novelist.

I find that I most enjoy the prolific Japanese maestro, Haruki Murakami’s intricate novels in audiobook format. There’s something about his quiet wormholes and the hyper-reality of his plot twists in endlessly wandering stories like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore that makes them perfect aural scenery for walks in the Pacific summer fog. His latest, 1Q84 is no exception.

The title has no English equivalent and poses an immediate translation issue. The reference is to 1984, both Orwell’s 1984 and also the year in which Murakami’s book is set. The letter “Q” in Japanese is a sometimes slangily substituted homonym for the number “9.” Something similar might be  “2” for “to” in English. Murakami’s story takes place, not in a dystopian or nostalgic 1984, but an alternate “1Q84” in which time’s shifted onto another track to a world with two moons and strange happenings.

Its heroine is a hip, 30-ish fitness trainer with the unusual surname, “Aomame.” A name the translated text tells us is

…written with exactly the same characters as the word for “green peas” and pronounced with the same four syllables. Ah-oh-mah-meh… Telling people her name was always a bother. As soon as the name left her lips, the other person looked puzzled or confused. “Miss Aomame?” “Yes, just like ‘green peas’” … Some people would get the name of the plant wrong and call her “Edamame” or “Soromame,” whereupon she would gently correct them. “No, I’m not soybeans or fava beans, just green peas…”

I don’t know if any of the above was expanded in translation for non-Japanese readers, but I do know that Murakami, who lived in the United States for a number of  years and who’s translated many American writers into Japanese, is not above playing language games. Miss Aomame, besides being an environmentally conscious young woman, is also a professional assassin in the service of social causes. Not that Greenpeace employs assassins, but if the novel’s title is a Japanese pun, might Murakami be also punning a bit with “Miss Greenpeas” for his American readers? Something similar began to stir at the back of my mind when I reached chapter 25, near the end of the book. A chapter entitled: “Cold or not, God is Present.”

The chapter setting is a vacant Tokyo apartment where a sleazy private investigator, Ushikawa, has been photographing the building’s tenants in the hope they’ll lead him to Aomame. She’s in hiding after assassinating “Leader,”  the charismatic head of a sinister new-age religious cult, at the behest of “The Dowager,” a powerful woman with a safe house for battered women. Leader’s offense was the ritual abuse of pre-pubescent girls in a sort of sacrfifice intended to invoke the “little people.” Engimatic beings who tunnel their way from an alternate reality and who first appear out of the mouth of a dead goat, then later from the mouths of the brutalized children. Before dying, Leader told Aomame that in ancient times the “little people” may have been perceived as the gods.  Now, in 1Q84, they resemble Goldilocks’s dwarves.

The alien indifference of the spirit world will be a familiar theme to Murakami readers. In The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Lieutenant Mamiya is thrown into a dried up well by Mongolian soldiers and left to die. The sun passing over once a day at noon suddenly envelops him in “overwhelming light” that, despite his misery, imparts “a marvelous sense of oneoness… of unity…. the true meaning of life resided in that light…” That celestial light reconciled Mamiya to his death, but was also a harbinger of his miraculous survival.

An uncertain blessing, because Mamiya, the only one of his unit who managed to return to Japan, lived out his long postwar life in menial work, without family, lovers or friends, regretting the miracle in the well. “… at a time when I should have died, I had been unable to die. It was not that I would not die: I could not die. Do you understand what I am saying? Whatever heavenly grace I may have enjoyed until that moment was lost forever.”

In Kafka on the Shore, “Johnnie Walker,” a paranormal character come to life from the whiskey label, systematically kills cats in order to make a flute from their tortured souls. Murakami’s mystical imagery can be reminiscent of Conrad’s Charlie Marlow  equating cannibal drums with English church bells in Heart of Darkness. And to stretch the metaphor, Ushikawa–who’s working for Leader’s unholy sect–finds himself suddenly a sort of missionary simmering in the pot.

Tamaru, The Dowager’s security chief, has crept up on Ushikawa in his sleeping bag on the floor of the empty apartment and trussed and blindfolded him before he can stir. He’s left like that for a long time, unable to move, helplessly urinating down his legs. Then Tamaru begins to calmly and professionally interrogate him. Ushikawa is cagey. He is, after all, a former lawyer come down in the world. But it was slippery dealing that brought him down, and Tamaru is up to the task. He slips a plastic freezer bag over Ushikawa’s head, tapes it close under his chin and sends him for a walk on “the bottom the sea.”

Plastic bag suffocation, as described from Ushikawa’s perspective, is quite painful, a sort of dry waterboarding. Tamaru methodically finds out everything he needs to know and in the process becomes somewhat empathetic to his unfortunate captive. Ushikawa, he learns, isn’t a member of the sect or aware of its secret rituals. He’s just an independent contractor trying to eke out a living after a long run of bad luck.

Tamaru understands tough times. He’s a WWII displaced Korean orphan smuggled into Japan as a child from Manchuria. Unwanted anywhere, he lived by his wits in the shadows until The Dowager took him in. He’s also a quirkily erudite auto-didact who, for no particular character or plot reason, happens to be gay. Deadly and intelligent, but not unfeeling, Tamaru might be Jean Genet turned enforcer rather than poet. He sincerely ponders the human thing to do with Ushikawa. He’d like to let him live, but the risk is high and the situation murky. Finally, he asks Ushikawa: “By the way, have you ever heard of Carl Jung?”  Ushikawa “instinctively frowns” under his blindfold and responds “Carl Jung the psychologist?” “Exactly.”

They converse a bit about Jung who Ushikawa has no real interest in. Tamaru leisurely describes Jung’s lakeside villa near Zurich and, then, the stone tower Jung constructed with his own hands at Bollingen and how it grew from its simple conception.  “As time went on, he found it necessary to build partititions and divisions…and a second floor… He created paintings on the wall. These were suggestive of the development and split in individual consciousness. The whole house functioned as sort of a three-dimensional mandala. It took him twelve years. For Jungian researchers, it’s …extremely intriguing. Have you heard of this before?”

Ushikawa, of course, hadn’t. Tamaru goes on to say that “rumor has it …that at the entrance ….is a stone into which Jung carved some words with his own hand. Cold or Not, God is Present. That’s what he carved into the stone himslf.”

After repeating the phrase he asks Ushikawa “Do you know what this means?” Ushikawa doesn’t, and Tamaru confesses…

I’m not sure myself…there’s some kind of deep allusion…something difficult to interpret…I don’t know why but I’ve been drawn to these words for a long time…the difficulty in understanding makes it all the more profound. I don’t know much about God. I was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had some awful experiences there so I don’t have a good impression of God. And it was always cold there, even in the summer… If there is a God, I can’t say he treated me very well. Despite all that, those words of Jung’s quietly sunk deep into the folds of my soul. Sometimes I close my eyes and repeat them, over and over, and they make me strangely calm. “Cold or Not, God is Present.” Sorry, but could you say that out loud?

Ushikawa does; first “in a weak voice,” and again at Tamaru’s request, more distinctly. Tamaru whispers “I’m sorry about this” and slips the plastic bag over Ushikawa’s head again. Ushikawa’s last living thought as he suffocates is of the scroungy family dog he never liked and who never liked him, in better times before his divorce.


IX: What the hell does it mean, in Japanese or English or somewhere in between?

In a later chapter, the “little people” climb out of Ushikawa’s dead open mouth “over the greenish mossy tongue, clambering over the dirty, irregular teeth.” But that’s just a morbid detail I can’t resist throwing in.  The actual purpose of all my meandering is the enigmatic phrase “Cold or not, God is Present.”  Listening to the audiobook, I kept wondering: Did Jung really say, or rather carve, that? And if so: like Tamaru and Ushikawa, I wondered–what the hell does it mean?

My first thought was whether there might be some disconnect between the original (was it in German?) phrase, and the Japanese translation. The phrase was vaguely familiar. There was a time when I avidly read Jung , why couldn’t I remember it? With the help of Google, it didn’t take long to find that Jung’s phrase was actually in Latin. Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit. A rather well known phrase to any serious Jungian. It’s carved , not in the Bollingen tower, but over the  entrance to his main Zurich home. And also, on his tombstone.

The Latin words can be variously rendered, but a very common translation of Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit is “Called or not, God is present.” A slight mis-translation as it turns out, but we’ll get to that in a bit. My immediate response was that, of course, Murakami is punning and intentionally misquoting. The substitution  of “cold” for “called” is just what the episode needed, and the confusion is well within character for the eclectically self educated Tamaru. But, if so, is Murakami punning in Japanese as well as English? And if so, how serendipitous that the American translator could find such an apt equivalent?

I decided to query the American Literary Translators Association members at the ALTALK chat group. Surely, someone would know Japanese well enough to shed light on the question of what the pun was in Japanese. But there doesn’t seem to be one! Professor Juliet Winters Carpenter, who teaches in a Japanese college researched Murakami’s original text and noted it reads: Tsumetakutemo, tumetakunakutemo, kami wa iru. Which straightforwardly translates to “Cold or not, God is present.”

Conversely, she notes, “called or not” in Japanese would be either: Yondemo, yobanakutemo . Or yobaretemo, yobarenakutemo. As Juliet reports :

There is no play of words comparable to the one in English. You have to suspect Murakami wrote the line in Japanese based on his knowledge of the English quote (also a translation, of course). It would take a mighty astute reader to penetrate all those layers and find it!

But if ALTALK  chat-groupers are anything they’re astute. And curious. It was at this point that Jim Kates, of  Zephyr Press, a venerable publisher of  poetry in translation, noted that the English “God is present” is itself somewhat of a misquote of deus aderit.  Properly, the phrase is either “God will be present” or the god will be present,”  depending on whether or not you infer a mono or poly theistic context. In any case, the saying didn’t originate with Jung and the group began to research its source. (And at this point, I should mention that Jim Kates is himself at work on an essay on this exchange. So some of what follows may or may not appear plagiarized, but is actually simultaneous reportage.)


X: From Thuycidides to Erasmus, to Jung, to Murakami with a detour through Horace

“Cold or not cold” vs. “Called or not” seems to be language-play in the work of an quirkily erudite Japanese author whose novels are set in Japan, but who draws from world culture and who’s been an international best seller almost from the beginning. It’s easy to imagine Murakami, say in his Princeton or Tufts years, hearing the pun at some waggish faculty gathering. Or it may be original English wordplay on Murakami’s part. Given the detail and length of the chapter’s discussion of Jung, the least likely explanation is that the “mistranslation” was unintentional.

For Jung, as for Ushikawa, the deus in question was also not particularly a solace. In 1960, he wrote to his mentee Aniela Jaffe:

It says: yes, the god will be on the spot, but in what form and to what purpose? I have put the inscription there to remind my patients and myself: Timor dei initium sapiente  (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). Here another…road begins, not the approach to “Christianity” but to God himself and this seems to be the ultimate question.

So Jung’s divinity isn’t anthropomorphic–or even necessarily compassionate, except on its own enigmatic terms. Jung found the phrase in Erasmus’s Adagia, a 16th century compilation of old Latin sayings  he acquired in an antique 1563 edition. In the letter, he acknowledged Jaffe’s citation of the earliest known origin of the phrase. There the pertinent god is Apollo. As Jaffe noted: “It is the answer the Delphic Oracle gave the Lacedemonians when they were planning a war against Athens.”

In our ALTALK thread, it was Jim Kates who located the phrase in Thuycidides history of the Peloponesian War. It was also Jim who researched Thuycidides’ original Greek and noted that the repetitiveness of the Latin isn’t present in the Greek. Thuycidides uses two different words where the Latin uses only vocatus. Perhaps, it’s this repetition that preserves it as a Latin, rather than Greek adage. The repetition of vocatus imparts a certain irony that stresses divinity has it’s own agenda, invoked or uninvoked.

And presuming the old adage is more or less accurately noted in Erasmus, Murakami wasn’t the first to bend it. In the 1st century b.c.e., Horace used a variant of vocatus atque non vocatus… as the final image of his Ode #XVIII, Book II. Horace’s ode is a meditation on the vanity of wealthy pride; the misery of impoverishment–and the divine power of death. It begins chattily, as is Horace’s wont:

Non ebur neque aureum
mea renidet in domo lacunar
non trabes Hymettiae
premunt columnas ultima recisas


Neither ivory nor inlaid gold
glisten from the ceiling of my home,
no Greek marble beams
rest on columns quarried in farthest

Reading Horace’s poem, we don’t need Charlie Marlow to remind us that the Romans, too, were colonialists. In the poem, Horace doesn’t particularly begrudge the rich their wealth, but knows he’s not one of them. No long lost relative is going to leave him a palatial villa; enterprising noblewomen won’t come flirting, full of hope. Still, he’s content in his self-respect and his “blessed” little Sabine farm. While acknowledging that his modest contentment relies on the protection of friends in power. And, of course, the forbearance of the gods.

Horace’s poem is addressed, not directly to the reader but to a powerful acquaintance, vaguely a neighbor, obsessed by greed and ostentation.

…truditor dies die,
novaeque pergunt interire lunae,

tu secanda marmore
locas sub ipsum funus et sepulcri
immemor struis domos,
marisque Bais obstrepentis urges…


…tomorrow drives out yesterday.
new moons wax and die,

and you, on the verge
of the sepulcher, quarry
marble for your beach house
on the crowded coast…

This wealth don’t exist in a vacuum. In his greed, Horace’s addressee, tears down the boundary markers of his farm and evicts his client-tenants. In the C.E. Bennett, Loeb Library trot: “Man and wife are driven forth bearing in their arms their household gods and ragged children.” This is how the rich get richer.

It’s in the next lines that we graduate from humble household gods to the divinity invoked by Horace’s vocatus.  In Thuycidides, the god was Apollo, for Jung, The Creator. For Horace–Orcus. Originally a god of the underworld and the dead, similar to Hades or Pluto. But by Horace’s time–death and the underworld personified. As much a dark force and process as a god. But no less a divinity for the abstraction. The Loeb prose translation proceeds:

And yet no hall more certainly awaits the wealthy lord than greedy Orcus’ destined bourne. Why strive for more and more? For all alike doth earth unlock her bosom–for the poor man and the prince’s sons.

For Horace, Orcus is implacable, the great leveler. His uncorruptible attendant, Charon, has never been bribed, even by “crafty Prometheus,” to ferry anyone back.  And then Horace ends the poem with another personification: the image of Tantalus, not only greedy and avaricious in myth, but the founder of the great overweening house of Atreus. (The “he” in the loose translation below is Orcus.)

hic superbum
Tantalum atque Tantali
genus coercet, hic levare functum
pauperem laboribus
vocatus atque non vocatus audit.

 ….He traps the proud and
all their arrogant descendants.
He senses the impoverished
praying for release from their toil.
Called or not called, he hears.

Cold or not, called or uncalled, invoked or uninvoked. Ushikawa down on his luck. The tenant farmers with their shivering kids and helpless good-luck statues. The anxious Spartans and the anxiety doctor, Jung. All pondering an enigmatic divinity. From Greek to Latin, through Rotterdam and Switzerland, to English to Japanese over two millenia “World literature” just won’t stay put. What does it all mean? Tamaru says it well:

…there’s some kind of deep allusion…something difficult to interpret… I don’t know why but I’ve been drawn to these words for a long time…the difficulty in understanding makes it all the more profound.

The phrase began with the Delphic Oracle after all, where the Pythia utters revelations that belong to everyone and no one, in a dark, sinuous tongue.


Art Beck was a regular contributor to Rattle e-issues with a continuing series of essays on translating poetry. He has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius, Opera Omnia or a Duet for Sitar and Trombone, published by Otis College, Seismicity Editions. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’ California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20 year retrospective.

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October 15, 2012

John E. Buri


“Those that teach honestly, teach ideas that are, ‘lithe and beautiful and immensely generative’.”
—Ann L. Brown’s Paraphrase of Jerome Bruner’s words

Students may become teachers, perhaps mentors and the cycle begins anew. So it is with me. I am not the be-all, end-all in poetry or anything for that matter. I can only offer what I have been taught and what I have learned from reading.

I was a member of Richard Shelton’s Creative Writer’s Workshop in the medium security, Santa Rita Unit, Arizona State Prison in Tucson. I was not a poet. I had been writing lyrical poetry for songs most of my life. Richard, of course, recognized my incompetence instantly as I read my first poem to the workshop. “What a terrible waste of punctuation. Perhaps you should try prose,” he said, holding his glasses just off his face as one would expect of a professor. A waste of punctuation? What could that mean? I had been so caught up thinking that I’d written something special; until that moment I did not know the poem was rubbish. Punctuation has no cost, but somehow I had managed to waste it! I was devastated. So now what? Just forget this whole writing thing? Yes I was embarrassed, but this was a room full of . . . how do I put this now, geeks, poets and writers. These people were not in my circle. I could just walk away and none of my friends would be the wiser.

The problem was Richard Shelton. A man so obviously intelligent and talented, Western States Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize Nominee, and the list goes on and on, he was here every Saturday listening to novices like me present rubbish to the workshop with his confident smile. There is something mysterious and almost magical about this man, something infectious that translates to the men as easily as a virus. I wanted to be a geek! I wanted this man to someday say that I was a good poet.

After many bad poems and many workshops, I left the classroom bloody from the verbal cuts from the talented veterans. The most cutting of all of course was Richard Shelton. I began to study collections, anthologies, textbooks and literary journals. I found a section in a textbook that dealt with revision. Yusef Komunyakaa says he writes one hundred lines to get 16 very strong lines. God help those workshop members! I was determined that after the next bloody assault, I’d do revision after revision until I got it right. Some though, were sow’s ears no matter what I did to them.

Richard brought in many books for us to borrow, and one was a James Tate’s. I was making .25 an hour working as a clerk and saved for months to buy a copy of James Tate’s Selected Poems. This was a significant moment in my life. I didn’t save for a television or a pair of shoes or buy candy bars, cigarettes or heroin. I gave up snacking and smoking to buy a book of poetry! When the book arrived, I studied every word, every line, and every break. Why did he write this poem in this form, using these words? Lessons Richard taught began to make sense: Compression, Enjambing, Show MeDon’t tell Me, clichés, etc.

My work slowly began to improve. My big break came when a popular magazine put out a call for poets writing from prison. I hardly qualified as a poet, but I had the prison part down cold. Stellasue Lee, Poetry Editor of Rattle  published one of my poems. She is a wonderful lady and remarkable poet who gave me that thrill of first publication. More importantly, she returned my unaccepted pieces covered in her red-ink comments.

About this time, late 1998—early ‘99, I began sending submissions. I must admit I was rather indiscriminate as to what publication I would send my work. I would target publications I thought would take my rough poetry. Along with those easy submissions, I would pick one or two reputable magazines. I was delighted when seven out of ten submissions came back with accepted poems! Oh I had it bad now; I was infected.

Borderlands: A Texas Poetry Review published a couple of my poems. Pen in Hand took one and paid me. Rivertalk accepted one, and several others all inside a couple of months. I was writing furiously at that time, two, and sometimes three poems a day, everyday. With writing so much and having the extra money to submit, well, I was bound to write something worth reading—as my old Uncle Ed would say, “Even an old blind hog finds an acorn now and then!” In 1999, I had over twenty publications in good magazines. I was amazed that people wanted to read what I had written. Even Richard Shelton began accepting my work for his magazine, Walking Rain Review. I can bear witness that this is my most valued accomplishment.

The education department at the Santa Rita Unit asked Richard if he would read at a literature awareness function. He asked me to accompany him and read a couple of my latest poems. Quite a large turnout of fifty to sixty inmates, teachers, and administrators attended. Richard’s reading was flawless. It was amazing to me to see murderers, armed robbers, gang-bangers of every race and age enthralled in poetry. When the reading was turned over to me, the audience was primed. There were smiles, then laughs and even applause. Applause! Here I was being accepted for something other than being a tough guy or a drug buddy. This poetry disease was now incurable. After the reading, Richard fielded questions; one asked Richard who his favorite poet was.

“I have so many, but one of them is sitting right over there.” Richard said pointing at me. This is what I had been waiting for since I wasted punctuation that first workshop. Yes, I had publications, but until that moment I did not feel like a real poet. Anyone can scribble a few lines and call himself or herself a poet. To have Richard Shelton include me among his favorites in the society of poets was the proudest moment of my life!

In late January of 2001, Richard’s Creative Writer’s Workshop, our workshop, came to an abrupt end. The Department of Corrections, in response to racial conflicts between Mexican-American and Mexican National inmates, decided to have the Santa Rita Unit exclusively house Mexican National inmates. The fifteen workshop members would be transferred to any number of other units throughout the state.

That night, our last workshop together was incredibly emotional for us all. I can only liken it to the day I was sentenced to these 36 years in prison. This workshop was so much more than literature; it was a key to self-worth, a small piece of humanity, something just as good as people enjoy in the free world and now it was over. We shook hands and Richard said, “You have it in you now, John. I do not expect this will stop you. You can send your new work to the magazine; I will make my comments and get it back to you. The process will be slow, but it’s all we have.”

I arrived at the medium security Tonto Unit situated just below Graham Mountain in Safford with 67 other refugees from Santa Rita; none of which were members of the old Creative Writer’s Workshop. I continued to write and submit it to Richard at the magazine. In one of his return letters, he suggested starting a Creative Writer’s Workshop of my own. I had some experience while at Santa Rita, holding mini-workshops, mid­week, between our regular Saturday workshops with Richard. I had been meticulous in keeping lessons and assignments Richard had given us and believed I had a firm grasp on his methods. However, I was filled with doubt. This would be an enormous responsibility.

I took a job as an administration porter. In prison, the word porter and janitor are synonyms. I knew though, working among Wardens, Chiefs of Security, and the program supervisors could be beneficial when trying to gain approval for a new workshop. I worked as if I had the stamina of a teenager: mopped, polished, dusted and cleaned toilets, windows, ledges, and coffee cups. Every poet should take a job like this at some point. It is humbling, only speaking when spoken to, smiling at all the right times, trying to be the best porter this administration had ever seen. The head of programs, CO IV Jon Foote, called me into his office one afternoon. A no nonsense kind of fellow, old school, is what we call an officer who has worked his way up through the ranks over many years. He looked me up and down, saw that I was sweating and said, “You don’t look like a porter to me, Buri. What is it you want to do here at Tonto?”

“I’d like to start a creative writer’s workshop.” He had heard of such programs, but they were always directed by Richard Shelton and not an inmate. Mr. Foote began firing questions at me and to my surprise; my responses were quick, accurate, and apparently persuasive. I gave him a current copy of the Walking Rain Review, issue VI to take home, and read over night. Mr. Foote called me in again. He told me he did not know poetry could be like the poems of Walking Rain Review, and said, “You can teach this kind of thing?” I explained to him Richard’s format for a workshop and that it was more a gentle guiding and suggesting. I told him that Richard thinks I can do this and so do I. He was impressed and asked who would pay for the program. I explained to him Richard Shelton’s workshop is supported by a Lannan Foundation grant and he would help with materials and occasionally come to Tonto to monitor its progress.

I took a job in the unit’s library. Prison libraries are quite small, one room, 28’x 36’ I would guess and only one sixty-year-old book of traditional poems. The Unit librarian was unusual by DOC standards; highly intelligent, computer savvy, a love of literature and poetry! I’ve never seen her equal in the Department of Corrections. In the employment application, she asked what qualifies me to work as a clerk in the library? I responded by saying, “I can recognize a book, as a book, four out of five times.” Sometimes a little humor can get you in the door. I proposed the idea of a workshop to Ms. Marion (the librarian) and to my surprise she was very interested. She explained to me the chain of command, those who would have to approve, so I arranged through Richard Shelton, to have a copy of that same Walking Rain Review sent to them all. In the weeks to follow, I had countless staff coming to me saying they’d read my book, many wanted to read more, had no idea poetry could be so contemporary and so in your face. I learned that day; poetry affected anyone with an open mind. Not just those of us who wanted to write it and that perhaps this workshop might get off the ground.

The workshop was approved. Now it would be seen if I could teach. Our wonderful librarian consented to come in five hours early on Saturdays just so that we could meet in the library. I must admit to you that I had much trepidation, but I also had the Richard Shelton workshop format well in hand. It did not take long to drum up enough interested people on the yard and the first meeting was a resounding success. My confidence building with each passing workshop, I began to present Richard’s assignments to the new workshop members and poems came by the dozens. Sure there were many bombs, not as bad as my first poems, I thought, and if I could do it . . . .

I was faced with problems I could not have imagined. Young, angry wanna-be rap artists, Hallmark card poets, a man who was writing his life story and couldn’t spell nonfiction. There was a man who turned in two very famous poems written in the early 1900’s as his own! I had seen Richard expose a neophyte member once and I entertained the idea of doing the same. My plagiarizer was a Goliath of a man and I thought it wise not to embarrass him in front of his peers. I decided to wait, write Richard and ask his advice. In Richard’s return letter, it seemed that he was amused with my predicament. He offered little advice and welcomed me into the fold. I did speak to Goliath in private, showed him the poems he submitted, written by Rudyard Kipling. He seemed slightly embarrassed, but admitted to nothing more than drawing them from a latent memory. “You must have a photographic memory then,” I said, “because the punctuation is perfect down to the last semicolon.” He simply looked at me as if to say, So? I gave him The Plagiarism speech I had heard Richard give, as close as I could remember and ended it by asking him not to return to the workshop.

I tried my hand at inventing some exercises for the workshop members and for the most part had at least some success and some exercises produced good poems across the board. It wasn’t long before I felt comfortable sending packets to Richard to show off a little the talent of my guys. In less than ninety days, one of the best students got his first publication. When he brought the acceptance letter for me to read, I felt like hugging this man. It felt much the same as when my son brought a failing grade in reading up to an A. As the workshop progressed, the publications kept coming, but more importantly, I saw that humanity, self-respect and worth began lighting the eyes of the workshop members. Petey, the first to sign up was writing a novel and was reading chapter at a time to the workshop. He must have rewritten each chapter ten or more times and each time it was stronger. Petey incorporated the principles of poetry to his fiction and his images took on life.

Richard began accepting submissions for Walking Rain Review VIII. I did not hesitate in sending large packets from the Tonto Unit and many he accepted. Richard encouraged me with each return letter saying “You know John, there is only one other Creative Writing workshop in the country directed by an inmate. You should be very proud.” I was!

The key, I found, to directing a workshop was not so much being vastly knowledgeable in the art. Richard told me to be a good listener. That seemingly obvious advice was what kept the members coming back and trying hard to improve. It was what kept me coming back years before when I sat in their chair.

Richard and the Department of Corrections deemed the Tonto Unit workshop a success. As with most things in DOC, the other foot had to fall. Through a truckload of errors, most of them my fault, I was unexpectedly transferred to another unit in Douglas, Arizona, called the Mohave unit. Yes, I know Mojave is spelled with a J, but tell it to the Department of Corrections. Again, I was successful in getting a new creative writer’s workshop. I did not have the kind of help provided by Tonto’s Librarian and missed it sorely. I soon had twenty-five new members. This workshop is almost a carbon copy of Tonto’s. Different men and talent, but talent. The other foot I spoke of earlier came much quicker here, though it was not quite as dramatic. Because I am still in the Mohave unit, it is not wise to go into details, but the evening Richard was scheduled to come to this new workshop to check our progress first hand, he was turned away at the gate after driving many hours in the rain.

Richard Shelton is the most respected volunteer in the Arizona Prison System and the fact that he was turned away caused a series of reactions, whose ripples are still being felt as I write this. Richard could not justify funds from his Lannan grant for a workshop he cannot even get in to see. I understood and agreed with him. He and I both know that after now twenty years in prison, I soon will be eligible for a minimum custody unit. We both know that if I don’t land at his workshop in Tucson, I will be trying to start another workshop somewhere else. It is my job now. I am the emissary.

from Rattle #23, Summer 2005

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October 9, 2012

Art Beck


I: A visionary myopia, or how bilingual do you need to be to translate poetry?

Late last year, Tim Parks posted a provocative essay entitled “Translating in the Dark” on The New York Review of Books blog. It can be accessed here.

Parks, a regular NYRB contributor, is a British novelist, translator and essayist who’s lived and taught at the university level in Italy for some time. Beyond being fluent in Italian, he seems to be more than a bit of an Italophile. I’m not quite sure if his article draws any final conclusion, which makes it all the more fertile. But his thrust is to challenge the fairly well-accepted convention that (with the help of various resources) poetry can be successfully translated without a thorough grounding in the source language and culture–so long as the translator is a good enough poet.  Or, as a quote in the article from the British poet Jamie McKendrick puts it: “The translator’s knowledge of language is more important than their knowledge of languages.”

Parks opens by quoting last year’s poetry Nobelist, Tomas Tranströmer: “We must believe in poetry translation if we want to believe in world literature.” And Parks gives due credit to all the poets, bi-lingually challenged or not, who’ve attempted to contribute to literature by translating. But Parks wonders if it’s all that easy, and over the course of the essay, he almost seems to question whether such a thing as a “world literature” can or should exist. As Parks puts it:

I have no quarrel with the aspiration, or all the intriguing translation/imitation processes it encourages. My sole objection would be that it is unwise to lose sight of the reality that cultures are immensely complex and different and that this belief in World Literature could actually create a situation where we become more parochial and bound in our own culture, bringing other work into it in a process of mere assimilation and deluding ourselves that, because it sounds attractive in our own language, we are close to the foreign experience.

This statement, perhaps unintentionally, seems to echo an ongoing “domestication vs. foreignization” debate among translation theorists. “Domesticated” translated texts ideally read as if they were originally written in the new language. By artfully presenting the illusion of clarity rather than a smudged window, the translator brings you an interesting visitor who’s learned to speak your language well.

Proponents of “foreignization,” conversely, advocate subordinating the target language to the unique otherness of the translated culture. Rather than straining for equivalent images and idioms that can distort as much as clarify, the “foreignizing” translator takes you on a trip abroad. If clarity is possible, that’s great, but the illusion of transparency is a falsifying mirror.

Parks seems to frame that debate when he goes on to quote Tranströmer again: “I perceived, during the first enthusiastic poetry years, all poetry as Swedish. Eliot, Trakl, Éluard—they were all Swedish writers, as they appeared in priceless, imperfect, translations…”

No one would quarrel with Parks’ general argument that a deeper knowledge of the source language can only improve a translation, and I find myself agreeing with him insofar as prose translation (at which Parks excels). But I’m not so sure about lyric poetry where I find I’m more in sympathy with McKendrick. My quibbles are the practical concerns of a practicing poetry translator, wondering whether “imperfection” may not be the unavoidable price of translating poetry. Whether accuracy, as opposed, say, to resonance, should even be the primary goal. An awful lot of what passes as translated poetry is prosaic, vapid, and published only because of the reputation of the original. But I’d argue that the deficiency of these renderings isn’t usually their accuracy. Rather, it’s a lack of creative vitality.

I’m guessing Parks would disagree. He’s particularly dismissive of Dante’s Inferno, a 1998 collection edited by Daniel Halpern of various renditions and imitations of Dante by 20 contemporary English language poets as diverse as Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham, W.S. Merwin, Carolyn Forche, etc.  For Parks:

The result is inevitably extremely uneven as in each case we feel the Italian poet’s voice being dragged this way and that according to each translator’s assumptions of what he might or might not have sounded like. Sometimes it is Heaney’s Inferno, sometimes it is Carolyn Forche’s, sometimes it is W.S. Merwin’s but it is never Dante’s.

These kind of exercises will, of course, not be to everyone’s taste and results are bound to be mixed. However, I think Parks is critical of Halperin’s project, not for what it is–essentially a response to Dante from within another time and culture. But for what it’s not: a serious attempt to replicate Dante.

As an alternative to the creative re-renderings in Halpern’s Inferno, Parks offers Robert and Jean Hollanders’ 2002  “unrhymed verse”  “reworking” of John Sinclair’s 1939 prose translation as a “serious approximation and a fine read.” Fair enough. The three translators are Dante scholars with a deep respect for the original and this is the kind of version that should merit the respect of anyone who wants to go beyond just being entertained.

But, insofar as bringing us “close to the foreign experience,” a serious reader might also bear in mind that Dante died in 1321, roughly a couple of generations before Chaucer. The Hollanders’ translation is presented in mannered, but contemporary English. Perhaps Italian has developed less dynamically than English, but Dante’s Italian isn’t modern Italian and from the start any Dante translator has to decide which Dante to bring over: The antique Dante that a modern Italian reader encounters; a Dante who speaks a modern tongue; or some combination.

And is there any technique that might bring us anywhere even close to what must have been the almost revolutionary experience of the 14th century reader discovering the birth of a suddenly eloquent language in Dante’s vernacular? These are translation issues that the light of scholarship and linguistics can’t solve. I’d argue that the only responses lie in creativity.

In the back of my mind, there’s some vague, still forming, stretched metaphor of a large immigrant family where some of the children assimilate and others remain faithfully in the barrio. If translations are emigrating children, how fertile has The Divine Comedy been these many generations later? And how can you expect all those great, great, great grandkids to remain home, still making the sign of the cross?

Parks also doesn’t address what, to me, seems a core question: whether poetry translation involves an essential added step akin to the elusive but real difference between poetry and prose. The question comes to mind because there are times his meditation almost abuts the Robert Frost “poetry is what gets lost in translation” bromide. Parks, not un-similarly, quotes Celan: “Poetry is the fatal uniqueness of language.”

But why is it only in poetry translation, not prose, that the tradition of foreign language challenged translators is respectable, even honored? Is this just a quirk, or are there reasons that have as much to do with the nature of poetry as with the vagaries of translators?

Many commentators thoughtfully discuss the difficulties of translating prose across cultures.  But it’s usually only when discussing poetry that “difficult” sometimes segues to “uncaptureable.”  Is there some correlation worth exploring here?  There’s a lot of crossover and both are equally “literature,”  but I wonder if beyond their many commonalities, the translation of, at least shorter lyric, poems doesn’t involve different practicalities than, say, translating novels or stories.


II: Reverberation and Re-Creation, Poetry at Play

Translation involves the interaction of both reading and writing skills in various admixture. At the writing extreme, we can find poets interested primarily in writing their own poem, using the foreign language original only as a touchstone. Yeats’ great poem which begins “When you are old and grey and full of sleep/ And nodding by the fire, take down this book…” is really a variation on a famous 16th century French sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard. Its opening,  Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,/Assise auprès du feumight be rendered: “When you are very old at evening, by candlelight beside the fire…”

The Ronsard poem is as iconic as Yeats’ is, but would anyone seriously wish Yeats had stuck to Rostand’s text and forewent what amounts to a rich ancestral conversation, a “continuation” rather than translation of Ronsard. Yeats doesn’t pretend to be translating and makes no reference to Ronsard.  Is it translation? Yes; no; maybe? Would Yeats’ poem have existed without Ronsard’s? And of course this comes down to a matter of intent. Or, rather, the degree one might value the translator’s or appropriator’s intent versus the intent of the original poet. Still,  if poetry in translation aspires to rise to the level of poetry, it has to do so in the target not the source language.  In a sense, Yeats begins by exploring Ronsard like a bat in a treasure cave, but then discovers a larger poem echoing in himself.

Among practicing poets, there’s an often-noted dynamic: A successful poem achieves poetry only at the point that it imposes its own sudden intent on whatever intent the poet began with. Let’s posit that this spark is what can’t help but be “lost in translation.” And can only be re-captured by a similar spontaneous combustion in the target language.  If you buy into this, poetic license is not only a privilege, but the essence of a poem.  And the la belle infidele mot, which implicitly wonders whether a translation has to choose between beauty and fidelity, becomes the obverse of Celan’s “fatal uniqueness of language.” Even if for some theorists, the translated poem should ideally retain a foreign accent, it’s an accent in the new, not the old language. This is at least one argument for “dark translation”:  Skill follows temperament. There just aren’t that many good poet-scholars. No matter how formal or mannered on the surface, poetry cultivates an essential wildness.


III. Crutches,  Night Vision and Germination

Implicit in Jamie McKendrick’s observation, which values language skill over “knowledge of languages,” is the acknowledgement that there are many available compensations. A poet with limited foreign language fluency can access dictionaries, trots, other translations and commentaries. The practice of consultation or collaboration with linguistic scholars or native speakers is common. In some cases, the translator can correspond with living authors. Taking this a step further, the University of Iowa has an International Writing Program that sponsors visiting foreign authors who collaborate with graduate writing students in translating their work, sometimes for publication.

Last fall there was a long American Literary Translators ATALK chat group thread triggered by Parks’ essay. In the course of it, I asked Russell Valentino, who edits The Iowa Review and has some exposure to these workshops, if the collaborative authors get fussy about “mutations” in the poetry translation process. He responded:

Some are quite willing to allow their English works to become something quite different from their “originals.” And sometimes they go back and change things in their originals as a result of being translated in this way, which puts their texts under a kind of scrutiny that they may not have ever enjoyed before.

So a linguistics-challenged translator-poet can enlist a lot of help. But there are really no compensations for poetic weaknesses. There are many examples of literature being created by good writers translating (often with even suspect help) from languages they weren’t fluent in. There are no examples of literature created by inept writers.

Still, Parks’ essay raises a valid question. When translated poetry rises to that indefinable but recognizable level of “literature,” is it “world literature”? Or simply literature in the new language? For me–and it’s only my personal temperament talking–does it matter? If the translated poem achieves poetry, something’s come alive and I’m not going to complain just because that life is new.

Browsing an old journal entry, I found I’d noted two quotes from George Seferis, another poetry Nobelist, with an indication to myself that they were from different periods of his life. I’d like to be able to cite their sources, but maybe it’s more fitting for the direction of this piece just to pull them out of the air and hope they’re accurate. “All art/poetry is blind.” And “No poem is ever alone.” Those statements, taken together, might as well be comments on the organic nature of translated poetry. Rather than “translating dark,” maybe the issue is whether the translated poem, similar to the original poem, requires a leap in the dark.

Why not accept that when poems move as poems between languages they don’t/can’t replicate; but rather mutate and germinate? And if so, it’s not clarity but fertility that’s at stake. Tranströmer’s youthful reading of Eliot, Trakl, Eluard etc. as Swedish poets seems, after all, to have had the effect of inspiring a great new Swedish poet.

To revisit the 16th century, Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an English masterpiece. But its rhymed couplet scheme and earthy Anglo-Saxon energy present a stark contrast to Ovid’s 1st century sophisticate’s subtle Latin voice. Ovid, it might be argued, was writing, if not at the end, at least at the peak of an era. Golding, conversely, wrote at the fountainhead.  And he created an English rather than Latinate work that seemed to insistently captivate the greatest English poet of his age.

Golding’s Ovid is difficult to read now, its language and accent as olde as its quirky aesthetic. But scratch Shakespeare almost anywhere, from Romeo and Juliet to The Tempest and you’ll find Golding’s Ovid speaking to you. Most well educated Elizabethans could read Latin; a literal replication would have served little purpose beyond a trot, similar to those in the Loeb Classical Library. Golding was a skilled Latinist among many other Latinists, but those skills were secondary to the elan–the poetry–of his personal re-creation. It was Golding’s command of English, not Latin, that enriched Renaissance English.

Thinking about the Iowa collaborative translation program and Golding, it occurs that it would be nice if translators were able to similarly interact with dead poets. So, maybe it’s time for me to interject that like most of the essays in this series, this one will soon start to wander. And my plan in “part two” is to ultimately wander to a place somewhere supernaturally close to a dead poet interaction.

Note: Click here to read part 2 of this essay.


Art Beck was a regular contributor to Rattle e-issues with a continuing series of essays on translating poetry. He has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius, Opera Omnia or a Duet for Sitar and Trombone, published by Otis College, Seismicity Editions. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’ California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20 year retrospective.

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October 1, 2012

Anita Sullivan


I want to tell you about a Greek poem I once spent an entire year translating, even though it’s only eight pages long if scrunched into the generic single-spaced, 11-point online screed that passes for elegant reading nowadays.

The booklet I translated from was 35 pages, double-spaced, in a lovely italic font, and thus would qualify as “free-range” by allowing enough pacing room for each of the many wild creatures enclosed therein.

Legend has it that Nikos Gatsos wrote “Amorgos” during a single night in 1943, when he was 33 and World War II was tearing his country apart. The poem is divided into six sections, each one composed in a totally different style, but each part achingly lyrical and stunning in the force and uncanny aptness of its images. I have no idea why this poem remains so little known outside of Greece.

It may find its way to a wider audience now, because of the recent popularity of “language poetry,” which it resembles but most certainly is not. “Amorgos” has been called “a surrealist epic,” and if you accept this (which I do), you are taking on the idea that the work must be downright nuclear in its fission capacities. That is, in order to fit the entire Story of Greece into a poem slightly shorter than Eliot’s Four Quartets without directly mentioning Odysseus, Helen, Troy, the Argonauts, or any of the Olympian gods, is an awesome feat. The poem imbricates–a word I learned recently–which means it is constructed like overlapping roof tiles. You can’t stop reading, not because there is a plot that keeps you hanging, but because you are always sliding down to the next little section of roof.

For me, “Amorgos” feels like a kind of cross between Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Rilke’s “Duino Elegies.” I was driven to translate the entire poem because at a very vulnerable time in my life, someone in a dark coffee house passed me a fragment from the end of Part I:

And so she sleeps, my tender love, naked among cherry blossoms,
a girl unwithering as an almond branch,
with her head leaning on the crook of her arm, and her other hand
              resting upon her golden coin,
upon its comforting warmth, while slowly and quietly like a thief
from the window of spring, enters the Morning Star that shall waken her!

Notice! Notice! Notice! The exclamation point so unashamedly placed at the end. A quick glance through the rest of the poem shows how rare, how deliberate was this placement, like setting a stone into a mosaic. A poet earns trust by such delicate attention to the doorways through which love may pass unemcumbered.

The golden coin, the almond branch, the thief, the Morning Star–all these are essential poetic material in Greek tradition, but you don’t have to know that to feel yourself swimming in what could become “formula” if carelessly arranged. As soon as I learned enough Greek to read this fragment in the original, I sought out the rest. At the time I was unable to find an English translation of the entire poem*, so I sat with my dictionary and began to generate a picture puzzle by translating word, after word. This is a foolish and desperate way to go about such a task, but sometimes it’s the only way possible.

My original translation has disappeared, as if it were eaten by the wild and the holy. This is as it should be. But later, I found that several others had fallen in love with the poem and like me, had sought to transfer it into English with some of its original power intact.

In reverse, can you imagine translating Gerard Manley Hopkins into anything else? Or Ginsberg’s “Howl” for that matter? Such poems are part charm, part riddle–the meaning is so embedded in the language itself that your translating criterion becomes something totally insane, like: I want the readers of this poem in English to end up lying on the ground in the exact same position as the original Greek readers must have been flung after they read the poem for the first time in 1943.

Coming cold, from another culture, to a lyric poem that makes syntactic sense (that is, it’s mostly constructed in complete sentences), but whose vocabulary of icons is meant to set up an entire super-structure of ideas made from the stuff of shared myth–you have to be very methodical and beat back your tendency to “poeticize.” Only thus will the roof-tiles begin to overlap on your page, and then–even more miraculously–you will start to feel entire sub-sections coalescing into larger tiles, and the whole poem will reveal itself as an ancient Greek Chorus rising in enormous shadows from where it has been long flattened across the stones. The chorus has something to say that builds in increments. Here is one increment, from Part 2:

And may your heart not yield
May your tears not fall on this implacable earth
As once on the icy wastes rolled the tear of a penguin.

Two important images here, water and eyes, will keep returning. For example, in the third stanza of Part 3:

In the courtyard of the embittered the eye has run dry
The brain has turned to ice and the heart petrified

In the short Part 5 he again combines wet with dry: “…amid sighs, tears, hunger, lamentations, and the ashes of underground wells.”

Thus the poem builds, as does Nature herself, accreting material by way of a spiral motion.

With what might seem an almost draconian economy, almost every “thing” the poet mentions comes back around again, filtered, enriched and purified by intercourse with other “things” being similarly whirled. In the opening lines, which immediately evoke the voyage of Odysseus, and which I believe reflect the overcharged imagination of the young poet heading into his all-night writing binge, he quickly veers away from what might have turned into a deliberately crafted parody or extended metaphor on this theme. And by that veering, he is able to introduce a variety of images that ring out over and over throughout the rest of the poem:

With their country tangled up in their sails, and their oars hanging
              in the wind
The shipwrecked sailors slept like stunned dead beasts amid sheets
              of sponges
But the eyes of the seaweed are twisted towards the sea
Hoping the south wind will bring them back to life again
              with newly-dyed sails
For one lost elephant is always worth more than the trembling breasts
              of a girl
May the roofs of the deserted mountain chapels light up
              with desire for the evening star
May birds come in waves to the masts of the lemon trees
With a new way of walking, a steady white breathing
Only then shall come the small-winded bodies of swans
              who have been waiting immaculate, motionless and tender
Amid the steam-rollers of commerce and the cyclones of market-gardens
When the eyes of the women turned to coal and the hearts of the
              chestnut-sellers were broken
When the harvest was stopped and the hopes of crickets began.

Gatsos is dealing from a dear, cherished and largely traditional core-collection of images: the sea, tender young love, eyes, birds, fruit trees, winds and stars by name and location–all remnants of a centuries-old horticulturally-based, and seagoing village society. The images are both specific to Greece and universal (some of one, some of the other), and he doles them out with such finesse that there is always time to forget one before it comes around again. This is essential. In Part 4, for example, the water that has been locked up in ice and in dryness, suddenly begins to flow:

Wake, murmuring water, from the root of the pine tree to find the eyes of sparrows and to revive them by watering the earth with the fragrance of basil and the whistling of lizards.

If there is a central idea emerging from the poem, it would be “persist, do not give up in the face of this current misery and dreadfulness.” Why? Because…

Somewhere an immortal rock exists where a human angel once passing by, inscribed his name and a song as yet unknown by anyone…

When this stone is found again, and the song bursts out, then the world will change:

…the snows will melt on the mountains, the wind will sing like a bird, the swallows will come to life, the osiers will quiver, and men with cold eyes and pale faces, hearing the bells in the cracked belfries ringing by themselves, will find holiday caps to wear and gay-colored ribbons to tie on their shoes. For then no one will ever joke again, the blood of brooks will overflow…and the timid girls will come slowly and quietly to cast their last garments into the flames and to dance about them nakedly…

Gatsos might have neatly wrapped the poem up at the end of Part 4: “but I keep in my fingers the music for a better day.”

Or, with Part 5, a short rant on the quixotic nature of humans.

But instead, he closes with a love poem to Poetry whom he is, in real life, about to abandon. It is an extraordinarily tender and brave lament, from a gifted bridegroom who makes the choice to renounce the One he loves best. “Poems come easily to me. It is the making of a poetry that is difficult. The telling of the truths,” he said later, after this poem had become famous in Greece.

“Amorgos” was a rapid journey through a treacherous swamp by someone with an uncanny and totally flawless gift for stepping on the few solid stones hidden beneath the surface so as never to drown in the mud. What Gatsos feared, I believe, is not that he would start missing stones, but that the swamp would gradually turn into a shallow pool of pebbles and he wouldn’t even notice. This would be bad for him, but also bad for Poetry itself. So, to avoid the curse of his own potential glibness, this young man chose for the rest of his life to restrict his word skills to translating other poets, and writing song lyrics**. To me this seems a tragic act, fully worthy of his mythical heritage.

With Part 6, the final section of ‘Amorgos,’ he sings an achingly beautiful farewell to Poetry:

Year after year I wrestled with ink and mallet, my tormented heart
With gold and fire to make you an embroidery
The hyacinth of an orange tree
A flowering quince to console you
I who once touched you with the eyes of the Pleiades
And embraced you with the mane of the moon, and we danced together
In the summer meadows
On the stubble fields, and we ate together the cut clover
Dark, vast wild one with all those pebbles around your neck, all those
Tiny colored stones in your hair


*The excerpts from “Amorgos” are my own translations, from the 1987 edition, published by Ikaros, Athens. I have been guided by the translations of Sally Purcell: from her 1980 version, posthumously published in 2004 as a 64-page book by Anvil Press Poetry, London; and of Diana Gilliland Wright, copyright October 2007, Other translations are available, for example from Kimon Friar and Marjorie Chambers, and I have another one or two floating around as anonymous xeroxes. The more the better, is what I say.

** This is in no way meant to imply that song lyrics can never be “as good as real poetry,” although they usually are not. What I mean here is that Gatsos himself apparently saw a difference between being a words-only poet, and being a poet who wrote his words to be set to music, and he deliberately chose to maintain that distinction in his life work. An excellent book of his song lyrics in Greek comes from Ikaros, Athens, 1995 (third edition), and the title, which is lineated like a small poem, translates “blow breeze, blow me/ but don’t let up until. . .”

The final song in this posthumously-published collection is a segment of a cycle entitled “Mani Vespers,” that the publisher indicates in an epilogue was a large, many-part work the poet had been occupied with for years. The book was delayed in publication because Gatsos wished to have the cycle included in its entirety, but apparently died before he was able to finish it. Is it possible that he was working his way back into poetry through the medium of his beloved songs?


Anita Sullivan is and essayist and poet who writes about early keyboard temperaments, translation, gardening, religious philosophy and Greek islands. She has published two essay collections, a poetry chapbook and a full-length collection of poems, and writes regularly for the Weekly Hubris. She is a member of the poetry-publishing collective Airlie Press, and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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June 2, 2012

Dick Allen



The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain
       To see what he could see

       To see what he could see,
       To see what he could see.

The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain
       Was all that he could see.

       Was all that he could see,
       Was all that he could see,
The other side of the mountain,
       Was all that he could see!
             —Author Unknown


I’m fourteen, just having crossed a sunlit meadow in upstate New York. Now, I’m climbing down a gully to the shallow Kayaderosseras Creek below.

I pause.

Not my feet, but everything else shifts—as if I’d been watching a slide show and someone had inserted a totally different slide than the ones I’d seen.

And I lose myself. Rather, I lose my individualistic Self.

No separate meadow. No gully. No Kayaderosseras Creek. No me. No distinctions between me and everything that a moment before was Other …

The slides abruptly shift again and I’m back. Me. Fourteen. Descending a mundane gully to a mundane creek with a Budweiser can floating in it. White pines lining the gully. A crow’s caw. Slap at a black fly trying to bite my arm.

It’s an experience had by most humans at one time or another.


The Numinous, or the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“fearful and fascinating mystery”) is the term coined by Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy.


For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face
to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know
even as also I am known.
       —1 Corinthians 13:12

In Buddhism, unlike in monotheistic religions, it’s not a glimpse or gaze but an immersion. There’s no glass, no other side. As Buddhists experience it, they at least for the brief period realize both Wholeness and Holiness, Yin and Yang simultaneously.

It’s the basic Buddhist and Eastern belief in Non-Dualism.


Literally millions and millions of poems seek to capture the unholdable experience of Mysticism. Some will compare it to the experience of “the Other,” but it’s not that. Buberians might say it’s the “I-Thou” experience, but it’s not that. William James would call it the core religious experience, as would Evelyn Underhill. Even at its most mundane, it’s the “runner’s high” when the runner enters a trance of homeostasis. Aspects of Mysticism provide the commonality shared by all religions, both East and West.


A first and primary characteristic of Zen Buddhist poetry is an assumption that (this is how Gerard Manley Hopkins would put it) “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” only in this case it’s not the Western Civilization monotheistic God but the Eastern and Buddhist way of using “God” to mean “All” or “holiness” or “Numinous” pervading everything, including what we blindly think of as our individual Selves as separate from other Selves or kinds of Selves.


To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
       —William Blake from Auguries of Innocence


Whenever I think about the realization that it’s impossible, incredible, wondrous, unfathomable to be alive, and that no matter how hard I try I can’t hold this realization for very long, lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” come into my head:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count there are only you and I together.
But when I look up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you …

In his Notes to the poem, Eliot references a delusion experienced by exhausted Antarctic explorers. And most critics identify the presence of the third figure as Christ. For me, the lines evoke what Zen Buddhists would call the “True Self ” that’s always there but is also almost always unrecognized in our daily clouded lives.


Attempting to arrive at commonalities shared by Zen Buddhism and poetry influenced by Zen Buddhism, I’ve found these words: Wholeness or Holiness, Is-Ness, Mindfulness, Reasonlessness, Calmness, Presentness.


Buddhist or Buddhist-influenced or oriented poetry is the antithesis of Confessionalist Poetry, that I-stressing dominant poetic sensibility and form of the second half of the 20th Century which has continued into the first part of the 21st Century. At its best, Confessionalism illuminates the turmoils of the individual “I” as representative of other individual humans; at its worse it turns narcissistic and self-pitying, even into a kind of glorification of suffering and desire.


In our century, it’s important to note that the “I” used in Buddhist-oriented poems is not the Confessional “I,” but the “I” that’s more a persona, an “I” that stands for almost anyone.


I’m often tempted to say Mindfulness is Poetry and Poetry is Mindfulness. Still, that’s not quite true. Mindfulness—that quality of acute attention to the Now, to precisely and specifically to what one is seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking, feeling right Now—is at once a technique, a purpose and a result of Poetry. It is contained within but not the main stress of types of poems such as narrative, dramatic and epic. It is, however, the main stress of lyric and meditative poetry, our century’s hugely dominant types.


The primary stress on Mindfulness in modern and contemporary poetry comes from Imagism, particularly as used by Ezra Pound and exemplified by his famous haiku-inspired poem, “In the Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.


No ideas but in things.
       —William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” has become equally important for modern and contemporary poetry. This tiny poem is actually a fragment from a longer poem and was given its title by others. The fragment states that “so much depends” upon a rain-water glazed wheelbarrow beside white chickens. When the conundrum the poem poses is answered or understood—that is, what is this “so much”?—the student’s face may break into a look of dawning revelation. Not a breakthrough into Satori, but close.


Satori. Sudden enlightenment and a state of consciousness attained by intuitive illumination representing the spiritual goal of Zen Buddhism. Rhymes with Satori: backstory, centaury, clerestory, fish story, ghost story, John Dory, Noyori, Old Glory, outlawry, self-glory, short story, sob story, vainglory, war story.
       —Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary


Everything depends on one’s ability to realize a thing for what it is, not to think about the red wheelbarrow, not to read the poem as symbolic, but just to see the thing itself. Ideally, if one can do this, she or he will be mindfully in the Present, desireless, at least momentarily free from suffering.


The main admonition given by almost all poets and poetry writing teachers in the last one hundred years: “Show, don’t tell.”


The entirety of Buddha’s Flower Sermon was Buddha simply holding up a flower and smiling at the assembled audience.


Poetry is a way of revealing the strangeness in the ordinary and the ordinary in the strange. For this, Mindfulness or acute attention is necessary.


From “Sandpiper” by Elizabeth Bishop:

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.


From “Hamlen Brook,” by Richard Wilbur, in which a trout swims …

Beneath a sliding glass
Crazed by the skimming of a brush
Of burnished dragon-flies across its face
In which deep cloudlets pass
And a white precipice
Of mirrored birch trees plunges down.


From “Spiderweb,” by Kay Ryan:

From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s always
hauling coarse
rope, hitching
lines to the
best posts


Acute seeing and describing is transformational. A poem, one might say, can be a locking device, catching and holding something in a certain way for all time, so that one can never look at a familiar thing the same way again.


Buddhism calls for this way of experiencing, also, with such famous admonitions as (before enlightenment), “Chop wood, carry water” (after enlightenment), “Chop wood, carry water.”


Always the specific. To do things with great attention to the smallest detail, to the sacredness of things, which is also the mark of true craft in Zen Buddhism, in poetry, and in living.


As for finding the Familiar in the Strange, over and over poems seek to illuminate. Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” asked for “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” In Emily Dickinson, it’s the fly “with blue, unstumbling buzz” in the deathbed room. And what is more strange than Death.


In a poem we might identify as Zen Buddhist there’s forever an element of actual calm or stillness or silence. The entire poem may create such a sense, as do many haikus, and many of Arthur Waley’s great translations.



Gently I stir a white feather fan,
With open shirt sitting in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;
A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.
       —Li Po, translated by Arthur Waley


In Arthur Waley’s translations, which could be called versions and are sometimes regarded as poems by Waley as much as by the poet he’s translating, a part of the stillness and calm is created by the use of end\ stops, many lines being complete sentences. Enjambment is used infrequently. Such handling of lines creates a quiet painting effect, as if after each line is painted (here we are close to Asian languages’ use of calligraphy) the artist steps back, considering, before he or she adds another brushstroke line.


James Wright used a similar technique in “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (note how the poem’s title echoes titles of Chinese and Japanese poems and paintings). This is from that poem’s closure:

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.


Slow down, you move too fast.
Got to make the morning last.
       —from “59th Street Bridge Song,” by Simon and Garfunkle


When I find myself in times of troubles, mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.
       —from “Let It Be,” by The Beatles


The famous way of jarring a Zen Buddhist disciple, or anyone for that matter, into Satori is with a koan. The most famous one:

Two hands clap and there is a sound.
What is the sound of one hand?
       —Hakuin Ekaku


The “key” to “answering” a koan is to discard reason, discard all attempts to find a rational answer to the question and simply let the answer happen. For some, the answer to the koan of the one hand clap might be “Libby’s Peaches!” or “The man fell off the cliff ” or “You forgot to feed the cat.” Whatever it is, the one posing the question will immediately know if the answer is “right,” as will the person who provides the answer.


I am doing the impossible, trying to explain the irrational.

Which can’t be explained. But of course it can be.


Here is a basic assumption: As in the Book of Job and to some extent in Ecclesiastes, the Nature of the Universe is unknowable except by God (as narrowly or widely defined). There are no Absolutes, but since the saying of this is itself an Absolute, it has to be phrased differently: There both are and are not Absolutes. Yet even that can be construed as an Absolute statement, so maybe the closest we can come is There are and are not Absolutes and this statement seems to be both true and untrue.


The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (italics below are mine):

uncertainty principle, physical principle, enunciated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, that places an absolute, theoretical limit on the combined accuracy of certain pairs of simultaneous, related measurements. The accuracy of a measurement is given by the uncertainty in the result; if the measurement is exact, the uncertainty is zero. According to the uncertainty principle, the mathematical product of the combined uncertainties of simultaneous measurements of position and momentum in a given direction cannot be less than Planck’s constant h divided by 4π. The principle also limits the accuracies of simultaneous measurements of energy and of the time required to make the energy measurement. The value of Planck’s constant is extremely small, so that the effect of the limitations imposed by the uncertainty principle are not noticeable on the large scale of ordinary measurements; however, on the scale of atoms and elementary particles the effect of the uncertainty principle is very important. Because of the uncertainties existing at this level, a picture of the submicroscopic world emerges as one of statistical probabilities rather than measurable certainties. On the large scale it is still possible to speak of causality in a framework described in terms of space and time; on the atomic scale this is not possible. Such a description would require exact measurements of such quantities as position, speed, energy, and time, and these quantities cannot be measured exactly because of the uncertainty principle. It does not limit the accuracy of single measurements, of nonsimultaneous measurements, or of simultaneous measurements of pairs of quantities other than those specifically restricted by the principle. Even so, its restrictions are sufficient to prevent scientists from being able to make absolute predictions about future states of the system being studied. The uncertainty principle has been elevated by some thinkers to the status of a philosophical principle, called the principle of indeterminacy, which has been taken by some to limit causality in general.
       —Columbia Encyclopedia


The medium is the message.
       —Marshall McLuhan


Popularized understandings of contemporary physics and quantum mechanics theories are in effect Memes which point to Non-Dualism rather than Dualism as being the basic nature of the universe. The basic tenets of the West’s three major monotheistic religions, Christianity,
Judaism and Islam, are dualistic, whereas the basic tenets of Buddhism are not.

However, the core mysticism elements in Western religions are non-dualistic.


The double-slit experiment, sometimes called Young’s experiment, is a demonstration that matter and energy can display characteristics of both waves and particles. In the basic version of the experiment, a coherent light source such as a laser beam illuminates a thin plate pierced by two parallel slits, and the light passing through the slits is observed on a screen behind the plate. The wave nature of light causes the light waves passing through the two slits to interfere, producing bright and dark bands on the screen—a result that would not be expected if light consisted strictly of particles. However, at the screen, the light is always found to be absorbed as though it were composed of discrete particles or photons. This establishes the principle known as wave–particle duality.

A quote I may have somewhat disremembered from the original Hawaii Five-O, as said by Jack Lord: “That’s the Yin and Yang of it, Dann-0.




From the t-shirt advertisement, “Does Schrödinger’s Cat Live?”:

Every student of physics knows that Schrödinger’s 1935 paper regarding a hypothetical paradox involving a cat has perplexed and annoyed physics geeks for years. The basic idea; If the outcome of a circumstance is presently unknown and by observing the circumstance you will disrupt it, then it exists in all possible states simultaneously … Don’t get it? We propose the following thought experiment: Give your friend enough money to purchase the “Schrödinger’s Cat” shirt (don’t forget the shipping). Tell your friend to take the money and lock himself in a room with a cigarette lighter. Let your friend know that once in the room he is to randomly choose either to burn the money, or return in five minutes with the money intact. We emphasize that this must be completely random (aka, impossible for a human to determine, but bear with us). Your friend must then stay in this box for eternity. Hey, that’s how thought experiments work. Hopefully he/she is OK with that. Since you have no idea whether your friend will destroy the money, you will simultaneously either lose or recover that money. So in a quantum sense, if you extend that logic, you will simultaneously either be able to purchase or not purchase this very t-shirt which enabled you to make the choice in the first place. Isn’t physics fun? 100% cotton heavyweight t-shirt in black with “Schrödinger’s Cat is Dead” on the front and “Schrödinger’s Cat is Not Dead” on the back …
       —ThinkGeek, Online


The Observer in the act of observing affects that which is being observed.

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance
       —from “Among School Children” by W.B. Yeats


Even though the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Double-Split Experiment and the Schrödinger’s Cat Experiment apply to microcosms and not really to macrocosms, the metaphors they provide significantly affect human consciousness concerning the Truth of Existence.


The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Double-Slit Experiment, and the Schrödinger’s Cat Experiment, as popularly somewhat understood, lead to the 21st Century’s increasing assumption that the basic nature of the universe is unknowable, absurd, chaotic, random, governed by chance and whim.

Or Zen.


Add Chaos and Complexity Theory: Edward Lorenz, Chaos Theory’s first experimenter, discovered and proved that small changes in initial conditions, such as a butterfly flapping its wings in southern Iowa, produce large changes in long term outcomes. Whether or not the butterfly flaps its wings causes, ten days later, a lightning and thunderstorm in Connecticut on a previously balmy day. Or not.


Chaos theory may also apply to cause and effect, or karma.


Chaos theory, some say, may explain the occurrences of wars.


There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
       —Catch-22, Joseph Heller


Reasonlessness is important in Buddhism. We’re not to waste our time on the unknowable and unfathomable and must just accept it. If we can get out of the way the futile struggle to rationally explain the irrational, if we can accept that the Nature of the Universe is Absurd, we might be able to deal with more manageable matters, such as how to “eliminate” suffering through the application of the Eightfold Path.

Modern and contemporary poetry written with a Buddhist-like sensibility is greatly distanced from the likes of rational satires of Alexander Pope.


The use of Surrealism or New Surrealism in contemporary poetry, consciously or subconsciously on the part of the poet, reflects a basic assumption about unknowability. A surrealistic effect in a poem, albeit in a minor way, leads to a dissonance in the senses, a derangement that can cause the poem’s reader to suddenly see things in a new and different way.


Since in New Surrealism, the assumption is that the basic Nature of the Universe is absurd, satire is directed at those who don’t believe things have changed, at those who irrationally believe the world can be explained by rational means.


“There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”
       —Candide, by Voltaire


And you know something is happening
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
       —from “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Bob Dylan


For Western readers, something as simple as the inclusion of an exotic word or phrase from China or Japan has the effect of deranging the senses, the use of the exotic suddenly plunging the poem’s reader into an alternate reality.

T.S. Eliot ends “The Wasteland” with “Shantih shantih shantih” or, as translated, “The Peace that passeth understanding.”


Version 1:

       Let us gaze off into the mountains
       Where mist is rising.

Version 2:

       Let us gaze off into the Quinling Mountains
       Where mist is rising.

Version 3:

       Let us gaze off into the Adirondack Mountains
       Where mist is rising.

Why is “Version 2” so much more moving than “Version 3”?

How can the feeling of “Version 2” be rendered in a contemporary American poem?


Seldom remarked upon but often present is how inexpensive and convenient poetry is. You can hear it for nothing. You can carry it around in your head—or on a small piece of paper if you wish—from place to place, state to state, country to country. You can memorize it and keep it forever. At the drop of a hat, you can say it out loud for its content, for its feeling, for how the words roll around upon and drop off your tongue.


Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
      —Alfred, Lord Tennison

On being asked, whence is the flower

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.
       —Ralph Waldo Emerson


Orientalism and mysticism. Emerson owned an extensive library of Oriental literature in translation and was well versed in the texts and sacred writings of Hinduism (the Vedas and Upanishads), Buddhism, Confusianism, and Islam. Thoreau was introduced to Oriental religion and literature at Harvard and maintained an avid interest in Eastern spiritual lore throughout his life. Whitman’s interest in the Orient, though less formal and disciplined, was just as keen as that of Emerson and Thoreau, as is evident from even a cursory reading of Leaves of Grass. In addition to their belief in cosmic unity, in the ultimate interconnection and harmony of all things, these authors also absorbed from their Oriental sources the view that the phenomenal world—Nature—is a sort of Mayan veil which partly reveals, partly conceals, an ultimate Oneness.
       —David L. Simpson, “Transcendentalism,” Online


Over and over, poetry calls attention to eternal things that don’t have to be purchased, particularly things in Nature such as Wordsworthian daffodils, the Frostian deer in Frost’s “Two Look at Two,” the trout in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.”


Easily recognizable is how Buddhism stresses desirelessness as it seeks to mitigate Dukkha (suffering) by its Seven Noble Truths. Buddhism identifies the cause for Dukkha as desire, craving, wanting things to be different from what they are, letting ourselves be attached to things.

Buddhism is often called a philosophy of non-Attachment.


I got plenty of nothin’
And nothin’ plenty for me
I got no car, got no mule,
And I got no misery

Seems with plenty,
That you sure got to worry
How to keep the devil away …
       —from Porgy & Bess, by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward


The recognitions and acceptances of Wholeness, Reasonlessness, Mindfulness, Calmness as fundamental recognitions and acceptances of things for what they are rather than what can be read into them may lead to the further recognition and acceptance of Desirelessness.


A reason why meditation is so stressed in Buddhism, especially in zazen, is because it encourages the practitioner to become enraptured with only the Present. In meditation, thoughts—especially thoughts of the Past and the Future—are brushed away. The more they fade the more tranquility is achieved.


Many aspects common to Buddhism and poetry encourage the practitioner or reader (who may be the same) to live in the Present. True Mindfulness is only possible if all one’s attention is focused on the Present, for no one can fully and truly have the experience of plum tasting, for instance, without being all-at-once here.


From “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


The word “Present” contains within itself both itself as a state of time and itself as a gift.


To stay in the Present is in some ways like letting a Lifesaver or small hard candy dissolve in your mouth. Initially, most can do this, sucking on the sweetness. Soon, however, as the lozenge is further dissolved and diminished, the impulse to use the teeth to crunch and chew it is almost irresistible. It requires either a major effort of will to allow the lozenge to become nothing or it requires an utter Calmness, acceptance of what is, a Desirelessness.


When I was just out of graduate school, my wife and I bought an inexpensive limited edition of a Giacometti print. It is an utterly simple line drawing of a tall, thin figure.

Easy, I scoffed, and sat about trying to draw an equivalent on the sketchpad I’d bought for that purpose.

Hundreds of attempts later, I gave up.

I could copy, I could approximate, but I couldn’t imbue my sketches with the feeling Giacometti had bought to his.

Anyone trying to draw an ensō will likely feel the same frustration.


Ensō is a Japanese word meaning “circle” and a concept strongly associated with Zen. Ensō is one of the most common subjects of Japanese calligraphy even though it is a symbol and not a character. It symbolizes the Absolute, enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe, and the void; it can also symbolize the Japanese aesthetic itself. As an “expression of the moment” it is often considered a form of minimalist expressionist art.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. Zen Buddhists “believe that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how she or he draws an ensō. Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō. Some artists will practice drawing an ensō daily, as a kind of spiritual exercise.”1 Some artists paint ensō with an opening in the circle, while others complete the circle. For the former, the opening may express various ideas, for example that the ensō is not separate, but is part of something greater, or that imperfection is an essential and inherent aspect of existence (see also the idea of broken symmetry). The principle of controlling the balance of composition through asymmetry and irregularity is an important aspect of the Japanese aesthetic: Fukinsei, the denial of perfection. The ensō is also a sacred symbol in the Zen school of Buddhism, and is often used by Zen masters as a form of signature in their religious artwork.

1 Seo, Audrey Yoshiko; Loori, John Daido (2009). Ensō: Zen Circles of Enlightenment. Weatherhill. ISBN 1-59030-608-2.


Those who have tried writing English language haiku, with the commonly prescribed 5-7-5 structure, will know what I’m going to say: It is quite easy to write a haiku. Follow the syllable structure. Put in a season. Use specific imagery. Include something that looks like it will be or is a sudden realization and Shazam, you’ve got it.

Haiku writing, in Japan, is a favorite exercise and even party game for many, including members of garden clubs.

In America, it’s a favorite poem writing exercise for kindergarten children.

Millions and millions and millions of haiku!

Yet almost none are the real thing.

It is this proliferation, this spawn of haikus, that I suspect is the main cause for American Zen Buddhist poetry not being taken very seriously—a case of the okay drowning out the best.


American haiku, tanka, and forms derived from them and similar to them have, with a few notable exceptions, always seemed to me to be faux poetry, suffering particularly from being pseudo-profound. There are too many little gasps of wonder I associate with New Agers. It is oh so meaningful. There’s an air of reverence about it which smacks of arrogant self-approval. It feels worked. It feels thought. Or if it’s felt, what’s felt, sadly, is a cliché or an easy clichéd phrase. There’s nothing really held back as there is in all genuine poetry. It’s a stab, rather than a caress. Or, alternately, there’s no zaniness to it, no crazy wisdom.


As I get older, the less and less interested I am in writing poems the Past, and in writing nostalgic or elegiac poems. This may be a of my Buddhism, my continual attempts to live in the Present.


At a poetry conference, during a workshop I’m conducting, we’re discussing what makes a poem “contemporary” and “universal.” For the former, it may be that an awareness of technology and some acknowledgement or inclusion of technology and its impact on society is necessary. For the latter, perhaps the English language poem should use rhyme/meter? But the really interesting part of the discussion comes when someone says that “universal poetry is pastoral poetry.”

Is Buddhist or Zen Buddhist poetry a kind of pastoral poetry?


If you take away the shepherds and the cows, is traditional Buddhist poetry, with its misty mountains, steep mountain paths, monks’ huts, single leaves floating on the river, calmness, tranquility, lack of deep desire for other than the Present (so long as there is wine and visiting friends), heavily or primarily pastoral?


In the end is my beginning.
       —from “The Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot



If I explained aloud, then it wouldn’t be a true explanation,
And if I transmitted it on paper, then where would be the secret?
At a western window on a rainy autumn night
White hair in the guttering lamplight, asleep facing the bed.
       —Gido Shushin, translated by David Pollack


The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain
       To see what he could see

       To see what he could see,
       To see what he could see.

The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain
       Was all that he could see.

       Was all that he could see,
       Was all that he could see,
The other side of the mountain,
       Was all that he could see!
             —Author Unknown

from Rattle #36, Winter 2011
Tribute to Buddhist Poets

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May 17, 2012

Madeleine Mysko, RN, MA


At social functions, when someone asks me what I do for a living, I answer that I’m a nurse, and that I also write poetry. As a rule, the conversation then turns down the path I’ve taken as poet. Few people ask about the nursing (unless of course they happen to be nurses too). Few are curious about the connection between nursing and poetry.

Perhaps because of the order in which I name the two paths—nursing, followed by an “also”—people tend to draw the romantic conclusion that at some point in my nursing career I felt the call to be creative, and thus I write in my spare time for the sake of my poetic soul. Perhaps it is I who have led them to that conclusion, for I’m given to remarking wryly that no one really makes a living writing poems, but one can at least pay the bills by working as a nurse. No wonder then that I’m perceived as a nurse who happens to write poems. But in truth I’m a poet who happens to be a nurse. (I also write fiction, but then that’s another story, no pun intended.)

I suppose it could be said that a nurse who writes serious poetry is not unlike anyone else who writes serious poetry while also holding down a job outside the halls of academia. (Academia being the only place where a regular, working poet might be able to make living as poet.) Dana Gioia devotes a chapter of Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture to a discussion of American poets who happen to have made a living in business, ultimately making the case that these poets did not “simplify themselves into the conventional image of poet.” Gioia points out that he chose this particular group—poets who have at one time or another in their lives worked as insurance salesmen or bankers or investment brokers—because it serves the purposes of his wider argument as “one of the more extreme and paradoxical examples of the alienated modern artist.”

Is the poet who works in a hospital, tending to the sick, any different from the poet who works in an office building selling insurance? Maybe not, since both these poets work at “regular” jobs for a paycheck in order to work in the off hours towards the same goal—a well-crafted poem. But to me the more interesting question is this: All things being equal (that is, we’re talking about serious poetry that merits the consideration of both the literary critic and the lover of poetry) what is it about the body of work written by nurses—as a distinct group—that is worth our attention?

Gioia poses the same question about businessman-poets (all the poets he discusses in that particular chapter are men)—“Is anything even gained by segregating them as a distinct group of writers and comparing them to other poets whose lives seem more typical?” Obviously, given the depth of his own thinking on the subject, Gioia has concluded that there is indeed something to be gained. I agree, if only for the pleasure of digging past the intriguing question and into the poetry itself. But then Gioia goes off on in other directions (money and wealth as ancient subjects, for example) that may not be as useful to this discussion.

One of Gioia’s questions, however, went off in such a direction as to give me pause: “Why did these men write nothing about their working lives?” Clearly, one would never ask that question about the “distinct group of writers” who are nurses, for the obvious reason that when nurses write poems, they quite often are writing about their working lives, with all the poetic energy it takes to address what they know firsthand of illness, birth, dying and death, suffering and healing. One could argue that a great many poems in the English and American tradition address these very same subjects. Still, there is no denying that the majority of poems written by nurses—at least those specifically identified and anthologized as such—are uniquely set in the working life of the nurse, a working life that requires an intimacy with human suffering the likes of which no other profession requires. Poems written by nurses are more likely to be narrative, to appeal to the senses, to be attentive to the human body in ways that are knowing, and authoritative. It seems to me this is only natural, given the sort of experience a nurse naturally draws from.

I dare say that most of the poets represented in what Cortney Davis calls a “small revolution in nurses’ writing” did not take offense when Davis and her co-editor Judy Schaefer (both of them nurses, both poets) gathered them together under one title—Nurses—and published their poems in an anthology. (There are now two such anthologies.) The members of that small revolution owe a dept of gratitude for the passionate efforts of these anthologists, and for the outreach of editors like Danielle Ofri of Bellevue Literary Review. Were it not for the distinct grouping—for the category of “literary nurse”—some of these poets might never have received the notice they are due.

That said, I am still a poet who happens to be a nurse. The distinction is important to me because I resist the suggestion that any subject matter—in my case, the working life of a nurse—is of primary importance in recommending a body of work to a reader. Some poets are nurses, and others are insurance salesmen and, yes, a lot of them are academics, but regardless of how they make a living, the best of these strive to perfect their art. Confined by the topics relating to a particular profession, how can any poet grow as an artist?

In her foreword to Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses, Joanne Trautmann Banks writes that she’d like to remove the hyphen from the term “nurse-writers.” She concludes with an imperative: “Call them simply writers who happen to have unusual access to us.” (xiv) I think Banks has it right. In reading the poems in this tribute issue, it is worth considering the import of that “unusual access.”

By virtue of the profession, nurses have physical access to us: They are present at moments of human vulnerability. At the same time, the work that nurses do—often so close to our pain as to breathe the very air of it—demands a discipline that limits access to emotion. Good nurses keep a check on the feelings—fear, revulsion, anger, grief—that might compromise what they have to offer as professionals. Even at the joyful occasions, childbirth for example, nurses know they aren’t entirely free to indulge in emotion. On the one hand they must be empathetic and engaged, but on the other hand they must be removed and clear-headed. Thus, at the end of the workday, a nurse’s approach to writing a poem isn’t exactly like Wordsworth’s emotion recollected in tranquility. The nurse’s approach might be described as professional barriers to emotion dismantled out of poetic necessity. My phrasing isn’t as euphonious as Wordsworth’s, but it’s the best I can do, and I believe it’s true.

This is not to say that nurses write poems to let off the steam of pent-up feeling. It is to say that their approach to poems (even those poems addressing subjects outside the nursing workday—sea turtles and street cellists and the Day of the Dead, for example) is by way of a privileged and precarious access to human experience. Rather than merely reporting from the bedside, rather than aiming for sensation or sentiment, good poets who happen to be nurses work hard at the craft. As a distinct group, it is true they have an unusual access to us. But it’s important to note that this access is not easy, and that each poet in the distinct group presented here has approached it deliberately. Each one has mustered up the discipline it takes to make something beautiful out of what a nurse knows.

Works cited:

Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Graywolf, 1992).

Davis, Cortney and Judy Schaefer. Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses (University of Iowa Press, 1995).

Davis, Cortney and Judy Schaefer. Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses (University of Iowa Press, 2003).


Madeleine Mysko is a registered nurse and a graduate of The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University. Her poems and prose have appeared in such venues as The Hudson Review, Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review, The Baltimore Sun and American Journal of Nursing. Her first novel, Bringing Vincent Home (Plain View Press) is based on her experiences as an Army nurse on the burn ward during the Vietnam War. A poetry collection, Crucial Blue (Rager Media), is due for release in 2008.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007

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