Ono no Komachi, [Hana no iro wa] … “The flowers withered” …

•January 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Painting by Totoya Hokkei

Ono no Komachi and Cherry Blossoms by Totoya Hokkei

Ono no Komachi

[Hana no iro wa]

The flowers withered
Their color faded away
While meaninglessly
I spent my days in the world
And the long rains were falling

       [Trans. Donald Keene]


Paul Celan, “A Leaf” … a poem of our times…

•January 20, 2017 • 2 Comments

paul-celan-2Paul Celan

– a poem from Schneepart

A Leaf, treeless
For Bertolt Brecht:

What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much made explicit?

       [Trans. Michael Hamburger]

Mark Johnston, “War Movie in Reverse” …

•January 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

aerial-view-of-the-aftermath-of-first-trinity-testA powerful poem from Writing in a Nuclear Age, an anthology, edited by Jim Schley (New England Review / Bread Loaf Quarterly, 1983) [Photo: aerial view of the aftermath of first Trinity test, New Mexico]

Mark Johnston

“War Movie in Reverse”

Holes close to smooth skin
when the shrapnel flashes out.
The shores of burns recede,
and flames leap with their hot metal
back into the bomb that rises,
whole and air-borne again,
with its gathered blast.
Leading the plane perfectly,
the bomb arc back slowly
through the open gates
and disappears into the waiting belly.
The bombardier lifts
his peering eye from the sight.
Swallowing its wake,
the plane returns to base
with its countermanded mission.
The pilot, irresolute now, faces
his commandant, who marches,
brisk and backward
to the general’s lair.
The general takes back the orders.
But into what deep and good and hidden
recess of the will
go his thoughts of not bombing?

William Stafford, “Thinking for Berky” … drafts & recording

•December 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

stafford-writingI’ve never concealed the fact that William Stafford is one my favorite writers – a go-to poet for me if there ever were one. One of his strongest poems – in his subtle ease with complexity – is “Thinking for Berky”.

Here’s a link to the William Stafford Archives, which presents drafts and reading copies of Stafford’s poem. An audio file of Stafford reading the piece is included.

“Thinking for Berky”

In the late night listening from bed
I have joined the ambulance or the patrol
screaming toward some drama, the kind of end
that Berky must have some day, if she isn’t dead.

The wildest of all, her father and mother cruel,
farming out there beyond the old stone quarry
where high school lovers parked their lurching cars,
Berky learned to love in that dark school.

Early her face was turned away from home
toward any hardworking place; but still her soul,
with terrible things to do, was alive, looking out
for the rescue that–surely, some day–would have to come.

Windiest nights, Berky, I have thought for you,
and no matter how lucky I’ve been I’ve touched wood.
There are things not solved in our town though tomorrow came:
there are things time passing can never make come true.

We live in an occupied country, misunderstood;
justice will take us millions of intricate moves.
Sirens will hunt down Berky, you survivors in your beds
listening through the night, so far and good.

“Could Have” by Wisława Szymborska …

•November 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Wisława Szymborska

“Could Have”

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

So you’re here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.
         [Trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh]

“Words” by Sylvia Plath – one of her final poems…

•September 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment

sylvia-plath-largeSylvia Plath wrote “Words” – a remarkable piece – ten days before her death. The poem appeared in the first edition of Ariel, although Plath never included it in any of the collection’s drafted versions. This wasn’t because she believed the poem to be weak or dissimilar to the other works in terms of theme or tone. She hadn’t revised her working ms in the three months prior to her death. Had she not taken her own life when she did, Plath may have included most of those final poems in the finished version of Ariel, but that’s something we’ll never know. Another possible view – “Words” and a few of her other final works would have been the start of another volume.

The poem is not part of Ariel, The Restored Edition (Harper, 2005), which includes a facsimile of her manuscript, reinstating Plath’s original selections and order.


After whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Echoes traveling
Off from the center like horses.

The sap
Wells like tears, like the
Water striving
To re-establish its mirror
Over the rock

That drops and turns,
A white skull,
Eaten by weedy greens.
Years later I
Encounter them on the road —–

Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.



An old pond… the turning point … [Translations]

•September 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment


According to The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader (Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker, eds.), the turning point “both in poetry and Zen came” with Matsuo Bashō’s famous poem of a pond, a frog, and sound – cir. 1686.

Furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto
                            [Japanese version of the poem, Harold Wright, “The Art
                                                     of Translation,” Kyoto Journal, 1995]


Here are a dozen translations:

     The old pond—
a frog jumps in,
     sound of water.               [Robert Hass, 1994]

At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water               [Sam Hamill, 2000 | from The Sound of Water: Haiku by
                                          Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets
, Hamill, trans.]


For me Hamill’s translation is perfect. The connection is made between the frog and sound – as opposed to frog and water. The water or pond, according to Hamill’s translation, is the necessary point of meeting, but is secondary to frog’s plunge into [emphasis, mine] the sound. The same notion is found in the poetry of Yosa Buson, again translated by Hamill:

     In a bitter wind
     a solitary monk bends
     to words cut in stone

Buson is capturing the motion as the monk bends toward the words. Here, the stone is secondary. The monk, no doubt, is reading as he moves with, and not against, the wind. Both poems create a strange but wonderful dynamic – a juxtaposition that is both real and unreal – and ever moving. For Bashō, as filtered by Hamill, the sound is the reality; for Buson, the motion that occurs between the wind and the stone is the reality – words entering the mind.

Back to Bashō’s frog and pond…

Old pond—frogs jumped in—the sound of water.               [Lafcadio Hearn, 1898]

An old-time pond, from off whose shadowed depth
Is heard the splash where some lithe frog leaps in.               [Clara Walsh, 1910]

An old pond —
The sound
Of a diving frog.               [Kenneth Rexroth, 1964]

     The still old pond
and as a frog leaps in it
     the sound of a splash.               [Earl Miner, 1979]

The old pond—a frog jumps in, kerplunk!               [Allen Ginsberg, 1979]

Listen! a frog
     Jumping into the stillness
          Of an ancient pond!               [Dorothy Britton, 1980]

Old pond
leap — splash
a frog.               [Lucien Stryk, 1985]

Hear the lively song
of the frog in
Plash!               [Clare Nikt, ?]

                    plop     [James Kirkup, 1995 | This translation was included in Hiroaki
                                   Sato’s book, One Hundred Frogs.]

          an old pond
      a frog jumps into
     the sound of water               [Jane Reichhold, 2010 | Her translation is similar to
                                               Hamill’s in approach and is located in her essay “A
                                               Discussion about the ‘Old pond’ Haiku by Basho”.]