[Originally published Feb. 25, 2011.]

I was talking about poetry with a friend the other day, and she said she favored long narrative ballads, naming writers like Service, Kipling, Tolkien, and some Frost.

But you can see in the poems I’ve shown you, this driving, pounding beat, this rhythm that underlays the words and carries it strongly, til it almost echoes. That’s why I got disillusioned with free verse. Sure, once in a while you find one that still manages that rhythm, but they’re so far between, I just gave it up.

On the other hand, as evidenced by the Basho quotation up in the top corner, I consider Eastern poetry a cornerstone of my poetic worldview. Haiku was the first form that really enthralled me, especially for its connection to Zen Buddhism. When Buson says:

I go, you stay;
Two autumns.

The space in the poem is so vast, and with time being measured in “autumns,” you get the sense of his melancholy without having to hear him say in so many words, “I’m lonely. I miss you.” You feel his sadness without hearing the words that might numb you to it by dint of their familiarity. We hear those kinds of straightforward sentiments so often, we forget to really feel what they symbolize.

Robert Haas elaborated on this indirect way of expression:

The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku. The seasonal reference was called a kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it. In Basho’s poem quoted above, for example, the phrase aki fukaki, “deep autumn” or “autumn deepens” is traditional and had accumulated references from earlier poetry as well as from the Japanese way of thinking about time and change. So does the reference to snow—yuki, which can also mean “snowfall”—in Buson’s poems. It is always connected to a sense of exposure to the elements, for which there is also a traditional phrase, “winter bareness.” The practice was sufficiently codified and there was even a rule that the seasonal reference should always appear either in the first or third unit of the three phrase poem… These references were conventional and widely available. They were the first way readers of the poems had of locating themselves in the haiku. Its traditional themes—deep autumn, a sudden summer shower, the images of rice seedlings and plum blossoms, of spring and summer migrants like the mountain cuckoo and the bush warbler, of the cormorant-fisherman in summer, and the apprentices on holiday in the spring—gave a powerful sense of a human place in the ritual and cyclical movement of the world.

In a chapter devoted to the poet Issa, Sam Hamill pointed out the ubiquity in his poems of mono no aware (a sense of beauty intensified by recognition of temporality) and sabi (a kind of spiritual loneliness). Two of my favorites of his, both in honor of the deaths of his young children:

This world of dew
is only the world of dew—
and yet…oh, and yet…

A Buddhist equanimity tries to assert itself in the face of intense suffering, but the all-too-human emotions refuse to be pacified. Gets me every time.

Windy fall—
these are the scarlet flowers
she liked to pick.

Again, the indirect focus, not on his daughter, but on the memories attached to everyday objects. The pain of it seems to hit me harder this way.

The Eastern poets appealed to me because that’s how so many of my insights appeared to me — a sudden, intuitive flash, a widening of the eyes, a sharp intake of breath. The words came later, and sometimes just got in the way. I can appreciate a rhythmic story, but when it comes to getting at what seems to me to be the heart of the poetic experience, I tend to feel that the less words, the better. In this case, the poet’s job isn’t to lay it all out and say Here’s what happened, here’s how it happened, and here’s why it happened, it’s to place words sparingly around the experience without trying to land directly on it.