I write a fairly regular ‘essay’ in a series called RANSACKING THE PAST for display on The British Haiku Society Website. Sometimes I dredge books of my own early haiku for ones I could have done better (most of them) and write a critique, sometimes I look at old articles in Blithe Spirit (the BHS Journal) and précis them, sometimes I celebrate old haiku articles from elsewhere and make comments. On 11th July 2020, I wrote an essay based on something I found by flicking through a heap of things of my own from the long past. After I had written it, I ruminated further and the results can be found at the end of the actual essay which starts NOW!
I often look back in old notebooks to ransack their pages for nowness. I was Number 23 on The British Haiku Society membership scoreboard and knew the first President, James Kirkup, very well. We corresponded regularly till he died in 2009.
I found a series of notes dated April 1992 when I was helping to start things up during which I asked the question, “What am I doing writing haiku?” A westerner writing haiku, learning to live with an alien intellectual tradition. I thought I’d try to trace the mind-trail that brought me to writing haiku.
These are some of my notes just as they are in my notebook.
I first came across haiku in the mid-sixties reading Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen. But reading about haiku is not the same as feeling them on the pulse and it’s not become a way of life till recently. I’ve always been keen on imagist poetry and DTSusuki’s Zen in Western Literature which I read about the same time as Watts is sufficient to make it clear that Zen sentiment or cast of mind is in practice part of general human makeup, not specifically Japanese: regard for the present moment, the specificity of ordinary simple things, the undifferentiated unity of childhood, suchness, istigkeit – knot-holes in fences, rock formations, newts in a pond, water running round a bend in a stream, manhole covers (where was the man?), trees on the horizon… Such were my own early obsessions; I gradually became aware that not everybody finds such things noteworthy – I was out on my own, so I thought.
I re-read James Kirkup’s The Only Child to find out what might have conditioned him to write haiku. What existential choices might he have made early on in life to offer him a particular mind-set that led him to haiku? Quiddity, the whatness of an object or event…
What did I find in the first of his autobiographical writings? I found his ‘inarticulate agitations and dumb happiness with tolerant amusements’; I found that he was ‘lonely but not conscious of loneliness’; that he enjoyed ‘being together but had a longing to be alone…’
Then I made a long list of quiddities I found in the book that seemed to have fired his lonely being:-
• vivid blue flashes on tram wires
• Granny Kirkup’s porch smelling of autumn & sea
• the smell of other people’s houses
• the telegraph pole in the lane at Ada Street
• the bloodstone in the backyard
• magical labyrinths of white sheets on washing day
• the dog Rosie, the milkman’s horse, sparrows hopping in the gutter, seagulls flying over the chimneys, cats that roamed up & down the street or lay swanning themselves on the hot flagstones of summer
• the bandstand in South Marine Park
• a fog horn and ship sirens
• patterns on table cloths, on plates, on wallpaper, on linoleum and the big Axminster rug
James wrote: ‘…all these things I studied with obsessional intensity until I knew every colour, every repetition, every convolution of their extraordinary designs…’
• the travelling spark at the end of the lamplighter’s stick
• a seagull perching on a rocking buoy
• a long rolling wave sullenly progressing, swelling and tapering into blown spray, breaking reluctantly into white and toppling crests that slowly plunged on the thundering sand and churned the shuddering under-shingle was a perfect thing, beyond judgement, like fire or snowfall…
• model sailing ship in a glass case
• an old market place on a Saturday night
[…which was exactly where I found my old copy of The Only Child, but in Luton rather than South Shields…]
• a chipped blue enamel teapot
• five-pound tin of Tat & Lyle’s Golden Syrup
• the door knob itself
• H-shaped boot-scraper
• gas-lamp in the street
• slightly stirring shadows of flowery lace curtain
• far-off moaning of ships
• gentle breathing of the sea
• jam jars of dead wallflowers & marguerites amongst gravestones
• the boots of newspaper readers in the library
• ghosts’ munching noises as they ate their cold meat pies and pease pudding and pigs’ trotters & chips on their filthy grave tables
My notebook ramble continues…
After this systematic digging out of images from James Kirkup’s childhood – the things that he focussed on, I wondered if there was a Western source for a metaphysical outlook that could give rise to a haiku cast of mind.
I have been captivated by the philosopher ANWhitehead since 1957 when I first read The Adventures of Ideas – just his title grabbed me initially (an idea could have an adventure…!) I looked up Martin Jordan’s 1968 book on him (New Shapes of Reality); he says that Whitehead denies the division of Nature into apparent & real – Nature is what is given in experience… The fundamental unity of existence is an ‘event’ or ‘occasion’ where subject & object are united, no dichotomy of perceiver and perceived. Events & occasions are becomings, self-creating processes, oneness of body & mind.
There is a dripping tap in presentational immediacy; for a split second there is a mental construction ‘dripping tap/plumber’. ‘Split second’ is a poor language attempt to depict the timeless moment when the dripping tap both is and is not connected with ‘plumber’.
Whitehead believes that we come to unique awareness of who & what we are by constructing ourselves out of our contact with occasions of experience. Occasions grasp us to become concrete through what he calls ‘prehension’. The momentary awareness we capture in haiku is the way we read the world, the way the world reads us – constant two-way process. Analytically there is nothing to choose between frog and person whose mind for a second becomes frog.
Whitehead: ‘At the moment of the occasion I am nothing but the occasion itself. The occasion is a growth of feeling and an ultimate unity and I am that growth and that unity. My actuality, my concreteness, is to be defined by what is present in the occasion, whether derived from the past or conceptually turned towards the future, whether concerned with some present physical feeling of with an idea plucked from empty air… The ‘I’ is a route for occasions to make themselves felt…’
In Whitehead’s terms a haiku would be a non-judgemental ‘proposition’ about the world based on pure data – knothole in fence, manhole covers, H-shaped boot scraper, vivid blue flashes on tram wires and so on – without the intervention of mentalisms.
What was the mind-trail that brought me to writing haiku? It will have started with Whitehead rather than Zen. Whitehead codified for me little ‘prehensions’ I’d had since newts in a pond, manhole covers and knotholes in fences had fascinated me from about the age of four.
This entirely Western approach perfectly well explains how haiku happen.
That was where my essay for The British Haiku Society ended but I continued to turn the pages of the old notebook! I pondered the idea of the way the self is constructed by (is perhaps no more than) being just a minuscule dot almost entirely made up of an incoming catalogue of the things & events of experience.
On a page before the ones these notes were recorded dated 15th April 1992, there’s a found poem I constructed from four pages of Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser (a book inscribed To Colin from James):-
attracted by deep things
and by the soul
rather than by distances
and things far off
to learn a little!
the same thing over & over
what a large world is hidden
behind these words:
to imprint something firmly
on one’s mind
when we have grasped a thing
it is as if it possessed us –
not we possess it but the opposite:
whatever we have apparently acquired
rules over us
gardens behind delicate fencings
quiet & lost like secret corners
in English parklands –
right beside them the traffic of business
as if landscapes or dreams
had never existed
the railway trains
thunder over the quivering bridges
In exchange for the poem, James sent me this postcard which is glued on another page
He thought it could be used as a dust jacket illustration for one of his books I was setting up for printing. On the reverse there’s his handwriting with which I became so familiar:-
Twenty years before all the above (1970) I used to make lists of quiddities – it must be in the blood!
Fifteen years before that (1955) I’d become enchanted by Walt Whitman and his great meditative ‘barbaric yawps’. And while I was pondering all this (July 2020), I read the beginning of Chapter Three – ‘The Adventure of the Murdered Man’s Brother’ – in JBPriestley’s brilliant, compulsive reading, romp The Doomsday Men:-
Jimmy Edlin, who had been in many of the strange cities of this world, had now returned to the newest and strangest of them all, that vast conglomeration and gaily-coloured higgledy-piggledy of unending boulevards, vacant lots, oil derricks, cardboard bungalows, retired farmers, fortune-tellers, real estate dealers, film stars, false prophets, affluent pimps, women in pyjamas turning on victrolas, radio men lunching on aspirin and Alka-Seltzer, Middle-Western grandmothers, Chinese grandfathers, Mexican uncles, and Philippino cousins, known as Los Angeles. It was not Jimmy’s native city: he had no native city; he was the son of a wandering Irish-American father and an English mother; and since his late teens, thirty years ago, he had roamed the world trying this and that, and had prospected for gold, dredged for platinum, sold advertising space, imported watches and cheap bracelets and fountain-pens, exported rubber and ivory and Chinese pigtails, been a ships purser, newspaper proprietor (in Alaska), publicity man, general merchant, owner of a restaurant Shanghai), made tidy fortunes and lost them, and had a roaring good time. For the last few years he had been in China, chiefly in Shanghai, but had cleared out when the Japanese came, after converting a great many Mexican dollars and similar currency into two respectable banking accounts…
In spite of Priestley’s apparent antipathy towards Whitman, ‘the oddest of all great poets’, I can’t help but feel there’s a Whitman influence here – the discrete listings of things & events, quiddities or prehensions. The bare lists of things Jimmy Edlin found to be the essence of Los Angeles and the matter of fact account of his various trades are very reminiscent of Whitman’s listings:-
Long varied train of an emblem, dabs of music,
Fingers of the organist skipping staccato over the keys of the great organ.
The log at the wood-pile, the axe supported by it,
The sylvan hut, the vine over the doorway, the space clear for a garden,
The irregular tapping of rain down on the leaves after the storm is lulld,
The wailing and moaning at intervals, the thought of the sea,
The thought of ships struck in the storm and put on their beam ends, and the cutting away of masts
The sentiment of the huge timbers of old-fashion’d houses and barns,
The remember’d print or narrative, the voyage at a venture of men, families, goods,
The disembarkation, the founding of a new city,
The voyage of those who sought a New England and found it, the outset anywhere,
The settlements of the Arkansas, Colorado, Ottawa, Willamette,
The slow progress, the scant fare, the axe, rifle, saddle-bags;
The beauty of all adventurous and daring persons,
The beauty of wood-boys and wood-men with their clear untrimm’d faces…
What’s the point of accumulating such lists? What do they do for us? It seems to me that serious hopping from thing to thing can be understood as a bit of mystical experiencing – indulging in the singular ‘specificity of the ordinary’ – they are examples of the million trillion things that constitute the nature of the self, minuscule dot. Listing as many of them as one can from time to time seems like a way of assessing the whole of existence in the hope that one might merge with it, participation mystique:-
O to realize space!
The plenteousness of all, that there are no bounds,
To emerge and be of the sky, of the sun and moon and clouds, as one with them.
Though seeming to be committed to a practical, down to earth, ordinary person’s point of view, a ‘popular’ writer even, JBP is always on the edge of a mystical apprehension of things in spite of what he wrote about Whitman In Literature & Western Man:-
Whitman’s weaknesses and absurdities are obvious… a tasteless poseur… [who] wrote a good deal of pretentious rubbish, using a vocabulary that might have been borrowed from an illiterate head-waiter. [But with a] …curiously selfless identification, not unlike the participation mystique of primitive man, with a whole vast panorama of Man and Nature presented to us, we feel, almost in a pre-historical condition, as if human society, as Europe had known it for centuries, did not yet exist. And the democracy about which we hear so much in Whitman seems less the familiar political creed… than it does a term for some new world outside politics altogether… behind his rather absurd lists of trades and jobs, his bragging about steam printing presses and electric telegraphs, is a dream as wide as the sky, impossible to a European poet, an American dream.
It is a mystical dream and behind all JBP’s novels there’s also a dream of a better life. For example, The Doomsday Men can be seen as a metaphor for what Priestley himself might secretly have wanted to do to the cities of folly and unhappiness sheltering under the mechanical pretence of Progress – blow them all sky-high and start all over again. The three brothers planning to annihilate the world are in a state of imbalance – they can be said to typify separately the first three ways of being that Gurdjieff draws up in preparation for the creation of a Fourth Way: Henry MacMichael, the multi-millionaire is a Doer; Paul MacMichael is scientist & thinker; John MacMichael is feeler & visionary, each ill-locked into one way of constructing the universe. A man of the Fourth Way, Malcolm Darbyshire, unifies action, thinking & feeling and helps to prevent Doomsday, the destruction of the world; the brothers are remembered only very briefly by the press – they represent what Gurdjieff calls the ‘News of the Day’, a process JBP writes about in Wonder Hero – that which makes a headline one week and sinks without trace the next.
Their sinister biographies blackened in numerable columns. Dubious dots to represent their faces were flashed from capital to capital. Thus, as the arch-criminals of our time they towered while what remained of them on earth still lay beneath their own ruined tower. To end the world? Millions of men and women stared at each other, their minds busy with crashing images of destruction.
Just as at the present time some optimists think that things will be different when/if the Plague is brought under control so, as news of the MacMichael grim plot spread round the world, people dreamed briefly of another way of doings things, another way of being, and actually did make a few changes (here’s another bare list!):-
For an hour or two, clouded by this vision of what might have been… the industrialists and the bankers were at one; the farmers stopped disliking the city folks; men who worked in black coats made common cause with men who worked in overalls; associations of employers made light of trade unions; capitalist and proletarian remembered they shared the same earth; fascists and communists were haunted by the same vision; patriotic imperialists failed to salute the battle-torn flags waving above their dividends; foreign secretaries neglected the drafted agreements that nobody intended to keep; the Class Struggle, the Red Menace, the Fascist Will, the Jewish Problem, the German Destiny, the Failure of the New Deal, the Decadence of Britain, Japan Over Asia, Italy Over Africa, Stalin Over Russia, the Threat to Democracy, the Decay of Liberalism, the Collapse of Civilisation, all were temporarily forgotten, and for a few hours all the currents of prejudice and mistrust and fear and hate were dammed behind one gigantic barrier, and though men were haunted by this one dark vision of doomsday, somehow for that little time they breathed a larger and nobler air.
One could say that this is Priestley’s dream of a better life for all which he is realistic enough in his ‘life-enhancing pessimism’ to know that there are dire forces firmly in place which will never allow it to happen.
It did not last long, of course, for we live in an eventful age and have a magnificent news service, and so, flinging a few last curses at the memory of those three insane brothers who had tried to destroy the world at one stroke, men returned to their ordinary tasks and thoughts, perhaps to destroy the world piece by piece…
…in other more devious ways, of course, somewhat less obvious to the naked eye.
If humankind were to spend some time focussing on the singular specificity of the ordinary – the million trillion things that constitute the nature of the self, minuscule dot, assessing by that means, the whole of existence, there might emerge a more solid vision of a better life for all. Or at least more joined-up thinking. Good for a start!
It occurs to me that my phrase the ‘Specificity of the Ordinary’ is one I invented to explain the state of mind of various characters in several of Iris Murdoch’s novels; she was friend & associate of JBP…