27 May 2007

Bashō, The Narrow Road to Oku

I received Bashō, The Narrow Road to Oku, yesterday (the 19th of May), a poetic and anecdotal chronicle of the celebrated poet's journey in 1689 to the northern end of the island of Honshū. The book itself is beautifully made of high quality materials, typical of a Japanese paperback. I sent for Bashō after enjoying his poetry while studying haiku and having read the jacket cover blurb by illustrator Miyato Masayuki online before ordering. I was captivated by the description of Bashō "drifting with the clouds and streams" and "lodging under trees and on hard rocks," in his long journey to Oku.

I felt a sensation of deja vu wash over me as I read the blurb. I looked up to one of my drawings on the wall behind where I sit at my computer, which depicts a poplar leaf caught up in the flow of a stream and about to run aground on a rock. I had seen many a leaf in this predicament, turning and twirling with the current until it snagged upon a rock, in my explorations of Four Mile Run, a local stream (I grew up in Northern Virginia, which is blessed by a myriad of small streams running through valleys).

I was certain there was more here than a description of a journey, but the words were metaphor for Bashō himself caught up in the currents of his journey, like a fallen leaf lodging under trees laying across the stream, escaping for a moment to twirl and spin, then come up again on hard rocks, until once again released by the force of the current, the journey can continue. I just had to have this book.

Before I continue, a word on the illustrations. The torn paper art of Masayuki illustrating each haiku is simply astonishing. I would have said it was done with an airbrush or is digital artwork unless I was told the illustrations were constructed from torn bits of paper. Simply amazing. I would have liked to seen the originals, since the printing does not do them justice. I could write a whole essay on just the illustrations alone.

Although the title is difficult to translate, I believe its meaning comes through clearly. Oku refers to the Northern provinces of Honshū and is known as the "interior." Knowing that Bashō chose this title for his work despite the road playing a very small role in the account, suggests the title was chosen for its double meaning, that he was traveling literally to the interior of northern Japan and metaphorically into his own interior life and that of poetry.

I am fascinated by many aspects of his poetry. The use of ordinary descriptions and freedom from grandiose visions or exaggerated emotions typically associated with poetry. The indirection and use of context and implication in communicating (or failing to communicate--many of his poems are difficult to understand without the help of the journal. I doubt I would be as satisfied by the poems without the story of his journey) contrast with the Western poem.

Bashō's poems frequently end with a line that only makes sense in light of the previous verse.

At a point in his travels, Bashō passes between a rice field and the sea.

Sweet smelling rice fields
to our right as we pass through
The Aristo Sea.

Another chronicler of a "road trip," Kerouac might have portrayed the journey with greater intensity, but not with greater delicacy than Bashō. His poetry is all the more remarkable considering this is simply a description of a scene passing by, recorded with delicacy and detail. This poem makes a complete sentence over its three short lines, but the last one is still jarring. On first reading it, there is a strangeness I cannot quite put my finger on. Typical of his haiku, it is less than a sentence fragment, not much more than a multi-word noun, frequently the name of a natural wonder. The line has a tendency to stand still, which may explain why they so often come at the end of a poem.

It is still a bit jarring to my ears when encountering a line that does not seem to state anything, but makes a statement only through counterpoint with the previous verses.

Turbulent the sea--
Across to Sado stretches
The Milky Way.

Then again, I may not be reading it right, since it does form a complete sentence with the second line. It may just be the novelty of reading haiku.

A better example from Bashō's poems that end with a line that only makes sense in light of the previous verse is this one:

At Yamanaka
No need to pick chrysanthemums--
The scent of hot springs.

I thought if I had read the last line alone, I would ask "the scent of hot springs ... what?" But when followed by the first two lines, the meaning becomes clear. The hot springs are as fragrant as the chrysanthemum.

For a while, Bashō stopped to rest under a willow tree famous from poetry and wrote the following haiku:

They sowed a whole field,
And only then did I leave
Saigyō's willow tree.

It is remarkable how Bashō measures time by how long it takes for a rice field to be planted. We must remember in ancient times, before clocks were commonplace and before the invention of the minute that rules our lives, people measured time by how long it took to complete some common task. Bashō was measuring time using the most immediate unit at hand, which offers a poetic opportunity for sowing a field to stand in place of the clock (at least with reference to the time addicted modern reading it, the poet may have been merely descriptive). It is an example of the brand of poetic indirection Bashō is known for.

What this tells me about poetry (and song alike) is that the poet must forget about imbuing his poetry with meaning, and just write down their experiences. Time will change the meaning and imbue the lines with meaning discovered by each reader or generation of readers. I feel he was merely describing what he saw and did while visiting a spot mentioned in poetry (a favorite activity of Japanese travelers) in concise and flowing words. It is very hard for a Westerner to give up that need for the poem to be _about_ something, to convey some grand meaning. The haiku is very much like a photograph, a graceful and economical record of an experience.

In the darkness gathering over a lonely beach, amidst the fishermen's huts and a forlorn temple, where Bashō went to collect little masuo shells, the poet left us with the second to last poem of his journey, a question:

What do the waves bring?
Mixed in with little shells
Bits of clover blooms.

This is the most memorable of my favorites, surfacing from time to time when thoughts are idle, holding on to unconscious attention more tenaciously than others, in the short time I've been acquainted with the Narrow Road to Oku. I believe it resonates with the way I see the world and reminds me my approach to photography, which hopes to accomplish what Bashō does, to call attention to the grace of ordinary things. It requires sensitivity and courage to take notice, as Bashō did, of bits of clover blooms amidst the stones and shells of tidal shallows. It's hard to consider we nearly missed having it, being the next to the last poem his journey inspired!

26 May 2007

Star Wars and How I Got There

I dragged my parents to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey for its original theatrical release. I was five years old and in love with the Apollo program. I had seen advertisements on television for the film and insisted I go. We saw the film at the old drive at Bailey's Crossroads right across from the airport (legend has it one pilot scraped his wheels on the screen making a landing) that has been gone for many years. I fell asleep halfway through, what I have always since called the most boring film ever made. I did wake up in time to see Hal get his comeuppance. It was years later before I began to understand the film's subtleties. My parents didn't get any of it.

The film represented the epitome of realistic depiction of space and space travel within the solar system. The praise it won for special effects was justified and was in strong contrast to the usual science fiction fare in the cinema.

As I grew up, I began in my teenage years to read science fiction. I fell in love with the golden age of pulp science fiction of the 1930s and with the expansive age of science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, I discovered through anthologies and old pulp magazines along with newer ones like Analog. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s science fiction grew in sophistication and my reading list grew to include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Chariots of the Gods and other stuff pulled from my older brother's stash of books. I read the first Anne McCaffery story, Weyr Search, I believe in Analog I picked up second hand and that started my interest in the science fantasy genre. I watched Star Trek whenever an episode would come on, usually fighting to adjust the television antenna to tune in some high numbered UHF station that would carry it in later years. I had seen Star Trek in its original run and first syndication, but was a bit too young and it didn't really attract me then like the real space program did. I watched Space 1999 and other shows. You had to take what you could get for a fix.

I saw Star Wars in first run at the Arlington Theater in old downtown Arlington, Virginia (a beautiful art deco building that still exists). I went with my brother and his girlfriend. I was stunned by the opening sequence with the grand Imperial ship overhead and subsequent gripping battle scenes aboard the cruiser. Here was everything I had ever read and image in science fiction come to life. Not some cheesy Buck Rogers spaceship on a string with a firecracker up its tail and not the slow, boring hyper realism of A Space Odyssey. Even as good as the special effects were on Star Trek television series or a film like Planet of the Apes or the lovely Forbidden Planet, nothing could approach this for "realism" in bringing an imaginary world to life before my eyes. Scenes that had only lived in my imagination were realized in a way that did not diminish them, as often happens when the events and characters you imagine in books are made into a film. Since I had never read the story before, I could revel in the scenes that were like those every science fiction fan had read and imagined, but not exact enough to disturb a treasured memory.

I never became a Star Wars fanatic. I collected a few figures I liked, such as an R2D2 and C3PO, the robots, which as a computer enthusiast (geek) I was attracted to. I never really got into it as life philosophy or profound familial story as others did. Star Wars was a life changing experience for me, perhaps in some subtle way that Sgt. Pepper was for my brother, only much lesser. I loved the Williams score for the original film, a work that stands on its own and listened to it literally hundreds of times over the years. I still like Star Wars and play some of the better video games that came out of the series. In Star Wars Battlefront I get to relive the movie and its locations. I get to run around Mos Eisley. How cool is that? It's pretty novel for someone born in my generation to be running around in a world they saw in a film one time, not that those born in the last fifteen years would understand that. The closest I could ever have gotten to that is either in my imagination reading book or being on the set of movie. The three dimensional first person computer video game did realize what I saw as the ultimate potential of the "microcomputer" back then. I had faith in that, that we'd get there someday, back when the closest thing was Star Raiders on the Atari or Flight Simulator on the Apple II. Having neither of those I had to content myself with spacewar or Asteroids clones on a black and white monitor. So there it is, here and back again. It is hard to believe that Star Wars is thirty years ago.

There Grew a Tree by Liberty Dawne

On March 11 2007, the audience of the AFI Silver in Silver Spring Maryland was treated to live music from a group of young musicians after the screening of the documentary film on Stephen Wade, Catching the Music. I attended as a member of the Folkstreams team (we had to sprint to the local Office Depot for a ethernet cable or the Folkstreams presentation would never have made it to the silver screen) and we enjoyed the music afterward very much, as did the audience. The musicians Stephen brought with him played wonderfully, each featured on their own and along with Stephen's magical banjo playing. My favorite was Liberty Dawne who sings and plays the fiddle. She has a CD available, which I purchased from her at the show and that you should give a listen to.

A favorite of mine is Pass that Burley Down, a standout song of the set and one of two songs written by Liberty from an experience stripping tobacco. It is reminiscent of work songs and field hollers from African American music (upon which the blues is based). It occurred to me this song draws upon a similar tradition of field work in Appalachian culture. I must be attracted to this quality it shares with the blues, since I have loved the blues since I discovered the music as a teenager in the late 1970s. My attraction is not an academic one. I don't like the song because of its associations, but on its own merits. The song is a good one. This song shows off Liberty talent's, being fast paced and sparkling.

I am attracted to albums that stand as a complete picture of the artist without being obviously autobiographical. I like the music to represent the essence of the individual not a detailed report on their life. I am not so interested in whether each song is successful in a popular sense, but that each song, and the songs as a whole, represent who the songwriter authentically is. It doesn't matter to me if a song is sentimental (which seems to be the art-crime of the last century) as long as it authentically represents the sentimentality of the artist in an artistically interesting way. That is all we can ask for from art.

As such, one of my favorite albums is Mary Chapin Carpenter's first, Hometown Girl, which I tend to identify with since I grew up in the Metro DC area and share some of the feelings expressed in the songs. I spent a good many hours of my childhood in the Air and Space Museum. I think I also share the romantic vision of a suburban kid who grew up close to the fading cultures of the Eastern Shore and the Appalachians close at hand. My family, like many others, frequently visited the Chesapeake and over to the Delmarva, or west to the Blue Ridge, passing through farm country, stopping at farmer's markets, and the like, which may explain my interest in Folkstreams and co-founding a website bringing social networking to solve the problems of sustainable farming, FarmFoody. I am drifting off topic. Although I think she would like to compare well to folk music superstar Alison Krauss, another fiddle player who sings, I think she mines a vein closer to Gillian Welch, who sets modern themes to traditional music.

Perhaps this is why I like "visionary" artists, since they are just doing their own thing, putting whatever is on their mind into their works, without worrying about the "art scene" or what some professor told them, trying to be the next Picasso (or Beatles). I think people need to stop trying to be the next anything, since we know that a general fighting the last war is a losing proposition. After all, that is what artistic expression is, putting what's on your mind or what you are feeling into an external, material form.

I don't quite feel that coherency as strongly in There Grew a Tree, perhaps because many of the songs are traditional and perhaps because of that, lacks the authority of a singer songwriter's first album, but since the album is one of traditional music, that can be expected. For her, the traditional songs are part of her identity. The songs were chosen more in connection with her family and her memory than written from those with the exception of the two songs she penned. The first albums by singer songwriters are frequently powerful since they usually represent the bottled up emotion of their first decade of song writing. Perhaps There Grew a Tree is much the same, only through the medium of a selection of traditional and popular songs important to the artist.

I must apologize if this review has drifted into myriad other directions, but it can't be helped. I'm just made that way.

Among the covers, Billy Gray is an excellent well written song, which Liberty runs through with an attractive quality to her voice. I think she struggles a bit with some of the more complicated melodies, but I'll leave that to people who judge singing contests. The instrumental playing on this album is wonderful and all who participated are excellent musicians.

Happy Farmer/Redwing is a mashup of a western swing tune and a classical piece. She pulls it off pretty good and I like the idea of combining music from different eras and styles, which I attempted couple of times in my own pathetic musical ramblings, giving the mashup some resonance with my inclinations.

She includes You are My Sunshine, Walkin' the Dog, Orange Blossom Special (very nicely done), Kentucky and Runaway Train.

She includes Amazing Grace on the album. Along with Silent Night, Amazing Grace is one of my two favorite traditional songs, which stand above nearly every song I know and inhabit some transcendent space we barely comprehend.

The second song written by Liberty, There Grew a Tree, is a wonderful metaphor for the growth of family and generations. I find the two songs Liberty wrote to be the most effective of the album and I had assumed they were traditional numbers until I read the CD notes. It may be that the songs she wrote fit her style better than the others. They are both strong songs and perhaps it was singing her own songs that gave them greater strength. I wish the songs had been all her own.

The CD was released in 2001 so I have no doubt her playing, writing and singing has improved, but There Grew a Tree can still be had from amazon I recommend you seek it out. I don't think much of music reviews, so I really don't write them. Just go out and listen.

18 May 2007

God's Peculiar People

I've been reading Elaine Lawless's book, God's Peculiar People, which arrived here in good condition today. She explains how Pentecostals are in daily contact with the paranormal. They keep one foot in the spirit world, to place it in context with the notions of pre-literate cultures. The "willfulness principle" was observed by Lawless operating in these communities that held strong beliefs in the power of "witches" to influence events. The willfulness principle was coined by Barber and Barber to explain the notion that in pre-literate cultures, natural effects have supernatural causes, principally the actions of willful spirits. It is worth noting that in Miyazaki's films (Spirited Away and My Friend Totoro notably) there exists the same close association between the natural world and the spirit world Lawless discovered in her observations of Pentecostals. His films express this notion of a spirit world parallel to and mirroring the natural world, which is a traditional feature of Japanese culture, arising from the pre-literate period in which the willfulness principle operated. It is not dissimilar to the attitudes of Pentecostals who reject the natural world to keep one foot in the spirit world accompanying the natural.

This "abandonment of the world" appears similar to Zen's entreaty to abandon worldly things as causes of suffering, and entry into a spirit world of meditation, which can be likened to the "unspeakable joy" that Pentecostals feel upon receiving the "holy ghost" and their general happiness derived from their faith. The levels of blessing Pentecostals strive for seem to echo the levels of attainment in zen.

(In addition to Elaine's book, you can watch Joy Unspeakable on the Folkstreams website).

The Folksnet: Folk Culture and Web 2.0

Although I am not a folklorist, through my work on the Follkstreams website, I have come to appreciate the study of folk culture and understand how expansive a field it represents. Folk culture is the culture people make for themselves and share with others. Web 2.0 is a folk culture, it even coined a phrase "folksonomy" to denote a system of categorization that replaces a vocabulary controlled by an authority or group of authorities with a vocabulary created ad hoc by the people involved in using the system of categorization. The media sharing sites like YouTube and MySpace and "mashup" systems like Yahoo Pipes and Microsoft Popfly enable a rich shared folk media culture to arise. Increasingly, as we head into the 21st century, it is a supreme irony that folklore is taking on greater importance as nearly everything is democratized and individualized, and is poised to become perhaps the most significant field of research in this century, after having for centuries remained an overlooked backwater in academia.

Folklore already possess the vocabulary and methods to comprehend and measure such a brave new world. It has the attitudes and assumptions, the knowledge frameworks ready at hand. As we understand how the mind works, as we democratize, we will realize the central role played by narrative in the workings of the mind and society, that society is a kind of virtual reality similar to the internet in which abstract things affect the real world, that narrative and oral tradition exist everywhere and explain how people know what they know and apply what they know to the world around them. This is a profound shift from the rationalist assumptions that have driven Western civilization since the beginning of the Enlightenment.

17 May 2007

Creative Photography: Subversive Detail and Conceptual Contrast

Subversive content in photographs. No, I do not mean politically subversive, but details in the image that subvert or comment on the image's subject. For example, you may be attempting a very serious image of an important landmark, let's say the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, Virginia, but in the foreground are parked a string of dump trucks or perhaps a string of circus vans. The presence of such contradictory details undermines the meaning and mood of the image. Of course, it can also be used by the photographer in a controlled manner to create commentary.

Here is an excellent example where subversive content is used to enhance the image. The graffiti in the background becomes a compositional element leading the eye to the hugging couple frame right and the joyous dancing figure of the iPod advertisement directly behind them communicates what the photographer "mind reads" or imagines is their inner feelings.

Hugs (San Francisco Streets 2007, godfrey digiorgi 2007)

(It reminds me of a late image by André Kertész from the 1970s of a couple I saw published in a photo magazine in the late 1970s, which if I recall, he made from his window).

Reflections in windows have famously been used as a way to introduce subversive content into images.

The important thing to keep in mind is the idea is not to introduce a lot of clutter or trash detail into your image, but to let the extraneous detail become a commentary. It has to mean something. You need to ensure the image forms and idea not just a composition (although sometimes a certain composition has such a powerful affect on the viewer that is sufficient to constitute an great image).

A good example of this by the same photographer. This image is powerful merely for it sense of captured movement and how the woman, coat, dog and background material "divide the frame," which is simply a term of art for how the three dimensional objects in the image divide the flat two dimensional area of the image into sections in an interesting way. Dividing the frame is an important concept in any two dimensional visual art.

Woman and Dog (San Francisco Streets 2007, godfrey digiorgi 2007)

Photographers also use contrast...not not contrast in exposure terms...but contrast in terms of visual language. For example, this image creates a feeling of loneliness by isolating the human figures as impersonal silhouettes in a large space inhabited by shafts of luminous light but contrasts the aloneness by presenting a group of people, not just one person. By this he contrasts loneliness and togetherness in the same image.

Across The Light (Tate Modern, London 2005, godfrey digiorgi)

By the way, I do not have to mention Godfrey is an excellent photographer who understands these important principles of authorship in photography. I found examples of both visual ideas discussed in this entry quickly on his site. He obviously understands that to make good photographs, to make photographs that are significant artifacts for consideration by society, the images must say something, not just be well exposed and composed, that the photographer must establish and manipulate a visual vocabulary. His best images have something to say and the few that fall flat are the ones that fail to establish and communicate an idea. A photograph without the presence of the author is nothing more than a documentary image (those have value as well, but that is not what I am discussing here...I certainly appreciate vernacular and documentary images).

Even if the photographer did not intend a specific message the images communicate one. There is a quote, I cannot recall exactly, but it was regarding hypocrisy and concluded the mind cannot know itself completely at once, which applies.

06 May 2007

CSPAN Video Hacked?

I somehow doubt CSPAN is running an all day celebration of televangelist Gene Scott, but for some reason all afternoon CSPAN 2 has been showing Gene Scott video on the Real Video stream. I discovered this when I switched from tv to CSPAN 2 video to see the Book-TV Marvin Olaksy interview live. The Windows media strean is showing the Olasky interview.


What do you think?

04 May 2007



I saw through enthusiasm
like a child sees through
the easter bunny to the man
walking down the street in
a bunny suit

I saw through enthusiasm
too easily, and dismissing
in melancholy realism
the love I had, I threw
the rare book in the trash
it had begun to mold
and grandfather had cut
a pattern from the cover
and no one was ever
going to be interested in
Craftsman homes again

I saw through enthusiasm
like a child realizes
there is no santa claus
bearing gifts, but a man
in santa suit

I saw through enthusiasm
too easily, to be swept up
in discovery, as if by
the tide, to fall blindly
in love with an idea
who would come to use it
who would not ridicule its
simplicity, so I never made
anything of it

Now, I see through ghosts
the past, lackluster years
the cost of never
falling in love
enough to stop seeing
through enthusiasm
to stop being a
con man conned into
giving the envelope back
to the old fool
-sek, January 01, 2006

The Strike

The Strike

high above the earth
the stoop begins
wings pulled in
response to sensing
movement on the ground
sensors sensing more
accurate than human
they zero in
the prey

high above the earth
the dive begins
dead prey walking
the earth now, but
soon to be fodder
for the superior,
the mover, the diver
it zeroes the

falling, turning

reaching inhuman
speeds, moving with
inhuman accuracy,
seeing with inhuman
eyes the inhuman
flying machine
readies for the

closer to human
ground, revealed
the falcon strikes
and in front of God's
eyes the sparrow falls

-sek, May 01, 2005.

I wrote this after watching a small hawk or peregrine falcon perched on a tree swoop down after a small bird, whether it caught it I could not see, for the distance was too great by the time they both disappeared across the valley.

03 May 2007

The Urchin's Progress

The Urchin's Progress

One day, purple urchins
covered the left side of a
great rock jutting into the sea
and the urchins remained there
until they were pushed halfway
back by olive urchins coming
up on the right side of the
rocks washed by the sea

Next day, olive urchins fell
back to one side pushed back
by the purple ones as if they
were never masters over the other
and the struggle went on until the day
when a great wave washed over the
lesser rock and swept away the
urchins, purple and olive

Years later, visitors would come
to the spot and say what a
nice empty rock to sit upon,
to contemplate the sea and
never think once of the urchins
purple or olive who once held
sway over their domains.
-sek (Steve E. Knoblock),
Original work July 12, 2005, revised May 3, 2007.

This is more of a story and prose poem than a metered poem.

02 May 2007

Storing Compact Fluorescent Lamps

I use compact fluorescent lamps and have on occasion needed to swap one out for an incandescent bulb. If you are worried about the CFL breaking during storage (we did not keep the original packing...a good idea to keep it if you intend to store them) a solution is to fit a styrofoam cup over spiral bulb to protect it from blows and enclose the whole thing in a sealed plastic bag in case it should break. mercury escaping from these lamps has been in the news lately, and it is a legitimate health concern, especially if the number of CFLs in use increase dramatically. Although the amount of mercury is less than in a large fluorescent tube, I would prefer to avoid a hot spot in my home or the mercury getting into the environment, which according to the California state government's Waste Prevention Information Exchange website document on Fluorescent Lamps and Tubes in the year 2000 contributed approximately 370 pounds of mercury to the environment in California "due to the breakage of electric lamps and tubes during storage and transportation." It is worth noting that at least some "...mercury in urban storm water sediment results in part from improperly discarded fluorescent lamps and tubes." Given human nature, if we do scale the use of CFLs to replace most incandescent lamps in homes, it is going to be difficult to get people to dispose of the CFLs in a proper facility. The number of fluorescent lamps in homes will probably grow to exceed those in businesses, so it is not a small issue.