Poetry is a strange thing. It is often amazing, but also often considered by its detractors as odd scribblings that seem to have nothing to do with anything that makes a difference in our world. How can we understand poetry? A common mental image of the poet is of one who lies around avoiding actual work; a precious elitist lying on silk cushions writing pretty, rhyming nonsense, or maybe the Beat poet sitting around abusing opioids while writing strange, erotic things. Why is this?
It may be that a kind of reversal of Romanticism happened. The “Romantic” of the mid-19th century created the impression that the ideal (true) poet/artist/musician, in resistance to the sprawl and noise of an emerging Industrial Age, was regaining Latin ground, that the poet was a scholar of the soul like the Greek and Roman masters, and not a person of the machine mindset. Thus, the silk and opioids were “classical” in the sense that they were not “machines,” or “working in a factory”. They were now symbolic of the beauty of a golden age when the philosopher, lying on his chaise lounge reading and philosophizing, also participated in an aesthetic divinity (Inspiration) through which the poet could “breathe in” the ability to be profound. Drinking/smoking opened the psychic space of the great classical Muses, and absinthe/heroin consumption became part of the sacraments through which one abides with the Latin/Greek godhead of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Horace, and others (sylphs still hovering high above the growing sprawl, factories, smoking chimneys, and giant gears.). But as Modernism arrived in the 20th century the “classical animal” became a polluted, feral anti-establishment animal: seen as “indecent”,”refusing to work”: one who retreats to the pillows, musings, and heroin as a way to avoid civic responsibility. With no more Muses and sacraments, the poet is a no-good-nik, a junkie with a typewriter. Suddenly wise Athena becomes William S. Burroughs, much to the chagrin perhaps of the working class man who feels disenfranchised.
The real struggle then is to find a path away from the idea of silk pillows to a place where poems – beautiful ways of saying – matter to us, are once again ours and not “theirs”. Thankfully, the struggle is not a struggle at all when we peek behind words and look at the Logos of a poet, the organizing principle or principles that animates his/her words. And there are few better poets to be ‘peeked’ than American poet Robert Okaji. So rather than the usual formal analysis of the poetry as structural expression, I want to peek behind such things as iambic pentameter and visual rhythm, and provide for you an existential primer to the work of this great poet, through which you can go on contemplate his words at his website.
In the Analects of Chinese philosopher Confucius, a disciple named Zi Gong is asked about the intellectual abilities of fellow disciple Yan Hui, of whom he says, “How dare I compare myself with Hui? Having learnt one thing he gives play to ten…” This statement, describing the ability to understand ten things from hearing one thing, is a perfect way to approach the poetry of Robert Okaji, his ability to tease out relationships, colors, shapes and forms from text, revealing something wonderful moving in its peripheral vision.
First, it is important to note that Okaji is an American: a true son of his land like every other American whose ancestors arrived after the 15th century. But the beauty of Okaji’s work is that it lays bare the limiting notion that the truly great American works are exclusively lexicons of Americanism, and his expression (like all great expressions) uses the Vox Americana to tell us about all time itself, manifesting in all times and geographies.
The “covering cherub” of his time or genes does not constrain him, and this is where he shines as that best of artists, a unique voice within a history of words and speech. “Unique,” as I use it in this case, refers to the Latin word unicus, from a root word meaning “one.” So I don’t mean Okaji is unique in that he is completely original, but that in reality he is something better than original, something more powerful than a singular voice or style. Okaji’s “oneness” pops up all through history but the power of the popping is significant. And when it arrives we call it genius: the Logos – the “it” of “it all” – finding special voice in the one.
What Okaji does is an inherently human thing that has transcended styles and forms and cultures: “it” shows up all over civilization. What is exciting is seeing it return, both similar and new. So what is this oneness, this “it” that Okaji is a manifestation of? To explain “it” I will first show you what it looks like, and where it has been. Then, we will get to Okaji and see how it has returned. To do so I will refer to Greek, Chinese, Japanese, American, and Germanic cultures as context to analyze his words.
The Key Idea
When we talk of the West, or Western culture (America, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, etc), we are also speaking of the Greek politics, philosophy, and poetry that formed the base of what would become European culture via Rome and the Latin language. So to be Western is to know something of and participate in this Greek foundation, however much it has changed since 1190 BCE, roughly the time when the Greek epic poem The Iliad was finally written down. I start with The Iliad because it is the most famous and maybe the most influential of the great poetic forms of Western culture. The Iliad was spoken aloud for centuries as a performance and people gather in the thousands to hear a great speaker recite it. So it had its power in personal expression more so than in the reading until humanity became increasingly more literate and could read and speak it for themselves.
One particular line stands out: when the war hero Achilles is arguing with his ruler Agamemnon, he angrily shouts “you parasite king of the nobodies….” This statement stands out as a moment of personal truth for Achilles and lets the audience feel the force of his feeling as only an insult can. Insults are personal. One can speak and write of the beauty of flowers, but insulting someone is personal and speaks more so to a very present human presence than poetic feeling. Mocking someone, singing love songs to them, speaking in real terms, the humanity of profound abstractions: This “groundedness” in humanity is the “it” I am talking about. I use this example from the Iliad primarily, but “it” pops up in human stories of all types and forms all over the world from the very beginning of our consciousness.
There are two types of “it” that can make or break poetry: (1) capturing qualities of it through formal techniques (rules), or (2) finding ways to actually say it (making new rules). I have met so many people who hate poetry because it sounds and feels to them like the product of snobs and/or lazy “hippy” types lying around avoiding real jobs. “Poetry is not real,” “it is just fancy nonsense. Poets are people who don’t have to sweat and struggle like regular ‘good’ people do” goes a common refrain. This subconscious or fully conscious hate for lazy people, whether pointed at poets or not, usually does finally end up in the arts scapegoating the abstract artist/poet. Strangely enough, the fact that most poets work at demanding day jobs (and are in fact significant contributors to the economy) is ignored.
What breaks through this negative stereotype though is a word or phrase that makes us feel we are in the world, that we now know and feel something of value in our world. Poetry stops being lazy nonsense when we become newly grounded or re-grounded in Life through what stands for Life in our consciousness. Fancy words can be beautiful and formal poetry can be profound (“it” No.#1). But I and many others find great power and personal uplift in “it” No.#2… the words that go out of the rules, or seem ready to burst through the seams of the rules at any moment, if they have not already.
As this is a human “it,” the Iliad and later Western works are not the only, or exclusively most significant, source of this “it.” The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Torah contain “it”, all stories and religious texts have “it” in places, so it is within this human context that we can look at “it” as it occurs in what we call the East, or the South, or the North, or anywhere. Wherever “it” was recorded first is original in that limited sense, but what is in all of us is its true origin.
With this in mind, Robert Okaji contains within himself the potentiality of manifestation, coming through the legacy of our human heritage. Okaji can read Icelandic texts and be inspired by them and realize “it” in his own verse, thus I am going to refer to the previously mentioned cultural manifestations for a reason. What Robert Okaji writes has occurred very similarly in particular historical manifestations of “it No. #2.”
There is what I call a “Germanic Element,” found in the translations of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926). Okaji does not write like Rilke, but often gets to a place where his humanity tunes in to itself as Rilke does. Rilke, an Austrian, thus represents a Teutonic (“Germanic”) expression of something that resonates with his fans. Rilke, in his brilliant (first) poetry collection The Book Of Hours, writes the following:
You mustn’t worry, God. They say mine
To all patient, unprotesting things.
They’re like the wind that gusts through branches
And says my tree (39).
If you will notice, Rilke doesn’t finish sentences on the same line but rather continues on underneath: “they say mine to all patient, unprotesting things” is cut in two. This technique is called in enjambment, and it creates a visual rhythm (like objects in a painting) on the page. This is why some poems are more powerful when read than spoken. Enjambment makes a poem do something unique on the page itself. Also notice how Rilke uses a common thing like wind blowing through tree branches and give it a desire. Whoever “they” are, they claim to own what is not theirs, what is beyond their capacity to claim; all this from wind and tree branches! This particular style of Rilkean enjambment and use of a natural metaphor I find appearing in Okaji.
First of all, a classical Japanese Element cannot exist without the massive literary traditions of China preceding it. Thus, a Japanese Element itself is the unique manifestation of Japanese culture that arose from within a literary tradition that informed the academic an social traditions which Japaneseness in writing arose from. To this day, the Japanese language still uses written Chinese characters and both Japanese/Chinese pronunciations of the more significant ones. A similar scenario occurred in the Koreas as well as pre-colonial Vietnam as well.
A vital feature of the traditional Chinese and ensuing international Asiatic canons was an almost exclusive focus on the seasons and associated plants, animals, colors, elements, and moods. Nature is utmost, and to write was to do an exhaustive study of practically every tree, river, flower, bird and animal within the 3300 mile span between Beijing, Tokyo, Busan, and Hong Kong. Thus, part of the great genius of these works also lay in the fact that it made the writer a student of botany, geology, zoology, and ornithology as well. To be an Asian artist was to know one’s surroundings ergo “the world” rather intimately. As Japanese haiku poet Basho said: “Those in art follow nature, and make friends with the four seasons. Follow nature and return to nature.”
(Note: the suffix “-ology” itself is based on the word/idea of the Logos, the “organizing principle” behind things that we are seeking in Okaji’s work, so it is no surprise various ologies would appear in this discussion!)
But Chinese scholar Yen Chih-t’ui (531-91) also stated that the function of poetry and other forms of writing is to “to develop one’s own native sensibilities,” that to be in nature and study it results in one’s own particular resonance with nature to be revealed. Some glory in the summer, some shiver in wonder during winter, still others (namely myself) stand on the Togetsukyo Bridge over the Ōi River near Kyoto’s Arashiyama (Storm Mountain) and watch the cormorant fishermen and their birds earn their daily bread by lantern. Autumn in Kyoto, what a time!
But what is supremely special about the Japanese Element is a very Japanese way of living with paradox: the co-existence of austerity and simplicity with extremes of technology and creativity, Japan’s long standing appreciation for things that don’t last long, that which decays and becomes un-beautiful only to become profoundly beautiful (the worn and cracked tea bowl), a profound haiku expressing the feeling of a season coexisting with an booze jug epigram:
“Rather than being a so-so human being, I’d like to be a sake jar and get steeped in sake!” – Ōtomo No Tabito.
Long before the Imagists of the 20th century (discussed later in this post), Japan had prose poets recording thought and feeling in the form of zuihitsu, free form journals filled with random musings and often-hilarious lists of things; coming from a lived quality of being in the world, being cold and lonely, being bothered by the shrill, incessant noise of clustered cicadas, glorying in a downpour of cherry blossoms, and categorizing “things that lose their charm by being included in a painting…” (from Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book).
The classical Japanese Element thus is how the passing, impermanent, loneliness of things is expressed so directly and often hilariously in poetry and free form prose without the interference of cheap sentiment, that things decay and there is no right or wrong to it, only the reality of the fleeting moments. The impermanence of rice in a bowl means the joy of eating (more rice in the stomach), but the process of digestion (impermanence of rice in the stomach) and impermanence of one’s dwindling rice supply will also bring hunger.
Japan also has a tradition of acknowledging and celebrating what are known as “preservers of important intangible cultural properties” (jūyō mukei bunkazai hojisha), informally known as “Ningen Kokuhō “– “living national treasures.” There are three categories, one of which Okaji qualifies as, the Kakko Nintei: an individual who has attained high mastery of an art. This also implies they preserve the soul of the art: the thing that gives it power as a cultural watermark incapable of being counterfeited by the sophist or dilettante. The ningen kokuhō concept is applicable in Okaji’s case.
Thus, what I define as a classical Japanese Element in Okaji’s work is this intangible “being here for a moment” quality “the impermanence of things”: mono no aware) is an intangible cultural legacy that is so worth preserving as part of the fine arts. This classical Element is obviously neither the only element, 100% representative of Japan, as a living evolving social system nor the definitive Element. But of what Japaneseness has gifted the world, there can be no doubt that mono-no-aware and zuihitsu-istic prose are precious human legacies and they can be found in Okaji’s work. For example, as you read Okaji’s work, notice how he often connects mathematical and alphabetic themes with descriptions of birds, such as in his poem The Sky Refutes East And West:
Here, the horizon lingers.
The open eye, the mouth’s shape.
A hoop, the circle without iris.
Does the screech owl acknowledge latitude and hemisphere?
The Semitic alphabet contained no vowels, thus O
emerged as a consonant with a pupil, morphing into a dotted ring,
and later, with the Greeks, an unembellished circle (which they
subsequently cracked open and placed at the end). The female lays eggs
on the remnants of earlier meals lining the bottom of her den.
This also hints at a strong influence from the “Imagist” approach to writing.
The Imagist poets of England and America, most notably Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were interested in creating a poetry of directness, economy, and less adherence to strict verse forms which would make their poems more “musical” – you could say, less like a “march” and more like a “waltz.” Pound, heavily influenced by Japanese and Chinese classical forms, had a huge influence on poetry after him, as the public did not generally know of quality English translations of such works. Thus, the Asiatic drinking and moon references in Pound’s Epitaphs would seem radically simple to most people when compared to the large, metered Western works of the previous centuries:
Fu-I loved the high cloud and the hill,
Alas he died of alcohol
And Li Po also died drunk
He tried to embrace a moon
In the Yellow River.
We also see this economy of words and effect in the following segments of fellow Imagists Wallace Stevens’ poem (1) Peter Quince at The Clavier, and (2) William Carlos Williams’ The Bull:
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
on my spirit make a music too.
Music is feeling then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk
Unlike the cows
he lives alone, nozzles
the sweet grass gingerly
to pass the time away
He kneels, lies down
and stretching out
a foreleg licks himself
about the hoof
with half-closed eyes:
Olympian commentary on
The bright passage of days.
Though poetic, a key feature of this Imaginism is very simple sentence structure, a perfect balance of poetic words with an everyday ‘sentence’ quality that is easy to follow while clearly being poetic in expression, just the right mix of metaphor and directness; with little abstraction and little reference to the linguistic complexities of past, classical forms.
One might expect, considering this inclination towards simplicity and prose that Okaji would also be a potential byproduct of the Beat poets’ fascination with unconventionality as a style unto itself, considering the Beats were heavily influenced by the writings od historian D.T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhsim, in which they found their rationale for the “profound irrationality” they thought they saw in such forms as the Zen koan, and the mystifying, nebulous qualities of oxymoronic Zen meta-rationalism: ”form is emptiness, emptiness is form…”) Bebop jazz, as well, symbolized to them the notion of unconventionality itself as a distinct (and possibly definitive) style of artistic expression, but Okaji’s freedom is not unconventional. In fact, it is wonderfully conventional, bordering on creative non-fiction at times, and much in tune with Imagism over the social dissonances of the active Beat.
(Note: what I personally find profound about the Imagist nature of Okaji’s work is how the Logos of humanity has found voice in the best way, through the “search” of words, through his uncertainty: that he questions and wonders about birds and circles and Greek letters, knowing that the answer eludes him as he postulates. This existential honesty is significant. Okaji’s work has a patina of uncertainty because there is real uncertainty there. He wonders… and in being uncertain he, and we all, are most human.)
So taking account of these elements, we can briefly summarize them as follows:
Being grounded in a human quality: groundedness in Okaji’s use of his daily life (food, life as an accountant, music, dogs, birds), embues his work with an intangible, enriching humanity, making the conventional structures of poetry and prose come into the qualities of Life”, rather than “come to life” on the printed page. Germanic enjambment and allegory, the Japanese sense of literary free flow and the aesthetic expression of Life-as-fleeting as beauty, and Imagist simplicity all help facilitate a creative flow of distinctly American expression, better than original, the flow of a common humanity so hard to capture in words.
Thus, when reading Okaji, we can begin hear the cries of the falcon, smell the spices in the bowl, and learn a new way to know how they feel.
Having read one one thing, we thus can give play to ten things within ourselves… and Robert Okaji gives us that chance.