Monday 16 November 2015

Kikaku leads the way

Posted by Alex Stein*

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Sometimes people ask me how I came to be a writer of aphorisms. To that, I reply:

I came to the aphorism by way of haiku and I came to haiku by ways still vague to me. I was 25, living in Seattle, and in thrall to the prose of Jack Kerouac. I spent my days and evenings filling notebook after notebook with stream of consciousness twaddle. Perhaps, I would have continued at this until I was good and dead. There was really no reason not to. I enjoyed the activity. Notebooks were cheap. The hours flew by.

Then something odd: in the middle of the twaddle, I wrote a little poem. 
Dandelion, roar!
Simple thing,
speak your simple mind.
I looked at the poem, and here is the curious thing: the poem looked back at me. Not long after that I wrote:
Hold light,
for a short life:
The more I looked at these poems, the more they looked back at me. “What?” I asked. “What do you want?” “Divine us,” they replied. “How?” I asked. “Divine us,” they repeated.

In a bookstore in downtown Seattle, I found a haiku anthology. In it, I read Kikaku’s:
Above the boat,
of wild geese.
Over the next few years, I must have read that poem a thousand times. Then, one day, I wrote in the margin:
Perhaps our world is the spirit world of some other world. Perhaps our birdsongs are heard but faintly in some other world, and only by certain ears. Perhaps a poem is like an airlock that carries the breath of one world into the lungs of the next.
I read Kikaku’s:
  Evening bridge,
  a thousand hands
  cool on the rail.
 I wrote:
Kikaku’s bridge spans both the construct of space and the abstract of time; so, all those hands, “cool on the rail,” are also the hands of the dead in their various phases of crossing-over.
 Kikaku! That was the unlikely name of the piper who led me on.”

*Alex Stein is (with James Lough) the co-editor of, and a contributor to, Short Flights: Thirty-two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration and Wit, the first EVER anthology of contemporary writers of aphorism. Other aphorists in Short Flights include Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns, Irena Karafilly, and Yahia Lababidi.


docmartincohen said...

The world seems this week to cry out for more uplifitng thoughts!

Perig Gouanvic said...

Thank you Alex for this description of your creative process, which helps me understand something I have had lots of trouble appreciating.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Maybe if we would all think more poetically we would see truth instead of seeking truth through literality more easily? The poem can simply show what usually is forgotten. Life.
Above the boat,
of wild geese.
I don't think poetry belongs to another world but rather re-places our world where we have lost track with it. Poetry can show us to ourselves. Place us in front to all our build up structures in which we have become entangled. Poetry unfolds that package of selfhood we tend to defend, it cuts the ribbon that ties the package. Poetry is not something sweet or otherworldly but rather sharp like a razor blade that allows to cut ourselves without feeling hurt. We cannot be hurt for it speaks truth.

Unknown said...

Good aphorisms are indeed powerful and memorable, and some are poetic with space for imagination, like Stein’s and Kikaku’s shown here. I remember how Kant described human nature, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” His principle about honesty may be more widely quoted, “By a lie a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man.” In my recent writing of the “average man theory” about morality, I set two boundaries: “That mankind contributed Adolf Hitler shows man can’t be too good, while that it gave us Mother Teresa means he can’t be too bad.”

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I am surprised by the popularity of this post. Modern aphorisms may require quite a mind-shift. Yet aphorisms are one of the most enduring forms of philosophy.

Heraclitus (circa 500 BC), called The Riddler, was a philosopher who penned much of his philosophy in the form of aphorisms. 'No man ever steps in the same river twice' is a well known example. By way of contrast, philosophy today has (by and large) developed a universal language with universal meanings, and to this we have become accustomed.

Lough and Stein and friends, modern Riddlers, present us with wisdom in the form of aphorisms which are freshly imaginative, often multi-layered.

Unknown said...

Why, how nice of you to say so, Thomas. Heraclitus meant everything to me at one time. There are a lot of good essays about writing aphorisms, too, and literary influences, in my book with James Lough called SHORT FLIGHTS. Not a sales pitch, just a fact. Heraclitus comes up at least once. I always loved Kierkegaard.

Unknown said...

Thanks for reading, Chengde Chen. It is a passionate and challenging quote from Kant on human nature. And I suppose there is no way to transcend human nature? Just fantasies of transcendence, alas?

Unknown said...

thank you for saying so, Perig. every project has a different process. in the case of aphorism, I think it is about developing an ability to capture one's own responses to stimuli. My poet friend Yahia Lababidi talks about "overhearing oneself." I overhear myself, talking back to poems, or circumstance, I suppose, in this case.

Unknown said...

Hi, Martin, I can't seem to respond to Tessa's comment. Her reply box won't open. I did want to pass on to her this quote from Franz Kafka, that, "literature should be an axe to break up the frozen sea within us." It seemed apropos her razor blade "that allows us to cut ourselves without feeling hurt." Perhaps she will read this post to you and know it was meant for her and that I thank her for her comments.

docmartincohen said...

Thanks Alex - yes very apropos.. I'll check Tess sees it (though she's a pretty regular visitor too!)

docmartincohen said...

Indeed, Heraclitus ('the Dark') comes up several times... like a bad penny, one might say...?

Yahia said...

This is extraordinary, thanks, Alex/Martin; I'm happy to be reminded of it: "Perhaps our world is the spirit world of some other world. Perhaps our birdsongs are heard but faintly in some other world, and only by certain ears. Perhaps a poem is like an airlock that carries the breath of one world into the lungs of the next."

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