Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations



by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 2, 2011 08:16 pm

1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:

The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.

2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.

3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?


by Levi Asher on Monday, May 16, 2011 06:43 pm

1. I've read a few good tributes to the late Beat/hippie poet Ira Cohen, a good guy I used to see around the East Village a lot. I did a poetry reading with him at the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in 2002, but I never knew that Ira Cohen invented the 70s-era headshop art trend known as Mylar painting. (Photo of Ira Cohen from a video by Laki Vazakas).

2. You may have heard the news: e-books are hot. This time around, I'm on the bandwagon. I'll be attending the BookExpo gathering next week in New York City, and I'm sure electronic publishing will be the biggest buzz there. I'm a few days behind schedule with my new Kindle book ... the title and cover will be revealed soon. I'm very happy with the ongoing sales figures for my first Kindle book, Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), and I'm proud that this book has remained in the top 100 Kindle bestsellers in the Politics->Ideology category for the entire month, and was #40 on the list this weekend.

Endangered Land of Haiku: Basho's Matsushima

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 11:23 am

The epicenter of the earthquake that devastated northern Japan last Friday was just off the islands of Matsushima. This coastal wonderland, dotted with jutting rocks and picteresque islands, had been the chosen home of Basho, one of the greatest Haiku poets, in the later years of his life. This article by Hari Kunzru provides some context about the region, and the influence it had on the great nature poet.

Kindle Spotting

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 19, 2009 11:25 pm

1. Okay, so I flip-flopped on the Kindle. I still dislike the high price, the DRM policy and the secrecy about sales numbers, but on the other hand Amazon appears to be showing conviction, focus and flexibility in the way they are evolving the product. Also, a few months ago I wrote that I've never seen anyone reading a Kindle on a train, but I have recently seen two people doing so. This says a lot. I remain mixed in my feelings about the product, but it's clear that the Kindle is here to stay, and this is probably a good thing.

Following the lead of several other literary bloggers, I've now made this website available for Kindle subscription. I don't own a Kindle myself, so I can't even check out how it works, but if any Kindle owners out there can check it out, please tell me what you see!

2. More technological developments: here's Slate on the semantically-charged new knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha, supposedly a challenger to Google: "If only it worked ..."

3. There are a lot of intense debates revolving around the triple satellites of e-books, blogs and Twitter, all of it possibly leading to same grand conflagration (or, more likely, not) during next weekend's Book Expo 2009 in New York City. Till we all meet there, Kassia Krozser is tracking various debates involving electronic publishing.

4. Allison Glock flaunts her silly prejudices in a Poetry Foundation article about blogs. Based on her piece, I'm betting she's never actually seen a blog.

Instead of fostering actual connection, blogs inevitably activate our baser human instincts—narcissism, vanity, schadenfreude. They offer the petty, cheap thrill of perceived superiority or released vitriol. How easy it is to tap tap tap your indignation and post, post, post into the universe, where it will velcro to the indignation of others, all fusing into a smug, sticky mess and not much else in the end. You know those dinners at chain restaurants, where they pile the plate with three kinds of pasta and five sauces and endless breadsticks and shrimp and steak and bacon bits all topped in fresh grated cheese? Blogs are like that: loads of crap that fill you up. With crap.

5. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of my favorite plays. It's now running in New Haven with an African-American cast, featuring Charles S. Dutton as Willy Loman.

6. Jamelah tells me: "Paste Magazine is a really really good publication and it would be sad if it went under".

7. The New York Public Library is facing deep budget cuts and asking for a show of support. Let's keep those lions well-fed.

8. A Michigan high school bans Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon.

9. Flannery O'Connor in Atlantic Monthly.

10. Arthur Conan Doyle and spiritualism. And here's what Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are doing with Sherlock Holmes.

11. A glance at a surprisingly healthy publishing industry in India.

12. I didn't realize Britian's legendary publishing firm Faber and Faber was only 80 years old.

13. John O'Hara's wonderful novel Appointment in Samarra gets some appreciation from Lydia Kiesling at The Millions.

14. Another form of Action Poetry: Yoko Ono is arranging Twitter haiku.

New Books Report: November 2007

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 27, 2007 02:12 am

I'll be writing about some good new books I've been checking out over the next few weeks. Let's get started:

A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg

This novella is made up of vignettes, illustrated with vivid photos of a suburban milieu and arranged in the form of a guide to some form of exotic wildlife. Which, after all, modern suburban existence actually is, and so Hallberg's quirky and artistically fragmented narrative makes perfect sense. From page to page, we drop into the thoughtstreams of various members of two families from Long Island, each page serving as the glossary definition of a term like "Angst", "Divorce", "Heirloom". There is an appealing philosophical sweetness underlying the glancing surfaces, as in the "Love" entry where it is pointed out that love is actually not, despite popular misconception, a rare commodity in modern families.

My only complaint is that Hallberg sometimes breaks out of the "field guide" format, thereby mixing the metaphor (as when, for example, one glossary definition parodies the book of Genesis, which works fine except that field guides don't talk like that). But this is a very minor complaint about an unusual and original book, a book about regular people.

If you buy this book as a Christmas present for everybody it reminds you of, you'll be buying a lot of copies, and why shouldn't you?

Baseball Haiku: The Best Haiku Ever Written About The Game by Cor Van Den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura

Cor Van Den Heuvel is a haiku expert (as well as an expert on American and Beat poetry) and I've enjoyed performing with him at several New York City readings. His latest book, Baseball Haiku tells the surprising story of a famous Haiku poet named Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) who became fascinated with American baseball and began writing the first baseball haiku. Strangely, this was before baseball was well known in Japan, and in fact Shiki's haiku about baseball helped to inspire Japan's fascination with the sport. Here are three of Shiki's haiku:

the young grass
kids get together
to hit a ball

the trick
to ball catching
the willow in a breeze

like young cats
still ignorant of love
we play with a ball

The story doesn't end there; baseball haiku was picked up in America by Jack Kerouac, who is represented by two poems in this volume. Many American haiku poets are introduced here, along with the older and newer Japanese masters. Here are three haiku by Cor Van Den Heuvel:

first warm day
fitting my fingers into the mitt
pounding the pocket

baseball cards
spread out on the bed
April rain

conference on the mound
the pitcher looks down
at the ball in his hand

The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice by Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus, once a regular rock critic, has written several successful books that tie together odd cultural topics and specific moments in the history of rock music. I've been most impressed by his Invisible Republic, a meditation upon Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes" and on the ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, who inspired Dylan's recordings.

The Shape of Things To Come seems to follow closely upon the Bob Dylan/Harry Smith volume with a specific focus on the American voice as manifested by its prophets: John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Allen Ginsberg. Marcus also names David Lynch, Philip Roth and David Thomas of the punk band Pere Ubu as American prophets, which certainly adds up to a strange combination.

I found the "theory" side of this book too thorny to penetrate, but as soon as I dove into the individual chapters I found plenty of edgy and original ideas. A large fraction of the book is devoted to David Lynch's serial masterpiece Twin Peaks, which Marcus has obviously studied with the attention of a museum curator examining a Van Gogh. I agree with Marcus that Twin Peaks should be studied as three primary sources: the TV series (up until the death of "Bob" in the second season, at which point it is no longer necessary to watch), the underappreciated film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Jennifer Lynch's book The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. I love Marcus's refusal to be embarrassed as he goes completely overboard for several chapters with enthusiasm for David Lynch and Twin Peaks, and in fact he could have written three more chapters on the subject and I would have kept on reading them, because his observations are lively and smart.

The rest of the book doesn't work as well for me, but maybe that's just because I'm not in the mood right now to read about prophets (whose messages, after all, are written on the subway walls). I'm not sure I get the whole "voice of the prophet in the wilderness" concept, but I'm also not sure if that matters. If any of the specific subjects covered in this book appeal to you, you are likely to find good reading in The Shape of Things To Come.

Sakura Matsuri

by Caryn Thurman on Sunday, April 2, 2006 07:14 pm

Sleeping under the trees on Yoshino mountain
The spring breeze wearing Cherry blossom petals.


the Spring wind
scattering blossoms
I saw it in a dream
but when I awoke the sound
was still rustling in my breast

-- Saigyo

Paul Reps: Weightless Gifts

by SooZen Lee on Tuesday, July 13, 2004 12:56 pm

"I feel that I am equal to each grass blade and pebble and believe it is possible to be happy though human and grow up. Paul Reps

Paul Reps was born in Cedar City, Iowa on September 15, 1895. A man that always felt there were too many words used to describe anything he was a master of minimalist haiku, Zen Buddhism, and swift sumi-e brush painting. Reps can truly be called the father of Buddhism and haiku in America. He never was caught up in tradition, breaking all that are now considered the haiku rules and, although he respected his teachers, he forged new paths. Always, in his wide travels, Paul was accompanied by his humor, wit and independent spirit. As Paul would say, If not fun, leave undone.

Opinion: Essential Elements of Haiku

by pottygok on Wednesday, August 13, 2003 08:59 pm

I thought this list might help others improve their craft. These are the essential elements of haiku as advocated by The Heron's Nest (from editor Ferris Gilli):
    Concrete imagery
    Conciseness (clarity, brevity)
    Effective juxtaposition
    Natural syntax
    Common language
    Balance of humanity and nature
    Sense of mood
    Sense of season; kigo
    A clear caesura between the two parts of the haiku
    (A poem that consists of only a single, complete sentence usually fails as haiku.)

Every successful haiku poet keeps a mental list of things that should not be part of a haiku. This is my list of things to avoid:
    Direct metaphor
    Philosophical statements
    The writer's interpretation of something
    The writer's explanation of something
    The writer's argumentation of something
    The writer's rationale of something

    Cause and effect:

    The cause of something in the haiku
    The effect of something in the haiku
    The writer's description of his or her emotions
    The writer's naming his or her emotions or naming anyone or anything else's emotions
    The writer's description of someone's psyche, soul, thoughts, aura, or any other abstract or philosophical thing
    The writer's opinion of something in the haiku
    The writer trying to "teach" the reader something

Here is a list of questions that you could ask yourself about each of your haiku before you consider it finished:
  1. Am I telling instead of showing my moment?
  2. Am I presenting abstract ideas instead of concrete images?
  3. Is this haiku so crowded with images that it could be distracting or confusing for readers?
  4. Is this a "snapshot" haiku?
  5. Does this haiku contain a dangling participle?
  6. Does the action I describe take more than a moment to observe?
  7. Is this verse an example of cause and effect?
  8. Is this an uncut poem?
  9. Is this verse written as a complete sentence, with no break between setting and main action?
  10. Have I left out articles or modifiers that are needed for clarity and smooth flow?

If you the answer is "yes" to any of the above questions, you can be sure that the haiku needs reworking.

On Western Haiku

by Cor van den Heuvel on Saturday, March 2, 2002 03:17 pm

Haiku. What is it about these small poems that make people all over the world want to read and write them? Nick Virgilio, one of America's first major haiku poets, once said in an interview that he wrote haiku "to get in touch with the real." And the Haiku Society of America has called haiku a "poem in which Nature is linked to human nature." We all want to know what is real and to feel at one with the natural world. Haiku helps us to experience the everyday things around us vividly and directly, so we see them as they really are, as bright and fresh as they were when we first saw them as children. Haiku is basically about living with intense awareness, having an openness to the existence around us. A kind of openness that involves seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

Not so long ago, in 1991, when the first Haiku North America conference was being held at Las Positas College outside of San Francisco, another major figure of American haiku, J. W. Hackett, and his wife Pat, invited four of the attending poets to their garden home on a hill in the Santa Cruz mountains. Christopher Herold, one of those poets, wrote a haiku, included in this anthology, about that experience:

returning quail
call to us from the moment
of which he speaks

The poets had all moved out to the garden, continuing their talk about nature, Zen, and haiku. Toasts were raised to Basho, Japan's most famous haiku poet, and to R. H. Blyth, his most faithful translator. Shadows were lengthening and James Hackett was trying to make clear his feelings about haiku when the birds suddenly came to his assistance. Christopher Herold's haiku captures that "moment" of the afternoon, when Hackett, and the quail, summed up everything he had been saying, eloquently and passionately, about haiku and the way of life it represents: living in the present moment now.

Basho: Lifeline

by Kevin Kizer on Sunday, January 13, 2002 02:59 pm

Haiku poet Basho born in Ueno, 30 miles southeast of Kyoto

Enters into the service a local feudal lord; begins composing haikai

Left the feudal family and disappeared for five years, taking on the name Sobo

His worked appeared in numerous anthologies; many believe he was in Kyoto studying poetry and Zen

Published "The Seashell Game", which was the record of a haiku contest he supervised

Began taking on students

Published "Two Poets of Edo (Tokyo)" with another poet

Worked as a minor official in the waterworks department

Published "Three Poets in Edo"

At the age of 34, was recognized as a master and a group began to form around him

Began to deepen his studies of Chinese poetry; shaved his head and became a lay monk

Withdrew from public life, moving to a modest gamekeeper's hut; it was here that he was given a large banana tree (a basho tree), which became the name he is best known by

A tremendous fire destroyed much of Edo and Basho's home

His students rebuilt his home; began the travels that occupied the rest of his life; his mother died

His travel journal, "Journal of Weather-beaten Skeleton" was published

Returned to his home in Edo

Set out on another trip which resulted in "Notes in My Knapsack" (also known as "The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel") and "A Visit to Kashima Shrine"

At 45, sold his home and journeyed north; created his masterpiece "Narrow Road to the Far North"

Began developing the c0ncept of "sabi", solitariness and loneliness that results in lightness and intense concentration

Returned to Edo

His health began failing him; introduced a new poetic ideal called "karumi" which he described as "like looking at a shallow river with a sandy bed"

1693 November
Basho died; his death poem:
Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields


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