Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday 26 April 2009

What passes for normal service will be resumed... whenever

So, here's the deal, I'm not actually writing this post. Correction, I am actually writing this post, I'm just not actually typing this post. My good wife (of whom I can say nothing wrong) is actually typing this for me, the reason being I am lying flat on my back on an inflated bed that my good wife (of whom I can say nothing wrong) has installed in our living room. The reason I am lying flat on my back on an inflated bed in the living room is that I've done my back in picking up messages (i.e. groceries) for my good wife (of whom I can say nothing wrong). And I've been this way for the past five days. And it doesn't look as if it is getting any better. So, tomorrow's post won't be going up as I can't dictate all the formatting and the links to my good wife (of whom I can ay nothing wrong) without actually looking at the text. Once I can actually sit up for any length of time "I'll be back" to quote the governor of California. [He dictated the great Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I didn't want to have to look up the spelling. Ms. Ed] For the duration comments moderation will be turned off but don't expect any responses for a day or two or three.

Monday 20 April 2009

The Optimist


The Optimist Cover Ooooooo K. Let’s get a couple of things straight here before we start. I would never have brought this book in a month of Sundays. Had I seen it lying on one of the 3 for 2 tables in Waterstones I wouldn’t have given it a second glance. Had I seen it marked down in a bargain bin in Bookworld for 99p I wouldn’t have bought it. The only reason I read it was because I was sent a review copy and considering the fact I received several books in the same ‘care package’ I really couldn’t tell you why I picked this to read first. It’s not even fiction! And I honesty don’t remember the last time I read a non-fiction book from cover to cover.

The main reason I wouldn’t have picked the book is that it’s about optimism and I’ve always considered myself a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist although I have been known to fake realism on a good day. My defence of pessimism was always a simple one: If you imagine the worst thing that could ever happen you’ll never be disappointed, in fact most of the time you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that it didn’t happen. This does not make me a closet optimist, however.

My wife maintains that I’m a realist. I actually have no idea what a realist is. Not in this context. Putting all the fangled philosophy schools aside for the moment, the bog-standard definition of realism is: “the tendency to view or represent things as they really are.” I think we can all agree on that. But where it falls down is when it comes to the future. One can have an optimistic view of the future or be pessimistic about it but how can one be realistic about the unknown since it’s not real. Once it becomes real that’s another matter. Actually I think Lawrence’s definition in his book probably hits the nail on the head:

Optimists and pessimists are people who consistently get the probabilities wrong. A realist, supposedly, gets it just right.

I don’t get it right more time times than not so I guess I’m not a realist. One thing I’m definitely not is a fatalist. I don’t believe there’s a grand plan. If there is I can say anything I want about this book and blame it on ‘the plan’. I believe very strongly in free will, the right to screw up our lives any way we choose and in our own good time. Granted unforeseen circumstances ... I was going to say ‘conspire against us’ but that implies a conscious mind ... let’s just say ‘get in the way’ more often than not.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met a true optimist. I’m met people so infuriatingly cheerful I could happily strangle them but I’ve always found their cheerfulness is simply a wall they hide behind to save them having to have much of an opinion about the future. They live very much in the moment.

All of which brings us to Lawrence Shorter’s book, The Optimist. This book charts the efforts of Mr Shorter to a) understand optimism and b) put that understanding into practice.

When we meet him one might be forgiven for thinking that he was not the man for the job. In fact rather than being an optimist our Lawrence (or ‘Loz’ as his friend Mark calls him) is more of an apathist than anything else:

Summer, 2006.

I was still in bed.

Sunlight beamed through the curtains, flickering as a neighbour’s car pulled out of the drive. I looked at the humps of my arms under the covers. They felt lethargic and heavy. A car revved up outside. I pictured the BMWs and Mercs along the street, beaded with dew, ready to be driven to their places of work by people who leapt out of bed every morning. How did they do it? I stared hopelessly at the ceiling.

What was wrong with me?

From this inauspicious position our hero rises to begin his quest. And it is indeed a hero’s quest even if it looks like a fool’s errand for much of the time. That I will give him. But simply because we find ourselves with a hero let us not automatically assume that his quest is a worthwhile one. Or at least not an attainable one. Oh no.

In the face of rising prices, looming wars, spreading diseases and holing ozone layers he decides to set out to find the secret of optimism. What I realised quickly is that despite having a very poor JBF (Jump out of Bed Factor – the book is full of stuff like this) Lawrence really is already quite an optimistic kind of guy to begin with; at least he does his damndest to be. What wears him down over the next three hundred plus pages are his encounters with a selection of the world’s most prominent optimists. And I have to give the guy credit. He takes his project very seriously and, even when he’s beginning to have grave doubts, he doggedly keeps going. I’m not sure this provides any evidence of optimism in itself, or even heroism, but determination-ism (yes, alright. I’m making up words), definitely.

The book is broken down into four sections: Hero, Lover, Seeker, Fool with a short Prologue and an Epilogue but don’t assume that he fails in his quest because there is another quest that at times looks as if it might eclipse his search for the truth about optimism.

Yes, it’s a woman. Of course it’s a woman. What else in this world brings the latent optimist to the boil in even the most hapless sap? Or maybe I mean sap to rise. You get the idea.

Life had obviously got wind of my promise to defeat pessimism and had decided to take me seriously. It was all part of the strange and disturbing power of the book. It was making stuff happen in my life, it was forcing me to be optimistic.

There was more, too.

Zara was a tall, spirited Dutch girl I had met two months earlier at a yoga centre – a place I had started attending after noticing the high density of attractive women in the vicinity. I hadn’t paid much attention to Zara at first, but on my third or fourth visit, I stopped and studied her across the room. She seemed more at ease than the others – and yet she didn’t wear sandals or have unseemly henna tattoos. She even had a sense of style. But what caught my interest was something else: she was full of brightness and enthusiasm. There was something exciting about her presence. When she laughed, I noticed, the cupboards in the kitchen actually vibrated. It was an optimistic laugh. A laugh I could imagine travelling around the world with.

I felt a rush in my tummy. My God, I thought, what if Zara is the one?

Zara doesn’t appear until page 92, however, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. By page 19 (and after a week in the British Library) our hero has formulated a plan and has a list of potential optimists he aims to interview. At the top of this list for some strange reason is Bill Clinton. Here’s the ‘some strange reason’:

My father had been talking about Clinton ever since they stood next to each other in a gents’ toilet in Tokyo, 1993 – alongside John Major and the German Premier Helmut Kohl. The President hadn’t even bothered to say hello. Yet, for me, that was the moment that Clinton became a household god.

He begins a bit further down the list with a Danish statistics professor, Bjørn Lomborg “who claimed, ambitiously, that things weren’t as bad as everyone thought”. He contacts Lomborg by e-mail and gets a prompt reply from the professor saying he is too busy to meet up but that that anyway he saw himself as more of a realist.

Undeterred Lawrence presses on regardless and by hook or by crook (or by pretending he’s developing a project for the BBC) he manages to make contact with an impressive and diverse collection of people from rock stars (he runs into Mick Jagger while Mick is kicking a deflated football around Kensington Park) to religious leaders, one of them being Archbishop Desmond Tutu who amazingly enough left a review of Lawrence’s book on the cybershop website:

Desmond Tutu
New York, USA
17th March 2009


Funny and inspiring -- the New British Dream

Who needs anti-depressants, happy endings or chocolate pudding when you can wallow in a book like this? It's very hard to package what is basically a historical review of the philosophy of happiness into something you can read on the loo, tube and plane. Shorter takes us on a journey around the world -- from New York to India, South Africa to London -- and asks the question we all wrestle with -- how can we be perpetually happy? -- in a subtle and engaging way. And he gives us answers, without ever resorting to Oprah-esque platitudes or the empty sillinesses of the self-help brigade. His self-deprecating wit throws Toby Young into shadows of mediocrity; his taut and elegant prose augurs well for future books; and his empathy and humanity are inspirational. Suck it up, cynics! Here is the New British Dream in its multi-coloured, fragile glory!

Somehow I’m not convinced that this is the Desmond Tutu but one never knows, does one? Actually I do know because with a bit of digging around I found out that the name of the guy who wrote it is actually one Sebastian Doggart. It’s actually not a bad summary of the book I have to say, mind.

Lawrence does indeed travel far and wide in his quest for an answer and, as he makes progress, he starts to write up his Laws of Optimism beginning with the First Law:


Diagrams! Yes, there are diagrams. And formulae aplenty. The problem he finds on his travels is that a lot of seemingly wise (or at least clever) people have a lot of different opinions as to what optimism might be. I like Dr Wong’s tragic optimism:

‘The big limitation of existing models is that they treat optimism and pessimism as opposites.’

A breeze rattled the window frame. ‘They’re not?’

‘In the East,’ said the doctor firmly, ‘we don’t feel the need to split everything into opposites. We see things as a whole. For example, people can be both realistic-pessimistic and idealistically-optimistic at the same time.’

I scribbled this down. ‘Isn’t that a paradox?’

‘Chinese philosophy is always paradoxical. Optimism and pessimism are two related but independent dimensions.’

‘But how is that possible?’

‘Tragic optimism means admitting that life is tragic but still maintaining the hope that tomorrow will be better.’

In a review of the book on Camden Miniature Steam Services site (I kid you not, it’s a site all about steam engines) they have this to say:

I […] wouldn’t put it here if I didn’t feel it was worth reading; even if the first 50 or so pages are annoying, plough through them and keep going

He’s right pretty much. Lawrence’s first encounters aren’t amongst the most interesting in the book despite the fact they include Ashley Judd (Wesley Crusher’s squeeze in ‘The Game’ for all the geeks reading this), a cameo by Mick Jagger (aged rock god) and a decidedly grumpy Harold Pinter (inventor of the dramatic pause).

Surfing Rabbi Once we get onto the Surfing Rabbi, however, we’re talking.

The next morning I sat eating waffles while my brother surfed the internet.

‘Have you heard about the Surfing Rabbi?’ he asked.

I looked up. ‘Are you serious?’

‘He has a website.’

‘And he surfs while . . . rabbying?’

‘I dunno.’

I read through Rabbi Shifren’s website. It seemed he was for real.

Actually the whole Californian section of the book is just so … Californian. Sorry California.

Practically everyone I had met in California [....] had told me to be cool and live in the present moment. Living in the ‘now’ seemed to be the state religion, even if most people – strangely enough – seemed busy working on the technology of the future. As a result I found myself doing mental gymnastics while I tried to master the art of ‘going into’ my feelings but not letting them bother me at the same time. The key seemed to be not thinking at all. During my long drive back from Los Angeles I had almost swerved off the road while trying to stop myself from thinking. In fact, my brain was turning over the same thoughts – about not thinking – every two to three minutes. I was no longer able to control it. Not only that, I was exhausted from months of living in guest rooms and camping on sofas. I wanted it to end, I wanted to go home, I wanted to settle down and have kids.

By now we’re 252 pages deep into the book and you might be wondering at this point where the lovely Zara is. She’s in India. And so our hero diverts his quest to Goa (in India) where the lovely Zara is. After a tearful reunion in the airport (no, he’s the only one who cries) Lawrence sets off on his travels and gets caught up with Indian mysticism but, just before he’s about to lose perspective completely and join a cave full of cross-legged Europeans contemplating their navels, he sees sense, returns to Blighty and moves back in with his ever pessimistic father, pretty much back where he was on page 1. Has all of this been a gigantic waste of time? Granted he’s met some vacuous people and a few caught up in their own importance but not every encounter in the book will make you want to cringe or shake your head and wonder how dumb some people – and not all of them apparently Californians – can be. He meets business leaders, an ecologist, psychologists, economists and Richard Branson (the man we have to thank for turning the word ‘virgin’ into something quite cool (Virgin Cola excepted)) but, in an article in The Independent, Lawrence lists as his real teachers some of the ordinary men and women he bumped into on the way:

I will mention three of them: Immaculée Ilibagiza, a young woman who lived through the Rwandan genocide and faced her darkest fears as she hid in a bathroom for three weeks. Immaculée survived her ordeal, she says, because at a certain moment she realised she had the power to accept her situation, to forgive her would-be killers and become free from fear.

Then there was Emma, a city headhunter who was diagnosed with breast cancer, only to realise that she was not afraid of death and looked on her illness as an experience of profound learning – and suddenly found herself enjoying life more than she had ever done before.

And finally Akira Kazan, a modest Californian housewife who simply decided, one day, to be happy – and to stop waiting for it to happen. "You don't have to do anything," she told me. "It's already there." When I argued that it took some people years of therapy to reach just a basic sense of feeling OK, she shook her head: "You've just been conditioned with the idea that you have to do something before you can be happy. It's not true. You can just choose it. Now!"

Is achieving happiness the same thing as being optimistic? I’ve read the book and I’m still not sure. You’ll have to make you own minds up. To assist you in this you can download now for a limited time (although I’m not sure exactly how limited) an electronic copy of the book which those nice people at Canongate have provided here.

I started off expecting to hate this book. I didn’t love it (there are far too many pillocks in it) but I couldn’t say I hated it. I’m frankly not sure how to present this book to you. It’s witty in parts and it’s inspirational in parts but it’s not a laugh-a-minute book nor is it the kind of book that I expect might become required reading for people doing a degree in Advanced Optimism. I do however suspect it might make you stop and think. But whether it’ll make you change the way you think is another matter. This is not a textbook. It will appeal to the For Dummies generation without a doubt. Probably my biggest recommendation would be that if I’d decided to write a book about optimism then I might have actually ended up with something like this myself, only probably not as good because I wouldn’t want to leave my flat to write it.


laurence shorter Lawrence Shorter’s background is in business, finance and management consulting. When his last company, an internet business selling building materials, went bust in 2001 at the end of the dot-com crash, he took the chance to change direction and "do something creative". Becoming a stand-up comedian and writer he satirised the idea of life-coaching and self-help in a show on the Edinburgh Fringe. In addition he and his work have appeared on the BBC, in The Observer and The Independent, and at assorted London theatres. I have no idea if he’s still living with his dad but if he is then his dad probably still has all the best lines.

Monday 13 April 2009

Why I hate haiku


Japanese poetry Learn the rules; and then forget them. - Basho


Allen Ginsberg didn't write haiku. Like many he recognised that the seventeen characters of this Japanese form do not automatically correspond to seventeen syllables of English or for that matter any other language. Besides that, divvying them up into 5-7-5 syllable lines turns the whole thing into an exercise in counting, not feeling, which is too arbitrary to be poetry. Ginsberg’s solutions, which first appear in his book Cosmopolitan Greetings, are his American Sentences: one sentence, seventeen syllables, end of story. I'll be honest I wish I'd come across these before I read Howl when I was nineteen and I might have had a bit more time for him. Here are a couple of examples:


Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.


Rainy night on Union square, full moon. Want more poems? Wait till I'm dead.


Wait a sec, wasn't that last one three sentences? I think Ginsberg's 'solution' is a fairly arbitrary one. Why choose seventeen syllables? It's an odd number – literally. I can see where he's coming from though. In the west we've become so used to a haiku being presented over three lines that we assume that's it, no rhythm to cope with, no rhyme – what could be easier? And for many that's it, that's a haiku. They're everywhere. Every time I log into Zoetrope there will always be one or two lying around waiting for me to pass judgment on them and occasionally I do.

Okay, so what is a haiku really? Let's start out with a definition:

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry, consisting of 17 morae (or on), in three metrical phrases of 5, 7 and 5 morae respectively. Haiku typically contain a kigo, or seasonal reference, and a kireji or verbal caesura. In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line, while haiku in English usually appear in three lines, to parallel the three metrical phrases of Japanese haiku. – Wikipedia

It's obviously not as straightforward a definition as we might have hoped for. On (or onji) are the phonetic units that are counted in Japanese haiku. In linguistics these are called morae. Morae is plural; the singular is mora and a syllable can contain more than one mora. There are three kinds of syllables, light, heavy and superheavy. Most linguists believe that no language uses syllables containing four or more morae.

All new to you? Well, it's pretty new to me so don't start asking me a lot of awkward questions. The simple fact is that I've always felt breaking up words into syllables was a bit on the sloppy side.

So, the point I'm getting at here is that the 5-7-5 syllabic structure that we're all familiar with is really a bastardisation of what goes on in Japanese – syllables we get, morae we don't.

Now we move onto content. What is a haiku supposed to be about? A lot of people scribble down cryptic statements that resemble Zen kōans but is that sufficient? The Wikipedia entry mentions a kigo, or seasonal reference. That really restricts the topics you can pick from doesn't it? Japanese haiku poets often use a book called a saijiki, which is like a dictionary or almanac for kigo. You can get the idea what this might be like if you have a look at The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words. The author has this to say about it:

Each of the more important seasonal themes--such as those listed here--has a long history of not just physical associations, but emotional tone as well. The more skilled the haiku poet, the more the poem works with or plays against these associations. A good haikai saijiki (almanac of seasonal topics and season words used in haiku and linked-poetry composition) explains these traditional associations, but that is beyond the scope of this list. For the haiku poet, this list simply represents those few seasonal topics that have deeply engaged Japanese poets for centuries, and, in some cases, for a millennium or more. Such a list can also help poets to know what to look for when they want to write a seasonal poem. In a saijiki, the systematic seasonal ordering of topics serves mainly to collect related phenomena together, and to arrange finished poems in a rational and aesthetically pleasing order. The part of the season in itself is not particularly crucial for the haiku poet, and many saijiki and kiyose (simple season word lists or guides, such as this one) omit this information.

You get the idea. There is clearly a great deal of precision needed to get a haiku right, if you're going to do it right. And this is just one aspect of haiku writing.

Let's have a look at a traditional Japanese haiku by Masaoka Shiki:

Ka-ki ku-e-ba / ka-ne ga na-ru-nari / ho-u-ry-u-ji

The slashes are there simply to identify the three groups for our benefit. Remember in Japanese this would be written in a single line:


If you go to this site you'll find an entire article devoted to this single haiku. There are a number of translations but here are three to give you some idea:


whenever I bite a persimmon a bell tolls Hōryū-ji Temple

(version by Debra Woolard Bender)

the temple bell rings
as I eat a persimmon--

(version by Paul Conneally)

taste of persimmon
as sharp as the bells

(version by Laurene Post)


The article explains exactly when Masaoka Shiki wrote the haiku (25-26/10/1895) and under what circumstances and a number of translators have a crack at not simply transliterating the poem but interpreting it while they translate it. I love how the article ends:

In order to understand Shiki's "persimmon/Horyuji" haiku really well, one must visit Hōryū-ji around 25 October, take a rest at the tea house, eat persimmons and wait for the "tsuri-gane" bell to toll. Short of that, one should at least eat persimmons.


I would imagine it would help if you were 28 and terminally ill. And Japanese. I wonder too if he'd read John Donne although I suspect the sound of a tolling bell could mean much the same in all cultures.

I hate this haiku for a different reason from which I hate English haiku. I hate it because I can't read Japanese and I don't have a Japanese head. Okay, I could get a dictionary and give it a go myself. Here's what Google Translate came up with:

If the bell rings to Horyu or persimmon

I then tried each individual word and found it interesting that 鳴 was translated as 'crying' as opposed to ringing or tolling. The bottom line is that much can be lost in translation. And I hate that. Google lost the 'ji' too which is another one of the characters.

But if I can return to English 'haiku' and accept that it will have its own standards, can I let it go and accept that it's its own thing?

Yes and no.

I do accept that there are people out there who subscribe to the spirit of the Japanese form. Take this example by Jack Kerouac:

Snow in my shoe
Sparrow's nest

The whole 5-7-5 thing has gone out of the window and yet I think most people reading this would go, "Aha! That's a haiku," and then they'd count all the syllables and go, "Er, wait a sec, it's not really a haiku, is it?" Here's what Jack had to say:

The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku.  The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don't think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again...bursting to pop.

Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella [a chamber concerto]. - American Haiku

You can read a load of his haiku here.

It's as good a statement of intent as anything else. Later Kerouac expanded on this opening concept. He developed a new definition for American haiku in his journal Some of the Dharma which he termed 'American haiku pop', a three-line poem of Buddhist connotation, like a small meditation that may or may not rhyme, leading to enlightenment. Pop is onomatopoeic – a quick, abrupt noise that snaps you to attention. I suppose it corresponds to what many call the 'Aha! Moment'.

There are modern poets who say unless your poem has this 'Aha! Moment' you're not writing haiku. Others emphasise the experience. And, of course, there will be those who say that as long as your poem has three lines containing 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively then it's a haiku.

This is why I hate haiku. It has moved so far away from its roots that a good haiku is more a matter or fluke than anything else and how is a wee Scottish laddie like me going to recognise it? This is not to suggest that short poems cannot be excellent but they're just not haiku. Actually, in his article, Poems, Stories, Plays in the Scots Language, David Purves suggests that Scots is the prefect vehicle for haiku:

Unfortunately, contemporary English may not now be a satisfactory register for haiku, since English has become detached from its social roots in any particular community, as a result of globalisation. It has been argued by some poets that English has now become spiritually exhausted as a poetic language, as a result of its adaptation for utilitarian purposes. Comparisons between renderings in Scots and English of haiku by Japanese masters suggest that versions in literary Scots have an energy and frisson that harmonise well with the true spirit of haiku.

It's an opinion. I'm not sure I agree with him but here are a few of his examples:


The laiverok lilts
aw day an the day
is no lang aneuch.

Back at the lair
Ah bend ma sabbin
til the Back End wund!

The auld pypar’s puil
a mukkil puddok.


The lark sings on
all day, and all day
is not long enough

At the gravestone,
bend my grief
to the Autumn wind.

By the old pool,
leap, splash, leap
a great frog.


Keep the last one in mind. I'll come back to it.

I've only ever written one haiku and there are those who would argue it's not a proper haiku. Even I would argue it's not a proper haiku so I'm not going to include it. Instead I want to talk about two other poems.

When I wrote my poem 'Reflections' I was looking to create the kind of image that I'd come across in haiku. If you count the syllables you'll find there are eighteen and I did consider dropping the 'No' in the first line and calling it a haiku but the simple fact is that seventeen syllables does not a haiku make. Here's the poem:


we are not ready

go skinny dipping

one another's souls.

29 August 1989

Of course, as with all my poems, it is about people. The nature setting – I mean, what does your mind conjure up when you think about skinny dipping? – is just a metaphor and that's it. Would

We are not ready
to go skinny dipping in
one another's souls.

work? I seriously thought about it but that initial 'No' is the plop that starts the whole poem off. Notice how the lines get longer – okay, not much longer – but I was aiming to suggest the rippling effect that that initial 'No' would cause in the hearer's life. No is a response. We are not privy to what went on before this but whatever it was it has led up to a request whether stated outright or implied that the couple strip off more than their clothes. Seeing someone naked is one thing, seeing them naked on the inside is another thing completely.

Traditional haiku don't have titles and yet I felt this poem needed one and one with several layers of meaning. Before the plop that starts off the rippling effect the couple would be able to see themselves reflected in the 'water' – make of that what you will – but afterwards all each of them is left with is an internal reflection of the moment.

In traditional haiku there are examples of slightly breaking the rules (hacho). These are called jiamari (excessive syllables) and jitarazu (insufficient syllables) and have been seen since before Basho's time. I could have argued with myself and tried to justify calling the poem a haiku but it's not and I'm not sure what was going though my head thinking it would be a better poem if it was a haiku. It has form – I'm not against form – but it has the form that naturally came to it. Some time later I wrote a sequel to this poem:


Being with you
is like

swimming in the sun
on a

warm Summer's day.

(for Jeanette)

June 23, 1996

Okay, it's a sappy poem for a girl but try and put that aside for the moment. Now, this poem does have 17 syllables (4-2, 5-2, 4) but I would still argue that it is not a haiku. The palindromic structure is deliberate by the way.

Being with you is
like swimming in the sun on
a warm Summer's day.

just doesn't work. Again, the title is an integral part of the poem and certainly an awareness of the first poem would give it significantly more meaning. On its own it's not very exciting and having to explain it to Jeanette really didn't help but it did get me Brownie points. One can never have too many Brownie points with a lady.

The biggest problem with both 'skinny-dipping' poems is that they rely heavily on metaphor and one of the fundamental 'rules' of haiku is: No metaphor. But for every rule there is an exception. Let's take Basho's famous 'frog' haiku:

old pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water

In her essay Metaphor in Basho's Haiku Jane Reichhold has this to say:

5ripple_big To begin, let us take the Japanese literally in the last line so it reads "water of sound." Let that roll around a few minutes in your imagination. The water of sound. Sound as water. Sound moving as water does. Sound rippling outward as water does when disturbed.

Heretofore, all poetical Japanese frogs made sounds -- croaking, songs, calls. What if water was used as a metaphor for the invisible sound? Instead of making a sound with its voice, what if the frog leaps into the water of sound?

We can never know if Basho was having thoughts like these before he wrote (or spoke) the lines "a frog jumps in / the water of sound" but we do know he was aware enough of the gift of his inspiration that he didn't allow Kikaku to tack on a beginning phrase of yellow roses but stayed with his metaphor of water as sound / sound as water to say "old pond" to emphasize that sound is the oldest pond.

It could be, as it has been reported, that Basho simply heard a frog plunging into water (a rather probable occurrence as he lived in a marsh where two rivers joined) just at the moment a Zen master asked him a question on his progress in his meditations. Yet he didn't begin his poem with his reality of "in the marsh" or "by the river" but used "old pond" because in a quiet pond a disturbance most closely resembles the way sound moves and is most accurate. Again the third image is the tie for his metaphor of water for sound. Bodies (get that one?) of water have sometimes stood as metaphors for ears because of the way water reflects and distorts sound.

In another essay she goes on to list sixty-five 'rules' that have been applied to haiku at one time or another. It's laughable when you think how short the form is.

In all honesty I can't say, "I hate haiku," because Haiku's response would be, "But, you don't know me," and that's why I hate it, it won't stay still long enough to be known. Maybe once back in the day the Japanese might have come up with a short list but somehow I think the argument about what a haiku can or cannot be has raged since Masaoka Shiki coined the expression at the end of the 19th century.

There are loads of sites out there that have something to say about what haiku is or ought to be. There are links to some in the article but a nice clean and not too wordy site can be found here.

I think there's a lot newbie poets can learn from working with a short form like the haiku. Whether what they produce is haiku is neither here nor there. I've never deliberately avoided writing them perhaps because I've always written in a condensed way. I think the problem is that they're just a tad too short for the thoughts I want to express and that's all.

Monday 6 April 2009

Read, read, read and then read some more


If you spend all your time reading books you won’t have any experiences. Of course it may give you some idea about what experiences to have. – Carrie Berry (a.k.a. The Missus)

reading_44595As a part of my continuing efforts to prove to the world that I am not a real writer I thought I'd take a look at my reading habits over the years.

Let me first say a word or two about my opening quote. As I was preparing my notes for this post I stopped every now and then and interrupted what my wife was doing (as is my wont) to read her interesting and amusing quotes. Her response was to provide me – totally off the cuff and completely unrehearsed – with the opening remark. And, albeit a flippant remark [when taken totally out of context. Mrs. Ed.], it's an interesting observation especially when it comes from a woman who, as a kid, needed to have books literally torn from her hands before being kicked outside to get some of that fresh air parents keep going on about.

I was not that kid. When I was young I was always outside. Home, as I think I've said before, was nothing more than a filling station. I read but books were not the fulcrum on which my life was balanced. It seems odd that I would end up as a writer but then, having read a lot about how other writers grew up, it does seem to me that I'm not your typical writer if such a thing exists. I've gone years without writing, I've also gone years without reading and it's taken years for me to start missing either.

Like so many writers I began with poetry. The thing is, I didn't especially like most of the poetry that I'd been exposed to, 'Mr. Bleaney' (as I've mentioned so many times) being the glaring exception. Once I left school I started to get books out of the library, anthologies mainly, so I could get a taste of a variety of style. And I was pretty unimpressed by the lot of 'em, again with a singular exception, the American poet, William Carlos Williams. To my mind there was a clear connection between Larkin (who by this time I'd read more of) and Williams: they were both plain speakers and I liked that.

The poetry I began writing in my late teens strived to do what they did. I had found my voice and although I continue to read poetry to this day I have completely lost the need to search the texts for a sense of me. I am just an ordinary reader these days, reading for pleasure although there are still very few poems that truly excite me.

Prose was something else entirely. I never saw myself as a novelist. I never even wrote short stories. Had I been aware of flash fiction back then I may have had a go at that (and I keep wondering why I don't try to write more of it now) but I wasn't; prose simply took too many words to say what I wanted to say. The idea of writing one was unthinkable.

I was looking at my collection of books earlier and it's striking how many of them were bought during my late teens and early twenties. And yet I have no clear recollection of sitting and reading any of them. For most of that time I lived across the road from where I worked, or a short cycle away (yes, I used to cycle), and so I never read in transit. I was newly married and although my first wife was a voracious reader (half a dozen books a week) I still don’t remember the two of us sitting reading together. It must have happened because I have the books but I don't remember it. I actually used to get her books from the library and she'd summarise them for me. How sad is that?

nobel_medal At the time with a few exceptions I was only reading books by people who had received either the Nobel Prize or, since I was into science fiction too, the Nebula or Hugo awards; I don't think a science fiction writer has won the Nobel Prize but please feel free to correct me. The simple fact is that during those few years I did my best reading: Hermann Hesse, Ernest Hemmingway, Albert Camus, John Steinbeck, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yasunari Kawabata, Samuel Beckett, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Saul Bellow... you get the idea. But the goal in my mind was quantity. I gravitated towards thinner books so I could sample more styles although I would read two or three books by the same author if they caught my interest.

I've tried to think what books I read in my thirties and from my shelves it looks like about a book a year but I know there's more. It just puzzles me that I don't have many of the books. I got better in my forties and there's about five shelves covering that period but even then I'm sure others will have read much more. And the only place I can really remember reading is on public transport. In fact when Carrie and I were looking for a flat to buy we deliberately picked one a decent bus ride from the town centre where we both worked at the time specifically to give us time to read because we found we weren't doing enough at home.

These days I do most of my reading in the early hours of the morning – we're talking around the 3am mark because that's usually when my head is the clearest. Any other time and I start to doze off after half a page and nothing goes in. And I have never been able to read in bed.

You see, and this is the real confession, I find reading hard work. What I find hard about it is the fact there are so many words. Why are books so ruddy long? There's really no need for all those words. The first draft of my first novel was under 30,000 words and a part of me wishes I'd kept it that length; the padding was for everyone else. That's why Beckett was such a joy to me. He said what he had to say and got off the page. It's still my No.1 rule for writing.

Now, thirty years on, I'm rather depressed when I think about the writers I've not read, not a thing; there are so many.. I've read of them but that's another thing entirely. The first Dickens I 'read' was a few months back when my wife decided to have a go at Little Dorrit and she read a few paragraphs out to me (see, she does it too). I've happily slagged off the guy for years based on what others have written about him although I have to say, after what Carrie read to me, I don't feel the slightest bit guilty. When she'd finished her reading I said, "He was paid by the word you know." He really is a wordy bugger.

I did a search on Google looking for answers to the question: What advice do you have for budding writers? The answers were predictable and it didn't really matter if the advice was coming from a relatively new or a seasoned author.

S. E. Hinton: [D]o the best you possibly can. Write, write, write, and read, read, read!

Jayne Anne Phillips: Read, read and read. Insatiable readers, hungry readers who read obsessively, are the readers who become writers.

Firoozeh Dumas: Read, read and read. Nothing prepares a writer better than reading the works of accomplished writers. It helps you find your own voice.

Kishore Thukral: Just read, read, read, read, read a lot. You would end up writing much better than you did previously.

Toni Blake: Read, read, read. Read the kind of books you want to write. And read not only books you think are good, but also books you think are flawed – then figure out what does or doesn’t work in them. Reading widely – and with a critical eye – will go a long way toward making you a good writer.

Erik L`Homme: Advice for budding authors? I would like to give them three words of advice. First, read, read and read some more.

James Meek: Read. Read. Read. If you read a book and think I can do better than that, then that’s the wrong book but if you read a book and think I cannot do better — then read that.

John Baker: When I was young I read somewhere - don’t remember who said it any more - that if you want to be a writer, you should write. You should sit down and write for ten years and at the end of that time you’ll be a writer.

So that’s what I did. That was my way. I thought it was good advice. I still believe it to be good advice. But these days, if I say that to someone, I have to qualify it by stressing that one should also read. Read, read, read.

There are variations along the path to becoming a writer. One thing always leads to another.

I could provide more; LOTS more. And so many of them go for the three-for-emphasis approach. Some say read everything, backs of cereal boxes, whatever; others says be selective. There seems to be no common ground other that hammering home the fact that a writer is a reader who writes. All of which makes me wonder why I don’t have the same passion for reading as I have for music. I have it on all the time (although I have gone through patches of playing nothing for weeks on end – I had one a few weeks back when I was changing my meds) and it doesn't matter how many CDs I own I'm always happy to receive more. My music collection dwarfs my book collection. I literally have ten times as many albums as I have books.

So why aren't you a composer or a song writer, Jim?

Good question. During my teens – from about twelve on – that was what I wanted to be. Poetry was 'just a phase' I was going through as far as I was concerned but I spent hour upon hour in front on a keyboard mostly writing. In fact as soon as I taught myself to play the only obvious thing was to compose. And I kept at it until my early twenties. The last piece was a duet for two recorders of all things.

But I'm digressing. The question I need to ask is how much do you need to read? I'm not saying that a writer should never read and I'm always keen to dip into something a bit different but how often does a new writer like that crop up? And even then, that's his or her thing. I don’t want to start copying anyone, certainly not at my age. Not that I ever did when I was young, two or three poems inspired by Williams and about the same after I discovered Beckett that was about it. My two Larkin poems came years later and the first one really wasn't very good because I was trying to evoke his style.

Apart from Webern, whose output was small, I doubt I own the complete works of any composer. I have complete sets of symphonies (Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich to name three) but I still tend to play the same old ones. God alone knows the last time I played any of Beethoven's first four symphonies. I really only have them to complete the sets; I'm very anal that way. If Beethoven was a novelist I'd probably only own his fifth and eighth because they're the shortest.

Amongst the many quotes I found this one appealed to me:

Charles Hugh Smith: If you really, really want to write deep, probing literary fiction, then get life experience. Don't hole up in academia. The number of great books written by college professors who have the hots for vulnerable co-eds is zero. (Nabokov was a writer long before he was a professor, and furthermore, Humbert Humbert had the hots for a 12-year old.) And don't mistake travel for experience. Yes, travel is adventure, fun, dismal, even frightening at times, but it is only a certain slice of experience, a rather thin slice. It cannot replace starting (and failing at) a business, or engaging in a great political struggle, or working at a variety of manual-labour jobs alongside a wide variety of people.

And read deeply, not just fiction, but psychology, philosophy and theology. Understand the conflicts of the human condition and the multiple layers which influence human behaviour. Make such research a life-long habit, because there is no end to the variations of human behaviour and the advances being made by science in understanding the human psyche.

For one thing we only get one 'read' from him but that's not it. I think his is a more balanced response to the question. John Grisham says similar:

It is terribly important to read extensively. Virtually all writers I know are voracious readers still, and that is preparation. The more you read, the more you know. The more your imagination works, the more you read. And that’s — those are the tools of a good writer.

You have to live. Nobody wants to hear — the world does not want to hear — a great novel from a 21 year-old. You’ve got to get a real job and get a real career, and you’ve got to go to work. And you’ve got to live and you’ve got to succeed and fail, and suffer, a little bit, or see suffering, heartache and heartbreak and all that before you really have anything to write.

I think this explains why I didn't sit down to write what turned out to be my first novel – bearing in mind even then I never sat down to write a novel – until my mid thirties. By that time I had considerable baggage to root through for ideas. I like what Joe Queenan had to say on the subject: "Do not write anything until you are 30 as you will have absolutely nothing to say. Spend all your time reading the great writers. [The opening quote was a response to this statement. Mrs. Ed.] You can catch up on the writing part of things later…" Joanna Trollope said something similar: "You can't be too old to be a writer, but you can definitely be too young!"

What surprises me is that that first book isn't nearly as biographical as I expect many first novels are. I think casting me as an old man helped there. The interesting thing about that old man was that I made him a bookseller who hardly read, who had an impressive collection of books on his shelves at home "so that, when he died, the undertakers would be able to lean on his coffin, enjoy a fag, look up at the wall of books and say, "My, 'e must've been a clever bugger," before carting him off down the back stairs."

I'm not as bad as that – bear in mind Jonathan is a gross exaggeration of me – but the fact is I have a surprising number of books on my shelves that I have never read and probably never will.

These days I read with even more difficulty than ever. A few days ago our Internet connection went on the fritz and I sat down on that first day and read the first hundred pages of John Baker's Winged with Death. I couldn't tell you the last time I read more than twenty or thirty pages in a day. It helped that John is a decent writer and I got caught up in the book but I've only read about twenty pages each day since and before I start a chapter I always look to see how long it is to see if I think I can make it to the end before giving up.

You see there is reading and there is reading. I was looking back at my cupboard full of books, the ones from my teens, that are a bit too faded to display and there are a few that I can remember absolutely nothing about. I didn't read them. I turned the pages and when I got to the end I thought I could add another book to the list – yay, I've now read x number of books! I recently reread Transparent Things by Nabokov to see if I could remember anything and apart from the description of the puddle at the start everything had gone. The irony now is that I can still barely remember what it was about; nothing stays these days. I could do a bit better now but not much and I pretty much expect John's book to fade from my memory after a few weeks too. If you ask me in about six months I'll be able to say it's about some guy who goes to Uruguay and comes back tango-ed. Sorry, John.

Reading still...I was going to write 'inspires me' but I don't think that's quite right...reading encourages me. Not every writer I read but certain ones. Jeanette Winterson is one. I cannot read anything by her and not come away with a desire to write, not to write like her – I wouldn't know where to start – but to open up Word and simply start clattering away on a keyboard. Why her? Because she doesn't just tell stories, she has a love of language and that is infectious.

There's not much music that makes me want to move. Dixieland jazz is one and if I'm in the kitchen and no one but the bird is watching then I have been known to shuffle to the beat a bit. I think a good book is like that. It makes you want to respond, not copy, like a good jazz musician might.

I'm not sure how my reading is going to pan out over the years to come. I know as long as I keep writing this blog I should be okay if only because the nice people at Canongate keep sending me 'care packages' which reminds me, I owe them a couple of reviews – now, which are the thinnest books?

For the record my daughter is a great reader but then she has her mother's genes and my encouragement so I would have been surprised if she'd turned out any other way. Before she was born I'd bought her 100 books and I always make sure Xmas and birthdays include one or two if not five or six. I still love shopping for books. I just can't be jugged reading the ruddy things.

Thursday 2 April 2009

No plug and a solution

Last week I left you a word search to have a crack at and a few brave souls took up the challenge. Here, for those interested, is the solution, all Nobel Prize winning authors.

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