Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wind of Change

November 1989 - The Fall of the Berlin Wall
I remember the stories my father would tell me about his car trips to Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe, not too far from home and practically to the other side of the Iron Curtain.

"We used to drive through Slovenian villages, raiding the winding countryside roads hoping to find our direction in the thick Communist fogs. Not a single lamppost or road sign stood on the streets between towns. Passing through customs on a pitch black night, officers would ask us for passports and open the trunk for inspection while we prayed they wouldn't find a reason to hold us there. We would then drive into a half-sleeping townlet for eggs and steak, and the locals observed our moves with suspicious and nervous looks from the depths of their bony eye-sockets. It was scary."

As I recall, images flood through my mind: black and white Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, the wall dividing East and West Germany, headlines on Gorbachev's meeting with Deng Xiaopeng, the characteristic film colors of the photographs taken with heroic Lumix and Pentax single-lens reflexes, the fearless reporters who risked their lives hiding film from military officials in the most unlikely spots in bullet-riddled hotel rooms, the courage that brought awakened masses to march in the true name of democracy and freedom of speech.
If it's true that the masses get often trapped in mass psychoses of majestic proportions and devastating consequences, it is just as true that, at times, masses can act under the influence of a great idea, of intellectual enlightenment. Back then, they did.

What has changed?
We have Apple products now and street cameras everywhere. Our life reached unprecedented levels of comfort. But wars, injustice, and class divisions are still here. Back then, access to information was blocked whenever someone thought it convenient. Now, an overflow of information makes it more difficult to distinguish what has been manipulated and what hasn't.
Violence is still here and, possibly, in higher amounts; part of it has become digital, and where it hasn't, it occurs in the forms of femicide, religious conflicts, and whatnot. We are being constantly monitored, much more than we were before and in subtler ways. 
Renovated Nazi forces, Golden Dawns, Ukip's, and Dutch Freedoms are hauling Europe into a maze of perdition; this is not mass enlightenment.

I often ask myself, "Has it all really changed for the better?"
That is when my father's stories come back to mind again. When it happens, I realize that today I do not have the luxury to get lost in the same thrilling country fogs, stopping by the first forlorn town for eggs and steak with friends, trying to decipher the curves and straight lines of an old and yellow road map as our old car chugs on. That has changed, and it shouldn't have.
Something else hasn't changed.
And it should have.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Haikus - Life in Three Verses

If we ventured to explain the difference between prose and poetry, we could say that poetry is the quintessence of prose; poetry is prose filtered and rid of the inessential, in order to obtain purity of forms, meanings, and feelings. Now, filter poetry through the fine sand and gravel layers of an alembic, and the few, rare distilled drops of ether that fall into the ampoule are haikus.

A poem does not have to be perfect; a haiku does. A poem can be lenghty, a haiku must not; traditional haikus develop in three lines of five, seven, and five syllable respectively, for a total number of seventeen syllables; this was possible for the composition of the traditional Japanese haikus, but the English language has almost never adopted this tradition. My personal interpretation of this is a much lower sense of perfection the western world has always had compared to the Japanese traditional approach to any life quests.
Yet, a haiku must be made of three verses (two, exceptionally) and, in the simplest form, it must express the Meaning of Life.

Many of us enjoy composing haikus, just like poems, from daily or nightly impressions, dreams, facts of life, or personal experiences. Yet, these short compositions rarely are true haikus. Most of the time they are too complicated, forceful, and do not abide by the simplicity that defines haikus. Very often, just as it happens for most poems, they fail to offer a meaning of life that is universal and applicable, either by analogy, metaphor, simile, opposition, or whatnot to the life of each and every living or non-living being in the universe.
Following are some examples of the most beautiful haikus made by Japanese traditional haiku poets:

In the cicada's cry
no sign can foretell
how soon it must die.
- Basho - 

Blowing from the west
fallen leaves gather
in the east.
- Buson -

I kill an ant
and realize my three children
have been watching.
- Kato Shuson -

Over the wintry
forests,  winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.
- Soseki -

Even with insects -
some can sing,
some can't. 
- Issa -

Now, famous haikus by western poets and writers:

I went in the woods 
to meditate -
it was too cold.
- Jack Kerouac -

Everyone stands alone on the heart of the earth
pierced by a ray of sun;
and suddenly, it is evening. 
- Salvatore Quasimodo -

Among twenty snowy mountains,
the only moving thing
was the eye of the blackbird.
- Wallace Stevens -

Missing a kick 
at the icebox door
It closed anyway  
- Jack Kerouac -

Composing haikus is an exercise any of us can do. As we walk down a street or a nature path, while sitting on a couch or bench, in winter or fall, a haiku can be found anywhere at anytime. Yet, discovering it becomes possible only if we rid ourselves of the unessential, if we seek perfection and the universal idea behind each smaller fragment of reality, ultimately understanding that only through the particular can we access the universal.