Category Archives: Commentary

Saving Books by Banning Them

We can’t go a day without being reminded of the next generation’s total animosity, or at least apathy towards reading. The books palatable to them are generally graphic, sensual, and never classics, their only exposure to them coming from unpleasant experiences of forced English assignments. And this is the trouble with classics in literature: not the actual content, but rather the format and conditions under which they are presented.

First of all, the would-be reader is  forced to read, a prospect which no one enjoys, and especially not children. Forced or not, oftentimes this potential bibliophile is presented with a copy that is thick, densely worded, and looks like it came from the 19th century

Yeah, that's the idea--wait...
Yeah, that’s the idea–wait…

(which it might’ve). If we are so desperate to make our children read (specifically, want to read), why do we put up obstacles like poor typeface, a disintegrating binding, and a cover that could be great fiction or an owner’s manual? Say what you want about judging a book by its cover, but that’s why books have covers.

The best way to encourage reading is not by force, but by a feigned inaccessibility. As Steinbeck relates in Travels With Charleyhis own childhood had a, “great dark walnut bookcase with…glass doors” in which was housed, “strange and wonderful things.” He goes on to say that his, “parents never offered them, and the glass doors obviously guarded them, and so I pilfered from that case. It was neither forbidden or discouraged. I think today if we forbade our illiterate children to touch the wonderful things of our literature, perhaps they might steal them and find secret joy.” If we combine the readable books with a quality of forbidden treasure, as was Steinbeck’s case, perhaps children won’t be so quick to spurn the written word. I can’t remember my parents ever encouraging me to read, but they never had to. Literature was always a part of my life. Now, I can’t say whether or not my love of books comes from an internal predisposition or through the quasi-apathetic actions of my mother and father towards reading, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. Since I came to reading on my own, it wasn’t some chain that genetics forced me to rebel against. The title, perhaps, is a tad bit of hyperbole. But the basic premise stands; children hate doing what they’re supposed to do almost as much as they love doing something they’re not supposed to do.

Classics, however, pose a unique and difficult situation. The child must be hooked as early as he can comprehend it, or they’ll fall exclusively into the young adult literature hell hole, and more “literature” like Twilight will be turned out year after year. I remember reading

“Literature”           Source

Johnny Tremain for the first time, around the third or fourth grade, and I knew I could never again settle for the seemingly mass-produced literature turned out by the current authors writing for my age groups. I saw how language could be used, manipulated, could convey emotions and    stories, but more than that. I saw that words could transfer those emotions to me, drag me along with the plot as an ecstatic stowaway. I firmly believe that if someone experiences the wit and style in Pride and Prejudice before Twilight, or the terse brilliance of Of Mice and Men, they could never get past Stephanie Meyer‘s second page.

Thoughts? Comment below!


Everything You Know About Haiku Is Wrong

Well most of it. In elementary school you probably learned about some guy named Basho writing three lined poems about nature, with the first line containing five syllables, the second seven, and the third five. Damn this is easy, you thought, as you were forced to write your own in-class. And your teacher dutifully checked for the syllable count and gave you and A+. Why? Because you can count to seven. If I’m assaulting the last glimmer of light in an otherwise dismal academic career, then my apologies. You were misled by an oversimplification and ignorance on the part of your teachers on what haiku is.

Let’s start with the big one: just like a sonnet can fulfill all the form requirements and suck, so too can a haiku (and suck). But this quality of all poetry is somehow dropped for haiku, and the syllable count, not what the syllables say, are what determines a poem’s success.

But before we go on it’s necessary to examine what haiku was in Japan. I won’t bore you with history, but there are a few names you should know. The primary haiku authors from Japanese literature are Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. As haiku grew into its own independent form of poetry, it acquired certain characteristics. Classically speaking, a “season word” was always included, that is, something that denotes or implies the haiku’s season. For example, this haiku by Saimaro:

    Summer rains
leaves of the plum
the color of cold wind

The season word is rather obvious in this, but I put it in green anyway, as I don’t exactly trust the same school system that taught us syllables = poem. Regardless, a season word is directly included. Sometimes, however, it is implied, like in this poem by Kaiga:

   How interesting–
running errands right and left

The clue-in to the season is fireflies. Since fireflies only come in the summer months, we can assume the season is summer. When this is utilized in English however, the result is usually a choppy, one-of-four word approach that distracts from the true nature of haiku (see below). This is due in no small part to the more stress Japan places on the season, through a combination of Shintoism‘s kami in them and the susceptibility, shall we call it, to seasonal natural disasters. As a result of this emphasis, many words and animals in the  Japanese language have significant seasonal associations, a characteristic English lacks. As we’ll see, this is far from the only language difference leading to a misunderstanding of English haiku.

Brief Interjection: The plural of haiku is haiku. Not haikus, no matter what anyone says. Japanese doesn’t have plurals the same way that English does. The movie wasn’t Seven Samurais, was it?

When composing your own haiku so many years ago, you may recall how it felt awkward, fulfilling that syllable count, and in a different way that writing to a rhymed rhythm. It just didn’t  sound right. While there are ways to do it (see some in The Haiku Anthology), this awkwardness is due to the linguistic differences between Japanese and English. The Haiku grew up in Japan — naturally it adopted a form that intertwined nicely with the language. English and Japan are about as far apart linguistically as a language can get it, and to maintain the same elegant simplicity of Japanese haiku, an English author is incapacitated by the long syllabic requirements. The equivalent of a haiku’s worth ofJapanese syllables to English is about 3-5-3, a number that fits more naturally into the length and structure of English phrases.

The Nature of Haiku

At its core, a good haiku is a single moment in time, taken from the time stream by capturing the most base elements of it, and then preserving it as the written word. Moments are not very long–haiku’s sparse form and Zen-like qualities reflect that. So what constitutes a moment?  Essentially haiku is a juxtaposition between the human self and nature, or a revealing of the self through a reflection in nature. The oft-quoted Santoka poem is a perfect example:

   Dragonfly on a rock–
absorbed in
a daydream

The introduction of Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems by Stephen Addiss, Fumiko Yamamoto and Akira Yamamoto, uses the above haiku (10) and adds for commentary:

                  The observation of an insect leads to a deeper consideration of our own
perceptions. We may well ask…who is daydreaming?                                    

I can’t remember learning that in school.

So is it even possible to write good English haiku? Of course. The magazines Modern Haiku and  Acorn carry quality selections, and I highly recommend you subscribe. An example of a delightful poem from issue No. 28 Acorn:

                   Apple orchard scents–
             the ordinariness
                 of the abbot’s hello
                                                              – Rebecca Lilly

Well it’s definitely possible. I understand that most schools don’t have the luxury of spending several weeks or even a few days on haiku, but this didn’t take more than ten minutes now.

For further reading:

Haiku: A Poet’s Guide

The Haiku Anthology (contains modern English haiku)

Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Individual Conformist

Unkempt hair is obviously the same as being an individual.
Unkempt hair is obviously the same as being an individual.

Society has always forced people within its borders, punishing outsiders. It’s human instinct, evolutionary, the only way to move forward as a race. Now that the more immediate outside threats of nonconformity have been removed, we are still left with a culture actively attempting to force others into a social mainstream. This isn’t offered in criticism (that’ll come later)–just as fact. In the beginning of the 21st century, however, there has been a  concerted effort to encourage individualism, with endless powerpoints showed to school children on how to stand up to bullies, maintain healthy self-esteem, and are given strict guidelines about how to be an individual. And there is revealed the great irony of the situation: being an individual is now part of the mainstream. Individualism is being like everyone else. And even the things we are encouraged to think of as off the beaten path are lovingly adopted as part of the collection of mass-accepted cultural items. We see the paradox: in order to be an individual, you have to be mainstream, but mainstream is individualism, and God this is worse than time travel. If individualism is mainstream, it can only be concluded this is no individualism at all.

Best exhibiting this societal phenomenon is the hipster. I know, I know. I groan too anytime a blogger tries to detail what a hipster is, or try and relate it to a topic. But I’m aware that’s impossible. Even using the word hipster makes me cringe, as it long stopped meaning what people think it means, as I’ll explain. Picture the two social groups one Mainstream, one Hipster.  Say the mainstream road is continuing on however it continued during the early 2000s’. Then comes the hipster road, growing slowly based on a collection of identifiable principles, the ones you see in your mental image of a stereotypical “hipster.” As more latent hipsters came out of the closet, if you will, this subculture living an alternative lifestyle becomes identifiable to the Mainstream, but not as it truly is. Like explorers of the

With every purchase comes a complementary ounce of weed!
With every purchase comes a complementary ounce of weed!

16th-19th centuries, those documenting or commenting on these hipsters were writing to entertain an audience, and in-depth analyses  of  subcultures don’t sell. The solution? Dilute the culture to the most identifiable, controversial, and bizarre aspects and publish. Consequently the world was painted the picture of the bike-riding, all-organic, fair trade, coffee drinking, Jack Kerouac quoting hipster.

Everyone assumes hipsters engage in the antithesis of American materialist society, and is familiar with the phrase, “I liked them before they were cool.” This mostly correct popular image presents a subculture that rejects the most integral values of its parent culture, and when their parent culture adopts some of their beliefs, the hipster movement immediately forsakes them. It sounds like hyper-individualism and a total rejection of the mainstream, but the movement is lovingly welcomed into it. A cultural misunderstanding like that shouldn’t happen, not to such a degree.

However, in isolating hipster culture to a few aspects, immediately that drawn culture is not “hipster.” Hipsters are united as hipsters not by commonalities, but by differences. They reject aspects of modern culture, sure, but it must be understood every true hipster is his own breed. Like the Dalai Llama, a true hipster is born, not made. They are hipster because that’s the cultural route their preferences and beliefs take them, not through some decided effort to memorize obscure indie groups just to namedrop. This is real individualism, not the pre-wrapped brands offered by motivational speakers and counselors.

Perhaps, however, this  mainstreaming of the fiercely individualistic hipster movement is a deliberate attempt at bringing those outsiders back within the society, and all the talk of individualism is just a new angle of conformity.

Coffee: The American Dream

Even though the About page assures this blog isn’t a coffee-devoted one, it still seems fitting for the first post to reflect on what is to many of us the focal point of the morning, and in some cases, the day. Coffee.

Five Hour Energy advertises its product as a quick way to get awake, a substitute that leaves the poor transporter of caffeine, coffee, in the dust. This is true: that is, if you drink grape and cherry flavored coffee from plastic bottles. No, what five hour energy fails to scoop-slidegrasp is that coffee’s caffeine properties are not the reason for the beverage–it’s a happy side-effect. We drink coffee because it tastes good, not because it’ll give us a short burst of alertness. I myself am a Coffee Appreciator. I don’t obsess, don’t buy thousand dollar machines or ultra-high quality imported beans. Still, I care about the quality of my coffee, and will pay a little extra to get it. National trends follow suit: gourmet coffee is on the rise. The most significant mark of a Coffee Appreciator, though, is he drinks coffee for what it is: a delicious beverage that brings to mind home, warmth and a plethora of happy memory associations. Those that are only interested in it for its ability to keep them awake, well, maybe Five Hour Energy is for you.

Coffee is nearly universal in America, and where it’s not the numbers are escalating. I won’t pretend Starbucks wasn’t instrumental; and certainly the added attention to quality and taste is a welcome change. But why this success? While taste is vital, and logically the primary concern, I believe its success is directly intertwined with just how American it is. Coffee has been a staple of restaurants, the home and even the preferred beverage (besides alcohol) of cowboys. Steinbeck, when driving across country for his Travels with Charleyused coffee as his icebreaker for conversation, a testament to the beverages sociability with the country. Coffee has a long history, and to Americans at least, it has survived gender gaps, social upheavals, the 1960s, changing tastes and cultures, to become eternally enshrined as a delightful, warming beverage, acceptable to all races, creeds, and political parties. Coffee is the quintessential beverage of morning, of a little pleasurable drink before the day’s toil, of long after-dinner conversations, of all-nighter projects, and of an ability to go out another day, and succeed. Let generations change, let cultural tastes shift. With the passing of each decade, with it will come coffee.