Mistaking the genre of Catch 22

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George Clooney and his actor friends have made an actorly mistake in adapting Catch 22 for a TV series. They thought it was about characters, but it isn’t. They thought they would create some splendid parts for themselves. But there are no “characters” in Catch 22, in an actorly sense. There are what we call “larger than life” characters, each one with an extreme characteristic, which you might think was like a Moliere comic extreme – the Miser, the Snob, Jealousy. But it is not a human characteristic that a Heller character has; it’s a mechanical one.

Each Heller figure is a function of the insane bureaucratic mechanisms of warfare. Each one is an extreme of something institutional: Parades (Sheisskopf), Hierarchical Ambition (Cathcart), Neatness Obsession (Bomb patterns), Hiding in a Non-job (Major Major), Institutional Opportunism (Milo Minderbinder). These are the cogs, rods, joints and dials of a bureaucratic machine. They do not have “personal feelings” or “back story” or “motivation”. The only motivation they have is the inexorable crazy logic of a machine blithely churning out death with no regard for the humans at all. Acting them as fully rounded human beings is absurd and ruins the whole enterprise.

You should not cast serious actors. You need Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Eric Sykes, the Goons, the Carry-On Crew, Sacha Baron Cohen, the Keystone Cops. It is a farce, and needs to be a fast ratatatat of quick-fire absurdities as the careless logic of bureaucracy crushes one human need after another with irresistible paradoxes. You need a cardboard stage set with revolving doors, collapsing walls and exploding beds. The music should be played on a kazoo and a penny whistle. To see actors frowning, emoting away, and being wistfully contemplative, mistakes the genre. It is horrible,  slowing the whole thing down into a turgid mess. The Clooney dramatisation is a mistake.

Genre-busting role-shifters: Hannibal Lecter and Killing Eve’s Villanelle

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Thomas Harris in his Hannibal Lecter books developed three rather brilliant genre-busting features to supercharge his surprising variations on an ancient format. The creators of Killing Eve have taken the same tricks even further and with wonderful panache.

Firstly, Harris took a good old-fashioned Villain out of the role where he attracts all the opprobrium and hatred rightly heaped on criminal masterminds with hearts of ash, and switched him into the Helper role, where he could blossom into an interesting and appreciated character, free to enlist our sympathies. We liked his intelligence, culture and wit. He was safely incarcerated, so we could get close to him and hear him talk, and he had the scope to indulge his florid genius without threatening us too much. This meant that Harris had to create another person to fill the vacant Villain role, and he duly offered a dull cypher to occupy that space, while the Helper doubled as a False Villain, a much more zingy role, full of ambiguity.

In folktales the Helper is a wise one, in sympathetic harmony with nature and the animal kingdom. It might be old woman, old man, badger or bird or breeze, but the Helper is closer to understanding the workings of fate and the mind than ordinary beings are. The Helper can see the Hero’s future and offer warnings and a magical amulet.

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The Villain-in-Helper-role was an original idea and Harris ran with it very cleverly. But after the second Lecter book, The Silence of the Lambs, he saw an even more genre-busting opportunity. In Hannibal he cunningly led us, the readers, to think we were settling into a Detective Thriller. He duped us with the expected clues, and suspence. But we weren’t in a cop story. It turned out to be a Killer-Chase sensuously mutating into a Romance, and he managed to keep us guessing, and to spring a strikingly effective surprise ending, full of gruesome black humour.

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Killing Eve uses the same tricks, but with a feminine wit all of its own. Series 1, brilliantly brought to life by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a story of a detective chasing a serial murderer who is every bit as psychopathic, charming and stylish as Hannibal Lecter. Jodie Cromer has a wonderful time pouting and winking as the spoilt brat charming assassin, creating one of the most memorable characters of the decade. The detective story begins to look like a Romance as it gathers momentum at the end of Series 1, but in Series 2 Villanelle is shifted from the Villain role into the Helper role to keep her out of prison and give her scope to entertain us with more tricks. The Romance deepens, but rather too much, in my view. It should be a tease, not a full-on courtship, if we are to keep the genre teetering between the positive Romance and and the negative Assassin poles of the two characters’ magnetic field.

An extra layer of fascination develops as we hear the expert on psychopaths turning his attention to diagnosing Eve. Her obsession with Villanelle becomes a mystery about the depths of their character flaws. The creators of Series 2 go further, and very funny it is – both funny and disturbing – because all the detectives start showing the same symptoms as the slavering psychopathic killers: low boredom threshold, callousness, attention-seeking, deceit. The mirroring of the Villains by the Heroes is an intriguing tease that adds a much more interesting brand of “constructive ambiguity” than the stuff peddled by the NEC of the Labour Party at the moment. It keeps us guessing. Is Eve a psychopath? Is Hugo? Is Carolyn? Am I? I love it so much, I must be one too. Are we all?

Emerald Fennell took over the writing for Series 2 and she has drawn us deeper into psychopathy whilst spraying sparkling jokes around. It is a very clever variant on Aristotle’s Reversal and Recognition through which we recognise our appalled collusion with the imaginative charm of the violence. The same thing happened to Starling in Hannibal as she switched to the Dark Side and gave herself to globe-trotting arm in arm with Lecter, from one pleasure to another, opera houses to fine dining. It is the third genre-busting role shift, from Hero to Submissive, no longer the hunter but the one who has got her heart’s desire and retired from the chase, much to her own surprise. A Heroine, in the uncomfortably ironic Romance sense. Eve has not quite reached that point yet. But she will. Or will she?

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Selected Haiku (and a tanka)

Matisse tanka

Calm red inside
and blue veins climb. A woman
touches the fruit bowl.
In the window, trees

More grandson haiku

Before school
ten minutes in heaven
drawing devils

It’s after bedtime -
he proffers a specious argument
with a smile.

he moves his mouth in silence
as the head appears.

Koan retreat haiku

On Here Hill,
at Now o’clock, I meet This.
A chestnut stallion.

A new gentle me -
sheep keep their distance
the crow flaps off

Roshi’s sermon -
a wren at the window
hops from thought to thought

Fire-heat and the lamp’s hiss.
Whilst from the kitchen
the sound of a whisk.

Path to the farm -
herringbone ruts
glistening with ice

Zazen - I have
“Ordinary Mind”; my shadow
ordinary head

the demon plans a well-received
study of demons.

sit under their stars
sharing our wonder


Maglev train
picnic party - the floating world
on a concrete path

Three people
I judged uncultured
kind to me today

Again and again
the white surf breaks
as we hold from talking

in my stiff fingers
its eager heart

Rain on the window.
The knife in the bowl

Ten thousand bright waves -
the anchor warp squeaks
as we bow to each one.

Lord Plover
in wet ermine
sucks mud

Dad never spoke of love
but now, the tongue risen
the mouth gapes

The curlew’s call
still resonating, I dream
the withered baby

Spotlit, stepping
on a gold-flecked plinth,
the chipped old buddha.

One son missing
the other a fool
Christmas marmalade

Tugged half under,
the mooring buoy
in the spring ebb tide

Incense for John
rising into whatever
the grey sky is

the same notes at dawn
for 10,000 years

Contorted trunk
clambers its twist to
a tuft of birdsong

splash and scream
in an angel’s wing

In the winter wind
between derelict factories

Feeding ducks
the ginger skinhead
opens and shuts his mouth

The wipers sweep, sweep,
on the radio news
an abandoned child

Orange sun white cloud
through the plane’s
egg window

Flapping fingers
stinking of varnish
she laughs at vanity.

Always roaring
the echo in me
of the wind between stars

Fractals in sand -
the ebbing tide
knows how

Picking winter scraps
in The Mower’s blades
old yellow-beak.

Always roaring
faintly in the background
tinnitus of bliss

Ken’s Great Leap
into the all-too-clear
from the unknown

Golden snakes
behind the bins,
the dog eating wasps

Flickering shag -
at first thrilling...
then baffling     

(after Basho)

Under the hill
tarmac whispers
shadows of passing

To stragglebush
the topiarist
brings pride

In a non-world
I taste the salmon sandwich
I didn’t choose

Rounding the headland home
the shushing of ripples
licking the hull

Forgiveness -
and after the rain swallows
feast over fields

That pretty cloud
I saw yesterday
and liked so…

Lying in the grass
watching; hearing 
the skylark disappear

Family barbecue
the moon sails West

clouds sail East

Rain on the frail roof
fiercely drumming
Ancestor Blues

In reverie I feel
her shadow cross my eyelids.
Rockpool scattering

I bow to great nature
and wave a goodbye
to all of you

Facing the criminal Self

Murderers are the extreme example of people who are carried away to catastrophe by the rigidity of their false world-view. They are in ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ long before they are put behind prison bars. As the very first verse of the Dhammapada puts it, “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it” (in the translation of Eknath Easwaran).

The many years of a Life sentence can be very constructive ones for those who suffered a hectic, tormented, frightened childhood and youth and have never had the time and sobriety to get a perspective on their behaviour.

I met Karl in Kingston Prison, ten years into his Life sentence. He was short, with a battle-scarred face and tattoos. He had a poor level of literacy and very little education, but was throwing himself into learning. I quote below from a little book he wrote with me in my capacity as writer-in-residence at the prison (Hand on the Glass by Karl, Waning Moon Press, 1999, available from me).

“Fear seizes the body with shivering. You read about the techniques in reports of torture.” Karl is the child of a sadistic mother. “I was stripped naked, thrown in the corner, slapped and shouted at, slapped again and again, the slaps accompanied by continuous screaming, anger and spitefulness pouring down on me. She was ill. She was devious to the point of insanity. You could see the hatred in her smile, her posture, her eyes. She’d steal my sweets and smile at me. I got sneaky and told lies like her. It turned me into an arsehole like her. The hatred is vivid for ever.”

Karl went to Borstal, and what he had learned from his mother set the pattern for how to cope. “I knew that the weak are vulnerable. I wasn’t going to let anyone take advantage. I was frightened, and the only way I knew to be safe and gain respect was by aggression. I weigh a man up: if he’s going to stand up I’ll have to dive straight in, very hard, and use extreme violence. If threats will do, I’ll manipulate him through threats. When Officers want to hear “Yes,” I’ll say, “Yes.””

As a young adult he was a hot-wired volatile mix of hatred, fear, heroin, alcohol, pills, greed and violence. He was extremely dangerous, I have no doubt, and as criminal as can be. He would be your worst nightmare, standing at the bar at lunchtime in a Brighton pub, smiling. He describes his companions: “The people I was knocking about with were not decent rational people. We’d pull stokes on others all the time. A criminal isn’t just someone who steals or breaks the law. He started at the age of 5 or 6. He’s been through approved school, Borstal, DCs and all the time he’s picking up new ways of intimidating and manipulating people. The criminal will always tell you what you want to hear. I’m lying – I don’t know why yet, but I’m doing an oil painting of myself, and I’m hoping to take you with it. Knowing I’m a failure, to keep people at bay, the easiest thing is to be aggressive.”

Heroin was the best solace. “I was depressed, tense, angry when I had my first mainline given by a friend and the effect was immediate. My inner feeling was serene, for the first time in my life, and it became my favourite drug instantly. It cut me off from my feelings, all those bad feelings, a lifetime of humiliation, bitterness and aggression. Then I was sick. Whoosh. That was a problem, but then I got another lift, even higher.”

The second of my four daily Buddhist vows is, “The afflicting passions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them all.” Karl and his like struggle to overcome the suffering of being endlessly assailed by the afflicting passions, using the onefold path of intoxication. I am told that Jung wrote a letter to the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous saying that he had always thought that the craving for alcohol and drugs was a desire for God or a religious “spirit.” I worked with criminal teenagers at one time and got them writing poems about LSD. Darrell wrote, “The normal world is shit. / When you’re tripping / the sea is a living thing, / the sea-breeze is a voice… You’re aware, / every little thing seems more alive. / Nature is more beautiful when you’re tripping.”

Tastes of serenity, awareness and beauty in the bleakest of “shit” lives: drugs are the poor man’s transcendence (many of the rich like them too).

Karl was arrested for murder. “If you’ve always received smacks, dished out smacks, never thought, got away with it, surviving day to day, not caring, no outlook, no character, you’re a disaster waiting to happen. It’s a terrible shame for his [the victim’s] family that it has taken his death for me to see what an arsehole I’ve been,” he reflects.

He describes his attitude when he got to prison: “Create an incident and run. I’m scared of myself. I might get violent and do something again. I don’t want to be alive. I’m running. I don’t talk to anyone except for necessary drug deals. Stay away, keep clear of me – I’m angry.”

Again he analyses it: “Somebody comes up and strikes up a conversation and I cut them off, give a short answer. I have no trust, wary, suspicious. I’m the one who is going to take advantage of you, I’m projecting my thoughts into you: you can’t be trusted. My mother took advantage, so I expect everybody to. Friends are a no-no. It’s lonely, very lonely, a loneliness you come to like. I’d go in arrogant and demanding, to create a bit of fear, or, with a dangerous man, go in subtle, drop my body-language, keep eye-contact to create a bit of trust, then I’m off with whatever I can get. You can’t build friendship with people you’ve took advantage of.”

Four years into his sentence Karl applied for group therapy. “It’s hard to let go. It’s tense in my chest and arms. When I begin to open up it’s scary. I have to let the barriers down. I feel weaker, I feel I’ve got nothing. Instead of being domineering I just back off and don’t try to control. I have to listen to your opinions though it doesn’t feel right. Sitting there through my discomfort I learned to listen and understand. I used to just walk off ranting and raving with my own opinion in my head, but now I walk off with a sense of achievement – what’s achieved is you’re listening to me! It feels good. Puts a bounce in my stride.”

He heard that others had suffered like he had. “I’m not the only one!” He heard people tell how they had changed. And he felt the change: “When I first went I was hostile. I didn’t care. People told me I was an arsehole. But I let slip my birthday, and they surprised me, gave me presents, and I cried. You’ve got to give. Give to others. It’s what opens everything else for you. Put yourself out. It’s done so much for me.”

Hugh Collins, notorious Glasgow gangster and murderer, wrote an account of his transformation in the therapeutic community which was the Special Unit at Barlinnie Prison (Hard Man, in Granta 46, 1994). He was severely disoriented when he first arrived because nothing fitted his world-view. The toughest criminals were being friendly with the screws, the enemy, “joking and laughing and talking as if they were normal people.” Jimmy Boyle, the most famous of Scotland’s dangerous men, was the “undeniable leader” in the Unit. He came to Hugh Collins on his second day and said, “You’re fucked up. You don’t think you are, but you’re completely fucked up. So was I when I arrived here. It took me six months to recover.”

Collins took a cocktail of drugs and his rage exploded. He demanded a transfer back to a normal prison and threatened staff. He was ‘hotseated’ in a community meeting. “The meeting’s resolution was not to mete out punishment, but to develop ways of supporting me through my difficulties. What the fuck was going on?”

The man who had never in his life received sympathetic treatment, hated it. He drank a bottle of whisky and attacked Jimmy Boyle. “I was put in a cell so I could sober up in peace. I didn’t understand.” He was bewildered by the lack of a violent response. He always expected to be hit back, especially by the prison system, and he wanted it to be that way, fitting in with his image of how things operate. Next morning Jimmy Boyle came to see him and said, “You have to understand how really fucked up you are,” and suggested he write out all his emotions. “Try to find out who you are and what has made you this way.”

That question, ‘Who am I?’ familiar to all of us in the Buddhist community, is what proved to be the key for Hugh Collins. He realised, examining it, that he had dedicated his whole life to a fantasy image of his father as the hard-man master criminal. He had hardly known his father, of course, during childhood, because the old man had always been in prison, but he had absorbed the legends of derring-do and the sense of awe felt by weaker people in the presence of the brute.

Collins in his twenties: “I knew what it was like to take someone’s life. I was a very powerful man, and I was powerful because I was dangerous, and I was dangerous because I was prepared to be, and everyone knew I was fully capable of being so very, very violent. I had become my father… Or perhaps I had become nothing more than what I thought my father was.” Collins recalled that he got to see more of his father at that time and had to keep rescuing him from scrapes. “For the first time, I saw him for what he was. My father was not a hard man. The hard man was a lie. Robin Hood? He was a drunk, poncing money from a burnt-out prostitute half his age. He was not someone I wanted to be. What I wanted to be had been a lie. It didn’t exist.

“But just look at what the lie had created.”

I have been trying to avoid the word “awakening” for the turnaround in understanding that eventually dawned on Karl and on Hugh Collins. Of course, it is not enlightenment. But it has the structural characteristics we find in enlightenment literature. It involves destroying and discarding an entire world-view and set of false values, values which are deeply rooted as the main prop of the sense of identity. It involves a recognition of ‘Who am I?’ and a sloughing off of the false identity. It involves a breakthrough to seeing things more nearly as they really are, and accepting them without needing to hammer them into another shape to make them fit the world-view. It involves feeling a renewed rewarding reciprocity with other human beings. It brings joy.

The Dhammapada continues, in verse three, “ ‘He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.” And verse five explains how to break the cycle. “For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law.”

I am sure many gangsters and violent brutes never receive a surprise birthday present, or loving attention in the form of, “You’re fucked up.” It is an unalterable law that they must receive some love to change. They must be in a state of readiness too. Karl writes, “I was not seeing people. I was blind. It happened a few times that someone was genuinely concerned about me, but I mistrusted it. I didn’t let anybody in.”

Many gangsters and brutes may not have the intelligence and strength of character to face up to themselves, accept how wrong they have been, and determine to change. I see them in prison and amongst young offenders: men and boys who have intimations of the right Way, but will backslide weakly, put off the necessary work by running to alcohol and drugs, and cave in to peer group braggadocio. They are not going to loosen up, admit cracks in their rigid systems of thought, or climb out of the carapace of identity they have forged for themselves and their kin.

Those who do change, as Hugh Collins and Karl have done, show remarkable and impressive human qualities, the finest of all human qualities, shadowing the path to enlightenment. The great adventure of being human fetches up here. Unfortunately, it also seems to be an unalterable law that such understanding costs a fortune in suffering. “It’s a terrible shame for his family that it’s taken his death for me to see what an arsehole I’ve been,” writes Karl. Yes. The martyrs to thugs like Hugh Collins, and the unreformed political criminals on the left and right to whom ideologies were more real than people, who became what they thought, are legion.

The Lyricist

Stephen Sondheim tells us in Finishing the Hat that there are three rules and three sins in writing lyrics.

The Rules:

  1. Content dictates form.
  2. Less is more.
  3. God is in the details.


The Sins:

  1. Verbosity.
  2. Redundant adjectival padding.
  3. Strained jokes.

Poetry is an art of concision, lyric an art of of expansion, he tells us. I think he must mean that poetry has to say it all, but the lyric can allow the music to expand a simple theme and give it colour and tone. And even profundity.

Sondheim writes

His lyrics are written for the theatre, of course, and often in comedy, so he lays a lot of emphasis upon the voice of the character. The lyric must be written in character, and in the dialect of the character. It can use the three sins above, but only if the character is verbose, or the character makes pathetically strained jokes, and then only sparingly, just enough to establish the character. He is proud of his Brooklyn rhymes: ‘stickler’ with ‘partic’ler’, and likes to take advantage of the idiosyncracies of his character’s language. This is what is meant by Rule Three, ‘God is in the detail.’ My own Mrs Bride lyric uses prisoners’ rhyming slang (bird-lime for time) for the refrain, and common prison slang for the last line:

“I breathe out….  I breathe in…. That’s how I do my bird.”

“Banged up in my cell I know I’m free.”

The Mrs Bride refrain is also an example of Rule One, ‘Content dictates form.’ The subject is meditation in prison. The musical setting can enact the meditative focus on the breath, the breathing in and breathing out, in real inhalation and exhalation time. So the line is simple, but the musical performance expands it into an experience, and the addition of, “That’s how I do my bird,” expands it again into a whole life strategy. Breath dictates the form of the song. “The lyric can be plain,” says Sondheim, “but soars when infused with music.” You breathe; it fills all time; it soars. ‘Less is more.’ Rule Two.

A poet speaks in her own voice, but song lyrics are best when dramatic, set in the middle of a relationship, and written in the voice of a character. In writing these lyrics for Nick I discovered that I liked dramatic situations with two or three characters. The best example of three characters is a song we wrote for Krystyna to sing, Mummy’s Bright Red Skirt:

Don’t you fret now little fellow

Mummy’s clubbing, having fun

She might be back tomorrow

And she’ll need her brave young son

You’ll be kind and let her sleep

Bring her tea when she swears

Give her cuddles, give her comfort

Do her broken-heart repairs


Take no notice when she rages

When she throws your toys about

You can take more than your daddy

When she blew your daddy out

You’ll help her next adventure

Help her zip her bright red skirt

You’ll fetch her silver snorting tube

She’ll giggle that you flirt

…and so on. There is a story here with three main characters (and a minor fourth, the absent father): the mother, the child, and the speaker, who must be a well-meaning friend, aunty or neighbour. The three-way relationship softens the painful subject of neglect, and contains it, because the characters are coping, and there is love between them. I’ll ask Nick to post the song for you.

Sondheim compares a lyric to a short story condensed down so that each line of the lyric has the weight of a paragraph. Less is more, make the most out of the least, otherwise the song diffuses.

He also says that lyrics demand perfect rhymes, and he is absolutely right about that. The sort of half-rhymes that look clever in a modern poem are no use at all in a song. The rhyme must be clear and must chime. Near-rhymes are never as good and weaken the effect. A poet can write for re-reading, for a reader who muses on each line, but a lyricist has to get the line to work on first hearing. Sondheim quotes Craig Carnelia: “True rhyming is a necessity in the theater, as a guide for the ear to know what it has just heard.”

I also like to keep to a strict rhythm, that perfectly matches the song line, but I know that many songs have more flexibility than that. A singer can stretch a single syllable into a line, or crowd excess words into a bar of music. Songs can have fluid line-lengths. But that is something a pop star can get away with that would not work in a song for a musical, which must hit its points crisply and match the dance. The effect is weakened if the structure is not perfectly made.

And, of course, songs must be singable. Nick has taught me that the final vowel of a line must be an open sound, and that rhymes are much better as masculine (single) open syllables than feminine (double) ones, especially ones ending in consonant clusters. Art is much better to sing than artists or artisanFeel is much better to sing than feelings.

George & co 063



Filming with Aaron

Clara lives in a Palace!

Clara lives in a Palace!

A brilliant sixteen-year old boy called Aaron Wheeler has filmed five of our songs (and an instrumental). There is a remarkable variety in the filming genres. He experimented with animation for The Beautiful Suchness of Things, and it is delightful, with witty segues and a light charm. He filmed Mrs Bride as a dramatised live performance in role (Nick as a life-sentence prisoner). He made an acted film for What Can It Be? centred on the beautiful Clara Miranne, daughter of my good friend Francoise, as the romantic lead. And he made two straightforward live performance films and one with a fancy split-screen split-costume flourish (the instrumental, Staunton Park). All done in two days of filming and no doubt many late evenings of post-production. Well done Aaron – may your career in film be spectacular.

Clara selfie with her sisters.

Clara selfie with her sisters.

The locations are all in Southsea. Clara’s seafront walk in What Can It Be? is along from Southsea Pier to Southsea Castle and towards Clarence Pier and the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour. There are shots of the Rock Gardens too (and my balcony). The prison scene of Mrs Bride is filmed at the Round Tower in Old Portsmouth, where the ‘hot walls’ meet the Round Tower.

mrs bride

The lyrics are all uploaded as subtitles available on the CC button. And Aaron has put them all on YouTube. We shall be making them public in the next few days – enjoy them then, and remember the name Aaron Wheeler.

How modern verse in English was shaped by ancient Chinese Zen

From China comp Gary Snyder again


In the first decade of the 20th century, poetry in English sounded like this:


Lovely in dye and fan

A-tremble in shimmering grace,

A moth from her winter swoon

Uplifts her face


And W.B.Yeats wrote rhythms like this:


Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die


In 1914 and 1915 some strange translations were published. A new note was sounded and a fresh branch of modern poetry was born:


The autumn wind blows white clouds

About the sky. Grass turns brown.

Leaves fall. Wild geese fly south.


While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead

I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.

You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,

You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

And we went on living in the village of Chokan:

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.


Formally, they are in unrhymed free verse. The language is plain and direct, and the imagery, if it is imagery, is real observation, not constructed metaphor representing something else. First and foremost it is ‘the thing in itself’. A Westerner would write, “My love is like a red, red rose.” An East Asian poet would write about a rose. Perhaps, as the after-taste of the poem, there would be a fragrance of romance, but the poem would be about a rose.


The poems were ‘translated’ by an American, the secretary to W.B.Yeats, working in Sussex, using a crib prepared for him by an American art collector who had interviewed Japanese professors about the literal meanings of the characters in classical Chinese poems. Neither the art collector nor the ‘translator’ knew Japanese or Chinese, and neither of them had the original Chinese sounds to work from: they had the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese words. The ‘translator’ was Ezra Pound, and he had only a hazy idea of how highly rhymed and structured the originals were in Chinese. Nor did he know how to understand the tonal pattern of Chinese verse, a complexity that has no equivalent in our language, though he later studied it and tried to represent it by chanting and singing. So for these translations he simply ditched the rhyme scheme, the Chinese rhythmic structure, the tonal patterning, and any attempt to represent accurately the connotations of the poet’s language, and constructed his own new versions using the story of the poem, and the simple imagery of the poem, as he was able to piece it together from the notes. The effect was very striking. It liberated English verse at a stroke.


For all that he did not know much about Chinese language or verse structures, Pound did indeed understand the Sino-Japanese attitude to imagery. He had seized upon it and launched a new literary movement in London in 1913 with a manifesto and an anthology of “Imagisme”. Imagist poets were exhorted to write, “Direct treatment of the “thing”, whether subjective or objective”, to waste no words, eschew adjectives, and to compose in musical phrases. The newly composed Imagist poems baffled people and did not have a great impact, but when Pound published his Chinese ‘translations’ the impact was immediate. The “new, plain-speaking, laconic, image-driven free verse” (Weinberger) which was the origin of modernism in English poetry, had arrived. An emperor’s concubine writes:


O fan of white silk,

clear as frost on the grass-blade,

You also are laid aside.


One sees the fan, a real fan, ‘the thing in itself’, and only faintly, as an after-taste, the emotion of the abandoned favourite.


Ezra Pound was the great impresario of modernist poetry. Pound promoted James Joyce, and inspired the Americans Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams.

He helped T.S.Eliot with The Waste Land, cutting it to make it more laconic and leave the images to speak for themselves. He encouraged Arthur Waley, a real Chinese scholar, to translate the Chinese classics. Waley’s first book of 170 Chinese poems, published in 1918, was a sensational success. More translators piled in and a wave of books of Eastern verse hit the English-speaking world.


The new publications revealed the hinterland of Chinese culture: a reverent attitude to the turning seasons and nature’s ecology; a Chan (Zen) Buddhist sense of simplicity in living, relishing a little hut, a cup of wine, and the full moon at the window; a weary mandarin’s cynicism about political life, the horrors of war, and his choice to retire as a hermit to the country; a love of wilderness and mountains; the ecstasy of the enlightened Chan sage.


These themes were particularly attractive to Americans still romantic about the frontiersman spirit, the rejection of the city, a life free from government interference, and the simple delights of the hermit. The themes communicated a heady sense of freedom, reinforced by the translation policy of using plain English free verse for what were originally elaborately wrought and highly structured Chinese poems. The beatniks of the fifties consciously modelled their lives on the Chinese Chan sages of the middle ages, turning their simplicities into a rebellion against the materialism of the modern world. The American poem became as informal and laconic as it was possible to be. And the new wave of translations from Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and, more recently, David Hinton and Charles Egan, are arguably the greatest of all modern poems in English, – though they are still not much like Chinese classics in form, more Poundian than Poian!


What a strange series of accidents, misunderstandings, leaps of the imagination, and inspired improvisations power cross-cultural creative surges! There’s a word for that, and it is ziran in Pinyin. It is the founding principle of ancient Daoist thought: “a constant burgeoning forth that includes everything we think of as past and future… here lies the awesome sense of the sacred in this generative world: for each of the ten thousand things, consciousness among them, seems to be miraculously burgeoning forth from a kind of emptiness at its own heart…” (David Hinton, in his Introduction to Mountain Home, the wilderness poetry of ancient China).




Handed to her brief

to the usher to the clerk

to the judge – her scrap of plea

Brilliant strand

a man and a woman

bury stones

Closing in

from everywhere

faintly glowing mist

My enemy’s lawyer

with ginger cat fur

on his suit

In a dull voice

he explains the Chinese concept


My new friend

as the day darkens

is his face young or old?

Flying with Orion

over Novosibirsk –

lights in the wilderness

The dead together

wavering in crowds

– autumn grasses

Watching a cat

decide not to jump –

little gust of grief

The foul-mouthed loner

each dawn he sees Jesus

ablaze in the East

Mice have had half the pear

while I dreamed of my parents

caught in the blitz

Stone cloister

devil and saint

softened by time

To her funeral

in the same crowded train

with the same brimming heart


bridging the needles

of rosemary

Missed it

the moment

to join in the laugh

Thin ridge-lines float

on glowing cloud –

the barking of dogs

Not a breath of breeze

crisp iced mud

and a crow caw

Farmyard flints

through the soles of my shoes

the Milky Way

Fleecy lamb

eaten away at the chest

full of rain

My big head:

the hills, the clouds

the winter sun

For the unloved

an immense night sky

creamy with stars

Beginningless kalpas of time perhaps

to the Big Bang

of this ripe nectarine

In the rose garden

a man I don’t much like

enjoying the sunshine

Summer’s end nears

now the slow bee allows

stroking of fur

stars fill the hatchway


to the smell of melon