LUMINOUS THINGS Kikaku “Wild Geese”


from A Book of Luminous Things, Ed. Milosz

The artist who assaults is the lesser artist, the artist who is seized is the greater; however, the seizure can sometimes have the appearance of assault, for the companioning power can be terrible. This is the essential equivocity of art. Aesthetic mixture: rarely touching pure porosity, more a promiscuous ambiguous Eros, in which “passio” and “conatus,” patience and striving, interlock in sometimes wondrous, sometimes grotesque, sometimes even obscene embrace.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 82.

Milosz opens his anthology “Luminous Things” with a short section entitled “Epiphany,” referring broadly to an experience of radical otherness. Drawing on Ancient Greek, he says that epiphanies interrupt the normal flow of time and introduce a moment “when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things or persons.”

First item —- as anthologist Ezra Pound would say—-is “Maximus” by D. H. Lawrence (see above), then a haiku by Kikaku (1661-1707).

Haiku were introduced to Milosz’s intellectual life after he came to California. He appears to have been at first an unwilling convert. Certain poet friends prevailed. The entry on Kikaku is somewhat perplexing. It seems to doubledown on the myth of the haiku moment. Kikaku was a student of Basho whom Basho found inconveniently unsubtle. Yet he was loyal after his fashion and left a detailed prose account of the Master’s final days.

It is notoriously hard to translate haiku into English. Milosz chose a translation that observed the formal rules generated by the first haiku establishment in English. It LOOKS like a haiku to us. (For 31 poems by Kikaku translated in single lines see Sato and Watson, “From the Country of Eight Islands.”)

Milosz reads Kikaku’s haiku as an epiphany poem. The passage from Desmond suggests a philosophical context that narrates the existential setting of the poem as an artwork. In Desmond’s view, human consciousness is a tension between an openness toward transcendence—-the passio—-and the constructive will, the conatus (he takes these Latinate terms from the broader traditions of philosophy).

Always first is the primordial porosity between mortals and immortals in the between. This is not the story of philosophical “universals” but of an ‘intimate’ universal not an objective determinate concept. If the constructive will gets the upper hand, the communication between transcendence and finite being is disfigured into a human determination of verbal meaning. In this sense, Desmond’s myth or story of the intimate universal is appropriate to Kikaku’s text.

The poem envisions the poet dozing in a small boat. In the Chinese tradition to which Japanese haiku poets were deeply indebted, poets were often shown adrift in boats—-a concrete image of the passio.

Here the poet is abruptly awakened by a flock of geese passing close by overhead. The imagery emphasizes their bodily strength and forward motion in contrast to the lazy poet. Thus the haiku is a comic illustration of “the essential equivocity of art.” Art is not usually the medium of “pure porosity” —- that would be in Milosz’s term epiphany. Rather art reflects the life of the between. “Epiphany” would be framed as ambiguous ecstasy, or “an ambiguous promiscuous eros, in which patience and striving interlock.” Kikaku split patience (human disengagement) and striving (the bellies of the geese) and presented the whole as a dynamic happening.

It is indeed a fine poem. The image of the bellies convey the sudden nearness of the animal thrust. The poet was perhaps suddenly conscious of his snug little dinghy in light of the wild but purposeful energy of the geese.

Referring to Milosz’s conception of epiphany, this haiku, rather than delivering a “moment” of grasping a deeper reality, delivers an image of finite life in the Between where passio and conatus do sometimes embrace, though the results may differ greatly. This polyvocal conception of art certainly includes poems of pure porosity (see “Maximus”) but more often things are more nuanced.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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