Unsung Heroes and the Question of Zen in Haiku Poetry
by Mankh (Walter E. Harris III - New York)
Both a treasure trove and a can of worms opened when a poet-friend gave me two books by Paul Reps, Zen Telegrams and Gold and Fish Signatures.
The treasure trove is the phenomenal spontaneity and originality of Reps’ haiku (which he avoided calling haiku) along with his playful brushwork calligraphy. The can of worms is that this world traveler, this nomad monk, has been seemingly shunned by the modern haiku community.
In all the books on haiku I had read before discovering Reps, he was barely (if at all) mentioned. This is probably because his bent for the avant-garde goes beyond the intellectual, literary and academic norms that tend to shun childlike spontaneity and meditative states.
I had read Reps’ classic collection of stories and teachings, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, but why hadn’t I heard of him as one of the fathers of American haiku?
One of my favorites of Reps:
crane: “my way is best”
worm: “my way is best”
Called variously “picture poems,” “poems before words,” and “zen telegrams,” in Reps’ exhibits,” the poems, on rice paper of various sizes, were scotch-taped only at the tops to horizontal bamboo poles strung from the ceiling at different levels, and electric fans were made to blow them gently (from “editor’s foreword” Zen Telegrams, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1959.) Reps also studied with spiritual teachers in Asia.
One of the best stories I have ever heard about the power of words and art revolves around Reps’ haiku:
i stopped the war
In the early ‘50s, Reps, who was in his forties, had traveled to Japan en route to visit a respected Zen master in Korea. He went to the passport office to apply for his visa and was politely informed that his request was denied due to the conflict that had just broken out. Reps walked away, and sat down quietly in the waiting area. He reached into his bag, pulled out his thermos and poured a cup of tea. Finishing his tea, he pulled out a brush and paper upon which he wrote a picture poem. The clerk read the poem and it brought tears to his eyes. He smiled, bowed with respect, and stamped Reps’ passport for passage to Korea. (excerpt from Living in Balance, by Joel & Michelle Levey, at: http://www.paulreps.com/Main.asp ).
A haiku is like a bird call, and whether a raucous crow or a delicate chickadee—it can stop you in your tracks and change your direction.
Paul Reps was highly influenced by another unsung haiku (and haibun) hero, Zen Master Soen Nakagawa, who will be the subject of part two in this series.