Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why are Canadian poets so smitten with Basho's frog poem?

prefrog bpond
The poet, Rachel Zolf, is taking a course on minimalist poetry (and definitely see her fascinating engagement/subversion project blog regardin the MFA program that she is enrolled in. She recently emailed to ask me to explain why Canadian poets seem so taken with Basho's famous frog poem. Good question.

derek beaulieu and I wrote frogments from the fragpool because we were so smitten with the text and with all the other versions, variations, and exploration of the poem.

Here is my frogmented email back to Rachel with some ideas about the frogpoem's plopularity.

----- Original Message -----


Hope things are well.

Here are a few quick ideas that I've jotted down about why Canadian poets are so interested in the poem.

I think that, at least in Canada, it all comes from bp. His enthusiasm for the poem, for variations on it, and for others interest in it (including Dom Sylvester Houedard.)

The poem is alternately a grapheme, morpheme, sememe in the greater grammar of language and poetic play.

Each of the various identifiable elements (the frog, the pond, the water-sound, as well as the figure of Basho, and the 'aha' moment) and their interrelation is permutable, is modular, is a feature in a set of variations. Of course, as more variations are created, each variation and each approach to the poem (and the micro-culture that it generates) becomes an element. There's also the rich cultural associations of the original haiku tradition and the contemporary English haiku.

There is something about how the poem takes the poetic 'insight', the 'aha' moment, the single action of the frog, and concentrates it down to its more elemental and singular form. This makes the poem especially rich for variation. And, because of the very simple but almost indelible identity represented by the three elements (frog, pond, plop), formal play has this innate grammar, this innate deep structure. This haiku is a kind of reduction (in the cooking sense), and an opportunity for play, for variation, for the creation of traditional images, as well as concrete and more abstract verbal exploration. bp's translation which is the single captial letter 'Q' representing the path of the frog into the capital O pond is one of the most pure 'reductions'.

I think the poem can also be considered to engage notions of transcendence, of a Zen-like transcendence-in-the-now. Each moment is every other moment. The in-the-moment clarity and focused apprehension of the natural world, of its celebration of the phenomenal is not only a fertile trope generally, but also can extend into the in-the-moment apprehension of the elements of language: letters, images, and form considered from a semantic or visual perspective.

Many other Canadian writers have also taken up bp's interest in the letter H. There is something so pure, earnest, and clearly identifiable about both of these interests of bp's (as opposed, for example, to the more complex interests of McCaffery.) Perhaps it is like Indiana's interest in the number 5, Jasper John's interest in the US flag, except that this found object is a poem, a consciously created art object. (bp's interest in the poem expressed itself not only in his writing of many versions, but also in his compiling an anthology of 'translations' by others of the poem. I remember him showing me the MS of the anthology -- a big file of translations, some historical, some humourous, some experimental.)

I'd say that not only are people compelled by bp's interest, they are also compelled by his method: he has many series of variations, sequences, & series-- eg. from Translating Translation Apollinaire, his various visual interests. So a procedure of creating variations on a single 'theme' generates an interest in the exploration of further themes. And this little frog poem offers a clear way to see how the variation varies from the original. (I'm put in mind of more recent series of variations on things bpological. For example Sharon Harris's variations on bp's "Blues" -- y'know the one with love and evol in some kind of matrix.)

And, further to bp's interest, there's also McCaffery and jwcurry, both Canadian who have explores the frog pond trope.

Did I ever tell you about the T-shirt that I made that says "What would bp do?

Happy MFAing,



pszren said...

the T-shirt is important: it's all in the stomach.

gary barwin said...

And it really should have been an H-shirt.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I'm not a fan of bpNichol (pretty critical of that whole 'Tish' movement that's left us with a legacy of bad imitative poetry IMO) but sure do love the haiku form (which I don't think is considered 'minimalist', properly).

I'd love to see a stronger Eastern community in Canada than we have. Americans far ahead of us on that one (Jim Kacian, et al)

I'm from Hamilton area too and hope you'll check out my blog from time to time where I tend to nrmostly 'critical' of stuff I think is worth improving.