Now That the Spring

Dunkirk NY – Although I gather that today is the first day of spring, it really doesn’t show up until 11:49 PM according to my astronomical calendar. What is nice, of course, is the fact that more light is returning. This is something of a mixed blessing where I live, because although more light is always welcome, that does not mean that more sun comes along with that. Cloudy days remain the norm in March, and temperatures will still be under 50 for some time to come.

I made the effort to get out today, as I had yesterday. Walking relieves some of the anxiety associated with hunkering down, and helps to pass the time. It seems that the best thing I can do in these new times is do everything I can NOT to get ill in any way, so that I don’t put pressure on the medical system. A good daily walk helps with that. I usually do two days of walking and a day of rest, but I may change that day of rest to a lesser walk. 30-40 minutes per walk is good for now. When the weather gets better I’ll be getting on the bike in order to feel like I’m traveling a further distance.

What seems to hit me most at the moment is the disappearance of the future. One always has some plans for the future in some form. For me, I have two theatre gigs lined up. I had also begun to think about some RV travel. I’m still trying to nail down what kind of plan I need to form so as to avoid winters. But with the need to remain home, the future is unknowable. The news is dire and seems to predict the worst out of what I assume is “an abundance of caution.” I personally am thinking 6 months of this, with no ability to leave the area until the fall. I think my summer show will not take place; not sure about the fall one. The awareness of an unknowable future is perhaps what causes the most anxiety in me. Living day to day is all well and good, but doing so without being able to project a future is disconcerting.

Spring was always a relief when it came up on the calendar. Baseball was near, the days were getting longer, warmer weather was on its way. Spring always spoke of the future, with its sense of re-awakening. This particular spring, I am not so sure. Nature will eventually turn to its spring and summer look and feel, but I can’t shake the notion that a wintry dread will hang over the coming months as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll.  -twl

Posted by poorplayer

out my window

squirrels, baby crows, wrens,
sparrows, a rabbit or two –
working class backyard

Posted by poorplayer

In Defense of 5-7-5 Haiku

(NB: This essay first appeared on Medium on 11/24/2019. I have decided to reprint it here as of June 3, 2024)

Dunkirk NY – First, two stories.

Story One: A Zen master and his pupil are walking through a field. The pupil points to a beautiful flower and asks the master, “Master, does the Tao live in this flower?” The master replied, “Yes, it does.” The two come upon a flowing creek, and the pupil again asks, “Master, does the Tao live in this creek?” Again the reply, “Yes, it does.” The two then come upon a pile of cow dung, and the pupil asks once more, “Master, does the Tao live in this cow dung?” At which, the master promptly shoves the student’s face into the cow dung, and says, “Smell it! It reeks of the Tao!”

Story Two: Not so much a story as this exchange from the movie Amadeus:

EMPEROR: It’s very good. Of course now and then — just now and then — it gets a touch elaborate.

MOZART: What do you mean, Sire?

EMPEROR: Well, I mean occasionally it seems to have, how shall one say?

ORSINI-ROSENBERG: Too many notes, Your Majesty?

EMPEROR: Exactly. Very well put. Too many notes.

MOZART: I don’t understand. There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required. Neither more nor less.

EMPEROR: My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening. I think I’m right in saying that, aren’t I, Court Composer?

SALIERI: Yes! yes! er, on the whole, yes, Majesty.

MOZART: But this is absurd!

EMPEROR: My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.

MOZART: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

EMPEROR: Well. There it is.

I am an amateur haiku writer. Since retiring I have set about the task of trying to learn to write good haiku. I have not joined any haiku groups, submitted anything for publication, or sought any outside advice. This is not because I haven’t wanted to, but because I felt I didn’t really have enough material to show anyone. After three years of writing haiku without guidance, I think I am ready to seek out some guidance.

Yet I am hesitant. Like any art form, haiku is subjective in nature; some people will like your work, others will not. But from what I have gathered in my internet research, the one form of haiku that seems to be universally frowned upon is the 5–7–5 version. I happen to like very much the 5–7–5 style of haiku. To me, it represents a very specific challenge — the mastery of a set form. While I have written haiku that do not follow this format, I’ve written several others that have. I think the 5–7–5 version is worthy of consideration, but it requires at this juncture a defense of why it’s a good choice and style for writing haiku. As much of an amateur as I am, I will attempt to provide that defense.

My professional art form is acting. For 35 years I taught acting at the college level, and I’ve pursued a professional theatre career since finishing my undergraduate training. Over the years I’ve specialized in Shakespearean acting, having worked with three professional Shakespeare companies. I have not made my living at acting (few actors do), but I have managed to obtain membership in Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors, which is notoriously difficult to join. If my career as an actor has taught me anything, it is that the development of technique is as important to quality acting as is development of spontaneity. I did not always believe this (neither did Stanislavski), but years of practice and experience has taught me that, if one does not have the proper techniques and form in hand, one cannot take full advantage of the acting moment.

The 5–7–5 approach is one of form. When you write haiku in 5–7–5, you are committing to a specific form: one line of five syllables, one line of seven syllables, and a final line of five syllables. The greatest challenge is to adhere to the form while still capturing the essence of the haiku moment. All art has form; all art has technique. When you train as an artist in any art form, the ideal you are seeking is to master the form so as best to harness the artistic inspiration you may have. Shakespeare wrote in a very clear form — blank verse — and the power of his plays lies as much in his mastery of this form as it does in the quality of his characters. In fact, if you study his work closely, you realize that the quality of his characters is actually contained within the mastery of his form. With Shakespeare, the form of the text itself creates the character. What we experience when we hear Shakespeare at his best is the perfect blend of form and content, where the words you hear an actor say are a perfect blend of poetic form with human experience.

My other passion is baseball, and it provides another example. It is said that the hardest physical achievement in sports is to hit a round ball approaching you at 95+ MPH from a distance of 60′ 6″ with a round bat. To do this, the form of a hitter’s swing must be honed to such a fine degree that the hitter can react to a pitch without thinking about the form of his swing. As baseball Zen master Yogi Berra so wisely noted, “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” To be able to do this, the form must be mastered first. Without mastery of the form of your swing, there is no chance to hit the ball. One of baseball’s greatest hitters, switch-hitter Tony Gwynn, used to take 500 swings from each side of the plate every day before a game (and in the off-season). He knew the value of form to his success, and he never let up perfecting it.

The challenge of writing the 5–7–5 haiku is the challenge of adhering to a particular form without making the form obvious. This is a key concept. A good 5–7–5 haiku does not bring notice to the form itself; rather, one experiences the “haiku moment” without noticing the form. Form and moment blend as one experience, one unified moment. This is hard to achieve, and I believe it’s a challenge that is not so easily dismissed. When one sees bad acting, it’s usually the case that an actor’s form is either absent or too obvious. One should experience an actor’s performance by forgetting that the person is acting, and experience the character as living in their presence. One of my brothers, on seeing one of my performances, paid me the very highest compliment by saying afterwards, “I forgot you were my brother up there.” If one writes a quality 5–7–5 haiku, the experience should be the same: one should “forget” and not even notice that the 5–7–5 form is being employed.

In Zen thought, the yin-yang nature of the universe is central. The duality and balance of form and inspiration is what creates the whole of any art form, and haiku should be no exception. When haiku writers disregard form, they disregard one of the essences of holistic art. This is not to suggest that haiku that does not follow 5–7–5 has no form. But the form it seems to have currently is more akin to modern “free verse” poetry as exemplified in William Carlos Williams and other free verse poets.

This free verse style (i.e. no pre-set structure or form such as 5–7–5 represents) dominates the world of English haiku. English haiku, as a form of poetry, looks to find and express a moment of insight into the nature of the world through juxtaposition of words in a brief, surprising, and insightful manner. Brevity of syllables is encouraged, but there is no prescribed amount. 17 syllables is begrudgingly considered the absolute maximum.

This may be one of the reasons few modern English haiku writers embrace 5–7–5. As in most instances of evolution and change, form is usually the first thing jettisoned. Nobody writes sonnets anymore, and nobody in today’s theatre writes in blank verse. Many young Shakespearean actors are difficult to understand because, while they can grasp the raw emotions of Shakespeare’s characters, they have not mastered the style and delivery of the language. Similarly, I’ve experienced few haiku writers who write in 5–7–5. Perhaps the form itself is too challenging for today’s haiku writers.

Every Japanese art form, from origami to the various styles of martial arts, has its form, or kata. Japanese haiku kata traditionally consists of 17 on (“sounds”) in 5–7–5 phrases written in one line, containing a kireji (“cutting word”) and a kigo (seasonal word or reference). Mastery of the form has been as critical to the development of haiku as the moment it expresses. While admittedly very much imperfect, the English 5–7–5 style, with syllables substituting for on and punctuation substituting for kiregi, comes about as close as we can get to replicating the Japanese kata. Adapting an art form from one culture to another is always tricky business, and one should take some care in how it is done, but neither should one avoid trying to adapt the sense of form within the artistic expression.

I had the pleasure of watching a Kabuki actor perform in a Kabuki adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. He played the character of Emilia, Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting. I found it both a riveting and instructive experience to watch him adapt Shakespearean English poetic form into Japanese kabuki theatre. Working with him were some of my acting students, and he “trained” them in Kabuki movement and style for the production. The students spoke English, while he spoke Japanese and performed the more elaborate styles of kabuki. One can also see interesting examples of cultural adaptation by considering Akira Kurosawa’s adaptations of King Lear into Ran and MacBeth into Throne of Blood. Conversely, his Seven Samuri was adapted by director John Sturges into the classic western The Magnificent Seven.

As imperfect as it may be, the 3-line 5–7–5 English version of haiku is as close as we may be able to come in terms of adapting into English the Japanese haiku kata. Perfecting this form can be an excellent way to re-introduce a sense of mastery of form to the writing of haiku. Doing so is a path to re-capturing the spirit of yin-yang inherent in the natural, seasonal world that haiku attempts to capture.

Lastly, the 5–7–5 form can add to the haiku something that I think is at the heart of all humanity — the power of storytelling. A quality 5–7–5 haiku can add a deeper element to the story of a haiku. Whether this is desirable or not I do not know, but I do believe that narrative can add an extra element of depth to a moment. Humans love stories, and have so since the invention of cave art. The 17 syllables of the 5–7–5 form offer the added capability to go just a little more in depth with a moment. After all, how deep — really — is a moment?

When one drinks tea, one does not drink it in a thimble. There is too little tea to really enjoy the tea’s essence and flavor. One might drink it in a shot glass, and enjoy the single swallow offered, but if you are a tea lover, perhaps that is not enough. We serve tea in a cup, so as to allow the tea to tell its full story. One sip, and another; a third; and even a fourth allows the tea to reveal all its essence to the drinker. The tea drinker comes away with more satisfaction from the tea than if they were allowed merely a thimble or a shot glass, and the tea is allowed to tell its story in more depth.

A 5–7–5 haiku, because of its “extra” syllables, can tell the story of a moment with more depth if done well. Naturally there are pitfalls to this approach, as more syllables can become merely ornamental to the moment (the use of too many articles is a particular pitfall). If handled well, however, the 5–7–5 haiku can allow us a deeper look into an experienced moment, and allow that story to develop with more depth of insight.

The two stories at the opening of this essay are instructive for us in considering the 5–7–5 haiku. In the first, we learn that the Tao is in everything, even in what we find distasteful or disgusting. In the second, we re-phrase Mozart’s question to “how many syllables are too many?” 5–7–5 haiku contains as much of the Tao as any briefer haiku. And in a truly well-written 5–7–5 haiku, which syllables would you cut out?

The poor reputation of the 5–7–5 haiku is attributable to the misinformed concept of haiku in general western culture, and too many people are first exposed to 5–7–5 haiku in its worst manifestations and clichés. I think serious haiku writers avoid the 5–7–5 format simply to avoid being associated with cliché haiku. Perhaps they are right to do so. But I believe there is much to gain in mastering the 5–7–5 technique as a form of the art. Form teaches discipline, and only when we’ve mastered the form can we stretch beyond it. Working in the 5–7–5 form teaches that discipline better than anything else by virtue of the exactness of its form, and is worthy of any haiku writer’s consideration. It is worth defending, and re-claiming within the English haiku tradition. -twl

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Upon Further Examination

Dunkirk NY – It appears there is no escape from examining your life and career once you’ve retired. By any objective measure I had a pretty good career. 42+ years of teaching something you enjoy is not really a bad way to spend a working career. Not many people in my profession get to do what I have done, which is making a working career out of the theatre. The combination of teaching and performing was every bit as satisfactory as I thought it might turn out to be. And yet…

What troubles me most when I review my working career is the question “What good have I done?” When you’ve been a teacher, you put a lot of things out there for students to consider and absorb, but you never really get any clear idea of whether or not you’ve offered something tangible and lasting. If you’re an architect, you can see the building you’ve created. A financial adviser can see how she’s helped people earn more money. A sewage plant operator can go home knowing they’ve played their part to preserve the environment. A carpenter or any other tradesperson can see the ultimate result of their work. A teacher? Not so much. And especially not in the arts.

This idea is compounded by the fact that the arts are not appreciated in today’s society on the whole. Generally and broadly speaking, the arts as a function of culture are marginal at best beyond the reach of pop culture. When you have spent a career training young people for work in the arts, you have to inevitably accept the fact that most of them will never have careers in the arts. They will eventually find careers elsewhere, doing something less creative and more financially secure. On a percentage basis, the success ratio of students who actually make a living working in the theatre is very small.

Why, then, did I spend so much of my life working in the theatre? On melancholy days I feel it’s because I was selfish, because it was something I enjoyed doing. When I was younger perhaps I had some notion that training young actors would somehow be valuable to the eventual growth and resurgence of some sort of theatrical renaissance, but of course just the opposite happened. The arts will probably be “zeroed out” in the Trump administration, and the NEA and NEH will be discontinued (at least for the Trump years). When you look at the reality of the condition of the arts in this country, it’s hard not to come away with the notion that you spent all that time training people, not for a renaissance, but for the demise of theatre in any significant fashion. There will always be pockets of activity, but from a cultural lens the reaction will be mostly akin to how people react to the Amish: quaint, but old-fashioned and fundamentally impractical.

I watched All About Eve last night, the movie that probably has the most quotable quotes about the theatre. It occurred to me that the theatre depicted in that movie was probably the theatre I imagined myself being a part of. I did not know in 1972 that it was already dead and out of fashion. Perhaps, if I had known, I might have found something more useful to do with a working career.

But I had some fun. And fun is never anything to regret.

“The Theatuh, the Theatuh – what book of rules says the Theater exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? Or London, Paris or Vienna? Listen, junior. And learn. Want to know what the Theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band – all Theater. Wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience – there’s Theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and The Lone Ranger, Sarah Bernhardt, Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable, Rex and Wild, and Eleanora Duse. You don’t understand them all, you don’t like them all, why should you? The Theater’s for everybody – you included, but not exclusively – so don’t approve or disapprove. It may not be your Theater, but it’s Theater of somebody, somewhere.” -Bill Sampson, All About Eve

“Every so often some elder statesman of the theatre reminds the public that actors and actresses are just plain folks, completely ignoring the fact that their whole attraction is their complete lack of resemblance to ordinary human beings. We all have that abnormality in common. We’re a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theatre folk. We are the original displaced personalities.” -Addison DeWitt, All About Eve


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They Killed All My Heroes Day

(Author’s Note – I first wrote this post 10 years ago, January 15, 2007.)

This is the federal holiday marking the birth of Martin Luther King, but I celebrate it as “They Killed All My Heroes” Day. It’s a day for me to remember and honor all the political figures I admired as a young boy who were assassinated when I was between the ages of 11-18. The roll call:

  • Medgar Evers – June 11, 1963. I have no recollection of the actual event, but I came to know how he was assassinated as I became older and more familiar with the civil rights movement. The NAACP Field Secretary in Mississippi, he was shot in his driveway after a number of threats on his life and a molotov cocktail thrown into his garage.
  • John F. Kennedy – November 22, 1963. The first of the “big three.” Mr. Monoco, a huge man and much feared by us all for his gruff manner, came bursting into our 6th-grade classroom completely distraught and red in the face. “They shot the President,” he screamed, and then had us turn on the TV that was standing in the corner of the room. Walter Kronkite broke the news to us. I was a member of the School Safety Patrol, a group of kids charged with being crossing guards when school let out. When I took my post that afternoon I could do nothing else but lean my head on the “No Traffic Past This Point” sign and cry for 20 minutes.
  • James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner – June 21, 1964. The three CORE volunteers in the Freedom Summer of 1964 whose murders were the basis of the movie Mississippi Burning. I learned of their story early in high school as I began to learn the music of Simon and Garfunkel and their song He Was My Brother.
  • Malcolm X – February 21, 1965. His assassination was all over the New York newspapers. I recall not liking him much because I thought he was for a violent solution and because he disagreed with MLK. I read his autobiography four years later and remember being very impressed with it. It changed my opinion on his contribution to the civil rights movement.
  • Martin Luther King – April 4, 1968. The second of the “big three.” I don’t recall hearing the news immediately, but I do recall awakening for school the following morning and hearing the news reports coming in on the radio. His eloquence captivated me, as did his stance on non-violence and Vietnam. He was a major influence on my decision to become a conscientious objector and war resistor. I recall the images of the Poor People’s March on Washington. There was so much hope in his tone and so much pride in those who listened and spoke.
  • Robert F. Kennedy – June 6, 1968. The third of the “big three.” Again, I awoke to the news on the east coast that morning as my radio alarm clock went off. All I wanted to know was who won the California primary (I was pulling for the junior Senator from NY). My first response was “not again!” I had viewed Bobby as the first politician I knew who really was serious about earning the votes of the poor and impoverished. He spoke out against apartheid in South Africa long before it was fashionable to do so. He and MLK started off a bit suspicious of each other, but eventually worked for the same goals. His assassination came so hard on the heels of MLK that I truly thought the country was going to fall apart.
  • Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller,Sandra Scheuer,William Schroeder – May 4, 1970. I include the Kent State shootings because the entire event grew out of political protests by unarmed students protesting the invasion of Cambodia facing an armed National Guard. It was the spring of my senior year in high school, I was preparing to go to college myself. I had applied for conscientious objector status and was exploring local groups like the Quakers, Fellowship for Reconciliation, the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the War Resistors League. I was nervous about going to college, because in the aftermath of Kent State I thought they were going to come after all student protesters the same way. I had an escape route planned for Canada should I have needed it. I was 18 years old.

By the time I got to college that fall, things began to slow down, protests were minimal (were people afraid? in hiding?), the draft was converted to a lottery system (my number was never called), and the war was clearly being lost. By the time I graduated, the war had only one year to go, civil rights had been largely achieved under law, I had discovered theatre, and Van McCoy would record The Hustle a year later as well. It was over. I spent three years teaching about peace and justice issues in a Catholic high school in Queens, but it had all become passé already. With no more heroes left, there seemed nowhere to turn, and those who were still alive (H. Rap Brown, Bobby Seale, Dan and Phillip Berrigan et. al.) were seemingly ineffective or past their prime. The “numbing of America” had begun.

So happy “They Killed All My Heroes” day to all of you. Let it be remembered on this day that the poor are still oppressed, the weak still downtrodden, the innocent still slaughtered, and the warmongers still in charge. I only hope that there will remain an earth which the meek would even be willing to inherit. -twl

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More Light

My annual winter solstice post. From Northern Exposure Episode 4.18 “Northern Lights”

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candelight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerators. Big floods for the night games at Soldier’s Field. Little tiny flashlights for those books we read under the covers when we’re supposed to be asleep. Light is more than watts and footcandles. Light is metaphor. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet.” “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” “Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom; lead thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home- Lead Thou me on!” “Arise, shine, for thy light has come.” Light is knowledge. Light is life. -Chris in the Morning

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