Ikkyu Sojun: Poet for Our Times

It should not have surprised me that the translator of Crow With No Mouth, Stephen Berg, had previously been awarded the Frank O’Hara Memorial Prize. Berg’s decision to compile couplets composed by the 15th century Zen master and poet Ikkyu Sojun strikes me as less than coincidental, since Ikkyu, like New York poet Frank O’Hara, offers us a humanism ‒ a sentimentalism ‒ that is sorely lacking in our cynical, post-Watergate, irony-soaked era.

This is not to suggest that Ikkyu was a credulous follower, either: quite the opposite. The young student despised the smug, quiet pieties of the priestly class and carried this anti-authority attitude with him throughout his life. Ikkyu’s irreverence ‒ amplified by his compact, minimalistic directness ‒ has the unique ability to jolt even today’s most jaded reader:

that stone Buddha deserves all the bird shit it gets
I wave my skinny arms like a tall flower in the wind

fuck flattery success money
all I do is [lay] back suck my thumb

all the masters want is money and fame
strike like a feather but when

ten fussy days running this temple all red tape
look me up if you want [to] in the bar whorehouse fish market

if you don’t break rules you’re an ass not human
women start us passion comes and goes until death

no masters only you the master is you
wonderful no?

Ikkyu’s bitterness is a reaction against the austerity and chastity that he believed stifle alertness and enlightenment ‒ what the Zen call satori:

one of you saved my satori paper I know it piece by piece you
pasted it back together now watch me burn it once and for all

wife daughters friends this is for you satori
is mistake after mistake

those old koans meaningless just ways of faking virtue
this gorgeous young whore wears silk robes that hang open about an inch

don’t hesitate get laid that’s wisdom
sitting around chanting what crap

Ikkyu disagreed that hedonism necessarily leads to selfish debauchery and solipsism; instead, he believed that proper attention to the sensual and the material stills our mental chatter and restores us to the present moment. Many of his couplets invoke a Whitmanesque immediacy that precedes selflessness and genuine compassion:

my mind is exactly this tree that grass
without thought or feeling both disappear

I’m in it everywhere
what a miracle trees lakes clouds even dust

sick of whatever it’s called sick of the names
I dedicate every pore to what’s here

forget what the masters wrote truth’s a razor
each instant sitting here you and I being here

I think of your death think of us touching
my head quiet in your lap

you me when I think about it
are the same

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