Tag Archives: Allen Ginsberg

Hope: A Tragedy

Funny thing about humor – so very often on the page it falls, well, flat.

A great, or even good, funny novel is a rare thing, indeed. For those handsful of good or great funny novels that have stood the test of time, by far the most prevalent are dark comedies.  Books that trade in gallows humor, taboo topics, or the meaninglessness of it all pretty much own the corner.  A biting, even bitter, satirist is no one to go toe-to-toe with if you know what’s bad for you.

With Hope: a Tragedy, Shalom Auslander manages to muscle his way into some pretty esteemed company: Jonathan Swift (if you think the premise behind A Modest Proposal could never be matched on the outrageous scale, think again), Voltaire (who makes more than one appearance here in a virtual catalogue of allusions to great authors), Franz Kafka (didn’t think he was funny – think again), Kurt Vonnegut (Auslander’s pacing comes as close to KV as anyone has, ever), and Fay Weldon (for a sheer modern over-the-top premise and acerbic point of view).  Think Samuel Beckett, think of poor, hapless Job, deftly blended with Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield.

The immediate literary godfather here though is Philip Roth: Auslander is Roth without the misogyny, though the misanthropy is decidedly intact.

What’s the premise, you ask?  Solomon Kugel, our hero, flees the city for rural upstate New York, purchasing a 19th-century farmhouse for his family and himself. As soon as they move in, a mysterious arsonist targets farmhouses throughout the area. Hope opens with Kugel lying in bed, listening to all the sounds a 100-plus-year-old home can make, believing the arsonist has broken in with each and every sound he hears, and meditating on all the possible ways one may die and all the possible last things he might say with his last breath.

In addition, he thinks of the last words of many a famous person.  Who knew that the last thing Allen Ginsberg said was “Toodle-loo”?

Kugel finally convinces himself that he needs to go to the attic to investigate if the arsonist has broken in or, as he is hoping, to discover that it is “probably just mice.”


What he discovers, or, rather, whom he discovers, sets off a catastrophic chain of events that propels the novel:

Anne Frank.

That’s right, he discovers an aged, decrepit, slightly profane Anne Frank.  Hiding. In his attic.

I really don’t know what to say after that and that is probably a very good thing. The book is at once sacrilegious, hysterically funny, surprisingly moving,  and very good, indeed. How this event takes over his life (he thinks, I’ll call the police, then he imagines a NY Post-type headline: “Jew Drops Dime on Holocaust Survivor”), and impacts his mother, his wife, and his young son, Jonah, but most particularly himself, is the substance of the novel. A number of leitmotifs appear again and again throughout the novel, signaled by little catch phrases (a la Vonnegut’s “so it goes”).  The last words of famous people (Jean-Paul Sartre: “I failed”) appear again and again (Gary Gilmore: “Let’s do it”), unexpectedly, delightfully (“Toodle-loo”) even.

Kugel’s mother is over-the-top completely, disturbingly so, as in many a Jewish-American novel, and though the book is very funny, it has potential to offend. Humor and the Holocaust, catch phrases and concentration camps, are definitely not for everyone.

Then again books replete with anecdotes about Spinoza and his mother’s bed, Alan Dershowitz as cultural hero, matzoh, borscht, and wheat allergies, and a protaganist whose thoughts both outrage and endear do have a potential audience and Hope: a Tragedy is no exception. One thing I know for certain: this is a book that will be showing up on many end of the year best lists in 2012 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t walk away with a major prize or two.

If it is your kind of book, and you know who you are, don’t hesitate.  It doesn’t matter what your background or religion.

Shalom Auslander is an equal opportunity offender.

– Don


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Santōka Taneda: Haiku Master

My begging bowl
Accepts the fallen leaves.

If most people have heard of the great haiku poets at all, it is generally Bashō and that most famous of all his haiku about a frog leaping into a pond:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of the water.
—–translated by R. H. Blyth


Personally, this is not my favorite haiku and I’ve read scores of English language versions: here is a website that has 30 of the best.   Actually, I like Allen Ginsberg‘s rendition, which incorporates the sound of the sound:


The old pond
A frog jumped in,
—–translated by Allen Ginsberg


The other well-known master haiku poets are Buson, Shiki, and my personal favorite, Issa.  Chances are, though, if you don’t read Eastern poetry with any regularity you may not recognize their names.

The one thing most people do know about haiku is inaccurate; haiku in English is not a 17 syllable, three-line poem with 5 syllables to the first line, 7 to the second line, and 5 to the third line.  At least, it is not only that.  It is approximately that way in Japanese (although Japanese haiku are written in one line, not three), but in English 10 to 14 syllables more approximates the length of Japanese haiku because the rough Japanese equivalent to syllables, morae, are much shorter.  Of course, the issue is more complicated than this;  here is one of the best, simplest explanations I could find.

Personally, the best definition I know of a haiku is that it is a poem that lasts as long as the intake and exhale (and rest) of a single breath. 

Along with the other haiku masters, Santōka Taneda, a modern haiku poet, is also not a household name in America.   Of all modern Japanese poets,  Santōka Taneda has the most books published about him in Japan each year.  And there is a reason: he is very good, indeed, if one might judge from translations.

Santōka was born in 1882 and died in October 1940.  He was one of the first haiku poets in Japan to break with the traditional elements of the form; he did not write haiku in 17 syllables and he did not include a seasonal word (kigo).  This was a radical shift in tradition and made for a very different tone and approach.   His work is enjoyed for its bare bones style, and his infusion of Zen elements, such as simplicity, solitude, and impermanence, into his poems.   His overall technique somehow creates a more universal appeal, which explains his popularity beyond the poetic and scholarly communities – Santōka is one of Japan’s most popular poets and in recent years is becoming better known in English.

The title of his collection, Mountain Tasting, is taken from his following observation:

“Westerners like to conquer mountains;
Orientals like to contemplate them.
As for me, I like to taste the mountains.”


Mountain Tasting gathers together nearly 400 of his haiku, along with a selection of his journal entries from his many trips throughout Japan as a Zen priest, traveling on foot with only a single bowl for both begging and meals.  Santōka was born to a rich family that soon found itself on hard times.  His mother killed herself over his father’s numerous infidelities when Santōka was still young.   His father subsequently lost much of his fortune, resulting in the suicide of Santōka’s brother and Santōka’s own life of drunken dissipation while at school and later in business.  After an unsuccessful marriage, he was for a time a librarian, but lost this job also due to erratic living.  Finally, after an unsuccessful suiced attempt he was taken to a Zen temple, where he managed to pull himself together.

Here are some examples of Santōka’s haiku:

Young men march away―
The mountain greenness
is at its peak.


There is a great deal in this brief little poem – war, death, regeneration.  It is reminiscent of that other famous Bashō haiku:

Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams


In my mind, these are two of the finest anti-war poems ever written, both taking a global view of simultaneous spiritual and practical proportions.  Of course, they might be read as pro-war also, just a part of the eternal cycle of existence.

Here’s another beauty by Santōka:

Oh! This louse
I’ve caught
Is so warm!


For those familiar with English poetry, John Donne’s “The Flea” comes to mind.  Though Donne’s poem is a convoluted seduction song, Santōka’s is every bit as grand, if barely as long as Donne’s first line. Santōka celebrates all of life: the louse having just lustily fed on Santōka, his own astonished reaction at their shared bond of warmth, the moment of revelation, and its resonance.  The blood shared between humans and the flea in one poem and a louse and a poet in the other inspires both poets to mighty raptures concerning  miniscule things.

This is another war poem:

The bones,
Silently this time,
Returned across the ocean.


This is a tiny poem, perfectly translated; in the complementary clause of the second line you can hear the silence, so one can recall only too vividly how these bones talked on the boat on their way to war. 

One last poem perfectly places man in nature:

The beauty of the sunset
Grieves not for old age.


Since there is only one book by Santōka Taneda currently in our system, here are a raft of web-based resources for you to explore if you’d like to know more:


Santoka Taneda

Taneda Santôka’s Haiku

About Taneda Santoka and his Somokuto  (page down a bit)

Weeds, Falling Rain (a selection of haiku)

Santoka Taneda (1882-1940)

Pathography of Santoka Taneda (pdf)

Walking Zen (Michael Hoffman on Santōka Taneda)



Finally, there is a generous selection via Google Books from the volume For All My Walking, translated by the well known Asian scholar, Burton Watson, a book which is currently on order for the library.

Even the sound of the raindrops
Has grown older.


— Don


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