November 2023

Subtle Measures

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

The Japanese have an ancient aesthetic concept called wabi-sabi. It grew out of Buddhism, specifically a recognition of the transience—or, more achingly accurate, the impermanence—of all things, including and especially oneself, as well as the inherent imperfection of things we make. Wabi refers to subtle beauty, a simplicity approaching austerity. Sabi denotes the patina or "character" objects take on from age and use.

Initially, wabi-sabi spoke to a kind of spiritual resignation, an outlook in keeping with the Four Noble Truths and their aim of breaking the cycle of birth and re-birth by transcending suffering born of desire. But over the centuries the concept evolved into an appreciation, even a celebration of the beauty bound up in the fleeting and the flawed. Perhaps the most celebrated, distinctly Japanese example from Nature is the cherry blossom—its brief but ravishing bloom and then its fall.

An essential underlying concept of Japanese culture, wabi-sabi finds expression in all its traditional arts: the fading and weathering of natural materials, such as wood, paper, clay, and textiles; the irregularity of hand-sculpted pottery, especially objects of daily utility like bowls and cups; relatedly, the curious art of kinstsugi, a technique for mending damaged ceramics using a mixture of lacquer and gold; flower arrangement, or ikebana; the tea ceremony; Zen gardens; the playing of the shakuhatchi, a bamboo flute; and the cultivation of bonsai trees. It is also articulated in haiku poetry's exquisite precisions.

One of my favorite examples of wabi-sabi dovetails with the martial arts: the obi, or thick cotton belt, worn around one's practice outfit, or gi. In Japanese martial arts, beginners wear a white belt. Intermediate practitioners progress through various colors—yellow, orange, green, blue. While a black belt is awarded to someone who has mastered the form, it is said that when the black belt becomes white again (through the implied years of use and washing), then its wearer has achieved true mastery.

Here is another way of expressing it:

    The wild geese do not intend
    to cast their reflection upon the lake;
    the water has no mind
    to receive it.

That's a Zen haiku of sorts penned by an anonymous Buddha.

Wabi-sabi is a sensibility. While the Japanese articulated it, it's certainly not confined to clacking bamboo groves or old, dark sleepy pools. It's all around if you know where to look. A venerable bar like McSorley's on 7th Street in Manhattan is all about wabi-sabi. It's Steve Gadd's stick-click during his drum solo on the title track of Steely Dan's Aja. Between several pairs of boots, running shoes, a brown leather jacket, and a drawer full of
T-shirts, there's enough sabi in my wardrobe for a museum exhibit. Could anything be more American and, at the same time, express more wabi-sabi than the broken-in, game-used baseball glove of a Hall of Famer, say Christy Mathewson or Jackie Robinson?

It's telling that I've had to explain this sensibility with paragraphs, while the Japanese have a single term for it. I point to an ancient stone staircase and note the charming "character" of the individual steps worn down in the center by centuries of feet treading them and note the melancholy implication that generations of people who slowly wore away the granite by trudging up and down have since passed away.

A Japanese person looks and, grasping all those things instantly, thinks: wabi-sabi.

* * * * *

Ten years ago this month, my first Scene4 Magazine article appeared: "Why George Orwell is One of My Heroes." I intended it as a kind of manifesto, a way to set the tone out of the gate. I went back and re-read that piece, then I dipped almost at random into Orwell's superb essays. One notices immediately so many excellences in his writing, from style to content. But a curious thing struck me as I perused his work: Orwell cites poetry in many of his essays—and often in essays which have nothing to do with poetry or literature per se. He quotes classics as well as verse he wrote himself; sometimes it's just a couplet, sometimes it's a complete poem of nine stanzas like the one of his own making which he provides in his classic manifesto, "Why I Write."

And then another thing struck me: you won't see poetry quoted or even mentioned in most of the so-called serious writing out there today. Whether it's political, economic, social, or cultural commentary—a diatribe on nascent fascism in America, a sobering analysis of the link between unemployment and mortality rates, or a review of the latest blockbuster movie—poetry is not a relevant angle on the issues. For all the lip service paid this purportedly timeless art, it's just not a sensibility of our contemporary culture.

It would be interesting to somehow measure the amount of poetry with which our society has concerned itself—how poetry or poetic sensibilities have informed the general dialogue—say, from 1900 to the present. It's a subtle measure, like wabi-sabi. I think Orwell would have found it interesting too.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2023 Patrick Walsh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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