Thursday, September 20, 2012

What is wabi-sabi? How is it continually and intimately expressed in the life of a frugal poet?

One of the most refined, thoughtful and poetic societies, Japan, has gone through unfathomable disasters in recent history, such as the profound earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. Nevertheless, the Japanese people continue to push forward in quiet strength, dedicated to and motivated by their culture, history, sense of humility and connection with one another.

Wabi-sabi is a philosophy based in Japan that embraces a sense of flawed beauty, the profundity in nature, and of things impermanent, humble, primitive, transient and incomplete. It celebrates the modest, rustic and unconventional. It is the organic versus synthetic, the rough-hewn and uneven over the measured and laser-edged. Loosely explained, wabi means a philosophy of imperfect, natural beauty and sabi means the artistic expression of what’s assymetrical, aged or unpretentious.

Daisetz Suzuki, one of the first scholars to interpret Japanese culture for Westerners, considered wabi-sabi “an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” Rather than a poverty of pain and a sense of desperation, it instead gives the relief of removing the weight of material concerns from our lives.

Wabi-sabi suggests the notions that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect. The Persians are known for a proverb about the true beauty of rugs, a wabi-sabi attitude reflected in a different culture, “A Persian rug is perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise.”

Remarkably, wabi-sabi has everything to do with the spirit of the frugal poet. We exist. We go with the flow. We focus on the beautiful. We have strength in light of hardship or snags in our lives. And our poems reflect this attitude. The concept of wabi-sabi reminds me of the lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem,” “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

It is the poets and those with a frugal poet’s spirit who can see both implicit meaning and opportunity in any situation, and can find voice, or at least search for it, to express compassion and humanity even amid injustice or when in mourning.

I had signed up for a multi-evening workshop in the craft of handmade bookbinding at Chicago’s Hull House. Our upper floor studio itself was a wabi-sabi space of lovingly worn benches, nicked but well-used work surfaces and natural lighting pouring in from screenless windows. We used hand-crafted papers, linen thread, monster-sized needles, scads of glue, bone folders, thick pieces of cardboard and stiff oilcloth in an array of colors. There, we crafted and sewed a number of hardcover blank books, Japanese side-stitched bindings and cloth-covered boxes.

I admired a fellow student’s finished handmade book, even though the pages were uneven and had a naturalistic waviness to them. “The only thing perfect is God. I try to remember that in everything I do,” she said. “I am imperfect and every act of creation carries human imperfection along with it.” But therein lay the beauty of her handmade book!

Flawed fictional characters, for example, are more interesting, textured, memorable and beautiful than perfect, static ones. What would Cyrano de Bergerac be without his big nose, The Little Match Girl without her poverty, or even Star Trek’s Mr. Spock without his lack of emotions? ◦

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