Kobayashi Issa, "Writing shit about new snow" (translation Robert Hass)

"Writing shit about new snow / for the rich / is not art" is a blunt instrument, clear about its stand and too short to be a rant.

Kobayashi Issa, "Writing shit about new snow" (translation Robert Hass)

Dealing with wealth and inequality is tricky. On the one hand, there are outrages which demand discussion. You can't avoid, say, how the U.S. uses a vast network of prisoners in order to give giant corporations free labor. On the other, you want to do more than rant, no matter how necessary the rant. Still, the trouble is that trying to be thoughtful can result in imagining the unacceptable as good.

So in a way, Robert Hass' rendering of a haiku by Issa is helpful. "Writing shit about new snow / for the rich / is not art" is a blunt instrument, clear about its stand and too short to be a rant. I confess I need more, though. I'm not entirely sure why art can't involve pampering the rich. Aren't there works which speak universally? Aren't some pleasant to all?

I also want to know whether certain subjects are too bland to constitute art. If I write a set of sonnets praising the beauty of the natural world, am I doing anything necessary? To what degree must art address a need, a pain, an urgency?

This short poem can't possibly deal with all my questions. But it initiated the inquiry and may be a touchstone for whatever answers we find.

Writing shit about new snow...
Kobayashi Issa (translation: Robert Hass)

    Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
    is not art.

It is important to note that "Writing shit about new snow / for the rich / is not art" only loosely resembles Issa's actual poem. Hass has definitely grasped a related theme, but his rendering is considered quite inexact. You can read various Redditors go back and forth on what the original poem was, and I really like Redditor "Freak_Out_Bazaar" asserting the original as "Anyone can pretend to be a poet by writing about new snow."

I appreciate having two poetic ideas for tackling tough questions. "Writing shit about new snow / for the rich..." allows me to think through how wealth and the pursuit of wealth betray art. "Anyone can pretend to be a poet..." lets me focus on how essential it is an actual artist creates art.

So why can't art exist for pampering the rich? I mean, a lot of great art was funded by the money of kings, tyrants, and popes. Hass/Issa have phrased their complaint in a way to narrow the problem, but we need not take that way out. My answer nowadays starts by noting that human expression, unfortunately, has to work with subpar or manipulative opportunities. Those subpar, manipulative opportunities are not limited to someone named Bluto the Butcher commissioning your talent to make a giant fresco of their destruction of Bohemia. The worst opportunity involves knowing you have a contribution but you still must wrestle with things like fame and history to be seen. In other words, art that matters competes against another art: the constant evaluation/reevaluation of humanity by the human race itself.

When I put it that way–when I assert the Nietzschean question "What is the value of value?" (h/t Peter Lund for the formulation) underlies criticism–it becomes clear art doesn't exist for pampering the rich. It tries for something greater. Or smaller! But it attempts to contribute to a conversation about making. Those of you familiar with the Greek poiesis can see I believe "poetry" is "making" in the sense of creating entire imaginative worlds and advancing the craft, both at once. That's why I think it is so difficult to talk about matters of craft: they ultimately have to become discussions about theme and vice versa. We distinguish propaganda from art mainly through its role in eliminating questions and advancing action.

What about the urgency of art? Does that have anything to do with an artist themselves? I've been trained to close-read, to see internal speakers and audiences in various works, but those who completely divorce internal speakers from actual people are playing a dangerous game. The urgency of art cannot be an abstraction or possibility just lying around. When it is seen between the lines, it commands as revelation does. You hear MLK almost crying in Letter from Birmingham Jail when talking about explaining to kids that they can't go to the amusement park they see in the advertisements. You know in Goya's Third of May, 1808, that bearing witness will break you. You see the dreams of families in contemporary Palestinian poetry–how nationhood is about the possibility of being and growth.

There are people who want to read the author out of their own work. They want universality at the expense of individuality, as if knowledge existed only to give us statements of absolute truth. As if our very lives were nothing but accidents. In a way, that's the problem of "new snow." A certain tendency exists where what is great is clean and simple and understandable. Maybe that tendency is indulged through mindless depictions of natural beauty; maybe it takes a more complex approach, where universal truths are supposedly found through a specific method of reading. Either way, we can do better.