Wabi Sabi

Jamaican Wabi Sabi

A road in Jamaica. A need to stop. An old building. The beauty of imperfection. Of impermanence. Simply stated, this is the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, a celebration of the imperfect, the impermanent, the incomplete.

While Wabi Sabi is closely associated with the Japanese tea ceremony as expressed by Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) it has taken on a much wider meaning. A meaning that is much more complex than can be expressed in a sentence or two. In Wabi Sabi The Art of Everyday Life by Diane Durstan wabi is defined as astere elegance, unpolished, imperfect, or irregular beauty; rusticity..; while sabi is interpreted as beauty that treasures the passage of time, and with it the lonley sense of impermanence it invokes.

I stumbled on the concept of Wabi Sabi first through a book I found in the Brooklyn bookstore, Book Thug Nation, a few years ago. Titled, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers this book by Leonard Koren presents a nuanced view. He tries to break down the concept into these principles:

Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness.

Truth comes from the observations of nature.

Greatness exisits in the unconspicuous and overlooked details.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.

Acceptance of the inevitable.

Appreciation of the cosmic order.

Get rid of all that is unnecessary.

As Koren describes it wabi sabi is not just an aesthetic but is a way of being. But when it is applied to physical objects he adds that, to encompass wabi sabi, they must suggest a natural process and be irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy, murky and simple.

As I was preparing my latest writer’s retreat at Honeymoon Bay on Lake Cowichan here on Vancouver Island I was haunted by this concept; by how much it lies at the heart of poetic attention, the looking beyond the obvious with wide enough eyes as the poet Gregory Orr says in one of his poems. Suddenly, in particular, I had a new visual focus which utterly changed how I looked at things on my trip to Jamaica to see my wife’s dad, Ossie. What was often too easy to see as run down, decrepid, dis-ordered, worn out,  in bad shape, became beautiful.

Without this attention I would have missed the image above – the detail of the door in an out building I passed on the way to the town of Mavis Bank and the Blue Mountains. I used this image and others from the Jamaica trip for a writing exercise at last weekend’s four day retreat with ten writers. These images triggered surprising poems harvesting laughter and tears. Perfect.

In the days following the retreat I have still kept the wabi sabi lens in my seeing. And the beauty that accosted me and my wife Somae in the heavy rain on a walk at the retreat haunts me still. The autumn colours burned brighter in the drench and the gray. And the collapsed roof of an old garage or boathouse I had walked by countless times without seeing it captivated us and drew a poem out of Somae.

Today I went looking for some Japanese poems that might embody wabi sabi. You can tell me if I managed to do that. But here are a few I found in Jane Hirschfield’s anthology of love poems by two women of the ancient court of Japan and in a collection of the Zen poetry of Ryokan translated by John Stevens.

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

Izumi Shikibu (974?-1034) from The Ink Dark Moon, trans Jane Hirschfield, Vintage Books, 1990

How sad that I hope
to see you even now,
after my life has emptied itself
like this stalk of grain
into the autumn wind

Ono No Komachi(834 – ?)

This poem has special poignancy, captures a wabi sabi moment so acutely in its brief epigraph that reads: Sent in a letter attached to a rice stalk with an empty seed husk. Searing beauty.

Now that autumn has formed its
   first frost on my shabby robe,
it’s certain no vistors will come.

Ryokan (1758 – 1831) from One Robe, One Bowl, Shamballa Publications, 2005

The wind has brought
   enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Ryokan, ibid

Back and forth, back and forth,
   all day the bent old man
Carries water from the parched rice seedlings.

Ryokan, ibid

Oh, the beauty in these autumn images of loss and old age. The first poem, Although the wind, is a favorite. Yes, because the moon is only visible inside the house owing to the cabin’s ruined state and decrepid roof; but also because of the moon drenched beauty of that scene. Wabi sabi. The beauty of impermanence and imperfection if we remember to see it. Poet’s eyes.

I always like to read Derek Walcott, native of St. Lucia, when I am in Jamaica. His poems so often invoke images of his beloved West Indies and make me feel even more at home among the yellow allamandas and bougainvillea in Ossie’s back garden in Brownstown. This time with wabi sabi on my mind I opened this poem and struck gold.

from Part Three of THE DIVIDED CHILD, Chapter Two

Why should we weep for dumb things?
This radiance of sharing extends to the simplest objects,
to a favorite hammer, a paintbrush, a toothless,
gum-sunken old shoe,
to the brain of a childhood room, retarded,
lobotomized of its furniture,
stuttering its inventory of accidents:
why this chair cracked,
when did the tightened scream
of that bedspring finally snap,
when did that unsilvering mirror finally
surrender her vanity,
and, in turn, these objects assess us,
the yellow paper flower with the eyes of a cat,
that stain, familiar as warts or some birthmark.
the badge of some loved defect,

while the thorns of the bougainvillea
moult like old fingernails,
and the flowers keep falling,
and the flowers keep opening,
the allamandas’ fallen bugles but nobody charges.

Skin wrinkles like paint,
the forearm of a balustrade freckles,
crows’ feet radiate
from the shut eyes of windows,
and the door, mouth clamped, reveals nothing,
for this is no secret,
there is no other secret
but a pain so alive that
to touch every ledge of that house edges a scream
from the burning wires, the nerves
with their constellations of cancer,
the beams with the star-seed of lice,
pain shrinking every room,
pain shining in every womb,
while the blind, dumb
termites, with jaws of the crabcells, consume,
in silent thunder,
to the last of all Sundays,

Finger each object, lift it
from its place, and it screams again
to be put down
in its ring of dust, lke the marriage finger
frantic without its ring;
I can no more move you from your true alignment,
Mother, than we can move objects in paintings.

Your house sang softly of balance,
of the rightness of placed things.

from Collected Poems 1948 – 1984

What a catalogue, not of a spanking new show home, but of a family home aged and weathered inside and out. That beauty. The stains, the cracked chair, broken bedspring,and gum-sunken old shoe. A celebration of entropy. Of a world that already spins inexorably to its final end. An end, Nazim Hikmet, the great Turkish poet describes so chillingly at the end of his poem, On Living:

This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space …
You must grieve for this right now
–you have to feel this sorrow now–
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived” …

But do we need this much dramatic loss to say I lived? Can we not simply observe the beauty in the decay all around us, the unparalled beauty of the ephemeral we see every day. To be mindful. To look at an old door dying on its hinges in Jamaica. To witness the beauty that time and nature has wrought against human perfection – a freshly cut and painted door turned into something that opens my imagination to something far larger than the little room it is entrance to. Wabi sabi.



  1. Rosemary
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful blog post, Richard. I have long been interested in the concept of wabi sabi, and love that you bring it to poetry. Thank you!

  2. Richard
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much Rosemary. It is interesting that Patrick says his recent left hand poems, not yet published, are based on wabi sabi!

  3. Posted October 25, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Your blog on wabi sabi is such a wondrous blend of the Jamaican, the Japanese, the St. Lucian, the Turkish and the Canadian with your amazing poem. A last boast for beauty indeed. Thank you Richard!

  4. Richard
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    To be included with the St Lucian etc! An honour! Thanks MA. I am glad to be blogging again. Will maintain at least once a week going forward.

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