Hokusai says

Hokusai says look carefully. He says pay attention…

Roger Start Keyes, art historian, Hokusai scholar, and co-founder of York Zen, wrote his poem “Hokusai Says,” featured on our York Zen Welcome Page, in Venice in 1990. It appeared suddenly as he was making notes for the “Young Hokusai” paper he was to give at a symposium on Hokusai the following day.

He says keep looking, stay curious. He says there is no end to seeing…

Roger describes how he was writing in one of his daily journal books when he experienced a sudden “raising of tone” and found himself writing out a continuous text until the impetus finally died away. On reading the piece through he felt it had the rhythms of a poem, organized it into lines, and made a few minor corrections. He took the title “Hokusai says” from the first line that had appeared.

He says everything is alive…

Hokusai self portrait

Back in California, Roger showed it to artist friends. One was Connie Smith Siegel, who shared it with W.S. Merwin’s daughter, Susan. Susan wrote it out in beautiful calligraphy and drew a border around it with motifs taken from a Hokusai woodcut.
Connie also showed it to Joanna Macy, scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking, and deep ecology. Joanna started reading it in her workshops and, when later asked about its influence, wrote that “she enjoyed reading it aloud and feeling the impact it consistently had…for the masterly way the words convey a state of grateful and rapt attention that brings one more fully alive to the everyday mystery of life.”

Everything has its own life…

Its influence spread. It was reproduced in the Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center newsletter (1996) and in a number of books, including Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011). It also started appearing online in blogs and YouTube videos.

Roger Keyes

Roger Keyes

He says live with the world inside you…

Realizing that none of the online recordings of the poem was by Roger, his friend and curator of The Laurence Sterne Trust, Patrick Wildgust, generously intervened. In 2015 he arranged for a recording to be made of Roger reading “Hokusai says” by sound engineer Jez Wells at York University. You can listen to this recording on our York Zen Welcome Page (and online).

Contentment is life living through you. Joy is life living through you. Satisfaction and strength is life living through you. Look, feel, let life take you by the hand. Let life live through you.

Who knows where “Hokusai says” will next appear?