"Axe and Ye Shall Receive", by David Campbell

The following is an article by David Campbell, Chief Instructor of TKRI-Virginia. Hopefully we will get the administrative issues sorted out so that we can repost it with his by-line soon. We are honored to be able to include it on the TKRIblog.

Several weekends ago, my sensei, Robert Miller presented a weekend-long seminar on Fitness for the Fighting Arts here in our provincial town of Rocky Mount, VA. While the entire presentation deserves laudable and lofty praise, that is not the intent of this work. Rather, it is to call attention to a rather unsung hero in the whole process—my student, Randy Simpson.

With the exception of a seminar Mr. Simpson planned a little more than a year ago, the responsibility of planning events through our dojo has largely been an undertaking resting on my shoulders. That is not to say Mr. Simpson, other students, family, and friends have not played enormous roles in said events coming to fruition. Quite the contrary. In fact, generally speaking, most of the events would not have come off nearly as well as they have without their generous, albeit indentured, help.

Not this past time, however. This event was one Mr. Simpson conceived, planned, and directed on his own. Again, not to negate the help of all involved, rather I wish to illustrate a feeling that came over me during the seminar—but more on that in a moment. We’ve all heard the phrase “Always be willing to surrender your mind.” Attribute it to whomever you wish—Gichin Funakoshi? OK. I attribute it to whoever said it last—as that context gives it the most meaning to me. It’s pretty much been drilled in since day one of training. For many old dogs, however, a new trick is not easily engrained. For me it was giving up the tendency to micro-manage. For those who know me—even though I try—I have a propensity to tell people what to do. Perhaps this makes me a good teacher, but at times it makes me an irritating person with whom to hang out. That being said, as Mr. Simpson went about his business in planning the event, a feeling of pride came over me.

Understand, however, Randy need not prove himself to me or the art. I look at his life, his path, his dedication, and the intent and completeness with which he not only trains but conducts himself, and no other proof is ever necessary. Still, I couldn’t help myself. As I stood there—just a member of the event, just a student—that proverbial lump made its way into my throat. No I wasn’t sucker punched. No I wasn’t about to throw up from the training. It was something with which I have struggled to sublimate all my life but this time accepted, cradled, and relished. It was pride.

Not pride in myself, but pride in my student. My student—and friend—who brought together people from different dojo and different states to learn and grow. My student and friend who can now take the slightest piece of information and make it his own. My student and friend who leads by example, has a mind of his own, and—like most tragically flawed people—endeavors to put others before himself. But enough of my poetic waxing (on or off, for that matter.)

So I stood in a room listening to my sensei, as sponsored by my student, and I got the feeling I had when we first took a picture of my son with me and my own father—three generations together, passing along what’s been learned. Hoping for the other. Proud just to be a strand in the intricate web of familial existence. And I remembered when Miller sensei first turned over the reins to me. It was a Japanese festival demonstration in St. Louis he wished for me to narrate. Then it was a tournament (of course that was before we committed karate heresy, renounced all tournaments, and resigned ourselves that if we were to burn in karate hell, at least all of our dohai would be there, too.) So I’m ping-ponging back and forth from sensei to Randy, Randy to sensei, doing the proud, folded arms thing like Mr. Miyagi at the Cobra kai tournament, and a poem by Gary Snyder called “Axe Handles” comes to mind:
Axe Handles
by Gary Snyder

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with-”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”-in the
Preface: “In making the handle Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on. (Snyder 366-367)

In subject, the poem is an honest, simply written work about a father teaching his son to throw a hatchet and make it stick in a tree stump. Thematically, however, it compares the shaping of an axe handle to the shaping of a child or person and subsequent generations. As Snyder teaches his son, Kai, how to throw a hatchet and make it stick in a tree stump, Kai remembers an old hatchet head his father has in the shop: “He recalls the hatchet-head/ Without a handle, in the shop/ And go gets it, and wants it for his own” (Snyder 366). Also in the shop, behind the door is an old, broken axe handle. Too big for a hatchet, the handle needs to be cut down to size and shaped: “There I begin to shape the old handle/With the hatchet” (Snyder 366). As Snyder and son begin shaping said handle, Snyder recalls the Pound quote: “When making an axe handle/ the pattern is not far off.” And, Snyder explains to Kai they will use the existing hatchet handle to act as model for the one they will fashion. “Look: We’ll shape the handle/ By checking the handle/ Of the axe we cut with-“/And he sees. And I hear it again…” (Snyder 366-367)

What Snyder hears is a former teacher of his quoting the original version of the reference from which Pound gleaned the adage. Snyder’s mentor, Shih-hsiang Chen, obtained the quote from its original source, Lu Ji’s “Wen Fu”—a fourth century A.D. essay on literature. In effect, we see the shaping of a lineage—and Snyder’s metaphorical “handle” is shaped by both Pound and Chen—who were shaped by Lu Ji. In turn, now, Snyder shapes his son.

What is interesting, and somewhat disappointing, is that Snyder refers to himself as an axe. “Pound was an axe,/Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle, soon/ To be shaping again…” (Snyder 367) The reference is understandable, in that Snyder sees himself as having been shaped by his teacher and by Pound, and he in turn is shaping his son. “How we go on” (Snyder 367). In this respect, it is understandable why Snyder refers to himself as an axe. Unfortunately, however, by referring to himself as an axe—while he does imply he is the model for his son—he also implies that his own shaping is done, that the journey is complete. Of course, in the Eastern traditions, the definition of teacher is usually translated as “one who has gone before”—implying only that the teacher is a little farther along the path than the student. It is a shame Snyder does not convey more of this. But, those are my own biases, and perhaps not Snyder’s intention. It should be noted, however, that it is somewhat difficult for a reader to not use prior experience and knowledge when interpreting a poem. We are the sum of our experiences, and our interpretations are influenced by those equations. This is particularly interesting due to the fact Snyder spent time not only in Japan but in Japanese monasteries (McClatchy 359). His Zen training and experience shines here, as he finds the beauty in the plain and helps him see “the inner world, before language, before custom, before culture” (qtd. in McClatchy 359). Still, with his obvious Zen influence, it’s somewhat surprising he lets this nuance slide. I would imagine his training and meditations would prevent him from doing so.

As far as the language used in this poem, there is nothing extremely or overtly elegant about Snyder’s choices. But, that is the beauty of it. It is plain, as are axe handles. Most do not possess elaborate carvings or inlays. They are unadorned, bare, and simple. The loftiest expression appears near the end of the work when he uses the phrase “craft of culture” (Snyder 367). While beautiful and alliterative, it is the one spot in the poem where the reader double-takes. It’s a bit out of place—out of character from the rest of the piece—but since it occurs in the conclusion, Snyder can be granted the exception in his summation. It is not difficult to become grand in thought and word when contemplating the constant evolution of one’s offspring—or in this case, one’s student.

Finally, the poem is successful in its attempt to illustrate the shaping of one person by another by virtue of using the “shaper” as a model. Part of the reason for its success—as alluded to above—is the “shaping” that has been done by sensei and with Mr. Simpson. Snyder’s poem takes me back to working with Randy, and then with my sensei. He effectively shows not only how a person is influenced, but that the person doing the influencing plays a large role, also. Finally, it serves to force “shapers” to assume some responsibility for their actions, to understand they are much of what the “shapee” will become. We shapers bear the weight of responsibility, charged with shaping not only a human, but the future. And while I still consider myself to be mostly hatchet still in need of said handle, I look at Mr. Simpson and know he is indeed ready and qualified to do his own shaping of another. For, he has not only shaped his juniors, but he has whittled away at the hard-wood exterior that is this teacher. He understands it’s not the carving per se, but the journey of being carved that is paramount. He has a good handle on that.

Works Cited

McClatchy, J.D., ed. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. Vintage Books. New York: 2003. Print.
Snyder, Gary. “Axe Handles.” The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry.
Ed. J. D. McClatchy.Vintage Books. New York: 2003. Print.

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One response to “"Axe and Ye Shall Receive", by David Campbell

  1. Highly entertaining review.
    Thank you.

    Markthearcher

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