Across the Haikuverse, No. 7: Please Don’t Make Me Go Christmas Shopping Edition
by Melissa Allen
Yes, it’s that time again — time to check your booster rockets, lay in a supply of freeze-dried sushi, and climb into the shuttle for a whirlwind tour of the Haikuverse.
I am going to try to make this snappy since, in anticipation of the Holiday of Boundless Capitalist Delight, I’m planning to swing back by Earth later this afternoon in an attempt to observe this planet’s December ritual of purchasing an overabundance of material goods to honor the birth of someone who spent a lot of time talking about how stupid money was. If you joined me, we could amuse ourselves by trading senryu about the foibles of our holiday-crazed fellow human beings and then repairing to a tea shop to eat cookies and regain a Zenlike state of tranquility. Wouldn’t that be fun? Oh, well, maybe next year.
If you’re as stressed out by Chrismukkwanzaa as I am, you should go check out The Haiku Foundation’s new user forums. They have kind and helpful moderators, interesting discussion topics, opportunities to get feedback on your haiku from wiser and more experienced poets, and a generally happy, relaxed atmosphere, which we can all use this time of year.
Chris Gordon from ant ant ant ant ant stopped by here this week and left a brilliant comment that made me very happy, which reminded me that I hadn’t visited his wonderful blog in a while. Lots of great poetry there, including this lovely one-liner of Chris’s from his 2007 book Echoes:
the rain warmer than the air around it I find your scar
– Chris Gordon
Fiona Robyn, who posts her own lovely writing at a small stone and other peoples’ at a handful of stones, has gotten on the “write a whole bunch of stuff in a month in the company of other people” bandwagon (see: NaNoWriMo, NaHaiWriMo).
Her version is called “International Small Stones Writing Month,” and it’s headquartered at a river of stones. In a nutshell, the idea is to sign up to write one of the tiny poems Fiona calls “small stones” every day in the month of January. This seems like it would be a lot of fun for someone who, unlike me, had some extra time on his or her hands in the month of January. So if you’re one of those people, go make Fiona happy and hop on her bandwagon.
And speaking of a handful of stones, here’s one of my favorite posts from last week:
the fog finally
lifted, revealing distant
I’ve really been enjoying the haiku that George O. Hawkins has been posting lately on Facebook and Twitter. Like this one, for instance:
the icy countenance
of a swan
– George O. Hawkins
Speaking of Twitter, CoyoteSings has created a blog featuring some of the best Twitter haiku and tanka, so if you’re wondering what’s going on over there on Twitter but you don’t want to actually get an account, you could check out Jars of Stars. Here’s a ku you might like, for instance:
I liked this Daily Haiku entry last week:
an inaudible voice
on the answering machine
– Robert Epstein
I am so glad to see that Alan Segal, who had been on hiatus from his blog for a while, is back to posting fairly regularly at old pajamas: from the dirt hut. Alan’s poetry is surreal and challenging but I like the interesting things his images do to my brain. Example:
my horse dreams
of tracing the pattern
and, ironhooved, shape,
sew his wooden kimono
– Alan Segal
I don’t pay nearly enough attention to haiga (there are only so many hours in the day) but every once in a while one really grabs me, like this illustration of a Ban’ya Natsuishi ku by Kuniharu Shimizu from see haiku here. (Go look at it. It’s a picture, see?)
“Issa’s Sunday Service,” over at Issa’s Untidy Hut keeps on making me happy. Last week there was a Grateful Dead song (“Althea”) that so, so geekily references both “Hamlet” and a 17th-century poem by Richard Lovelace (and, interesting to nobody but me, I just noticed that the version of the song linked to here was recorded in 1981, when I was twelve, at the Hartford Civic Center in Hartford, CT, about fifty miles from where I was living at the time).
Then there were several poems and ku on the subject of temple bells, including:
the praying mantis
hangs by one hand…
– Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue
Really, what’s not to like?
My personal destiny is somehow intertwined with haiku, and has been since the dawning of consciousness in adolescence. I don’t feel this with any other kind of writing, nor with any other activity with the exception of planting trees and wildflowers. But please don’t misunderstand me: this is not to say that I suppose there is anything “special” about my work, or that it is better than the writing of those differently related to haiku. But then, of course, the aim of haiku is “nothing special”—that special “nothing special” that somehow touches us at the core of our being.
– Lee Gurga
December rain —
the long night
– Paul David Mena
At Tobacco Road Poet, the “Three Questions” this week were answered by Jim Kacian, who is the founder and president of The Haiku Foundation and also one of my favorite living haiku poets. He wrote this, for example (and I had a really hard time choosing this one from among many other favorites), so you see what I mean:
as my life turns crazy
– Jim Kacian
It’s worth reading Jim’s answers to the Three Questions and also worth reading much of the copious other material by and about him that is available out there on the Interwebs. There is this index that can get you started. I love the first essay it links to, “Haiku as Anti-Story”, which starts out this way:
Haiku are not really difficult, once you are willing to take the words at their own valuation. … So why is it so hard? Why does it need explanation? Because the mother, friend, reader is looking for story. “Yes, it’s a lily, but what is it really?” Your audience is looking for story, but you’re giving them — anti-story.
– Jim Kacian, “Haiku as Anti-Story”
Oh — so hard for those of us who love stories so passionately to let go of that narrative pull. This makes me wonder if I am guilty of wanting haiku to do too much — if I want them, too often, to be tiny stories. It also makes me wonder if it’s really impossible for haiku ever to be tiny stories. So much to think about…
But if you really want to be blown away by the comprehensiveness of Jim’s thoughts about and understanding of haiku, you’ll have to set aside a little time to read his magnum opus: First Thoughts: A Haiku Primer. This covers everything about haiku, from history to form to content to technique to language, in exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, but exhilarating detail. (If for some reason you’re a little short on time this week and want to read a short excerpt to get an idea of what the Primer is all about, you could just read “How to Write Haiku.”) Try it, you’ll like it.
Dead Tree News: During the same used-bookstore visit in which I picked up the Johan Huizinga book on play I wrote about the other day, I found a thick tome by Donald Keene entitled World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. It covers poetry, fiction, and drama. I am making my way through it slowly. Very, very slowly. Okay, so I’ve only read two chapters. But they were great chapters!
These were two of six chapters on the early development of “haikai,” which are what we know today as haiku (in case you weren’t aware, no one called them that until Shiki coined the term in the nineteenth century). Keene doesn’t even get around to Basho until chapter 5, so this is the really early development of haikai.
Some of this story was familiar to me — I knew that haikai originally were the first verses of renga, a linked verse form which at the time was primarily a kind of parlor game or a form of court entertainment, often employing crude humor or at best clever word play. But I didn’t know that no one took them seriously as an independent art form until a guy named Matsunaga Teitoku came along. He wasn’t a great poet or anything and he seems to have been a little OCD-ish in insisting that everyone follow the Official Rules of Haikai, which he kind of made up himself. (Some things never change.)
However, Teitoku did haikai the great favor of saying that it was just as valid a poetic form as renga or the fancier poetry known as waka, and also of saying that it was all right to use a simpler, more ordinary vocabulary — “haigon” — in haikai, compared to the more elevated, literary vocabulary that writers of waka usually employed. Here’s what Keene says about this development:
[Teitoku's] insistence on haigon not only enriched the vocabulary of poetry but opened up large areas of experience that could not be described except with such words. Haikai was especially popular with the merchant class which, though it retained a lingering admiration for the cherry blossoms and maple leaves of the old poetry, welcomed a variety of poetry that could describe their pleasures in an age of peace and prosperity. … [W]ithout his formal guidance haikai poetry might have remained forever on the level of the limerick.
– Donald Keene, “Matsunaga Teitoku and the Creation of Haikai Poetry” from World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867
So there you have it … the next time you are writing a haiku and striving to keep it simple, stupid, you can thank Teitoku.
Okay, off to brave retail hell in the name of peace on earth. As ever, it was a joy circumnavigating the Haikuverse with you this week. I wish you many silent nights in which to read, and write, haiku, unless you are the kind of person who prefers the company of merry gentlemen this time of year, in which case, by all means, go for it.