Blossoms (and Blossoms, and Blossoms, and Blossoms)

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ki no moto wa shiru mo namasu mo sakura kana

– Basho (1654-1694)
1690
Season: Spring
Kigo: Cherry blossoms

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Under the cherry-trees,
On soup, and fish-salad and all,
Flower-petals

– R.H. Blyth, 1950
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Under the trees
Soup, fish salad, and everywhere
Cherry blossoms.

– Makoto Ueda, 1970

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Under the cherry–
blossom soup,
blossom salad.

– Lucien Stryk, 1985

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From all these trees,
in the salads, the soup, everywhere,
cherry blossoms fall.

– Robert Hass, 1994

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I spent part of this semester completing a class assignment by developing a structure for a database of classical haiku, using XML and related markup tools. Don’t get too impressed. It’s pretty primitive. And at the moment it contains fourteen haiku. And I don’t have any real enthusiasm for spending the hundreds of hours that would be required to expand and refine it enough to make it at all useful.

But I do think it would be really, really cool if such a thing existed. As you can see from my example above, there’s the Japanese (romaji) version of the haiku, accompanied by numerous translations (love, love, love comparative translation), and information about the season and kigo associated with the haiku, which can easily be indexed using markup tools. I can’t even imagine how useful and fun that kind of database would be, if it had enough haiku in it.

But barring some really bored person coming along with a fondness for both haiku and data entry (do such people exist?), this dream will probably not come to fruition any time soon. But I felt like I had to get some kind of real-world satisfaction out of this project, so here’s one of Basho’s more delightful spring haiku for you to enjoy, in all its delightful versions. (I’m kind of fond of Lucien Stryk’s translation. You?)

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first apples
sniffing for the lost scent
of blossoms

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April 20: Punk Rock Haiku (Wildflowers in Progress)

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abandoned building site wildflowers in progress

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Daily Haiku, 4/18/2011

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A couple of months ago, my old friend John, whom I used to hang out with while he played guitar in his parents’ basement when we were still young enough to live with our parents (because, you know, we were still in school), sent me an MP3 file (“a what?” my 1988 self asks) of a song he had recorded in the basement of the house he lives in now with his wife and daughter and makes mortgage payments on. How does time pass like this?

Anyway, if you must know, it was a cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Arms of Love,” done all Phil Spector-ish and Wall-of-Sound-y, with sleigh bells, no less. It was awesome. But that’s not the point here.

The point is that when I opened this file in iTunes, I noticed that in the “album” field it said “Wildflowers in Progress.” A small firecracker went off in my brain and I emailed him and said, “What is this thing it says for the album name?” and he wrote back and said (I quote), “It’s going to be the eventual title of the solo record I’ve been compiling tunes for for the last couple of years (got the name from an enclosure of flowers I saw on an off-ramp on I-81 on the way to New Jersey a few years back).”

Well, that was all very nice, but I wrote back and informed him that what it really was, was part of a haiku. And the next day I carried out my threat. See above.

Yes, that’s right: this is a six-word poem and I only wrote half of it. The less interesting half, needless to say. I mean, a phrase like “wildflowers in progress” is pretty close to being a haiku on its own — to get it all the way there you just need someone to pull some kind of workmanlike juxtaposition out of the air and tack it on somewhere, and that’s all I did.

I’m extremely grateful to John for tossing his amazing found poetry to me and letting me run away with it. (He still gets to use it as his album title, in case you were wondering.) And I’m even more grateful to him for tossing me, around the same time, this music-geek-worthy aphorism, which I have added to the lengthy file I am amassing of the seemingly infinite definitions of haiku:

“Haiku is kind of the punk rock of poetry. Three chords and the truth.”

Truth. It’s good to see someone identifying this as the key characteristic of haiku, rather than the number of syllables, or the presence of a seasonal reference, or some kind of structural requirement like juxtaposition or kireji, or the presence of a difficult-to-define quality like ma or yugen or karumi.

For the record, I find all those things really interesting to think about and work with, and recognize that in a poem as short as a haiku, the ability to surprise and enlighten the reader is greatly enhanced by the use of these time-honored techniques and concepts, which are vital to understand and master.

But that’s what haiku are, not what they’re about. What they’re about is the truth. If you don’t have some kind of truth to work with to begin with, nothing in your technique will conjure it into existence, and your haiku will be dead on the page.

Now I’m starting to sound all pompous and truthier-than-thou. I think I’ll have to let John save me from myself again. This is what else he says about writing haiku: It’s “deceptively simple. But insanely hard to do well. The difference between The Clash and some run-of-the-mill hardcore band, if you will.”

Well, okay. I have to admit it never occurred to me before to compare, say, Basho’s frogpond haiku to London Calling. But it works for me.

So my revised haiku-writing advice: Be true. But also: be punk. And pay attention the next time you’re driving through New Jersey. You never know what you’ll find.

April 18: History

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spring planting
the history book open
to the last page

.(NaHaiWriMo topic: History)

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When I gave this prompt, I suspected it might cause a little angst for some people who saw it as overly abstract or intellectual for haiku. And in fact, one person (whom I respect enormously as a person and a poet) did wonder whether haiku on this topic weren’t “desk haiku,” haiku based more on ideas than images. I understand why people might feel that way — the word “history” sounds so abstract, so theoretical. It might seem as if I’m asking for a term paper instead of a poem.

But the classical haiku poets didn’t shy away from historical topics — perhaps the most famous example being Basho’s haiku written after his visit to the site of a famous historic battle:

summer grass …
those mighty warriors’
dream tracks

– Basho, translated by William H. Higginson

There’s also Buson’s deathbed verse:

Winter warbler —
long ago in Wang Wei’s
hedge also

— Buson, translated by Robert Hass

I think maybe for some people history is a very textbook kind of thing; it doesn’t seem real to them, not in the same way that the events of their own daily life do. But as soon as these events happen — they pass into the realm of history. History isn’t all politics, philosophy, sociology — it’s the clothes people wore when you were a child, it’s the squat, homely horse Abe Lincoln rode to review the troops during the Civil War, it’s the birds that were singing right before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, it’s what your mother gave you for breakfast the morning JFK was shot. It’s the world, the whole concrete world of concrete details, the one that haiku poets cherish, only in the past.

This is how I responded on the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page when this prompt was called into question:

“Maybe I’m weird — history for me is about images a lot more than ideas, but then I tend to think in pictures a lot. For instance, when someone says ‘the battles of Lexington and Concord’ to me, I don’t start thinking about battle strategy or the philosophical underpinnings of the Revolution, I start thinking about the field in Concord where the battle was, which I’ve visited; there’s a great wooden bridge there and the grass is very green in the summer, and it’s not far from Walden Pond, where there’s a stone cairn in the woods on the site of Thoreau’s cabin…


the battle site
children run back and forth
across the bridge
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the cries of swimmers
we add one more stone
to his grave”

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Anyway: Moving on:

NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 19th

Wind


See this post for an explanation of what this is.

See the NaHaiWriMo website.

See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)

February 11 (Its Depth)

first snow
I no longer have a child
to measure its depth

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World Haiku Review, January 2011

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I enjoyed a lot of things about World Haiku Review this time around but I can’t say I enjoyed the essay “Haiku as a World Phenomenon” by editor Susumu Takiguchi. My appreciation for it went way, way deeper than enjoyment. If I were feeling more flippant about it I’d say it rocked my world but really, that’s entirely the wrong tone for this essay. I learned so much from it and can’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those essays — there have been so many since last May [hey, remind me to create a list of links to them in my sidebar] — that both gives voice to some things I had been incoherently thinking about and also gives me entirely new and exciting ideas and information to work with. I feel like a different poet after reading it. Probably I’m not really a different poet but I’m trying to be. That counts, right?

I know you’re busy and you don’t really feel like reading the whole thing. So let me tell you about it. First of all, it’s not a new essay, it was written in 2000. That doesn’t matter, it could have been written last week. And Susumu starts out by referencing what is now a twenty-five-year-old question but also seems last-weekish: “… After about twenty-five years of English language haiku do we know what haiku is?” (Cor van den Heuvel, from the preface to the Second Edition, The Haiku Anthology, Haiku and Senryu in English, Simon & Schuster, 1986)

Lamenting the endless quarrels over the definition of haiku, Susumu refers to the “dialectic poetics” of Basho as a way of beginning to settle the matter. He outlines some of the fundamental principles of Basho’s haiku aesthetic, none of which, in my profound ignorance, I had ever heard of, but all of which make so much sense. Here’s the outline:

  1. Fueki ryuko“: “Fueki … can represent unchanging tradition while ryuko can represent changing fashion. Since the two are contradictory there should be a kind of creative tension generated between them … [which] should keep haiku fresh, creative and interesting. If people cling to tradition and neglect newness (or atarashimi) inherent in fashion, then haiku could become stale, imitative and boring. If, on the other hand, people indulge in newness without tradition, haiku could become gimmicky, incomprehensible and nonsensical.”
  2. Kogo kizoku”: ” ‘[O]btaining high enlightenment but coming back to the populace.’ There has been a tendency to polarise these two essential factors … Some people have become ‘elitists,’ armed with their own creed and are negligent of kizoku, or addressing plebeian needs. Others have gone the opposite way and vulgarised haiku by neglecting kogo. Again, we need both of these factors interacting and forming creative tension.”
  3. “The third answer may be found in the teaching of Basho, ‘Don’t follow ancient masters, seek what they tried to seek.’ We see people blindly following not only ancient masters but also modern masters without knowing what they tried to seek.”

(This last point is fascinating to me. I try to read and write haiku now asking myself these questions: “What was this poet trying to seek? Is it something I’m seeking too, or want to seek? What am I trying to seek?”)

Susumu isn’t outlining these principles as a way of creating a new, narrow definition of haiku that will further factionalize haiku poets; he sees them as very broad principles which can usefully describe a wide range of styles of haiku. He makes a very interesting analogy with schools of art:

“Avant-garde haiku poets cannot possibly be speaking the same language as fundamentalists of the traditional haiku school. In paintings, we accept the co-existence of the Old Masters, religious paintings, landscapes, still lifes, seascapes, figurative, abstract, surrealism, conceptual art, pop art, minimalist, Japanese paintings, African art, or whatever. There is no point in denying somebody else’s haiku as being not haiku, when we have such varieties of haiku poems in [so many] different languages.”

But in the end Susumu leaves behind all of these principles and details and tells it like it is: “Ultimately, we are after truths. … [T]he essence of poetry must be truths, and universal truths at that.”

Back to Basho:

“When Basho talks about fuga no makoto, this is normally interpreted as poetic sincerity. However, makoto also means truths, or true words, or true things. … In terms of poets, makoto is that which springs from their magokoro (true heart, or soul). Haiku is certainly capable of (local, particular) truths. Sometimes it is capable of universal truths and that is when great haiku poems are born.

“Poetic truths, then, must be a criterion against which inferior and dubious haiku poems can be weeded out. Haiku is part of the haiku poet’s way of life. Haiku is partly what he or she is. If he or she is not truthful his or her haiku cannot be good poetry. In today’s climate where haiku values are confused, it is important for us to go back to such stringent criterion as poetic truths.” [italics mine]

Telling the truth. I’m working on it really hard now. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s not, of course, about the facts. Sometimes the facts interfere with it, actually. (There’s nothing factual about the haiku that starts this post, but I’m hoping it’s at least a little bit true.)

So you kind of have to stumble around, trying to figure out what the truth is, exactly. But I think it’s worth it, in the end.

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Across the Haikuverse, No. 9: Rabbit Edition

So. We’ve started another trip around the sun. Is everyone strapped in tightly? This planet can really get up some speed when it wants to. I have a feeling this is going to be an especially speedy year for me. So much haiku to read and write, so little time.

With that in mind — let’s start this week’s tour of the Haikuverse without further ado. This will be a long one. Go ahead, add an extra five minutes to your coffee break, I won’t tell.

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Haiku on New

I’ve mentioned before that 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit according to the Japanese calendar, and that rabbit haiku have been proliferating like, um, rabbits all over the Interwebs. If you’re interested in reading some (I make fun of them, just because I like to make fun of things — including, in all fairness, myself — but a lot of them are really good), there are a bunch of examples (and a bunch of other great New Year haiku) over at the Akita International Haiku Network blog.

Other places to read good New Year haiku (and haiga, and tanka, and gogyoghka) include the following, which is just a small sample of the pages I remembered to bookmark that had good New Year haiku and doesn’t include any of the many good New Year haiku I encountered on Facebook and Twitter in the last week or so. (You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Don’t you?)

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Vincent Tripi/Kuniharu Shimizu (haiga), see haiku here
Gary Hotham, Mann Library’s Daily Haiku
Bill Kenney, haiku-usa
Takuya Tomita, tr. by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
John McDonald, zen speug
Steve Mitchell, Heed Not Steve
Johannes S.H. Bjerg, scented dust
Chen-ou Liu, Stay Drunk on Writing

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Haiku Till You Drop

And on to haiku on other topics — quite a few of those were written recently too, believe it or not. We must start off with my obligatory Vincent Hoarau haiku in French. (My apologies to anyone who doesn’t know French and/or has no appreciation for the haiku of Vincent Hoarau, but he knocks my socks off. And I have somehow just managed to discover that he has a blog! so you don’t need to have a Facebook account to read his poetry after all! Though this one doesn’t seem to be on the blog at the moment.)

leur bébé dort
dans la neige
de l’échographie

– vincent hoarau

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Another new blog I’ve just discovered: Haiku by Two, where I found the following lovely offering by Alison (can’t seem to locate a last name):

whether or not
there is a god -
heavenly skies

— Alison

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This one from Blue Willow Haiku World really struck me for some reason. I was right out there on the ocean for a while after I read it. Caravels. Whales breaching. Waves, fog, salt spray. Japanese whaling ships. Guys in ruffed collars. An inundation of images, if you will.

the Age of Discovery
has ended
a whale

— Eiji Hashimoto, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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Over at The Haiku Diary, Elissa managed to perfectly capture the spirit of procrastination, especially the procrastination of us writers who can always think of some other creative thing to do that’s sort of like writing but nahhh. I should write this one down and tape it to my laptop.

To-do Listless

Gluing tiny
collages onto matchboxes
doesn’t count as “Write!”.

– Elissa

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New Year’s Resolution: Exercise

Somebody (who? who? I must remember to write these things down!) posted this link to Facebook a week or two ago. It’s “a training exercise … [that] helps condition the muscles necessary for making haiku.” The poster suggested that it would be of help to those pursuing Fiona Robyn’s a river of stones project this month, which it certainly would, but it also seems like an invaluable exercise for anyone interested in learning to write haiku, or improving the haiku they already write. If you try it, let me know how it worked out.

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Blog News

Out with the old, in with the new, isn’t that what they say this time of year? Well, right with the New Year a couple of new blogs worth watching started up and another one of my old favorites closed up shop.

First I’d like to pay tribute to the latter, David Marshall’s wonderful haiku streak. At this blog and another, David has been posting a daily haiku for five years (yes, you did read right). He says he’s giving up his streak now because he’s starting to feel that writing them is becoming a routine and he’s no longer sure of the purpose. But I have to say that practically everything he writes seems utterly inspired to me. His haiku are like no one else’s on the planet, and that kind of intense personal vision is rare.

Here’s his last entry, posted on New Year’s Eve:

Moved Out

In the empty room
an empty box—everything
inside me at last

– David Marshall

Fortunately, David is not giving up poetry altogether. I will be following him at his other poetry site, derelict satellite, where he says he plans to post weekly “haiku sonnets” — fascinating concept.

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And to console me a little, Anne Lessing and Aubrie Cox started up new blogs on the first of the year. I have been eagerly awaiting Anne’s The Haiku Challenge ever since she announced way back last May that she would be starting to write a daily haiku on 1/1/11. Anne, gloriously, is a teenager who is a relative newcomer to haiku, but not to writing, and she too has a very well-defined personal vision. I loved her first offering:

first second of a new year
and all I see is
glitter
— Anne Lessing

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Aubrie Cox, whom I met at the “Cradle of American Haiku” Festival back in September, is not new to haiku, although she too is very young. She’s a senior in college who has been studying haiku for several years now under the aegis of Randy Brooks, has published her very skillful haiku many times, and has a vast store of knowledge about the history and poetics of haiku that awes me. You can find out more about her at her personal blog, Aubrie Cox. But she’s just started up another blog called Yay Words! (which is, of course, the best blog name ever). She started it to participate in a river of stones, and also plans to use it for just generally celebrating words in all their forms. I love enthusiasm combined with knowledge (that will be the name of my next blog), so I’m sure Aubrie’s blog will become a favorite very soon. Here’s her first “small stone”:

new hat
trying to make it fit like the old one

– Aubrie Cox

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I discovered a site this week that is new to me although not to the world, and although it may be of interest to none of my readers I just had to let you know about it because I am jumping up and down in my mind with excitement whenever I think about it. It’s called Taming the Monkey Mind and it features — wait for it — Russian translations of Issa’s haiku. Yeah. I know. My life is pretty much complete now. Okay, so it doesn’t look like they’ve updated since 2008 but they have just recently started tweeting on Twitter, so I’m hoping that means that more translations are in the works. A girl can dream, can’t she?
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Another great site that I can’t believe I never discovered before is Haiku Chronicles, featuring wonderful podcasts about various aspects of haiku. I’ve only had time to listen to one, which was about a renku party and went into fascinating detail about the composition of renku in general and one renku in particular. If you listen to any others, send me reviews — I will be working my way through the rest slowly.

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Essaying Essays

I found a few essays that blew my mind this week. I’m starting to get a little tired here (this is actually the last section of this post I am writing, even though it doesn’t appear at the end — I like to jump around when I write, it makes things more interesting). So I might not go into as much detail about them as I had planned to (you are probably giving devout thanks for this right now to whatever deity floats your boat).

This is where I implore you to follow the links and read some of this stuff. Okay, I won’t lecture you any more. You probably have one or two other important things to do with your time, like making a living or raising children or growing prize orchids or something. Or, you know, writing haiku instead of reading about it. How sensible of you!

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Last week Chen-ou Liu posted on his blog Poetry in the Moment an essay called “The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku” that might forever change the way you look at good old furuike ya. He discusses the necessity of viewing this poem in the context of the literature of its time — for instance, “frog” is a spring kigo that was “used in poems since ancient times, and had always referred to its singing and calling out to a lover.” By making the frog’s sound a splash instead of singing, Basho parodies literary convention. The poem also works, of course, on a purely literal, objective level, but this second dimension of allusion to earlier literature is usually missing from most Western translations and considerations of this poem.

Chen-ou concludes with his own poetic sequence paying tribute to this ku and to Basho and other earlier literary masters, including this verse:

this frog
crouches on a lotus leaf –
reciting Basho

– Chen-ou Liu

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At Still in the Stream there is an essay by Richard R. Powell called “Wabi-Sabi in Haiku,” which gives many examples with a detailed analysis of what makes them wabi-sabi. You will definitely want to go look at this one, if only for the wonderful examples. It’s beautifully laid out and wabi-sabi is always fascinating to contemplate.

Here’s one of the examples and a bit of Powell’s commentary to go along with it, just to whet your appetite:

wings aglow -
gulls rising above
the garbage

- Eric Houck Jr.

Yesterday while on a walk with my son we observed two herring gulls alight on a lamp pole. They seemed to be a pair and one stuck out its neck and emitted the common and recognizable call gulls everywhere make. I thought of Mr. Houck’s haiku and watched as the two birds leapt into the air and soared over us. Looking up at these birds I was struck by their clean appearance, the sharp line between the white feathers and gray ones. Their bodies, when they glide, are smooth and elegant, heads pivoting on otherwise plane-rigid bodies. I was charged with a subtle joy, not overwhelming, but hopeful.

Mr. Houck’s poem is an excellent example of a haiku that contains karumi, the quality Basho considered to be the hallmark of his mature style.

– Richard R. Powell, “Wabi-Sabi in Haiku”

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This one isn’t really an essay, but a review. But Don Wentworth’s reviews over at Issa’s Untidy Hut are always so in-depth and thought-provoking that they give the same satisfaction to me as a well-wrought essay. This one concerns John Martone’s book of short poetry, scrittura povera. I had never heard of this poet before but I will certainly be searching out more of his work. Here’s an example:

how much time
do you need
morning glory

– John Martone

Don, a fellow Issa aficionado, says of this one (and I agree with him) that, “In terms of modern haiku, it just doesn’t get much better than this.  There is certainly a touch of Issa here, a perfect balancing between the comic and the serious. It is, as is life, both at the same time.”

I would definitely recommend that you follow the link and at least read through the example poems by Martone, even if you don’t have time to read the full review. They are all superb.

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Competition Corner

A bunch of fun competitions are in the works at the moment. As always, there are the monthly Shiki Kukai (which I wrote about a few days ago; this month’s topics still haven’t been announced but should be any day now so keep your eyes peeled, if that isn’t too painful) and Caribbean Kigo Kukai (this month’s kigo: calendar). Kukai are a great way to get your feet wet in the contest world, and they’re judged by the participants so you get to have fun picking out your favorite ku from among the entries.

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But there are also a couple of contests that don’t come around as often. You’ll have to act fast on the first one: XII bilingual Calico Cat Contest. It’s a blitz — it just started yesterday, and the deadline is tomorrow. But it’s a fun one for several reasons: It involves using one of the wonderful sumi-e paintings of Origa Olga Hooper (contest organizer) as a prompt, the prize being said sumi-e painting; and — so you know I’m definitely going to enter — all the entries will be translated into Russian (if they’re in English) or English (if they’re in Russian), and posted on the contest site in both languages for everyone to see before the judging. You can submit up to three haiku; maybe I’ll try writing one in Russian. Or not. I might have to work up to that level of bravery.

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The final contest on my list is the biggest. Just opening today, with a deadline of March 31, is The Haiku Foundation’s yearly HaikuNow contest. There are three categories: Traditional, Contemporary, and Innovative — go to the site for more explanation and examples of what exactly these categories mean. This contest gives out actual monetary awards and it’s free to enter, so there’s no downside, really. Go for it!

Full disclosure: I am helping out (on basically a peon level) with coordinating this contest. Specifically, I, along with two other helper elves, will be fetching contest entries from email, taking the authors’ names off for anonymity’s sake, and sending them off to the judges to be judged. This is a great gig for me, of course, because I get to see a lot of really cool haiku before anyone else. Sadly, I of course cannot share these really cool haiku with you or anyone else, but maybe the inspiration I derive from reading them will help make the haiku I post here a little better, which will surely improve your life.

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Dead Tree News

After I got the “Close, But No Cigar” award in The Haiku Foundation’s Facebook contest in November (basically, I was a runner-up, but Jim Kacian, the judge, invented this humorous award name to indicate that he liked the idea of my ku but was not so wild about its execution), the Foundation kindly sent me and all the other winners and runners-up a copy of where the wind turns: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku.

This turned out to be a great prize. The panel of ten editors, led by Jim, chose their favorites from the past year’s journal output and web content, and I assure you that they have excellent taste. I spent a lot of my extensive driving time over the holidays reading it. I started out marking all the stuff I liked, until I realized that I was marking pretty much every page. Want some examples? Yeah, I thought you did.

Okay, here are just a couple of the ku that blew me away. Okay, more than a couple. Really, I narrowed it down as much as I could:

autumn rain
deeper and darker
the taste of tea
— Mary Ahearn

cemetery gate
she let me
go first
— Yu Chang

new year’s day all my anxieties in alphabetical order
—Carlos Colon

leaves too small
to touch each other
spring chill
— Burnell Lippy

blue sky
maybe I don’t need
to be right
— Harriot West

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Haiku were not the only things in this anthology either. There were some amazing haibun, and in my experience amazing haibun are not all that easy to find. The most touching of these was William (Bill) Higginson’s last piece of writing before he died in 2008, “Well-Bucket Nightfall, or New Day?,” a masterly meditation on well buckets, life transitions, death, and haiku. I also commend to you Johnny Baranski’s “Gandhi’s Game” and Bob Lucky’s “Shiraz.”

And then there were the essays … oh God, the essays. I wish I had time to write essays about the essays. But most of them you can find online so you can read them yourselves. (I know most of you won’t though. Uh-oh. Starting to lecture again.)

There was a reprint of one of my longtime favorite essays, a consideration of the haiku of Fay Aoyagi (one of my favorite poets) by David Lanoue (one of my favorite translators). A very interesting meditation on haiku and capitalism (which I’m not sure I entirely understood), by Dimitar Anakiev. A fascinating essay on haiku from the World War II Japanese internment camps, by Margaret Chula (the essay doesn’t seem to be online but here’s a link to her book on the same subject).

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The only essay I would like to say a little more about is Jim Kacian’s, called So::Ba, which I am still thinking about, because it both crystallized some of the ideas that I have been having about haiku myself and also added some new information and ideas to support my previously vague, uncertain thinking. Basically, Jim takes the English sentence “So here we are” and relates it to the Japanese word “ba,” which he translates as “a pointer to a kind of awareness that something of importance is happening in time and space.” In his vision of haiku poetics, ba is essential: “Ba is the basis for pretty much everything we do in haiku. In fact, ba is the message of haiku: so here we are!”

A lot of the essay is taken up with denigration of the vast amount of “trash” haiku out there these days, and with historical notes about the development of haiku, in which Basho gets a hero’s welcome and Shiki gets piled on for his objectivism: his insistence on merely observing nature, rather than alluding to human history or culture or literature, or making use of the kind of richness of emotional expression that characterized the haiku of, among others, Basho and Buson. Jim regrets that the West encountered haiku right at the moment when Shiki was the dominant influence on haiku, since what he considers as the wrong-headed separation of Nature from Man in the minds of most haiku poets tends to persist to this day.

So how should we be thinking about haiku, according to Jim? Well, as far as I can make out, as a form of poetry that expresses a moment of the poet’s consciousness, that makes use of art and imagination as well as purely objective observation (this discussion will undoubtedly seem familiar to those of you who read my “Willow Buds” post the other day). I really love this passage from the essay in particular:

Haiku is not photography, a simple exact limning of what lies before our eyes. If it is an art, then it must be the selecting and ordering of words into a cogent form that helps lead another’s mind along the path that the poet’s has followed, with perhaps a similar reaction to be had at the end. And this rarely takes place before the butterfly’s wing, but usually in the roiling of the mind, consciously and unconsciously, whenever it can — for me that often means in the middle of the night.

And yet despite this we still retain some residual disdain for what are termed “desk haiku.” In truth, every haiku I’ve ever written has been a desk haiku. It may have had its origins in some natural spectacle, and I may even have written it on the spot. But always, some time later and in the darkness of my mind and study, I look again. It’s this revisiting that is the actual work of art — even if I don’t change a word. “Desk haiku” is another way of saying I’m a working poet.

– Jim Kacian, “So:Ba”

Lots to think about here. I hope you go and read this one if you have a spare half-hour. Jim’s thoughts are always worth encountering.

.

Note: For those of you who are holding your breath, Dead Tree News will return next week to the thrilling saga of the early development of Japanese haikai (haiku), as recounted in Donald Keene’s World Within Walls. Don’t miss this exciting installment in which master Basho arrives on the scene!

*

Okay. [Heaves sigh of relief.] I made it through yet another massive list of indispensable haiku-related reading for yet another week. What is the deal with you people — you keep writing too much good stuff. Or I keep reading too much good stuff. I don’t know who has the bigger problem. Is there some kind of 12-step program for people like us — oh, look, there is! (Thanks, Michael!)

Happy Rabbiting, fellow traversers of the Haikuverse. And hey, I am dying for a day off here, so don’t forget to send me your haiku for my 400th post next week!

Across the Haikuverse, No. 6: Telegraphic Edition

Hello fellow inhabitants of the Haikuverse,

There was so much to explore in the Haikuverse this week that I feel a little overwhelmed by it all. If I’m ever going to get through the list I’ve got in front of me I will have to be brief and efficient, possibly even telegraphic. So … here goes.

First of all, congratulations to Andrew Phillips, of Pied Hill Prawns, and his wife on the recent birth of a baby boy. Andrew wrote a lovely poem, Sacred Space in the Suburbs, with haiku-like stanzas, about the home birth — I highly recommend it. Here’s an excerpt:

This is a room for women. I clamp
a hose to the tap, filling the pool
with warm waters.

– Andrew Phillips

*

Lots of haiku journals published new issues in the last week. I naturally feel compelled to start with Notes from the Gean, which contains my first published haiku (reposted in this space last week). (Yes, I am excited. Thanks for asking.) They also published one of my haibun. (Excited, again.) But there are so many other wonderful things in this issue that are not by me that I demand you go over there and take a look.

For instance: There are the amazing photo haiga of Aubrie Cox and Carmella Braniger. There are some stunning renku — I like “Scribing Lines” (The Bath Spa Railway Station Renku) in particular. And, of course, there are dozens and dozens of great haiku. I was especially excited to see this one by Lee Gurga, which was thoroughly dissected in a workshop I attended in Mineral Point:

an unspoken assumption tracks through the petals

– Lee Gurga

*

Heron’s Nest also published last week and is also full of wonderful haiku. Here are a couple that particularly struck me (and I just noticed they both mention the wind, what’s that about?):

north wind
the holes
in my beliefs
– Christopher Patchel

autumn wind
the leaves too
made of oak
– Joyce Clement

This issue also contains a lengthy and interesting commentary by Alice Frampton on the following amazing ku (winner of the Heron’s Nest Award), well worth reading if you’re interested in getting a better insight into how haiku are put together:

ragged clouds
how it feels
to hold a rake
– Robert Epstein

*

A very exciting development last week was the publication of the first issue of Haijinx since 2002! Congratulations to the team who put this together. Because of a mouse-related incident that took place in my house this week, I was attracted to this haiku by the great Peggy Willis Lyles, who, sadly, died in September:

sharp cheese
I sometimes
feel trapped
— peggy willis lyles

*

Yet another December publication: Haibun Today. They usually have a great selection of haibun, though I have to admit I have not had time to make my way through all the contents of this issue yet. Of those I’ve read, one that I really loved, especially because I am always thinking that there should be more short-story or fiction haibun, was Weight, Balance, and Escapement by Jeffrey Harpeng. This is wildly imaginative and may make your brain explode, so watch out.

*

I can’t believe I didn’t know about before about this seriously awesome site: Haiku News. They publish haiku based on news stories, along with links to the story in question. This sounds like a gimmick (well, I guess it is in a way) that might involve mediocre or silly haiku, but in fact the haiku are very high quality and the interaction between haiku and news story is thought-provoking. Like this one by Claire Everett, based on the headline “Hunger index shows one billion without enough food.”

nothing left
but the wishbone
November sky
— Claire Everett

*

Troutswirl this week published an essential read for those interested in the history of English-language haiku: an essay about Anita Virgil and Robert Spiess, who were two of the most prominent and innovative haiku poets in this country in the sixties and seventies and whose haiku still seems original and exciting. Here’s Anita:

walking the snow crust
not sinking
sinking

– Anita Virgil

and here’s Robert:

Muttering thunder . . .
the bottom of the river
scattered with clams

– Robert Spiess

*

I don’t know how I have happened not to write about John McDonald before, because his blog Zen Speug was one of the first I discovered when I first started writing haiku and I still love it devotedly. For one thing: Great haiku, often very Shiki-ish, with wonderful nature images. For another: Scots! John (who is a retired mason, which is another reason to love him) writes his haiku in both Scots and English, and Scots, in case you weren’t aware, is one of the best. languages. ever.

In fact someone called David Purves has written an essay about how Scots may be a better language for haiku than English (actually, I think lots and lots of languages are better for haiku than English, and I’m not even counting Japanese, which is one reason why I am so devoted to foreign-language haiku).

This was one of my favorites of John’s from this week:

snaw -
the treen
aw yin flourish

snow
the trees
all one blossom

– John McDonald

*

Over at Blue Willow Haiku World Fay Aoyagi this week translated and shared this amazing haiku:

my husband with hot sake
he, too, must have
a dream he gave up

– Kazuko Nishimura

*

At Beachcombing For the Landlocked the other day, Mark Holloway posted the following tanka, which I took to immediately because it perfectly expresses my feelings about living in the, ahem, landlocked (but very lake-y) Midwest. (Note: I can’t get the formatting of this to work right here; the fourth line should be indented to begin about under the word “lake” from the line above.)

no matter
how beautiful
the lake
it’s still
not the sea

– Mark Holloway

*

At Issa’s Untidy Hut Don Wentworth shares with us his review of a great used-book-store find he made this week (note to self: go to used book stores more often): an autographed copy of The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa, translated by Lucien Stryk. Stryk’s translations are highly minimalist and often (no pun intended, I swear) striking. For instance:

First cicada:
life is
cruel, cruel, cruel.

– Issa, tr. Lucien Stryk

*

Over at Haiku Bandit Society there is always so very much to love. This week I watched a rengay in the process of composition — every day or two when I checked back a new verse had been added. It was like a magic trick. Here are the first couple of verses — go read the rest yourself.

I’ve had sake
only once or twice
but, as for dreams… / b

a walk on the moon
with Neil Armstrong / l’o

*

Recently I discovered a Japanese newspaper, The Mainichi Daily News, which publishes English-language haiku every day — go ahead, send yours in, they have a submission form and everything. I really like today’s entry, in fact:

fog thinning out–
more and more visible
the way to nowhere
– Marek Kozubek (Zywiec, Poland)

*

Check out this Japanese haiku blog by Hidenori Hiruta: AkitaHaiku. The author posts his haiku in both Japanese and English, accompanied by wonderful photographs. They’re grouped seasonally. Here’s an Autumn one that for obvious reasons I am very fond of:

red dragonflies
hiding in dahlias
the blue sky

– Hidenori Hiruta

*
Chen-ou Liu is a very well-known English-language haiku (and tanka, and free-verse) poet whose blog Stay Drunk on Writing, for some reason, I just came upon this week. Here’s a great pair of ku about the upcoming Chinese Year of the Rabbit:

New Year’s Eve
a white rabbit falls
into my dream

New Year’s morning
standing before the mirror
it’s me, and yet …

– Chen-ou Liu

*

Okay … so why didn’t anyone ever tell me about zip haiku before? Geez. You people.

What are zip haiku, you ask? Well, they’re an invention of the amazing John Carley, probably best known for his great work with renku (check out Renku Reckoner). At some point around the turn of the millennium John got fed up with all the squabbling about what constitutes an English-language haiku and decided to invent his own form of haiku that would be unique to English and capitalize on its special properties. You can read his essay about this yourself, but basically he got all scientific about it and crunched numbers with translations and did a little rummaging around in the basement of linguistics and ended up with this 15-syllable poem, divided into two parts, that he called a zip haiku. (You must understand that I am seriously oversimplifying what John did, and I won’t be surprised if he writes and tells me I’ve got it all wrong.)

ANYWAY. Here’s an example, and I am going to go off and write some of these myself. Soon.

orange and tan
tan orange and tan
the butterflies
beat on 

– John Carley

.r*

The Irish Haiku Society announced the results of their International Haiku Competition 2010 this week. Lots of great winners. Here’s an honorable mention I liked a lot.

recession
more tree
less leaf
— Hugh O’Donnell

*

Few editions of the Haikuverse are complete for me without a French haiku by Vincent Hoarau, posted this week on Facebook. Please don’t ask me to translate.

Sinterklaas -
tombent les flocons
et les poemes inacheves
.
– Vincent Hoarau

*

I absolutely loved this highly minimalist haiku by Angie Werren, posted this week both on Twitter and on her blog feathers. I wrote Angie a long comment about it talking about all the ways I love it (you can see it if you go over there), which may seem over-the-top because it’s only four words long and how much can you say about four words? A lot, it turns out.

snow
black crow
tea

– Angie Werren

*

Bill Kenney of haiku-usa continues with his fine series of “Afters,” loose interpretations of classical Japanese haiku. This week: Basho and Issa on radishes. Really, there is nothing better. I could use a radish right now.

the chrysanthemums gone
there’s nothing
but radishes

– Basho (1644-1694)

the radish grower
pointing the way
with a radish

– Issa (1763-1827)

*

It’s that time again — the topics for the December Shiki Kukai have been announced. The deadline is December 18. The kigo is “Winter sky,” and the theme for the free format is “ring” (used as a noun). Get composing.

And without further ado, I am going to bed. It’s been an exhausting whirl around the Haikuverse … but what great company! See you all next week.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 4: Procrastination Edition

It’s that time again. Sunday afternoon. Long, boring, dark, rainy Sunday afternoon. I’m back from my run but I haven’t been able to talk myself into starting my homework yet. Isn’t there something else productive, yet vaguely fun I could be doing?

Oh, right! Time to collect the random scraps of paper and electronic sticky notes on which I have jotted down the haiku-related “information resources” (as we like to say in library school) that most struck a chord with me this week. Time to patch it all together into a semi-coherent list and throw it up on the Internet for your entertainment and edification, or at least indulgent tolerance.

That’s right: it’s time, once again, to visit the Haikuverse. Please strap yourself into your transport pod and make sure you’ve adjusted your brain waves to “poetry.”

(If you missed any of the previous three visits and you’re feeling adventurous, there are links to them in the sidebar. Right over there. On your right.)

1.

The Haiku Foundation has announced their inauguration of the Touchstone Awards for Individual Poems, which I find cool for several reasons:

  • The prizes are actual stones (get it?). With your name and poem engraved on them. There is pretty much no other prize I would rather have than this, except maybe a million dollars, and I have come to accept that no one in the Haikuverse is made of that kind of money. Even if you don’t win one of these awards, I may get you a rock like this for Christmas (or another holiday of your choice within one month of the winter/summer solstice), just because I like you.
  • The submission process requires that you nominate no more than two haiku, and — get this — if you nominate more than one, the other one has to be somebody else’s. (As far as I can tell, they can both be somebody else’s.) This is perfect for those of us who, whenever we see a contest announcement, think, “Why on earth should they give this prize to me when they could give it to, like, somebody who can actually write haiku?”

Just a caveat — the nominated haiku must have been published in 2010 (somewhere where somebody besides you gets to decide what’s published, so your own blog doesn’t count). Go check out the rules. And think rocks!

2.
Also at The Haiku Foundation, Scott Metz has once more challenged and stretched me with his essay “Do You Play an Edge?” He starts out by quoting a number of (amazing) haiku that push the boundaries of haiku both in form and subject matter, and rhetorically poses the question of whether we, individually as poets and collectively as the English-language haiku movement, push those boundaries enough. Which is something I struggle with constantly — both wanting to experiment, to push past the rules to something new and exciting and soul-stirring, and also wanting to do it “right” and win the approval of a community that has come to mean a lot to me. As Scott says,

“I suppose the opposite of playing one’s edge would be playing it safe. And what might that mean? It could mean writing for approval. It could mean writing in a style that maximizes one’s chances of being published, or, having mastered melancholy, avoiding other moods.”

If you go over there, don’t forget to read the comments — as usual they are as interesting to read as the essay itself.
3.

Scott’s essay reminds me of this essay (a much longer one) by Peter Yovu that I have been meaning to write about for, oh, months:  Do Something Different. I think I have finally realized that instead of waiting until the mythical day when I finish my utterly unreadable two-thousand-word essay about this essay, I should just tell you to go read it, because it’s amazing and inspiring. Peter starts out with, literally, a wake-up call:

“Buddhists describe a simple practice: when you find yourself falling into some habitual pattern, acknowledge it, and then step out by doing something different. The idea, of course, is that anything we do by habit we do half-awake at best, and the goal is to wake up.”

He then gently points out the tendency of so many contemporary haiku to sound so much alike, and gives several practical suggestions for experiments you can try to wake up yourself and your haiku — focusing on sound, for instance, which is so often utterly ignored by English-language haiku poets. I sometimes think I should start out every haiku-writing session by reading this essay, but I suppose that would end up being yet another rut to get stuck in. Still, every month or so when I reread it, I find something new in it, and then something new in myself.

4.

Over at her blog jornales, Alegria Imperial has appealed to my well-known predilection for foreign-language haiku by reproducing a haiku she originally wrote in her native language of Iluko alongside her English translation of it:

morning ember
fanned
by broken word

beggang ti agsapa
naparubruban
ti puted a sarita

Okay, first of all — this is a cool haiku. Second of all, the language geek in me is deeply excited by seeing a haiku in a language that I know absolutely nothing about but looks really beautiful. Third of all, this post reminds me of another passage on Alegria’s blog that I have always loved, a piece of highly poetic prose about the difficulty of translation not just from language to language but from culture to culture:

“[L]anguage is deeply entrenched in culture, the totality of one’s being layered over by influences of earth, air, water, living things, language whispered, sung, murmured, chanted, stated, shouted, screamed, written for one to read under fluorescent light, Coleman light-flood, moonlight, candle light — how we whine and laugh and cuddle up wordless or word-ful, with what flowers we offer our sighs, what trees we carve arrow-pierced hearts, from what looming shadows we scamper away, what wings we shoot down, what edges of cliffs we plunge off to get to our dreams.”

5.

With their recent release of a haiku collection they edited, Michael Dylan Welch and Alan Summers have won, hands-down, the unannounced contest I have been holding in my mind for best haiku book title of the year: Fifty-Seven Damn Good Haiku by a Bunch of Our Friends. If you decide you don’t want a rock for Chrismukkwanzaa, this book (with bonus parsnips on the cover!) could be an excellent substitute.

6.

Elissa at The Haiku Diary posted a haiku this week that, like so many of her haiku, seems deceptively simple and trivial at first and then the more you think about it the more you feel your brain exploding. Also, it reminds me a little of my stab this week at excessively repetitive haiku, except hers is better. I love the way she works with the line breaks here. And there is a whole autumn-dark-death-fate of the universe galaxies-expanding-metaphorical thing going on here in six.freaking.words. I have to figure out how to do this.

I can’t believe it’s
already dark. I can’t believe
it’s already dark.

7.

Does the world need yet another version of Basho’s famous frogpond haiku? Well, that’s a stupid question. Run over to Haiku-doodle and take a look at Margaret Dornaus’s haiga riff on furuike ya. It’s a lot of fun, and she includes some interesting commentary on translation.
8.

So every week I think to myself, I am going to say something about Gabi Greve and the one-woman haiku-information-disseminating machine she is, and then I just get totally overwhelmed by how much stuff by Gabi there is out there in the Haikuverse. Good stuff. Really fascinating stuff. Where even to start?

What Gabi is probably most well-known for is her work with promulgating information about kigo and in particular her creation of the World Kigo Database. But in the sprawling network of blogs and websites that Gabi administers, you can find information about just about every aspect of haiku. I thought I might as well start with a post new to her haiku empire this week, which she alerted her followers about on Facebook: A profile and sample haiku of the classic haiku poet Ochi Etsujin (just one of a long list of classic haiku poets profiled on her “Haiku Topics” blog).

Etsujin, Gabi tells us, “was one of the 10 great and most important disciples of Basho.” His death-poem, aki no kure hi ya tomosan to toi ni kuru, is relatively unusual among haiku in including direct speech. The context for this poem is the dying poet being tended on his sickbed by his wife. The Yoel Hoffman translation for this haiku that Gabi gives is:

Autumn evening:
“Isn’t it time,” she comes and asks,
“to light the lantern?”

Gabi herself proposes a different translation, noting that the original says nothing about a lantern:*

autumn evening -
“shall we make light?”
she comes to ask

Anyway, run along now, and enjoy exploring the galaxy that is Gabi’s not-so-little corner of the Haikuverse.

9.

After starting to use Twitter a month or so ago, I was excited to discover the work of Alexis Rotella (who goes by tankaqueen on Twitter). Alexis has been writing haiku and other poetry to great acclaim for a long time but for some reason I had remained oblivious of her until now. I really liked this haiku she tweeted this week (both because I like to argue and because I have had a lifelong fascination with garbage trucks, no really):

passing through
our quarrel
the garbage truck

10.

This week on his blog “season creep”, Comrade Harps combines one of the great pop songs of all time with his shopping list to create a classic haiku. I will never again be able to listen to The Joshua Tree without thinking about this (or wishing I had it on a T-shirt):

at the supermarket
Bono sings
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

And on that note: I hope you all find what you’re looking for this week — your keys, undying love, the secret to writing a perfect haiku.

(Also, feel free to send me links and suggestions any time you run across cool stuff in the Haikuverse that you’d like to see in this space. I sometimes wonder if the scope of this column is a little narrow considering it reflects only my eccentric and questionable taste, so I’m more than willing to shake things up a little by having it reflect your eccentric and questionable taste as well. Whoever you are.)

______________________

*After Gabi posted her link to this post on Facebook there ensued a lengthy and fascinating discussion between her and several other translators about how best to render this poem into idiomatic English, which I perversely butted into even though I know absolutely no Japanese, don’t ask me what I was thinking. But Gabi was very kind and didn’t tell me to shut up and go away. So I’ll share my very, very loose interpretation of this haiku, a pure example of ignorance at work:

autumn nightfall…
she comes to ask me
if I need light

See there, how quickly I was able to turn a tribute to a generous haiku scholar into a vehicle for my own egomania?

November 15: Basho and me

I was inspired by some recent blog posts by Margaret Dornaus of Haiku-Doodle and Bill Kenney of haiku-usa to try writing riffs on classical haiku. I started with a list of favorite haiku by Basho I had jotted down while reading Makoto Ueda’s Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet. Then I tried to distill each of these down to some universal theme or structure or atmosphere — to figure out what it was about them that made them seem so great to me. And then for each of them I tried to write a haiku that echoed in some way the spirit of what Basho wrote, while coming up with some new insight or image that was entirely my own.

This exercise was seriously fun and exciting, and I am definitely going to repeat it. Some of the haiku I wrote are clearly just versions of Basho’s haiku; some of them seem to me like they are different enough from what Basho wrote that they could stand alone. I wouldn’t try to publish any of these, at least without acknowledging Basho’s influence, but I do think I learned a lot about how many ways there are to write a successful haiku (even if it’s only Basho’s haiku that are actually successful :) ).

Basho’s haiku below are in regular type; mine are indented and in italics. The Basho haiku are all Ueda’s translations, except for the last one, which (as indicated) is by Jane Reichhold.

1.

At night, quietly,
A worm in the moonlight
Digs into the chestnut.

every morning
new holes in the leaves
someone’s night shift


2.

The sound of an oar beating the waves
Chills my bowels through
And I weep in the night.

 

winter morning
hearing the car start
my tears start


3.

The sea darkens
And a wild duck’s call
Is faintly white.

 

dark clouds gather —
the calls of songbirds
light in the distance


4.

Loneliness —
Sinking into the rocks,
A cicada’s cry.

 

frustration —
the stream rushes by
pounding the rocks


5.

A pile of leeks lie
Newly washed white:
How cold it is!

 

white onions
on the cutting board —
winter chill


6.

The daffodils
And the white paper screen
Reflecting one another’s color.

 

the forget-me-nots
and the sky —
an echo


7.

Whenever I speak out
My lips are chilled —
Autumn wind.

 

don’t tell me
what to say —
rising heat


8.

Autumn deepens —
The man next door, what
Does he do for a living?

 

winter approaches —
I try to learn the names
of the neighbors


9.

The squid-seller’s voice
Is indistinguishable
From the cuckoo’s!

 

the infomercial host
and the crow —
same voice


10.

Chrysanthemums’ scent —
In the garden, the worn-out
Shoe sole.

 

the scent of apples
left in the orchard
your torn sweater


11.

A bush warbler —
It lets its droppings fall on the rice cake
At the end of the veranda.

 

nuthatches—
shitting all over the sandwich
I left on the patio


12.

A white chrysanthemum —
However intently I gaze,
Not a speck of dust.

 

no matter how long
I stare at hydrangeas —
pure blue

13.

after the flowers
all there is left for my haiku
wisteria beans

(tr. Jane Reichhold)

 

after the leaves fall
nothing to write haiku about
until it snows

Across the Haikuverse, No. 1: Let’s Get Started Edition

I’ve been feeling lately like I need to share some of the amazing haiku (and other short-form verse) and writing about haiku that other people post on the Interwebs. After all, this blog for me is not just about having a forum to post my own haiku, it’s about developing a community of people who are learning about and sharing their knowledge and appreciation of haiku with each other.

I follow a few dozen haiku blogs on a regular basis, some by quite well-known haiku poets and some by haiku poets who deserve to be much better known. I also read haiku journals and haiku essays and informational sites about haiku, and I follow a bunch of haiku poets on Twitter (also occasionally post stuff there that I don’t post here, in case you’re interested — my username is myyozh), and I am a member of a few different haiku-related groups on Facebook. (And oh, yeah — sometimes I read haiku-related things on pieces of dead tree, too.) There is always enough new and exciting stuff in all these places to keep me interested and inspired. So I think on a weekly (or so) basis I’ll let you know what has stuck with me, or challenged me, or stopped me short and made me glad to be alive. I hope some of what I share does something similar for some of you.

(N.B.: I’m limiting myself to what has been posted, or what I have discovered, in the last week or so. You have to draw the line somewhere. And this got way longer than I expected even with that constraint. That being said … if you find something haiku-related this week that you think others would enjoy, send me the URL and I may post it in my next version of this feature.)

___________________________

For this All Souls’ Eve, Margaret Dornaus, over at Haiku-doodle, has posted a great selection of haiku that pay tribute to loved ones who have passed away. (The haiku for my father that I wrote for his birthday earlier this week is one of them.) It’s worth taking a look at them. I mean, not only are the haiku worth reading, but Margaret has an actual ability to do layout (the bane of my existence), which means they are literally worth looking at.

I really like the ambiguity caused by the way Patti Niehoff of A Night Kitchen has split up the lines in her autumn (Halloween?) themed poem “can’t avoid.

As usual I found all kinds of treasures this week at Fay Aoyagi’s Blue Willow Haiku World, including her translations of the Japanese haiku autumn wind, still lonely (which I think must be a riff on Basho’s famous haiku about the autumn road along which no one is passing), and holding my knees. Also, Fay’s own haiku Halloween.

Daily Haiku usually has plenty worth reading — my favorite this week was Robert Epstein’s Indian summer day.

David Marshall’s Haiku Streak is one of the first haiku blogs I started reading and still one of those I enjoy the most. He writes a daily haiku; they are often surreal, always utterly original — he has his own inimitable style which is not quite like anyone else’s. This week I found myself drawn to “The New Apocalypse.”

Issa’s Sunday Service at Issa’s Untidy Hut (the blog of The Lilliput Review) is one of the highlights of my week. It combines rock music (including embedded audio), haiku (always including one by my man Issa!), other poetry, and literary and philosophical musings to create a mind-altering experience. This week’s song is Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out This Morning”; Tom Paine’s Common Sense is mentioned in the context of the upcoming midterm elections; there are a couple of great autumn-related poems; and the Issa haiku about cherry blossoms is going on my list of all-time favorites. Added bonus: Check out the jukebox in the sidebar that enables you to play all the songs from all 76 Sunday Services.

At his blog lakes and now wolves, Scott Metz’s “leaf shadows” is as thought-provoking as most of his ku.

Stacey Wilson’s found haiku collages at the odd inkwell are wonderful both to look at and read. I especially liked “autumn sun” this week.

I just got around to downloading the most recent issue of Roadrunner (X:3, issued in September) and all kinds of wild ku are now spinning through my head, including Peter Yovu’s wonderful

the night heron’s cry
your left elbow slightly
sharper than your right

Notes from the Gean also published its most recent issue in September and I have been revisiting it more or less weekly since then. This journal publishes a lot of haiku (and tanka, haiga, haibun, renga) and it’s hard to absorb it all at once. Right now I’m very fond of Chen-ou Liu’s one-line haiku:

single married single again a rushing river

And I also think it would be worth your while to read Zane Parks’s haibun “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

I found a lot to think about in Susan Antolin’s essay on her blog Artichoke Season about what makes a “good” poem. (If you go there, you should also spend some time reading Susan’s wonderful haiku and haibun.)

Curtis Dunlap’s Blogging Along Tobacco Road has a great feature called “Three Questions” in which the same three questions are posed to a wide variety of haiku poets, which provides a fascinating look at their varied motivations for writing haiku and understandings of what haiku is. This week the featured poet is Aubrie Cox, a college student who is already a fine haiku poet (and whom I met at Mineral Point and have spent some time batting around ideas about haiku and other literature since then).

If you are on Facebook, I highly recommend joining the pages (or liking them, or whatever the heck it is they call it these days) “haiku now” and “The Haiku Foundation,” where there is almost always some kind of lively discussion of some aspect of haiku going on and where haiku poets from all over share their work and comment on others’. The Haiku Foundation has a regular, weekly-or-so feature where they ask members to contribute a haiku on a particular theme — the current one is “water.” It’s fascinating to see all the different riffs on the topic.

Also on Facebook: Michael Dylan Welch has just come up with the brilliant idea of NaHaiWriMo, a takeoff on NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month that is starting tomorrow (and that I have, probably unwisely, signed up to participate in, because I don’t have enough to do, I guess.) NaHaiWriMo, naturally, calls for participants to write one haiku a day for a month, in this case the mercifully short month of February. You can join the group now, though, and start commiserating with your fellow participants several months ahead of time.

Via Facebook I have recently become an admirer of the haiku of Vincent Hoarau, who writes primarily in French but frequently translates his haiku into English for the benefit of the non-Francophones among us. I find that my high-school French (as well as the services of a good French-English dictionary) is just sufficient to allow me to enjoy the rhythms of Vincent’s French haiku, such as the one he posted on Facebook yesterday without translation (but I am not going to attempt to translate for you lest I completely embarrass myself):

l’heure d’hiver
dans la paleur de l’aube
un peu perdue

Dead-tree news: From the Everyman’s Library Haiku, which I have been slowly making my way through, several verses have been resonating with me this week (all translations by the not-necessarily-accurate but stylistically pleasant R.H. Blyth):

The flea
That is poor at jumping,
All the more charming.
— Issa

A cage of fireflies
For the sick child:
Loneliness.
— Ryota

The beginning of autumn,
Decided
By the red dragonfly.
— Shirao

Between the moon coming out
And the sun going in —
The red dragonflies.
— Nikyu

The peony
Made me measure it
With my fan.
— Issa

Having cut the peony,
I felt dejected
That morning.
— Buson

From what flowering tree
I know not,
But ah, the fragrance!
— Basho

Roses;
The flowers are easy to paint,
The leaves difficult.
— Shiki

This willow-tree
That looks like a white cat,
Is also a votive flower.
— Issa

As if nothing had happened,
The crow,
And the willow.
— Issa

And that’s the Haikuverse for this week. See you again soon.

Batting 10,000: David Lanoue and Issa

Anyone who’s been hanging out around here for a while knows that I am a great admirer (OK, a rabid fan) of the classical Japanese haiku poet Issa, who lived and wrote at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. I am also a fan of Issa’s prolific and talented translator David Lanoue, whose amazing database of Issa’s haiku is one of the greatest resources haiku poets have at their disposal. So I feel I must mark here on the blog the occasion of David’s translation of his 10,000th Issa haiku (which, believe it or not, is less than half the haiku Issa ever wrote). I can’t even wrap my mind around the effort required to complete 10,000 skillful translations, and that isn’t even close to all David has done with his time since he started this project in, good God, 1984.

According to David, number 10,000 will be his last, although he’ll keep revising previous translations. I hope he’s sitting down in a comfortable chair right now, having a cup of tea (that is, after all, what “Issa” means) and feeling pleased with himself. He deserves a rest.

One of the numerous great features of David’s database is that it includes enlightening and frequently entertaining textual and biographical notes on many of the haiku, including this final one, so we get to learn that

the priest
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

is remarkably similar to another haiku Issa wrote six years earlier:

the mountain hermit
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

It’s interesting to speculate on what was going on here: Was the second haiku a deliberate rewriting of the first? Had Issa simply forgotten that he had written a similar haiku all those years ago? Or did he think of the second haiku as being a completely new poem, the substitution of “priest” for “mountain hermit” sufficiently distinguishing the two that both could stand on their own? Knowing Issa, I tend to lean toward the last option. He was all about specificity. Two different guys may have the same attitude toward the fireflies that are getting in their face, but they’re still two different guys. Those two haiku are no more the same poem than Shakespeare’s love sonnets are all the same sonnet.

*

There’s a lot of stuff on David’s site to explore besides the haiku (and just exploring the haiku could take you a lifetime). While noodling around it recently I discovered two highly enlightening essays on Issa by two poets, Carlos Fleitas and Gabriel Rosenstock. The best thing would be to read them in their entirety, because they are not only informative but wonderfully written and wise and will give you a greater understanding not just of Issa but of the nature and possibilities of haiku in general. But I’ll just quote a few brief passages here to whet your appetite.

Carlos Fleitas discusses the possibility that Issa’s life history profoundly affected his haiku poetics:

“The series of tragic events in the course of his life contain, for the most part, one very special quality that stands out. This is the fact that they are all surprising, unexpected, and brutally sudden events. In this sense, the deaths of highly significant figures in his life from his infancy on provide a recurring theme in his destiny. These events might have shaped a certain characteristic I find in the poet’s haiku. I’m referring to the brusque and unforeseen character of the poetry’s resolution in the third line. If this is indeed a characteristic of haiku, in Issa it appears emphasized and magnified. How different this is from Basho’s poetic concept that develops without bumps—almost glidingly—so that the third line provides continuity, not harshly contrasting to what came before, but rather an effect that is flowing and harmonious.
“… Issa would seem to have been “hurled” into everyday life, instead of being introduced gradually to its most crude aspects. This is why in his works we encounter not only the beauty and rapture typical of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, but also elements far removed from the expected. Lice, piss, the body’s decline…emerge as aspects of phenomenological reality that live, side by side, with lotus, moon, and tea.”

– Carlos Fleitas, “Carlos Fleitas on Issa

I think that many people are put off by these qualities in Issa’s haiku — their earthiness, their jarring transitions — but for Gabriel Rosenstock, these elements are part of Issa’s “universal spirit,” one which embraces every element in the world, forcing an awareness and acceptance of reality that are connected to his Buddhist beliefs. Rosenstock tries to cultivate something of Issa’s spirit in himself:

My Romanian grandson, Seán, visited us recently and I introduced him to all my friends, including a dog turd. Flies had gathered. ‘Say hello to my friends, the poo-flies!” I said to him. He was somewhat astounded by my circle of friends but I think he got the message.

– Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

Reading Issa’s haiku, for Rosenstock, is more like a spiritual than a literary experience:

I find myself being transformed by reading favourite haiku. It’s not easy to describe. As I said above, it’s more than a mood. It’s not like being injected with a mood-altering substance. It is really an awakening.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

I agree…and on that note I want to end with a sampling of some of my favorite haiku by Issa. These are all David Lanoue’s translations. Thanks, David.

 

today too, today too
the winter wind has strewn about
the vegetables

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

first winter rain–
the world fills up
with haiku

evening–
he wipes horse shit off his hand
with a chrysanthemum

words
are a waste of time…
poppies

my dead mother–
every time I see the ocean
every time…

 

how irritating!
the wild geese freely
call their friends

[David notes that this haiku was written after Issa suffered a stroke and temporarily lost his power of speech.]

 

my favorite cormorant
the one who surfaces
with nothing

from the great bronze
Buddha’s nose…
a swallow!

plum blossom scent–
for whoever shows up
a cracked teacup

weak tea–
every day the butterfly
stops by

the day is long
the day is so long!
tears

a blind child–
to his right, to his left
steady winter rain

little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

[David notes: "This is the first haiku by Issa that I read. I found it in J. D. Salinger's novel, Franny and Zooey." Me too.]

you’ve wrecked
my year’s first dream!
cawing crow

banging the temple gong
just for fun…
cool air

this year there’s someone
for me to nag…
summer room

your rice field
my rice field
the same green

one man, one fly
one large
sitting room

morning dew
more than enough
for face-washing

just being alive
I
and the poppy

on the great flood’s
100th anniversary…
“cuckoo!”

rain on withered fields
resounds…
my pillow

the owl’s year
is running out…
atop the pole

in cold water
sipping the stars…
Milky Way

Kyoto, Kyoto
in the heart of Kyoto!
pufferfish soup

first snowfall
one, two, three, four
five, six people

the distant mountain
reflected in his eyes…
dragonfly

I call dibs
on the red ones!
plum blossoms

don’t sing, insects!
the world will get better
in its own time

October 24: You and only you

So here we are again, exhibiting the peculiar human fascination with round numbers by celebrating my 300th blog post. It’s only fair that I should do this by letting some of you get a word in edgewise for a change — after all, without you there wouldn’t be a me. Or rather, there would, of course. I think. Or is it like the tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it?

Anyway. You’re all such great listeners. And responders. The comments on this blog are like food and drink to me, and I say that as a person with more than a passing interest in food and drink. I have a suspicion I might have given up this whole crazy enterprise long ago if it weren’t for all of you, jollying me along, telling me politely what’s what, suggesting I might want to rethink one or two things, and just generally making me feel like I knew something but not too much, which is the right attitude to encourage in a blatant newcomer to any enterprise. There is some kind of charmed atmosphere around this blog which I can only attribute to the kind, thoughtful, and intelligent way all of you have received me, and each other.

These contributions were all so wonderful to read and made me feel luckier than ever. I loved seeing tanka and haiga among the contributions as well as haiku — I can’t do those things, or at least I haven’t tried yet, so it’s nice to have readers who can and are willing to share. I’ve posted all the contributions in the order they arrived in my email inbox. I hope you all enjoy.

Note: There were four haikuists who took up my (tongue-in-cheek) challenge to use the number 300 in their haiku in some way. They earn the promised bonus points, though I’m not quite sure yet what those can be redeemed for. :) Congrats to Alan Summers, Steve Mitchell (tricky, that one), Max Stites, and Rick Daddario.

_____________________________________

at the cafe . . .
caught in the firing line
of the poetry slam

(Previously published, Modern Haiku, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Winter-Spring, 1999)


– Charlotte Digregorio, charlottedigregorio.wordpress.com

_____________

Prince’s 1999
was played on that New Year’s Eve
300 seconds
that’s all that was needed
to fall in love

(unpublished)


300 klicks
from my home to Hull
a renga love verse

(unpublished)

 


warm evening
goodnight to the needlemouse*
as I check the stars

(Previously published, Presence magazine [September 2010] ISSN 1366-5367)

*Linguistic notes on the word “needlemouse”:

Kanji: 針鼠 or 蝟

Kana: ハリネズミ

Rōmaji: harinezumi

English: hedgehog

Combination Meaning: needle ( ハリ) mouse (ネズミ)

— Alan Summers, area17.blogspot.com/

_____________

obituary notice
the last of his regulars
died yesterday

— Stacey Wilson, theoddinkwell.com and inkwellwhispers.com

_____________

acorn
buried among fall debris–
the waiting

(unpublished, inspired by the post “acorn time”)


symmetry
in the bare willows –
the shape of longing

 

 

– Alegria Imperial, jornales.wordpress.com

_____________

Down this road – alone
silent, solitary, still
watching autumn fall.

(after Basho’s Kono michi ya!)


— Margaret Dornaus, haikudoodle.wordpress.com

_____________

sunlit garden
when did my father grow
an old man’s neck?

(Previously published, Frogpond, Fall 2006)


sprinkling her ashes
on the rocks at high tide
the long walk back

(From the haibun, In the Air [Planet, The Welsh Internationalist Spring 2007])

 

 

– Lynne Rees, www.lynnerees.com

_____________

october roses
the last but the most vivid
than ever

faded petals
the scent of their soft touch
on my cheek

 

— Claire

_____________

first serial publication
grandma asks
when I started drinking

(Previously published, bottle rockets #22)



haiku history lecture
doodling
paper lanterns

(Previously published, tinywords 9.1)


— Aubrie Cox, aubriecox.wordpress.com

_____________

Rivers Fast

Rivers fast!
Strongest
Clean…
Refreshing

 

Flower Waits

Flower waits
For bee
You see,
Bird told me

 

— Laz Freedman, lazfreedman.wordpress.com

_____________

crow lands on post
carries a grasshopper
can’t talk now

 

 

soft breeze
I regard nature, but wait —
I am nature

 

— Steve Mitchell, heednotsteve.wordpress.com

_____________

February wind
I want to believe
the crocus

early thaw––
the earth tugging
at my footsteps

 

(These two both took first place in the Shiki Kukai for the months in which they were submitted. I regard the first of them as my “signature haiku.”)


— Bill Kenney, haiku-usa.blogspot.com

_____________

reading history
seagulls gather on the beach
then fly away

(From Poems from Oostburg, Wisconsin: ellenolinger.wordpress.com)


turning the page
of a new book
branch of gold leaves

(From New Poems: Inspired by the Psalms and Nature: elingrace.wordpress.com)

 

— Ellen Olinger

_____________

the photo booth
becomes a grave-marker
our snapshots

how nice to see the sun
again, despite
returning spiders

 

— Ashley Capes, ashleycapes.wordpress.com/

_____________

who needs
three hundred facebook friends when
haiku are three lines

three fluttering notes
drift through the passage to find
the player and score

 

— Max Stites, outspokenomphaloskeptic.wordpress.com

_____________

a solitary bird calls to the space between lightning and thunder

(Previously published, http://tinywords.com/2010/08/11/2175/)


— Angie Werren, triflings.wordpress.com/

_____________

– Rick Daddario, www.rickdaddario.com/, 19planets.wordpress.com/, wrick.gather.com, www.cafeshops.com/19planets

_____________

spider song

eight syllables only
to tap your haiku
across my wall

– Lawrence Congdon, novaheart.wordpress.com

_____________

sharing full moon
with all the world’s
haiku poets

 

summer’s meadow
flowers too
inspire each other

– Kerstin Neumann

 

_____________

 

 

overcast midday sky-
her shrill voice calling
the ducks home

– Devika Jyothi

_______________________________________

October 15: 1-5 (Geese fly), and A Short Discourse on Kigo

geese fly —
towing darkness
behind them

geese fly —
change dribbles
out of my pocket

geese fly —
this lover, too,
is cold

geese fly —
down trickles
out of our pillow

geese fly —
haiku etched
in the sky

_____________________

I wrote half a dozen more of these, but I wouldn’t inflict them on my suffering public. Fortunately I have a lot of other things to do today or I would probably sit here in a trance free-associating on flying geese all day.

I don’t always use kigo in my haiku nor do I think they’re always necessary or even desirable, but whenever I start to think that they’re an artificial and burdensome construct that should just be tossed out altogether, I go read Basho and Issa and those other long-ago poets who basically created this genre. I’ve been making my way through the David Lanoue-translated Issa: Cup of Tea Poems and that guy (Issa) riffs on kigo like jazz. He takes a kigo like “night cold” or “winter rain” (pages 80 and 81, in case you’re interested) and uses it like a chord, putting it into so many different contexts and surrounding it with so many different tones that you hardly even notice the same phrase has been used in many successive ku. That’s when you start realizing that kigo can actually be the basis for creativity rather than a hindrance to it.

_____________________

Oh, and hey — don’t forget to send me haiku for my 300th post.

365 Poems

Because we are big geeks in our family, this is what my son got for his sixteenth birthday*:

Basically what it is, is an empty box. That I ineptly decoupaged with a bunch of random scraps of paper I had left over from various other inept craft projects that I have unwisely attempted over the years. I know! I’m the world’s best mother, right?

The thing is — because, as I mentioned, we’re all geeks here — once I explained the purpose of this box, my son, instead of giving me a look like, “Now I have plenty of material for the therapy sessions I will require in ten years or so,” said, “Oh! Cool!” And from the way his eyes lit up I could tell he was not just indulging his insane mother while making a mental note to go to college as far away from home as possible.

The purpose of the box, you see, is to accumulate poems. One a day for a year. Not my poems, God forbid — if he’s really dying to read those he can check out the blog, which I have reason to believe he does occasionally when he has nothing better to do, which is hardly ever. No, these are, you know, real poems. By real poets. I’ve been photocopying up a storm from my small but select collection of poetry books, as well as printing things off the Interwebs, and late at night the Poetry Fairy comes and … okay, I don’t really make an attempt to perpetuate that fiction with a sixteen-year-old. I have my limits. But I do put a poem in the box every day (unless I go to a haiku festival and forget, in which case I put three in the day I remember).

The main criteria I have for these poems is that they be: a) not crap; b) poems I enjoy; c) poems I sincerely believe my son will enjoy. I’m not attempting to provide him with the Greatest Hits of English Poetry. (Though I do try to cover a range of eras and types of poetry, just because you never know what will click with someone.) The purpose here is not really educational, except in the sense that everything is educational. (Ask me about my educational philosophy some time if you really want me to blather on interminably.) The purpose is more — to foster joy. Joy in the possibilities of language, the possibilities of imagination, the possibilities of human thought.

This is a kid who has been performing in uncut productions of Shakespeare’s plays a couple of times a year since he was nine, so he knows from great poetry, and he appreciates wonderful language. But I’ve been thinking for a while that he would enjoy a lot of other types of poetry, while being confounded about how, exactly, to sneak in a course of poetry appreciation amid all his other myriad activities. (Oh — he doesn’t go to school, did I mention? Who has time for that, anyway?) Then I thought, “One poem a day. That’s how to do it.” And the box was born.

So the reason I’m bringing this up now — I can hear you sighing in relief as I get to the bloody point already — is that what went in the box today was a couple of Japanese haiku, each in two different translations. Because reading different translations of Japanese haiku is one of my favorite things to do, and I thought my son would enjoy it too. And then I thought that you might enjoy it, too. So here they are.

I hope you can actually read them. They’re by Basho and Moritake. I’m not sure who the translators are because the poetry textbook I took them from didn’t say (bad poetry textbook!).

If you are interested in comparative haiku translation there are lots of great books and websites that feature competing translations — sometimes 30 or more translations of the same ku, such as this page which offers up translations of perhaps the most famous classical Japanese ku, Basho’s furuike ya or frogpond haiku. (There’s a link to it on my sidebar as well.)

Here are two different versions from that page, just to give you some sense of how widely translations can vary:

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.

– Lafcadio Hearn

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

– Curtis Hidden Page

Does that blow your mind or what? I think it’s pretty safe to say that the second version takes some, um, considerable liberties with Basho’s verse. The first is pretty literal, which is much more the trend these days (though Hearn was writing in the nineteenth century). Even closely literal translations, though, can vary quite a bit, just because of the effort of cramming Japanese syntax into something readable by English speakers.

Okay, thus endeth the lesson for the day. You can all return to your regularly scheduled lives now, and think fondly about your own mothers, who would never have dreamed of pulling such a stunt on you.

______________________

*That wasn’t all he got for his birthday, in case you are thinking of reporting me to Child Welfare or something. He also got some cool running shoes and new shifters for his bike. And with his birthday money from relatives he bought himself an iPhone 4. We don’t live entirely in the past around here. Though sometimes we think it would be nice to try.

Oh yeah! My books!

I forgot to show you the haiku books I bought at Foundry Books over the weekend. I’m very excited about them…

Issa: Cup of Tea Poems

by Issa, translated by David Lanoue

The fascinating preface of this book begins, “…Issa … is at once the most profoundly devout and down-in-the-mud silly of all the great masters of Japanese haiku. … [He] approaches the natural miracles of this world evenly, showing the same reverent awe and artistic excitement for plum trees in full bloom and dog crap covered by a light snow.” True that…that’s what I love about Issa.

Lanoue goes on to discuss Issa’s “liberating, iconoclastic, democratic” vision and thoroughly dissects what he sees as the critical influence of Issa’s Pure Land Buddhist beliefs on his poetry.

These are quite literal translations, written in one vertical line, one word to a line, reflecting, of course, the original format of the haiku in Japanese. Lanoue’s rationale for this format is that this allows the reader to follow the revelation of images in the haiku in the same order as the original poem. Issa’s haiku are often set up to have punch lines or surprises at the end, and less literal translations can ruin this effect. An example:

snow

melting

village

brimming

over

kids

I am having so much fun reading this. I highly recommend it if you don’t read Japanese but want to get some sense of how haiku might read in the original. Or if you just love Issa and can’t get enough of him, like me.

The Master Haiku Poet: Matsuo Basho

by Makoto Ueda

I haven’t read this yet, but I’m very excited to because Basho is the seminal haiku poet (as well as a great renku poet) and I don’t know nearly enough about him.

This is a 1970 biography and critical appraisal by a Stanford professor which contains tons of the haiku and excerpts from the renku. Here’s one of my favorites that I just came across while browsing:

Will you start a fire?

I’ll show you something nice –

A huge snowball.

The book looks information-packed but very readable. Thre’s even a map at the beginning (love maps!) of Basho’s various journeys, which he famously wrote about at length.

When I actually get around to reading this (I hope soon) I will give you a more thorough rundown.

The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan

by Abigail Freedman

Another one I’m really excited to read. It’s the memoir of an American diplomat in Japan who joins a haiku group and gets a thoroughly Japanese grounding in the writing of haiku and, in the process, learns quite a bit about Japanese culture.

Just paging through, I see lots and lots of really wonderful haiku (given in both English and Japanese) — some classical and some contemporary. Here’s a great one (by an elderly man being tested for cancer):

into my kidney

a tube pierces

ah, the summer heat!

I’m really looking forward to finding out more about the haiku scene in Japan — even though we are developing our own strong traditions, I think we English-language haiku poets have a lot to learn from the Japanese still. So many of their haiku seem so much fresher and more imaginative than most English-language haiku.

Again, I will give you a more thorough report on this book once I’ve actually read it. It’s on the top of the pile on my nightstand, so with any luck you won’t have long to wait.

“Cradle”: Winding down …

Okay. This will be my last bulletin from the Cradle of American Haiku Festival. I hope my coverage hasn’t been too exhaustive (or exhausting). I’ve just found the whole experience so much fun and so fascinating that I wanted to give everyone who’s never been to a haiku conference some sense of what it’s all about. Also, I learned so much that I didn’t want to forget and that I thought was worth sharing.

So. We’ve reached the end of the “mostly educational” phase of the conference and are moving on to the “mostly social” phase. By this point I had met enough people and felt comfortable enough in the group that instead of cowering in a corner, I actually found myself having lots of lively conversations and making new friends. It was an amazing feeling to be in the presence of so many other people who were passionate about haiku, especially since before this weekend I’d never met another haiku poet in person. Now I know so many I can’t even remember all their names.

While sitting on the porch of Foundry Books, reviving myself after a long day of lectures and workshops by scarfing down several more of the fantastic chocolate chip cookies that I had developed a serious addiction to the day before, I had a nice conversation with Gayle Bull about her amazing garden, songbirds, and life in a hundred-and-sixty-year-old house in Mineral Point (tip: dress warmly in winter). Gayle also invited me to meet with her haiku group in Mineral Point — I may take her up on that (although I am still thinking of starting a group in Madison, if that doesn’t require too insane a time commitment).

At cocktail hour and the picnic following, Charlie Trumbull and I discovered that we had shared an undergraduate university and major and compared notes on the one professor in our department who was there at the same time as both of us. I talked to a guy from Madison whom I’d known in another context many years ago and got caught up. I had a lot of fun talking to a librarian — my current subject of graduate study — and her husband who is in (more or less) the same line of work as my husband. I got to know Lidia Rozmus, a wonderful haiga artist who is originally from Poland, and bonded with her over discussions of life behind the Iron Curtain (I spent a semester studying in Moscow before the collapse of the Soviet Union).

A haiku reading ended the evening once again. One of the highlights of this for me was Jerome Cushman’s sign language interpretations of haiku — I have a special interest in this since my sister works at a school for the deaf and is a fluent signer. He started by signing Basho’s famous frogpond haiku, asking us to guess what we thought it was (I got it — the hop of the frog into the pond and the splash were unmistakable).

Randy Brooks’s undergraduate student Aubrie (apologies to Aubrie, I don’t remember her last name*) entertained us with her haiku:

haiku conference
I’m everyone’s
granddaughter†

Some of us indignantly retorted that we were only old enough to be her mother, not her grandmother! But it’s true that Aubrie was the youngest person there by probably at least fifteen years. I’m still trying to ponder the significance of this — is haiku something that people generally come to later in life? Or does the younger generation mostly have no interest in haiku? Are we dying out, like the classical music audience?

I read my “Seasonal Mathematics” sequence, which I thought got a slightly warmer reception than my full moon sequence of the night before. (It turns out that Lee Gurga was an undergraduate math major, so he appreciated it.) Still, I felt kind of like the freshman on the team, trying with limited success to hit the ball the way the upperclassmen do.

I was sad not to be able to attend any of Sunday’s events, which included a ginko walk and the results of the haiku kukai that was held over the weekend. It was hard to say goodbye to everyone. (Though I got lots of email addresses, so I’m hoping to keep in touch with some.) But I’m already making plans to attend the Haiku North America conference that the Brookses are holding in Decatur next summer … it’s just too much fun to be surrounded by real live haikuists.

Not that I don’t love you guys … why don’t you come too, so I can finally meet some of you?

autumn beer —
haiku poets
can’t stop talking

__________________

*Cox! Her last name is Cox! I knew that, really I did.

†Revised to remove the word “first” from the beginning of the ku, since Aubrie tells me I imagined that part.

On Hats and Haibun

So. Lunch is over. (It was very pleasant — I hiked across the street to the Red Rooster, where I always go when I’m in Mineral Point, to eat Cornish pasty. [Big Cornish population in Mineral Point.] Randy Brooks, his wife Shirley, and his student Aubrie saw me when they came in and invited me to eat with them. The conversation ranged from iPads to haiku poetry slams.)

We’re back at the Opera House for the afternoon’s workshops. The first one was fascinatingly titled “Hat Haiku.” I had no idea what that was all about. It turned out to be a small-group haiku critique session, in which everyone anonymously puts a haiku they’ve written into a hat and then draws out someone else’s for the group to discuss.

Francine Banwarth led this session — she is a well-known haiku poet from Dubuque, Iowa, which is even nearer to Mineral Point than Madison is. She was one of the co-coordinators of the conference and is an extremely kind person. (Dubuque has an active haiku group and Francine very nicely invited me to meet with them — there is already another Madisonian who drives over there once a month. I don’t really think that I’m up for four hours of driving even for the sake of haiku, but I appreciated the invitation.)

One thing that didn’t really appeal to me about this workshop was the emphasis Francine placed on getting your haiku published. It does seem that just about everybody there except me seemed to see this as an important goal. Most of them are published already, in fact. (I know because Francine asked for a show of hands.)

I don’t know, maybe it’s just sour grapes or something (though I’ve barely even tried to get published and I’ve only been writing haiku for four months so I’m hardly offended that editors are not falling over themselves to publish my stuff), but I get very nervous when I think about trying to shape my haiku to meet an editor’s preferences or expectations. I feel like I am really still trying to find my voice as a haiku poet and I don’t want to be trying to write like everyone else in every other journal (not that there is not wonderful haiku being published in the journals).

What’s interesting is that Francine talked about how important it was to have your own voice to “stay true to our art and to ourselves” and to keep haiku from dying out over time, and at the same time talked about reading journals and studying what editors want, which seems to me to be somewhat antithetical to the ideal of finding your own voice. At one point she asked how many of us knew when we’d written a good haiku, and her criteria for a “good haiku” seemed to be one that an editor would accept.

I guess I just feel like at this point I want to experiment as wildly as I can, and not get overly bogged down in whether my haiku are “good” by an editor’s definition — I want to find my own standard of “good haiku.” Which isn’t to say that I don’t feel I can learn by reading the haiku of others or talking to other poets. I was seriously inspired by the wonderful haiku I encountered this weekend, and the critique session that followed Francine’s introduction was wonderful. The discussion was lively, intelligent, sometimes contentious but always respectful.

I learned an immense amount, not least because both Lee Gurga and Randy Brooks were in my group — both wonderful poets, though with somewhat different approaches; both, I believe, with more years of haiku writing experience than I have years of life — and they kept bringing up subtle points about word arrangement and vocabulary choice that had never crossed my mind. It was extremely humbling, but I felt very honored to have the opportunity to sit there and have a discussion with them.

*

The second workshop was led by Roberta Beary, another wonderful poet from Washington, D.C. The topic was haibun, something that frustrates me immensely. I always feel like it should be a natural fit for me — I write prose, I write haiku, why can’t I write a combination of prose and haiku? But every time I’ve tried I’ve known I was very wide of the mark. I was hoping this workshop could show me where I was going wrong.

Robert’s emphasis was on taking risks in haibun, journeying to the “back of beyond” (a reference to Basho’s famous long haibun, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”). By taking risks she meant exposing yourself, talking about personal matters, exploring your feelings and memories. Her haibun are very autobiographical. Right away I was beginning to sense where my problem might lie with haibun. I don’t really like to write autobiographically. I don’t like to expose myself! I don’t want to be personal!

I was cheered a bit by a couple of haibun that Lee Gurga wrote, because even though they definitely were personal, they had a more intellectual stance and didn’t take quite the same risks in terms of personal exposure that Roberta’s did. I could, sort of, begin to see myself writing something like those.

I did also find a lot of Roberta’s specific advice about composition useful — I wrote a lot of it down verbatim so I’ll share it:

“I try to keep it very short and get rid of unnecessary words. I also like stream of consciousness because I like haibun when it takes you to this place, ‘the back of beyond.’ You’re not confined by the rules of grammar.

“I try to use an experience that’s deeply affected me, either in a good or bad way. I’ll try to get a handle on it by writing about it.

“It’s important to keep a flow going so that you draw the reader in and that it also be able to be a spoken form so you can get up in front of an audience and read your haibun.

“I know people that start with the haiku but when I write I do the prose part, I do the haiku, and then I do the title. The title is really important in haibun. You don’t want something that is telling you the whole thing in the title. I want the reader to do some work. I don’t want to give it away. You can also use the title to bring in another texture or dimension to the haibun. It’s another element of risk-taking. Sometimes I make the title the first sentence of the haibun prose.”

Roberta has a strong antipathy to flowery language in haibun (me too), dislikes the “travelogue” kind of haiku that is just a description of a place or situation with no real emotional impact, and almost without exception prefers the present tense (she feels it lends more immediacy and draws the reader in more effectively). She thinks haibun should be quite short, a couple paragraphs at most.

She made the interesting observation that writing haibun is “an effective way to get into mainstream poetry publications,” most of which are not interested in haiku.

I left definitely feeling like I was ready to give haibun another try, but still with some trepidation about whether I could really do it. But after seven hours of lectures and workshops I felt I needed to give my brain a rest. Back to Gayle’s flowery porch!

August 2: Found haiku: Macbeth

In the last ten days I’ve seen five performances of “Macbeth” with four different casts. So many lines of the play have become earworms for me, especially those (and there are so many in this play) that use either sound or imagery (or both) to gorgeous effect. For instance (in no particular order):

•    If the assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch, with its surcease, success …
•    Weary sennights nine times nine shall he dwindle, peak, and pine …
•    Tonight we hold a solemn supper, sir …
•    Stars, hold your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires …
•    There’s husbandry in heaven; their candles are all out.
•    It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood. Stones have been known to move and trees to speak …
•    By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. Open, locks, whoever knocks.
•    Safe in a ditch he lies, with twenty trenched gashes in his head.

Some of the lines echoed in my head in the same way that some haiku does, which made me wonder if you could pummel iambic pentameter into haiku. I’m not sure how well these meet the technical definition of haiku (whatever that is), but they do seem to have something of the haiku spirit in them. And Shakespeare and Basho were (rough) contemporaries … so that must mean something.

*

the earth hath bubbles as the water has
(I.iii)

the moon is down
I have not heard
the clock
(II.i)

the obscure bird
clamor’d
the livelong night
(II.iii)

the shard-borne beetle
with his drowsy hums …
night’s yawning peal
(III.ii)

light thickens …
the crow makes wing
to th’ rooky wood
(III.ii)

untie the winds
and let them fight
against the churches
(IV.i)

I have words      that would be howl’d out in the desert air
(IV.iii)

July 26: Shared Water: a renga

A month or so ago I wrote about renga (or renku), the form of collaborative linked verse from which the haiku evolved. Everything I’d read about it fascinated me and I was itching to try it, so I issued an invitation for renga partners. Steve Mitchell of Heed Not Steve was the only one brave (or crazy) enough to take me up on it. This means that Steve was the only one who got to have the fun of spending the last month emailing renga verses back and forth with me as we tried to master the notorious intricacies of renga link and shift.

See, here are the most basic rules of renga: each verse should link to the verse immediately before it — should connect to it somehow, say in subject or tone or viewpoint or just linguistically, as for instance when one word suggests a variety of meanings that can be played on in different ways. It should also shift completely from the verse two before it — should have nothing in common in the ways I just mentioned. You’re also, technically, not supposed to repeat significant words (nouns, verbs and the like) in the course of a renga. And you should try to cover as many different subjects as you can in the course of a renga — to create a little microcosm. By the time you get to about verse 18 of a 36-verse kasen renga, the type we attempted, these rules are starting to drive you (and by “you” I mean “me”) out of your mind. In a good way, of course.

Steve and I, both complete newcomers to this form of poetry and a little intimidated by the whole thing, elected to take the (relatively) easy route of using one of Jane Reichhold’s ready-made seasonal kasen renga forms — in this case, the one for summer. These specify for each verse who should be writing it (with two people writing, you more or less switch back and forth each verse, except when you don’t), how many lines it should be (you alternate 3 and 2 line verses), and what the subject matter should be. Jane’s forms are loosely based on the great Basho’s kasen renga rules: the renga moves through the seasons, making a couple of complete cycles of the year, and contains a certain number of references to moon and blossoms and love. You can entertain yourself trying to figure out which verses are which in our renga.

Steve was lots of fun to work with — I enjoyed trying to figure out how the heck each new verse he sent me was supposed to link to the verse I’d just sent him. Links can be very subtle and devious sometimes. We both kept notes on each verse we wrote — how we linked, what we were thinking as we wrote it and how we saw it fitting into the renga as a whole. I’ll link at the bottom to a separate page I’ve created with all our notes, so if you feel like reading them you can.

The overall impression a renga should leave is not of a neatly ordered landscape, as in a traditional Western poem with a unified theme, but a sort of whirlwind tour of the world  via several different modes of transportation and with a constantly changing group of travel companions — moving like lightning from one subject to another, from one kind of weather to another, from one mind to another. For this reason, they can be challenging to read if you’re not used to them — but once you start to get the hang of it, they are exhilarating. Or at least I think so. Hope you do too.

*

Shared Water

a summer kasen renga between Steve Mitchell and Melissa Allen
June-July 2010

balmy blue lakes
shimmering dry heat
shared water

organic milk on the strawberries
the shortcake dissolves

copper strands
entwine the land
quaint bitumen

bright socks on her needles
she watches the people on the bus watch her

playing parlor games
unmindful as the moon peeks
through the drapes

bleached plastic pumpkins
holding a seance on the lawn

stalking through frosty grass
the cat leaps
on the tail of a leaf

the young boy makes a muscle
dad gives a low whistle

biology class picture
the children
divided by sex

anonymous in the dark
feral peafowl invade the trees

the third day of fever
he writes a poem
about the war

those brothers interred
their silence accuses

the moon
through a row of icicles
flashes of insight

on the roads a glacial crawl —
fly away Snowbirds!

andante
their conversation waltzes
to the music

light steam in his nose
hot tea hides his fortune

bright pink sweater
the unexpected shyness
of the blossom

iridescent hummingbird
faster than gravity

the soothing cool wind
so brief
windows left open

under the microscope
the fruit flies are born and die

(ME) gnashing ego
believes (ME) its own truth
fear (ME) and (ME) death

half asleep, waiting for the sound
of the false teeth being brushed

the a.c. hums
our summer lullaby
the meter spins

fish reeled from the river
silver-clad for the boating party

dressed for dinner
“Where’s your new brooch?”
she pins it on

cuttings from the jade plant
he returns her Polaroids

the oak tree
with enduring scars
carved initials

Moscow beer line —
passing the communal cup

moonlit haze
I think I hailed this cab
it looks amber

goosebumps on her arms
he rushes through the painting

cold autumn rain
she counts the money
one more time

fragile sand dollars
half-buried by the surf

the oily sea
punishment from the gods
for digging too deep

wool coats forgotten
a reprieve from the frost

damp violets underfoot
trying to imagine
cactus flowers

the riverbed mesquite
imagining water

*

You can look over here if you’re interested in reading our notes about our writing process.

*

(And if you’ve made it this far and you are intrigued by renga, I hereby issue another invitation. Ashley Capes of Issa’s Snail, a renku site, who has done a whole lot of writing and coordinating of this fascinating kind of poetry and really knows what he’s talking about, has kindly offered to organize a renga for readers of this blog to participate in — leave a comment if you are interested in participating.)

July 22: 1-2: The Technique of Humor

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“This is the dangerous stuff … [b]ecause one has no way of judging another person’s tolerance for wisecracks, jokes, slurs, bathroom and bedroom references.… Very often the humor of a haiku comes from the honest reactions of humankind. Choose your terms carefully, add to your situation with appropriate leaps, and may the haiku gods smile on you.

dried prune faces
guests when they hear
we have only a privy”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:
Hmmm … okay, here’s the thing. My sense of humor tends toward the … obscurely satirical? Wait, is that just a synonym for “not funny”? Well, you can judge for yourself.

1.

For my first effort at humor I set out to write a haiku that would encompass as many stereotypes about Japan and haiku as possible in seventeen syllables (5-7-5, of course).

origami cranes
sipping tea on Mount Fuji —
white cherry blossoms

2.
For my second effort I felt like making fun of haiku poets. Yeah, all of us, cawing away, trying to impress our significance on the world …

Basho, Issa,
and the rest of us —
a convention of crows

Had enough yet? Can’t say I blame you. But come on, are they really any worse than Jane’s privy joke?

(And don’t forget my invitation!)

Renga: An introduction and an invitation

I’ve been meaning for a while now to write something about renga*, the form of long collaborative verse from which the haiku was derived (by the great Basho), and which is still being written and enjoyed by millions around the globe … well, okay, maybe thousands on a good day. It fascinates me, because we have nothing like this art form in English — for us, poetry is a solo sport, in popular mythology the province of tortured, lonely geniuses sweating it out in their attic bedrooms or sordid studio apartments. (Or suburban kitchens, as the case may be.)

For the Japanese, however, poetry was for a long time a basic social skill, at least for the upper classes, a way of impressing lovers and court rivals. In The Tale of Genji, the eleventh-century work that is generally called the world’s first novel, the hero, an illegitimate son of the emperor who is implausibly and annoyingly talented at everything, is always seducing his (many, many) ladies with little verses he tosses off practically without thinking about it, and they are always replying in kind.

At that time, the tanka was one of the most prominent verse forms — five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese syllables. Tanka contests were popular among those with nothing better to do with their time. Renga, it’s hypothesized, began as a way of, um, relaxing after these contests — by writing more poetry, except this time in collaboration with your rivals instead of in competition with them. That is, it was a party game. Those crazy Japanese!

The basic idea behind renga is that one person writes the first part of the tanka (the 5-7-5 — sound familiar?) and another person writes the second part (the 7-7) — and then someone else writes another 5-7-5 connected to the 7-7, and someone else writes another 7-7 connected to that, and on and on — sometimes, in the good old days, for a thousand stanzas or more.

By Basho’s time (seventeenth century), even the Japanese were beginning to feel that this length was a little bit crazy. Basho had the idea to cap the renga at 36 stanzas, which he neatly and sensibly laid out in a little 4-page book, 6 stanzas on the first and last pages and 12 on the 2 middle pages. He also made up all kinds of rules about what kind of subjects each stanza was supposed to cover. You were supposed to start the renga with a verse about the season you were in, for instance. (This first verse of the renga is called a hokku. Basho liked writing hokku so much that he wrote a whole bunch of them without bothering with the rest of the renga, and thus the haiku was born — though it didn’t get that name until Shiki thought it up in the nineteenth century.)

These days people still frequently write Basho-style 36-stanza renga (they’re called kasen), but renga can be any number of stanzas really, written by any number of people — sometimes even solo, though that seems to kind of miss the point as far as I’m concerned. On the wondrous Interweb, you can find all kinds of detailed instructions and blank forms for composing renga of different types and different numbers of stanzas — I’ll throw some links down at the bottom of this in case you’re really interested.

For me, though, the really interesting thing about renga isn’t the form per se, it’s the way they’re composed and the way the stanzas link together. William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (from which I admit I have cribbed a lot of the preceding information), explain memorably:

“The point of renga writing is not to tell a story in a logical progression. Each stanza must move in some new direction, connected to the stanza just before it but usually not to earlier stanzas. When reading a renga we do not discover a narrative sequence, but zig-zag over the different imaginary landscapes of the poets’ minds, much as a spaceship coming out of polar orbit might flash now over ice and snow, now over teeming cities, now over green forests, ultimately to splash down into blue ocean. As readers we should enjoy the flow of sights, sounds, and insights as they tumble past.”

– Higginson and Harter, The Haiku Handbook, p. 192

Just as memorably, Jane Reichhold explains how to link renga stanzas and comments a little on what it actually feels like to engage in this dance of minds:

“[T]he important thing to watch is what happens BETWEEN the links. Think of each stanza as a springboard from which you are going to jump. As your mind leaps (and you think you know where the poem is going) you should be forced to make a somersault in order to land upright in the next link. It is the twist your mind makes between links that makes renga interesting.

Some leaps are close (as in the beginning and end of the poem) so the subject is moved only slightly ahead. In the middle of the poem renga whizzes can pirouette until your head spins — and that is just what is desired.

Take your partner by the hand. Start tapping your feet. Bow. And away you go.”

– Jane Reichhold, “Jump Start to Renga

I have to say that when I first started reading renga I was a little baffled — as Jane says, my head was spinning a little. Finding the connections between stanzas can be challenging, and understanding the point of a poem that whirls from subject to subject and thought to thought so quickly was difficult for my linear Western mind.

I didn’t really get it until I found “Omelet” — a renga written by Jane and Sue Stafford, this online version of which they have helpfully annotated so that you understand what was going on in the poet’s minds when they made their leaps between stanzas. Another great annotated example is “The Click of Mahjong Tiles,” written by six different authors. I also really like the example given in The Haiku Handbook, a renga by five authors called “Eleven Hours” that can be found on pages 202-206 of the 25th anniversary edition.

Once you start to get it, it’s exhilarating to watch the flashes of understanding and communication from mind to mind, from stanza to stanza: as I said, nothing like any English poetry, and as Jane says, more like a dance, or maybe a jazz band riffing.

These days, renga aren’t written so often as a party game, because how often do you have two or more capable haiku poets, with at least several hours to spare, at a party? But the Internet and its instant communication have made it much easier to write renga long-distance. Which brings me to my (highly shy and diffident) invitation –

anyone want to renga with me? Obvious disclaimer: I don’t have any actual idea how to do this, I’m just really interested in learning. I don’t care whether you have any renga experience or not. I just kind of want to see what it’s like to pass poetry back and forth with one or more other minds. (My experiment the other day writing haibun in collaboration with my friend Alex has whetted my appetite for this even more.)

Drop me a comment or an email if this sounds interesting to you, and we’ll see what we can do.

*

More information about renga/renku:

How to Renga (Jane Reichhold’s Aha! Poetry site) — information, instructions, forms for composing renga (Basho, kasen style)

Renku Home — a world of information, mostly by William J. Higginson

Renku Reckoner — John Carley’s site that has detailed instructions and forms for composing many different types of renku

4 Elements Renga — forms and instructions for composing renga based on the four elements

—–

*Some people call it renku. I am not equipped to comment on or settle the debate on this issue. Call it whatever you want. Renga, renku, let’s call the whole thing off.