February 17: Numerical Order

“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)

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seven or eight
sparrows
count them again

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This haiku appeared on this blog last May, and on Haiku News last week (with the headline above).

For some reason, even though I wrote it in pretty much my first week of writing haiku, it is still one of my favorites of my own poems. Beginner’s luck, I guess.

Why do I like it so much? (You don’t have to ask so incredulously.) Well…first of all, there’s the whole “it’s true” thing. It’s impossible to count birds. (Impossible for me, anyway; maybe you’ve had better luck.) They keep moving. They’re transient, they’re transitory.

So many things in life are. You can’t pin them down. You look one minute and things look one way; the next minute they look entirely different. Don’t even ask about the differences between years.

But for some reason we (and by “we” I mean “I”) keep trying to get some kind of firm fix on the situation, whatever the situation is. Seven or eight sparrows? Well, does it matter? Rationally, no … but so much of life is spent trying to count those damn sparrows.

Also, I like numbers. I like numbers in general; I like arithmetic; I count things and add and subtract and multiply things all the time, just for the hell of it. Give me your phone number and I’ll tell you something interesting about the digits in, like, four seconds. “The sum of the first three digits is the product of the last two digits!” Or something. It’s a little weird. Kind of Junior Rain Man. (I do know the difference between the price of a car and the price of a candy bar, though.  So your longstanding suspicion that I really should be institutionalized has not yet been entirely confirmed.)

I like numbers in poetry because they are so specific. Other things being equal, generally the more specific a poem is the more powerful it is, so numbers to me seem like high-octane gas or something for poetry.

Gabi Greve, on her mindblowingly complete haiku website, has a great page about numbers in haiku. Here are a couple of my favorites of the examples she gives:

咲花をまつ一に梅二は櫻
saku hana o matsu ichi ni umi ni wa sakura

waiting for the cherry blossoms
one is the sea
two is the cherry tree

– Ishihara 石原重方

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ビタミン剤一日二錠瀧凍る
bitamiinzai ichi nichi ni joo taki kooru

vitamin pills
each day two of them -
the waterfall freezes

– Ono Shuka (Oono Shuka) 大野朱香

Also, Issa is great at haiku that feature numbers. (Does this surprise you? I thought not.) A few examples, all translated by David Lanoue (and if you want more you should go over to David’s spectacular database of Issa translations and type your favorite number in the search box):

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

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houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…
two

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three or five stars
by the time I fold it…
futon

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rainstorm–
two drops for the rice cake tub
three drops for the winnow

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lightning flash–
suddenly three people
face to face

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mid-river
on three or four stools…
evening cool

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cool air–
out of four gates
entering just one

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on four or five
slender blades of grass
autumn rain

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a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
winter moon

and one of my favorites of all time –

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

Interesting how many of these involve the kind of uncertainty about exact count that my own haiku does. I don’t remember whether I had read any Issa at the time I wrote it. I might have been shamelessly imitating him, or I might just have been trying to count sparrows. You try it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Haiku North America 2011 – Seattle, Washington

Logo for the Haiku North America Conference

Okay … forget everything else you’ve heard about where and when the Haiku North America conference will be held this summer. Just wipe it from your mind. This is the final, official, ultimate announcement about the conference. Only pay attention to this one. Got it?

Here goes: the official press release from the conference organizers:

Save the date! Haiku North America 2011 will be held August 3 to 7, 2011, in Seattle, Washington.

Members of the Haiku Northwest group have generously offered to host the 2011 conference and they have many exciting plans already in the works, including a harbor cruise. The conference itself will be held at the Seattle Center, at the foot of the Space Needle, providing easy access to haiku writing and walking opportunities such as Pike Place Market (via the monorail), the Olympic Sculpture Park, the Experience Music Project rock-and-roll museum and Science Fiction Museum, and countless other attractions—including fleet week and the Seafair festival, with the Blue Angels performing overhead.

The conference theme will be “Fifty Years of Haiku,” celebrating the past, present, and future of haiku in North America. The deadline for proposals has been extended to February 28, 2011 (http://www.haikunorthamerica.com/pages/2011.html), but sooner is better. Proposals do not have to fit the theme. If you’ve already submitted a proposal, please confirm with Michael Dylan Welch at WelchM@aol.com that you can come to Seattle on the new dates. Speakers already include Cor van den Heuvel, Richard Gilbert, David Lanoue, Carlos Colón, Fay Aoyagi, Jim Kacian, Emiko Miyashita, George Swede, and many others.

Detailed information on registration, lodging, and the conference schedule will be available in March. For further information as it becomes available, please visit http://www.haikunorthamerica.com. And check out the new HNA blog at http://haikunorthamerica.wordpress.com/.

See you in Seattle!

Garry Gay, Paul Miller, Michael Dylan Welch
Haiku North America

You Again: The 400th Post Bash

Another anniversary, another celebration. I have to say, these parties keep getting better and better. More people. More poetry. More kinds of poetry! In addition to haiku and haiku sequences and haiku sonnets and tanka and haiga and small stones, we have haibun* this time! (That’s how you know you’ve got a really great party going on — when the haibun shows up.)

And because this is a technology-forward blog (um, right), we’ve got an exciting new party activity this time — I created a Scribd doc to showcase your poetry and embedded it here. This allowed me to format stuff nicely (I mean, as nicely as someone who is completely lacking in graphic design talent and experience can format things) so you aren’t stuck looking at my horrible blog formatting of your brilliant words. And look at all the cool stuff you can do with it! Full-screen it! Download it! Print it! (No, I am not being paid by Scribd. I just really like new toys.)

I’m not going to blather on anymore because I know you’ve already stopped reading this and you’re scrolling through the document looking for your own poetry, or your friends’, or your kid’s. I’m just standing here in front of the mike talking to myself. I’d like to thank all the little people who helped me get this far … no, wait, that’s my Oscar speech. Actually, I would like to thank all the people who helped me get this far, but none of you are little, you all loom impressively gigantic in my mind. (Of course, I’m really short, so most of you probably are gigantic compared to me. What? Were you imagining me as some kind of six-foot Amazon or something?)

They’re making neck-slashing motions backstage now. Okay. Thanks for reading, and commenting, and making me laugh and making me think, and sending me your poetry to read, and giving me the day off* from writing. See you again tomorrow.

*I have to admit I cheated a little bit. I wrote the haiku for my friend Alex’s haibun. But it’s okay, right? Right? Alex doesn’t write haiku, but I love her prose, and we’ve collaborated before and I wanted to do it again. I hope it isn’t too annoying to have to read my haiku on the day you were supposed to get off from me.

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Please note that this doc has been revised a few times since it was first posted, to add in a couple of late submitters and fix some formatting problems. So if you haven’t looked at it since right after I posted or if you downloaded an early version, you might want to take another look. (I apologize to those whose poems’ formatting was off for a while.)

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.

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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!

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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!

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.

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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 25: My father’s birthday, and a brief discourse on ambiguity

if my father were here –
dawn colors
over green fields

– Issa, translated by David Lanoue

It’s my father’s birthday, the first since he died in February. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that I discovered this haiku of Issa’s yesterday.

It’s also interesting to try to decide what Issa meant by “if my father were here.” First of all, is his father dead or just not present with Issa at this moment? (I happen to know, biographically, that he was dead, but not everyone who reads this haiku would know that.)

And secondly — if his father were here, then what? If his father were here he would appreciate the dawn colors? If his father were here he would tell Issa to stop mooning around writing poetry about sunrises and get a real job? If his father were here — full stop: painful (or otherwise) train of thought interrupted by sight of lovely landscape?

Maybe the meaning is more clear in the Japanese. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the haiku is meant to open the mind of the reader to thoughts of his or her father, not tell them anything in particular about Issa’s.

Overall the haiku gives the impression both of being deeply personal and also of belonging not just to Issa but to everyone who reads it. Everyone has a father and everyone has been separated from him at some point. But that experience doesn’t have the same meaning to everyone.

This ambiguity, this refusal of the poet to constrain the imaginative options of the reader, is really central to haiku. They are short. You can’t say much in them, and you’re not supposed to. If you find yourself getting frustrated while writing haiku because you can’t say enough (never happens to me, nuh-uh, no way), you need to start thinking about what you’re trying to say that doesn’t need to be said. There is a lot that doesn’t need to be said.

Haiku should be full of space, at least as full of space as words. The reader should be able to sit in them for a while, and breathe, and hear herself think.

my father’s disappointment —
the first frost
melts beneath my finger

 

 

 

in memoriam david allen 10/25/1939 – 2/12/2010

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.

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.

Innovators in English-language haiku: Gendai or not gendai…

Yesterday’s post on gendai haiku is now already my most popular post of all time, which kind of blows me away because I assumed a total of about three people would ever read it and at least two of them would hate it. This makes me think I should strike while the iron is hot and write my promised post on innovators in English-language haiku. Once again, try not to be put off by the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Yes, I’m a newcomer to the haiku world, a rank amateur, probably nothing more than a poseur, but no one, at least, can accuse me of a lack of enthusiasm, which you will just have to accept in place of expertise.

A good place to start, I think, would be with a comment Scott Metz posted on troutswirl quite recently in response to the essay of Richard Gilbert’s I mentioned in another post the other day: The Morning After: Haiku Faces a New Century. Be forewarned, these are some pretty polemical remarks (as remarks by poets go). If you are not entirely sold on the whole gendai/avant-garde haiku scene, try not to be offended by them but to take them in the spirit of sincere love for haiku and the English language with which I believe Scott offers them:

“…Japanese haiku are indeed, very much so, a word-based poetry, not the enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra so many continue to espouse and cling to. … [English language haiku] are … for the most part, still, ‘slavish imitations’ of translations of what westerners *think* Japanese haiku are. Creative oversimplifications, most of which lack internal energy/dynamics. creative misreadings are cool. but i think they’ve lost their virginal glow in this case. …

“One direction i find interesting for [English language haiku] is that of symbolism and literary allusions/references being used within them, either in a mythological way, or in a more canonically literary way. knowingly or unknowingly. …

“Japanese haiku, at their root, are not simply, or only, about images at all, or moments, or ‘real/true’ experiences … but about language and culture and literature: an intricately woven rug of all these elements. …

“What also strikes me … is how strangely satisfied those writing [English language haiku] are with their nature imagery. Considering how radical Basho and his followers were about always trying to do something new and fresh with kigo, it seems a shame, and kind of mortifying, that so many writing [English language haiku] don’t try to experiment more with nature/environmental imagery. To try to turn them on their heads. To twist them. Play with them. …

“I think folks writing [English language haiku] need to play more: with images, words and techniques. and that not just western poetry/poetics should be considered and sampled, but anything and everything we can get our hands on. which is why it’s exciting to see things like ‘kire’ and ‘ma’ and vampires and sufism and gendai popping up. what can we do with these things?”

– Scott Metz, comments on troutswirl

Well…I think I should let what Scott said stand as most of the commentary here, and dedicate my efforts to displaying haiku by sundry poets that I think meet at least some of his criteria for “playing” with the haiku form, doing something “new and fresh” instead of, in Scott’s immortal words, remaining content with the “enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra.”

Whether we use the word “gendai” to refer to these poets or whether we should stick to some term more familiar to us in English like avant-garde, experimental, non-traditional, I think we can all agree that most of them are attempting something different than is espoused by the mainstream haiku movement in the English-speaking world, and closer to what gendai haiku poets in Japan are doing with the genre.

It seems logical to start with Scott himself. On his blog lakes and now wolves, Scott republishes those of his haiku that have been printed in journals. References to pop culture, politics, and current events are par for the course; so is a fresh (if sometimes somewhat obscure) use of language.  A couple of examples:

5/21/2010:

the milky way . . .
we start to discuss
Pac-Man strategies

4/17/2010:

walrus with its mouth wide open war statistics

– Scott Metz

The next obvious place to go would be Roadrunner, the haiku journal Scott edits in accordance with his preferred haiku aesthetics. Here are some examples from issue IX: 4:

second dawn the dream ghosts re-rehearsing

– John Barlow

A candle is a sweet machine

to fly across the crow-

shaped night

–  Grant Hackett

A couple of other journals frequently feature non-traditional haiku, such as Modern Haiku. Here are a couple of examples from the Autumn 2009 issue (vol. 40:3):

reading a poem
of urbane intelligence
how dead it is

– William M. Ramsey

O what the hell
haiku poet finally
kills the fly

– Le Wild


Here are some examples from the journal Notes From the Gean (vol. 2 issue 1, June 2010).


waiting
for something to happen —
The Evening Standard

– Ruth Holzer – USA

the echo of fireworksthe echo ofthe echo

not speaking the boiled egg clings to its shell

– Bob Lucky – Ethiopia

Richard Gilbert, the gendai haiku scholar I referred to extensively in my essay on that topic, also is a haiku poet himself, some of whose recent, innovative haiku appear on the website Word Riot:

dedicated to the moon

I rise

without a decent alibi


a drowning man

pulled into violet worlds

grasping hydrangea

(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 1, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: 2004, pp. 25-27.)

blood orange:

the curving radius

of sunset

(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 6, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: Summer, 2008.)

– Richard Gilbert

Fay Aoyagi is another poet doing innovative work with haiku. In my gendai haiku essay I mentioned her website Blue Willow Haiku World, on which she presents many of her English translations of Japanese gendai haiku. Her own haiku are described by David Lanoue, in his Modern Haiku essay, Something with Wings:
 Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape, as “avant-garde” and “new-style.” Following are a couple of Fay’s haiku with enlightening commentary by David from his essay:

pre-surgery dinner

tiny ocean

in the oyster shell

[Lanoue's commentary on this haiku:]

“I believe that haiku is about discovery: the deeper the feeling of discovery, the better the haiku, in my opinion. In a great haiku we sense the poet finding out something in the process of composition, not reporting on a thing that has been previously mentally digested. When Aoyagi brings us with her to the table for her pre-surgery dinner, we suspect that she has no a priori idea that the journey will take us to a tiny ocean in an oyster shell. We arrive there with her, sharing the ‘ah!-moment’ of the vision and sensing its nonlinear, non-logical connection to the poet’s (and our) interior life. Thoughts of mortality, the fear of the surgeon’s knife, a vague feeling of dread and lament … so many emotions ebb and flow in the tiny ocean in the shell. The shell on the plate is itself a post-op carcass that on closer inspection becomes a gleaming continental shelf enclosing a tiny, salty sea. Aoyagi doesn’t say what she feels about her vision, whether it comforts or terrifies her; she invites us into the intimacy of the moment to contemplate for ourselves what it might mean.”


ants out of a hole —

when did I stop playing

the red toy piano?

[David's general commentary on Fay's technique:]

“Her decision to probe her inner life is not new in haiku tradition, though few do it as well or as interestingly. The contemporary Japanese poet Hasegawa Kai (whose work Aoyagi has translated) describes the shift from outer to inner focus within a haiku as a sort of kire or “cutting.” In a interview with Richard Gilbert, Hasegawa defines zengo no kire as “The cutting which cuts a haiku from this reality within which we live — from the literal place / environment / atmosphere (‘ba’) of literal existence.” Such cutting, according to Hasegawa, entails a shift of focus from outward scenes to the “realm of the mind” — exactly Fay Aoyagi’s method.”

– Fay Aoyagi/David Lanoue, Something with Wings:
 Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape

There are a number of haiku bloggers I’ve discovered (many of whom also publish in journals, but I know their work mainly through their blogs) who, consciously or unconsciously, play with the traditional Western haiku form with interesting results. For example, John Sandbach of Crystal Dragon says, “I am deeply enamoured of the modern haiku of Japan, which, like modern art, is of many styles and energies, and which is constantly recreating itself as it unfolds. Unfortunately, the West is still primarily focused on traditional haiku and has not yet tuned in to the wonders of modern Japanese experimental artisans of this form.” Below is one of his haiku sequences:

Lettuce’s Bliss: 5 Haiku

1

To die
in a hippo’s jaws –
the lettuce’s bliss

2

Remorseful
for tearing up a violet
so I ate it

3

On T.V. a spider
liquifies a frog –
spring in Kansas City

4

In spring
a stone mason –
servant of the endless wall

5

Skin
smooth and white –
the pyramid’s youth

– John Sandbach


Nicole Hyde of the blog “noodle,” who commented on my gendai haiku post, “I’ve bought a ticket on the Gendai Haiku train too,” has some interesting examples of nontraditional haiku on her site. Since she is also a painter, her haiku often refer to art.

English Bay Lune

unbound, the English

Bay in fog –

not seen: some weird duck


Art Tiny Poem

soundless

in the night museum

Wyeth’s boots


Prairie Town

prairie town

from end to end –

one haiku

– Nicole Hyde


Alan Segal, or “Old Pajamas,” from the blog “old pajamas: from the dirt hut,” innovates in many ways, often describing what are clearly imaginary or fantasy scenes.

mourner’s kaddish
does the fly, too,
wear a yamulke?

6/2/2010

unwrapping an impossibly blue bird, flown from a castle keep

– Alan Segal


Brian Pike of paiku describes his poetry as “Haiku. More or less.” In the Q&A for his site he explains:

But aren’t haiku meant to be exactly 17 syllables long?

You’re right. They’re also meant to include a seasonal reference (kigo) and a structural break (kireji). But I’ve never been good at following rules.

If your poems don’t meet the criteria for haiku, why confuse the issue?

I like haiku. I think these are similar in mood and intention. And I quite enjoy confusion.

A few of Brian’s “paiku” follow:

10 May 2010

Blackbird waiting
For idea of cat
To go away

21 March 2010

There’s a big field
Where you can dig up
Everything you ever lost

– Brian Pike


Yi Ching-Lin of the blog y writes primarily short free verse but occasionally writes haiku, and they are generally nontraditional, as in this recent example (the link on the second line connects to Yi’s photography):

it happens daily (6 June 2010)

it happens daily
with a wounded twist
– Yi Ching-Lin

Anne Lessing, the teenage writer of the blog “Phantasma,” who is just beginning to write haiku (and intends to start a project of writing haiku daily in January 2011), has produced some very interesting haiku about zombies based on the video game “Call of Duty,” one of which I’ve reproduced below:

6/4/2010

that flower looked so pretty

so I choked it

with my child’s blood

– Anne Lessing

Finally, Elissa of The Haiku Diary writes daily haiku describing events in her life, some of which are simply quotidian or jokelike, but many of which seem to transcend the category of mere diary-entry and evoke deeper feelings and meanings.

The second of the two haiku of Elissa’s I’ve quoted below is especially interesting in light of Scott Metz’s and Richard Gilbert’s discussions of the way haiku has always been in a dialogue with the past, constantly referring back to previous poetry and other literature and history. In a way this haiku of Elissa’s, referring as it does to a famous haiku of Basho’s (“The bee emerging/from deep within the peony/departs reluctantly”), is both modern and completely classical — so it seems like an appropriate place to bring this post to an end. Hope it was a fun ride.

Front and Center, June 8, 2010

Closing my eyes and

swaying with the music makes

me that girl, but so what?


I literally

watched a bumble bee stumble

out of a peony!

– Elissa of The Haiku Diary

What is a haiku anyway?

So: I’m done with my term paper. My prose style spent weeks marinating in the foul brew of obfuscation and verbosity that generally characterizes academic writing, and was kept from being permanently pickled only by the judicious application of haiku. I’m hoping there is no lingering stench. (Like the sentence before last.)

One possible ill effect of my academic excursion may be my continuing pedantic worrying at the notion of finding a good definition of haiku. The problem here is not that there are no good definitions out there. The problem is that there are way too many good definitions, and no two of them are the same. So I’ve started a collection of them, to display on my mantelpiece. Care for a peek?

+

We should probably start with the definition given by the Haiku Society of America, if only because their name sounds so authoritative. Who should know what a haiku is if not a Haiku Society? They have bylaws and everything!

(If you’re wondering about the “America” part — hey, aren’t haiku Japanese? — I should point out that my quest here is for a definition of haiku as they are written in English. Japanese haiku are much better defined, but as I’ve mentioned before, much of the definition depends on language and cultural elements that don’t translate to English.)

Like all of us, the Haiku Society have changed their mind about some things over the years, and one of those things is what, exactly, a haiku is. In 1973, they defined “haiku” this way:

“a poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature. Usually a haiku in English is written in three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables.”

These days, however, the Society places less emphasis on the syllable count, more emphasis on the nature/seasonal part:

“A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”

Okay…seems like a good start. But kind of vague and dry, really. Hard to really imagine what they’re talking about. How about some Jack Kerouac to counteract the academic effect?

“The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.”

Much better. Makes me feel like I’m bursting to pop, in fact, and must start writing haiku immediately. Thanks, Jack!

Refreshed now and ready to consider something a little more academic again? Haruo Shirane, in his amazing, haiku-myth-debunking essay “Beyond the Haiku Moment” (about which I have much more to say in another post) considers the history of Japanese haiku, the origins of haiku in English, and the current state of English haiku writing, and concludes, somewhat in the same vein as the Haiku Society but, to me, more completely and inspirationally:

“I would say, echoing the spirit of Basho’s own poetry, that haiku in English is a short poem, usually written in one to three lines, that seeks out new and revealing perspectives on the human and physical condition, focusing on the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature, and on the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history.”

That’s a great description of what haiku is about, but what about the technicalities of the form? Gabi Greve devotes a whole page to haiku definitions on her blog Haiku Topics — but my favorite is her own description, which she puts in the form of a poem:

“The simple definition of
three short lines,
one season word and
a cut marker
and
write from personal experience …
this is where everyone should begin.”

(N.B.: If you’re confused by some of the terms Gabi uses, I have essays in me about the Japanese notions of the season word (kigo) and cut marker (kireji) — watch this space for them. Also, Haruo Shirane (above) has some tart things to say about the idea of writing only from personal experience. You can read his essay yourself, or I’ll share later.)

I’ve mentioned before one of my all-time favorite haiku definitions, the bare-bones one offered by David G. Lanoue:

“Haiku: a one-breath poem that discovers connection.”

David actually has a lot more to say about what haiku are all about, but his elaboration is as clear and incisive (and decisive) as his initial statement:

“Haiku in English usually appears as an unrhymed three-line verse. Its use of intense, fragmentary imagery and its stress on rhythm and sound place it in the poetry side of the language spectrum. … Though it can be presented on the page in three lines, a traditional Japanese haiku of Issa’s era structurally consists of two parts with a pause in between. Its power as poetry often derives from juxtaposition of the two images and the sense of surprise or revelation that the second image produces. A good haiku is like a good joke: the set-up (image 1), then the punch line (image 2).”

That emphasis on juxtaposition in haiku is key for me. I’m always trying to create that effect of “surprise or revelation,” trying both to see something I’ve never seen before in some fairly common sight, and to convey that vision to the reader. For me, if haiku doesn’t startle you into awareness at least a little, it hasn’t really done its job.

But in case you were thinking I would insist on all my readers agreeing with me, I’ll let Jane Reichhold (the subject of another upcoming essay) have the final word:

I am bothered by the several times it is asked, “Is this a haiku?” I think the better question is, “Do I want to accept this poem as an example of haiku for myself?” … The necessity of our asking ourselves this question becomes weightier when we each realize that we are responsible for what haiku IS; and what it is becoming. By our writing, we are defining the form. By our changes in the form it is being changed. If the style of current haiku seems to be going in a direction which is not compatible with yours, then you have an even greater load of responsibility to make sure people see the finest work you can do in your style.

Okay, I get it, Jane. I’ll let the whole definition thing rest and get back to work. I have 345 days to go, after all…

Why Red Dragonfly? Ask Issa

The name of this blog, as you will see if you look under “Epigraph” in the right-hand column, comes from a translation of one of Kobayashi Issa’s haiku by David G. Lanoue. The red dragonfly of this haiku is a stand-in for all the small sights that startle and move us enough to get our haiku juices flowing.

If you are interested in reading (translations of) some of the most famous Japanese haiku, a fantastic place to start is David’s archive of his translations of thousands of Issa’s haiku. (I’ve linked to it above, and under “More Haiku” to the right.) It’s searchable and the results are beautifully laid out and organized, making it a joy to browse through. Pick a word, any word — how about “tea” or “rain”? — and spend a pleasant half hour scrolling down through the results, smiling at Issa’s images and at David’s elegant translations and many helpful and entertaining comments. If you’re shorter on time, you can choose to see a random haiku. You can also sign up to have one haiku a day emailed to you, which for me is like having Issa place a friendly hand on my shoulder and remind me to get writing.

Issa (along with Basho, Buson, and Shiki) is considered one of the four greatest Japanese haiku writers. He straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and brought to haiku writing a sense of earthy humor and humanism. His haiku tend to appeal to those of us who find haiku that are entirely focused on nature a little too abstract to handle, and who prefer the surprising and moving connections between human concerns and impersonal nature that Issa so frequently discovers.

David’s site also contains a general introduction to haiku, featuring one of my all-time favorite (and one of the briefest I’ve seen) definitions of the form: “Haiku: a one-breath poem that discovers connection.” When I feel like I’m getting lost in the tangle of competing, complicated haiku definitions that are floating around out there, I come back to David’s definition and breathe a little easier. That really is the essence of haiku for me.

The site also has lots of great links to Issa sites and haiku sites. I am extremely honored that David links to this site, and extremely grateful to him for giving me permission to reprint his translation here — and to Issa for seeing the red dragonfly in the first place.