Across the Haikuverse, No. 29: The Not-Haiku Edition

It is not strictly true that there is no haiku here. There’s a bunch of haiku. There’s just a lot of other stuff too. It’s all poetry, though. Short poetry. Relatively short. It all makes me happy, okay?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how haiku is different from other kinds of poetry and wondering how different it is, exactly, and whether and what writers of haiku can learn from other kinds of poetry about how to write haiku. I know there’s a school of thought that haiku is haiku and Western poetry is Western poetry and ne’er the twain shall meet. That Western poems employ all kinds of tricky, slippery literary devices so their meanings are hidden in a miasma of metaphor, whereas haiku are clear as water and they mean just what they say they mean.

I wonder, I wonder. I’m not sure I believe any more that any particular linguistic feature is absolutely necessary to haiku, except extreme brevity, or that any particular linguistic feature is absolutely foreign to it. I think the salient feature of haiku is an almost painfully heightened awareness of some feature of the universe. I could say something about connections, too, and about concreteness, and perhaps about some sort of sense of the existence of time.

But basically, if I don’t feel, when I read haiku, as if my chin has been grabbed and my attention insistently focused on something outside my own skull, then I don’t feel as if the poem has done its job. And you can achieve that effect with very plain and unmetaphorical language or you can achieve it with metaphor or personification or literary allusions or surrealism or wordplay or pretty much anything else in the bag of tricks that Westerners use, that anybody in the world uses, to direct the attention of the poetry-reading public.

So if you’re going to write haiku — and we are — it seems wise to be aware, to stay always aware, of the full range of options available to poets to describe the universe they experience. Even if you choose not to use many, or most, of those options, at least you know what you’re not using, and hopefully why. You also might realize that something you need to say needs to be said in not-haiku. It’s been known to happen.

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Poetry. It’s All Good.

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again missing light...

– Johannes S. H. Bjerg, 3ournals and frags

Lately Johannes has been on a roll with these parallel poems of his: two poems running side by side, intertwined but able to stand independently. If you find this one interesting I recommend you dig around over at 3ournals and frags to see what else you can find, it’s a bit of a treasure chest over there.

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暮れそめてにはかに暮れぬ梅林   日野草城

kuresomete niwakani kurenu umebayashi

sun starts to set…
a plum grove suddenly
grows dark

—Sojo Hino, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World

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OCDC – mixing hard rock aesthetics with an anxiety disorder*

riff 
spliff 

dry ice 
precise

Not to mention three lines of lemon sherbet, each exactly 294 millimetres long, on a mirror, and a bowl of red M&Ms

[*by special request]

– Marie Marshall, kvenna rad

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I found a lion’s mane in our old shed
made of string and raffia
when we were young we used to chase antelope
I have scars on my knees*

– Kaspalita, a handful of stones

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the bride posin
bi the watterside  –  a swan
gaes intil the derk burn

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the bride posing
on the riverbank  –  a swan
enters the dark stream

–John McDonald, zen speug

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⅔ written
damn
my life
doesn’t really work
in the 1st person

–Mark Holloway, Beachcombing for the Landlocked

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signs of spring
one day rhyming
with the next

–William Sorlien, Haiku Bandit Society

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today in the city

–Aditya Bahl, dipping butterflies

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a red apple
a green apple
on top of the table

– Shiki, translated by Burton Watson, R’r Blog

Over on the R’r [Roadrunner] Blog, Scott Metz put together a whole applepalooza of haiku about apples, which I highly recommend you take a look at.

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all the way
around the oak tree
no squirrel

– John Hawk, DailyHaiku 3/30/2012

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spring night / I give up explaining / the hippo constellation

– Johannes S. H. Bjerg, Scented Dust

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rick of new-mown hay
someone left the gate open
a little horse flew
the wildest urgent creature
between the vault of my ribs

–Alan Segal (“old pajamas”), old pajamas: from the dirt hut

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Blogged

Some more words of wisdom from the R’r Blog… about cooking and haiku.

“Tradition is everything. . . . The press . . . they love to separate avant-garde from tradition. At the end they are not two things. They are the same thing. . . . There’s only two kinds of cooking: the bad cooking and the good cooking. What happens is if we forget our traditions, if we don’t keep looking to the past, it’s very difficult to understand who you are, and even more difficult to be looking to the future.”

– José Andrés, chef and owner of minibarZaytinya & é & teacher, with Ferran Adrià, of culinary physics at Harvard University

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To expand a little on what I wrote up top about the relationship between haiku and “regular” poetry… Ron Silliman, over on his blog about contemporary poetry, has written a very interesting consideration of contemporary haiku as seen in the pages of three books — the anthology Haiku 21 (which I’m going to review soon, I swear), John Martone’s ksana (ditto), and Jim Kacian’s long after (tritto).

Silliman is not a haiku poet — he writes long, very long poetry, as a matter of fact — but he is sympathetic to haiku, or more or less sympathetic; he eyes it a bit skeptically, but lovingly. (Entertainingly, he is very bemused that none of the poems in Haiku 21 have titles. Um, really? That’s the oddest thing about haiku for you? That ten-word poems don’t have titles? I don’t know, maybe we do have some kind of giant blind spot there and haiku could rock titles just fine, but they just seem kind of … unnecessary.)

Anyway. I feel indulgent toward Silliman because he loves John Martone and so do I — I could say more about that and I will, I will. His review is thoughtful and helpful, check it out.

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David Marshall wrote a haiku every day for a while and that made me really happy, and now he’s writing weekly (or so) essays and they make me really happy too.

“When I was writing a haiku a day, I hit upon an idea I could never express properly in that form. What if every haiku about a bird, a tree, a swinging backhoe, or a boulder blocking a path set that thing aflame—what if observing it made it burn with eternal fire? What would the world look like, blazing with attention? What might be left cool and untouched?”

– David Marshall, “One Essay With Separate Titles” from Signals to Attend

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Journaled

Oh, Modern Haiku, how I love you…

Some meditations on light and dark from issue 43.1.

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one bird sings inside another autumn dusk

– Francine Banwarth

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on the edge of a forest though I tried to avoid it

– David Boyer

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a Coleman lantern
lighting the compromise
quarter moon

– Cherie Hunter Day

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all that dark matter        white peony

– Billie Dee

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deep fall–
sparrows adding
color to the trees

– Bill Pauly

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trying to switch on a light that already is late October

– Alison Williams

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one road in,
one road out–
late winter

– Jeffrey Woodward

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Ribbons 7.4. Tanka. Yes.

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I hold a slice
of freshly cut maple
wondering
whether to lacquer the wood
or burn it to tracelessness

– hortensia anderson

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it is taking
all my life
to understand
what is real –
spring begins

– Marilyn Hazelton

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hidden
by the maples’ red curtain
six kids
two dogs and a pending
foreclosure

– Christina Nguyen

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awake
during the procedure–
a tender light
wends its way
through my intestines

– Sheila Sondik

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Lilliput Review #184. If you haven’t seen Lillie before, please go over and visit Don Wentworth and order a copy or two, or ten. They cost a buck, unless you buy five or more, in which case they cost even less. There is no possible way you will ever find a lower cost-to-value ratio for poetry.

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white flesh peaches

– Renee Albert

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Prairie Dog Spoken Here

When speaking of things
you might desire but hesitate to do,
change all your “but”s to “and”s and
all your “asteroid”s to “VW van”s.

– Wayne Hogan

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into
my
nightly
coffin
of bone

– George Swede

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What If This Poem Didn’t Have a Title?

moonrise 
the wind stops

at the window
the face of
a disappointed man

not enough
time now—

for all his
belief systems
to catch on

fire

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Mushroom Harvest

Wow. You people are amazing. I say “Mushroom haiku,” you say “How many?” A lot, that’s how many. My mushroom craving has now been completely satisfied. I’m not gonna go on a whole lot more than that because … wow. You speak for yourself, I think. Thank you.

(Just a quick link for those of you who like your mushrooms with more scholarship: The mushroom kigo page from Gabi Greve’s World Kigo Database)

for a few days / the mushroom / overshadowing the oak

– Terri L. French,  The Mulling Muse, first published Contemporary Haibun, Volume 12

6 AM moon –
out of the still dark grasses
one white mushroom

— sanjuktaa

Unlike the mushroom
A snail moves to the shadows
In a forest glade

— P. Allen

Mushroom pin cushion

(Photo: Melissa Allen)

fog rising –
mushrooms push aside
a bed of pine needles

(The Heron’s Nest VI:11, 2004)

– Curtis Dunlap, The Tobacco Road Poet

Translucent mushrooms

(Artwork: Rick Daddario, 19 Planets)

a tree falls
only the wood ear
listens

– Angie Werren, feathers

dry season
the earth not breaking
for the mushroom

– Mike Montreuil

mushrooms on a log

(Photo: Jay Otto)

boiling herbs—
the mushrooms we gathered
darkening

warm cabbage
mushrooms—only wind
at the door

– Penny Harter, Penny Harter homepageA Poet’s Alphabestiary, Etc.

sudden storm
the mushrooms’ umbrellas
overflowing on the grill

— Tzetzka Ilieva

Circle of red mushrooms

moonshine
a fairy circle lights
the pine forest

— Margaret Dornaus, Haiku-Doodle

fairy rings
wishing for the rain
to stop

— Christina Nguyen, A wish for the sky…

Mushrooms and flowers

(Photo: Jay Otto)

Sticking on the mushroom,
The leaf
Of some unknown tree.

— Basho, translated by R.H. Blyth

(Now that you have read this, it is very important that you watch this YouTube video of John Cage discussing this haiku.)

Mushroom-hunting;
Raising my head,–
The moon over the peak.

— Buson, translated by R.H. Blyth

one by one
ignored by people…
mushrooms

– Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

My voice
Becomes the wind;
Mushroom-hunting.

— Shiki, translated by R.H. Blyth

pine mushrooms
live a thousand years
in one autumn

— Den Sutejo (1633-1698), translated by Makoto Ueda

Two mushrooms

(Artwork: Rick Daddario, 19 Planets)

mushroom garden-
in the damp,dark corner
full moon

magic mushrooms—
under the duvet I find
stars

dark cloud–
from the primordium
a billowing mushroom

— Stella Pierides, Stella Pierides

Puffball mushroom

(Photo: Jay Otto)

a million puffball spores
dance across my map

– Norman Darlington
First published in Albatross (2007) as a verse of the Triparshva renku ‘A Bowl of Oranges’

garden in shade and fog
mushrooms grow
where something dies damp

— Jim (Sully) Sullivan, haiku and commentary and tales

to a mushroom:
wish i were
a toad

overnight rain–
and your head expands
into a mushroom

— Alegria Imperial, jornales

new beginnings in the shelter of each other growing

– Terri L. and Raymond French, The Mulling Muse, first published in Haiga Online Family Haiga Challenge, issue 11-2

asphalt and concrete
but I know a place near here
that smells like mushrooms

— @jmrowland

in this heat
hunting for mushrooms
with help

— Steve Mitchell, Heed Not Steve

high noon -
seeking shelter under the mushroom
its shadow

— Kat Creighton

 Mushroom statue

(Photo: Jay Otto)

sunrise service;
blue meanies
at the potluck

– Johnny Baranski

Fearless mushroom
uppercuts
snarling hyena.

— Robert Mullen, Golden Giraffes Riding Scarlet Flamingos Through the Desert of Forever

roadside stand
the chanterelle seller’s
orange crocs

— Polona Oblak, Crows and Daisies

Mushrooms growing on a log

(Photo: Jay Otto)

The following three haiku are from Penny Harter’s chapbook The Monkey’s Face, published by From Here Press in 1987.

just missing
the mushrooms
among stones

– Penny Harter, from the sequence “After the Hike”

counting mushrooms
in my basket—
numb fingers

– Penny Harter, from the sequence “Snow Finished”

under the mushrooms
the bones of
a field mouse

– Penny Harter, from the sequence “Home Village”

Penny Harter homepageA Poet’s Alphabestiary, Etc.

Mushroom with ragged edge

(Artwork: Rick Daddario, 19 Planets)

winter cemetery:
careful to tread between
the headstones
& these small clusters
of white mushrooms

— Kirsten Cliff, Swimming in Lines of Haiku

Elves with mushrooms

in the shadows
the child stomping mushrooms
smiles

– Penny Harter, revised version of a haiku from The Monkey’s Face (cited above)

crushing the year’s
first mushroom…
the laughing child

– Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

A word of explanation here: Penny wrote (or rewrote) her haiku above as a kind of experiment in response to my mushroom challenge — the original featured a child “squashing insects” rather than “stomping mushrooms.” She had no knowledge of the Issa haiku until I discovered it shortly after receiving her haiku and showed it to her. As Penny says, “It is both a fun coincidence—and a bit eerie, but then I’m used to eerie coincidences.”

Delicate mushroom

(Photo: Jay Otto)

After the rain
they come out
parasol shrooms.

A circle of toadstools-
what’s left to do
but dance?

Eating his lunch
on a tombstone
mushroom hunter.

No mushrooms there
the hunter gives the log
another good kick.

– Alexis Rotella, Alexis Rotella’s Blog

Diorama of Alice in Wonderland

(Photo: Melissa Allen. Artwork: Kimberly Sherrod.)

first mushrooms
the children steal
each other’s hats

after crashing into the rocks strange and beautiful mushrooms

mushrooms the flesh of rain

– Melissa Allen

Mushrooms in a tree

(Photo: Jay Otto)

mushrooms
the door
ajar

– Terry O’Connor

Across the Haikuverse, No. 21: Mad Libs Edition

Dear _______,

In this edition of the ________ you will find many ________ and __________. My favorite is probably the ________ by __________. I hope you ________ this post. It took me a long time to ______ it and now I’m really ______.

This week I have been ______ing and _______ing. _________ are blooming in my yard. I saw ________ the other day for the first time in a while and got very _______. I spent about _______ hours watching them hoping I would be able to write a good _______ about them, but no luck so far.

Hope you’re having a good _______. I’ve been kind of ________ myself.

Always nice to ________ with you,

Melissa

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Haiku (Etc.) For You

It’s fascinating to me how in every edition of the Haikuverse the haiku seem to clump themselves into themes, with very few haiku left off by themselves. I don’t know if this is because haiku do tend to be written about a fairly narrow set of subjects, or because human beings are really good at seeing patterns where there aren’t necessarily any, or both, or what. But this time I’m starting off with four haiku about various insects and ending with three haiku about debris, gravel, and pebbles. With rain and toys and lilacs holding down the fort in the middle, staunchly independent.

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larva and silkworm-
once upon a time
there was a girl

– Stella Pierides, Stella Pierides

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身のなかのまつ暗がりの蛍狩り   河原枇杷男
mi no naka no makkuragari no hotaru-gari

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pitch darkness
inside of me
my firefly hunt

— Biwao Kawahara, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
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what does the wasp
know about the blossoms —
windfall apples

— Polona Oblak, Crows & Daisies

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monkey cage
a butterfly drifts
in and out

— Laura Garrison, DailyHaiku

(Actually, I had a hard time picking just one from Laura’s seven haiku on DailyHaiku last week. It was an outstanding selection of original, thought-provoking haiku. If you don’t believe me, you can look for yourself.)

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toys my father
couldn’t fix . . .
summer rain

— Aubrie Cox, Yay words!

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scent of lilac -
one final breath
after another

— Paul Smith, Paper Moon

(Last week Paul celebrated acquiring the 100th follower on his blog. Really, he should have a lot more. Paper Moon is a must-read. Did you hear me? Must. Read. Go. Now.)

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Summer clouds,
how fast they build up
over fields of debris

– Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here

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yard gravel -
I build a demanding religion
from popsicle sticks

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havegrus -
jeg bygger en krævende religion
af ispinde

– Johannes S.H. Bjerg, 2 tongues . 2 tunger

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beneath me
pebbles congregate
expectantly

– Philip Damian-Grint, a handful of stones

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Cool Things You Can Do With Blogs: A List

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1. You can write haiku and post it. Then you can add two lines to the haiku and turn it into a tanka and post that too. That’s what Angie Werren is doing this month on feathers. (And I thought she couldn’t top last month.) More people should do this. It makes me happy.

summer pond
her body slipping
through the fog
I bookmark pages
with birthday photos

—Angie Werren, feathers

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2. You can take other people’s fantastic haiku and turn them into digital works of art and post them on your blog. Then you can ALSO post a link to a great essay about haiku that is connected in some way to the haiku you posted, as well as an excerpt from the essay that will tempt your readers to go read it right now. You can do this every day for a month and call this brilliant feature “Spliced In.” If you do this, you will be Gillena Cox and your blog will be Lunch Break and it will be July 2011. And you will be one of my favorite people.

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inte ett ljud hörs –
den nytjärade ekan
slukas av natten

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Without a sound
the fresh-tarred rowing-boat
slips into the dark

– Johan Bergstad, Sweden

(To get the full effect you must go see what Gillena has done with this.)

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3. You can write a series of brief, thoughtful, perceptive commentaries about individual haiku in simple, clear prose. This will make everyone happy, because there are not enough of these. From what I’ve seen so far, Jim (Sully) Sullivan’s new blog, haiku and commentary and tales, will be an excellent and much-needed addition to the Haikuverse. I’ve included a brief excerpt from one of his most interesting commentaries below.

soldier unfolding the scent of a letter

– Chad Lee Robinson

“A quick read and you think a soldier is unfolding a scented letter from a girl friend. … But on another level the haiku could be read as two distinct images.

soldier unfolding
the scent of a letter

… The beauty of this haiku is in the many interpretations.   And the one line format (monostich) enhances this ambiguity; it leaves no clues to image breaks.”

– Jim Sullivan, “Soldier unfolding

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Cool Things You Can Do With Websites: Another List

1. You can be Haiku Chronicles. I have written about them before but I should keep reminding you that there is a website devoted to podcasts about haiku. And if you have not listened to any of them, say while you’re chopping leeks a la Basho or staring at cobwebs deciding not to dust them a la Issa, then why are you wasting your time reading this when you could be doing that? Go. The latest installment is Anita Virgil (on whose haiku I have a massive crush) reading the fourth in her series of essays on the four great masters of haiku: Basho, Buson, Issa, and now … ladies and gentlemen … for your edification and entertainment … Shiki.
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2. You can be Bob Lucky. Okay, okay, most of us can’t be Bob Lucky, but at least we can go read Bob Lucky and the 25 tanka prose by other people that Bob Lucky (who is one of the most talented and, um, fun writers of haiku and tanka and haibun and tanka prose out there) lovingly selected for a special feature over at the website of the tanka journal Atlas Poetica. Not only are the tanka prose themselves more than worth reading, but Bob’s introductory essay on the selection and editing process is one of the most frank, funny things I’ve ever read on the subject.

“I never wanted to be an editor. I wanted to be a lumberjack. Not really, but there were days when working on this project I would wander from room to room, occasionally picking up a ukulele and singing momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be editors, while my mind wrestled with choices I had to make.”

— Bob Lucky, “TP or not TP, That is the Question

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Dead Tree News: Dead Tree Journals

What showed up in my mailbox the last couple of weeks and made me very happy. I may be a bit telegraphic here because it’s late and words are starting to fail me (or I’m starting to fail them). Just imagine I had something more profound and appreciative to say about both these publications, because I do, it’s just kind of trapped in a yawn at the moment.

Presence

Out of the U.K., glossy cover, haiku arranged thoughtfully by season (including a non-seasonal section). There are tanka and haibun too. And reviews. It’s good, you should get it.

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all the bones
scattered in the cave
imagining God

— Bob Lucky
[See? I told you.]

hand-thrown
another bowl for fruit
I’ll never taste

— Thomas Powell

last night of September
a tear darkens
the facial mud pack

— Maeve O’Sullivan

winter closing in…
I visit the simplest words
in the dictionary

— Philip Rowland

holiday snapshots —
all the years
I was invisible

— Johannes Bjerg

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red lights

A tanka journal, tall and thin and, naturally, red. Nice paper, nice print, pleasant to hold and look at and, oh, yes, read.

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summertime
a boy leans over
a riverbank
with a foot raised
over the world

— David Caruso

some nights
someone screamed
for us all
in the dark
down the hall

— Susan Marie LaVallee

a stranger
to the sound of my voice
on a recording;
are there other parts of me
that people know and I don’t?

— Adelaide Shaw

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Okay, back to ________. I still have to ________ that _________ about the ________, prepare my ________ for _________, and ________. Hope you have a great ________!

Across the Haikuverse, No. 18: Here Comes the Sun Edition

So. It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. (That’s a line from some song we sang at our third-grade choral concert. Amazing that I still remember it.)

This is how long it was: Have you ever had one of those dreams where the whole time you knew something really great was about to happen, something really fantastic you could hardly wait for, and the dream went on and on and all kinds of other humdrum, boring things happened, and you were thinking, “Okay, isn’t it about time the really great thing happened now?”, and then it was just about to happen, oh man, and … you woke up. And it never happened.

Yeah. I was seriously afraid this winter was going to turn out to be like one of those dreams. There was the cold. And the snow. And the more cold. And the unrelenting brownness and grayness. … Did I mention the cold? All through March. All through April. Into May. May!

Everyone else in the world (it seemed) was writing these cheerful blossom haiku and I kept looking out my window wondering if this was one of those dreams after all. Cold rain. Bare branches. Me shivering in my sweaters and occasionally even long underwear still, the grass like straw, the cold! so painful it felt like some kind of bone disease! (Should I go to the doctor?)

Well. So okay, it was still only about fifty degrees today with a stiff breeze. But there was sun! There’s supposed to be sun all week. And there are flowers everywhere. There are blossoms! There are lilacs! The grass is green, the leaves are green. …It finally happened!

Not only that, but I handed in my last assignments of the semester last week. Another thing I thought would never happen. And my son finally got his driver’s license, which means I don’t have to drive him everywhere anymore. [Though he will kill me if I don't mention that he's been getting himself practically everywhere on his bike since he was like ten, so it's not like I've been a slave to his transportation.]

And my husband finally got over whatever microbial infestation had him in its death grip for the last month, so he can do something besides sit around making exploding-lung noises. Like take me to the Arboretum to look at apple blossoms. And wait patiently while I scribble illegible things about them in a notebook. Cold and lonely no more. So glad that dream is over.

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falling in love with a memory apple blossoms

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Haiku of the Month: All Spring and Summer, All the Time

I’ve mentioned before how you can follow the world’s weather patterns by observing the haiku that is posted on the Internet. Well, I was looking through all the haiku I had collected over the last three weeks and noticed that not a single one referred to autumn or winter. (I must not have been hanging out on enough southern hemisphere blogs or something. I apologize to that half of the globe.)

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river sunrise
a girl’s shadow
swims from my ankles

– Lorin Ford, Mann Library’s Daily Haiku

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as it lands
the mallard shatters the house
in the river

– Polona Oblak, Crows & Daisies

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migrating geese
the shapes of chins
in a crowd

— an’ya, DailyHaiga

(Please go visit this very lovely haiga.)

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spring dusk -
the river pauses
for a moment
to take the weight
of a swan

— Paul Smith, Paper Moon

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twilight
settling on all
the unfound eggs

— Pearl Nelson, Pearl Nelson

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Palm Sunday
a card game called
‘doubt’

– Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World

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summer rain I’m still a fool around gravity

— Johannes S.H. Bjerg, scented dust

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a careless butterfly:
lost among thousands
of heavy raindrops

— Vladimir Devide/haiga by Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here

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“The typhoon rain seems to have stopped this morning here, but the clouds are still pretty heavy. People walking on the street are taking umbrella along. Small insects, however, are sometimes careless and venture into the pouring rain only to be slapped down on the ground.

I heard that when the tsunami was approaching, quite a few people actually went out to the pier or seaside to watch the wave. How careless I thought, but I guess that is what happens when one underestimates the real power of the nature. Being curious and being careful are both the working of the mind. It makes a big difference which working one chooses in time of danger. I certainly choose not to be a careless butterfly.”

— Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here

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春寒の山のひとつがはぐれけり   齋藤愼爾
harusamu no yama no hitotsu ga hagurekeri

.
spring chill
one of the mountains
goes astray

– Shinji Saito, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World

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it has to end:
the wind
to cherry blossoms

— Alegria Imperial, jornales

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in tranquility
cherry petals are falling
abyssal fish

— Taro Kunugi, from Donna Fleischer’s Word Pond


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secretly
still expecting
the living
that life owes me
– lupins !

— Mark Holloway, Beachcombing for the Landlocked

(I had a hard time choosing between this tanka and several others Mark posted this week that were equally wonderful. You should really go over there and decide for yourself which is your favorite.)

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between tour groups
the garden
just the garden

— Sandra Simpson, DailyHaiku

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open scissors beside a vase of water

— Eve Luckring, from A New Resonance [6]: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, Red Moon Press, 2009, quoted on Basho’s Road

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This is the toy theatre room. You’ll notice the wooden Lawyer. Took forty-two hours to get his jaw right. We’re staging Visions on Wednesday. You should come.

— Ben Pullar, a handful of stones

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(You’re right, this is not a haiku. It’s a small stone, which is sometimes the same thing and sometimes not. You should let Fiona Robyn tell you about them if you don’t already know. And this reminds me — Fiona and her fiance Kaspalita, who are getting married on June 18, are asking for a wedding present of small stones written on their wedding day. They are lovely people and if you write them a poem I promise you’ll get some good karma. Shhhh. Don’t tell them I told you.)

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Web Wide World


So much fun stuff to read this month, so little time…

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Understanding Modern English-Language Haiku” from Winning Writers, April 2010

This is a fascinating essay that features the editors of five haiku journals speaking about the process they go through when writing haiku in general and one specific haiku in particular. The introductory remarks feature a discussion of one of my pet peeves, how profoundly haiku is marginalized in the wider world of poetry and the serious ignorance and misunderstanding of what haiku is among mainstream poets.

It’s encouraging that this essay appears on a mainstream poetry website. I hope that the remarks of Jane Reichhold, John Stevenson, George Swede, Linda Papanicolau, and Colin Stewart Jones do something to enlighten at least a few writers about the real nature and potential of haiku.

cold night
the dashboard lights
of another car

– John Stevenson

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Serendipiku

Speaking of Colin Stewart Jones…I got the link to that last essay off his blog, serendipiku, which is very interesting, as is his static website, also, slightly confusingly, called serendipiku. (It’s called branding, I guess. I must get with the times. Nice work, Col.)

Colin is a wonderful poet and artist. His one-word bird haiga are really fun, and I especially like his graphic haibun, which are unlike any other haibun you’ve ever seen. I recommend in particular “Menu” and “Burberry” and “Midsummer Moon.” The last, about insomnia, contains one of my favorite poetic lines of the month: “Can’t even conjure up a pathetic fallacy.”A possibly crippling ailment for some writers of haiku, probably including me.

secret promise…
almost thirty years now
since I was
the twelve-year-old boy
looking over a high wall

– Colin Stewart Jones (originally published in Muse India 37, May/June 2011)

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Insect Haiku From the Shiki-School

You can download this unpublished manuscript from 1959, by Harold J. Isaacson and Helen Shigeko Isaacson, from the Internet Archive (an amazing collection of online texts, images, and audio which if you aren’t careful will suck you into its orbit and never let you go).

It’s an excellent collection of classical haiku about insects, with commentary. What makes it really interesting, though (to me, anyway, big geek that I am), is that the translations incorporate (untranslated, because they have no real translation) the kireji or cutting words (ya, kana, and keri) that the Japanese employ in many of their haiku for emphasis and/or as a way of marking a pause between the two parts of the poem.

Here are a couple of examples:

Ownerless
the helmet on which sleeps
a butterfly kana

— Choi, tr. Isaacson
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Golden flies ya
Where on the ground has spilled
a melon’s entrails

— Chikuba, tr. Isaacson

At first I thought this manner of translation was very strange and awkward and disliked it. But now I kind of like the rhythm it gives and feel that in some ways it helps me understand better what these poems must be like in the original. I wouldn’t want these to be the only translations I read of these haiku, but I think there’s definitely a place for them in the world. That’s my final answer.

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Women Poets of Japan from The Green Leaf

“The Green Leaf”  has a lot on it, from mainstream poems by contemporary authors to classical haiku in translation to vast quantities of photo haiga to contemporary haiku to…the works of women poets of Japan, which is what I feel like featuring today because I just do, okay? The whole site, though, is well worth rummaging around in, though it feels incomplete and uneven (but who am I to talk) and also it does something which drives me completely out of my mind, which is fail to credit the translator of translated poems.

I hate this because it’s inconsiderate not only to the translator, who has done a very difficult job that deserves to be acknowledged, but to readers who might like to know where they can seek out (or, ahem, avoid) other translations by a particular translator or compare translations between translators. So I was feeling a strange mixture of annoyance and delight as I browsed around here. But then I came upon this tanka and forgave everything.

Gazing across the fields,
at Taketa I hear the cranes
ceaselessly crying:
not a space not a moment
of pause in my longing.

Lady Otomo-no-Sakanoue (8th century)

(There’s a haiga of this poem, too, if you follow the link from the poet’s name above.)

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Bare Bones Haiku

So Jane Reichhold has done it again. Last year when I was just getting started writing haiku I used Jane’s list of 24 haiku-writing techniques to help me understand what haiku were all about and all the different ways they can be written. You can find her list here on the web and also in her excellent book, Writing and Enjoying Haiku.

Jane is great at explaining how haiku work and breaking down the process of writing them in a way even a more-or-less clueless newbie can understand, as I can attest. She does have her own particular understanding of what haiku are, which is not necessarily everyone’s understanding, but hey, who doesn’t.

Anyway, what she’s done now is create this series of fourteen quite brief lessons that take a beginner through the process of learning what a haiku is, what the various parts of a haiku are, what a good haiku looks and feels and sounds like. You could do way worse as a beginner than start with these lessons and their exercises. I really like this one, for instance:

“Find a haiku that you really admire and write it [down]. It would be kind to the author to record his or her name and where you found the poem.

Then begin to rewrite the poem. Maybe start by just changing one word. Or changing one line. Or take a phrase of image you greatly admire and see how many ways you can make it work with other images.”

– Jane Reichhold, “Bare Bones Haiku, Lesson Two: Before Writing Your Own Haiku

(Disclaimer: Obviously, this is just an exercise for your own poetic development — you wouldn’t want to try to publish the results of this exercise or pass them off as your own poetry unless they ended up really, really, really different from the originals.)

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The Haiku Foundation Contest Archive

Once again The Haiku Foundation has created a very cool resource for readers and writers of haiku, which is this archive of past winners of most of the major haiku contests. If you are looking for an online collection of excellent contemporary haiku, needless to say this would be a good place to start.

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“Repetition in Haiku

This is an older (2001) essay by Florence Vilen, discussing when and how repetition makes haiku more effective. Most of the essay is taken up by examples, which really is my favorite kind of essay. And haiku with repetition are some of my favorite kind of haiku, so this made me very happy.

the sound they make
the sound I make
autumn leaves

– Gary Hotham

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Dead Tree News

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tea’s aftertaste,
by Aubrie Cox,
graphic design and illustrations by Katie Baird,
published by Bronze Man Books ($12)
(ordering information)

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So you wanna see the most adorable haiku book ever published? Do you? Do you? You do? Yay! Okay…here’s the cover:

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Cover of the haiku chapbook "tea's aftertaste"

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Yes…that is a hand-sewn Japanese binding in red thread, thanks for asking. And that is a tiny little sketch of the moon reflected in a teacup. I did say it was adorable, didn’t I?

… Not sold yet? Looking for some more substance? Okay, here are a couple of the inside pages:

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distant galaxies / all the things / I could have been

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… I know, right? All the pages are like that.  Aubrie’s haiku are amazing, and Katie’s illustrations are awesome, and you just keep looking through the book going, “Why don’t more people write more haiku that so movingly combine the personal and the universal, that are filled with such astute and original observations of the concrete world, that are simultaneously mercilessly honest and lovingly generous?… And then why don’t they have an artist with the same rare sensibility draw touching little illustrations to go with their haiku… And then why don’t they put the whole thing together in a lovingly designed package and sew it up with red thread?”

It’s a mystery, really. But I wouldn’t spend too long agonizing over it. Just get the book and enjoy it. You’re welcome.

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Sigh. No matter how much I write it always feels like I’m forgetting something. If you figure out what it is, let me know, okay? I’m getting old, I need help with these things.

what I meant to say
still folded into
unopened blossoms

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a jumble of flowers: some news

a jumble of
flowers planted –
see, the little garden!

– Masaoka Shiki, translated by Janine Beichman

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I’m very excited/pleased/proud/terrified (circle as many as apply) to share the following announcement with you:

haijinx welcomes Melissa Allen as our newest regular columnist.

Melissa is well-known for her haiku blog Red Dragonfly, where she shares “short-form poetry as well as related commentary and essays and news about developments in the world of haiku.”

a jumble of flowers, Melissa’s column within the quarterly haijinx, will be her own unique overview of what’s happening in the haikai world online and off. The first column will be a part of our spring 2011 issue. If you have news or announcements you would like Melissa to consider, please send email to

jumble -at- haijinx -dot- org

haijinx publishes around the solstices and equinoxes each year. The first 2011 issue will be released on March 20th and the submission deadline for Melissa’s a jumble of flowers is March 8th. All other submissions are due by March 1st. For more information, please visit our submissions page.

Me again: If any of you don’t know about haijinx, it will be well worth your time to go check it out. I mean now — don’t wait until my column appears, for goodness’ sake. It’s a great journal with a focus on humor in haiku, recently revived after a several-year furlough by its founder and editor, Mark Brooks, and staffed by an impressive roster of poets including Mark, Carmen Sterba, Alan Summers, Roberta Beary, Tom Clausen, Richard Krawiec … I’m a little awed and humbled by being included in their company.

Also, that thing about sending me news? Yeah, we mean it. Conferences? Events? Contests? Publications? New (or old) exciting blogs or websites? Anything? Anything? Shoot it to the email address above. Otherwise I’m going to have to comb the Web myself looking for news and you never know, I might miss you. So brag yourself up.

Thanks, everyone.

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!

Across the Haikuverse, No. 7: Please Don’t Make Me Go Christmas Shopping Edition

Yes, it’s that time again — time to check your booster rockets, lay in a supply of freeze-dried sushi, and climb into the shuttle for a whirlwind tour of the Haikuverse.

I am going to try to make this snappy since, in anticipation of the Holiday of Boundless Capitalist Delight, I’m planning to swing back by Earth later this afternoon in an attempt to observe this planet’s December ritual of purchasing an overabundance of material goods to honor the birth of someone who spent a lot of time talking about how stupid money was. If you joined me, we could amuse ourselves by trading senryu about the foibles of our holiday-crazed fellow human beings and then repairing to a tea shop to eat cookies and regain a Zenlike state of tranquility. Wouldn’t that be fun? Oh, well, maybe next year.

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If you’re as stressed out by Chrismukkwanzaa as I am, you should go check out The Haiku Foundation’s new user forums. They have kind and helpful moderators, interesting discussion topics, opportunities to get feedback on your haiku from wiser and more experienced poets, and a generally happy, relaxed atmosphere, which we can all use this time of year.

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Chris Gordon from ant ant ant ant ant stopped by here this week and left a brilliant comment that made me very happy, which reminded me that I hadn’t visited his wonderful blog in a while. Lots of great poetry there, including this lovely one-liner of Chris’s from his 2007 book Echoes:

the rain warmer than the air around it I find your scar

– Chris Gordon

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Fiona Robyn, who posts her own lovely writing at a small stone and other peoples’ at a handful of stones, has gotten on the “write a whole bunch of stuff in a month in the company of other people” bandwagon (see: NaNoWriMo, NaHaiWriMo).

Her version is called “International Small Stones Writing Month,” and it’s headquartered at a river of stones. In a nutshell, the idea is to sign up to write one of the tiny poems Fiona calls “small stones” every day in the month of January. This seems like it would be a lot of fun for someone who, unlike me, had some extra time on his or her hands in the month of January. So if you’re one of those people, go make Fiona happy and hop on her bandwagon.

And speaking of a handful of stones, here’s one of my favorite posts from last week:

the fog finally
lifted, revealing distant
condominiums

– @HaikuDiem

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I’ve really been enjoying the haiku that George O. Hawkins has been posting lately on Facebook and Twitter. Like this one, for instance:

open water
the icy countenance
of a swan

– George O. Hawkins

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Speaking of Twitter, CoyoteSings has created a blog featuring some of the best Twitter haiku and tanka, so if you’re wondering what’s going on over there on Twitter but you don’t want to actually get an account, you could check out Jars of Stars. Here’s a ku you might like, for instance:

such heat
then snow

our lives

– @PerlyGates

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I liked this Daily Haiku entry last week:

first raindrops
an inaudible voice
on the answering machine
— Robert Epstein

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I am so glad to see that Alan Segal, who had been on hiatus from his blog for a while, is back to posting fairly regularly at old pajamas: from the dirt hut. Alan’s poetry is surreal and challenging but I like the interesting things his images do to my brain. Example:

my horse dreams
of tracing the pattern
between stars…
and, ironhooved, shape,
sew his wooden kimono

– Alan Segal

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I don’t pay nearly enough attention to haiga (there are only so many hours in the day) but every once in a while one really grabs me, like this illustration of a Ban’ya Natsuishi ku by Kuniharu Shimizu from see haiku here. (Go look at it. It’s a picture, see?)

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“Issa’s Sunday Service,” over at Issa’s Untidy Hut keeps on making me happy. Last week there was a Grateful Dead song (“Althea”) that so, so geekily references both “Hamlet” and a 17th-century poem by Richard Lovelace (and, interesting to nobody but me, I just noticed that the version of the song linked to here was recorded in 1981, when I was twelve, at the Hartford Civic Center in Hartford, CT, about fifty miles from where I was living at the time).

Then there were several poems and ku on the subject of temple bells, including:

the praying mantis
hangs by one hand…
temple bell

– Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

Really, what’s not to like?

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At Haiku Bandit Society the monthly Full Moon Viewing Party is coming right up on the 21st. Go on over there and share your ku on the subject of the full moon. All the cool kids are doing it.

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On Michael Dylan Welch’s website, Graceguts, there is a great Lee Gurga interview, from 1991 but still well worth reading. (Michael reminded us of it on Facebook this week.) Here’s an excerpt:

My personal destiny is somehow intertwined with haiku, and has been since the dawning of consciousness in adolescence. I don’t feel this with any other kind of writing, nor with any other activity with the exception of planting trees and wildflowers. But please don’t misunderstand me: this is not to say that I suppose there is anything “special” about my work, or that it is better than the writing of those differently related to haiku. But then, of course, the aim of haiku is “nothing special”—that special “nothing special” that somehow touches us at the core of our being.

– Lee Gurga


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Over at extra special bitter, Paul David Mena blew me away with this one this week:

December rain —
the long night
longer

– Paul David Mena

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At Tobacco Road Poet, the “Three Questions” this week were answered by Jim Kacian, who is the founder and president of The Haiku Foundation and also one of my favorite living haiku poets. He wrote this, for example (and I had a really hard time choosing this one from among many other favorites), so you see what I mean:

just now
as my life turns crazy
forsythia

– Jim Kacian

It’s worth reading Jim’s answers to the Three Questions and also worth reading much of the copious other material by and about him that is available out there on the Interwebs. There is this index that can get you started. I love the first essay it links to, “Haiku as Anti-Story”, which starts out this way:

Haiku are not really difficult, once you are willing to take the words at their own valuation. … So why is it so hard? Why does it need explanation? Because the mother, friend, reader is looking for story. “Yes, it’s a lily, but what is it really?” Your audience is looking for story, but you’re giving them — anti-story.

– Jim Kacian, “Haiku as Anti-Story”

Oh — so hard for those of us who love stories so passionately to let go of that narrative pull. This makes me wonder if I am guilty of wanting haiku to do too much — if I want them, too often, to be tiny stories. It also makes me wonder if it’s really impossible for haiku ever to be tiny stories. So much to think about…
But if you really want to be blown away by the comprehensiveness of Jim’s thoughts about and understanding of haiku, you’ll have to set aside a little time to read his magnum opus: First Thoughts: A Haiku Primer. This covers everything about haiku, from history to form to content to technique to language, in exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, but exhilarating detail. (If for some reason you’re a little short on time this week and want to read a short excerpt to get an idea of what the Primer is all about, you could just read “How to Write Haiku.”) Try it, you’ll like it.

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Dead Tree News: During the same used-bookstore visit in which I picked up the Johan Huizinga book on play I wrote about the other day, I found a thick tome by Donald Keene entitled World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. It covers poetry, fiction, and drama. I am making my way through it slowly. Very, very slowly. Okay, so I’ve only read two chapters. But they were great chapters!

These were two of six chapters on the early development of “haikai,” which are what we know today as haiku (in case you weren’t aware, no one called them that until Shiki coined the term in the nineteenth century). Keene doesn’t even get around to Basho until chapter 5, so this is the really early development of haikai.

Some of this story was familiar to me — I knew that haikai originally were the first verses of renga, a linked verse form which at the time was primarily a kind of parlor game or a form of court entertainment, often employing crude humor or at best clever word play. But I didn’t know that no one took them seriously as an independent art form until a guy named Matsunaga Teitoku came along. He wasn’t a great poet or anything and he seems to have been a little OCD-ish in insisting that everyone follow the Official Rules of Haikai, which he kind of made up himself. (Some things never change.)

However, Teitoku did haikai the great favor of saying that it was just as valid a poetic form as renga or the fancier poetry known as waka, and also of saying that it was all right to use a simpler, more ordinary vocabulary — “haigon” — in haikai, compared to the more elevated, literary vocabulary that writers of waka usually employed. Here’s what Keene says about this development:

[Teitoku's] insistence on haigon not only enriched the vocabulary of poetry but opened up large areas of experience that could not be described except with such words. Haikai was especially popular with the merchant class which, though it retained a lingering admiration for the cherry blossoms and maple leaves of the old poetry, welcomed a variety of poetry that could describe their pleasures in an age of peace and prosperity. … [W]ithout his formal guidance haikai poetry might have remained forever on the level of the limerick.

– Donald Keene, “Matsunaga Teitoku and the Creation of Haikai Poetry” from World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867

So there you have it … the next time you are writing a haiku and striving to keep it simple, stupid, you can thank Teitoku.

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Okay, off to brave retail hell in the name of peace on earth. As ever, it was a joy circumnavigating the Haikuverse with you this week. I wish you many silent nights in which to read, and write, haiku, unless you are the kind of person who prefers the company of merry gentlemen this time of year, in which case, by all means, go for it.

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.)

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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.

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.

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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

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*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.

June 9: 2-4: The Technique of the Sketch or Shiki’s Shasei

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

Jane:

“Though this technique is often given Shiki’s term shasei (sketch from life) or shajitsu (reality) it had been in use since the beginning of poetry in the Orient. The poetic principle is ‘to depict as is.’ The reason he took it up as a ’cause’ and thus, made it famous, was his own rebellion against the many other techniques used in haiku. Shiki was, by nature it seemed, against whatever was the status quo. If poets had over-used any idea or method his personal goal was to point this out and suggest something else. … Thus, Shiki hated word-plays, puns, riddles – all the things you are learning here! He favored the quiet simplicity of just stating what he saw without anything else having to happen in the ku.

evening 
waves

come into the cove

one at a time”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

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Me:

wind in the maples
gray seeds spin
against gray sky

after the storm
fallen branch
dries to gray

Mississippi source
travelers
tiptoe across

Haiku: An Introduction (Apologies to J.D. Salinger)

I’m willing to be that there are thousands of people who first found out about, or got enthusiastic about, haiku, and Japanese poetry in general, by reading J.D. Salinger’s short novel (long short story?) Seymour: An Introduction. This is particularly likely to be true of the type of precious, oversensitive, self-involved adolescent that, um, I was.

I was devoted to Salinger through most of my teenage years, not so much Catcher in the Rye (though I liked that too), but, in particular, the stories about the precocious, intellectual, spirituality-seeking Glass family. During the summer I was sixteen, I believe I read Franny and Zooey no less than six times. I would be tempted to be more critical of myself for this, except it may have been the only thing that kept me sane that summer. Somehow it helped to know that there were people out there (even fictional people) as precious, oversensitive, etc. as I was. (I have since learned that we are legion, but at the time I thought I was special.)

Anyway, if you’re not familiar with Seymour and the other Glasses, they are a family of seven children who were all child prodigies, though they appear only as adults in most of the stories about them — adults who rarely stop talking and never, ever stop thinking too much, mostly about themselves and their angst about the human condition and the nature of the universe. Seymour, the oldest, is also the most brilliant — which doesn’t work out all that well for him, but no spoilers here. (Go read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” if you’re curious about his fate.)

Seymour: An Introduction is basically an extended character sketch purporting to have been written by the next-youngest Glass sibling, Buddy, a writer and college English professor (probably to some extent a Salinger stand-in). He devotes about twenty pages of a 120-page novel to describing Seymour’s career as a poet — much of it, since Seymour’s main poetic inspiration was Chinese and Japanese poetry, discussing the special nature of haiku and other forms of Eastern verse.

This section, fortunately for our purposes, may be the most readable one in the novel. Rereading Seymour now for the first time in many years, I’m finding it, well, pretty precious itself — much more so even than Franny and Zooey, which I revisited last year, and orders of magnitude more than Nine Short Stories, several of which are modern masterpieces. I’m having to skim most of it, the self-indulgent endless paragraphs, the ecstatic but vague descriptions of Seymour’s genius, Buddy’s overly cute cultural analysis and self-appraisal. But a lot of the discussion of poetry made me slow down and start typing out passages to consider later. Salinger (Buddy?) is guilty to a certain extent, like so many other people, of romanticizing Asian culture, but is still very perceptive about how Asian poetry differs from much Western poetry:

“At their most effective, I believe, Chinese and Japanese classical verses are intelligible utterances that please or enlighten or enlarge the invited eavesdropper to within an inch of his life. They may be, and often are, fine for the ear particularly, but for the most part, I’d say that unless a Chinese or Japanese poet’s real forte is knowing a good persimmon or a good crab or a good mosquito bite on a good arm when he sees one, then no matter how long or unusual or fascinating his semantic or intellectual intestines may be, or how beguiling they sound when twanged, no one in the Mysterious East speaks seriously of him as a poet, if at all.” (pp. 118-119)

I can clearly remember reading and being impressed by the following passage as a teenager, and somehow getting the names Issa and Basho stuck in my head for the rest of my life, so that even though I read hardly any of their writing for the next twenty years, they still seemed like old friends when I came to take them up seriously:

“I don’t really believe there is a word, in any language — thank God — to describe the Chinese or Japanese poet’s choice of material. … The great Issa will joyfully advise us that there’s a fat-faced peony in the garden. (No more, no less. Whether we go to see his fat-faced peony for ourselves is another matter … he doesn’t police us.) The very mention of Issa’s name convinces me that the true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it. A fat-faced peony will not show itself to anyone but Issa — not to Buson, not to Shiki, not even to Basho.” (p. 121)

Seymour criticizes his early attempts at writing poetry modeled on Chinese and Japanese forms, in words that resonate with me and with, I think, many other Western poets who are trying to honor the original spirit of this form while making it our own and acknowledging the realities of modern life:

“[The poems] were too un-Western, too lotusy. He said he felt that they were faintly affronting. He hadn’t quite made up his mind where the affronting came in, but he felt at times that the poems read as though they’d been written by an ingrate, of sorts, someone who was turning his back … on his own environment and the people in it who were close to him. He said he ate his food out of our big refrigerators, drove our eight-cylinder American cars, unhesitatingly used our medicines when he was sick, and relied on the U.S. Army to protect his parents and sisters from Hitler’s Germany, and nothing, not one single thing in all his poems, reflected these realities.” (p. 124-25)

Eventually Seymour does succeed at melding his Eastern and Western poetic influences, and Salinger/Buddy describes the results in what must be one of the most detailed descriptions ever written of a wholly imaginary verse form (at least I’m assuming it’s wholly imaginary, maybe somewhere in Salinger’s filing cabinet there are notebooks filled with poems like this):

“… Seymour probably loved the classical Japanese three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku as he loved no other form of poetry, and … he himself wrote — bled — haiku. … It could be said … that a late-period poem of Seymour’s looks substantially like an English translation of a sort of double haiku … a six-line verse, of no certain accent but usually more iambic than not, that, partly out of affection for dead Japanese masters and partly from his own natural bent, as a poet, for working inside attractive restricted areas, he has deliberately held down to thirty-four syllables, or twice the number of the classical haiku. … [E]ach of the poems is as unsonorous, as quiet, as he believed a poem should be, but there are intermittent short blasts of euphony … which have the effect on me personally of someone — surely no one completely sober — opening my door, blowing three or four or five unquestionably sweet and expert notes on a cornet into the room, then disappearing.” (p. 126-28)

For those of us who struggle with what kind of subject matter to bring to haiku — should we stick mostly to nature? how personal should we get? can we tell a story, make a joke, imagine things, or should we stick to personally experienced moments of Zen enlightenment? — it’s interesting to read about Seymour’s choice of subject matter, though they frankly remind me more than anything of possible plot summaries for Salinger’s next several short stories:

“The next-to-last poem is about a young married woman and mother who is plainly having what it refers to here in my old marriage manual as an extramarital love affair. … She comes home very late from a tryst — in my mind, bleary and lipstick-smeared — to find a balloon on her bedspread. Someone has simply left it there. The poet doesn’t say, but it can’t be anything but a large, inflated toy balloon, probably green, like Central Park in spring. The other poem … is about a young suburban widower who sits down on his patch of lawn one night, implicitly in his pajamas and robe, to look at the full moon. A bored white cat … comes up to him and rolls over, and he lets her bite his left hand as he looks at the moon.” (p. 128-29)

I can see now how much these long-forgotten passages have influenced my lifelong attitude toward haiku — although, as I’ve mentioned before, I hadn’t given an excessive amount of thought to the form before last month. There’s the idea that haiku can be made your own; you don’t have to be a slave to tradition. There’s the idea that poets should have a unique voice and should strive to see and write about the things that only they can see. There’s the idea that haiku are about revealing the world as it is, communicating some experience of authentic perception. There’s the idea that haiku should ring some kind of bell in the mind of the reader. There’s the idea that a wide variety of subject matter and to some extent form is possible in writing haiku; that perception and authenticity matter more than syllable counts or traditional topics.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else for whom reading Seymour was a formative experience in their haiku-writing career. Or, for that matter, from those for whom it wasn’t. What do you think of these passages — do they enlarge or confirm your understanding of haiku, or do you find them banal and twee? Would you rather gnaw your leg off than ever read another word of Salinger, or do you have a shrine to Franny and Zooey set up somewhere in the hidden recesses of your heart? (Or both?)