Across the Haikuverse, No. 10: Bleak Midwinter Edition

One of my favorite Christmas songs (I remembered recently, when I was part of a hastily-thrown-together chorus that sang it for a New Year’s Eve celebration) is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is a setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti. The first verse, in particular, is really a masterpiece of English poetry, full of humble but strong Anglo-Saxon words, not a single one unnecessary and no necessary one left out:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long, long ago.

– Christina Rossetti

There are obviously too many words and too much meter and rhyme and too many metaphors in this for it to be a haiku, though it does have the requisite elements of simplicity and clear, evocative images, and I think there’s some wabi-sabi and yugen going on here as well. And I see possibilities in that third line for some kind of avant-garde haiku:

snow had fallen snow on snow snow on snow

Really, I think probably someone could rewrite this verse, or part of it, into an effective haiku, though I’ve been trying and not finding it so easy. Any of you like to give it a shot? Let me know what you come up with.

Anyway. It is definitely bleak midwinter here. Snow on snow indeed.  It’s nice that it’s not for so many of you — you dwellers in the tropics and subtropics and summery Southern Hemisphere. I like to imagine your lives, walking outside barefoot, wearing short sleeves, smelling flowers. (Well, those of you who aren’t flooded. I’m sorry about the flooded part. I hope no one has floated away.) I’m not really jealous, it will be our turn soon enough. And though I complain bitterly about the cold and can never seem to get really warm, there is something about this downtime, for both the earth and me, that I grudgingly appreciate. Cycles. The world is full of them, and best just to accept them.

Which reminds me. Aren’t we supposed to be taking a spin around the Haikuverse? Best get started on that before you get bored with my waxing philosophical and wander away, never to return.

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Haiku of the Week

That’s haiku, plural. As in, the haiku I saw on the Internet this week that most struck me as interesting for whatever reason (could be my discerning literary taste, could be the state of my digestion) and that I actually managed to remember to bookmark. (This whole process is an art, not a science.)

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Mark Holloway over at Beachcombing For the Landlocked has been on a roll this week. You should really just go over there and read everything he’s written lately because I had a hard time choosing just one. I settled on this one in the end:

moss growing on the roof tiles      unsuspected      metastasis

Mark Holloway

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This wonderful piece from a handful of stones isn’t a haiku, I suppose. Do I care? Not really.

A mushroom sprouts
from the base of the locust tree,
and it will not be distracted
from its small brown task.

– Tamra Hays

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In this piece Angie Werren from feathers did a nice job responding to the same ku on this prompt that I did this morning:

sometimes the rain
I stand behind this window
counting trees

– Angie Werren

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This wonderful offering at Jars of Stars was originally posted on Twitter by @cirrusdream, otherwise known as Polona:

winter thaw
i ignore
his white lie

– Polona (@cirrusdream)

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Another one of Bill Kenney’s “afters” appeared at haiku-usa (maybe I appreciated this one because I’ve been having weird dreams lately myself):

piercing cold
I kiss a plum blossom
in my dream

– Soseki 1867-1916

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Also at haiku-usa, Bill points us to a collection of his “urban haiku” recently featured on Gabi Greve’s Haiku Topics and Keywords blog. Gabi also links to works by many other authors of such “urban haiku” (i.e., haiku that reflects the reality of the lives of most modern writers of haiku, who live not in pastoral Japan or pastoral anywhere, but in bustling outposts of the global economy). An example from Alan Summers:

Waterloo sunset
the Thames disappears
from the Tube map

– Alan Summers

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Every week there’s at least one something at Blue Willow Haiku World that I feel like reading over and over — usually several somethings. This week my favorite was this one:

月の汚れやすくてかなしき手   黒田杏子
ichigatsu no yogoreyasukute kanashiki te

January
hands that are easy
to get dirty and sad
— Momoko Kuroda, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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And while we’re on the topic of Fay Aoyagi (I never mind being on the topic of Fay Aoyagi), someone on Facebook (MDW — was that you?) recently reminded me about the wonderful series of essays she wrote several years ago for Frogpond about non-traditional use of kigo in haiku. I could swear I’ve read this entire series on the Interwebs, either on Frogpond’s site or Fay’s own, but I can’t seem to find any of them now except this one: “Haiku Traditions: Flowers and Plants.” But just this one will take you a long way. Fay discusses how traditional Japanese kigo like “cherry blossoms,” which are so evocative in their own culture, have given way in her own poetry to seasonal terms or keywords that are more meaningful to the American culture she now inhabits:

While cherry blossoms symbolize where I came from, roses represent Western culture and where I am now.  I think roses demand a lot of care.  To have a gorgeous, perfect flower, one has to tend them with water, fertilizers and pesticides.  Roses are somewhat the manifestation of my borrowed culture.  “Rose” itself is a summer kigo, but I prefer to use it in a winter setting.  I can put contradictory feelings or images together in this way.

winter roses—
I am tired of reading
between the lines
– Fay Aoyagi

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OtherHais (Haiga, Haibun)

Every week I am amazed at how many cool haiku-related sites I have yet to discover. Since I have been thinking about venturing into haiga territory in collaboration with my amateur photographer husband, I went noodling around this week looking for haiga online and discovered … Haigaonline. (Warning: this link will lead you to a page where there are sounds of sparrows twittering and some music, which is sweet and pretty but if you’re in a quiet place or just not in the mood, you may want to hit the “mute” button.)

The December 2010 issue of this online journal features lots of good stuff, including a feature on “family haiga” — lots of husband-and-wife teams, so I appreciated that. What I really loved, though, was an exhibit of “experimental haiga” by Renee Owen — they’re colorful collages with intriguing haiku, such as:

waiting for God
to finish creation
leftover rocks
– Renee Owen

And yes you MUST go look at the picture! That’s the entire point! Click! Click! I think the link will just bring you to a page of thumbnails, all of which are worth looking at, but the one I’ve quoted above can be found if you click on the picture of columns in the bottom center.
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And I’m always looking for good haibun, so I was excited to stumble on Hortensia Anderson’s site The Plenitude of Emptiness. All haibun, all the time! I’m trying to write more haibun so I will be dropping by here often.

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Tanka Corner

I’ve been making some headway lately in my ongoing quest to get over my fear of tanka. I was helped recently in my endeavor by my discovery of this mind-blower over at Michele Harvey’s site. This is not only one of my favorite tanka I’ve ever read, it’s some of the best poetry I’ve read lately, period.

a fall cricket
sings alone on the porch
I too, wonder
about being born too late
or too soon

– Michele Harvey

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Alegria Imperial also published some wonderful trilingual tanka (English, Spanish, and the native Philippine language Iluko) over at qarrtsiluni this week. I have long been a fan of Alegria’s multilingual poetry, it is so amazingly dense with meaning and emotional resonance. And as usual at qarrtsiluni, there is an audio file so you can hear Alegria reading her beautiful words. Please check it out!

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Renku Everywhere

With the new year, the thoughts of many seem to be turning to starting new renku. Over at Issa’s Snail, Ashley Capes has done a nice site redesign and, after a long hiatus, has started up a couple of new junicho, with a third possibly in the works. I think most of these have filled up with participants already but it’s still fun to watch the process of a renku in the making, which you can do by reading the comments on the site. The “sabaki” or renku leader guides the group in choosing subject matter and making sure the poem flows and doesn’t repeat itself in theme or language, which is no easy task, but Ashley (I know from personal experience) is great at doing this. Plus he is just an all-around nice guy who is easy and fun to work with.

The same can be said of Willie Sorlien, who is currently guiding the development of a shisan renku at Green Tea and Bird Song. Again, don’t think they’re looking for new participants, but it might be worthwhile watching how it’s done by the pros before you leap in on your own.

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Haiku in the News

Haiku made an appearance in the mass media this week in the form of a lengthy radio interview on NPR’s “On Point” show with haiku venerables George Swede and Dylan Tweney and an economist named Stephen Ziliak, who wrote an article making a fascinating connection between economic models and haiku. An excerpt from Ziliak’s article:

The typical haiku budget constraint is limited by three lines of seventeen syllables. Basho himself understood well the joyful paradox of haiku economics: less is more, and more is better!

Stephen Ziliak

This was a fun interview to listen to — I especially enjoyed George Swede’s anecdote about his son, who as a fifth-grader took up a position as a conscientious objector by refusing to do as he was instructed by his teacher and write a haiku in 5-7-5. He wrote some twelve-syllable haiku instead and got them published in Modern Haiku (which at the time accepted haiku from students). Then his teacher was all impressed and wanted to put them in the school yearbook, but the young Swede told her (I’m sure in very well-mannered language) where she could put her yearbook. Go ahead and stream this one while you’re making dinner or something tonight, you won’t be sorry.

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The News in Haiku


Is everyone getting psyched up for NaHaiWriMo (remember, that’s the thing where you can sign up to write a haiku a day in the month of February)? Michael Dylan Welch has put together a website for the event so now you don’t need to be on Facebook to sign up (although go ahead and like the Facebook page too if you want). Think about it.

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A call for submissions for a new issue of haijinx has gone out (deadline: March 1), along with the exciting news that Roberta Beary will be their new haibun editor. Roberta is one of the best writers of haibun around so I can’t wait to see what she picks out. Also new on the haijinx website: Richard Krawiec’s latest installment of his column “Shooting My Poetry Mouth Off.” This month he implores us haiku poets not to try to publish everything we write but to be selective and try to recognize our best work, which will not only benefit us personally (since our poetic reputations will not be sullied by inferior work), but also haiku as a genre, since the journals will not be flooded with mediocre work. Worth reading and thinking about.

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Dead Tree News

Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694. The first great master of haikai/haiku. Where on earth did he come from?

It’s a little like asking where Shakespeare (1564-1616) came from, in my opinion. I mean you can see how before and all around Shakespeare, English writers were producing supple, lively, image-rich poems and plays, much of it in a natural and flexible blank verse — really, nobody could do English like the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, at the moment when modern English was brand new and no one had gotten around to inventing rules for it yet so writers had no compunction about bending the language to their will. That was the glorious and fortunate tradition Shakespeare was working in, but nobody else was Shakespeare, before or after.

So pity poor Donald Keene, who in chapters four and five of World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867 has the unenviable job of explaining how the often-pleasant-and-skillful, but usually not much more, haikai of the haijin that preceded Basho produced the unparalleled haikai genius that is Basho. In the end, about all he can do is trace the literary movements that Basho’s work responded to and grew out of, and then throw up his hands and say, “The rest — that’s just Basho.”

As I discussed in Haikuverse No. 8, Basho was influenced by both the careful craftsmanship of the Teitoku school of haikai and the iconoclasm and experimentation of the Danrin school, as well as by his intensive study of Chinese verse and by his interest in Zen Buddhism. But he didn’t just sit around studying and writing poetry; he spent much of his life traveling around Japan, living at various times both in the city and in the country, meeting people, seeing things, gathering material. As Keene points out, “Haikai shared the literary spirit of the great Chinese and Japanese masters, and the Zen quality of … poet … Han Shan, but it had its own domain too, in the familiar and even vulgar activities of contemporary life.”

It’s when Keene discusses Basho’s masterpieces that his efforts to relate Basho’s genius to his poetic predecessors break down. Basho was just Basho; his vision was unique. In his most famous poem, the frog pond haiku furuike ya, Keene points out, “The ancient pond is eternal, but in order for us to become aware of its eternity there must be some momentary disruption…This verse is about stillness, yet only by sound can we know silence.” He contrasts Basho’s first line here (“old pond”) with the well-meaning and not unskillful suggestion of one of his disciples, “the yellow roses”:

[A]lthough the picture of yellow flowers surrounding the frog … is visually appealing, it lacks the eternity of ‘ancient pond.’ … Only by suggesting the age of the pond, its unchanging nature, is the momentary life of the frog evoked. This was the kind of understanding Basho demanded. He believed that the smallest flower or insect if properly seen and understood could suggest all of creation, and each had its reason for existence.

– Donald Keene, World Within Walls

By the end of his life Basho’s poetic ideal was karumi, or “lightness,” “a word used in contrast to technical finish or decorative effects.” Basho was seeing ever deeper into the hearts of things, in a way no haikai poet had done before and few if any have done since. He was going past the words into the essence.

What Keene’s discussion made me want to do more than ever was just sit down with Basho himself and engage with him, rather than the ideas about him. So that’s what’s on the agenda for this week. Feel free to join me.

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And thanks again for letting me ramble on at length; special thanks to those of you who actually made it to the end of this post. Love, love, love making these trips with you. It may seem like I’m the guide but I assure you I’m learning the territory as I go. There is still so much more of the Haikuverse left to explore, hope you’ll keep me company as I wander.