Snow Country: the novel and haiku (June 30: 1-2)

I recently read the Japanese modern classic novel Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, which I recommend without reservation to anyone who likes both novels and haiku. Here’s why:

“Kawabata has been put, I think rightly, in a literary line that can be traced back to seventeenth-century haiku masters. Haiku are tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms. Thus the classical haiku characteristically fuses motion and stillness. Similarly Kawabata relies very heavily on a mingling of the senses. In Snow Country we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of the sound of running water, or, in a somewhat more elaborate figure, the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly becomes a woman’s feet. …

“The haiku manner presents a great challenge to the novelist. The manner is notable for its terseness and austerity, so that his novel must rather be like a series of brief flashes in a void.”

— Edward G. Seidensticker, from the introduction to his translation of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

I was totally fascinated by the idea of a novel inspired by haiku — two literary forms that on the surface could not possibly be more different. The novel, as it happens, is actually my favorite literary form; I just can’t write them (and believe me I’ve tried) because my attention span is not nearly long enough, which is why I write haiku instead. And much as I love the challenge of trying to recreate an experience and an insight in the few lines of a haiku, I frequently find myself frustrated by the tininess of its canvas — hence all my haiku sequences and narratives.

I love Seidensticker’s definition of haiku (another one to add to the collection on my mantelpiece) as “tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms.”

I was also really interested in Seidensticker’s further description of haiku as a fusion of “motion and stillness.” Something to think about. Does he mean literally motion and stillness, or something more like concrete images, an engagement with the physical world, vs. abstract insight or internal activity? That he then goes to equate this with “a mingling of the senses” confuses the issue further for me — does this imply that mixing senses creates a kind of movement in the poem and in the novel?

There is certainly not much literal movement in the novel; all that happens in it is that a pretentious, self-involved guy from Tokyo goes several times over several years to a mountain resort to visit a particular young geisha with whom he is — not exactly in love, but in fascination. There are only a few other characters who are named or described in any detail, and most of the book consists of conversations between the two main characters, detailed descriptions of their surroundings, and the thoughts of the male protagonist (the viewpoint is third-person limited, so we don’t get to find out what the geisha is thinking).

“Brief flashes in a void” — this is an excellent description of the overall impression the novel gives. There are the mountains, the snow, a fairly incoherent relationship between two people, all these things seeming blank and quiet, a canvas on which appear sudden splatters of awareness much like the condensed expression of awareness of a haiku, powerful, vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, feelings. They seem to be drawing the man from Tokyo forward, toward some kind of decision or personal change — though what kind, we’re not in the end quite sure. Here’s an example:

“From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back. The dark needles blocked out the sky, and the stillness seemed to be singing quietly. The trunk against which Shimamura leaned was the oldest of all. For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god.”

— Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, p. 30 (Perigee Books edition)

Here are the mixture of senses — sight, sound, touch — that Seidensticker refers to, and also the fusion of motion and stillness — this is a static picture of some trees and yet they are described in terms of active movement — they “threw up their trunks,” the needles “blocked out the sky,” they are ready, most shockingly, to be used as “a terrible weapon for some god.” There is both beauty and harshness and cruelty in this scene, as there is in the relationship between the two main characters.

There are several passages that you can easily imagine a classical haiku poet seizing on as material, like this one:

“Before a white wall, shaded by eaves, a little girl in ‘mountain trousers’ and an orange-red flannel kimono, clearly brand-new, was bouncing a rubber ball. For Shimamura, there was autumn in the little scene.”

— Kawabata, p. 109

(mountain autumn
in her new red kimono
she bounces a ball

— MLA)

or this one:

“[A building is on fire.] At the edge of the garden, withering chrysanthemums were silhouetted against the light from the inn — or the starlight. For an instant he almost thought it was the light from the fire.”

— Kawabata, p. 163

(chrysanthemums
withering in the light
from the stars

— MLA)

The final pages of the novel, the content of which I won’t discuss here because I hate spoilers, are a tour de force of sense-mixing, of powerful incongruities, of stillness and motion fused in the purest way imaginable. And the final line, just to give you a sense of how haiku-like Kawabata can be, is: “the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.” There are some modern haiku poets (and I might be one of them) for whom that would be a perfect, complete one-line haiku.

Don’t you want to go read it now instead of reading my long, boring treatise on it? Or did you stop reading my treatise a long time ago and go buy it or score it from the library? Either way, good for you.

Postscript: Via a link to “possibly related posts” at the bottom of this entry I discovered the following closely related essay by an Indian writer — she discusses both Snow Country and another Kawabata novel. Very interesting perspective.

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Do You Hate Haiku?

Jim Murdoch from The Truth About Lies wrote, a while back, probably the most well-informed, interesting essay about haiku ever written by someone who self-confessedly hates haiku. You should go read it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

For those of you who are going, “Eh, who has the time,” I’ll humor you and tell you about it. There is a lot of great stuff in there — haiku-like utterances by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, quite clear explanations of the difference between syllables and morae and the concept of the kigo, a comparison of several different translations of a Shiki haiku, a discussion of whether haiku written in Scots are closer to the spirit of Japanese haiku than those written in English, an in-depth discussion of a haiku-like poem of his own and whether it is or could ever be a haiku … you get the idea. Did I mention that he hates haiku?

So why? Why does he have such strong negative feelings about something he has obviously studied in such depth and thought about so much?

The answer seems to be that (like everyone else in the world) he isn’t really sure exactly what an English haiku is. It makes him uncomfortable:

“There are modern poets who say unless your poem has this ‘Aha! Moment’ you’re not writing haiku. Others emphasise the experience. And, of course, there will be those who say that as long as your poem has three lines containing 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively then it’s a haiku. … This is why I hate haiku. It has moved so far away from its roots that a good haiku is more a matter of fluke than anything else … This is not to suggest that short poems cannot be excellent but they’re just not haiku.”

He does admit that perhaps, since he hasn’t actually written any, it might be premature for him to come down so firmly in the anti-haiku camp. But clearly, that lack of consensus on a definition really, really bugs him:

“In all honesty I can’t say, ‘I hate haiku,’ because Haiku’s response would be, ‘But, you don’t know me,’ and that’s why I hate it, it won’t stay still long enough to be known. Maybe once back in the day the Japanese might have come up with a short list but somehow I think the argument about what a haiku can or cannot be has raged since Masaoka Shiki coined the expression at the end of the 19th century.”

And then we really get down to brass tacks — the haiku just isn’t a form that suits the way he thinks or writes:

“I think there’s a lot newbie poets can learn from working with a short form like the haiku. Whether what they produce is haiku is neither here nor there. I’ve never deliberately avoided writing them perhaps because I’ve always written in a condensed way. I think the problem is that they’re just a tad too short for the thoughts I want to express and that’s all.”

All right, the faint whiff of condescension drifting from this aside … this is a perfectly reasonable way to feel. It’s fine not to want to write haiku. Most people don’t want to write haiku. Quite often, I don’t want to write haiku. (Can I go to bed now?) But still … I have a hard time believing that anyone who has delved so deeply into the history and structure of the haiku form really, truly hates it …

How about you? Do you hate haiku? Do you write it anyway? Why or why not? Defend your position.

Decisions and Revisions (Mice and Their Parts)

I once threatened to display my revision process in broad daylight so that everyone could recoil in horror. When I looked at how this ku was stacking up I knew it was now or never. It was starting to look like one of those sandwiches Dagwood Bumstead likes to make, and if you don’t know who that is you are too young to be reading this, so go away.

Believe it or not, this all makes sense to me. Unfortunately it doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. I don’t like any of these versions and I’m not even sure this subject will work for a haiku — there might be too much stuffed into it. It’s definitely a little heavy, not that that’s ever stopped me before.

Not all my ku revisions look like this — this is a particularly appalling example. But I frequently have a list of ten or twelve versions of a ku sitting around waiting for me to choose one or reject them all or write yet another one. What’s amazing is that I’m still constantly posting ku that make me shake my head afterwards and go, “What the heck was I thinking? Why didn’t I revise that?” Then (sometimes) I do. And sometimes I don’t.

If you can make any sense of this or construct a plausible version out of the scattered parts, feel free to let me know.

*

first lines:

[the] missed phone call
[again] [he doesn’t call/answer]
[the phone doesn’t ring]

second/third lines:

I clean [sweep] [pick] up the [head and tail] [parts]
of the mouse
[the mouse’s head and tail
on {from} {off} the carpet]
[the cats have abandoned
the mouse’s head {parts}]

lines 1, 2, 3:

after the [pregnancy] test
[I wait] [waiting] for him to call
the cats kill [toy with] a mouse

[the first thing I see
in the empty apartment {house}
a mouse’s head]

lines 1 and 2:

the phone rings:
[phone conversation:]
the cats have killed a mouse

[the head and tail
dismembered on the carpet]

line 3:

[and] the test was positive

June 27: Bees

new information
they dance intently
in the hive

a dance conjuring
pure sweetness
the cells shudder

a sweet day
my hands begin to buzz
as I approach the hive

draped in white
am I a moon to them
these burning suns

the messengers and I
stare at each other
there is so much to say

*

Yeah, there are more than there used to be. I started to write just one more in the comments in response to Rick’s ku … then something came over me and bees jammed my brain and the next thing I knew, there was a sequence … first worms, now bees, I wonder if I will be inspired by cockroaches soon …

June 26: 2-10: The Technique of Mixing It Up

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

Jane:

“What I mean here is mixing up the action so the reader does not know if nature is doing the acting or if a human is doing it.  … Very often when I use a gerund in a haiku I am basically saying, ‘I am. . .’ making an action but leaving unsaid the ‘I am.’ … It is a good way to combine humanity’s action with nature in a way that minimizes the impact of the author but allows an interaction between humanity and nature.

end of winter

covering the first row

of lettuce seeds

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

Three yellow birds
riffing on an old song
in the garden

Up the hill,
the iPod strapped to my arm,
playing it cool

Everything I know
seething in my mind
the dream begins

The fire next door
burning marshmallows
the boys trade equations

Bearing the pain —
the tree laid low with snow —
ready to snap

The empty porch
waiting for the UPS guy
to leap up the stairs

Hunting for a home —
the birds perched on the roof —
pausing to consider

Dancing to James Brown
the ants we can’t get rid of
track our steps

Yellow light —
hesitating as we approach —
hoping to move forward

*

Okay, I basically could have gone on with these forever, but I have about a million other things to do so I forced myself to stop. But I will be writing more. The ambiguity really appeals to me. You may have noticed that I am interpreting “nature” in Jane’s explanation as meaning “all inanimate objects” (so iPods and yellow lights are fair game).

I also was playing around with using actual punctuation and capitalization, which will probably get me thrown out of the Proper Haiku Writers’ Society. I apologize if I have horrified anyone, but I have been wanting to do this for a long time and only hesitated out of cowardice, not wanting to buck the trend and alienate the Powers That Be. But that’s kind of silly.

It’s fine with me if other haiku writers don’t want to punctuate or capitalize, but I think the arguments about that being the Only Way to write haiku are seriously overblown. I don’t really have time to write a treatise about this today, but suffice it to say that I think writers in English should be able to use all the tools that written English offers to convey their meaning and give aid and comfort to the reader. That being said, I tried very hard not to let the punctuation here erase the ambiguity or favor one interpretation of the haiku over another. And who knows, maybe I’ll go back to the minimalist look myself. I just really need to experiment with this to see how it works for me.