Month: September 2010

September 27, 1-3: What are these things, anyway?

1.

nothing in my mind that was not there before the moon

2.

he tells the story without remembering it        longingly

3.

no longer afraid of mice I look to see what you’re afraid of

______________

Not haiku, not really American Sentences … I think what I’m calling them is “the things I write when my brain hurts too much to write haiku but I feel guilty if I don’t write anything.”

Easy Does It …

I want to write a whole series of posts about Abigail Freedman’s The Haiku Apprentice, which I just finished and found enlightening and thought-provoking in so many ways. But for right now I’ll just submit for your perusal a quotation by Barthes from the book’s foreword (written by Michael Dylan Welch, a wonderful haiku poet and essayist — you should check out his amazing website, Graceguts):

“Haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.”
— Roland Barthes

If this blog had a motto, that would probably be it. I started out (way back in May!) with pretty much utter ignorance of what haiku was, other than “a more-or-less seventeen-syllable, three-line poem that originated in Japan.” I decided to write them because they were short, and I have a short attention span. That’s it. That was my thought process. Yeah…I admit it. I thought it would be easy.

My state of blissful ignorance did not last long, of course. As everyone who writes haiku quickly finds, writing haiku — writing it well — is much, much (much) harder than it looks. I suppose, really, this is true of all writing, probably all artistic endeavor — how many of us have also been convinced that we could write the Great American Novel, if only, you know, we could think of something to write about, and then, um, write it well? Yeah. How’s that working out for you?

I do think, though, that with haiku it’s probably much easier to deceive yourself not only that you could write haiku well, but that you are writing it well. After all, don’t you have some nice images in your haiku? Doesn’t it sound pretty when you read it? Isn’t it kind of, you know, deep and meaningful? And it’s — let’s see — fourteen syllables, which is about the right amount. So why doesn’t anyone seem to like it but you (and maybe a few of your best friends)?

The antidote to this confusion probably lies in reading good haiku — really, really good haiku. Really, really good haiku are not just pretty poems — actually, they may not be (quite frequently aren’t) pretty at all. They don’t just have an interesting image or two, or some memorable phrases, or a nice sentiment. They don’t make you smile for a second and then slip out of your mind, leaving no lasting impression.

Really good haiku are like tiny earthquakes, or miniature bombs that explode in your brain. They change everything, permanently, even if only in some minute way that you may not be able to perceive or describe clearly. They leave you breathless for half a second (sometimes more). They make you realize that you’ve been blind, all your life, to some profound reality. When you read a really, really good haiku, it makes you feel like scraping all the nice-enough haiku that you’ve ever read (which for me includes about one percent of the ones I’ve written, the others not even rising to nice-enough status) straight off the plate into the garbage. Why eat Kraft macaroni and cheese when a three-star chef has lovingly concocted an exquisite dish for you?

It’s hard to know where to tell people to look to find really, really good haiku, because in my experience, even the best haiku poets mostly did/do not write haiku of only, or even mostly, that quality, and even the best journals don’t publish haiku of only, or even mostly, that quality. Of course, I suppose it depends on how picky you are — I am notoriously picky, about just about everything, but especially literature. (Or maybe it’s not pickiness, maybe I’m just not perceptive enough to see the value of the vast majority of haiku that just make me shrug and go, “Eh.”) This is why I’m not going to give any examples of my favorite haiku here — you have to decide for yourself what kind of haiku make your brain explode.

Probably the most important thing is to read lots and lots of haiku, in all the most reputable places you can find — I have lists of links to high-quality journals and classic haiku poets in my sidebar, for starters — and notice your reactions. Which ones bore you, which ones do you think are pretty good, which excite you immeasurably? What do you think is the reason for the difference?

Do you notice some of the same names recurring as the authors of your favorites? Go and read more by those poets, and start sorting out which of their haiku work for you and which don’t. If you determine that they belong to some particular haiku movement or school, read more haiku by other poets in that movement. Are those kind of haiku more likely to speak to you than others? Or does it not matter?

Write down your favorite haiku. Read them over and over. Think about what it is about them that you love. Go ahead, shamelessly imitate them. (You might not want to submit the imitations for publication, but it’s a useful exercise.) Then when you’re done imitating, what you need to do is to start writing like yourself again. Only, you know, better …

In my experience, most of these well-meaning measures serve mostly to convince you that the haiku you’ve been writing are, um, pretty bad. (Apologies to any great haiku writers who are reading this, although I wish you would stop and go write more haiku instead.) They won’t necessarily (although they might, you never know) make the ones you write in the future significantly better. Or not right away. But it’s useful information to have, that your haiku are not all that great. And in a way it’s inspiring, and challenging — when you’re functioning at a pretty low level, there are so very many ways to improve!

Okay, I did it again — started out with the intention to share a sentence with you and ended up writing a whole glob of verbiage that most of you, and justifiably so, won’t read. Run along now, and read something more interesting.

Don’t forget to write.

September 23: Halfway/haibun

Halfway

Broad daylight, the last day of summer. A tortoiseshell with a chipmunk in her mouth trots up the road. The body of the victim is summer-fattened and makes a mouthful. The cat is quick and purposeful, still in hunting mode. She pauses at the entrance to our driveway, examining the possibilities, then turns decisively and starts marching up it. For a minute I wonder if we’re about to receive a gift. But she goes only as far as the hedge between us and the neighbor and then slips into it and away.

fall equinox
standing on one foot
shivering

September 21 (Fever chart)

fever chart
daylilies spike
along the fence

__________________

I put this one in the hat to be critiqued at the workshop in Mineral Point, but we didn’t really get to discuss it much before the bell rang and we were dismissed. (I blame this on the fact that everyone else’s ku were way too interesting. I’m hoping to get in a group with some worse poets if I ever do that again.)

In the few seconds we had left Randy Brooks tried to convince me that I should leave out the word “spike” … which was probably his kind way of saying that I should spike the entire ku and go back to the drawing board. But I stuck my tongue out at him and refused. Go ahead, tell me he was right, I don’t mind.

September 20: Haibun all over again

Protest

This is why I’m here, after all. This is why I left. This is why. Do you understand now?

Do you want to go? Of course, do you? Should we go together? When should we go?

Voices on the train. At first we understand them only in theory. Stand very still, listening. Look at each other, calculating.

What are they saying?

They’ve closed the metro stations all around Red Square.

Why? I guess to make it harder to get there?

The train stops short, and we see it has no intention of proceeding. All the passengers get off and walk away in the same direction. It’s as if the world has ended and everyone understands it but us, everyone else knows the way to the afterlife.

Do we really want to do this? How will we get there? Is it this way? Well, that’s the way everyone else is going, right?

There are a million people in the street — not hyperbolically, but literally. One million people with no concept of personal space. Two million feet, just missing mine. I feel like a stick that’s fallen into a swollen stream. I feel like a penny tossed in a jar and shaken. I feel like a stranger. I feel like someone who left home and isn’t sure how to get back.

Hold my hand. We don’t want to get separated.

I’m terrified of being lost. I’m holding on tight, being pulled along. I remember this feeling. Do I want to feel like this again?

Can I trust you?

Up ahead, someone is calling for freedom. He shouts so loudly that the voices in my head quiet in response. He shouts so loudly that I understand everything he says.

birthday cake
the first taste
of you

_______________________________

I am taking the many helpful suggestions on my last haibun into advisement. Feel free to dissect this one too. I still feel like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing in the haibun arena, so I am just throwing things up against the wall to see if they stick.

This one’s connected to the last one, obviously — actually it comes right before it in the sequence. How does that work out for you? Are you mystified? Do you mind being mystified? (I often quite enjoy it, but I find that most other people are far less tolerant of the sensation.)

I am foreseeing that all these haibun will end up looking very little like their original versions — when I get them into something more like a final state I’ll put them all up together in order. Then you can tell me what’s wrong with them as a whole instead of just individually.

September 18: Giving haibun another shot

Persephone

March in Moscow — snow not melting yet. Everything I see that muddied shade of ash I call Communist Gray. My only solace the white marble and gold leaf of the metro stations — all that richness, so deep underground. I stand by the tracks closing my eyes as the breeze of the train sweeps my face. Where I come from, spring feels like this.

I wonder if he’ll miss me when I’m gone.

onion seeds
deep in my pocket
warm tickets

_____________________________________

Steve Mitchell of Heed Not Steve and I made a humorous pact to write one haibun that we didn’t hate by the fall equinox. He went and jumped the gun on me though and posted his today (you should check it out, it’s pretty good). So I said, “Fine, be that way,” and took a deep breath and posted one of the ones I’ve been working on this week.

I don’t hate it. I don’t say I like it. I think Persephone probably deserves better. But I don’t hate it.

I think this will be one of a series — I’ve already written another but the haiku part is giving me some lip so I’m having to talk sternly to it. Watch this space for more installments.

(And she may not want to be associated with this effort in any way, but thanks to Roberta Beary for her excellent example and for the inspiring and informative haibun workshop she led last weekend in Mineral Point.)

365 Poems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.

— Lafcadio Hearn

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

— Curtis Hidden Page

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

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

______________________

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

September 17: Boundary Waters

arguing over the route —
the red squirrel scolds
our departure

northern light leaks between the birch trunks

last summer light
sunning on a log
turtle guts

after crashing into the rocks strange and beautiful mushrooms

filtering lake water
sediment collected
in my throat

into the wind she never looks like she’s trying

*

I finally got some kind of ku mileage out of my canoe trip. I think this may be about the end of it, though. Unless in a few years I’m sitting around bored and a sudden memory of northern lakes inspires me …

Is Haiku Poetry?

Troutswirl did it again. Made me think, that is. (And laugh.)

Is Haiku Poetry? A Quiz appears to have stymied most readers — there are way fewer commenters than usual.

Okay, I admit it. I am also a non-responder. (Don’t you think I write enough already?) But one or two of you guys go say something about it. I know you know a thing or two about haiku by now.

(Don’t panic — you won’t be graded, you can answer as many or as few questions as you want, and most of them don’t have right or wrong answers.)

Oh yeah! My books!

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

Issa: Cup of Tea Poems

by Issa, translated by David Lanoue

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

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

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

snow

melting

village

brimming

over

kids

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

The Master Haiku Poet: Matsuo Basho

by Makoto Ueda

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

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

Will you start a fire?

I’ll show you something nice —

A huge snowball.

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

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

The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan

by Abigail Freedman

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

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

into my kidney

a tube pierces

ah, the summer heat!

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

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