February 11 (Its Depth)

first snow
I no longer have a child
to measure its depth

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World Haiku Review, January 2011

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I enjoyed a lot of things about World Haiku Review this time around but I can’t say I enjoyed the essay “Haiku as a World Phenomenon” by editor Susumu Takiguchi. My appreciation for it went way, way deeper than enjoyment. If I were feeling more flippant about it I’d say it rocked my world but really, that’s entirely the wrong tone for this essay. I learned so much from it and can’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those essays — there have been so many since last May [hey, remind me to create a list of links to them in my sidebar] — that both gives voice to some things I had been incoherently thinking about and also gives me entirely new and exciting ideas and information to work with. I feel like a different poet after reading it. Probably I’m not really a different poet but I’m trying to be. That counts, right?

I know you’re busy and you don’t really feel like reading the whole thing. So let me tell you about it. First of all, it’s not a new essay, it was written in 2000. That doesn’t matter, it could have been written last week. And Susumu starts out by referencing what is now a twenty-five-year-old question but also seems last-weekish: “… After about twenty-five years of English language haiku do we know what haiku is?” (Cor van den Heuvel, from the preface to the Second Edition, The Haiku Anthology, Haiku and Senryu in English, Simon & Schuster, 1986)

Lamenting the endless quarrels over the definition of haiku, Susumu refers to the “dialectic poetics” of Basho as a way of beginning to settle the matter. He outlines some of the fundamental principles of Basho’s haiku aesthetic, none of which, in my profound ignorance, I had ever heard of, but all of which make so much sense. Here’s the outline:

  1. Fueki ryuko“: “Fueki … can represent unchanging tradition while ryuko can represent changing fashion. Since the two are contradictory there should be a kind of creative tension generated between them … [which] should keep haiku fresh, creative and interesting. If people cling to tradition and neglect newness (or atarashimi) inherent in fashion, then haiku could become stale, imitative and boring. If, on the other hand, people indulge in newness without tradition, haiku could become gimmicky, incomprehensible and nonsensical.”
  2. Kogo kizoku”: ” ‘[O]btaining high enlightenment but coming back to the populace.’ There has been a tendency to polarise these two essential factors … Some people have become ‘elitists,’ armed with their own creed and are negligent of kizoku, or addressing plebeian needs. Others have gone the opposite way and vulgarised haiku by neglecting kogo. Again, we need both of these factors interacting and forming creative tension.”
  3. “The third answer may be found in the teaching of Basho, ‘Don’t follow ancient masters, seek what they tried to seek.’ We see people blindly following not only ancient masters but also modern masters without knowing what they tried to seek.”

(This last point is fascinating to me. I try to read and write haiku now asking myself these questions: “What was this poet trying to seek? Is it something I’m seeking too, or want to seek? What am I trying to seek?”)

Susumu isn’t outlining these principles as a way of creating a new, narrow definition of haiku that will further factionalize haiku poets; he sees them as very broad principles which can usefully describe a wide range of styles of haiku. He makes a very interesting analogy with schools of art:

“Avant-garde haiku poets cannot possibly be speaking the same language as fundamentalists of the traditional haiku school. In paintings, we accept the co-existence of the Old Masters, religious paintings, landscapes, still lifes, seascapes, figurative, abstract, surrealism, conceptual art, pop art, minimalist, Japanese paintings, African art, or whatever. There is no point in denying somebody else’s haiku as being not haiku, when we have such varieties of haiku poems in [so many] different languages.”

But in the end Susumu leaves behind all of these principles and details and tells it like it is: “Ultimately, we are after truths. … [T]he essence of poetry must be truths, and universal truths at that.”

Back to Basho:

“When Basho talks about fuga no makoto, this is normally interpreted as poetic sincerity. However, makoto also means truths, or true words, or true things. … In terms of poets, makoto is that which springs from their magokoro (true heart, or soul). Haiku is certainly capable of (local, particular) truths. Sometimes it is capable of universal truths and that is when great haiku poems are born.

“Poetic truths, then, must be a criterion against which inferior and dubious haiku poems can be weeded out. Haiku is part of the haiku poet’s way of life. Haiku is partly what he or she is. If he or she is not truthful his or her haiku cannot be good poetry. In today’s climate where haiku values are confused, it is important for us to go back to such stringent criterion as poetic truths.” [italics mine]

Telling the truth. I’m working on it really hard now. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s not, of course, about the facts. Sometimes the facts interfere with it, actually. (There’s nothing factual about the haiku that starts this post, but I’m hoping it’s at least a little bit true.)

So you kind of have to stumble around, trying to figure out what the truth is, exactly. But I think it’s worth it, in the end.

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February 6: You Say It’s Your Birthday

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for my birthday
I suppose
the moon
.

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For my birthday (yes, it’s today), I gave myself permission to write another haiku about the moon (despite their currency being even more debased than that of haiku about snow). Or rather, to post another haiku about the moon that I wrote a while ago and saved up for my birthday.

I’m giving myself another present, too. I decided to do this last weekend, when I had been sitting at my kitchen table staring at my computer for about nine hours, mostly performing various haiku-related chores delightful activities (no, seriously) like writing the Haikuverse and preparing journal submissions and replying to fascinating blog comments and visiting everybody else’s fascinating blogs and figuring out what tanka were all about anyway. Finally I realized it was going to be dark soon and I quickly stood up on my wobbly legs and put on my running shoes and headed outside.

The air was cold and the light was pure and as I walked the air started flowing more freely to my brain, and within about ten minutes I felt a sense of deep peace and I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “I give you permission not to blog every single day anymore. Because this is getting crazy.”

I know. I know I said I would post a haiku every day for a year, and it’s only been nine months and change. But think about it. Nine months is a long time. In nine months I could have created an entire new human being from scratch. (I’m familiar with the technique involved.) Though I did do this, in a way. I created, or rather re-created, myself.

Okay, melodrama. I know. I hate it too. But in this case I don’t feel that this is too strong a statement. Before I started this blog, I had been wandering around aimlessly through most of my adult life with an unfocused desire to write stuff, but not really sure what that stuff was, or what exactly I had to say. I never finished much of anything I started writing. I lost track of it halfway through; it stopped seeming important or interesting. I was starting to think maybe I wasn’t really a writer after all, except that I had an uncomfortable awareness that the only time I ever felt completely aware and fulfilled and alive was when I was writing something.

And then haiku came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and quietly told me to give it a try, and since I wasn’t doing much of anything else at the time I said, “Okay.” On a whim I wrote a few haiku, on a whim I started a blog. As it turned out, this was kind of like going to a party on a whim and meeting the love of your life. Yeah … we’ve been chatting each other up for the last nine months, haiku and I, finding out all the things we have in common, marveling at the similarity of our personal philosophies, sharing our hopes and dreams for the future … at this point, I have to say, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine living without each other.

Which is to say, the reasons for my promising, back in May, to post a haiku every day for a year have essentially been rendered moot. I wanted to make a commitment to a body of writing and not give up on it for a change. I wanted to heal myself of my perfectionism and my reluctance to put any writing out in the world in case someone saw it and laughed at it. Well, none of these things are problems anymore. In fact, the problem I have now is that I would rather write haiku, and read haiku, and write about reading and writing haiku, and communicate with my fellow haiku enthusiasts, than do pretty much anything else. And I have a lot of other things to do. You know, school, and work, and laundry, and interacting with my family more than five minutes a day.

Also, it was fine for a while for me to just write any old haiku and slap it up on the blog without much thought, because I didn’t really know any better. But if I want to grow as a poet I have to not just write a lot of haiku, I have to take the time to live with them, and think about them, and revise them, and make them not just good-enough, but the best they can be. I’m not talking about perfectionism, I’m talking about craftsmanship; I’m talking about artistic integrity … oh God, is this starting to sound pretentious?

You do know what I mean, don’t you? At some point it’s not respectful to your art, or to your audience, to produce too much. To churn out publications just for the sake of publication. I mean, I still write haiku like there’s no tomorrow, but it’s starting to make me slightly sick to post things here that either I think are not really worth anyone’s time to read, or else that I could make even better if I took the time. It’s not that I’m afraid that you’ll laugh at me and point as I walk by and say, “Look, there goes the mediocre haiku poet!” It’s more just that I’m resentful of the time I spend putting up poems on this site that I don’t respect a whole lot instead of writing better poems.

I’m not going away. And the site certainly isn’t going away, it will be here indefinitely as far as I’m concerned. I’ll probably still be posting two or three times a week — you know, when I have something worth saying. I hope you’ll think it’s worth saying, anyway. I hope you’ll keep dropping by. This blog has transformed my life so profoundly — and just writing haiku wouldn’t have done that on its own. The presence of all you fantastic readers, and correspondents, and supporters, and friends is what has made the biggest difference. Not writing in isolation, wondering if I’m crazy. (I mean of course I am crazy, but most of the time you’re nice enough not to point it out.)

Thanks for once again listening to me as I go on and on interminably. (Admit it — you’re a little relieved that you won’t have to deal with that every single day anymore, aren’t you?) Someday, I promise, I am going to learn to pare my prose down the way I pare down haiku.

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another slice
of birthday cake
and life

 

Across the Haikuverse, No. 4: Procrastination Edition

It’s that time again. Sunday afternoon. Long, boring, dark, rainy Sunday afternoon. I’m back from my run but I haven’t been able to talk myself into starting my homework yet. Isn’t there something else productive, yet vaguely fun I could be doing?

Oh, right! Time to collect the random scraps of paper and electronic sticky notes on which I have jotted down the haiku-related “information resources” (as we like to say in library school) that most struck a chord with me this week. Time to patch it all together into a semi-coherent list and throw it up on the Internet for your entertainment and edification, or at least indulgent tolerance.

That’s right: it’s time, once again, to visit the Haikuverse. Please strap yourself into your transport pod and make sure you’ve adjusted your brain waves to “poetry.”

(If you missed any of the previous three visits and you’re feeling adventurous, there are links to them in the sidebar. Right over there. On your right.)

1.

The Haiku Foundation has announced their inauguration of the Touchstone Awards for Individual Poems, which I find cool for several reasons:

  • The prizes are actual stones (get it?). With your name and poem engraved on them. There is pretty much no other prize I would rather have than this, except maybe a million dollars, and I have come to accept that no one in the Haikuverse is made of that kind of money. Even if you don’t win one of these awards, I may get you a rock like this for Christmas (or another holiday of your choice within one month of the winter/summer solstice), just because I like you.
  • The submission process requires that you nominate no more than two haiku, and — get this — if you nominate more than one, the other one has to be somebody else’s. (As far as I can tell, they can both be somebody else’s.) This is perfect for those of us who, whenever we see a contest announcement, think, “Why on earth should they give this prize to me when they could give it to, like, somebody who can actually write haiku?”

Just a caveat — the nominated haiku must have been published in 2010 (somewhere where somebody besides you gets to decide what’s published, so your own blog doesn’t count). Go check out the rules. And think rocks!

2.
Also at The Haiku Foundation, Scott Metz has once more challenged and stretched me with his essay “Do You Play an Edge?” He starts out by quoting a number of (amazing) haiku that push the boundaries of haiku both in form and subject matter, and rhetorically poses the question of whether we, individually as poets and collectively as the English-language haiku movement, push those boundaries enough. Which is something I struggle with constantly — both wanting to experiment, to push past the rules to something new and exciting and soul-stirring, and also wanting to do it “right” and win the approval of a community that has come to mean a lot to me. As Scott says,

“I suppose the opposite of playing one’s edge would be playing it safe. And what might that mean? It could mean writing for approval. It could mean writing in a style that maximizes one’s chances of being published, or, having mastered melancholy, avoiding other moods.”

If you go over there, don’t forget to read the comments — as usual they are as interesting to read as the essay itself.
3.

Scott’s essay reminds me of this essay (a much longer one) by Peter Yovu that I have been meaning to write about for, oh, months:  Do Something Different. I think I have finally realized that instead of waiting until the mythical day when I finish my utterly unreadable two-thousand-word essay about this essay, I should just tell you to go read it, because it’s amazing and inspiring. Peter starts out with, literally, a wake-up call:

“Buddhists describe a simple practice: when you find yourself falling into some habitual pattern, acknowledge it, and then step out by doing something different. The idea, of course, is that anything we do by habit we do half-awake at best, and the goal is to wake up.”

He then gently points out the tendency of so many contemporary haiku to sound so much alike, and gives several practical suggestions for experiments you can try to wake up yourself and your haiku — focusing on sound, for instance, which is so often utterly ignored by English-language haiku poets. I sometimes think I should start out every haiku-writing session by reading this essay, but I suppose that would end up being yet another rut to get stuck in. Still, every month or so when I reread it, I find something new in it, and then something new in myself.

4.

Over at her blog jornales, Alegria Imperial has appealed to my well-known predilection for foreign-language haiku by reproducing a haiku she originally wrote in her native language of Iluko alongside her English translation of it:

morning ember
fanned
by broken word

beggang ti agsapa
naparubruban
ti puted a sarita

Okay, first of all — this is a cool haiku. Second of all, the language geek in me is deeply excited by seeing a haiku in a language that I know absolutely nothing about but looks really beautiful. Third of all, this post reminds me of another passage on Alegria’s blog that I have always loved, a piece of highly poetic prose about the difficulty of translation not just from language to language but from culture to culture:

“[L]anguage is deeply entrenched in culture, the totality of one’s being layered over by influences of earth, air, water, living things, language whispered, sung, murmured, chanted, stated, shouted, screamed, written for one to read under fluorescent light, Coleman light-flood, moonlight, candle light — how we whine and laugh and cuddle up wordless or word-ful, with what flowers we offer our sighs, what trees we carve arrow-pierced hearts, from what looming shadows we scamper away, what wings we shoot down, what edges of cliffs we plunge off to get to our dreams.”

5.

With their recent release of a haiku collection they edited, Michael Dylan Welch and Alan Summers have won, hands-down, the unannounced contest I have been holding in my mind for best haiku book title of the year: Fifty-Seven Damn Good Haiku by a Bunch of Our Friends. If you decide you don’t want a rock for Chrismukkwanzaa, this book (with bonus parsnips on the cover!) could be an excellent substitute.

6.

Elissa at The Haiku Diary posted a haiku this week that, like so many of her haiku, seems deceptively simple and trivial at first and then the more you think about it the more you feel your brain exploding. Also, it reminds me a little of my stab this week at excessively repetitive haiku, except hers is better. I love the way she works with the line breaks here. And there is a whole autumn-dark-death-fate of the universe galaxies-expanding-metaphorical thing going on here in six.freaking.words. I have to figure out how to do this.

I can’t believe it’s
already dark. I can’t believe
it’s already dark.

7.

Does the world need yet another version of Basho’s famous frogpond haiku? Well, that’s a stupid question. Run over to Haiku-doodle and take a look at Margaret Dornaus’s haiga riff on furuike ya. It’s a lot of fun, and she includes some interesting commentary on translation.
8.

So every week I think to myself, I am going to say something about Gabi Greve and the one-woman haiku-information-disseminating machine she is, and then I just get totally overwhelmed by how much stuff by Gabi there is out there in the Haikuverse. Good stuff. Really fascinating stuff. Where even to start?

What Gabi is probably most well-known for is her work with promulgating information about kigo and in particular her creation of the World Kigo Database. But in the sprawling network of blogs and websites that Gabi administers, you can find information about just about every aspect of haiku. I thought I might as well start with a post new to her haiku empire this week, which she alerted her followers about on Facebook: A profile and sample haiku of the classic haiku poet Ochi Etsujin (just one of a long list of classic haiku poets profiled on her “Haiku Topics” blog).

Etsujin, Gabi tells us, “was one of the 10 great and most important disciples of Basho.” His death-poem, aki no kure hi ya tomosan to toi ni kuru, is relatively unusual among haiku in including direct speech. The context for this poem is the dying poet being tended on his sickbed by his wife. The Yoel Hoffman translation for this haiku that Gabi gives is:

Autumn evening:
“Isn’t it time,” she comes and asks,
“to light the lantern?”

Gabi herself proposes a different translation, noting that the original says nothing about a lantern:*

autumn evening –
“shall we make light?”
she comes to ask

Anyway, run along now, and enjoy exploring the galaxy that is Gabi’s not-so-little corner of the Haikuverse.

9.

After starting to use Twitter a month or so ago, I was excited to discover the work of Alexis Rotella (who goes by tankaqueen on Twitter). Alexis has been writing haiku and other poetry to great acclaim for a long time but for some reason I had remained oblivious of her until now. I really liked this haiku she tweeted this week (both because I like to argue and because I have had a lifelong fascination with garbage trucks, no really):

passing through
our quarrel
the garbage truck

10.

This week on his blog “season creep”, Comrade Harps combines one of the great pop songs of all time with his shopping list to create a classic haiku. I will never again be able to listen to The Joshua Tree without thinking about this (or wishing I had it on a T-shirt):

at the supermarket
Bono sings
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

And on that note: I hope you all find what you’re looking for this week — your keys, undying love, the secret to writing a perfect haiku.

(Also, feel free to send me links and suggestions any time you run across cool stuff in the Haikuverse that you’d like to see in this space. I sometimes wonder if the scope of this column is a little narrow considering it reflects only my eccentric and questionable taste, so I’m more than willing to shake things up a little by having it reflect your eccentric and questionable taste as well. Whoever you are.)

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*After Gabi posted her link to this post on Facebook there ensued a lengthy and fascinating discussion between her and several other translators about how best to render this poem into idiomatic English, which I perversely butted into even though I know absolutely no Japanese, don’t ask me what I was thinking. But Gabi was very kind and didn’t tell me to shut up and go away. So I’ll share my very, very loose interpretation of this haiku, a pure example of ignorance at work:

autumn nightfall…
she comes to ask me
if I need light

See there, how quickly I was able to turn a tribute to a generous haiku scholar into a vehicle for my own egomania?

Across the Haikuverse, No. 3: Underappreciated Edition

(For no. 1 in this series, look here. For no. 2, look here.)

The haikuverse? You want to know what that is? Why, children, it’s a wonderful place, where mostly underappreciated writers toil night and day to produce a body of short poetry that at its best makes you jump out of your shoes, clutch your hair in awe, and possibly weep. Also, where other underappreciated writers explain how these poems work, and talk about the people who’ve written them, and so on and so forth. Where can you find out about some of the most interesting things that happened there this week? Why, right here, of course.


1.

Last week Rick Daddario of 19 Planets was inspired by my link to Marlene Mountain’s “ink writings” to post a similar haiga of his own, rather than save it for Christmastime as he’d been planning. Since Rick lives in Hawaii, his images of the holiday are a little different than ours here in Wisconsin. I found this pleasantly jarring, and also just thought that both the ku and the drawing were a very successful combination. Here’s the haiku, but you really should visit 19 Planets to see the complete haiga.

silent night
the grass grows taller
with each note*

Rick also celebrated his blog’s 100th post this week — I’ll let you visit to find out how. Congratulations, Rick!

*This version is slightly different from the one I originally posted here, since Rick called my attention to the fact that he had modified his ku since I had last checked on it. I like this version even better.

2.

Congratulation also to another blog which celebrated its 100th post this week — Alegria Imperial’s “jornales.” In it she recounts the story of her first “ginko walk,” which her haiku group took to obtain inspiration for haiku. In Alegria’s case I’d say the walk was extremely successful — I love the haiku that resulted from it!

hydrangeas–
the same whispers
the same sighs

3.

I really liked several of the haiku that Steve Mitchell of heednotsteve posted this week. First there was his sequence “always wind,” inspired by his visit to the apparently constantly windswept Norman, Oklahoma. My favorite from that sequence:

always wind –
rush to the south, no,
now rush north

Then there was his humorous but thought-provoking “ku 00000010,” a followup to another robot-inspired haiku he posted earlier this month. This haiku is clever, but for me it works as a genuine haiku, not just a gimmick:

> 1: standby mode
>particles/waves illume
>blossoms as they close

4.

The wonderful online journal “tinywords,” curated by d.f. tweney, features a new haiku or piece of micropoetry every weekday (there are submission guidelines here, if anyone is interested). My favorite this week, by Janice Campbell:

amid fallen leaves

a business card

still doing its job

 

5.

Aubrie Cox’s personal website is well worth a look for her varied portfolio of haiku and other short-form poetry and critical writings. Since I’ve been thinking so much lately about how this blog is in some ways a collaboration between me and my community of readers, I especially enjoyed reading her essay “Writing with the Reader as a Co-Creator.” An excerpt:

“The inviting audience is ‘like talking to the perfect listener: we feel smart and come up with the ideas we didn’t know we had’ (Elbow 51). More importantly, however, is that the inviting reader can have an active role within the exchange between writer and reader. By doing so, the writer is not relinquishing all power back to the reader, or giving in to the tyranny, but merely developing a partnership. The reader can be the writer’s partner in the writing process if there is a mutual trust and cooperation, if the writer lets the reader become a part of the meaning-making process.”

Aubrie goes on to discuss how she sent one of her haiku to several acquaintances and asked for their reactions; their interpretations of its meaning were for the most part nothing like her own, but she points out that they were no less valid for all that — something I constantly have cause to remember when I’m reading my readers’ comments here.

6.
At Issa’s Untidy Hut this week, the Sunday Service is on hiatus for a week, but Don Wentworth has given us instead an insightful review of Silent Flowers, a short volume of haiku translated by the person who perhaps did more than anyone else to popularize haiku for English speakers: R.H. Blyth. Silent Flowers, published in 1967, was apparently excerpted from Blyth’s legendary 4-volume compilation of translations and critical study of Japanese haiku.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Don’s review — an Issa haiku and Don’s commentary on it:

Just simply alive,
Both of us, I
and the poppy.

Issa

“There it is, folks – doesn’t get plainer or simpler or truer or more beautiful than that.   After you read a poem like this, time to shut the book and get back to life.”

7.

Somehow I just managed to discover this week the Mann Library’s Daily Haiku site. Each day they republish a previously published haiku by an established haiku poet — each month is dedicated to the works of a different poet. The archives are a treasure for anyone exploring the world of contemporary English-language haiku — name a well-known haiku poet and they’re likely to have some of his or her works represented.

Here’s one of my favorites from this month’s poet, Gary Hotham:

time to go —
the stones we threw
at the bottom of the ocean

8.

Following up on my interest in foreign-language haiku: On the Haiku Foundation’s website, Troutswirl, last week, the regular feature “Periplum” (which is dedicated to haiku from around the world) was devoted to the work of a Bolivian poet, Tito Andres Ramos. Although Ramos’s first language is Spanish, he writes his haiku first in English and then translates them into Spanish. One I especially like:

sunny winter day
my packed suitcase
under the bed

dia soleado de invierno
mi maleta empacada
bojo mi cama

9.

Gene Myers of “The Rattle Bag” blog (and also the administrator of the “Haiku Now” page on Facebook) recently wrote about the chapbook of his haiku and other poetry that he put together on Scribd. (You can download the PDF here.) This looks like it could be a nice way to distribute collections of poetry without killing trees or inflicting boring design on people. I’m thinking about it myself, though I am also still attracted to the idea of the limited-edition dead-tree chapbook on handmade rice paper with custom calligraphy. But this is probably faster. 🙂

One of my favorite from Gene’s collection:

Moth between window and screen

I’m tired

 

And so am I. It’s exhausting, traversing the Haikuverse. Going to bed now. See you on the flip side …

November 15: Basho and me

I was inspired by some recent blog posts by Margaret Dornaus of Haiku-Doodle and Bill Kenney of haiku-usa to try writing riffs on classical haiku. I started with a list of favorite haiku by Basho I had jotted down while reading Makoto Ueda’s Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet. Then I tried to distill each of these down to some universal theme or structure or atmosphere — to figure out what it was about them that made them seem so great to me. And then for each of them I tried to write a haiku that echoed in some way the spirit of what Basho wrote, while coming up with some new insight or image that was entirely my own.

This exercise was seriously fun and exciting, and I am definitely going to repeat it. Some of the haiku I wrote are clearly just versions of Basho’s haiku; some of them seem to me like they are different enough from what Basho wrote that they could stand alone. I wouldn’t try to publish any of these, at least without acknowledging Basho’s influence, but I do think I learned a lot about how many ways there are to write a successful haiku (even if it’s only Basho’s haiku that are actually successful 🙂 ).

Basho’s haiku below are in regular type; mine are indented and in italics. The Basho haiku are all Ueda’s translations, except for the last one, which (as indicated) is by Jane Reichhold.

1.

At night, quietly,
A worm in the moonlight
Digs into the chestnut.

every morning
new holes in the leaves
someone’s night shift


2.

The sound of an oar beating the waves
Chills my bowels through
And I weep in the night.

 

winter morning
hearing the car start
my tears start


3.

The sea darkens
And a wild duck’s call
Is faintly white.

 

dark clouds gather —
the calls of songbirds
light in the distance


4.

Loneliness —
Sinking into the rocks,
A cicada’s cry.

 

frustration —
the stream rushes by
pounding the rocks


5.

A pile of leeks lie
Newly washed white:
How cold it is!

 

white onions
on the cutting board —
winter chill


6.

The daffodils
And the white paper screen
Reflecting one another’s color.

 

the forget-me-nots
and the sky —
an echo


7.

Whenever I speak out
My lips are chilled —
Autumn wind.

 

don’t tell me
what to say —
rising heat


8.

Autumn deepens —
The man next door, what
Does he do for a living?

 

winter approaches —
I try to learn the names
of the neighbors


9.

The squid-seller’s voice
Is indistinguishable
From the cuckoo’s!

 

the infomercial host
and the crow —
same voice


10.

Chrysanthemums’ scent —
In the garden, the worn-out
Shoe sole.

 

the scent of apples
left in the orchard
your torn sweater


11.

A bush warbler —
It lets its droppings fall on the rice cake
At the end of the veranda.

 

nuthatches—
shitting all over the sandwich
I left on the patio


12.

A white chrysanthemum —
However intently I gaze,
Not a speck of dust.

 

no matter how long
I stare at hydrangeas —
pure blue

13.

after the flowers
all there is left for my haiku
wisteria beans

(tr. Jane Reichhold)

 

after the leaves fall
nothing to write haiku about
until it snows

Across the Haikuverse, No. 2: Only Connect Edition

In which I present for your inspection all the things I found this week while exploring the haikuverse that I thought might interest, entertain, infuriate, intrigue, or otherwise engross you. Or might not. (No. 1 in this series is here, in case you’re interested.)

This week’s theme (because I’ve been rereading Howards End): Only Connect. (Every item connects somehow to the previous item, if only by the skin of its teeth.)

1.

Are you feeling competitive this week? This coming Saturday is the deadline for November’s Shiki Kukai. If you don’t know about Kukai, they are haiku contests in which all the entrants vote on and choose the winners. The Shiki Kukai is a long-running contest with two categories: one that requires a particular kigo (this month: geese), and one that is free format but on a particular theme (this month: weaving). If either of those themes inspire you, check out the rules and give it a try.


2.

And for those who just can’t get enough competition … If you checked out the Haiku Foundation’s Facebook page as I advised you to do last week, you’ll know that they are now running a Facebook haiku contest. Through the end of November, anyone can enter one haiku in the contest by posting it on the page in the comment section following the contest announcement. The top three (as judged by Jim Kacian, Haiku Foundation founder) will get prizes. And glory, of course.

There are lots of entries already. Go check them out even if you’re not sure you want to enter the contest. I’ve found that this is a great forum just to get your haiku looked at by other poets and get a little feedback, so you might want to think of that as your goal rather than winning the contest. I certainly am. 🙂

3.

And more from the wonderful world of Facebook … Last week I shared with you a haiku in French by Vincent Hoarau, which he originally posted on Facebook. This week I will take mercy on the non-French-readers among you. A few days ago Vincent posted the following haiku, which he translated into English:

jour de pluie …
je pense à la mort
elle au berceau

rainy day …
i think about death
she about a cradle

4.

And while I’m on the subject of haiku in French … I recently discovered on Twitter a Belgian haiku poet, Bill Bilquin. He posts new haiku several times a week; here’s my favorite from this week (French original, English translation by Bilquin):

presque trois ans
ses mots de plus en plus précis
premières mandarines

nearly three years old
her words more and more precise
first mandarins

5.

And while I’m on the subject of haiku in foreign languages … There’s a haiku translation site called “Versions” that I discovered a few weeks ago and have been very excited about. (Warning: Serious geek territory ahead.) You can enter your own haiku in your language, which will then be available for others to translate into their language(s). You can also translate the haiku of others. It’s searchable by author, so you can go look at the haiku of a poet you like and see all the different translations that have been made on the site of their haiku. It’s a lot of fun (if, as I say, you’re a complete language geek) to compare the different “versions.”

A caveat: although in theory the site is available to writers and translators of any language, for right now most of the haiku seem to be in, and to be translated into, either English or Russian. (It’s a Russian site.) This is great for those of us who know both those languages, but if you are more into, say, German, you won’t find nearly as much on the site to interest you. However, you will be doing us all a great service if you add more haiku and translations in other languages, so give it a try.

Here’s an example of a haiku by Lee Gurga and a couple of (very) different Russian translations of it. Bear with me — even if you don’t know Russian I’ll give you some idea what they’re all about:

Lee’s original haiku:

his side of it
her side of it.
winter silence

 

(translation 1, by Versions user Боруко)

его сторона…
её сторона…
зимняя тишина

(translation 2, by Versions user A.G.)

твоё моё наше
холод молчание

The first translation is quite literal; if I saw it only in the original Russian I would probably render it back into English almost exactly as Lee originally wrote it. The second is very different — it’s more of a free interpretation, I would say, of Lee’s haiku than a translation. I might translate it back into English something like this:

yours mine ours
cold, silence

Which Lee might recognize as his haiku, and might not. Anyway, if you’re interested in translation, and especially if you know Russian (I realize that I am addressing a minuscule, possibly nonexistent, subset of my readership here, but hey, it’s my blog and I’ll geek out if I want to), you will certainly want to check this site out.

6.

And on the subject of versions of things … Bill Kenney has started a new feature on his blog haiku-usa that he calls “afters.” That is, they are haiku “after” haiku of classical haiku poets — not translations per se (Bill doesn’t know Japanese), but loose interpretations, attempts to capture something of the feeling of the original. Here’s his first:

a bit drunk
stepping lightly
in the spring wind
Ryokan (1758-1831)

7.

And more on the blog front … Andrew Phillips and I became acquainted with each other on Twitter this week and I’ve been enjoying checking out the haiku on his blog Pied Hill Prawns. An example:

telephone wires
connecting –
possum’s nightly walk

8.

And yet more bloggy matters … From Matt Holloway of Beachcombing for the Landlocked, a haiku I really enjoyed reading this week:

a tray      of stored apples      not yet a poem

9.

And while we’re in one-line haiku mode: I’ve been blown away this week by the amazing contents of Marlene Mountain’s website. In case you don’t know about Marlene, she is something of a haiku legend; she’s been writing haiku since the sixties, and she was one of the first poets to work with haiku as one line in English.

Here’s a page showing some of her early 3-line haiku, and then the same haiku later rewritten as one line. Here’s a selection of her one-line haiku. (A wonderful example: off and on i’ve thought of you off and on.) Here are scans of some pages from her notebooks, showing her revisions — I love this kind of thing, getting to see into another writer’s mind as she works. Here are some of her “ink writings,” similar to haiga. Here are some wonderful things called “unaloud haiku,” and here are some really fun things called “visually aloud” haiku. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Marlene’s site is concerned. Enjoy!

And that’s all from the Haikuverse this week. Thanks for visiting.

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.)

___________________________

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.

Batting 10,000: David Lanoue and Issa

Anyone who’s been hanging out around here for a while knows that I am a great admirer (OK, a rabid fan) of the classical Japanese haiku poet Issa, who lived and wrote at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. I am also a fan of Issa’s prolific and talented translator David Lanoue, whose amazing database of Issa’s haiku is one of the greatest resources haiku poets have at their disposal. So I feel I must mark here on the blog the occasion of David’s translation of his 10,000th Issa haiku (which, believe it or not, is less than half the haiku Issa ever wrote). I can’t even wrap my mind around the effort required to complete 10,000 skillful translations, and that isn’t even close to all David has done with his time since he started this project in, good God, 1984.

According to David, number 10,000 will be his last, although he’ll keep revising previous translations. I hope he’s sitting down in a comfortable chair right now, having a cup of tea (that is, after all, what “Issa” means) and feeling pleased with himself. He deserves a rest.

One of the numerous great features of David’s database is that it includes enlightening and frequently entertaining textual and biographical notes on many of the haiku, including this final one, so we get to learn that

the priest
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

is remarkably similar to another haiku Issa wrote six years earlier:

the mountain hermit
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

It’s interesting to speculate on what was going on here: Was the second haiku a deliberate rewriting of the first? Had Issa simply forgotten that he had written a similar haiku all those years ago? Or did he think of the second haiku as being a completely new poem, the substitution of “priest” for “mountain hermit” sufficiently distinguishing the two that both could stand on their own? Knowing Issa, I tend to lean toward the last option. He was all about specificity. Two different guys may have the same attitude toward the fireflies that are getting in their face, but they’re still two different guys. Those two haiku are no more the same poem than Shakespeare’s love sonnets are all the same sonnet.

*

There’s a lot of stuff on David’s site to explore besides the haiku (and just exploring the haiku could take you a lifetime). While noodling around it recently I discovered two highly enlightening essays on Issa by two poets, Carlos Fleitas and Gabriel Rosenstock. The best thing would be to read them in their entirety, because they are not only informative but wonderfully written and wise and will give you a greater understanding not just of Issa but of the nature and possibilities of haiku in general. But I’ll just quote a few brief passages here to whet your appetite.

Carlos Fleitas discusses the possibility that Issa’s life history profoundly affected his haiku poetics:

“The series of tragic events in the course of his life contain, for the most part, one very special quality that stands out. This is the fact that they are all surprising, unexpected, and brutally sudden events. In this sense, the deaths of highly significant figures in his life from his infancy on provide a recurring theme in his destiny. These events might have shaped a certain characteristic I find in the poet’s haiku. I’m referring to the brusque and unforeseen character of the poetry’s resolution in the third line. If this is indeed a characteristic of haiku, in Issa it appears emphasized and magnified. How different this is from Basho’s poetic concept that develops without bumps—almost glidingly—so that the third line provides continuity, not harshly contrasting to what came before, but rather an effect that is flowing and harmonious.
“… Issa would seem to have been “hurled” into everyday life, instead of being introduced gradually to its most crude aspects. This is why in his works we encounter not only the beauty and rapture typical of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, but also elements far removed from the expected. Lice, piss, the body’s decline…emerge as aspects of phenomenological reality that live, side by side, with lotus, moon, and tea.”

— Carlos Fleitas, “Carlos Fleitas on Issa

I think that many people are put off by these qualities in Issa’s haiku — their earthiness, their jarring transitions — but for Gabriel Rosenstock, these elements are part of Issa’s “universal spirit,” one which embraces every element in the world, forcing an awareness and acceptance of reality that are connected to his Buddhist beliefs. Rosenstock tries to cultivate something of Issa’s spirit in himself:

My Romanian grandson, Seán, visited us recently and I introduced him to all my friends, including a dog turd. Flies had gathered. ‘Say hello to my friends, the poo-flies!” I said to him. He was somewhat astounded by my circle of friends but I think he got the message.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

Reading Issa’s haiku, for Rosenstock, is more like a spiritual than a literary experience:

I find myself being transformed by reading favourite haiku. It’s not easy to describe. As I said above, it’s more than a mood. It’s not like being injected with a mood-altering substance. It is really an awakening.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

I agree…and on that note I want to end with a sampling of some of my favorite haiku by Issa. These are all David Lanoue’s translations. Thanks, David.

 

today too, today too
the winter wind has strewn about
the vegetables

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

first winter rain–
the world fills up
with haiku

evening–
he wipes horse shit off his hand
with a chrysanthemum

words
are a waste of time…
poppies

my dead mother–
every time I see the ocean
every time…

 

how irritating!
the wild geese freely
call their friends

[David notes that this haiku was written after Issa suffered a stroke and temporarily lost his power of speech.]

 

my favorite cormorant
the one who surfaces
with nothing

from the great bronze
Buddha’s nose…
a swallow!

plum blossom scent–
for whoever shows up
a cracked teacup

weak tea–
every day the butterfly
stops by

the day is long
the day is so long!
tears

a blind child–
to his right, to his left
steady winter rain

little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

[David notes: “This is the first haiku by Issa that I read. I found it in J. D. Salinger’s novel, Franny and Zooey.” Me too.]

you’ve wrecked
my year’s first dream!
cawing crow

banging the temple gong
just for fun…
cool air

this year there’s someone
for me to nag…
summer room

your rice field
my rice field
the same green

one man, one fly
one large
sitting room

morning dew
more than enough
for face-washing

just being alive
I
and the poppy

on the great flood’s
100th anniversary…
“cuckoo!”

rain on withered fields
resounds…
my pillow

the owl’s year
is running out…
atop the pole

in cold water
sipping the stars…
Milky Way

Kyoto, Kyoto
in the heart of Kyoto!
pufferfish soup

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

the distant mountain
reflected in his eyes…
dragonfly

I call dibs
on the red ones!
plum blossoms

don’t sing, insects!
the world will get better
in its own time

October 17 (The old man’s birthday), and A Brief Discourse on Originality

the old man’s birthday —
all day the tree
quietly sheds leaves

_____________

It’s my grandfather’s ninety-fifth birthday. He’s happy and healthy, and got to go to a big party yesterday in his honor. I am hoping that if I live so long, it’s with such grace.

After I had written this I realized that it reminded me of the first four lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 73. And I suppose it is a cliche, um, I mean, a universal literary theme, to use falling leaves as a metaphor for old age. Still … there are always new ways to say things, right? Right?

Sigh. Sometimes the burden of trying to be original seems way too heavy. Why am I doing this anyway? Hasn’t someone else, of the billions of human beings past and present, already said everything I want to say, better than I can?

I try to think of ways to startle fresh utterance out of myself. Wake myself up, or send myself into a dream. Spin myself around, or achieve perfect stillness. Babble nonsense until a gem of insight emerges. Methodically revise until the trite becomes brilliant. Climb a mountain and watch everything I know shrink and become insignificant. Step into a cold lake and let the shock briefly stop my heart. Sit in a dark cave for a while and then light a match. Read everything. Read nothing. Break something I love and step on the shards with bare feet. Build something and feel it growing more solid beneath my hands. Grow up. Act like a child. Scream uncontrollably. Say nothing, nothing at all, and listen as hard as I can.

I have to go do homework right now, though. I can feel the originality draining out of me, to be replaced by the list of definitions I must memorize for my cataloging exam. Unless I can find some way of making haiku out of them. Stay tuned for further details.

_____________

Hey, remember to send me haiku for my 300th post.

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.

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.

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.

September 8 (Evening wind): What is natural?

evening wind
a cicada shell rattles
on our doorstep

*
Wow … this feels incredibly traditional for me. I mean, I think it’s reasonably successful as a haiku, if a little boring, but it makes me a little nervous because it’s so … haiku-ish. Is that weird?

I don’t think I quite realized until now how much I try to avoid writing what is the “traditional” English-language type of haiku with only nature imagery and nicely balanced lines and seasonal indicators and all that jazz. I tend to like better, and to write, haiku with something a little more … unexpected about them. Or maybe I just mean haiku that are a little more … authentic, or contemporary, than this. I don’t say I necessarily succeed, just that that’s what I’m aiming for. (Insofar as I’m able to articulate what I mean at this time of the morning, in a state of sleep deprivation.)

I think maybe the reason the nature-imagery thing seems so stilted and played out now is that, as a society, we’re pretty far removed from nature; for most of us, a manufactured environment and human technologies are more prominent in our daily lives than the rhythms of seasons and weather and plant and animal life cycles.

So, unless we’re naturalists or dedicated country dwellers who spend most of the day outdoors, it does feel kind of fake to be constantly writing about birdsong and drifting clouds and rustling leaves, at least without some kind of human context to put these things in what is their proper place for most of us — concerns secondary to whether the furnace or air conditioner is doing its job, or how many emails we got this morning, or how the traffic is aiding or impeding us in our daily journeys.

It feels like we know that haiku is supposed to be about nature, so we glanced out the window and saw a pretty bird and said, “Oh — haiku material!”, ignoring the fact that we’re not quite sure what the bird is called or what it eats or how it sings or makes its nest or how far it flies when the seasons change. We’re not bird experts any more (apologies to those of you who are, but I have never been a bird enthusiast); we’re experts on minivans — We’re not experts on wildflowers, we’re experts on wall-to-wall carpeting — We’re not experts on mountain springs, we’re experts on running water from the tap.

Lots of people have the same concerns as I do, of course, and there is lots and lots of great haiku being written now that does feel real and contemporary and still respects the haiku idea of placing the writer (and reader) in a specific time and place and making a very specific observation or two. I must say that I often have the same sense of anxiety about haiku that don’t mention nature at all, maybe because I do respect the power of haiku to force us to regard ourselves as what we properly are, which is part of nature, despite how thoroughly unnatural most of our surroundings are these days.

I really like the tension (not just in haiku but really in all art, literature and painting and photography and even architecture) between the natural and the human-made. I remember seeing a series of photographs at an exhibition several years ago of what were very clearly human artifacts, often in brilliant unnatural colors, placed in more muted natural surroundings — the effect, to me, was to highlight the beauty and interest of both object and setting.

Another time, our local botanical garden hosted an amazing art installation of long chains of large round scavenged things (like bowling balls and weathered plastic Halloween pumpkins and giant ball bearings) hung from very tall trees — like tree jewelry, I suppose. I could have stared at those things all day; they seemed so completely in harmony with their surroundings despite being so very artificial. [New! Pictures!]

And really, that is a very Japanese aesthetic too — the art of mingling the human with the natural in such a way that both are enhanced. Think of a Japanese garden with its neatly raked stone beds and small water bridges and carefully planned views of carefully arranged plantings (and if you’ve never been to a good Japanese garden, you should go to one, preferably today), or a traditional Japanese house with its natural materials and minimal furniture and openness to the elements.  [And more pictures!]

I think that that same aesthetic is or properly should be at work in haiku — the tension or perhaps, the reconciling of tension between the works of human beings and their natural environments. When I imagine a classical haiku poet I see him sitting in a house or just outside one, or walking through a village or riding a boat down a river, looking around him with a gimlet eye at everything in his surroundings — the plants and animals and earth and sky and people and buildings and tools and vehicles — and connecting a couple of those elements in his mind, without particular regard to whether they were “natural” or not.

So maybe that should be our ideal, as haiku poets. Really being wherever we are, and seeing whatever we see, and being aware, yes, of the weather and what the sky looks like and whatever is blooming or singing within our purview, but also mindful of the indoor weather, of the smells and textures of the things we have bought and handle every day, of the moods and wardrobe and habits and speech of our fellow human beings. And making of, or seeing, something real in all that stew.

Cicada shells do rattle, on doorsteps and sidewalks and driveways, in the autumn — much more resonantly on those artificially hard surfaces, I imagine, than they would rattle in a loamy forest or on a mountain path — and the sound is both chilling, like the autumn wind, and oddly comforting, especially to those of us who live in houses and can shelter there from the elements, unlike the poor departed cicadas …

August 2: Found haiku: Macbeth

In the last ten days I’ve seen five performances of “Macbeth” with four different casts. So many lines of the play have become earworms for me, especially those (and there are so many in this play) that use either sound or imagery (or both) to gorgeous effect. For instance (in no particular order):

•    If the assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch, with its surcease, success …
•    Weary sennights nine times nine shall he dwindle, peak, and pine …
•    Tonight we hold a solemn supper, sir …
•    Stars, hold your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires …
•    There’s husbandry in heaven; their candles are all out.
•    It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood. Stones have been known to move and trees to speak …
•    By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. Open, locks, whoever knocks.
•    Safe in a ditch he lies, with twenty trenched gashes in his head.

Some of the lines echoed in my head in the same way that some haiku does, which made me wonder if you could pummel iambic pentameter into haiku. I’m not sure how well these meet the technical definition of haiku (whatever that is), but they do seem to have something of the haiku spirit in them. And Shakespeare and Basho were (rough) contemporaries … so that must mean something.

*

the earth hath bubbles as the water has
(I.iii)

the moon is down
I have not heard
the clock
(II.i)

the obscure bird
clamor’d
the livelong night
(II.iii)

the shard-borne beetle
with his drowsy hums …
night’s yawning peal
(III.ii)

light thickens …
the crow makes wing
to th’ rooky wood
(III.ii)

untie the winds
and let them fight
against the churches
(IV.i)

I have words      that would be howl’d out in the desert air
(IV.iii)

July 2: Lost

I’m not in the mood to write haiku today.

Well, okay, I will probably write one, because I promised myself I would write one every day for a year. But I doubt it will be anything you will want to see.

I’m feeling a little pressed for time these days, and (as usual) very bad at managing it. I write long essays on this blog and respond to comments at ridiculous length while the to-do list keeps getting longer. The to-do list of important stuff. Stuff I’m getting graded on and paid for. (And yes, I am still Western enough to consider that stuff more important than stuff I just love to do.)

So here’s a Real Poem (as opposed to, you know, those fluffy little haiku things) I wrote a while back and did some half-hearted tinkering with recently. It needs something — probably a Real Poet to take it apart and put it back together again. But we do what we can.

*

I will write a poem
about the loss
of poetry.

What do we have instead of poetry?
Slick thoughts,
Puddling on the surface of our minds:
A seamless liquid spreading over the page.

Instead of —
A lithe sleeping animal curling its back in ecstasy,
Unfurling its claws one by one,
Spiking holes in our perception.

This is not what I meant to write,
And it is not
poetry.

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.

Haiku in “The Makioka Sisters”

When I was writing about renga the other day, I said something about poetry writing having been a basic communication tool for the Japanese (at least the upper classes) back in the old days.

At the time, I was thinking “old days” = hundreds of years ago. But later, I remembered a scene from my favorite Japanese novel, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, which is set in the 1930s. This wonderful scene describes a family — three adults and a ten-year-old girl — writing poetry together as an evening activity the way an American family might play a board game.

Background: The book describes the lives of an upper-middle-class family consisting of four sisters, two married and two not. (Much of the drama of the story lies in the family’s efforts to get the two single sisters married off, and protect their reputations in the meantime. The book reads amazingly like a nineteenth-century English or French or Russian novel.)

At the beginning of the story, one married sister is living in Tokyo with her family; the other three are living in Osaka in the household of the other married sister. Then, due to complicated circumstances, one of the single sisters goes to live in Tokyo too. Everyone misses her. So — apparently more or less as a matter of course — they decide one night to write her some poetry:

“Suppose we each write something,” said Teinosuke [the married sister’s husband]. It was some twenty days later, on the night of the autumn full moon. Everyone thought this an excellent idea, and after dinner Teinosuke, Sachiko, Taeko, and Etsuko gathered near the veranda of a Japanese-style room downstairs. The traditional moon-viewing flowers and fruit had been set out. When O-haru had ground the ink, Teinosuke, Sachiko, and Etsuko each composed a poem. Taeko, who was not good at poetry, did a quick ink wash of the moon coming through pine branches.

The clouds are passing.

The pines reach out for the moon.

Teinosuke

The night of the full moon.

Here, one shadow is missing.

— Sachiko

The moon tonight–

Yukiko sees it in Tokyo.

— Etsuko

— Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters, trans. Edward Seidensticker

(The final poem, by the way, is by the ten-year-old.)

I don’t know whether these poems are meant to be haiku in the original Japanese. They are certainly haiku-like, though. And it’s interesting to me that there doesn’t seem to be any discussion among the family about what kind of poetry to write, yet everyone produces the same kind, as if everyone just knows that this is the kind of poetry you write on an occasion like this. Clearly poetry-writing has been a standard part of their upbringing and education. (I also think it’s touching and funny that there’s one sister who considers herself, or is considered, “not good at poetry,” and who instead specializes in a different sort of traditional Japanese art.)

Tanizaki wrote this book during and after World War II partly out of nostalgia for what he saw as the lost culture of prewar Japan — there is a lot of information about the family engaging in traditional Japanese music, dance, theater, and crafts as well. So maybe he was simply more inclined to portray characters as cultured and artistic, and this is not a realistic representation of what a typical Japanese family of their class and time would have done. But the scene seems so quiet and matter-of-fact that it’s hard to believe it was a complete fantasy on his part.



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.

*

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

—–

*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 15: 23-24: The Techniques of Using Puns and Word-Play

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

Jane:

The Technique of Using Puns

“Again we can only learn from the master punsters – the Japanese. … [W]e [English] haiku writers may not be so well-versed as the Japanese are in using these because there have been periods of Western literary history where this skill has been looked down upon.


a sign

at the fork in the road

‘fine dining’ ”

The Technique of Word-plays [Place Names]

“[The] work [of the Japanese] is made easier by so many of their place names either having double meaning or many of their words being homonyms (sounding the same). …  A steady look at many of our cities’ names could give new inspiration: Oak-land, Anchor Bay, Ox-ford, Cam-bridge and even our streets give us Meadowgate, First Street, and one I lived on – Ten Mile Cutoff.

moon set

now it’s right – how it fits

Half Moon Bay”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:
driving rain
windshield wipers
try to keep up

Fond du Lac:
my boat has sunk
and I don’t even know it yet

*

Once again I combined two techniques because the second seems to me obviously a special case of the first — puns based on place names.

I didn’t feel terribly inspired by this — not that I have anything against puns, I make groanworthy ones all the time, but I guess they need to come up naturally in the context of something for me, not be forced for an exercise.

June 15: 2-22: Domestic novel sequence

Morning: he sighs.
She changes the washing machine
to normal cycle.

A different number
every time —
brushing her hair thoughtfully.

Pregnancy test in the wastebasket —
tea bag dries
by the egg smear.

The newspaper predicts
the winners — the losers
get no consideration.

The future has been foretold.
He has difficulty
unfurling the umbrella.

Salad for lunch again.
She slides her wedding ring
up and down her finger.

Nothing is settled,
including the dust
on the light bulbs.

A misbegotten conversation.
She drops the cell phone
down the stairs.

Where are the plastic bags,
where the sea salt, where
the golden marigold seeds?

Buying bread
that tastes of yeast —
the chill of the supermarket.

Bruise-colored tulips
in cellophane. They ride
next to white tofu.

Clouds echoing
the asphalt.
The discharge of a burden.

Cars do violence to puddles.
In the rearview mirror,
a gray hair.

There were two
and then there was one. There was one
and then there were two.

Report: he needs a coat
warmer than the one
with the many pockets.

Lightning in the kitchen.
They are both
indifferent to the pasta.

Red sauce on white flesh.
There is nothing better
to devour at such moments.

A discussion of the show
about the weak-willed doctor.
The gutters overflow.

They join together
to dislodge the leaves.
A sudden flood.

Hand to hand, combat
abandoned. Rain slipping gently
down the windows.

Morning: she sighs.
He peers into the toaster.
There is nothing to see there.

*
As with my bird story sequence, my goal here was for each individual stanza to read like an individual haiku while still contributing meaningfully to the whole composition.

I wanted to write a poem that was almost a parody of the kind of novel that presents in mind-numbing detail the trivial and discouraging lives of its protagonists without yielding any significant insight or closure for their predicaments. I thought such a venture would be much more successful as a poem than as a novel — you would be able to appreciate the tiny accumulation of details that make up such lives, without being bored by the massive accumulation of overdetailed descriptions or depressed by their uninspiring inner lives. I developed a lot of sympathy for these characters as I developed the poem.