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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 31: 2-10: Russian memories

sun hanging low
long line for Cuban
oranges

zoo in midwinter
the boy in heavy clothes
cries, “Eagle!”

spring tram journey
high-rises hemmed in
by birch forest

frost on the window
blini
with coarse sugar

laundromat steam
the breath
of sleeping cats

sick from lack of sun
a lemon drop from
a fur-hatted woman

blooming bulbs
children play
near the famous prison

warm riverbank
smell of fish
from the store called “Ocean”

melted snow
reveals worn lettering:
Faster, Higher, Stronger

*

I’ve been wanting to try to experiment with writing haiku from very old memories. Do haiku moments need to be captured when fresh, or can you let them mellow for a while? Might the moments that you still remember after so long actually be better candidates for poetry than the fleeting glimpses of things that briefly move you today?

Twenty years ago I spent a semester in Moscow, then the capital of the Soviet Union. It was a life-changing time in many ways — for one thing, I met my husband there. (He’s an American, in case you were wondering.) For another, it was a world so different from the one I was used to that I got used to staring at things and noticing them, which is good practice for a writer. There are still so many tiny moments of astonishment that flash across my brain from that time.

I will say, though — I don’t think most of them really fit themselves well to haiku, maybe because my mind was relentlessly prosy then. I keep wanting to write whole essays about them, describing the whole surrounding scene and pretentiously analyzing cultural differences. Or maybe it really is futile to write haiku about things that happened so long ago; maybe you need to seize on haiku moments the moment you see them.

Pushing Ahead: Haiku Technique

So I’ve reached the point in this project, inevitable whenever I start learning about something new, when I realize that I know. absolutely. nothing. about what I’m doing. Three weeks ago when I decided suddenly to start this blog, having previously only infrequently written haiku, or really any poetry (you begin to see the depth of my naivete here), I thought (if I thought anything, which I very much doubt), “Haiku! How charming they are! And short! So very short! I could write one of those every day!” Really, I just wanted something to blog about daily, and since I have the attention span of [insert annoying, buzzing insect of your choice here], a three-line poem seemed pretty much perfect for my purposes.

So I blithely started writing the damn things, rapidly became addicted to both seeing and writing in this new compressed way, and started sensing that there might be more to this charming little poetic form than I had suspected. And then, and only then, did I start reading other people’s haiku, and reading about the form, trying to figure out what it was really about.

It didn’t seem too complicated at first. Sure, there were all those competing definitions, but really, they had a lot in common — the general idea being that haiku should express in a handful of syllables some brief but complete moment of passing enlightenment. I was totally down with that. I need more enlightenment anyway. I ran around looking for it and sat with my laptop for hours permutating (sometimes mutilating) words to try to express it. Those first efforts seemed pretty satisfying to me, sort of the way their first few drunken lurches on their own two feet seem pretty satisfying to babies. Haiku! Like walking! Nothing to it!

But just as babies are no longer content to wobble when they observe the rapid and graceful locomotion of their elders, the more I read the haiku of others, the humbler I became. Not just the classical greats, your Basho, your Issa: just scrolling through the latest issue of one of the modern haiku journals or visiting one of my favorite haiku blogs can leave me gaping: How do they do that? How do they contrive to crank the moon roof open and reveal the stars of a newly expanded universe with so few and such elegant motions? Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually writing in the same language as these people, or if they have discovered some kind of sleek, turbocharged English that can perform technical feats undreamt of by those of us who are still running version 1.0.

Clearly I needed some kind of instruction, or inspiration, or possibly a reboot of my brain — was there some kind of drug that would do that, perhaps? Just as I was beginning to consider entering a Zen monastery or selling my soul to the ghost of William Carlos Williams, I discovered a great essay by Jane Reichhold that not only pretty much blew the top of my head off but gave me renewed hope that someday, perhaps around the time I undergo my third hip replacement, I will write a haiku that seems like it actually has something to offer the world.

In this essay, entitled “Haiku Techniques,” Jane, who is one of the great American haiku poets/guides/instructors of the last fifty years, and whose writing on the subject of haiku is almost without exception brave, exciting, enlightening, and reassuring in equal measure, describes the haiku scene of the seventies and eighties, when a lot of emphasis was placed on authenticity and not so much on literary skill:

“[T]here seemed a disinterest in others wanting to study these aspects which I call techniques. Perhaps this is because in the haiku scene there continues to be such a reverence for the haiku moment and such a dislike for what are called ‘desk haiku.’ The definition of a desk haiku is one written from an idea or from simply playing around with words. If you don’t experience an event with all your senses it is not valid haiku material. A ku from your mind was half-dead and unreal. An experienced writer could only smile at such naiveté, but the label of ‘desk haiku’ was the death-knell for a ku declared as such. This fear kept people new to the scene afraid to work with techniques or even the idea that techniques were needed when it came time to write down the elusive haiku moment.”

Jane then goes on to list and describe no less than 23 different techniques she has discovered for writing haiku, the names of some of which seem like they could themselves be lines in haiku — The Technique of Sense-Switching, The Technique of Mixing It Up, The Above As Below Technique. I advise you to go read about them now if you harbor any ambitions at all in the haiku-writing line yourself and have the slightest degree of dissatisfaction with your efforts to date.

I plan to try them all. Maybe one a day, or maybe not. This is a project ideally suited to a completist, perfectionist, basically uptight academician who likes to analyze things to death but who nevertheless harbors a secret desire to write the kind of poetry that makes people gasp and pant a little, hands to their heart, when they read it. I don’t mean that I think that just working my way through Jane’s techniques will enable me to attain that goal, I just mean that I think that this project is a way of declaring, to myself as much as anybody else, that the goal is worthy.