October 25: My father’s birthday, and a brief discourse on ambiguity

if my father were here —
dawn colors
over green fields

— Issa, translated by David Lanoue

It’s my father’s birthday, the first since he died in February. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that I discovered this haiku of Issa’s yesterday.

It’s also interesting to try to decide what Issa meant by “if my father were here.” First of all, is his father dead or just not present with Issa at this moment? (I happen to know, biographically, that he was dead, but not everyone who reads this haiku would know that.)

And secondly — if his father were here, then what? If his father were here he would appreciate the dawn colors? If his father were here he would tell Issa to stop mooning around writing poetry about sunrises and get a real job? If his father were here — full stop: painful (or otherwise) train of thought interrupted by sight of lovely landscape?

Maybe the meaning is more clear in the Japanese. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the haiku is meant to open the mind of the reader to thoughts of his or her father, not tell them anything in particular about Issa’s.

Overall the haiku gives the impression both of being deeply personal and also of belonging not just to Issa but to everyone who reads it. Everyone has a father and everyone has been separated from him at some point. But that experience doesn’t have the same meaning to everyone.

This ambiguity, this refusal of the poet to constrain the imaginative options of the reader, is really central to haiku. They are short. You can’t say much in them, and you’re not supposed to. If you find yourself getting frustrated while writing haiku because you can’t say enough (never happens to me, nuh-uh, no way), you need to start thinking about what you’re trying to say that doesn’t need to be said. There is a lot that doesn’t need to be said.

Haiku should be full of space, at least as full of space as words. The reader should be able to sit in them for a while, and breathe, and hear herself think.

my father’s disappointment —
the first frost
melts beneath my finger

 

 

 

in memoriam david allen 10/25/1939 – 2/12/2010

Gendai haiku

Continuing in my time-honored tradition of writing lengthy, dull essays about things I know practically nothing about, I wanted to ramble on for a while about my recent explorations of gendai haiku. A plea: even if you are not interested in my sketchy research, uninformed opinions, or pretentious literary analysis, you should at least skim down to read what are some pretty cool haiku. (By other people, needless to say.)

The Japanese term “gendai” simply means “modern,” but in the context of haiku it seems to carry the connotation of something more like “avant-garde” or “experimental” in English. Scott Metz, who is a pretty avant-garde American haiku poet himself, explains its origins on his blog “lakes and now wolves”:

“… influenced by changes in culture, society, economics, art, and literature—globalization—many different schools and strands of haiku developed during the 20th century. … Starting with a foundation centered more on realism and experience, 20th century haiku immediately expanded into areas such as politics, subjectivity, the avant-garde, feminism, urbanism, surrealism, the imaginary, symbolism, individuality, and science fiction: in general, free-form and experimental aesthetics. … The rigid limitations and conservatism of traditional techniques (namely 5-7-5 on/syllabets and the necessity of a kigo) were no longer absolutes for Japanese poets.”

— Scott Metz, for ku by

I first encountered the term “gendai” in an essay by Peter Yovu on the website of The Haiku Foundation, troutswirl, where several compelling examples of the genre are cited, such as:

like squids

bank clerks are fluorescent

from the morning


—Kaneko Tōta (trans. Makoto Ueda)


in front of the scarlet mushroom

my comb slips off


—Yagi Mikajo
 (trans. by Richard Gilbert)


from the sight

of the man who was killed

we also vanished


—Murio Suzuki (trans. by Gendai Haiku Kyokai)

(All examples from Peter Yovu, What is Your Reponse to Gendai Haiku?)

These examples seemed so exciting to me, so much more interesting than the standard Zen-nature-moment haiku, which I confess I’m getting a little weary of, that I went straight off to gendaihaiku.com, a website by Richard Gilbert, one of the most influential Western scholars and proponents of gendai. It contains profiles of some of the masters of gendai haiku, videotaped interviews with them, and examples of their work. There I found stuff like this:

wheat –
realizing death as one color
gold

Uda Kiyoko

revolution

in the snowy kiosk

for sale        .?

Hoshinaga

–[Gilbert adds an explanatory note to this haiku:] … Kiosks filled with novel items began to appear in train stations throughout postwar Japan as the rail lines developed, and represented a new world, a new era of consumption and economic development. The resulting revolution spoken of here is domestic and cultural. A unique formal feature of this haiku is its last, fragmentary character na, which follows a question marker (ka), comma, and space, a uniquely creative contribution. Hovering between a statement of certainty and strong doubt (disbelief?), an indefinite solution is created by the orthography, causing this haiku to reflect back upon its topic, deepening the question.


cherry blossoms fall

—
you too must become

a hippo

Nenten Tsubouchi

water of spring
as water wetted
water, as is

Hasegawa Kai

–Hasegawa comments.
 Almost anything in this world can be wetted by water. However, the one thing that cannot be wetted in this way is water itself. Although water wets other things but cannot itself be wetted, I nonetheless intuit that the water of spring, uniquely, has a special quality in that it can be wetted — though it too is water.


There are clearly a lot of cultural and translation barriers to a non-Japanese fully understanding these poems — among other problems, I still don’t quite get why Tsubouchi wants me to be a hippo. But it struck me forcefully that these poets were clearly not interested in following the “rules” about haiku, particularly about haiku subject matter, that so many English haiku poets seem insistent on and fearful of breaking.

These poems aren’t about “haiku moments.” They have vivid and compelling images; but they’re allusive, elusive, experimental, full of large ideas — not just tiny moments of awareness. I say this not to cast aspersions on tiny moments of awareness, just to point out that in the culture where haiku developed, there is apparently a much broader conception of what constitutes a “real” haiku than in our own.

In an interview with Robert Wilson, Gilbert points out that gendai haiku poets are not breaking off decisively from the classical haiku tradition, that haiku has always been about referencing the past while making accommodation to the present:

“Gendai haiku partake of a tradition and culture in which, unlike that of the historical Judeo-Christian West, nature and culture were not extensively polarized. So in gendai haiku exists an invitation to the present and a future, in congruence with the past. This congruency is also an uprooting, accomplished via expansive and often experimental avant-garde language and techniques. Yet the old is likewise held in the new, in plying the form. The key to haiku, what makes it a brilliant literature, is that haiku cut through time and space …

“The gendai haiku tradition partakes of Bashō’s ‘world of mind,’ and like Bashō and other accomplished classical masters, extends a literary conversation. … [H]aiku are never merely singular works of art, they swim in an ocean of poetry, in which any given term (e.g. kigo or kidai) and image has multiple reference to over 1000 years of literary history (poems, historical events, personages, authors, myths, etc.). …”

— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert

I would add that haiku, in its several hundred years of existence, has undergone many changes in style and approach and has never been as limited in subject matter and structure as many Westerners seem to believe. A lot of what we now think of as “proper” haiku (the nature observation, the Zen moment of enlightenment) was a late-nineteenth-century development and actually, ironically, owed a lot to the realism of Western poetry, which was just beginning to be known in Japan at the time. Haruo Shirane, in his great essay Beyond the Haiku Moment, points out that early haiku were just as likely (or more so) to concern historical or literary or entirely imaginary subjects as the personal experience of the poet:

Basho traveled to explore the present, the contemporary world, to meet new poets, and to compose linked verse together. Equally important, travel was a means of entering into the past, of meeting the spirits of the dead, of experiencing what his poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced. In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems. …  Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti- traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.

— Haruo Shirane, Beyond the Haiku Moment

An interesting historical note about this movement is that gendai haiku poets underwent significant persecution at the hands of the Japanese government during World War II, as is chillingly explained in an article in the haiku journal “Roadrunner” (again, by Richard Gilbert):

“[B]y the 1920s … the ‘New Rising Haiku movement’ (shinkô haiku undô) wished to compose haiku on new subjects, and utilize techniques and topics related to contemporary social life. These poets frequently wrote haiku without kigo (muki-teki haiku), and explored non-traditional subjects, such as social inequity, utilizing avant‑garde styles including surrealism, etc. …

“During the war, over 40 New Rising Haiku poets were persecuted; they were imprisoned and tortured, and some died in prison. … [The director of a haiku society associated with the government stated:] ‘I will not allow haiku even from the most honorable person, from left-wing, or progressive, or anti-war, groups to exist. If such people are found in the haiku world, we had better persecute them, and they should be punished.’

“… According to the fascist-traditionalists, to write haiku without kigo meant anti-tradition, which in turn meant anti-Imperial order and high treason. …

“One sees that, historically, ‘freedom of expression’ in the gendai haiku movement was not an idle aesthetic notion. … The liberal, democratic spirit and freedom of expression exhibited by the New Rising Haiku poets remains at the core of gendai haiku.”

— Richard Gilbert, “Gendai Haiku Translations

In this same article Gilbert and Ito Yuki offer translations of some haiku by this generation of persecuted poets, all of which, naturally, are a little on the dark side — but exhibit the same freshness of approach as my previous examples:

clean kills: in a night war a canyon a crab
–
Hirahata Seito

the shriek of artillery
birds beasts fish shellfish
chilling dim

— 
Saito Sanki

leaving a withered tree
being shot as a withered tree
— 
Sugimura Seirinshi

machine gun
in the forehead
the killing flower blooms
— 
Saito Sanki

(Translations by Richard Gilbert and Ito Yuki, from Gendai Haiku Translations“)

If you’re starting to wonder if all gendai haiku are dark and depressing…fear not. A wonderful place to sample a wide variety of gendai haiku is Blue Willow Haiku World, the website of the fine Japanese-American haiku poet Fay Aoyagi, which features both her own haiku and that of modern Japanese haiku poets in her own translations. A few examples:

no hesitation

he comes and whispers

in a dancer’s ear

–Suju Takano

from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996

— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 9, 2010


azuki-bean jelly

I prefer a comic play

with a quiet plot

–Shuoshi Mizuhara

from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996

— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 7, 2010


bubbled water

it wets

an equation

— Keishu Ogawa

from “Gendai Haiku Hyakunin Nijukku” (“Modern Haiku: 20 Haiku per100 Poets”), edited by Kazuo Ibaraki, Kiyoko Uda, Nenten Tsubouchi, Kazuko Nishimura, You-shorin, Nagano, 2004

Fay’s Note:  “sôda-sui” (bubbled/carbonated water) is a summer kigo.

One can write a Japanese haiku without a subject word.   Most of time, the subject is “I,” the poet.   But this one, I am not sure.   I see two people (somehow, a male and female students) studying together.   It is a summer time.

Between them, cans (or glasses) of bubbled water…   But the translation can be

bubbled water

I wet

an equation

— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 6, 2010

So far I’ve been discussing this genre as a strictly Japanese phenomenon. But the inevitable question is: Are there “gendai haiku” in English?

Richard Gilbert responds:

“I’m not even sure [the term ‘gendai’] should be used for any haiku natively-written in English. For instance, I would not say so-and-so a haiku is ‘gendai’ as a matter of style, unless I meant it was similar in style to that of a known gendai poet of Japan … As of yet, we do not have a ‘gendai-like’ movement in English-language haiku poetry, though there are some poets writing innovative works. … It’s my thought that we can learn and appreciate, though innovate with autonomy.”

— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert

I’m planning to write a post soon about some English-language haiku poets who are innovating in what seem to me gendai-like ways — including Metz and Gilbert themselves. In the meantime, I’d welcome comments on these poems and this poetic phenomenon: How do you feel about haiku in this style? Do you think there is a similar movement in English? Should I just stick to haiku and leave the dry academic treatises to the experts? Let your opinion be known.

Haiku in English: Discuss

A few days ago the blog of The Haiku Foundation, troutswirl*, posted a fascinating essay by Richard Gilbert called “The Morning After: Haiku Faces a New Century.” It examines the difference between haiku in Japanese and in English and reconsiders the perennial question of whether it’s appropriate to use the term “haiku” for English poetry at all. The comments the blog readers have left on the essay are at least as interesting as the essay itself — lots of great ideas swirling around out there, about what haiku in English is or should be or should become.

You may or may not care about any of these ideas. But I wanted to quote for you just this one paragraph from the essay, because it is so wonderful to read and to think about. (Maybe it’s just me. I like lists of things.)

When the best English haiku are examined in terms of language issues, it is possible to observe what it is usually not: not directly philosophizing, ornamental, rhyming, discursive, narrative, verbose, dialogic, ruminative, bald, simple, talkative, casual, loose, long, rambling, or challenging as to vocabulary. Haiku in English is often minimally brief, semantically enfolded, clever, surprising, resistant, collocationally unusual or unique, mysterious, suggestive, humorous, clashing, disjunctive, irruptive, rhythmic, imagistic, sensual, and has a readily understandable vocabulary.

— Richard Gilbert, The Morning After: Haiku Faces a New Century

*If you haven’t taken a look at troutswirl yet, and if you have any interest in lively discussions of practical and theoretical matters pertaining to haiku-writing, you definitely should spend some time there.


June 5: 3: Haibun for my sister’s birthday

IMG_3949

December 2008: We* were home† for Christmas, for what we knew or suspected would be the last time we would all be together because my father‘s cancer was taking root deep in his body and could no longer be eradicated, and we (the younger two generations) got up one morning and decided we needed to make a road trip to go get the world’s best doughnuts§. Forty-five minutes away, through the countryside. About halfway there, there’s this tree. My father had reminded us about it before we left, so we were on the lookout for it. This amazing tree. I had never seen it so didn’t really know what to expect; how amazing could a tree be? Well. It’s the oldest tree in the state. An oak. Hundreds of years old, with huge branches, bigger than a lot of trees, literally grown into the ground. And as we discovered, if all five of us stood around it and stretched our arms as far as they would go, we could just touch fingertips. The tree’s circumference was exactly the same as our combined heights. We’re all short. But still.

*

the oldest tree we know
stretching
to touch each other’s fingers

*

That’s me on the left. My sister on the right. My son in the middle. The men are in the back, stretching invisibly.

Happy birthday, sister.

*

If you’re going to force me to be brief you at least have to let me have footnotes:

* me, my husband, my son, my sister, and my sister’s then-boyfriend

† at my father’s apartment and my mother’s house (they hadn’t lived together for nine years but they never got divorced and they still saw each other all the time), in the area where we grew up, eight states away from where I live now and three states away from where my sister lives

§ I don’t want to turn this blog into an advertisement so I’m not going to say the name of the place that makes these doughnuts, but if you email me privately and ask nicely I might be willing to reveal all.

June 3: 1: A sort of haibun (Old Letters)

For my 100th post I thought I’d try my hand at haibun (which for the uninitiated is haiku preceded by a sort of brief prose commentary), but as usual I am unable to be brief in prose, so this is more like a wordy, boring essay with a haiku tacked on at the end, like an afterthought.

*

Down in my basement I have a plastic tub full of rubber-banded sheaves of hundreds of handwritten letters, most of them 80s-era. I went to boarding school in the mid-80s and my friends and I, tossed to separate corners of the globe (Ohio, Vermont, Saudi Arabia) over the summers,  wrote each other obsessively. A letter arrived in the mail for me every few days, it seemed, and I would repair to my bedroom, take it out of the envelope as if it were a holy artifact, and read it so many times I practically memorized it.

What did we write about? What we would have talked about, if we’d been together, or excessive long-distance phone calls hadn’t been prohibitively expensive in those days. Or, these days, what we would text or IM about. Boys, a lot of the time. (Or girls.) How bored we were. How much our parents drove us out of our mind. How crazy we were, and weird, and how nobody understood us except each other. We could write really long letters about all this stuff.

I rummaged through the piles lately and found I could still recognize different friends’ letters from the different styles of envelope they used and from their still-familiar handwriting. My best friend had terrible handwriting and liked to send ten-page missives in manila envelopes. She wrote crazy things all over the outside of them. She ended up dropping out of school our junior year and spending the rest of the year as a beach bum in Hawaii, but now she’s an anesthesiologist, married with two lovely children. Or so I see from her Facebook profile. We all seemed to have a lot of difficulty finding ourselves as adults. Maybe we were as crazy and weird as we thought we were.

Like everyone else I don’t write letters on paper anymore and I love the immediacy and convenience of email and other online communication, but these letters, as artifacts, as physical representations of my long-ago friendships and the personalities of my long-ago friends, filled me with an intense longing for that experience of missing someone and then receiving a talisman of them, one which would sustain me until the next one arrived, one which I could keep piled up with the other talismans and hold whenever I needed to. Are things better or worse now? Just different, I suspect. It seems impossible that teenagers today could ever feel as lonely and longing and isolated as I felt then on a daily basis. I wish I could have emailed my friends in high school and college. I wish I’d had a Facebook page, an online support group, a way of getting instant feedback when I felt like I was making important and difficult decisions all alone. But I still kind of wish for letters with scrawled, handwritten addresses to show up in my mailbox from time to time.

*

old letters
the strangeness
of handwriting

*

100 posts in 34 days does seem excessive. Things should slow down considerably once I start my summer school course in a couple of weeks, and even more when I’m in grad school full time in the fall, in case you’re concerned.

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.

Oh please/ like THIS/ is a haiku? (May 24: 1-12)

So the last few days got kind of heavy and I was starting to feel like I never wanted to see another haiku as long as I lived. Instant panic: I can’t be burning out already! Something must be done!

Well…what is the best thing to do when you start taking yourself way, way too seriously? Start acting incredibly silly, of course. Stand on your head. Do a funny dance. Write bad haiku.

Okay, maybe not bad, exactly. But…weird. Different. Not…haiku-like.

Oh! That reminds me of this thing I bookmarked the other day and vowed to come back to when I got a minute!

” ‘Haiku-like haiku aren’t particularly bad. But haiku that don’t seem haiku-like at all—nowadays that’s the kind I’m after.’

—Santoka (trans. Burton Watson)

“…The relatively narrow (and necessarily hybrid) basis of the tradition of haiku in English, with its emphasis on the here and now, can only take us so far; thus many published haiku seem ‘thin.’ Perhaps what’s needed is less striving to perfect the ‘same,’ more writing against the grain.”

–Philip Rowland,  The Problem

Yeah, Philip (and Santoka), I know what you mean. Read and write enough haiku, and eventually even the good ones start seeming like parodies of themselves. All that nature! All those tiny exquisite details! All those lower-case letters! All that lack of punctuation! All those moments of enlightenment!

What if for one day I tossed out all those precious little haiku rules (as represented in italics below), and tried to write haiku that seemed un-haiku-like, and yet somehow preserved the spirit of haiku (whatever the hell that is)?

I think it would make me feel better. Though it might make you feel worse.

*

“Use concrete images.” And, “Don’t make direct references to emotion.” (You know, “Show, don’t tell.”) Also, “Slang is so unattractive.”


1.

Yeah,
I’m sad.
Also happy.

*

“Three lines (or even one) are nicer than two. Or four. Five is right out.” Also, “Metaphors are kind of tacky.” Also, “Cliches? Don’t even get me started.”


2.
This cup of tea
isn’t everyone’s.

3.
Where I left the
balloon I bought
for your birthday:
On cloud nine

4.
Swimming
against the current:
Fish
passes me
like I’m standing still

*

“Don’t shout.” Also, “Don’t swear.”


5.

WHAT THE HELL
IS A FROG
DOING IN THAT TREE?

*

“If seventeenth-century technology was good enough for Basho, it’s good enough for us.” Also, “Write in the present tense. Not the past. Or the future.”


6.

My email vanished
before I hit “Send.”
Will Facebook reject me too?

*

“Please don’t be vulgar.” Also, metaphors, cliches, yadda yadda yadda.


7.

No pot to piss in
when I need to piss.
Which I do.

8.

My nose
in your armpit:
your long walk.

*

“Try to make at least a little bit of sense.” Also, “Minimize your syllables.”


9.

Sticky tape, sticky buns
Fine reticulations of burnt toast
Mud sponging over black shoes

10.

where it (oh who am I kidding anyway)
stopped (my stomach is growling, when did I have lunch)
Haiku (there is as much in the future as there is in the past)

*

Rhyme should be used judiciously. If at all.”’


11.

In bed tonight
I know you’re right.
Just turn out the light.

*

“No entitlements.”


12.

The Box

I opened it up.
There you were,
turned into packing peanuts.




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.

“there is no need to stuff it with more syllables”

Alexey Andreyev, a Russian poet, wrote a great essay several years ago called “The Definition of Haiku“. You should read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that I’ve spent a while thinking about the last few days.

“When poets write or translate haiku into their language they try to save haiku spirit, and somehow imitate the Japanese form (the length of the lines, the breaks) — but at the same time they take into account the common patterns of their own language so that it sounds natural. This way most of Russian translations of classic Japanese haiku have about 20 syllables; on the other hand, a haiku in English, according to W. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, is better when it’s about 12 syllables…[T]here is no need to stuff it with more syllables.”

I mentioned this 12-syllable thing the other day. 12 still seems pretty arbitrary to me, but I will agree that the haiku I really like usually seem to have significantly less than 17 syllables. 17 syllables — that’s a lot in English for one breath, one fleeting thought. When I revise my haiku it’s usually to pare the syllable count back to minimum. All those extraneous verbs, articles, pronouns! They seem embarrassing when I look at my first effort, the same way all those extraneous adverbs and adjectives embarrass me when I look at my rough drafts of my prose.

(One interesting tangent on this subject is that I was a Russian major in college, and Russian famously has no articles at all, doesn’t have the verb “to be” in the present tense, and can often do without pronouns due to its heavily inflected verb forms. True, it has a lot of long words — maybe this accounts for their feeling that they need 20 syllables to do a good haiku — but in other ways it’s a pretty minimalist sort of language. I found that studying Russian was a good thing for my English prose style — you quickly learn how few words are really necessary to say what you want.)

Another quote:

“Every haiku is a sort of little picture, an interesting image. Two main ideas about these images:

A) They come from direct experience; certain bright moments of life you managed to catch with your ‘internal camera’: wonders, strange coincidences, funny situations, sceneries that resonate with your current ‘soul state’ or even change, shock you suddenly, giving you a moment of sadness or another sensation YOU COULDN’T EVEN NAME.

B) This image, being written down, should evoke certain deep feelings in readers, too; this is really difficult — not only to present the experience in words but to do it in such a way that it could be effectively reflected in someone’s mind.

The art of haiku (as I see it) is a dance on the sharp blade between these (A) and (B): you can write about what you saw but it won’t grab your reader as you write merely ‘there are leaves on the tree’ — extreme (A); on the other hand, going to the extreme (B), you can make up a fancy abstract construction but it’ll be too far from the immediate perception; this artificial fake will be visible and will impress no one.”

This A/B distinction interests me, since I’ve been surfing around the Web the last few weeks reading other people’s haiku and have noticed that the ones I don’t really like (don’t worry, I’m not going to cite any examples) are usually too heavy on either the A or the B. Either they’re very concrete, just straightforward images that may be pretty but aren’t really connected to anything and don’t evoke any particular thought or emotion; or they’re very abstract, grandiose declarations about the poet’s state of mind or life philosophy or opinions about the universe. It’s the ones that connect — only connect! — the concrete and the abstract that I end up catching my breath over. I try to keep this connection in mind when I write haiku. Some days I’m more successful than others.

Andreyev again:

“Imagine yourself walking by the river and seeing an unfinished bridge: maybe, just a half of the bridge from one side to the middle of the river, or some pillars stuck in the bottom, or even ruins — an old cement block on one side and a similar one on the other. Anyway, there’s no bridge, no connection now, you can’t reach the other side of the river — yet you can finish the bridge in your mind and say exactly where it starts and ends. That is the way the unfinished links in haiku work…”

Well, this is an image I’ll be thinking about for a long time, that’s all I have to say. Writing haiku so that the bridge is imaginable but not actually there — that’s a goal I can get behind.

(By the way, I have discovered lots of Andreyev’s Russian haiku on the Web and want to try to translate some of them soon. They’re excellent — though interestingly, most of them seem to have not only fewer than 20 but fewer than 17 syllables. Apparently Andreyev is not defeated by the notorious polysyllabicism of the Russian language.)

1986

I wish you’d come see
the cat. She no longer sleeps
on the guest room bed.

This was published in my high school literary magazine, after they rejected (with actual incredulous laughter) the haiku I really liked, which I can no longer find. It featured an upturned teapot, but I can’t remember anything else about it. Just for the record, my English teacher liked it too. I feel I must say this defensively even twenty-four years after the fact. Note to self: raise this issue in next therapy session.

I remember being extremely preoccupied with counting 5-7-5 syllables when I wrote haiku in high school (and for some time beyond). Partly this was because schoolteachers tend to place a lot of emphasis on this “requirement” of haiku (I have a post about this coming up), partly it was because I had then (and still must combat now) a tendency to take rules and limits very, very seriously. I still like writing (informal) sonnets, villanelles, all sorts of poetic forms with set structures: genuine free verse seems worryingly infinite in possibility to me. If I do write free verse, I tend to place some kind of loose metrical constraints on it, just so my choice of words is narrower.

That’s pretty much where I am right now with poetry in general and haiku in particular — not tight, not loose. There are haiku “requirements” I find pleasing and like to work with: the “one-breath” idea; the idea of a “kigo” or seasonal word (but my interpretation of this is looser than the Japanese idea); the idea of a “kireji” or cutting word (but for me this means more like a word that is a hinge that holds the parts of the haiku together, or a strong, vivid word that focuses the haiku’s image); the Zen idea of a fleeting image, a glimpse, something that can be grasped all at once and doesn’t need to be analyzed. Not all my haiku have to have all these elements, but I find it helpful to keep these things in mind when I’m writing haiku, and to the extent that I’m successful in incorporating them into my haiku, the more successful I tend to feel the haiku is.

Of course, modern English haiku don’t have strict syllabic requirements, but sometimes I still like to count 5-7-5, or at least 17, just for fun, or as a challenge to myself. Though I read recently that 12 syllables is more like the ideal for an English haiku (what this is based on I have no idea), so I might play around with that for a while and see how it works.

And then again I might experiment with truly minimalist haiku: two or three words. The interesting thing about my attempting such brevity is that (as you can see from this commentary) my natural tendency is to write long. I think of haiku as a way to force myself to identify the heart of my message, to discard the extraneous verbiage that clutters my arguments and muddies my images.