Category: culture

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 …

July 22: 1-2: The Technique of Humor

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

Jane:

“This is the dangerous stuff … [b]ecause one has no way of judging another person’s tolerance for wisecracks, jokes, slurs, bathroom and bedroom references.… Very often the humor of a haiku comes from the honest reactions of humankind. Choose your terms carefully, add to your situation with appropriate leaps, and may the haiku gods smile on you.

dried prune faces
guests when they hear
we have only a privy”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:
Hmmm … okay, here’s the thing. My sense of humor tends toward the … obscurely satirical? Wait, is that just a synonym for “not funny”? Well, you can judge for yourself.

1.

For my first effort at humor I set out to write a haiku that would encompass as many stereotypes about Japan and haiku as possible in seventeen syllables (5-7-5, of course).

origami cranes
sipping tea on Mount Fuji —
white cherry blossoms

2.
For my second effort I felt like making fun of haiku poets. Yeah, all of us, cawing away, trying to impress our significance on the world …

Basho, Issa,
and the rest of us —
a convention of crows

Had enough yet? Can’t say I blame you. But come on, are they really any worse than Jane’s privy joke?

(And don’t forget my invitation!)

July 1: 1-4: The Techniques of Wabi and Sabi

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

Jane:

The Technique of Sabi


“… [T]he Japanese have maintained for centuries that no one can really, truly comprehend what sabi really is and thus, they change its definition according to their moods. Bill Higginson, in The Haiku Handbook, calls sabi – ‘(patina/loneliness) Beauty with a sense of loneliness in time, akin to, but deeper than, nostalgia.’ Suzuki maintains that sabi is ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude’ but that it can also be ‘miserable,’ ‘insignificant,’ and ‘pitiable,’ ‘asymmetry’ and ‘poverty.’ Donald Keene sees sabi as ‘an understatement hinting at great depths.’ So you see, we are rather on our own with this!

I have translated this as: sabi (SAH-BEE)- aged/loneliness – A quality of images used in poetry that expresses something aged or weathered with a hint of sadness because of being abandoned. A split-rail fence sagging with overgrown vines has sabi; a freshly painted picket fence does not.

rocky spring
lips taking a sip
from a stone mouth

coming home
flower
by flower”

[Note: In Jane’s book “Writing and Enjoying Haiku” (published later than and containing a revised version of this essay) she gives the example haiku for sabi as:

listening ears
petals fall into
the silence]


The Technique of Wabi


“The twin brother to sabi … can be defined as ‘(WAH-BEE) — poverty — Beauty judged to be the result of living simply. Frayed and faded Levis have the wabi that bleached designer jeans can never achieve.’ Thus one can argue that the above haiku samples are really more wabi than sabi – and suddenly one understands the big debate. However, I offer one more ku that I think is more wabi than sabi because it offers a scene of austere beauty and poignancy.

parting fog
on wind barren meadows
birth of a lamb”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

More on wabi and sabi:

I think that when Jane originally wrote this the concepts of wabi and sabi (or wabi-sabi, the way they’re usually conjoined and made into one concept these days) were not really familiar to Americans. Then, of course, a segment of the interior design industry got hold of it and the next thing you knew there were entire shelves of the home-decorating section at Barnes & Noble dedicated to explaining how to improve your home by bringing home junky things from garage sales (or pre-distressed knickknacks from Target), arranging them artistically on your coffee table, and telling everyone they were part of your Japanese Zen aesthetic.

I’m being facetious. Kind of. I mean, in some ways my house is Wabi-Sabi Central, if only because I don’t have any actual money to buy shiny new stuff. (Also, shiny new stuff hurts my eyes.) Lots of my furniture was retrieved off curbs on trash day. (“Oh look! Another not-completely-broken chair that doesn’t match any of my other chairs! Score!”)

I buy all my clothes at thrift stores so I never have to worry about breaking in my jeans. I like museums and antique stores because they’re full of worn-out objects that lots of other people have touched and left psychic imprints on, and I would love to bring home more of these objects — you know, like beautifully weathered old maple furniture, and frayed hundred-year-old quilts made by thrifty ladies using up their fabric scraps, and those gorgeous grayish-brown stoneware jars to store your dry goods, and — what’s that you say? That stuff all costs a fortune?

Yeah, see, that’s the problem with wabi-sabi — once everyone started thinking how great it was to have worn-out old stuff, the worn-out old stuff got really expensive. And it all started feeling a little trite and silly, this frantic rush to spend lots of money to make your house look like you were impoverished.

But that surface interior-decorating concept of wabi-sabi isn’t — I know, I know — what it’s really about. What it is about, exactly — as Jane points out — nobody exactly knows, and the Japanese, I believe, are not all that eager to explain — detailed explanations, obviously, not being very Zen. I did find a really cool essay on the subject by someone who appears to be an American tea expert (tea ceremony master? hard to tell from the site). Here are some of his or her thoughts on the matter (it’s a long and really interesting essay, so as usual I recommend reading the whole thing even though — sigh — I know nobody will):

“Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. … It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. … My favorite Japanese phrase for describing wabi-sabi is ‘natsukashii furusato,’ or an old memory of my hometown. …

“Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquillity, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. …

Sabi by itself means ‘the bloom of time.’ It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust — the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting. … An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America’s contribution to the evolution of sabi. … We seek sabi in antiques and even try to manufacture it in distressed furnishings. True sabi cannot be acquired, however. It is a gift of time. …

Wabi-sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, which was brought from China to Japan by Eisai, a twelfth-century monk. Zen, with its principles of vast emptiness and nothing holy, stresses austerity, communion with nature, and above all, reverence for everyday life as the real path to enlightenment.”

— From noble harbor, “What is Wabi-Sabi?

So. Now that we are all hopelessly confused (and have concluded that wabi-sabi and haiku have a lot in common, chiefly the complete inability of any two people to agree on a definition of them) … on to the poetry.

your roses
how few petals
remain

the steam
from the kettle
floating dreams

one petal
on the tablecloth
your name

the empty bench
the wind sweeps away
memories

I had to throw this in … this is the most wabi-sabi-ish place I’ve ever seen. It’s part of the ruins of an old hotel that are now in the middle of a state park. This structure was a fish hatchery on a trout pond. You can click on it to get a much larger, more interesting view.

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.

Innovators in English-language haiku: Gendai or not gendai…

Yesterday’s post on gendai haiku is now already my most popular post of all time, which kind of blows me away because I assumed a total of about three people would ever read it and at least two of them would hate it. This makes me think I should strike while the iron is hot and write my promised post on innovators in English-language haiku. Once again, try not to be put off by the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Yes, I’m a newcomer to the haiku world, a rank amateur, probably nothing more than a poseur, but no one, at least, can accuse me of a lack of enthusiasm, which you will just have to accept in place of expertise.

A good place to start, I think, would be with a comment Scott Metz posted on troutswirl quite recently in response to the essay of Richard Gilbert’s I mentioned in another post the other day: The Morning After: Haiku Faces a New Century. Be forewarned, these are some pretty polemical remarks (as remarks by poets go). If you are not entirely sold on the whole gendai/avant-garde haiku scene, try not to be offended by them but to take them in the spirit of sincere love for haiku and the English language with which I believe Scott offers them:

“…Japanese haiku are indeed, very much so, a word-based poetry, not the enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra so many continue to espouse and cling to. … [English language haiku] are … for the most part, still, ‘slavish imitations’ of translations of what westerners *think* Japanese haiku are. Creative oversimplifications, most of which lack internal energy/dynamics. creative misreadings are cool. but i think they’ve lost their virginal glow in this case. …

“One direction i find interesting for [English language haiku] is that of symbolism and literary allusions/references being used within them, either in a mythological way, or in a more canonically literary way. knowingly or unknowingly. …

“Japanese haiku, at their root, are not simply, or only, about images at all, or moments, or ‘real/true’ experiences … but about language and culture and literature: an intricately woven rug of all these elements. …

“What also strikes me … is how strangely satisfied those writing [English language haiku] are with their nature imagery. Considering how radical Basho and his followers were about always trying to do something new and fresh with kigo, it seems a shame, and kind of mortifying, that so many writing [English language haiku] don’t try to experiment more with nature/environmental imagery. To try to turn them on their heads. To twist them. Play with them. …

“I think folks writing [English language haiku] need to play more: with images, words and techniques. and that not just western poetry/poetics should be considered and sampled, but anything and everything we can get our hands on. which is why it’s exciting to see things like ‘kire’ and ‘ma’ and vampires and sufism and gendai popping up. what can we do with these things?”

— Scott Metz, comments on troutswirl

Well…I think I should let what Scott said stand as most of the commentary here, and dedicate my efforts to displaying haiku by sundry poets that I think meet at least some of his criteria for “playing” with the haiku form, doing something “new and fresh” instead of, in Scott’s immortal words, remaining content with the “enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra.”

Whether we use the word “gendai” to refer to these poets or whether we should stick to some term more familiar to us in English like avant-garde, experimental, non-traditional, I think we can all agree that most of them are attempting something different than is espoused by the mainstream haiku movement in the English-speaking world, and closer to what gendai haiku poets in Japan are doing with the genre.

It seems logical to start with Scott himself. On his blog lakes and now wolves, Scott republishes those of his haiku that have been printed in journals. References to pop culture, politics, and current events are par for the course; so is a fresh (if sometimes somewhat obscure) use of language.  A couple of examples:

5/21/2010:

the milky way . . .
we start to discuss
Pac-Man strategies

4/17/2010:

walrus with its mouth wide open war statistics

— Scott Metz

The next obvious place to go would be Roadrunner, the haiku journal Scott edits in accordance with his preferred haiku aesthetics. Here are some examples from issue IX: 4:

second dawn the dream ghosts re-rehearsing

— John Barlow

A candle is a sweet machine

to fly across the crow-

shaped night

—  Grant Hackett

A couple of other journals frequently feature non-traditional haiku, such as Modern Haiku. Here are a couple of examples from the Autumn 2009 issue (vol. 40:3):

reading a poem
of urbane intelligence
how dead it is

— William M. Ramsey

O what the hell
haiku poet finally
kills the fly

— Le Wild


Here are some examples from the journal Notes From the Gean (vol. 2 issue 1, June 2010).


waiting
for something to happen —
The Evening Standard

— Ruth Holzer – USA

the echo of fireworksthe echo ofthe echo

not speaking the boiled egg clings to its shell

— Bob Lucky – Ethiopia

Richard Gilbert, the gendai haiku scholar I referred to extensively in my essay on that topic, also is a haiku poet himself, some of whose recent, innovative haiku appear on the website Word Riot:

dedicated to the moon

I rise

without a decent alibi


a drowning man

pulled into violet worlds

grasping hydrangea

(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 1, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: 2004, pp. 25-27.)

blood orange:

the curving radius

of sunset

(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 6, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: Summer, 2008.)

— Richard Gilbert

Fay Aoyagi is another poet doing innovative work with haiku. In my gendai haiku essay I mentioned her website Blue Willow Haiku World, on which she presents many of her English translations of Japanese gendai haiku. Her own haiku are described by David Lanoue, in his Modern Haiku essay, Something with Wings:
 Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape, as “avant-garde” and “new-style.” Following are a couple of Fay’s haiku with enlightening commentary by David from his essay:

pre-surgery dinner

tiny ocean

in the oyster shell

[Lanoue’s commentary on this haiku:]

“I believe that haiku is about discovery: the deeper the feeling of discovery, the better the haiku, in my opinion. In a great haiku we sense the poet finding out something in the process of composition, not reporting on a thing that has been previously mentally digested. When Aoyagi brings us with her to the table for her pre-surgery dinner, we suspect that she has no a priori idea that the journey will take us to a tiny ocean in an oyster shell. We arrive there with her, sharing the ‘ah!-moment’ of the vision and sensing its nonlinear, non-logical connection to the poet’s (and our) interior life. Thoughts of mortality, the fear of the surgeon’s knife, a vague feeling of dread and lament … so many emotions ebb and flow in the tiny ocean in the shell. The shell on the plate is itself a post-op carcass that on closer inspection becomes a gleaming continental shelf enclosing a tiny, salty sea. Aoyagi doesn’t say what she feels about her vision, whether it comforts or terrifies her; she invites us into the intimacy of the moment to contemplate for ourselves what it might mean.”


ants out of a hole —

when did I stop playing

the red toy piano?

[David’s general commentary on Fay’s technique:]

“Her decision to probe her inner life is not new in haiku tradition, though few do it as well or as interestingly. The contemporary Japanese poet Hasegawa Kai (whose work Aoyagi has translated) describes the shift from outer to inner focus within a haiku as a sort of kire or “cutting.” In a interview with Richard Gilbert, Hasegawa defines zengo no kire as “The cutting which cuts a haiku from this reality within which we live — from the literal place / environment / atmosphere (‘ba’) of literal existence.” Such cutting, according to Hasegawa, entails a shift of focus from outward scenes to the “realm of the mind” — exactly Fay Aoyagi’s method.”

— Fay Aoyagi/David Lanoue, Something with Wings:
 Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape

There are a number of haiku bloggers I’ve discovered (many of whom also publish in journals, but I know their work mainly through their blogs) who, consciously or unconsciously, play with the traditional Western haiku form with interesting results. For example, John Sandbach of Crystal Dragon says, “I am deeply enamoured of the modern haiku of Japan, which, like modern art, is of many styles and energies, and which is constantly recreating itself as it unfolds. Unfortunately, the West is still primarily focused on traditional haiku and has not yet tuned in to the wonders of modern Japanese experimental artisans of this form.” Below is one of his haiku sequences:

Lettuce’s Bliss: 5 Haiku

1

To die
in a hippo’s jaws —
the lettuce’s bliss

2

Remorseful
for tearing up a violet
so I ate it

3

On T.V. a spider
liquifies a frog —
spring in Kansas City

4

In spring
a stone mason —
servant of the endless wall

5

Skin
smooth and white —
the pyramid’s youth

— John Sandbach


Nicole Hyde of the blog “noodle,” who commented on my gendai haiku post, “I’ve bought a ticket on the Gendai Haiku train too,” has some interesting examples of nontraditional haiku on her site. Since she is also a painter, her haiku often refer to art.

English Bay Lune

unbound, the English

Bay in fog —

not seen: some weird duck


Art Tiny Poem

soundless

in the night museum

Wyeth’s boots


Prairie Town

prairie town

from end to end —

one haiku

— Nicole Hyde


Alan Segal, or “Old Pajamas,” from the blog “old pajamas: from the dirt hut,” innovates in many ways, often describing what are clearly imaginary or fantasy scenes.

mourner’s kaddish
does the fly, too,
wear a yamulke?

6/2/2010

unwrapping an impossibly blue bird, flown from a castle keep

— Alan Segal


Brian Pike of paiku describes his poetry as “Haiku. More or less.” In the Q&A for his site he explains:

But aren’t haiku meant to be exactly 17 syllables long?

You’re right. They’re also meant to include a seasonal reference (kigo) and a structural break (kireji). But I’ve never been good at following rules.

If your poems don’t meet the criteria for haiku, why confuse the issue?

I like haiku. I think these are similar in mood and intention. And I quite enjoy confusion.

A few of Brian’s “paiku” follow:

10 May 2010

Blackbird waiting
For idea of cat
To go away

21 March 2010

There’s a big field
Where you can dig up
Everything you ever lost

— Brian Pike


Yi Ching-Lin of the blog y writes primarily short free verse but occasionally writes haiku, and they are generally nontraditional, as in this recent example (the link on the second line connects to Yi’s photography):

it happens daily (6 June 2010)

it happens daily
with a wounded twist
— Yi Ching-Lin

Anne Lessing, the teenage writer of the blog “Phantasma,” who is just beginning to write haiku (and intends to start a project of writing haiku daily in January 2011), has produced some very interesting haiku about zombies based on the video game “Call of Duty,” one of which I’ve reproduced below:

6/4/2010

that flower looked so pretty

so I choked it

with my child’s blood

— Anne Lessing

Finally, Elissa of The Haiku Diary writes daily haiku describing events in her life, some of which are simply quotidian or jokelike, but many of which seem to transcend the category of mere diary-entry and evoke deeper feelings and meanings.

The second of the two haiku of Elissa’s I’ve quoted below is especially interesting in light of Scott Metz’s and Richard Gilbert’s discussions of the way haiku has always been in a dialogue with the past, constantly referring back to previous poetry and other literature and history. In a way this haiku of Elissa’s, referring as it does to a famous haiku of Basho’s (“The bee emerging/from deep within the peony/departs reluctantly”), is both modern and completely classical — so it seems like an appropriate place to bring this post to an end. Hope it was a fun ride.

Front and Center, June 8, 2010

Closing my eyes and

swaying with the music makes

me that girl, but so what?


I literally

watched a bumble bee stumble

out of a peony!

— Elissa of The Haiku Diary

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: 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.

Haiku discipline

Another excerpt from an essay that is worth reading in its entirety.

I have been having a lot of conversations lately about what the “rules” of haiku are. Part of the problem of defining haiku in English is that the form was imported from another language with a very different structure and another country with a very different culture, so the Japanese “rules” don’t entirely work here. For this reason, we are somewhat free to make up our own.

My “rules,” as you can probably tell, change from day to day. But yes, I like the discipline of shaping the language in a very specific, stylized way to fit my thoughts.

“Writing haiku is a discipline and if you are interested in haiku you are seeking more discipline in your life. Go for it. Make rules for yourself and follow them exactly, or break them completely, outgrow them and find new ones. We are all students and no one “really” knows how to write a haiku. That, however, does not stop us from trying…”

— Jane Reichhold, Another Attempt To Define Haiku

(Written for and first posted on the Shiki International Haiku Salon, April 16, 1996)