Found haiku: Gerard Manley Hopkins

I’m still feeling under the weather from semi-collapsing at the end of a half-marathon I ran on Sunday in 88-degree weather (it’s Wisconsin, and it’s been a cold spring, so no snickering from you Southwesterners). Pretty much confined to the couch, since standing up for more than a few minutes makes me dizzy. There are worse things, I guess. I’m surrounded by all the books and magazines I put off reading all semester, not to mention the omnipresent, time-sucking Interweb.

I’m having a hard time following a train of thought even long enough to write a sub-seventeen-syllable poem, though. So at the moment I’m taking it easy on my fried brain by resorting to found haiku, mostly from prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, better known as a poet — one of my all-time favorites. The first couple haiku are from poems. The rest are from his journals, which every aspiring poet should read. The man minutely observed and described everything he saw; whole paragraphs read like poems. I can’t help thinking that if he had known about haiku, he would have tried his hand at it.

I may repeat this experiment at intervals, mining the works of other poets and prose writers for haiku-like material (full credit to the original authors, of course). I agonized briefly over whether this exercise was a) cheating, or b) meaningful, but then decided I didn’t care. I enjoy it and it’s my blog. And I do think I’m learning something from this about what writing is haiku-like and what isn’t.

I’ve taken the liberty of haiku-izing Hopkins’s words by arranging them in three lines and removing some punctuation, but otherwise these are direct quotations, with no words removed or added.

So…here’s Gerard:


the moon, dwindled and thinned

to the fringe of a fingernail

held to the candle

*

this air I gather

and I release

he lived on

*

mealy clouds

with a not

brilliant moon

*

blunt buds

of the ash, pencil buds

of the beech

*

almost think you can hear

the lisp

of the swallows’ wings

*

over the green water

of the river passing

the slums of the town

*

oaks

the organization

of this tree is difficult

*

putting my hand up

against the sky

whilst we lay on the grass

*

silver mottled clouding

and clearer;

else like yesterday

*

Basel at night!

with a full moon

waking the river

*

the river runs so strong

that it keeps the bridge

shaking

*

some great star

whether Capella or not

I am not sure

*

two boys came down

the mountain yodelling

we saw the snow

*

the mountain summits

are not the place

for mountain views

*

the winter was called severe

there were three spells

of frost with skating

*

the next morning

a heavy fall

of snow

*

at the beginning of March

they were felling

some of the ashes in our grove

*

ground sheeted

with taut tattered streaks

of crisp gritty snow

*

thunderstorm in the evening

first booming in gong-sounds

as at Aosta

*

I noticed the smell

of the big cedar

not just in passing

*

the comet —

I have seen it at bedtime

in the west

*

as we came home

the stars came out thick

I leaned back to look at them

*

— Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by W.H. Gardner

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.

Writer’s block

I’ve been telling people a lot lately that I have writer’s block. Then I come here and look at how much I’ve been posting, and laugh at myself. I don’t have writer’s block. I just don’t want to write my damn term paper.

It’s strange to be living part of my life in this haiku-world of stylized poetics and Zen moments, and the rest of it in the considerably more demanding and less dreamlike state required to cope with graduate school, teenage children, a husband with job stress, iffy finances, a house that would probably not withstand a stringent inspection from the local health department, the pace of 21st-century social networking, and a midlife crisis. As you might imagine, at the moment I’m prioritizing haiku over all these other things in my life. Wouldn’t you?

I think that probably to be the kind of haiku poet I would really like to be (not to mention the kind of human being that I can imagine tolerating, if I weren’t her), I will need to better integrate these two parts of my life, starting soon. Preferably before my term paper is due. After all, examined from a Zen standpoint, isn’t a term paper really just a 20-page haiku?

Okay, maybe not. But you see what I’m saying here. Haiku is life, life is haiku. They flow into and out of each other, they aren’t separate rock pools with their own ecosystems. Time to find the current and travel the whole length of the river…

but after I hand in my term paper, I may grab a low-hanging branch and linger around here a bit more again. And report back on what I saw in my travels.