June 11: A story in eleven haiku and one photograph

Photo credit: James A. Otto

Through the screenless window comes
a bird.
I watch it disport itself.

The house fills with wings.
The hearts of birds beat
more rapidly than our own.

I inquire of Google
what to do.
The response is dissatisfying.

The Russian story of
the Firebird.
A keen, glittering eye.

Many versions
of roast chicken.
I choose the most savory.

Dancing, I lift up my skirts
for the bird to pass
under.

The oven is still hot.
I stand beside it,
flapping my arms.

I don’t dream anymore
I can fly.
I have scraped my mind of such stuff.

I trap the bird in the closet.
When you get home,
it will amaze you.

I am reciting famous poetry
silently.
I am petting the cats.

The cats are hot, they breathe
rapidly. Wait, I say,
you will be rewarded.

*

I was feeling a little claustrophobic yesterday. Haiku seemed too small. Even the most wonderful of them — just a blink! I had a novel-lover’s need for extended narrative.

But I do love the haiku form and the challenge of containing an entire experience, a full impression, in just a few syllables. Several things I’ve been thinking about lately began to come together in my mind, things I’m hoping to write more about in the next few days — gendai haiku, renga. Unconventional ways of writing haiku, and ways of linking them together to create a larger picture than a single haiku allows.

I wondered what would happen if you piled a bunch of nontraditional haiku on top of each other to form a narrative. I wanted each haiku to be able to make sense separately on its own, and also to form a part of a coherent story. This photograph I’ve been thinking about for a few days entered the mix; a bird began to fly around in my head.

Writing this was a lot of fun. I’ve begun a couple other similar narratives, and I want to try more. This kind of structure seems to work the way my mind works — I’m really only capable of brief bursts of attention, but I also hunger for depth of character, for details of setting, for continuity of action.

(A bird really did get into our house through a screenless window a few years ago; but the rest of this is fantasy. In case you were worried about its fate at the paws of the cats.)

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.

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.

May 29: 1-2: The Technique of the Riddle

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

Jane:

“[T]his is probably one of the very oldest poetical techniques. It has been guessed that early spiritual knowledge was secretly preserved and passed along through riddles….


“One can ask: ‘what is still to be seen’


on all four sides

of the long gone shack

The answer is:
calla lilies

“Or another one would be:


spirit bodies

waving from cacti

plastic bags


“…The more intriguing the ‘set-up’ and the bigger surprise the answer is, the better the haiku seems to work. … keep it true, keep it simple and keep it accurate and make it weird.


“Oh, the old masters favorite trick with riddles was the one of: is that a flower falling or is it a butterfly? … if you wish to experiment (the ku may or may not be a keeper) you can ask yourself the question: if I saw snow on a branch, what else could it be? Or seeing a butterfly going by you ask yourself what else besides a butterfly could that be?”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*
Me:

chewing the stale crumbs
of my future
fortune cookie

new leaves stained with
gouts of fresh blood
first strawberries

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.




What is a haiku anyway?

So: I’m done with my term paper. My prose style spent weeks marinating in the foul brew of obfuscation and verbosity that generally characterizes academic writing, and was kept from being permanently pickled only by the judicious application of haiku. I’m hoping there is no lingering stench. (Like the sentence before last.)

One possible ill effect of my academic excursion may be my continuing pedantic worrying at the notion of finding a good definition of haiku. The problem here is not that there are no good definitions out there. The problem is that there are way too many good definitions, and no two of them are the same. So I’ve started a collection of them, to display on my mantelpiece. Care for a peek?

+

We should probably start with the definition given by the Haiku Society of America, if only because their name sounds so authoritative. Who should know what a haiku is if not a Haiku Society? They have bylaws and everything!

(If you’re wondering about the “America” part — hey, aren’t haiku Japanese? — I should point out that my quest here is for a definition of haiku as they are written in English. Japanese haiku are much better defined, but as I’ve mentioned before, much of the definition depends on language and cultural elements that don’t translate to English.)

Like all of us, the Haiku Society have changed their mind about some things over the years, and one of those things is what, exactly, a haiku is. In 1973, they defined “haiku” this way:

“a poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature. Usually a haiku in English is written in three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables.”

These days, however, the Society places less emphasis on the syllable count, more emphasis on the nature/seasonal part:

“A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”

Okay…seems like a good start. But kind of vague and dry, really. Hard to really imagine what they’re talking about. How about some Jack Kerouac to counteract the academic effect?

“The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.”

Much better. Makes me feel like I’m bursting to pop, in fact, and must start writing haiku immediately. Thanks, Jack!

Refreshed now and ready to consider something a little more academic again? Haruo Shirane, in his amazing, haiku-myth-debunking essay “Beyond the Haiku Moment” (about which I have much more to say in another post) considers the history of Japanese haiku, the origins of haiku in English, and the current state of English haiku writing, and concludes, somewhat in the same vein as the Haiku Society but, to me, more completely and inspirationally:

“I would say, echoing the spirit of Basho’s own poetry, that haiku in English is a short poem, usually written in one to three lines, that seeks out new and revealing perspectives on the human and physical condition, focusing on the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature, and on the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history.”

That’s a great description of what haiku is about, but what about the technicalities of the form? Gabi Greve devotes a whole page to haiku definitions on her blog Haiku Topics — but my favorite is her own description, which she puts in the form of a poem:

“The simple definition of
three short lines,
one season word and
a cut marker
and
write from personal experience …
this is where everyone should begin.”

(N.B.: If you’re confused by some of the terms Gabi uses, I have essays in me about the Japanese notions of the season word (kigo) and cut marker (kireji) — watch this space for them. Also, Haruo Shirane (above) has some tart things to say about the idea of writing only from personal experience. You can read his essay yourself, or I’ll share later.)

I’ve mentioned before one of my all-time favorite haiku definitions, the bare-bones one offered by David G. Lanoue:

“Haiku: a one-breath poem that discovers connection.”

David actually has a lot more to say about what haiku are all about, but his elaboration is as clear and incisive (and decisive) as his initial statement:

“Haiku in English usually appears as an unrhymed three-line verse. Its use of intense, fragmentary imagery and its stress on rhythm and sound place it in the poetry side of the language spectrum. … Though it can be presented on the page in three lines, a traditional Japanese haiku of Issa’s era structurally consists of two parts with a pause in between. Its power as poetry often derives from juxtaposition of the two images and the sense of surprise or revelation that the second image produces. A good haiku is like a good joke: the set-up (image 1), then the punch line (image 2).”

That emphasis on juxtaposition in haiku is key for me. I’m always trying to create that effect of “surprise or revelation,” trying both to see something I’ve never seen before in some fairly common sight, and to convey that vision to the reader. For me, if haiku doesn’t startle you into awareness at least a little, it hasn’t really done its job.

But in case you were thinking I would insist on all my readers agreeing with me, I’ll let Jane Reichhold (the subject of another upcoming essay) have the final word:

I am bothered by the several times it is asked, “Is this a haiku?” I think the better question is, “Do I want to accept this poem as an example of haiku for myself?” … The necessity of our asking ourselves this question becomes weightier when we each realize that we are responsible for what haiku IS; and what it is becoming. By our writing, we are defining the form. By our changes in the form it is being changed. If the style of current haiku seems to be going in a direction which is not compatible with yours, then you have an even greater load of responsibility to make sure people see the finest work you can do in your style.

Okay, I get it, Jane. I’ll let the whole definition thing rest and get back to work. I have 345 days to go, after all…

“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.)