February 2 (Tidal Pool)

A paint chip with a haiku about a tidepool written on it.

There has been some confusion on the part of some people about what the heck this is, exactly. It’s a paint chip.

I have a huge stack of these left over from when we were contemplating painting things in our house, but then we realized that would take time and energy, which we would rather preserve for things that contribute either to our survival or our entertainment, so we said nahhh, let’s just leave the walls in their current state of dilapidation.

But paint chips! I love them in so many ways. They’re like little tickets, or tokens, granting you entrance to a color. You can stack them, you can sort them, you can flip through them and watch a rainbow in flight. I’m always trying to think of brilliant artistic things to do with them, which is why I have a box filled with them, and pick up more every time I go to a hardware store, even though we don’t have any immediate plans to paint anything.

Then the last time I pulled them out — which was when I was preparing my present for Alegria and hauled out all my boxes of random paper scraps and ephemera that I always think I will do something brilliant and artistic with and hardly ever do — I realized: these things don’t just have colors on them, they have words on them. And not just any words, but highly evocative words, because the makers of paint chips know that you are more likely to buy paint called “Tidal Pool” than paint called, um, “Light Grayish Blue.”

Well, I have this little hobby that involves doing things with words. So I sort of went crazy using the names of colors on paint chips as haiku writing prompts. I’ve got a big stack of these now and I’m thinking of dropping by the hardware store soon for some more free inspiration. God knows I need it these days.

(And by the way? I have declared a moratorium on my writing haiku about snow for the rest of the winter. I feel like that’s all I ever write lately. So if you see any more of those around here [except those that have been previously published], remind me that I can find something else to write about, perhaps by staring at paint chips.)

September 3: A lament, and a lot of pictures

summer sky
what a picture
is worth

I’m back in the office and feeling a little downcast. I had high hopes for the haiku-writing potential of my vacation. After all, traditionally, haiku are nature poems, right? (Yeah, I know we could have a really long debate about that, and I would happily join in on either or both sides, but let’s just go with it for now.) And I was going on a canoeing and camping trip in the wilderness! It was going to be nothing but nature! Surely I would be so inspired that haiku would pour from me like … well, like haiku from an inspired person.

It didn’t quite work out that way. For one thing, canoeing? Portaging? All day? Really exhausting. After eight or ten hours of that you have about enough energy to set up your tent, make and eat food, sit around staring at a campfire for a couple of hours, and then crawl into your sleeping bag and curse the tree root underneath you for a minute or two before passing out. Wielding a pen? Not on the agenda.

Also, I think — for me, anyway — being surrounded by nature is not the state most conducive to writing poetry. Or maybe it’s being in novel surroundings that is not the state most conducive to writing poetry. At any rate, I found myself so absorbed in just trying to take in and process all the new things I was seeing on a basic level that processing them on a higher intellectual level, making the kind of interesting connections that good haiku requires, was nearly impossible. I could write one or two lines of straight observation — but making the cognitive leap to turning observations into poetry was beyond me.

I’m hoping that after a few weeks home those observations will have marinated, or composted, or whatever it is they have to do, long enough that I will be able to turn them into haiku. Because really, it was an amazing trip, and there were plenty of connections to be made.

But right now I’m still sleep-deprived and my lower back is killing me. And after two days of grad school I’m already behind on my homework. So you’ll have to pardon me if for a few more days I keep resorting to posting haiku that I wrote last month when I had a more functional brain.

And in the meantime … here are some pictures to make up for my lack of verbal adroitness.

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.




Why Red Dragonfly? Ask Issa

The name of this blog, as you will see if you look under “Epigraph” in the right-hand column, comes from a translation of one of Kobayashi Issa’s haiku by David G. Lanoue. The red dragonfly of this haiku is a stand-in for all the small sights that startle and move us enough to get our haiku juices flowing.

If you are interested in reading (translations of) some of the most famous Japanese haiku, a fantastic place to start is David’s archive of his translations of thousands of Issa’s haiku. (I’ve linked to it above, and under “More Haiku” to the right.) It’s searchable and the results are beautifully laid out and organized, making it a joy to browse through. Pick a word, any word — how about “tea” or “rain”? — and spend a pleasant half hour scrolling down through the results, smiling at Issa’s images and at David’s elegant translations and many helpful and entertaining comments. If you’re shorter on time, you can choose to see a random haiku. You can also sign up to have one haiku a day emailed to you, which for me is like having Issa place a friendly hand on my shoulder and remind me to get writing.

Issa (along with Basho, Buson, and Shiki) is considered one of the four greatest Japanese haiku writers. He straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and brought to haiku writing a sense of earthy humor and humanism. His haiku tend to appeal to those of us who find haiku that are entirely focused on nature a little too abstract to handle, and who prefer the surprising and moving connections between human concerns and impersonal nature that Issa so frequently discovers.

David’s site also contains a general introduction to haiku, featuring one of my all-time favorite (and one of the briefest I’ve seen) definitions of the form: “Haiku: a one-breath poem that discovers connection.” When I feel like I’m getting lost in the tangle of competing, complicated haiku definitions that are floating around out there, I come back to David’s definition and breathe a little easier. That really is the essence of haiku for me.

The site also has lots of great links to Issa sites and haiku sites. I am extremely honored that David links to this site, and extremely grateful to him for giving me permission to reprint his translation here — and to Issa for seeing the red dragonfly in the first place.