on the horizon
The Heron’s Nest, June 2011
on the horizon
The Heron’s Nest, June 2011
Glitter becomes you:
inspired, you spread a thin layer
of glue on arms and other rounded parts,
and upturn upon them the elegant jar of gold dust,
rapturously letting it describe and delimit, as it descends,
your ghostly form, previously so vague, and white, and un-wish-for-able.
You say, Get a load of this!, making muscles, inclining to accentuate curves,
giddy with the blindness you can see that you’re inflicting.
Startled, I stare, grown tired of selflessness,
wanting to own everything you possess;
I grasp your flesh, sweeping off grit in showers
of electric sparks, gravity stripping you once more bare:
grains of wheat, pearls of rice, gratings of savory cheese,
and you, goddess, just you now, and the memory of
more and more
I wonder why
every year we think we’ve lost
the shepherds are guarding
the light in the stable
folding a crane to replace
the broken angel
the Wise Men never let go
of their gifts
Joseph stares out
of the window
the animals eye the manger
from the visitors
packing away the miracle
for next year
A very Merry Christmas to all my readers who are celebrating the holiday today. Thanks for all your well-wishes this season and all your support this year. Much joy to you and your families.
new moon …
Anyone who’s been hanging out around here for a while knows that I am a great admirer (OK, a rabid fan) of the classical Japanese haiku poet Issa, who lived and wrote at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. I am also a fan of Issa’s prolific and talented translator David Lanoue, whose amazing database of Issa’s haiku is one of the greatest resources haiku poets have at their disposal. So I feel I must mark here on the blog the occasion of David’s translation of his 10,000th Issa haiku (which, believe it or not, is less than half the haiku Issa ever wrote). I can’t even wrap my mind around the effort required to complete 10,000 skillful translations, and that isn’t even close to all David has done with his time since he started this project in, good God, 1984.
According to David, number 10,000 will be his last, although he’ll keep revising previous translations. I hope he’s sitting down in a comfortable chair right now, having a cup of tea (that is, after all, what “Issa” means) and feeling pleased with himself. He deserves a rest.
One of the numerous great features of David’s database is that it includes enlightening and frequently entertaining textual and biographical notes on many of the haiku, including this final one, so we get to learn that
in no mood to eat them…
is remarkably similar to another haiku Issa wrote six years earlier:
the mountain hermit
in no mood to eat them…
It’s interesting to speculate on what was going on here: Was the second haiku a deliberate rewriting of the first? Had Issa simply forgotten that he had written a similar haiku all those years ago? Or did he think of the second haiku as being a completely new poem, the substitution of “priest” for “mountain hermit” sufficiently distinguishing the two that both could stand on their own? Knowing Issa, I tend to lean toward the last option. He was all about specificity. Two different guys may have the same attitude toward the fireflies that are getting in their face, but they’re still two different guys. Those two haiku are no more the same poem than Shakespeare’s love sonnets are all the same sonnet.
There’s a lot of stuff on David’s site to explore besides the haiku (and just exploring the haiku could take you a lifetime). While noodling around it recently I discovered two highly enlightening essays on Issa by two poets, Carlos Fleitas and Gabriel Rosenstock. The best thing would be to read them in their entirety, because they are not only informative but wonderfully written and wise and will give you a greater understanding not just of Issa but of the nature and possibilities of haiku in general. But I’ll just quote a few brief passages here to whet your appetite.
Carlos Fleitas discusses the possibility that Issa’s life history profoundly affected his haiku poetics:
“The series of tragic events in the course of his life contain, for the most part, one very special quality that stands out. This is the fact that they are all surprising, unexpected, and brutally sudden events. In this sense, the deaths of highly significant figures in his life from his infancy on provide a recurring theme in his destiny. These events might have shaped a certain characteristic I find in the poet’s haiku. I’m referring to the brusque and unforeseen character of the poetry’s resolution in the third line. If this is indeed a characteristic of haiku, in Issa it appears emphasized and magnified. How different this is from Basho’s poetic concept that develops without bumps—almost glidingly—so that the third line provides continuity, not harshly contrasting to what came before, but rather an effect that is flowing and harmonious.
“… Issa would seem to have been “hurled” into everyday life, instead of being introduced gradually to its most crude aspects. This is why in his works we encounter not only the beauty and rapture typical of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, but also elements far removed from the expected. Lice, piss, the body’s decline…emerge as aspects of phenomenological reality that live, side by side, with lotus, moon, and tea.”
— Carlos Fleitas, “Carlos Fleitas on Issa“
I think that many people are put off by these qualities in Issa’s haiku — their earthiness, their jarring transitions — but for Gabriel Rosenstock, these elements are part of Issa’s “universal spirit,” one which embraces every element in the world, forcing an awareness and acceptance of reality that are connected to his Buddhist beliefs. Rosenstock tries to cultivate something of Issa’s spirit in himself:
My Romanian grandson, Seán, visited us recently and I introduced him to all my friends, including a dog turd. Flies had gathered. ‘Say hello to my friends, the poo-flies!” I said to him. He was somewhat astounded by my circle of friends but I think he got the message.
— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”
Reading Issa’s haiku, for Rosenstock, is more like a spiritual than a literary experience:
I find myself being transformed by reading favourite haiku. It’s not easy to describe. As I said above, it’s more than a mood. It’s not like being injected with a mood-altering substance. It is really an awakening.
— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”
I agree…and on that note I want to end with a sampling of some of my favorite haiku by Issa. These are all David Lanoue’s translations. Thanks, David.
today too, today too
the winter wind has strewn about
and three or four
first winter rain–
the world fills up
he wipes horse shit off his hand
with a chrysanthemum
are a waste of time…
my dead mother–
every time I see the ocean
the wild geese freely
call their friends
[David notes that this haiku was written after Issa suffered a stroke and temporarily lost his power of speech.]
my favorite cormorant
the one who surfaces
from the great bronze
plum blossom scent–
for whoever shows up
a cracked teacup
every day the butterfly
the day is long
the day is so long!
a blind child–
to his right, to his left
steady winter rain
inch by inch, climb
[David notes: “This is the first haiku by Issa that I read. I found it in J. D. Salinger’s novel, Franny and Zooey.” Me too.]
my year’s first dream!
banging the temple gong
just for fun…
this year there’s someone
for me to nag…
your rice field
my rice field
the same green
one man, one fly
more than enough
just being alive
and the poppy
on the great flood’s
rain on withered fields
the owl’s year
is running out…
atop the pole
in cold water
sipping the stars…
in the heart of Kyoto!
one, two, three, four
five, six people
the distant mountain
reflected in his eyes…
I call dibs
on the red ones!
don’t sing, insects!
the world will get better
in its own time
I forgot to show you the haiku books I bought at Foundry Books over the weekend. I’m very excited about them…
by Issa, translated by David Lanoue
The fascinating preface of this book begins, “…Issa … is at once the most profoundly devout and down-in-the-mud silly of all the great masters of Japanese haiku. … [He] approaches the natural miracles of this world evenly, showing the same reverent awe and artistic excitement for plum trees in full bloom and dog crap covered by a light snow.” True that…that’s what I love about Issa.
Lanoue goes on to discuss Issa’s “liberating, iconoclastic, democratic” vision and thoroughly dissects what he sees as the critical influence of Issa’s Pure Land Buddhist beliefs on his poetry.
These are quite literal translations, written in one vertical line, one word to a line, reflecting, of course, the original format of the haiku in Japanese. Lanoue’s rationale for this format is that this allows the reader to follow the revelation of images in the haiku in the same order as the original poem. Issa’s haiku are often set up to have punch lines or surprises at the end, and less literal translations can ruin this effect. An example:
I am having so much fun reading this. I highly recommend it if you don’t read Japanese but want to get some sense of how haiku might read in the original. Or if you just love Issa and can’t get enough of him, like me.
The Master Haiku Poet: Matsuo Basho
by Makoto Ueda
I haven’t read this yet, but I’m very excited to because Basho is the seminal haiku poet (as well as a great renku poet) and I don’t know nearly enough about him.
This is a 1970 biography and critical appraisal by a Stanford professor which contains tons of the haiku and excerpts from the renku. Here’s one of my favorites that I just came across while browsing:
Will you start a fire?
I’ll show you something nice —
A huge snowball.
The book looks information-packed but very readable. Thre’s even a map at the beginning (love maps!) of Basho’s various journeys, which he famously wrote about at length.
When I actually get around to reading this (I hope soon) I will give you a more thorough rundown.
The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan
by Abigail Freedman
Another one I’m really excited to read. It’s the memoir of an American diplomat in Japan who joins a haiku group and gets a thoroughly Japanese grounding in the writing of haiku and, in the process, learns quite a bit about Japanese culture.
Just paging through, I see lots and lots of really wonderful haiku (given in both English and Japanese) — some classical and some contemporary. Here’s a great one (by an elderly man being tested for cancer):
into my kidney
a tube pierces
ah, the summer heat!
I’m really looking forward to finding out more about the haiku scene in Japan — even though we are developing our own strong traditions, I think we English-language haiku poets have a lot to learn from the Japanese still. So many of their haiku seem so much fresher and more imaginative than most English-language haiku.
Again, I will give you a more thorough report on this book once I’ve actually read it. It’s on the top of the pile on my nightstand, so with any luck you won’t have long to wait.
Nine ku for my son’s beginning on its sixteenth anniversary
a positive test field mice breed in the walls
barely alive you already disagree with me about what to eat
wind from the west a body shifts in my body
Ides of March on the ultrasound screen your state of incompletion
love’s effects visible I read from Corinthians to the wedding
drawn by heat you try to arrive but they restrain you
after my water breaks another solitaire loss
the maze of my bones cracking open too slowly
I don’t know
anything about you,
then you emerge
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“This is a technique that seems to happen mostly without conscious control. A writer will make a perfectly ordinary and accurate statement about common things, but due to the combination of images and ideas and what happens betwen them, a truth will be revealed about the Divine. Since we all have various ideas about what the Divine is, two readers of the same haiku may not find the same truth or revelation in it. Here, again, the reader becomes a writer to find a greater truth behind the words.
– Jane Reichhold, Writing and Enjoying Haiku
Jane played a terrible trick on me by adding a new technique in her book (Writing and Enjoying Haiku — get it, read it). In addition to the 23 previously published in her online essay, she tacked on this one, which is a problem for me because in the strictest sense I don’t actually believe in any Divine.
I mean I believe that there are things in the universe that are a lot bigger and more important than piddly little human beings, but I don’t think they’re supernatural, or conscious, or in any way direct or guide any of the affairs of heaven or earth. I think that most of what there is to know about the universe we don’t, can’t, and will never know, and I am in awe of the unimaginable complexity of it all, but I don’t think that just because our tiny brains don’t understand it and can’t explain it we must invent some other entity that does understand it.
Anyway. Enough of my heathen metaphysics. I felt that if I wanted to complete this project, I was duty-bound to attempt to write some kind of haiku that referenced or implied the existence of some kind of divine entity. But I was utterly at a loss for how to do this. So I decided to cheat. (See, I told you I was a heathen.)
I turned to my trusty friend the Book of Psalms (King James Version), one of the world’s great literary achievements, reasoning that somewhere in there must be something that resembled a haiku in some way … right?
You tell me.
turned into the drought
out of the miry clay …
upon a rock
unto deep …
the noise of waterspouts
the noise of the seas …
of the people
the trumpet …
the new moon
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
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.
lips taking a sip
from a stone mouth
[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:
petals fall into
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.
on wind barren meadows
birth of a lamb”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
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.
how few petals
from the kettle
on the tablecloth
the empty bench
the wind sweeps away
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.
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:
the milky way . . .
we start to discuss
walrus with its mouth wide open war statistics
— Scott Metz
second dawn the dream ghosts re-rehearsing
— John Barlow
A candle is a sweet machine
to fly across the crow-
— Grant Hackett
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
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
without a decent alibi
a drowning man
pulled into violet worlds
(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 1, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: 2004, pp. 25-27.)
the curving radius
(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:
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:
in a hippo’s jaws —
the lettuce’s bliss
for tearing up a violet
so I ate it
On T.V. a spider
liquifies a frog —
spring in Kansas City
a stone mason —
servant of the endless wall
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.
unbound, the English
Bay in fog —
not seen: some weird duck
soundlessin the night museum
from end to end —
— 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.
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:
For idea of cat
To go away
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 dailywith 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:
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.
Closing my eyes and
swaying with the music makes
me that girl, but so what?
watched a bumble bee stumble
out of a peony!
— Elissa of The Haiku Diary
My old friend Alexandra Crampton (a former boarding school roommate and fellow native New Englander, now an anthropology professor newly arrived to the same Midwestern state I live in), posted the passage below on her Facebook page a few days ago. It’s so lyrical and has such a unique voice that I immediately screamed to myself “HAIBUN!” and offered to write a companion haiku for the piece and publish the whole thing here. She graciously accepted, although I’m not sure she quite understands yet what I’m up to. So herewith — a collaborative haibun:
While reading on a hillside overlooking Lake Michigan, a sequence of sleek jets interrupt like pickups down a summer strip – Then, directly overhead, 2 more with US NAVY clearly stamped on each belly. Throughout the city, jets circle and peek between buildings, creating a surround sound of freaky so I bike down the coast in time to see how the world ends — not with a bang but something like synchronized swimming…
the apocalypse —
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
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:
realizing death as one color
in the snowy kiosk
for sale .?
–[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
water of spring
as water wetted
water, as is
–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
— Saito Sanki
leaving a withered tree
being shot as a withered tree
— Sugimura Seirinshi
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:
he comes and whispers
in a dancer’s ear
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
I prefer a comic play
with a quiet plot
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
— 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
— 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.
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?)
my fat pantheon
I’ve been feeling like we need some pictures around here to liven things up. As Hamlet once said, “Words, words, words…give me a break.” Or something like that.
I’m not normally a picture kind of person — my husband is the photographer in the family, and there is no drawer or painter in the family. Until I was in my twenties I thought the only reason anyone ever put pictures in books was to help out people who couldn’t read very well. But then I began to see the light, at least in terms of art appreciation. I’m wildly entertained in art museums, and I have a couple of art books on my coffee table — oh, predictable stuff, Chagall, Matisse — that I tend to shake in the faces of visitors and repeat, “You’ve GOT to look at this! Isn’t this AMAZING?” until they get scared and go away.
Still — words are my medium, the stuff I swim in. Even when I look at other people’s blogs, I tend to hardly see the pictures; I’m all over the words, and if they don’t work I’m unlikely to care whether you’re the next Walker Evans or Cindy Sherman. But I’m told that I’m in the minority. People like pictures! The more the better! Reading is hard, especially reading long things — you know, more than three lines or so. (Don’t worry, I know this is not the case for any of my devoted readers. I do have devoted readers, don’t I? Don’t tell me if I don’t.)
And my husband (the source of most of my photos) really is a decent photographer. (I took the one up at the top of this post, though, so if you have anything mean to say about it, keep that in mind.) And I’ve been wanting to try writing haiku that aren’t necessarily drawn directly from life — though in this case, I was present for or at least know the context of all these photos, so it’s sort of at least second-hand life, if you know what I mean.
What I’m trying to say is, this blog will be getting very image-heavy over the next few days — after which it will probably revert to being language-centric. So don’t get too used to it.
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“This can be thought of as ‘how different things relate or come together.’ The Zen of this technique is called ‘oneness’ or showing how everything is part of everything else…. When the boundaries disappear between the things that separates them, it is truly a holy moment of insight and it is no wonder that haiku writers are educated to latch on to these miracles and to preserve them in ku.”
the wild plum
Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
the progress of
sun climbing up the sky
women on the grass
growl of lawnmower
fresh greens in the salad
in new clothes
blossoms at their fullest
I realized as I was writing these that I wasn’t exactly sure what the difference was between this technique and the technique of comparison. The idea seems to be that when you’re comparing two things, you’re showing that they’re similar, but when you’re associating them, you’re showing that they’re really the same thing? Or something?
Maybe someone with a better grasp of Zen can explain it to me…
freeze after thaw
cell phone ring
makes me slip on the ice
colder than yesterday
my sister’s voice
on the phone
on my back on the ice
clouds torn open
reveal more clouds
cell phone ring
a stranger’s car
roads darker than I’m used to
curve toward home
snow on dark steps
the family waits
in my stomach
throwing out his painkillers
the day after his death
the death of the neighbor’s dog
cold draft in his room
we used to play with
knocking with cold hands
at the wrong door
of the funeral home
list of funeral expenses
the polished table
white sheet pulled away
from his surprised face
snow on a low wall
two burial places
chairs with hard seats
stack of Sunday papers
can’t stop reading
running up the hills
I left behind
trying on dresses
I blow my nose
on his handkerchiefs
Googling the words of
his favorite hymn
steam from my mother’s tea
day of the funeral
rust from the leaky
unheated waiting room
one by one
we put coats back on
my father’s funeral
standing for a hymn
memory of my head
reaching his elbow
his sympathy card
will regret my unbelief
frost on the windowpane
sweet red punch
snow in the cemetery
fresh snow on his car
a car to drive
a thousand miles home
My father died in February. I’d made no effort whatsoever to write about his death before. Or speak about it, really. Or think about it, come to think about it.
Something about haiku makes it easier, by forcing you to remember and concentrate on the tiny physical details of the experience. Writing these has been like compiling a mental photo album of the week of his death. It’s allowed both distance and immediacy. I approach the experience, come close enough to touch it, then draw back quickly, as soon as I start to feel it burn.
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.
outside hatchlings cry
in the kitchen, hot tea,
bread and butter
This was another one of those days where I tried repeatedly to write a haiku beginning with a particular line, and mostly failed spectacularly. I don’t even like this one very much.*
I never can figure out what to do when this was happening. Should I give up and move on to another beginning line? Accept that the haiku mojo is just not there today? Stop trying to write so many haiku in the first place, and just wait to experience a Zen moment or something?
Sometimes it seems like the thought I’m trying to express is really too large to fit into a haiku in the first place. That I need to either shrink the thought, or find a new thought, or write a different kind of poem. (But I’m not so hot at the writing regular poems thing. I’ve written about one and a half in my life that I actually might consider showing to another human being.)
The spirit of haiku can be elusive. And when you’re trying to churn out at least one halfway decent one a day, you can get all cranky and anxious when it doesn’t seem to be happening. This is also probably not conducive to attaining haiku enlightenment. Must. Curb. Perfectionist. Tendencies. …
What can help is reading large numbers of the haiku of the great masters — they were mostly all extremely prolific, and frankly, most of their haiku is not particularly memorable. For every brilliant flash of insight from Issa:
climb Mt. Fuji —
but slowly, slowly!
(Issa, translated by D.T. Suzuki)
there are several more Issa efforts that seem uninspired at best. It’s possible (probable) that they’re a lot better in Japanese, but I have heard Japanese-speaking scholars of haiku say the same thing.
And of course, I am not Issa, nor was meant to be. (Apologies to T.S. Eliot, the thought of whom has suddenly made me realize that “April is the cruelest month” might work as an opening line for a haiku.) I’m the humblest of apprentices, and it’s almost arrogant of me to presume that I’ll be able to write a decent haiku more than once in a blue moon. (Blue moon! Also good haiku material. Okay, starting to feel better now.)
People who write haiku — what’s your working method? Do you frequently rewrite your haiku, or do they mostly come to you whole in a flash of insight, or do you think rewrites are destructive to the haiku spirit? (Or can you just not be bothered?) Do you sit down and say, “I think I’ll write a haiku now,” or is that just the form your thoughts take? Do you have to write a lot of them before you get one you’re relatively satisfied with? Share, please, I’m feeling a little isolated at the moment…
(Later note: I had no sooner published this when I saw an edit that would make it better. So I changed it and published it again. And then immediately saw another edit, which I promptly made. Now I’m feeling slightly more cheerful about the whole thing. But only slightly.)
*And a few days later: Okay, how about:
I like that better. Still not great. But way too many words in the first one.