Batting 10,000: David Lanoue and Issa

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

the priest
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

is remarkably similar to another haiku Issa wrote six years earlier:

the mountain hermit
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

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
the vegetables

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

first winter rain–
the world fills up
with haiku

evening–
he wipes horse shit off his hand
with a chrysanthemum

words
are a waste of time…
poppies

my dead mother–
every time I see the ocean
every time…

 

how irritating!
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
with nothing

from the great bronze
Buddha’s nose…
a swallow!

plum blossom scent–
for whoever shows up
a cracked teacup

weak tea–
every day the butterfly
stops by

the day is long
the day is so long!
tears

a blind child–
to his right, to his left
steady winter rain

little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

[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.]

you’ve wrecked
my year’s first dream!
cawing crow

banging the temple gong
just for fun…
cool air

this year there’s someone
for me to nag…
summer room

your rice field
my rice field
the same green

one man, one fly
one large
sitting room

morning dew
more than enough
for face-washing

just being alive
I
and the poppy

on the great flood’s
100th anniversary…
“cuckoo!”

rain on withered fields
resounds…
my pillow

the owl’s year
is running out…
atop the pole

in cold water
sipping the stars…
Milky Way

Kyoto, Kyoto
in the heart of Kyoto!
pufferfish soup

first snowfall
one, two, three, four
five, six people

the distant mountain
reflected in his eyes…
dragonfly

I call dibs
on the red ones!
plum blossoms

don’t sing, insects!
the world will get better
in its own time

365 Poems

Because we are big geeks in our family, this is what my son got for his sixteenth birthday*:

Basically what it is, is an empty box. That I ineptly decoupaged with a bunch of random scraps of paper I had left over from various other inept craft projects that I have unwisely attempted over the years. I know! I’m the world’s best mother, right?

The thing is — because, as I mentioned, we’re all geeks here — once I explained the purpose of this box, my son, instead of giving me a look like, “Now I have plenty of material for the therapy sessions I will require in ten years or so,” said, “Oh! Cool!” And from the way his eyes lit up I could tell he was not just indulging his insane mother while making a mental note to go to college as far away from home as possible.

The purpose of the box, you see, is to accumulate poems. One a day for a year. Not my poems, God forbid — if he’s really dying to read those he can check out the blog, which I have reason to believe he does occasionally when he has nothing better to do, which is hardly ever. No, these are, you know, real poems. By real poets. I’ve been photocopying up a storm from my small but select collection of poetry books, as well as printing things off the Interwebs, and late at night the Poetry Fairy comes and … okay, I don’t really make an attempt to perpetuate that fiction with a sixteen-year-old. I have my limits. But I do put a poem in the box every day (unless I go to a haiku festival and forget, in which case I put three in the day I remember).

The main criteria I have for these poems is that they be: a) not crap; b) poems I enjoy; c) poems I sincerely believe my son will enjoy. I’m not attempting to provide him with the Greatest Hits of English Poetry. (Though I do try to cover a range of eras and types of poetry, just because you never know what will click with someone.) The purpose here is not really educational, except in the sense that everything is educational. (Ask me about my educational philosophy some time if you really want me to blather on interminably.) The purpose is more — to foster joy. Joy in the possibilities of language, the possibilities of imagination, the possibilities of human thought.

This is a kid who has been performing in uncut productions of Shakespeare’s plays a couple of times a year since he was nine, so he knows from great poetry, and he appreciates wonderful language. But I’ve been thinking for a while that he would enjoy a lot of other types of poetry, while being confounded about how, exactly, to sneak in a course of poetry appreciation amid all his other myriad activities. (Oh — he doesn’t go to school, did I mention? Who has time for that, anyway?) Then I thought, “One poem a day. That’s how to do it.” And the box was born.

So the reason I’m bringing this up now — I can hear you sighing in relief as I get to the bloody point already — is that what went in the box today was a couple of Japanese haiku, each in two different translations. Because reading different translations of Japanese haiku is one of my favorite things to do, and I thought my son would enjoy it too. And then I thought that you might enjoy it, too. So here they are.

I hope you can actually read them. They’re by Basho and Moritake. I’m not sure who the translators are because the poetry textbook I took them from didn’t say (bad poetry textbook!).

If you are interested in comparative haiku translation there are lots of great books and websites that feature competing translations — sometimes 30 or more translations of the same ku, such as this page which offers up translations of perhaps the most famous classical Japanese ku, Basho’s furuike ya or frogpond haiku. (There’s a link to it on my sidebar as well.)

Here are two different versions from that page, just to give you some sense of how widely translations can vary:

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.

— Lafcadio Hearn

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

— Curtis Hidden Page

Does that blow your mind or what? I think it’s pretty safe to say that the second version takes some, um, considerable liberties with Basho’s verse. The first is pretty literal, which is much more the trend these days (though Hearn was writing in the nineteenth century). Even closely literal translations, though, can vary quite a bit, just because of the effort of cramming Japanese syntax into something readable by English speakers.

Okay, thus endeth the lesson for the day. You can all return to your regularly scheduled lives now, and think fondly about your own mothers, who would never have dreamed of pulling such a stunt on you.

______________________

*That wasn’t all he got for his birthday, in case you are thinking of reporting me to Child Welfare or something. He also got some cool running shoes and new shifters for his bike. And with his birthday money from relatives he bought himself an iPhone 4. We don’t live entirely in the past around here. Though sometimes we think it would be nice to try.

August 2: Found haiku: Macbeth

In the last ten days I’ve seen five performances of “Macbeth” with four different casts. So many lines of the play have become earworms for me, especially those (and there are so many in this play) that use either sound or imagery (or both) to gorgeous effect. For instance (in no particular order):

•    If the assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch, with its surcease, success …
•    Weary sennights nine times nine shall he dwindle, peak, and pine …
•    Tonight we hold a solemn supper, sir …
•    Stars, hold your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires …
•    There’s husbandry in heaven; their candles are all out.
•    It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood. Stones have been known to move and trees to speak …
•    By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. Open, locks, whoever knocks.
•    Safe in a ditch he lies, with twenty trenched gashes in his head.

Some of the lines echoed in my head in the same way that some haiku does, which made me wonder if you could pummel iambic pentameter into haiku. I’m not sure how well these meet the technical definition of haiku (whatever that is), but they do seem to have something of the haiku spirit in them. And Shakespeare and Basho were (rough) contemporaries … so that must mean something.

*

the earth hath bubbles as the water has
(I.iii)

the moon is down
I have not heard
the clock
(II.i)

the obscure bird
clamor’d
the livelong night
(II.iii)

the shard-borne beetle
with his drowsy hums …
night’s yawning peal
(III.ii)

light thickens …
the crow makes wing
to th’ rooky wood
(III.ii)

untie the winds
and let them fight
against the churches
(IV.i)

I have words      that would be howl’d out in the desert air
(IV.iii)

Do You Hate Haiku?

Jim Murdoch from The Truth About Lies wrote, a while back, probably the most well-informed, interesting essay about haiku ever written by someone who self-confessedly hates haiku. You should go read it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

For those of you who are going, “Eh, who has the time,” I’ll humor you and tell you about it. There is a lot of great stuff in there — haiku-like utterances by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, quite clear explanations of the difference between syllables and morae and the concept of the kigo, a comparison of several different translations of a Shiki haiku, a discussion of whether haiku written in Scots are closer to the spirit of Japanese haiku than those written in English, an in-depth discussion of a haiku-like poem of his own and whether it is or could ever be a haiku … you get the idea. Did I mention that he hates haiku?

So why? Why does he have such strong negative feelings about something he has obviously studied in such depth and thought about so much?

The answer seems to be that (like everyone else in the world) he isn’t really sure exactly what an English haiku is. It makes him uncomfortable:

“There are modern poets who say unless your poem has this ‘Aha! Moment’ you’re not writing haiku. Others emphasise the experience. And, of course, there will be those who say that as long as your poem has three lines containing 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively then it’s a haiku. … This is why I hate haiku. It has moved so far away from its roots that a good haiku is more a matter of fluke than anything else … This is not to suggest that short poems cannot be excellent but they’re just not haiku.”

He does admit that perhaps, since he hasn’t actually written any, it might be premature for him to come down so firmly in the anti-haiku camp. But clearly, that lack of consensus on a definition really, really bugs him:

“In all honesty I can’t say, ‘I hate haiku,’ because Haiku’s response would be, ‘But, you don’t know me,’ and that’s why I hate it, it won’t stay still long enough to be known. Maybe once back in the day the Japanese might have come up with a short list but somehow I think the argument about what a haiku can or cannot be has raged since Masaoka Shiki coined the expression at the end of the 19th century.”

And then we really get down to brass tacks — the haiku just isn’t a form that suits the way he thinks or writes:

“I think there’s a lot newbie poets can learn from working with a short form like the haiku. Whether what they produce is haiku is neither here nor there. I’ve never deliberately avoided writing them perhaps because I’ve always written in a condensed way. I think the problem is that they’re just a tad too short for the thoughts I want to express and that’s all.”

All right, the faint whiff of condescension drifting from this aside … this is a perfectly reasonable way to feel. It’s fine not to want to write haiku. Most people don’t want to write haiku. Quite often, I don’t want to write haiku. (Can I go to bed now?) But still … I have a hard time believing that anyone who has delved so deeply into the history and structure of the haiku form really, truly hates it …

How about you? Do you hate haiku? Do you write it anyway? Why or why not? Defend your position.

Haiku in “The Makioka Sisters”

When I was writing about renga the other day, I said something about poetry writing having been a basic communication tool for the Japanese (at least the upper classes) back in the old days.

At the time, I was thinking “old days” = hundreds of years ago. But later, I remembered a scene from my favorite Japanese novel, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, which is set in the 1930s. This wonderful scene describes a family — three adults and a ten-year-old girl — writing poetry together as an evening activity the way an American family might play a board game.

Background: The book describes the lives of an upper-middle-class family consisting of four sisters, two married and two not. (Much of the drama of the story lies in the family’s efforts to get the two single sisters married off, and protect their reputations in the meantime. The book reads amazingly like a nineteenth-century English or French or Russian novel.)

At the beginning of the story, one married sister is living in Tokyo with her family; the other three are living in Osaka in the household of the other married sister. Then, due to complicated circumstances, one of the single sisters goes to live in Tokyo too. Everyone misses her. So — apparently more or less as a matter of course — they decide one night to write her some poetry:

“Suppose we each write something,” said Teinosuke [the married sister’s husband]. It was some twenty days later, on the night of the autumn full moon. Everyone thought this an excellent idea, and after dinner Teinosuke, Sachiko, Taeko, and Etsuko gathered near the veranda of a Japanese-style room downstairs. The traditional moon-viewing flowers and fruit had been set out. When O-haru had ground the ink, Teinosuke, Sachiko, and Etsuko each composed a poem. Taeko, who was not good at poetry, did a quick ink wash of the moon coming through pine branches.

The clouds are passing.

The pines reach out for the moon.

Teinosuke

The night of the full moon.

Here, one shadow is missing.

— Sachiko

The moon tonight–

Yukiko sees it in Tokyo.

— Etsuko

— Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters, trans. Edward Seidensticker

(The final poem, by the way, is by the ten-year-old.)

I don’t know whether these poems are meant to be haiku in the original Japanese. They are certainly haiku-like, though. And it’s interesting to me that there doesn’t seem to be any discussion among the family about what kind of poetry to write, yet everyone produces the same kind, as if everyone just knows that this is the kind of poetry you write on an occasion like this. Clearly poetry-writing has been a standard part of their upbringing and education. (I also think it’s touching and funny that there’s one sister who considers herself, or is considered, “not good at poetry,” and who instead specializes in a different sort of traditional Japanese art.)

Tanizaki wrote this book during and after World War II partly out of nostalgia for what he saw as the lost culture of prewar Japan — there is a lot of information about the family engaging in traditional Japanese music, dance, theater, and crafts as well. So maybe he was simply more inclined to portray characters as cultured and artistic, and this is not a realistic representation of what a typical Japanese family of their class and time would have done. But the scene seems so quiet and matter-of-fact that it’s hard to believe it was a complete fantasy on his part.



Renga: An introduction and an invitation

I’ve been meaning for a while now to write something about renga*, the form of long collaborative verse from which the haiku was derived (by the great Basho), and which is still being written and enjoyed by millions around the globe … well, okay, maybe thousands on a good day. It fascinates me, because we have nothing like this art form in English — for us, poetry is a solo sport, in popular mythology the province of tortured, lonely geniuses sweating it out in their attic bedrooms or sordid studio apartments. (Or suburban kitchens, as the case may be.)

For the Japanese, however, poetry was for a long time a basic social skill, at least for the upper classes, a way of impressing lovers and court rivals. In The Tale of Genji, the eleventh-century work that is generally called the world’s first novel, the hero, an illegitimate son of the emperor who is implausibly and annoyingly talented at everything, is always seducing his (many, many) ladies with little verses he tosses off practically without thinking about it, and they are always replying in kind.

At that time, the tanka was one of the most prominent verse forms — five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese syllables. Tanka contests were popular among those with nothing better to do with their time. Renga, it’s hypothesized, began as a way of, um, relaxing after these contests — by writing more poetry, except this time in collaboration with your rivals instead of in competition with them. That is, it was a party game. Those crazy Japanese!

The basic idea behind renga is that one person writes the first part of the tanka (the 5-7-5 — sound familiar?) and another person writes the second part (the 7-7) — and then someone else writes another 5-7-5 connected to the 7-7, and someone else writes another 7-7 connected to that, and on and on — sometimes, in the good old days, for a thousand stanzas or more.

By Basho’s time (seventeenth century), even the Japanese were beginning to feel that this length was a little bit crazy. Basho had the idea to cap the renga at 36 stanzas, which he neatly and sensibly laid out in a little 4-page book, 6 stanzas on the first and last pages and 12 on the 2 middle pages. He also made up all kinds of rules about what kind of subjects each stanza was supposed to cover. You were supposed to start the renga with a verse about the season you were in, for instance. (This first verse of the renga is called a hokku. Basho liked writing hokku so much that he wrote a whole bunch of them without bothering with the rest of the renga, and thus the haiku was born — though it didn’t get that name until Shiki thought it up in the nineteenth century.)

These days people still frequently write Basho-style 36-stanza renga (they’re called kasen), but renga can be any number of stanzas really, written by any number of people — sometimes even solo, though that seems to kind of miss the point as far as I’m concerned. On the wondrous Interweb, you can find all kinds of detailed instructions and blank forms for composing renga of different types and different numbers of stanzas — I’ll throw some links down at the bottom of this in case you’re really interested.

For me, though, the really interesting thing about renga isn’t the form per se, it’s the way they’re composed and the way the stanzas link together. William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (from which I admit I have cribbed a lot of the preceding information), explain memorably:

“The point of renga writing is not to tell a story in a logical progression. Each stanza must move in some new direction, connected to the stanza just before it but usually not to earlier stanzas. When reading a renga we do not discover a narrative sequence, but zig-zag over the different imaginary landscapes of the poets’ minds, much as a spaceship coming out of polar orbit might flash now over ice and snow, now over teeming cities, now over green forests, ultimately to splash down into blue ocean. As readers we should enjoy the flow of sights, sounds, and insights as they tumble past.”

— Higginson and Harter, The Haiku Handbook, p. 192

Just as memorably, Jane Reichhold explains how to link renga stanzas and comments a little on what it actually feels like to engage in this dance of minds:

“[T]he important thing to watch is what happens BETWEEN the links. Think of each stanza as a springboard from which you are going to jump. As your mind leaps (and you think you know where the poem is going) you should be forced to make a somersault in order to land upright in the next link. It is the twist your mind makes between links that makes renga interesting.

Some leaps are close (as in the beginning and end of the poem) so the subject is moved only slightly ahead. In the middle of the poem renga whizzes can pirouette until your head spins — and that is just what is desired.

Take your partner by the hand. Start tapping your feet. Bow. And away you go.”

— Jane Reichhold, “Jump Start to Renga

I have to say that when I first started reading renga I was a little baffled — as Jane says, my head was spinning a little. Finding the connections between stanzas can be challenging, and understanding the point of a poem that whirls from subject to subject and thought to thought so quickly was difficult for my linear Western mind.

I didn’t really get it until I found “Omelet” — a renga written by Jane and Sue Stafford, this online version of which they have helpfully annotated so that you understand what was going on in the poet’s minds when they made their leaps between stanzas. Another great annotated example is “The Click of Mahjong Tiles,” written by six different authors. I also really like the example given in The Haiku Handbook, a renga by five authors called “Eleven Hours” that can be found on pages 202-206 of the 25th anniversary edition.

Once you start to get it, it’s exhilarating to watch the flashes of understanding and communication from mind to mind, from stanza to stanza: as I said, nothing like any English poetry, and as Jane says, more like a dance, or maybe a jazz band riffing.

These days, renga aren’t written so often as a party game, because how often do you have two or more capable haiku poets, with at least several hours to spare, at a party? But the Internet and its instant communication have made it much easier to write renga long-distance. Which brings me to my (highly shy and diffident) invitation —

anyone want to renga with me? Obvious disclaimer: I don’t have any actual idea how to do this, I’m just really interested in learning. I don’t care whether you have any renga experience or not. I just kind of want to see what it’s like to pass poetry back and forth with one or more other minds. (My experiment the other day writing haibun in collaboration with my friend Alex has whetted my appetite for this even more.)

Drop me a comment or an email if this sounds interesting to you, and we’ll see what we can do.

*

More information about renga/renku:

How to Renga (Jane Reichhold’s Aha! Poetry site) — information, instructions, forms for composing renga (Basho, kasen style)

Renku Home — a world of information, mostly by William J. Higginson

Renku Reckoner — John Carley’s site that has detailed instructions and forms for composing many different types of renku

4 Elements Renga — forms and instructions for composing renga based on the four elements

—–

*Some people call it renku. I am not equipped to comment on or settle the debate on this issue. Call it whatever you want. Renga, renku, let’s call the whole thing off.

13 Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens: Found haiku, and a poetic tribute

Make sure you make it to the bottom of this post. There is a delicious candy surprise waiting for you. Or, um, a pile of Brussels sprouts, depending on your opinion of derivative, semi-parodical poetry.

The other day somebody compared some of my work to Wallace Stevens’s. This was hugely flattering to me because, although I don’t really believe in picking favorites when it comes to poetry (or really anything else), if someone held a gun to my head and said, “Name your favorite poet or else,” I would have to say (or rather, probably, shriek in desperation), “Wallace Stevens! Wallace Stevens!”

Like everyone else who knows a fair amount about both Wallace Stevens and haiku, I’d noticed the resemblance between haiku and probably his best-known poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (great book! read it!), quote the first stanza as an example of the influence of the haiku on early-2oth-century poetry:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I could probably go on for a while about what Stevens’s theory of poetics was and why he’s so great and everyone should love him, but you don’t really care and if you do you can go read about him on Wikipedia or even better, pick up a copy of The Palm at the End of the Mind from someplace and just read his poetry until you fall over in a dead faint.

What you are really looking for here is some pseudo-haiku culled from Stevens’s work. And although I have some reservations about this exercise because I don’t think it gives all that accurate an impression of what his highly metaphorical, dense, intellectual poetry is about, I can oblige you, forthwith:

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the falling leaves
(“Domination of Black”)


 

the grackles crack
their throats of bone
in the smooth air
(“Banal Sojourn”)


 

The white cock’s tail
Streams to the moon.
Water in the fields.
(“Ploughing on Sunday”)


 

The skreak and skritter
of evening gone
and grackles gone
(“Autumn Refrain”)


 

A bridge above the … water
And the same bridge
when the river is frozen
(“Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”)


 

Long autumn sheens
and pittering sounds like sounds
on pattering leaves
(“Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue”)


 

The grass in in seed.
The young birds are flying.
Yet the house is not built
(“Ghosts as Cocoons”)


 

Slowly the ivy
on the stones
becomes the stones
(“The Man with the Blue Guitar”)


 

A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter
when afternoons return
(“The Poems of Our Climate”)


 

a bough in the electric light…
so little to indicate
the total leaflessness
(“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”)


— All selections from Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play

*

Did you make it all the way through that? Okay…as either a reward or a punishment (you decide), I am now going to inflict on you a rare example of my non-haiku poetry. It is of course haiku-ish (being modeled on a haiku-ish poem), so it’s not too terrible. I don’t think. Oh — be sure you’ve actually read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” before you read it, or the full effect will be lost on you.

Something else you need to know to fully appreciate this is that Wallace Stevens famously had a day job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut.

Thirteen Ways of Looking At Wallace Stevens

I.
The view from the window
Of the poet’s office:
Thin clouds spread
Over a hazy sky.

II.
I drive down the avenues of Hartford
Looking for Wallace Stevens
Or for what he has left behind.

III.
Precision, quiddity, and fancy,
The shape of Wallace Stevens’ mind.

IV.
A man sits at a mahogany desk
Holding his pen completely still over
An empty ledger book.

V.
The black marks on an actuarial table
Look much like the black marks
On a page of poetry.

VI.
Wallace Stevens walks to work
Down streets blackbirds have flown along.

VII.
What will you pay me, Wallace Stevens,
Not to finish this poem?

VIII.
I wake from a strange dream
Through which Wallace Stevens was flying.

IX.
The shadowy quality of a day in the mountains
Spent reading Wallace Stevens.

X.
Unassimilable,
Like the thing and the image of the thing,
Like the two parts of Wallace Stevens’ life:
The doing, and the being.

XI.
Wallace Stevens leaves the office,
Carrying an umbrella,
His briefcase swinging
At the end of the arm he writes with.

XII.
The two eyes of the poet,
Seeing in two directions.

XIII.
I sit down to write a poem.
I look up, and there is Wallace Stevens.
He casts his shadow over the paper.

Gendai haiku

Continuing in my time-honored tradition of writing lengthy, dull essays about things I know practically nothing about, I wanted to ramble on for a while about my recent explorations of gendai haiku. A plea: even if you are not interested in my sketchy research, uninformed opinions, or pretentious literary analysis, you should at least skim down to read what are some pretty cool haiku. (By other people, needless to say.)

The Japanese term “gendai” simply means “modern,” but in the context of haiku it seems to carry the connotation of something more like “avant-garde” or “experimental” in English. Scott Metz, who is a pretty avant-garde American haiku poet himself, explains its origins on his blog “lakes and now wolves”:

“… influenced by changes in culture, society, economics, art, and literature—globalization—many different schools and strands of haiku developed during the 20th century. … Starting with a foundation centered more on realism and experience, 20th century haiku immediately expanded into areas such as politics, subjectivity, the avant-garde, feminism, urbanism, surrealism, the imaginary, symbolism, individuality, and science fiction: in general, free-form and experimental aesthetics. … The rigid limitations and conservatism of traditional techniques (namely 5-7-5 on/syllabets and the necessity of a kigo) were no longer absolutes for Japanese poets.”

— Scott Metz, for ku by

I first encountered the term “gendai” in an essay by Peter Yovu on the website of The Haiku Foundation, troutswirl, where several compelling examples of the genre are cited, such as:

like squids

bank clerks are fluorescent

from the morning


—Kaneko Tōta (trans. Makoto Ueda)


in front of the scarlet mushroom

my comb slips off


—Yagi Mikajo
 (trans. by Richard Gilbert)


from the sight

of the man who was killed

we also vanished


—Murio Suzuki (trans. by Gendai Haiku Kyokai)

(All examples from Peter Yovu, What is Your Reponse to Gendai Haiku?)

These examples seemed so exciting to me, so much more interesting than the standard Zen-nature-moment haiku, which I confess I’m getting a little weary of, that I went straight off to gendaihaiku.com, a website by Richard Gilbert, one of the most influential Western scholars and proponents of gendai. It contains profiles of some of the masters of gendai haiku, videotaped interviews with them, and examples of their work. There I found stuff like this:

wheat –
realizing death as one color
gold

Uda Kiyoko

revolution

in the snowy kiosk

for sale        .?

Hoshinaga

–[Gilbert adds an explanatory note to this haiku:] … Kiosks filled with novel items began to appear in train stations throughout postwar Japan as the rail lines developed, and represented a new world, a new era of consumption and economic development. The resulting revolution spoken of here is domestic and cultural. A unique formal feature of this haiku is its last, fragmentary character na, which follows a question marker (ka), comma, and space, a uniquely creative contribution. Hovering between a statement of certainty and strong doubt (disbelief?), an indefinite solution is created by the orthography, causing this haiku to reflect back upon its topic, deepening the question.


cherry blossoms fall

—
you too must become

a hippo

Nenten Tsubouchi

water of spring
as water wetted
water, as is

Hasegawa Kai

–Hasegawa comments.
 Almost anything in this world can be wetted by water. However, the one thing that cannot be wetted in this way is water itself. Although water wets other things but cannot itself be wetted, I nonetheless intuit that the water of spring, uniquely, has a special quality in that it can be wetted — though it too is water.


There are clearly a lot of cultural and translation barriers to a non-Japanese fully understanding these poems — among other problems, I still don’t quite get why Tsubouchi wants me to be a hippo. But it struck me forcefully that these poets were clearly not interested in following the “rules” about haiku, particularly about haiku subject matter, that so many English haiku poets seem insistent on and fearful of breaking.

These poems aren’t about “haiku moments.” They have vivid and compelling images; but they’re allusive, elusive, experimental, full of large ideas — not just tiny moments of awareness. I say this not to cast aspersions on tiny moments of awareness, just to point out that in the culture where haiku developed, there is apparently a much broader conception of what constitutes a “real” haiku than in our own.

In an interview with Robert Wilson, Gilbert points out that gendai haiku poets are not breaking off decisively from the classical haiku tradition, that haiku has always been about referencing the past while making accommodation to the present:

“Gendai haiku partake of a tradition and culture in which, unlike that of the historical Judeo-Christian West, nature and culture were not extensively polarized. So in gendai haiku exists an invitation to the present and a future, in congruence with the past. This congruency is also an uprooting, accomplished via expansive and often experimental avant-garde language and techniques. Yet the old is likewise held in the new, in plying the form. The key to haiku, what makes it a brilliant literature, is that haiku cut through time and space …

“The gendai haiku tradition partakes of Bashō’s ‘world of mind,’ and like Bashō and other accomplished classical masters, extends a literary conversation. … [H]aiku are never merely singular works of art, they swim in an ocean of poetry, in which any given term (e.g. kigo or kidai) and image has multiple reference to over 1000 years of literary history (poems, historical events, personages, authors, myths, etc.). …”

— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert

I would add that haiku, in its several hundred years of existence, has undergone many changes in style and approach and has never been as limited in subject matter and structure as many Westerners seem to believe. A lot of what we now think of as “proper” haiku (the nature observation, the Zen moment of enlightenment) was a late-nineteenth-century development and actually, ironically, owed a lot to the realism of Western poetry, which was just beginning to be known in Japan at the time. Haruo Shirane, in his great essay Beyond the Haiku Moment, points out that early haiku were just as likely (or more so) to concern historical or literary or entirely imaginary subjects as the personal experience of the poet:

Basho traveled to explore the present, the contemporary world, to meet new poets, and to compose linked verse together. Equally important, travel was a means of entering into the past, of meeting the spirits of the dead, of experiencing what his poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced. In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems. …  Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti- traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.

— Haruo Shirane, Beyond the Haiku Moment

An interesting historical note about this movement is that gendai haiku poets underwent significant persecution at the hands of the Japanese government during World War II, as is chillingly explained in an article in the haiku journal “Roadrunner” (again, by Richard Gilbert):

“[B]y the 1920s … the ‘New Rising Haiku movement’ (shinkô haiku undô) wished to compose haiku on new subjects, and utilize techniques and topics related to contemporary social life. These poets frequently wrote haiku without kigo (muki-teki haiku), and explored non-traditional subjects, such as social inequity, utilizing avant‑garde styles including surrealism, etc. …

“During the war, over 40 New Rising Haiku poets were persecuted; they were imprisoned and tortured, and some died in prison. … [The director of a haiku society associated with the government stated:] ‘I will not allow haiku even from the most honorable person, from left-wing, or progressive, or anti-war, groups to exist. If such people are found in the haiku world, we had better persecute them, and they should be punished.’

“… According to the fascist-traditionalists, to write haiku without kigo meant anti-tradition, which in turn meant anti-Imperial order and high treason. …

“One sees that, historically, ‘freedom of expression’ in the gendai haiku movement was not an idle aesthetic notion. … The liberal, democratic spirit and freedom of expression exhibited by the New Rising Haiku poets remains at the core of gendai haiku.”

— Richard Gilbert, “Gendai Haiku Translations

In this same article Gilbert and Ito Yuki offer translations of some haiku by this generation of persecuted poets, all of which, naturally, are a little on the dark side — but exhibit the same freshness of approach as my previous examples:

clean kills: in a night war a canyon a crab
–
Hirahata Seito

the shriek of artillery
birds beasts fish shellfish
chilling dim

— 
Saito Sanki

leaving a withered tree
being shot as a withered tree
— 
Sugimura Seirinshi

machine gun
in the forehead
the killing flower blooms
— 
Saito Sanki

(Translations by Richard Gilbert and Ito Yuki, from Gendai Haiku Translations“)

If you’re starting to wonder if all gendai haiku are dark and depressing…fear not. A wonderful place to sample a wide variety of gendai haiku is Blue Willow Haiku World, the website of the fine Japanese-American haiku poet Fay Aoyagi, which features both her own haiku and that of modern Japanese haiku poets in her own translations. A few examples:

no hesitation

he comes and whispers

in a dancer’s ear

–Suju Takano

from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996

— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 9, 2010


azuki-bean jelly

I prefer a comic play

with a quiet plot

–Shuoshi Mizuhara

from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996

— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 7, 2010


bubbled water

it wets

an equation

— Keishu Ogawa

from “Gendai Haiku Hyakunin Nijukku” (“Modern Haiku: 20 Haiku per100 Poets”), edited by Kazuo Ibaraki, Kiyoko Uda, Nenten Tsubouchi, Kazuko Nishimura, You-shorin, Nagano, 2004

Fay’s Note:  “sôda-sui” (bubbled/carbonated water) is a summer kigo.

One can write a Japanese haiku without a subject word.   Most of time, the subject is “I,” the poet.   But this one, I am not sure.   I see two people (somehow, a male and female students) studying together.   It is a summer time.

Between them, cans (or glasses) of bubbled water…   But the translation can be

bubbled water

I wet

an equation

— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 6, 2010

So far I’ve been discussing this genre as a strictly Japanese phenomenon. But the inevitable question is: Are there “gendai haiku” in English?

Richard Gilbert responds:

“I’m not even sure [the term ‘gendai’] should be used for any haiku natively-written in English. For instance, I would not say so-and-so a haiku is ‘gendai’ as a matter of style, unless I meant it was similar in style to that of a known gendai poet of Japan … As of yet, we do not have a ‘gendai-like’ movement in English-language haiku poetry, though there are some poets writing innovative works. … It’s my thought that we can learn and appreciate, though innovate with autonomy.”

— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert

I’m planning to write a post soon about some English-language haiku poets who are innovating in what seem to me gendai-like ways — including Metz and Gilbert themselves. In the meantime, I’d welcome comments on these poems and this poetic phenomenon: How do you feel about haiku in this style? Do you think there is a similar movement in English? Should I just stick to haiku and leave the dry academic treatises to the experts? Let your opinion be known.

Found haiku: Thoreau

Eager to procrastinate this morning (this is actually most of what I do every day), I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “I bet Thoreau is full of haiku.” So I pulled Walden off the bookshelf and started looking through it and giggling. (Yes, I know: I’m easily entertained.)

I did have to use some ellipsis to get haiku out of some of Thoreau’s meaty utterances (when you’ve been reading predominantly haiku even Thoreau’s vigorous prose seems a little Victorianly verbose), but in the end I was really happy with these. I stopped looking when I got to the last one, in fact, because it was so perfect I became too happy to sit still anymore and had to get up and go for a walk. It is equal parts Thoreau-ish and haiku-ish, and also is a nice counterpart to the first one below, which was actually the first one I found.

*

gentle rain …
waters my beans …
keeps me in my house today


where a forest was cut down
last winter
another is springing up


hollow and
lichen-covered apple trees
gnawed by rabbits


the house … behind
a dense grove of red maples …
I heard the house-dog bark


the wood thrush
sang around and was heard
from shore to shore


faint hum of a mosquito …
invisible … tour …
at earliest dawn


while I drink I see
the sandy bottom …
how shallow it is


my beans ….
impatient to be hoed…
so many more than I wanted


— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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.