calling again for mates
all the years
I had forever
red lights, June 2011
you bake me a sweet cake
in a sugarless country
skiing in Gorky Park—
where we’re going
babushkas chiding us
for our warmth
Happy birthday, honey.
March: It’s not just about the wind.
Light from the sun reaches us
and keeps going.
Raindrops flow like glass on glass.
My son is tracing circuit diagrams
on the back of a page from Hamlet.
We all dream that way sometimes.
When you climb a mountain
it divides the day.
Spring at the bottom and
winter at the top.
I pick up the phone, put it down again.
It’s not the right season to go backward.
I wish some year I’d remember
to write down the date
I hear the first bird sing.
Once a red-tailed hawk
moved into our neighborhood
and surveyed the chipmunks for days
before deciding to move on.
Don’t tell me you’ve never been tempted
to stay too long.
I’m sure there’s a song about that.
The equinox is coming:
are you equal to it?
This is when we realize
that snow is water.
That ice is light.
That every day the sun reaches us
at a slightly different angle:
So I’m really busy this week. Really. Insanely. Busy. Right now I should be doing six other things. Going to bed being one of them. Every minute for the last week I should have been doing six other things. A lot of those minutes I spent writing poetry instead. I’m hopeless that way.
At one point I guess I decided that it wasn’t enough to jot down a haiku or two in my off minutes, I needed to write a longer poem instead, one that would require some concentrated effort and allow me to put off my much more boring tasks for as long as possible. So I wrote this. Sorry.
you and the moon
First posted at Haiku Bandit Society for the Feb. 2011 Moon Viewing Party.
Willie Sorlien, owner and proprietor over at Haiku Bandit Society, linked the last line to a great Traffic video. Go watch it, it’s pretty much in the spirit of the haiku, and the video has cool images of its own.
for my birthday
For my birthday (yes, it’s today), I gave myself permission to write another haiku about the moon (despite their currency being even more debased than that of haiku about snow). Or rather, to post another haiku about the moon that I wrote a while ago and saved up for my birthday.
I’m giving myself another present, too. I decided to do this last weekend, when I had been sitting at my kitchen table staring at my computer for about nine hours, mostly performing various haiku-related
chores delightful activities (no, seriously) like writing the Haikuverse and preparing journal submissions and replying to fascinating blog comments and visiting everybody else’s fascinating blogs and figuring out what tanka were all about anyway. Finally I realized it was going to be dark soon and I quickly stood up on my wobbly legs and put on my running shoes and headed outside.
The air was cold and the light was pure and as I walked the air started flowing more freely to my brain, and within about ten minutes I felt a sense of deep peace and I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “I give you permission not to blog every single day anymore. Because this is getting crazy.”
I know. I know I said I would post a haiku every day for a year, and it’s only been nine months and change. But think about it. Nine months is a long time. In nine months I could have created an entire new human being from scratch. (I’m familiar with the technique involved.) Though I did do this, in a way. I created, or rather re-created, myself.
Okay, melodrama. I know. I hate it too. But in this case I don’t feel that this is too strong a statement. Before I started this blog, I had been wandering around aimlessly through most of my adult life with an unfocused desire to write stuff, but not really sure what that stuff was, or what exactly I had to say. I never finished much of anything I started writing. I lost track of it halfway through; it stopped seeming important or interesting. I was starting to think maybe I wasn’t really a writer after all, except that I had an uncomfortable awareness that the only time I ever felt completely aware and fulfilled and alive was when I was writing something.
And then haiku came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and quietly told me to give it a try, and since I wasn’t doing much of anything else at the time I said, “Okay.” On a whim I wrote a few haiku, on a whim I started a blog. As it turned out, this was kind of like going to a party on a whim and meeting the love of your life. Yeah … we’ve been chatting each other up for the last nine months, haiku and I, finding out all the things we have in common, marveling at the similarity of our personal philosophies, sharing our hopes and dreams for the future … at this point, I have to say, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine living without each other.
Which is to say, the reasons for my promising, back in May, to post a haiku every day for a year have essentially been rendered moot. I wanted to make a commitment to a body of writing and not give up on it for a change. I wanted to heal myself of my perfectionism and my reluctance to put any writing out in the world in case someone saw it and laughed at it. Well, none of these things are problems anymore. In fact, the problem I have now is that I would rather write haiku, and read haiku, and write about reading and writing haiku, and communicate with my fellow haiku enthusiasts, than do pretty much anything else. And I have a lot of other things to do. You know, school, and work, and laundry, and interacting with my family more than five minutes a day.
Also, it was fine for a while for me to just write any old haiku and slap it up on the blog without much thought, because I didn’t really know any better. But if I want to grow as a poet I have to not just write a lot of haiku, I have to take the time to live with them, and think about them, and revise them, and make them not just good-enough, but the best they can be. I’m not talking about perfectionism, I’m talking about craftsmanship; I’m talking about artistic integrity … oh God, is this starting to sound pretentious?
You do know what I mean, don’t you? At some point it’s not respectful to your art, or to your audience, to produce too much. To churn out publications just for the sake of publication. I mean, I still write haiku like there’s no tomorrow, but it’s starting to make me slightly sick to post things here that either I think are not really worth anyone’s time to read, or else that I could make even better if I took the time. It’s not that I’m afraid that you’ll laugh at me and point as I walk by and say, “Look, there goes the mediocre haiku poet!” It’s more just that I’m resentful of the time I spend putting up poems on this site that I don’t respect a whole lot instead of writing better poems.
I’m not going away. And the site certainly isn’t going away, it will be here indefinitely as far as I’m concerned. I’ll probably still be posting two or three times a week — you know, when I have something worth saying. I hope you’ll think it’s worth saying, anyway. I hope you’ll keep dropping by. This blog has transformed my life so profoundly — and just writing haiku wouldn’t have done that on its own. The presence of all you fantastic readers, and correspondents, and supporters, and friends is what has made the biggest difference. Not writing in isolation, wondering if I’m crazy. (I mean of course I am crazy, but most of the time you’re nice enough not to point it out.)
Thanks for once again listening to me as I go on and on interminably. (Admit it — you’re a little relieved that you won’t have to deal with that every single day anymore, aren’t you?) Someday, I promise, I am going to learn to pare my prose down the way I pare down haiku.
of birthday cake
not knowing what to do
with the old calendar
Caribbean Kigo Kukai, January 2011 (kigo: calendar)
a new friend becomes
an old friend
away the year
opening the door
for a friend
Year of the Rabbit
I give away
last year’s mistakes mended
with snow patches
Yes, New Year’s was three weeks ago. But frankly, classes and work started this week for me and I haven’t had a lot of time to write so once again I’m plagiarizing from myself, in this case from the haiku that I included with the book that I sent to the winner of my present giveaway in December, Alegria Imperial, which just arrived at her home in Canada even though I sent it several weeks ago. I think the customs officials took the book out and read it before sending it on to Alegria, personally. I commend their literary taste.
I think the theme(s) here are pretty obvious. But in case you’re unsure, Alegria was kind enough to take pictures of the contents of her package and post them on her lovely blog, jornales, so if you’re interested in visuals, hop on over there and take a look.
I hope the Year of the Rabbit has been a lucky one for you so far.
still playing by
last year’s rules
“Happy New Year” in Japanese, as illustrated by a couple of lovely women at the folk-traditions festival I just spent several days at. Those books it’s sitting on are all the haiku- and Japanese-literature-related books I am currently reading. I highly recommend all of them.
So a couple of weeks ago I offered to give one of you a present. And all you had to do in return was cut off the pinky finger on your right hand and mail it to me … wait, was that not your understanding of the deal? Oh, okay, all you really had to do was comment on the blog sometime between then and yesterday, and then hope you got lucky in the present lottery.
This is how the present lottery worked: I made a list of everyone who commented in the appropriate time period, numbered them in the order they commented, and then went to look for the teenager. I found him in his mad-scientist lab in the basement, crouched over a computer hooked up to a number of unidentifiable electronic parts, typing gobbledygook into a little window. (He does this kind of thing a lot. I’m always a little afraid that someday the Interwebs will explode and I’ll find out it was his fault.)
I said to him, “Hey, quit typing your gobbledygook and make me a random-number generator to pick a random number between 1 and 18. Because that’s how many people commented on my blog and I have to give one of them a present and I want this to be a completely scientific, unbiased process.”
He gave me a strange look, but obediently (he is a good boy, really, despite the exploding Interwebs), he opened another little window, typed some different gobbledygook, Googled some stuff real quick, typed more gobbledygook, and then said, “Four.” I am trusting that he did actually create a random number generator and didn’t just pick a number out of his head to make me go away. But whatever, four it is.
And the winner is … Alegria Imperial, whose wonderful blog jornales you must all go take a look at right now. Her New Year haiku there is great — it features a rabbit stole, which I love because I have never read another haiku about a rabbit stole. Also it is a refreshing variation on all the other New Year rabbit haiku floating around out there right now. (2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, in case you had somehow managed not to find this out despite the fact that every single haiku poet in the universe has written a New Year’s haiku with a rabbit reference in it in the last week. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. You can never have too many haiku about rabbits, as far as I’m concerned. I’m just jealous because I haven’t been able to write a good one yet myself.)
So the present, as I mentioned in my original post, is a copy of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, which I completely-on-purpose-but-utterly-foolishly purchased a copy of at a used bookstore even though I already own one. The really great thing is that, as she mentioned in her comment, Alegria already owns one too! But it’s one of her favorite books and it’s beginning to get a little decrepit, and she was wanting another copy. So off it goes to sit on the shelf next to its brother. (Email me your snail mail address, Alegria!)
By an amazing coincidence, on Christmas Day Kuniharu Shimizu, at his fantastic haiga site see haiku here, wrote a post featuring a haiga inspired by Snow Country, along with a brief commentary. (I really recommend you visit his site to see the wonderful photo that accompanies the haiku.)
the other end of the tunnel
is a snow country
“I can almost hear someone in the car yelling, ” Hey, close the window, shut the cold wind out”.
This photo reminded me of Kawabata, Yasunari’s “Snow Country”. The haiku got a hint from the first sentence of the novel.
When I had chance to visit the same snow country, which is in Niigata, I took Jyoetsu Shinkan-sen train. It is the super express train with fixed window so nobody cannot open it. When a long tunnel ended, snow covered fields and mountains of Echigo-Yuzawa sprawled before my eyes. It was so nice to view such a pristine landscape from the warm and comfortable seat of the train.
— Kuniharu Shimizu
And it’s been so nice over the last eight months to view the landscape of the haiku world from the warm and comfortable seat of this blog, surrounded by so many wonderful traveling companions. I wish I could send you all presents. But I’ll give you what I can: My deepest gratitude to all of you for reading, writing back, and sharing your lives and thoughts and writing with me. I wish you all the happiest of New Years.
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.
There is always something new to learn about yourself, I’ve found — in particular, there are always things you’ve forgotten about yourself that when you remember them, or are reminded of them, you are astounded by. In my case, I was astounded the other day when, rummaging around in an old filing cabinet, I pulled out a small sheaf of paper torn from a 2003 page-a-day diary and discovered that apparently at least once before in my life — in the first week of 2003 — I attempted to write a haiku every day for a year.
I only made it a week, so I guess it’s not surprising that this venture didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I guess it’s also not surprising that all these haiku are 5-7-5 and that none of them are much good, although a few of them are not completely terrible either. What does surprise me is that when I started writing haiku (again) back in May, I honestly thought it was the first time I’d ever seriously considered taking up the form. I mean I knew I’d written the odd haiku in the past because that’s just the kind of odd thing I’m always doing, but I’d had no idea that I’d once spent an entire cold week fixated on them.
I’m glad I didn’t remember, in a way. If I had, I might have been discouraged — “Oh, haiku. Tried that once. Didn’t work out.” It just goes to show that you never know exactly what’s changed in you and in what way you might catch fire next.
I know you’re dying to read some of these. I’ve reproduced them below exactly as I wrote them, punctuation and capitalization and similes and incredibly embarrassing diction and all.
Christmas trees like bad habits
discarded at curbs
even the seed pods shiver.
Hand me a sweater.
This winter landscape
everything is different
except the stone wall
Down by the duck pond
we trace letters in the snow:
“Please don’t feed the ducks.”
low sun in my eyes
I walk holding my head down
shy until spring comes
a fir tree sideways
beneath the lilac bush —
the corpse of Christmas
(I also must share an entertaining piece of commentary from this notebook: “I really wanted to write a haiku about how the garbage men turn the garbage cans upside down after they collect the garbage, but it turns out that’s a really difficult thing to write a haiku about.”
I’m (pretty) sure that was meant to be deadpan humor …)
Hello fellow inhabitants of the Haikuverse,
There was so much to explore in the Haikuverse this week that I feel a little overwhelmed by it all. If I’m ever going to get through the list I’ve got in front of me I will have to be brief and efficient, possibly even telegraphic. So … here goes.
First of all, congratulations to Andrew Phillips, of Pied Hill Prawns, and his wife on the recent birth of a baby boy. Andrew wrote a lovely poem, Sacred Space in the Suburbs, with haiku-like stanzas, about the home birth — I highly recommend it. Here’s an excerpt:
This is a room for women. I clamp
a hose to the tap, filling the pool
with warm waters.
— Andrew Phillips
Lots of haiku journals published new issues in the last week. I naturally feel compelled to start with Notes from the Gean, which contains my first published haiku (reposted in this space last week). (Yes, I am excited. Thanks for asking.) They also published one of my haibun. (Excited, again.) But there are so many other wonderful things in this issue that are not by me that I demand you go over there and take a look.
For instance: There are the amazing photo haiga of Aubrie Cox and Carmella Braniger. There are some stunning renku — I like “Scribing Lines” (The Bath Spa Railway Station Renku) in particular. And, of course, there are dozens and dozens of great haiku. I was especially excited to see this one by Lee Gurga, which was thoroughly dissected in a workshop I attended in Mineral Point:
an unspoken assumption tracks through the petals
— Lee Gurga
Heron’s Nest also published last week and is also full of wonderful haiku. Here are a couple that particularly struck me (and I just noticed they both mention the wind, what’s that about?):
in my beliefs
— Christopher Patchel
the leaves too
made of oak
— Joyce Clement
This issue also contains a lengthy and interesting commentary by Alice Frampton on the following amazing ku (winner of the Heron’s Nest Award), well worth reading if you’re interested in getting a better insight into how haiku are put together:
how it feels
to hold a rake
— Robert Epstein
A very exciting development last week was the publication of the first issue of Haijinx since 2002! Congratulations to the team who put this together. Because of a mouse-related incident that took place in my house this week, I was attracted to this haiku by the great Peggy Willis Lyles, who, sadly, died in September:
— peggy willis lyles
Yet another December publication: Haibun Today. They usually have a great selection of haibun, though I have to admit I have not had time to make my way through all the contents of this issue yet. Of those I’ve read, one that I really loved, especially because I am always thinking that there should be more short-story or fiction haibun, was Weight, Balance, and Escapement by Jeffrey Harpeng. This is wildly imaginative and may make your brain explode, so watch out.
I can’t believe I didn’t know about before about this seriously awesome site: Haiku News. They publish haiku based on news stories, along with links to the story in question. This sounds like a gimmick (well, I guess it is in a way) that might involve mediocre or silly haiku, but in fact the haiku are very high quality and the interaction between haiku and news story is thought-provoking. Like this one by Claire Everett, based on the headline “Hunger index shows one billion without enough food.”
but the wishbone
— Claire Everett
Troutswirl this week published an essential read for those interested in the history of English-language haiku: an essay about Anita Virgil and Robert Spiess, who were two of the most prominent and innovative haiku poets in this country in the sixties and seventies and whose haiku still seems original and exciting. Here’s Anita:
walking the snow crust
— Anita Virgil
and here’s Robert:
Muttering thunder . . .
the bottom of the river
scattered with clams
— Robert Spiess
I don’t know how I have happened not to write about John McDonald before, because his blog Zen Speug was one of the first I discovered when I first started writing haiku and I still love it devotedly. For one thing: Great haiku, often very Shiki-ish, with wonderful nature images. For another: Scots! John (who is a retired mason, which is another reason to love him) writes his haiku in both Scots and English, and Scots, in case you weren’t aware, is one of the best. languages. ever.
In fact someone called David Purves has written an essay about how Scots may be a better language for haiku than English (actually, I think lots and lots of languages are better for haiku than English, and I’m not even counting Japanese, which is one reason why I am so devoted to foreign-language haiku).
This was one of my favorites of John’s from this week:
aw yin flourish
all one blossom
— John McDonald
my husband with hot sake
he, too, must have
a dream he gave up
— Kazuko Nishimura
At Beachcombing For the Landlocked the other day, Mark Holloway posted the following tanka, which I took to immediately because it perfectly expresses my feelings about living in the, ahem, landlocked (but very lake-y) Midwest. (Note: I can’t get the formatting of this to work right here; the fourth line should be indented to begin about under the word “lake” from the line above.)
not the sea
— Mark Holloway
At Issa’s Untidy Hut Don Wentworth shares with us his review of a great used-book-store find he made this week (note to self: go to used book stores more often): an autographed copy of The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa, translated by Lucien Stryk. Stryk’s translations are highly minimalist and often (no pun intended, I swear) striking. For instance:
cruel, cruel, cruel.
— Issa, tr. Lucien Stryk
Over at Haiku Bandit Society there is always so very much to love. This week I watched a rengay in the process of composition — every day or two when I checked back a new verse had been added. It was like a magic trick. Here are the first couple of verses — go read the rest yourself.
I’ve had sake
only once or twice
but, as for dreams… / b
a walk on the moon
with Neil Armstrong / l’o
Recently I discovered a Japanese newspaper, The Mainichi Daily News, which publishes English-language haiku every day — go ahead, send yours in, they have a submission form and everything. I really like today’s entry, in fact:
fog thinning out–
more and more visible
the way to nowhere
— Marek Kozubek (Zywiec, Poland)
Check out this Japanese haiku blog by Hidenori Hiruta: AkitaHaiku. The author posts his haiku in both Japanese and English, accompanied by wonderful photographs. They’re grouped seasonally. Here’s an Autumn one that for obvious reasons I am very fond of:
hiding in dahlias
the blue sky
— Hidenori Hiruta
New Year’s Eve
a white rabbit falls
into my dream
New Year’s morning
standing before the mirror
it’s me, and yet …
— Chen-ou Liu
Okay … so why didn’t anyone ever tell me about zip haiku before? Geez. You people.
What are zip haiku, you ask? Well, they’re an invention of the amazing John Carley, probably best known for his great work with renku (check out Renku Reckoner). At some point around the turn of the millennium John got fed up with all the squabbling about what constitutes an English-language haiku and decided to invent his own form of haiku that would be unique to English and capitalize on its special properties. You can read his essay about this yourself, but basically he got all scientific about it and crunched numbers with translations and did a little rummaging around in the basement of linguistics and ended up with this 15-syllable poem, divided into two parts, that he called a zip haiku. (You must understand that I am seriously oversimplifying what John did, and I won’t be surprised if he writes and tells me I’ve got it all wrong.)
ANYWAY. Here’s an example, and I am going to go off and write some of these myself. Soon.
orange and tan
|tan orange and tan|
— John Carley
— Hugh O’Donnell
Few editions of the Haikuverse are complete for me without a French haiku by Vincent Hoarau, posted this week on Facebook. Please don’t ask me to translate.
tombent les flocons
et les poemes inacheves .
— Vincent Hoarau
I absolutely loved this highly minimalist haiku by Angie Werren, posted this week both on Twitter and on her blog feathers. I wrote Angie a long comment about it talking about all the ways I love it (you can see it if you go over there), which may seem over-the-top because it’s only four words long and how much can you say about four words? A lot, it turns out.
— Angie Werren
Bill Kenney of haiku-usa continues with his fine series of “Afters,” loose interpretations of classical Japanese haiku. This week: Basho and Issa on radishes. Really, there is nothing better. I could use a radish right now.
the chrysanthemums gone
— Basho (1644-1694)
the radish grower
pointing the way
with a radish
— Issa (1763-1827)
It’s that time again — the topics for the December Shiki Kukai have been announced. The deadline is December 18. The kigo is “Winter sky,” and the theme for the free format is “ring” (used as a noun). Get composing.
And without further ado, I am going to bed. It’s been an exhausting whirl around the Haikuverse … but what great company! See you all next week.
in the winter
in my mind
of last year’s geese —
this year’s lake
the v of geese
the i of us
in the middle
of the war news —
without his leg —
the death toll —
more weeds than ever
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.
The night of the full moon.
Here, one shadow is missing.
The moon tonight–
Yukiko sees it in Tokyo.
— 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.
breathing the same wind
as the fireflies
I burst into flames
the year’s hottest day
is made of bees
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.
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
The Technique of Metaphor:
“I can just hear those of you who have had some training in haiku, sucking in your breath in horror. There IS that ironclad rule that one does not use metaphor in haiku. Posh. Basho used it in his most famous ‘crow ku.’
on a bare branch
a crow lands
“What he was saying in other words (not haiku words) was that an autumn evening comes down on one the way it feels when a crow lands on a bare branch.”
The Technique of Simile:
“Usually in English you know a simile is coming when you spot the words ‘as’ and ‘like.’ Occasionally one will find in a haiku the use of a simile with these words still wrapped around it, but the Japanese have proved to us that this is totally unnecessary. … [T]he unspoken rule is that you can use simile (which the rule-sayers warn against) if you are smart enough to simply drop the ‘as’ and ‘like.’ …[B]y doing this you give the reader some active part that makes him or her feel very smart when they discover the simile for him/herself.
a long journey
some cherry petals
begin to fall”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
I combined these techniques because it’s difficult for me to see how a simile that doesn’t use the words “like” or “as” is different from a metaphor. There obviously is a subtle distinction in Jane’s mind but I am not subtle enough to understand it. I’d love to hear from anyone who is.
than last year
hot water running
your hands on
cats paw at the screen door
June 7: I edited one of these haiku slightly. Anyone who can tell me how gets a prize. 🙂
December 2008: We* were home† for Christmas, for what we knew or suspected would be the last time we would all be together because my father‘s cancer was taking root deep in his body and could no longer be eradicated, and we (the younger two generations) got up one morning and decided we needed to make a road trip to go get the world’s best doughnuts§. Forty-five minutes away, through the countryside. About halfway there, there’s this tree. My father had reminded us about it before we left, so we were on the lookout for it. This amazing tree. I had never seen it so didn’t really know what to expect; how amazing could a tree be? Well. It’s the oldest tree in the state. An oak. Hundreds of years old, with huge branches, bigger than a lot of trees, literally grown into the ground. And as we discovered, if all five of us stood around it and stretched our arms as far as they would go, we could just touch fingertips. The tree’s circumference was exactly the same as our combined heights. We’re all short. But still.
the oldest tree we know
to touch each other’s fingers
That’s me on the left. My sister on the right. My son in the middle. The men are in the back, stretching invisibly.
Happy birthday, sister.
If you’re going to force me to be brief you at least have to let me have footnotes:
* me, my husband, my son, my sister, and my sister’s then-boyfriend
† at my father’s apartment and my mother’s house (they hadn’t lived together for nine years but they never got divorced and they still saw each other all the time), in the area where we grew up, eight states away from where I live now and three states away from where my sister lives
§ I don’t want to turn this blog into an advertisement so I’m not going to say the name of the place that makes these doughnuts, but if you email me privately and ask nicely I might be willing to reveal all.