See Me There, redux

Just a quick note to say that you should all go over and look at Kuniharu Shimizu’s haiga blog see haiku here right now, because he has once again produced a masterful haiga from one of my haiku, this time one from my LYNX “First Snow” sequence.

This one is a (spectacularly beautiful, in an understated way) photo collage. One thing I find so exciting about Kuniharu-san’s work is the fact that he doesn’t stick to just one medium or one style in producing his haiga. He fits the art to the spirit of the haiku, and he is constantly experimenting and trying new things and pushing forward with his art. To be able to produce such high-quality artworks in such a variety of styles on a daily basis takes an artist who is committed both to playing and to working — the two essential activities an artist must engage in to be really successful.

I continue to be honored and amazed that Kuni-san has chosen my poetry to serve as inspiration for some of his art.

December 14: Welcome to the Playground

I told someone the other day that this blog is my playground. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t take it seriously. After all, as I posted recently on my other blog (which is more like a museum):

Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.

— Heraclitus

I was still thinking about this when I wandered into a used bookstore yesterday and found a copy of Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, written in 1944 by Johan Huizinga. I had never heard of this book before, as far as I know, but the second I picked it up and started looking through it I felt as though it had been one of my favorite books for most of my life. That happens sometimes with books. (And people.)

Huizinga says in his foreword, “For many years the conviction has grown upon me that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” And then he goes on to elaborate on this thesis at great and intelligent and delightful length. I haven’t read the whole book yet, which is extremely fortunate for you because I would probably feel compelled to dissect the entire thing at mind-numbing length.

But I will quote for you from the chapter on “Play and Poetry,” which, despite the fact that it is chapter 7, was the first one I read. I don’t think I’ll offer any commentary, because Huizinga is a way better writer than I am and this speaks for itself.

 

Let us enumerate once more the characteristics we deemed proper to play. It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow.

Now it can hardly be denied that these qualities are also proper to poetic creation. In fact, the definition we have just given of play might serve as a definition of poetry. The rhythmical or symmetrical arrangement of language, the hitting of the mark by rhyme or assonance, the deliberate disguising of the sense, the artificial and artful construction of phrases — all might be so many utterances of the play spirit. To call poetry, as Paul Valery has done, a playing with words and language is no metaphor: it is the precise and literal truth.

The affinity between poetry and play is not external only; it is also apparent in the structure of creative imagination itself. In the turning of a poetic phrase, the development of a motif, the expression of a mood, there is always a play-element at work.

… What poetic language does with images is to play with them. It disposes them in style, it instils mystery into them so that every image contains the answer to an enigma.

— Johan Huizinga, “Play and Poetry” from Homo Ludens

 

A lot of the playing I do with the haiku form never sees the light of day, and probably properly so. But quite a bit of the playing ends up on this blog. If I post something here, it is almost never because I am sure it is a wonderful haiku, but because I think it is … something … and I’m not quite sure what. Maybe wonderful, maybe terrible, maybe just mediocre. Maybe incomprehensible. Maybe unfinished.

I don’t just put any old combinations of words here — that wouldn’t be very respectful of your time — but I do tend to use this space to get some sense of how people respond to various experiments I have made. I guess I do usually have to have some feeling that at least some readers will enjoy what I’ve done. It isn’t a game of solitaire, after all. But really, it is a game. I won’t always win, and I can accept that. I’m just trying to have fun, and ensure that my fellow players do too.

Okay. Laugh if you must. Here are some of the sillier games I’ve played lately.

 

.

inevitably dandelions
invariably willows
ineradicably moonlight

 

.

 

in conversation with carrots a jaundiced point of view

.

 

shift
capitalizing
We

Ku-me: a haiku game

Okay, Rick Daddario (my champion commenter) has a great haiku game going on over at 19 Planets Art Blog. It’s called ku-me and it’s kind of a hybrid between a linking verse and a haiku prompt. Rick starts the ball rolling with a one-word prompt, then the first commenter writes a haiku using the prompt and leaves a new prompt of their own that the next commenter has to use in their haiku. Et cetera. I just left the word “squirm.” Come on, tell me you can’t do something with that after reading all my charming worm haiku.

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.

May 31: 2-10: Russian memories

sun hanging low
long line for Cuban
oranges

zoo in midwinter
the boy in heavy clothes
cries, “Eagle!”

spring tram journey
high-rises hemmed in
by birch forest

frost on the window
blini
with coarse sugar

laundromat steam
the breath
of sleeping cats

sick from lack of sun
a lemon drop from
a fur-hatted woman

blooming bulbs
children play
near the famous prison

warm riverbank
smell of fish
from the store called “Ocean”

melted snow
reveals worn lettering:
Faster, Higher, Stronger

*

I’ve been wanting to try to experiment with writing haiku from very old memories. Do haiku moments need to be captured when fresh, or can you let them mellow for a while? Might the moments that you still remember after so long actually be better candidates for poetry than the fleeting glimpses of things that briefly move you today?

Twenty years ago I spent a semester in Moscow, then the capital of the Soviet Union. It was a life-changing time in many ways — for one thing, I met my husband there. (He’s an American, in case you were wondering.) For another, it was a world so different from the one I was used to that I got used to staring at things and noticing them, which is good practice for a writer. There are still so many tiny moments of astonishment that flash across my brain from that time.

I will say, though — I don’t think most of them really fit themselves well to haiku, maybe because my mind was relentlessly prosy then. I keep wanting to write whole essays about them, describing the whole surrounding scene and pretentiously analyzing cultural differences. Or maybe it really is futile to write haiku about things that happened so long ago; maybe you need to seize on haiku moments the moment you see them.

May 27: 2-5: The Technique of Association

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

Jane:

“This can be thought of as ‘how different things relate or come together.’ The Zen of this technique is called ‘oneness’ or showing how everything is part of everything else…. When the boundaries disappear between the things that separates them, it is truly a holy moment of insight and it is no wonder that haiku writers are educated to latch on to these miracles and to preserve them in ku.


“ancestors

the wild plum

blooms again”

Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

Me:

the progress of
the caterpillar
sun climbing up the sky

women on the grass
compare haircuts
growl of lawnmower

fresh greens in the salad
young woman
in new clothes

children with
water balloons
blossoms at their fullest

*

I realized as I was writing these that I wasn’t exactly sure what the difference was between this technique and the technique of comparison. The idea seems to be that when you’re comparing two things, you’re showing that they’re similar, but when you’re associating them, you’re showing that they’re really the same thing? Or something?

Maybe someone with a better grasp of Zen can explain it to me…

May 23: 1-30: My father

1.

freeze after thaw
cell phone ring
makes me slip on the ice

2.

colder than yesterday
my sister’s voice
on the phone

3.

on my back on the ice
clouds torn open
reveal more clouds

4.

cell phone ring
the airport
vanishes

5.

a stranger’s car
roads darker than I’m used to
curve toward home

6.

snow on dark steps
inside
the family waits

7.

pancakes heavy
in my stomach
throwing out his painkillers

8.

the day after his death
the death of the neighbor’s dog
we sympathize

9.

cold draft in his room
the cards
we used to play with

10.

knocking with cold hands
at the wrong door
of the funeral home

11.

list of funeral expenses
scratches on
the polished table

12.

early dark
white sheet pulled away
from his surprised face

13.

snow on a low wall
choosing between
two burial places

14.

PowerPoint slides
of gravestones
chairs with hard seats

15.

stack of Sunday papers
can’t stop reading
the obituary

16.

morning fog
running up the hills
I left behind

17.

trying on dresses
my sister’s
opinion

18.

Olympic snowboarding
I blow my nose
on his handkerchiefs

19.

thin pajamas
Googling the words of
his favorite hymn

20.

steam from my mother’s tea
showing her
Facebook condolences

21.

day of the funeral
rust from the leaky
faucet

22.

unheated waiting room
one by one
we put coats back on

23.

my father’s funeral
truth
and lies

24.

standing for a hymn
memory of my head
reaching his elbow

25.

minister’s hug
his sympathy card
will regret my unbelief

26.

frost on the windowpane
unfamiliar
relatives

27.

their sympathy
taste of
sweet red punch

28.

snow in the cemetery
wrong kind
of shoes

29.

fresh snow on his car
another
dead battery

30.

my inheritance
a car to drive
a thousand miles home

*

My father died in February. I’d made no effort whatsoever to write about his death before. Or speak about it, really. Or think about it, come to think about it.

Something about haiku makes it easier, by forcing you to remember and concentrate on the tiny physical details of the experience. Writing these has been like compiling a mental photo album of the week of his death. It’s allowed both distance and immediacy. I approach the experience, come close enough to touch it, then draw back quickly, as soon as I start to feel it burn.