someone in this crowd
someone in this crowd
This is why I’m here, after all. This is why I left. This is why. Do you understand now?
Do you want to go? Of course, do you? Should we go together? When should we go?
Voices on the train. At first we understand them only in theory. Stand very still, listening. Look at each other, calculating.
What are they saying?
They’ve closed the metro stations all around Red Square.
Why? I guess to make it harder to get there?
The train stops short, and we see it has no intention of proceeding. All the passengers get off and walk away in the same direction. It’s as if the world has ended and everyone understands it but us, everyone else knows the way to the afterlife.
Do we really want to do this? How will we get there? Is it this way? Well, that’s the way everyone else is going, right?
There are a million people in the street — not hyperbolically, but literally. One million people with no concept of personal space. Two million feet, just missing mine. I feel like a stick that’s fallen into a swollen stream. I feel like a penny tossed in a jar and shaken. I feel like a stranger. I feel like someone who left home and isn’t sure how to get back.
Hold my hand. We don’t want to get separated.
I’m terrified of being lost. I’m holding on tight, being pulled along. I remember this feeling. Do I want to feel like this again?
Can I trust you?
Up ahead, someone is calling for freedom. He shouts so loudly that the voices in my head quiet in response. He shouts so loudly that I understand everything he says.
the first taste
I am taking the many helpful suggestions on my last haibun into advisement. Feel free to dissect this one too. I still feel like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing in the haibun arena, so I am just throwing things up against the wall to see if they stick.
This one’s connected to the last one, obviously — actually it comes right before it in the sequence. How does that work out for you? Are you mystified? Do you mind being mystified? (I often quite enjoy it, but I find that most other people are far less tolerant of the sensation.)
I am foreseeing that all these haibun will end up looking very little like their original versions — when I get them into something more like a final state I’ll put them all up together in order. Then you can tell me what’s wrong with them as a whole instead of just individually.
I suddenly understand
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
The Technique of Close Linkage
“… In making any connection between the two parts of a haiku, the leap can be a small and even a well-known one. Usually beginners are easily impressed with close linkage and experiment first with this form. …
finding on a beach
an open knife”
The Technique of Leap Linkage
“Then as a writer’s skills increase, and as he or she reads many haiku (either their own or others) such ‘easy’ leaps quickly fade in excitement. Being human animals we seem destined to seek the next level of difficulty and find that thrilling. So the writer begins to attempt leaps that a reader new to haiku may not follow … I think the important point in creating with this technique is that the writer is always totally aware of his or her ‘truth’. … Usually, if you think about the ku long enough and deeply enough, one can find the author’s truth. …
the early spring sunshine
in my hand”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
Okay, the problem I had here is that although I (think I) understand very well what Jane means by the difference between close linkage and leap linkage, and I have certainly seen many ku where the connection was either invisible to me or I had to think really hard to figure it out, I didn’t actually consider the connection in her second ku here to be any more of a leap than the connection in her first ku. So either I’m unusually perspicacious or I didn’t really understand the second ku at all, or maybe even the first.
I’m actually very interested in this because it does seem to me that how and whether people understand haiku depends much on their experiences and frame of mind, and what one person considers to be an obscure connection can be completely obvious to another. I also frequently wonder whether people get a lot of the connections in my ku at all, and whether, if they don’t, it’s my fault or theirs. I think I’m just going to throw a bunch of ku down here in order (more or less) from what I consider closely to distantly linked, and you can tell me whether you agree with me.
pins and needles
she sews a quilt for
the first baby
lines of code
ants march over the
eggshells float in
the hair-clogged drain
she whispers something
he can’t hear
speeding up to pass
we never eat anything
he doesn’t like
will her mother give her
“we do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true.
a story, a story;
let it come,
let it go.”
— Traditional way of beginning an Ashanti tale
One summer everything
I made turned back into
what it was made from.
I wove all day
and unpicked my weaving
at night, in my dreams.
Over my house
the clouds dissolved
without releasing rain.
Do you understand?
Are you the kind of person
whose knots all untie themselves?
This is the beginning
of my story. We will proceed
to the middle.
In the country here
the roads are straight and open.
The horizon features food.
At summer’s height
we are enticed by others
to pick raspberries.
Blue Sky, the sign reads.
We receive green baskets. The berries,
needless to say, are red.
The brambles pain us.
The pain and the sweetness
We discuss the paradox.
A wolf spider appears
alongside a thorn.
The largest spider
I’ve ever seen:
The sun alights on her fur.
This vision is for
the children. I call them
to witness it.
The spider is black and yellow.
The children’s mouths are red
like the things they eat.
White clouds attain focus.
The children recall stories
that feature spiders.
Shelob and Aragog:
the children make a song,
the spider listens.
Charlotte — preserved by
her eloquence. This happens,
I tell the spider.
I think of Arachne,
who insisted on beauty.
The spider’s eyes.
Anansi — we know his tricks,
but we can’t teach them
to the spider.
The berries in our baskets
have been eaten
while we tell stories.
There is a tear
in the spider’s web.
The children suggest glue.
My shoelaces are untied,
because it is that
kind of summer.
This is the middle
of my story. We will proceed
to the end.
Late at night
I long for raspberries
but I have picked none.
The children are asleep,
the children are sleeping,
the children will sleep all night.
Are those cobwebs in the
corner of the room, are those
the corpses of flies?
I am afraid to dream,
I am afraid
of what will dissolve.
I hold the broom
in my right hand, I hold the broom
in my left hand.
I put the broom away
and let the spiders sleep.
I eat what I can find.
In the morning
my failures are still numerous.
The spider forgives me.
“this is my story
if it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some elsewhere, and let some come back to me.”
— Traditional way of ending an Ashanti tale
Here are the rules:
Each stanza is itself
and a part of it all.
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.
Continuing in my time-honored tradition of writing lengthy, dull essays about things I know practically nothing about, I wanted to ramble on for a while about my recent explorations of gendai haiku. A plea: even if you are not interested in my sketchy research, uninformed opinions, or pretentious literary analysis, you should at least skim down to read what are some pretty cool haiku. (By other people, needless to say.)
The Japanese term “gendai” simply means “modern,” but in the context of haiku it seems to carry the connotation of something more like “avant-garde” or “experimental” in English. Scott Metz, who is a pretty avant-garde American haiku poet himself, explains its origins on his blog “lakes and now wolves”:
“… influenced by changes in culture, society, economics, art, and literature—globalization—many different schools and strands of haiku developed during the 20th century. … Starting with a foundation centered more on realism and experience, 20th century haiku immediately expanded into areas such as politics, subjectivity, the avant-garde, feminism, urbanism, surrealism, the imaginary, symbolism, individuality, and science fiction: in general, free-form and experimental aesthetics. … The rigid limitations and conservatism of traditional techniques (namely 5-7-5 on/syllabets and the necessity of a kigo) were no longer absolutes for Japanese poets.”
— Scott Metz, for ku by
bank clerks are fluorescent
from the morning
—Kaneko Tōta (trans. Makoto Ueda)
in front of the scarlet mushroom
my comb slips off
—Yagi Mikajo (trans. by Richard Gilbert)
from the sight
of the man who was killed
we also vanished
—Murio Suzuki (trans. by Gendai Haiku Kyokai)
(All examples from Peter Yovu, What is Your Reponse to Gendai Haiku?)
These examples seemed so exciting to me, so much more interesting than the standard Zen-nature-moment haiku, which I confess I’m getting a little weary of, that I went straight off to gendaihaiku.com, a website by Richard Gilbert, one of the most influential Western scholars and proponents of gendai. It contains profiles of some of the masters of gendai haiku, videotaped interviews with them, and examples of their work. There I found stuff like this:
realizing death as one color
in the snowy kiosk
for sale .?
–[Gilbert adds an explanatory note to this haiku:] … Kiosks filled with novel items began to appear in train stations throughout postwar Japan as the rail lines developed, and represented a new world, a new era of consumption and economic development. The resulting revolution spoken of here is domestic and cultural. A unique formal feature of this haiku is its last, fragmentary character na, which follows a question marker (ka), comma, and space, a uniquely creative contribution. Hovering between a statement of certainty and strong doubt (disbelief?), an indefinite solution is created by the orthography, causing this haiku to reflect back upon its topic, deepening the question.
cherry blossoms fall
— you too must become
water of spring
as water wetted
water, as is
–Hasegawa comments. Almost anything in this world can be wetted by water. However, the one thing that cannot be wetted in this way is water itself. Although water wets other things but cannot itself be wetted, I nonetheless intuit that the water of spring, uniquely, has a special quality in that it can be wetted — though it too is water.
There are clearly a lot of cultural and translation barriers to a non-Japanese fully understanding these poems — among other problems, I still don’t quite get why Tsubouchi wants me to be a hippo. But it struck me forcefully that these poets were clearly not interested in following the “rules” about haiku, particularly about haiku subject matter, that so many English haiku poets seem insistent on and fearful of breaking.
These poems aren’t about “haiku moments.” They have vivid and compelling images; but they’re allusive, elusive, experimental, full of large ideas — not just tiny moments of awareness. I say this not to cast aspersions on tiny moments of awareness, just to point out that in the culture where haiku developed, there is apparently a much broader conception of what constitutes a “real” haiku than in our own.
In an interview with Robert Wilson, Gilbert points out that gendai haiku poets are not breaking off decisively from the classical haiku tradition, that haiku has always been about referencing the past while making accommodation to the present:
“Gendai haiku partake of a tradition and culture in which, unlike that of the historical Judeo-Christian West, nature and culture were not extensively polarized. So in gendai haiku exists an invitation to the present and a future, in congruence with the past. This congruency is also an uprooting, accomplished via expansive and often experimental avant-garde language and techniques. Yet the old is likewise held in the new, in plying the form. The key to haiku, what makes it a brilliant literature, is that haiku cut through time and space …
“The gendai haiku tradition partakes of Bashō’s ‘world of mind,’ and like Bashō and other accomplished classical masters, extends a literary conversation. … [H]aiku are never merely singular works of art, they swim in an ocean of poetry, in which any given term (e.g. kigo or kidai) and image has multiple reference to over 1000 years of literary history (poems, historical events, personages, authors, myths, etc.). …”
— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert”
I would add that haiku, in its several hundred years of existence, has undergone many changes in style and approach and has never been as limited in subject matter and structure as many Westerners seem to believe. A lot of what we now think of as “proper” haiku (the nature observation, the Zen moment of enlightenment) was a late-nineteenth-century development and actually, ironically, owed a lot to the realism of Western poetry, which was just beginning to be known in Japan at the time. Haruo Shirane, in his great essay Beyond the Haiku Moment, points out that early haiku were just as likely (or more so) to concern historical or literary or entirely imaginary subjects as the personal experience of the poet:
Basho traveled to explore the present, the contemporary world, to meet new poets, and to compose linked verse together. Equally important, travel was a means of entering into the past, of meeting the spirits of the dead, of experiencing what his poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced. In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems. … Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti- traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.
— Haruo Shirane, Beyond the Haiku Moment
An interesting historical note about this movement is that gendai haiku poets underwent significant persecution at the hands of the Japanese government during World War II, as is chillingly explained in an article in the haiku journal “Roadrunner” (again, by Richard Gilbert):
“[B]y the 1920s … the ‘New Rising Haiku movement’ (shinkô haiku undô) wished to compose haiku on new subjects, and utilize techniques and topics related to contemporary social life. These poets frequently wrote haiku without kigo (muki-teki haiku), and explored non-traditional subjects, such as social inequity, utilizing avant‑garde styles including surrealism, etc. …
“During the war, over 40 New Rising Haiku poets were persecuted; they were imprisoned and tortured, and some died in prison. … [The director of a haiku society associated with the government stated:] ‘I will not allow haiku even from the most honorable person, from left-wing, or progressive, or anti-war, groups to exist. If such people are found in the haiku world, we had better persecute them, and they should be punished.’
“… According to the fascist-traditionalists, to write haiku without kigo meant anti-tradition, which in turn meant anti-Imperial order and high treason. …
“One sees that, historically, ‘freedom of expression’ in the gendai haiku movement was not an idle aesthetic notion. … The liberal, democratic spirit and freedom of expression exhibited by the New Rising Haiku poets remains at the core of gendai haiku.”
— Richard Gilbert, “Gendai Haiku Translations“
In this same article Gilbert and Ito Yuki offer translations of some haiku by this generation of persecuted poets, all of which, naturally, are a little on the dark side — but exhibit the same freshness of approach as my previous examples:
clean kills: in a night war a canyon a crab
– Hirahata Seito
the shriek of artillery
birds beasts fish shellfish
— Saito Sanki
leaving a withered tree
being shot as a withered tree
— Sugimura Seirinshi
in the forehead
the killing flower blooms
— Saito Sanki
(Translations by Richard Gilbert and Ito Yuki, from “Gendai Haiku Translations“)
If you’re starting to wonder if all gendai haiku are dark and depressing…fear not. A wonderful place to sample a wide variety of gendai haiku is Blue Willow Haiku World, the website of the fine Japanese-American haiku poet Fay Aoyagi, which features both her own haiku and that of modern Japanese haiku poets in her own translations. A few examples:
he comes and whispers
in a dancer’s ear
from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996
— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 9, 2010
I prefer a comic play
with a quiet plot
from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996
— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 7, 2010
— Keishu Ogawa
from “Gendai Haiku Hyakunin Nijukku” (“Modern Haiku: 20 Haiku per100 Poets”), edited by Kazuo Ibaraki, Kiyoko Uda, Nenten Tsubouchi, Kazuko Nishimura, You-shorin, Nagano, 2004
Fay’s Note: “sôda-sui” (bubbled/carbonated water) is a summer kigo.
One can write a Japanese haiku without a subject word. Most of time, the subject is “I,” the poet. But this one, I am not sure. I see two people (somehow, a male and female students) studying together. It is a summer time.
Between them, cans (or glasses) of bubbled water… But the translation can be
— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 6, 2010
So far I’ve been discussing this genre as a strictly Japanese phenomenon. But the inevitable question is: Are there “gendai haiku” in English?
Richard Gilbert responds:
“I’m not even sure [the term ‘gendai’] should be used for any haiku natively-written in English. For instance, I would not say so-and-so a haiku is ‘gendai’ as a matter of style, unless I meant it was similar in style to that of a known gendai poet of Japan … As of yet, we do not have a ‘gendai-like’ movement in English-language haiku poetry, though there are some poets writing innovative works. … It’s my thought that we can learn and appreciate, though innovate with autonomy.”
— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert“
I’m planning to write a post soon about some English-language haiku poets who are innovating in what seem to me gendai-like ways — including Metz and Gilbert themselves. In the meantime, I’d welcome comments on these poems and this poetic phenomenon: How do you feel about haiku in this style? Do you think there is a similar movement in English? Should I just stick to haiku and leave the dry academic treatises to the experts? Let your opinion be known.
I’m willing to be that there are thousands of people who first found out about, or got enthusiastic about, haiku, and Japanese poetry in general, by reading J.D. Salinger’s short novel (long short story?) Seymour: An Introduction. This is particularly likely to be true of the type of precious, oversensitive, self-involved adolescent that, um, I was.
I was devoted to Salinger through most of my teenage years, not so much Catcher in the Rye (though I liked that too), but, in particular, the stories about the precocious, intellectual, spirituality-seeking Glass family. During the summer I was sixteen, I believe I read Franny and Zooey no less than six times. I would be tempted to be more critical of myself for this, except it may have been the only thing that kept me sane that summer. Somehow it helped to know that there were people out there (even fictional people) as precious, oversensitive, etc. as I was. (I have since learned that we are legion, but at the time I thought I was special.)
Anyway, if you’re not familiar with Seymour and the other Glasses, they are a family of seven children who were all child prodigies, though they appear only as adults in most of the stories about them — adults who rarely stop talking and never, ever stop thinking too much, mostly about themselves and their angst about the human condition and the nature of the universe. Seymour, the oldest, is also the most brilliant — which doesn’t work out all that well for him, but no spoilers here. (Go read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” if you’re curious about his fate.)
Seymour: An Introduction is basically an extended character sketch purporting to have been written by the next-youngest Glass sibling, Buddy, a writer and college English professor (probably to some extent a Salinger stand-in). He devotes about twenty pages of a 120-page novel to describing Seymour’s career as a poet — much of it, since Seymour’s main poetic inspiration was Chinese and Japanese poetry, discussing the special nature of haiku and other forms of Eastern verse.
This section, fortunately for our purposes, may be the most readable one in the novel. Rereading Seymour now for the first time in many years, I’m finding it, well, pretty precious itself — much more so even than Franny and Zooey, which I revisited last year, and orders of magnitude more than Nine Short Stories, several of which are modern masterpieces. I’m having to skim most of it, the self-indulgent endless paragraphs, the ecstatic but vague descriptions of Seymour’s genius, Buddy’s overly cute cultural analysis and self-appraisal. But a lot of the discussion of poetry made me slow down and start typing out passages to consider later. Salinger (Buddy?) is guilty to a certain extent, like so many other people, of romanticizing Asian culture, but is still very perceptive about how Asian poetry differs from much Western poetry:
“At their most effective, I believe, Chinese and Japanese classical verses are intelligible utterances that please or enlighten or enlarge the invited eavesdropper to within an inch of his life. They may be, and often are, fine for the ear particularly, but for the most part, I’d say that unless a Chinese or Japanese poet’s real forte is knowing a good persimmon or a good crab or a good mosquito bite on a good arm when he sees one, then no matter how long or unusual or fascinating his semantic or intellectual intestines may be, or how beguiling they sound when twanged, no one in the Mysterious East speaks seriously of him as a poet, if at all.” (pp. 118-119)
I can clearly remember reading and being impressed by the following passage as a teenager, and somehow getting the names Issa and Basho stuck in my head for the rest of my life, so that even though I read hardly any of their writing for the next twenty years, they still seemed like old friends when I came to take them up seriously:
“I don’t really believe there is a word, in any language — thank God — to describe the Chinese or Japanese poet’s choice of material. … The great Issa will joyfully advise us that there’s a fat-faced peony in the garden. (No more, no less. Whether we go to see his fat-faced peony for ourselves is another matter … he doesn’t police us.) The very mention of Issa’s name convinces me that the true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it. A fat-faced peony will not show itself to anyone but Issa — not to Buson, not to Shiki, not even to Basho.” (p. 121)
Seymour criticizes his early attempts at writing poetry modeled on Chinese and Japanese forms, in words that resonate with me and with, I think, many other Western poets who are trying to honor the original spirit of this form while making it our own and acknowledging the realities of modern life:
“[The poems] were too un-Western, too lotusy. He said he felt that they were faintly affronting. He hadn’t quite made up his mind where the affronting came in, but he felt at times that the poems read as though they’d been written by an ingrate, of sorts, someone who was turning his back … on his own environment and the people in it who were close to him. He said he ate his food out of our big refrigerators, drove our eight-cylinder American cars, unhesitatingly used our medicines when he was sick, and relied on the U.S. Army to protect his parents and sisters from Hitler’s Germany, and nothing, not one single thing in all his poems, reflected these realities.” (p. 124-25)
Eventually Seymour does succeed at melding his Eastern and Western poetic influences, and Salinger/Buddy describes the results in what must be one of the most detailed descriptions ever written of a wholly imaginary verse form (at least I’m assuming it’s wholly imaginary, maybe somewhere in Salinger’s filing cabinet there are notebooks filled with poems like this):
“… Seymour probably loved the classical Japanese three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku as he loved no other form of poetry, and … he himself wrote — bled — haiku. … It could be said … that a late-period poem of Seymour’s looks substantially like an English translation of a sort of double haiku … a six-line verse, of no certain accent but usually more iambic than not, that, partly out of affection for dead Japanese masters and partly from his own natural bent, as a poet, for working inside attractive restricted areas, he has deliberately held down to thirty-four syllables, or twice the number of the classical haiku. … [E]ach of the poems is as unsonorous, as quiet, as he believed a poem should be, but there are intermittent short blasts of euphony … which have the effect on me personally of someone — surely no one completely sober — opening my door, blowing three or four or five unquestionably sweet and expert notes on a cornet into the room, then disappearing.” (p. 126-28)
For those of us who struggle with what kind of subject matter to bring to haiku — should we stick mostly to nature? how personal should we get? can we tell a story, make a joke, imagine things, or should we stick to personally experienced moments of Zen enlightenment? — it’s interesting to read about Seymour’s choice of subject matter, though they frankly remind me more than anything of possible plot summaries for Salinger’s next several short stories:
“The next-to-last poem is about a young married woman and mother who is plainly having what it refers to here in my old marriage manual as an extramarital love affair. … She comes home very late from a tryst — in my mind, bleary and lipstick-smeared — to find a balloon on her bedspread. Someone has simply left it there. The poet doesn’t say, but it can’t be anything but a large, inflated toy balloon, probably green, like Central Park in spring. The other poem … is about a young suburban widower who sits down on his patch of lawn one night, implicitly in his pajamas and robe, to look at the full moon. A bored white cat … comes up to him and rolls over, and he lets her bite his left hand as he looks at the moon.” (p. 128-29)
I can see now how much these long-forgotten passages have influenced my lifelong attitude toward haiku — although, as I’ve mentioned before, I hadn’t given an excessive amount of thought to the form before last month. There’s the idea that haiku can be made your own; you don’t have to be a slave to tradition. There’s the idea that poets should have a unique voice and should strive to see and write about the things that only they can see. There’s the idea that haiku are about revealing the world as it is, communicating some experience of authentic perception. There’s the idea that haiku should ring some kind of bell in the mind of the reader. There’s the idea that a wide variety of subject matter and to some extent form is possible in writing haiku; that perception and authenticity matter more than syllable counts or traditional topics.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone else for whom reading Seymour was a formative experience in their haiku-writing career. Or, for that matter, from those for whom it wasn’t. What do you think of these passages — do they enlarge or confirm your understanding of haiku, or do you find them banal and twee? Would you rather gnaw your leg off than ever read another word of Salinger, or do you have a shrine to Franny and Zooey set up somewhere in the hidden recesses of your heart? (Or both?)
(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. 🙂
For my 100th post I thought I’d try my hand at haibun (which for the uninitiated is haiku preceded by a sort of brief prose commentary), but as usual I am unable to be brief in prose, so this is more like a wordy, boring essay with a haiku tacked on at the end, like an afterthought.
Down in my basement I have a plastic tub full of rubber-banded sheaves of hundreds of handwritten letters, most of them 80s-era. I went to boarding school in the mid-80s and my friends and I, tossed to separate corners of the globe (Ohio, Vermont, Saudi Arabia) over the summers, wrote each other obsessively. A letter arrived in the mail for me every few days, it seemed, and I would repair to my bedroom, take it out of the envelope as if it were a holy artifact, and read it so many times I practically memorized it.
What did we write about? What we would have talked about, if we’d been together, or excessive long-distance phone calls hadn’t been prohibitively expensive in those days. Or, these days, what we would text or IM about. Boys, a lot of the time. (Or girls.) How bored we were. How much our parents drove us out of our mind. How crazy we were, and weird, and how nobody understood us except each other. We could write really long letters about all this stuff.
I rummaged through the piles lately and found I could still recognize different friends’ letters from the different styles of envelope they used and from their still-familiar handwriting. My best friend had terrible handwriting and liked to send ten-page missives in manila envelopes. She wrote crazy things all over the outside of them. She ended up dropping out of school our junior year and spending the rest of the year as a beach bum in Hawaii, but now she’s an anesthesiologist, married with two lovely children. Or so I see from her Facebook profile. We all seemed to have a lot of difficulty finding ourselves as adults. Maybe we were as crazy and weird as we thought we were.
Like everyone else I don’t write letters on paper anymore and I love the immediacy and convenience of email and other online communication, but these letters, as artifacts, as physical representations of my long-ago friendships and the personalities of my long-ago friends, filled me with an intense longing for that experience of missing someone and then receiving a talisman of them, one which would sustain me until the next one arrived, one which I could keep piled up with the other talismans and hold whenever I needed to. Are things better or worse now? Just different, I suspect. It seems impossible that teenagers today could ever feel as lonely and longing and isolated as I felt then on a daily basis. I wish I could have emailed my friends in high school and college. I wish I’d had a Facebook page, an online support group, a way of getting instant feedback when I felt like I was making important and difficult decisions all alone. But I still kind of wish for letters with scrawled, handwritten addresses to show up in my mailbox from time to time.
100 posts in 34 days does seem excessive. Things should slow down considerably once I start my summer school course in a couple of weeks, and even more when I’m in grad school full time in the fall, in case you’re concerned.
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“This is another old-time favorite of the Japanese haiku masters, but one they have used very little and with a great deal of discretion. It is simply to speak of the sensory aspect of a thing and then change to another sensory organ. Usually it involves hearing something one sees or vice versa or to switch between seeing and tasting.
the taste of well-water
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
planes dance together
at the door
your bruised face
Yeah, okay, Jane, there’s a reason the “Japanese haiku masters” used this technique “very little and with a great deal of discretion.” It’s impossible, that’s why. Trying to write these made me feel like I understood what it must be like to write poetry in a foreign language. (Hmm…I should try that sometime…) I didn’t really understand what I was doing or why. But I did it. Let it never be said about me that I shirked my homework. Now can I do something else, please?