Melissa Allen, haiku; Jay Otto, photograph
Melissa Allen, haiku; Jay Otto, photograph
“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)
seven or eight sparrows count them again
This haiku appeared on this blog last May, and on Haiku News last week (with the headline above).
For some reason, even though I wrote it in pretty much my first week of writing haiku, it is still one of my favorites of my own poems. Beginner’s luck, I guess.
Why do I like it so much? (You don’t have to ask so incredulously.) Well…first of all, there’s the whole “it’s true” thing. It’s impossible to count birds. (Impossible for me, anyway; maybe you’ve had better luck.) They keep moving. They’re transient, they’re transitory.
So many things in life are. You can’t pin them down. You look one minute and things look one way; the next minute they look entirely different. Don’t even ask about the differences between years.
But for some reason we (and by “we” I mean “I”) keep trying to get some kind of firm fix on the situation, whatever the situation is. Seven or eight sparrows? Well, does it matter? Rationally, no … but so much of life is spent trying to count those damn sparrows.
Also, I like numbers. I like numbers in general; I like arithmetic; I count things and add and subtract and multiply things all the time, just for the hell of it. Give me your phone number and I’ll tell you something interesting about the digits in, like, four seconds. “The sum of the first three digits is the product of the last two digits!” Or something. It’s a little weird. Kind of Junior Rain Man. (I do know the difference between the price of a car and the price of a candy bar, though. So your longstanding suspicion that I really should be institutionalized has not yet been entirely confirmed.)
I like numbers in poetry because they are so specific. Other things being equal, generally the more specific a poem is the more powerful it is, so numbers to me seem like high-octane gas or something for poetry.
Gabi Greve, on her mindblowingly complete haiku website, has a great page about numbers in haiku. Here are a couple of my favorites of the examples she gives:
saku hana o matsu ichi ni umi ni wa sakura
waiting for the cherry blossoms
one is the sea
two is the cherry tree
— Ishihara 石原重方
bitamiinzai ichi nichi ni joo taki kooru
each day two of them –
the waterfall freezes
— Ono Shuka (Oono Shuka) 大野朱香
Also, Issa is great at haiku that feature numbers. (Does this surprise you? I thought not.) A few examples, all translated by David Lanoue (and if you want more you should go over to David’s spectacular database of Issa translations and type your favorite number in the search box):
and three or four
houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…
three or five stars
by the time I fold it…
two drops for the rice cake tub
three drops for the winnow
suddenly three people
face to face
on three or four stools…
out of four gates
entering just one
on four or five
slender blades of grass
a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
and one of my favorites of all time —
one, two, three, four
five, six people
Interesting how many of these involve the kind of uncertainty about exact count that my own haiku does. I don’t remember whether I had read any Issa at the time I wrote it. I might have been shamelessly imitating him, or I might just have been trying to count sparrows. You try it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
names out of a hat —
I forget not to wait
looking at mushrooms and saying they are clouds
the sixth of August waiting for all this to detonate
those memories shadows burned into the pavement
Hiroshima Day is a summer kigo that is, obviously, very significant to the Japanese. As you’d expect, most haiku on this subject are quite somber and serious, and are much more likely to refer to history, politics, and social issues than your typical haiku.
I didn’t want to write something light and frivolous for Hiroshima Day, but I also didn’t want to write haiku that were specifically about the bombing — I wanted to write haiku that used images of nuclear bomb attacks to comment on more personal matters. It’s hard to know whether this approach is respectful of the suffering of the bombing victims or whether it’s cluelessly callous — after all, it was my country that dropped those bombs, albeit a generation before I was born.
I will say that I spent a large part of my later childhood and adolescent years, which coincided with the heightening of and then the end of the Cold War, very, very fearful of nuclear war, and so these images for me do have a personal significance that goes beyond the history of Hiroshima. I think there is an almost universal fear of nuclear war now in the human psyche, which has arisen from what we know of the horrors of those Japanese bombings. So it’s not really that I’m trying to appropriate someone else’s experience here for the purpose of making poetry, more that I’m trying to express what has become universal about that experience.
Man, sorry to be such a bummer on what is, here at least, a really beautiful summer day. I promise to have something more fun to read tomorrow …
A few weeks ago Angie Werren, in one of her comments, pointed me to a fascinating essay about American sentences, which she writes a lot of on her wonderful blog feathers. I don’t know if these strictly qualify, but I’ve been enjoying writing some as a break from haiku — sometimes trying to think in three carefully balanced lines is more than I can handle when my brain is especially fried. I just want some nice, normal English syntax. But, you know, poetic…or at least as close as I can get on four hours of sleep.
The birds have stopped calling warnings now that the fledglings are gone.
My sense of wonder is growing again — is this middle age?
Waiting for my son, I see that he’s dancing to a song I don’t know.
waiting till dark
to take in the laundry
waiting for the storm
waiting for someone to speak first the moon deflates
ankle deep the conversation turns to drowning
the sting of raspberry brambles ask me again
Yesterday’s post on gendai haiku is now already my most popular post of all time, which kind of blows me away because I assumed a total of about three people would ever read it and at least two of them would hate it. This makes me think I should strike while the iron is hot and write my promised post on innovators in English-language haiku. Once again, try not to be put off by the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Yes, I’m a newcomer to the haiku world, a rank amateur, probably nothing more than a poseur, but no one, at least, can accuse me of a lack of enthusiasm, which you will just have to accept in place of expertise.
A good place to start, I think, would be with a comment Scott Metz posted on troutswirl quite recently in response to the essay of Richard Gilbert’s I mentioned in another post the other day: The Morning After: Haiku Faces a New Century. Be forewarned, these are some pretty polemical remarks (as remarks by poets go). If you are not entirely sold on the whole gendai/avant-garde haiku scene, try not to be offended by them but to take them in the spirit of sincere love for haiku and the English language with which I believe Scott offers them:
“…Japanese haiku are indeed, very much so, a word-based poetry, not the enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra so many continue to espouse and cling to. … [English language haiku] are … for the most part, still, ‘slavish imitations’ of translations of what westerners *think* Japanese haiku are. Creative oversimplifications, most of which lack internal energy/dynamics. creative misreadings are cool. but i think they’ve lost their virginal glow in this case. …
“One direction i find interesting for [English language haiku] is that of symbolism and literary allusions/references being used within them, either in a mythological way, or in a more canonically literary way. knowingly or unknowingly. …
“Japanese haiku, at their root, are not simply, or only, about images at all, or moments, or ‘real/true’ experiences … but about language and culture and literature: an intricately woven rug of all these elements. …
“What also strikes me … is how strangely satisfied those writing [English language haiku] are with their nature imagery. Considering how radical Basho and his followers were about always trying to do something new and fresh with kigo, it seems a shame, and kind of mortifying, that so many writing [English language haiku] don’t try to experiment more with nature/environmental imagery. To try to turn them on their heads. To twist them. Play with them. …
“I think folks writing [English language haiku] need to play more: with images, words and techniques. and that not just western poetry/poetics should be considered and sampled, but anything and everything we can get our hands on. which is why it’s exciting to see things like ‘kire’ and ‘ma’ and vampires and sufism and gendai popping up. what can we do with these things?”
— Scott Metz, comments on troutswirl
Well…I think I should let what Scott said stand as most of the commentary here, and dedicate my efforts to displaying haiku by sundry poets that I think meet at least some of his criteria for “playing” with the haiku form, doing something “new and fresh” instead of, in Scott’s immortal words, remaining content with the “enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra.”
Whether we use the word “gendai” to refer to these poets or whether we should stick to some term more familiar to us in English like avant-garde, experimental, non-traditional, I think we can all agree that most of them are attempting something different than is espoused by the mainstream haiku movement in the English-speaking world, and closer to what gendai haiku poets in Japan are doing with the genre.
It seems logical to start with Scott himself. On his blog lakes and now wolves, Scott republishes those of his haiku that have been printed in journals. References to pop culture, politics, and current events are par for the course; so is a fresh (if sometimes somewhat obscure) use of language. A couple of examples:
the milky way . . .
we start to discuss
walrus with its mouth wide open war statistics
— Scott Metz
The next obvious place to go would be Roadrunner, the haiku journal Scott edits in accordance with his preferred haiku aesthetics. Here are some examples from issue IX: 4:
second dawn the dream ghosts re-rehearsing
— John Barlow
A candle is a sweet machine
to fly across the crow-
— Grant Hackett
A couple of other journals frequently feature non-traditional haiku, such as Modern Haiku. Here are a couple of examples from the Autumn 2009 issue (vol. 40:3):
reading a poem
of urbane intelligence
how dead it is
— William M. Ramsey
O what the hell
haiku poet finally
kills the fly
— Le Wild
Here are some examples from the journal Notes From the Gean (vol. 2 issue 1, June 2010).
for something to happen —
The Evening Standard
— Ruth Holzer – USA
the echo of fireworksthe echo ofthe echo
not speaking the boiled egg clings to its shell
— Bob Lucky – Ethiopia
Richard Gilbert, the gendai haiku scholar I referred to extensively in my essay on that topic, also is a haiku poet himself, some of whose recent, innovative haiku appear on the website Word Riot:
dedicated to the moon
without a decent alibi
a drowning man
pulled into violet worlds
(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 1, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: 2004, pp. 25-27.)
the curving radius
(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 6, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: Summer, 2008.)
— Richard Gilbert
Fay Aoyagi is another poet doing innovative work with haiku. In my gendai haiku essay I mentioned her website Blue Willow Haiku World, on which she presents many of her English translations of Japanese gendai haiku. Her own haiku are described by David Lanoue, in his Modern Haiku essay, Something with Wings: Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape, as “avant-garde” and “new-style.” Following are a couple of Fay’s haiku with enlightening commentary by David from his essay:
in the oyster shell
[Lanoue’s commentary on this haiku:]
“I believe that haiku is about discovery: the deeper the feeling of discovery, the better the haiku, in my opinion. In a great haiku we sense the poet finding out something in the process of composition, not reporting on a thing that has been previously mentally digested. When Aoyagi brings us with her to the table for her pre-surgery dinner, we suspect that she has no a priori idea that the journey will take us to a tiny ocean in an oyster shell. We arrive there with her, sharing the ‘ah!-moment’ of the vision and sensing its nonlinear, non-logical connection to the poet’s (and our) interior life. Thoughts of mortality, the fear of the surgeon’s knife, a vague feeling of dread and lament … so many emotions ebb and flow in the tiny ocean in the shell. The shell on the plate is itself a post-op carcass that on closer inspection becomes a gleaming continental shelf enclosing a tiny, salty sea. Aoyagi doesn’t say what she feels about her vision, whether it comforts or terrifies her; she invites us into the intimacy of the moment to contemplate for ourselves what it might mean.”
ants out of a hole —
when did I stop playing
the red toy piano?
[David’s general commentary on Fay’s technique:]
“Her decision to probe her inner life is not new in haiku tradition, though few do it as well or as interestingly. The contemporary Japanese poet Hasegawa Kai (whose work Aoyagi has translated) describes the shift from outer to inner focus within a haiku as a sort of kire or “cutting.” In a interview with Richard Gilbert, Hasegawa defines zengo no kire as “The cutting which cuts a haiku from this reality within which we live — from the literal place / environment / atmosphere (‘ba’) of literal existence.” Such cutting, according to Hasegawa, entails a shift of focus from outward scenes to the “realm of the mind” — exactly Fay Aoyagi’s method.”
— Fay Aoyagi/David Lanoue, Something with Wings: Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape
There are a number of haiku bloggers I’ve discovered (many of whom also publish in journals, but I know their work mainly through their blogs) who, consciously or unconsciously, play with the traditional Western haiku form with interesting results. For example, John Sandbach of Crystal Dragon says, “I am deeply enamoured of the modern haiku of Japan, which, like modern art, is of many styles and energies, and which is constantly recreating itself as it unfolds. Unfortunately, the West is still primarily focused on traditional haiku and has not yet tuned in to the wonders of modern Japanese experimental artisans of this form.” Below is one of his haiku sequences:
Lettuce’s Bliss: 5 Haiku
in a hippo’s jaws —
the lettuce’s bliss
for tearing up a violet
so I ate it
On T.V. a spider
liquifies a frog —
spring in Kansas City
a stone mason —
servant of the endless wall
smooth and white —
the pyramid’s youth
— John Sandbach
Nicole Hyde of the blog “noodle,” who commented on my gendai haiku post, “I’ve bought a ticket on the Gendai Haiku train too,” has some interesting examples of nontraditional haiku on her site. Since she is also a painter, her haiku often refer to art.
unbound, the English
Bay in fog —
not seen: some weird duck
soundlessin the night museum
from end to end —
— Nicole Hyde
Alan Segal, or “Old Pajamas,” from the blog “old pajamas: from the dirt hut,” innovates in many ways, often describing what are clearly imaginary or fantasy scenes.
mourner’s kaddishdoes the fly, too,
wear a yamulke?
unwrapping an impossibly blue bird, flown from a castle keep
— Alan Segal
Brian Pike of paiku describes his poetry as “Haiku. More or less.” In the Q&A for his site he explains:
But aren’t haiku meant to be exactly 17 syllables long?
You’re right. They’re also meant to include a seasonal reference (kigo) and a structural break (kireji). But I’ve never been good at following rules.
If your poems don’t meet the criteria for haiku, why confuse the issue?
I like haiku. I think these are similar in mood and intention. And I quite enjoy confusion.
A few of Brian’s “paiku” follow:
For idea of cat
To go away
There’s a big field
Where you can dig up
Everything you ever lost
— Brian Pike
Yi Ching-Lin of the blog y writes primarily short free verse but occasionally writes haiku, and they are generally nontraditional, as in this recent example (the link on the second line connects to Yi’s photography):
it happens daily (6 June 2010)
it happens dailywith a wounded twist— Yi Ching-Lin
Anne Lessing, the teenage writer of the blog “Phantasma,” who is just beginning to write haiku (and intends to start a project of writing haiku daily in January 2011), has produced some very interesting haiku about zombies based on the video game “Call of Duty,” one of which I’ve reproduced below:
that flower looked so pretty
so I choked it
with my child’s blood
— Anne Lessing
Finally, Elissa of The Haiku Diary writes daily haiku describing events in her life, some of which are simply quotidian or jokelike, but many of which seem to transcend the category of mere diary-entry and evoke deeper feelings and meanings.
The second of the two haiku of Elissa’s I’ve quoted below is especially interesting in light of Scott Metz’s and Richard Gilbert’s discussions of the way haiku has always been in a dialogue with the past, constantly referring back to previous poetry and other literature and history. In a way this haiku of Elissa’s, referring as it does to a famous haiku of Basho’s (“The bee emerging/from deep within the peony/departs reluctantly”), is both modern and completely classical — so it seems like an appropriate place to bring this post to an end. Hope it was a fun ride.
Front and Center, June 8, 2010
Closing my eyes and
swaying with the music makes
me that girl, but so what?
watched a bumble bee stumble
out of a peony!
— Elissa of The Haiku Diary
Through the screenless window comes
I watch it disport itself.
The house fills with wings.
The hearts of birds beat
more rapidly than our own.
I inquire of Google
what to do.
The response is dissatisfying.
The Russian story of
A keen, glittering eye.
of roast chicken.
I choose the most savory.
Dancing, I lift up my skirts
for the bird to pass
The oven is still hot.
I stand beside it,
flapping my arms.
I don’t dream anymore
I can fly.
I have scraped my mind of such stuff.
I trap the bird in the closet.
When you get home,
it will amaze you.
I am reciting famous poetry
I am petting the cats.
The cats are hot, they breathe
rapidly. Wait, I say,
you will be rewarded.
I was feeling a little claustrophobic yesterday. Haiku seemed too small. Even the most wonderful of them — just a blink! I had a novel-lover’s need for extended narrative.
But I do love the haiku form and the challenge of containing an entire experience, a full impression, in just a few syllables. Several things I’ve been thinking about lately began to come together in my mind, things I’m hoping to write more about in the next few days — gendai haiku, renga. Unconventional ways of writing haiku, and ways of linking them together to create a larger picture than a single haiku allows.
I wondered what would happen if you piled a bunch of nontraditional haiku on top of each other to form a narrative. I wanted each haiku to be able to make sense separately on its own, and also to form a part of a coherent story. This photograph I’ve been thinking about for a few days entered the mix; a bird began to fly around in my head.
Writing this was a lot of fun. I’ve begun a couple other similar narratives, and I want to try more. This kind of structure seems to work the way my mind works — I’m really only capable of brief bursts of attention, but I also hunger for depth of character, for details of setting, for continuity of action.
(A bird really did get into our house through a screenless window a few years ago; but the rest of this is fantasy. In case you were worried about its fate at the paws of the cats.)
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.
freeze after thaw
cell phone ring
makes me slip on the ice
colder than yesterday
my sister’s voice
on the phone
on my back on the ice
clouds torn open
reveal more clouds
cell phone ring
a stranger’s car
roads darker than I’m used to
curve toward home
snow on dark steps
the family waits
in my stomach
throwing out his painkillers
the day after his death
the death of the neighbor’s dog
cold draft in his room
we used to play with
knocking with cold hands
at the wrong door
of the funeral home
list of funeral expenses
the polished table
white sheet pulled away
from his surprised face
snow on a low wall
two burial places
chairs with hard seats
stack of Sunday papers
can’t stop reading
running up the hills
I left behind
trying on dresses
I blow my nose
on his handkerchiefs
Googling the words of
his favorite hymn
steam from my mother’s tea
day of the funeral
rust from the leaky
unheated waiting room
one by one
we put coats back on
my father’s funeral
standing for a hymn
memory of my head
reaching his elbow
his sympathy card
will regret my unbelief
frost on the windowpane
sweet red punch
snow in the cemetery
fresh snow on his car
a car to drive
a thousand miles home
My father died in February. I’d made no effort whatsoever to write about his death before. Or speak about it, really. Or think about it, come to think about it.
Something about haiku makes it easier, by forcing you to remember and concentrate on the tiny physical details of the experience. Writing these has been like compiling a mental photo album of the week of his death. It’s allowed both distance and immediacy. I approach the experience, come close enough to touch it, then draw back quickly, as soon as I start to feel it burn.
waiting at the crosswalk
for tulips to bloom