Category: writing

The Lives of Poets, No. 1: Peter Newton

A while back I conceived this idea to harass all my favorite poets by sending them an interminable list of questions and whining until they answered them all so I could post the answers here. I immediately sat down and drew up the list of questions and saved it as a Word doc entitled “Questions to Annoy Poets With.” But then I wasn’t brave enough to actually do anything about it for a while. Because, you know, I might annoy someone.

Then over the summer I met Peter Newton, whose poetry I’ve admired for a long time, at the Haiku Circle in Northfield, Massachusetts. He was friendly and kind and since we’ve exchanged cordial email messages off and on for a while, it occurred to me that he probably wouldn’t actually bite if I sent him this long list of troublesome questions and audaciously invited him to lay bare his poet’s heart. Plus, with school starting again today, I needed to come up with some way of formulating interesting blog posts without actually writing them myself. The idea of making other people write them was getting more attractive all the time.

And to my delight, Peter not only responded to my request but did so at great and thoughtful and illuminating length. I’m so pleased to present his words to you and hope I’ll have the opportunity to do the same with many more poets in the future. But for now I’ll just get out of the way and let Peter speak.

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Peter Newton

Peter Newton: The Interview

The Basics

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Name/pen name:

Peter Newton

Day job/occupation:

Stained glass artist.

Website/blog/Twitter feed (if any):

Generally, I’m a low-tech person. I work with my hands all day. I’ve never owned a cell phone and I use my laptop as a typewriter that remembers everything. However, the idea of the Twitter stream interested me a few years ago. I think I’m up to a whopping 300 or so tweets, mostly poems of mine and poetry related information. Twitter.com: @ThePeterNewton

Family, pets, non-poetry hobbies, etc.:

Partner of 27 years is Mark Pietrzak. No kids. A dog named Possum. Since I’m self-employed and work at home, my hobbies include working on my old house (1883) and dabbling in yardwork (cutting the lawn).  I’m pretty active in my small town of Winchendon, Massachusetts (aka “Toy Town”). I belong to the Historical Society, community volunteer groups, etc. One of the great things about living in a small, remote place is that one person can make a difference.

Love to plant things, just as long as they can take care of themselves after awhile. I spend two months a year up in Vermont where I work at The Bread Loaf School of English and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Something I’ve done for two dozen summers. Not much of my free time is non-poetry related, I must admit. Though I went to college and got my M.A. to become an English teacher I now spend most of my days in a small glass workshop making fun, funky, 3-D creations for the mass gift market. And I feel like I’m right where I need to be. What’s that zen saying: “No snowflake falls in the wrong place.”

How long you’ve been writing haiku and what gave you the idea to do such a crazy thing in the first place:

I started writing haiku in the early 90s while I was living in Atlanta. I was struck by a reading William Matthews gave up at Bread Loaf around that time. He opened his reading with a dozen or so one-line poems (with titles, which I always thought was kind of cheating) and they were great. I was impressed with how much could be conveyed in a handful of words. They were funny and serious but all were almost philosophical. And surprising.

Matthews got me thinking about words in a new way. If they were the right words in the right order, they were like seeds in the reader’s mind that could grow and grow. I think that was my first interest in really exploring short form poems of my own. Then of course came the long and tedious tutelage of Robert Spiess at Modern Haiku. I say tedious because as many out there know his criticisms were even shorter than the poems he wrote. And I say tutelage because he was very patient and kind toward me and my early efforts at haiku and senryu. I spent years re-teaching myself how to write. Re-thinking how I look at the world. Learning to pay attention. Still at it.

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The Nitty-Gritty

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Do you have a personal philosophy of haiku or a particular vision of haiku poetics? What do you think haiku are, or should look like, or should be, in English? What do you think their purpose is?

A haiku is a poem and far more than a poem. It’s the road and the destination at the same time. I know that sounds a bit vague and Zen-ny but the point is that haiku have allowed me to see the world with “fresh eyes,” as Basho said. A world that I had spent many years observing closely as a poet but in some ways never really lived in. Some sort of barrier was removed between me and the rest of the world when I started reading, writing and studying haiku seriously. Through my awareness of ordinary things and occurrences I feel like I am able to appreciate my place in the world. The haiku poet learns to look at life very democratically. A blade of grass can equal many things. Birdsong becomes the soundtrack for your life. Along with the wind, the swell of tides, a person’s voice. You get the idea. Haiku means going green. Not just back to nature, but back to your roots as a human being. Fresh eyes. Picasso had a saying: “It takes a long time to become young.” Makes sense to me.

Haiku has been a kind of reincarnation in my poetic life. I had given up on the whole mainstream poetry publishing game. Haiku allowed me to see poetry as something new and exciting. To see poetry for what it is and always has been, for me anyway, a small song about the world I live in. A glimpse. An elevation of the pedestrian detail—the dog asleep in her strip of sunlight, the cardinal’s red, the sunflower’s bow. Haiku are the way I make my real life imaginary. And my imaginary life real.

If I have any haiku philosophy it is: say it from the start. Don’t hold back. No one else can say whatever it is you have to say. Even if they wanted to. If you don’t say it, no one else will. As Emerson said “writing means hurling yourself at the mark when all your arrows are spent.” My approach to haiku is my approach to life, which is also short.

Rediscovering haiku has been like finding a homeland I didn’t know I had. Each day is another adventure on Haiku Island, to borrow Jim Kacian’s analogy. Here on the island, I am free to wander like a curious kid who’s old enough to know there’s always more to learn. Haiku are the lessons you teach yourself. Bookmarks in the good parts of your life you might want to come back to, or share with someone else. A chronicle of perfect moments, I’ve said before. And that remains true.

What should haiku look like? Not for me to say. Whatever can be imagined. They probably should fit on a bumper sticker though. A t-shirt, maybe. I do believe in the underlying principles of Japanese haiku construction: our relationship with nature, collaboration with the reader, a wabi-sabi appreciation. A less is more approach. Less intellect and more sense. And that haiku be the poetry of the people. Inclusive, not exclusive.

I like to tell the story I either heard or made up at this point but the one about the famous old poet being interviewed by a reporter. The reporter asks: “So, what made you start writing poetry in the first place?” And the famous old poet answers: “The question is not what made me start writing poetry. It’s what made everyone else stop?”

The Haiku Society of America has an Education Committee but really it includes each of us reading and writing haiku today. We need to help spread the word about the risks of confusing haiku with the limerick, for example and the rewards of noticing something in your own back yard, for the first time, and setting it to words.

As far as the purpose of haiku? Discipline, restraint, gratitude. These are not bad life lessons just in case we didn’t get enough growing up. Basho set out on his 1,500-mile field trip for a lot of reasons, many of which we’ll never know. But one thing is clear to me. Basho sought a greater awareness and enjoyment of the fact that we, as people, are more alike than we are different. Certainly, all poetry tells us this.

So I say haiku is a way of life and people sometimes ask: what do you mean by that? Like some kind of poetry cult? Not exactly. It’s just that no matter how many times I hear the red-winged blackbird skip its stone song across the pond. I stop. Keep quiet. It’s the only proper way I know how to answer. That’s the haiku way of life.

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What does your haiku writing practice look like? Do you write daily or regularly? Do you have special times or places you like to write? Do you write longhand or on a computer? Do you revise extensively? Is there anything in particular you do to put yourself in “haiku mode?”

Again, working backward toward the truth. I have to start from now, just like in haiku. It’s more a matter of what I don’t do in order to get into the haiku mode. I try to back away from the fray. I’m a bit of an ostrich in that I stick my head in the sand when it comes to the goings-on of the world at large. That reminds me, I really do need to cancel my satellite dish service. The world will go on with or without me. Better for me to focus on the tasks at hand. This poem. This breath. Okay, that yard full of leaves. That woodpile to be stacked. “Haiku mode” is synonymous for living well. Life is full enough without being plugged-in 24/7. Am I sounding like a Luddite yet?

Writing haiku is a daily practice for me, in the early mornings, usually, sitting in the same spot with a cup of coffee and the same view that only changes with the seasons. I have stared out that east window toward the cupola of our old barn for so many years I feel part swallow, part squirrel – the one we never seem to be able to get rid of. I give up. And discover that the state of surrender is a pretty cool place to live. I continue to strive toward that home anyway. The next haiku I write starts out as an invitation to sit awhile. Be quiet. I am a witness to generations of yard fowl. I watch the hemlocks grow into themselves.

I write on my laptop from notes I scribble on pieces of paper that I carry around in my pockets. I’m not obsessed but more automatic when it comes to carrying a pen and paper. I learned early on that the role of the writer is to write what you know. So, it’s a good idea to take notes along the way. Life’s distracting. I’m sure there are many wonderful poems out there that got forgotten by me and many others. We should arm ourselves with writing utensils. At the ready.

Haiku revision? Absolutely. Only after days or weeks or longer of repeating words, committing some to memory do the real words emerge. Imposters fall away. They can’t hold on long enough. True haiku stay with you. Kerouac said “Haiku should be plain as porridge.” Maybe he also meant that the good ones fill you up, stick to your ribs.

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What does your haiku reading practice look like? Are there poets you particularly appreciate? Journals you find especially inspiring? Do you read haiku daily? Do you read mostly English-language haiku or do you read a great deal of Japanese haiku (in translation or not) or haiku in other languages? Are there books you would recommend, either of haiku or about haiku?

Read people you love. And, of course, I mean that figuratively. Read people whose poems you love. I keep certain books close by at all times. And a pile by the bed, a few on the shelf, some in the car. It’s silly almost. Books are scattered throughout my life. No one would ever guess that I actually know where and how they are “filed.” How I look at Peggy Willis Lyles’ haiku as a kind of touchstone. At Stan Forrester’s as the perfect gift. John Stevenson as a friend I never met. And many others. I have relationships with books and look at libraries with a reverence some reserve for church.

So, I read haiku everyday. A few, dozens or maybe a hundred. By all different poets. All in English. None in translation unless they are published in the handful of journals I check in on regularly: Acorn, Chrysanthemum, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, The Heron’s Nest, Notes from the Gean, Roadrunner. And a few blogs and websites I admire aside from this one include: Curtis Dunlap’s Blogging Along Tobacco Road, Kuniharu Shimizu’s haiga site See Haiku Here, Don Wentworth’s Issa’s Untidy Hut, The Haiku Foundation’s various forums, Cornell’s Mann Library’s Daily Haiku, Tinywords, and occasionally Twitter, which streams a surprising number of true talents if you don’t mind wading through a little drivel, some of it, no doubt, my own.

One thing’s for sure. I could spend my life reading the work of all the haiku poets out there. And I think that number is growing. Hope it is.

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Is there anything else you’d like to say about writing haiku? Or about how annoying these questions are?

Just a reminder to myself to always be open to new voices—my own and those of others just arriving on Haiku Island.

Rumi said: “You become what you love.” And I believe him. I like to think that I’m part haiku by now . . . open, unfinished, imperfect.

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Which of your haiku would you like to share with my readers?

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over my thoughts the hush of pines

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in the cat’s mouth
a handful of feathers
& how many songs

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mid-argument
wind chimes
we gave each other

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whatever I was thinking the cardinal’s red

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— Peter Newton

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March 19: Return of the Moon

over the gable
of my ugly house
— the moon

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full-length mirror
not full enough
for the moon

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brighter than ever
the moon tries
to write haiku

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a handful of stones, 3/9/2011

shiki kukai,  february 2011

moon viewing party, Haiku Bandit Society, 3/19/2011

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March 11: Family Haiku

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I didn’t have anything today. I wanted to post but I just was … empty. I was sick of my voice. Didn’t feel like talking anymore.

Then I looked around at my family and suddenly thought, These are the voices I want to hear instead. So we went out for pizza and I took a notebook and I solicited phrases from them. Phrases about what had happened to them this week and about the first signs of spring. We talked about stuff and I kept writing things down. Lots of scribbling and dead ends.

We got home and I looked at the scribbles and I put some things together and read everyone a haiku I had assembled from the pieces they gave me. I made sure they approved of them. And here they are.

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_______________________________

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My mom (visiting from New England, where are stone walls all over the place, including her back yard):


snow melting
my stone wall
reappears

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My husband (spent last weekend cleaning frantically to prepare for my mom’s visit; has terrible teeth):


spring cleaning
the last tooth
capped

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My son (claims he told me a long time ago that he needs new boots):


slush
new holes
in my old boots

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So what’s your family up to these days? Anything worth writing home about?

Regent Writing Circle: Welcome

writing haiku
I forget to look around
during the journey

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Just a quick note to say hi to the members of my son’s writing group, who will be learning about haiku this week and have been assigned to read this blog for homework. Homework! I’m homework now? I don’t know how I feel about that. I feel a little stodgy, I think. I might need to run off and get a tattoo or dye my hair blue or something.

I do have an invitation for you RWC folks. If there’s enough interest, I’d like to put together a post featuring your haiku — ones that you write either this week or during class next week or shortly thereafter. I would work with you to revise them and post them under whatever name you want, your real name or a “haiku name” (famous Japanese haiku poets all have special haiku names) or “some teenager” or “anonymous” or whatever. Think about it and let Ben know next week if you’re interested.

Enjoy your visit, and feel free to leave a comment or email me if you have any questions.

 

February 11 (Its Depth)

first snow
I no longer have a child
to measure its depth

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World Haiku Review, January 2011

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I enjoyed a lot of things about World Haiku Review this time around but I can’t say I enjoyed the essay “Haiku as a World Phenomenon” by editor Susumu Takiguchi. My appreciation for it went way, way deeper than enjoyment. If I were feeling more flippant about it I’d say it rocked my world but really, that’s entirely the wrong tone for this essay. I learned so much from it and can’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those essays — there have been so many since last May [hey, remind me to create a list of links to them in my sidebar] — that both gives voice to some things I had been incoherently thinking about and also gives me entirely new and exciting ideas and information to work with. I feel like a different poet after reading it. Probably I’m not really a different poet but I’m trying to be. That counts, right?

I know you’re busy and you don’t really feel like reading the whole thing. So let me tell you about it. First of all, it’s not a new essay, it was written in 2000. That doesn’t matter, it could have been written last week. And Susumu starts out by referencing what is now a twenty-five-year-old question but also seems last-weekish: “… After about twenty-five years of English language haiku do we know what haiku is?” (Cor van den Heuvel, from the preface to the Second Edition, The Haiku Anthology, Haiku and Senryu in English, Simon & Schuster, 1986)

Lamenting the endless quarrels over the definition of haiku, Susumu refers to the “dialectic poetics” of Basho as a way of beginning to settle the matter. He outlines some of the fundamental principles of Basho’s haiku aesthetic, none of which, in my profound ignorance, I had ever heard of, but all of which make so much sense. Here’s the outline:

  1. Fueki ryuko“: “Fueki … can represent unchanging tradition while ryuko can represent changing fashion. Since the two are contradictory there should be a kind of creative tension generated between them … [which] should keep haiku fresh, creative and interesting. If people cling to tradition and neglect newness (or atarashimi) inherent in fashion, then haiku could become stale, imitative and boring. If, on the other hand, people indulge in newness without tradition, haiku could become gimmicky, incomprehensible and nonsensical.”
  2. Kogo kizoku”: ” ‘[O]btaining high enlightenment but coming back to the populace.’ There has been a tendency to polarise these two essential factors … Some people have become ‘elitists,’ armed with their own creed and are negligent of kizoku, or addressing plebeian needs. Others have gone the opposite way and vulgarised haiku by neglecting kogo. Again, we need both of these factors interacting and forming creative tension.”
  3. “The third answer may be found in the teaching of Basho, ‘Don’t follow ancient masters, seek what they tried to seek.’ We see people blindly following not only ancient masters but also modern masters without knowing what they tried to seek.”

(This last point is fascinating to me. I try to read and write haiku now asking myself these questions: “What was this poet trying to seek? Is it something I’m seeking too, or want to seek? What am I trying to seek?”)

Susumu isn’t outlining these principles as a way of creating a new, narrow definition of haiku that will further factionalize haiku poets; he sees them as very broad principles which can usefully describe a wide range of styles of haiku. He makes a very interesting analogy with schools of art:

“Avant-garde haiku poets cannot possibly be speaking the same language as fundamentalists of the traditional haiku school. In paintings, we accept the co-existence of the Old Masters, religious paintings, landscapes, still lifes, seascapes, figurative, abstract, surrealism, conceptual art, pop art, minimalist, Japanese paintings, African art, or whatever. There is no point in denying somebody else’s haiku as being not haiku, when we have such varieties of haiku poems in [so many] different languages.”

But in the end Susumu leaves behind all of these principles and details and tells it like it is: “Ultimately, we are after truths. … [T]he essence of poetry must be truths, and universal truths at that.”

Back to Basho:

“When Basho talks about fuga no makoto, this is normally interpreted as poetic sincerity. However, makoto also means truths, or true words, or true things. … In terms of poets, makoto is that which springs from their magokoro (true heart, or soul). Haiku is certainly capable of (local, particular) truths. Sometimes it is capable of universal truths and that is when great haiku poems are born.

“Poetic truths, then, must be a criterion against which inferior and dubious haiku poems can be weeded out. Haiku is part of the haiku poet’s way of life. Haiku is partly what he or she is. If he or she is not truthful his or her haiku cannot be good poetry. In today’s climate where haiku values are confused, it is important for us to go back to such stringent criterion as poetic truths.” [italics mine]

Telling the truth. I’m working on it really hard now. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s not, of course, about the facts. Sometimes the facts interfere with it, actually. (There’s nothing factual about the haiku that starts this post, but I’m hoping it’s at least a little bit true.)

So you kind of have to stumble around, trying to figure out what the truth is, exactly. But I think it’s worth it, in the end.

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February 2 (Tidal Pool)

A paint chip with a haiku about a tidepool written on it.

There has been some confusion on the part of some people about what the heck this is, exactly. It’s a paint chip.

I have a huge stack of these left over from when we were contemplating painting things in our house, but then we realized that would take time and energy, which we would rather preserve for things that contribute either to our survival or our entertainment, so we said nahhh, let’s just leave the walls in their current state of dilapidation.

But paint chips! I love them in so many ways. They’re like little tickets, or tokens, granting you entrance to a color. You can stack them, you can sort them, you can flip through them and watch a rainbow in flight. I’m always trying to think of brilliant artistic things to do with them, which is why I have a box filled with them, and pick up more every time I go to a hardware store, even though we don’t have any immediate plans to paint anything.

Then the last time I pulled them out — which was when I was preparing my present for Alegria and hauled out all my boxes of random paper scraps and ephemera that I always think I will do something brilliant and artistic with and hardly ever do — I realized: these things don’t just have colors on them, they have words on them. And not just any words, but highly evocative words, because the makers of paint chips know that you are more likely to buy paint called “Tidal Pool” than paint called, um, “Light Grayish Blue.”

Well, I have this little hobby that involves doing things with words. So I sort of went crazy using the names of colors on paint chips as haiku writing prompts. I’ve got a big stack of these now and I’m thinking of dropping by the hardware store soon for some more free inspiration. God knows I need it these days.

(And by the way? I have declared a moratorium on my writing haiku about snow for the rest of the winter. I feel like that’s all I ever write lately. So if you see any more of those around here [except those that have been previously published], remind me that I can find something else to write about, perhaps by staring at paint chips.)

December 15: The Past is a Different Country

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.

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January first
Christmas trees like bad habits
discarded at curbs

January cold:
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

 

 

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(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 …)

Across the Haikuverse, No. 3: Underappreciated Edition

(For no. 1 in this series, look here. For no. 2, look here.)

The haikuverse? You want to know what that is? Why, children, it’s a wonderful place, where mostly underappreciated writers toil night and day to produce a body of short poetry that at its best makes you jump out of your shoes, clutch your hair in awe, and possibly weep. Also, where other underappreciated writers explain how these poems work, and talk about the people who’ve written them, and so on and so forth. Where can you find out about some of the most interesting things that happened there this week? Why, right here, of course.


1.

Last week Rick Daddario of 19 Planets was inspired by my link to Marlene Mountain’s “ink writings” to post a similar haiga of his own, rather than save it for Christmastime as he’d been planning. Since Rick lives in Hawaii, his images of the holiday are a little different than ours here in Wisconsin. I found this pleasantly jarring, and also just thought that both the ku and the drawing were a very successful combination. Here’s the haiku, but you really should visit 19 Planets to see the complete haiga.

silent night
the grass grows taller
with each note*

Rick also celebrated his blog’s 100th post this week — I’ll let you visit to find out how. Congratulations, Rick!

*This version is slightly different from the one I originally posted here, since Rick called my attention to the fact that he had modified his ku since I had last checked on it. I like this version even better.

2.

Congratulation also to another blog which celebrated its 100th post this week — Alegria Imperial’s “jornales.” In it she recounts the story of her first “ginko walk,” which her haiku group took to obtain inspiration for haiku. In Alegria’s case I’d say the walk was extremely successful — I love the haiku that resulted from it!

hydrangeas–
the same whispers
the same sighs

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I really liked several of the haiku that Steve Mitchell of heednotsteve posted this week. First there was his sequence “always wind,” inspired by his visit to the apparently constantly windswept Norman, Oklahoma. My favorite from that sequence:

always wind –
rush to the south, no,
now rush north

Then there was his humorous but thought-provoking “ku 00000010,” a followup to another robot-inspired haiku he posted earlier this month. This haiku is clever, but for me it works as a genuine haiku, not just a gimmick:

> 1: standby mode
>particles/waves illume
>blossoms as they close

4.

The wonderful online journal “tinywords,” curated by d.f. tweney, features a new haiku or piece of micropoetry every weekday (there are submission guidelines here, if anyone is interested). My favorite this week, by Janice Campbell:

amid fallen leaves

a business card

still doing its job

 

5.

Aubrie Cox’s personal website is well worth a look for her varied portfolio of haiku and other short-form poetry and critical writings. Since I’ve been thinking so much lately about how this blog is in some ways a collaboration between me and my community of readers, I especially enjoyed reading her essay “Writing with the Reader as a Co-Creator.” An excerpt:

“The inviting audience is ‘like talking to the perfect listener: we feel smart and come up with the ideas we didn’t know we had’ (Elbow 51). More importantly, however, is that the inviting reader can have an active role within the exchange between writer and reader. By doing so, the writer is not relinquishing all power back to the reader, or giving in to the tyranny, but merely developing a partnership. The reader can be the writer’s partner in the writing process if there is a mutual trust and cooperation, if the writer lets the reader become a part of the meaning-making process.”

Aubrie goes on to discuss how she sent one of her haiku to several acquaintances and asked for their reactions; their interpretations of its meaning were for the most part nothing like her own, but she points out that they were no less valid for all that — something I constantly have cause to remember when I’m reading my readers’ comments here.

6.
At Issa’s Untidy Hut this week, the Sunday Service is on hiatus for a week, but Don Wentworth has given us instead an insightful review of Silent Flowers, a short volume of haiku translated by the person who perhaps did more than anyone else to popularize haiku for English speakers: R.H. Blyth. Silent Flowers, published in 1967, was apparently excerpted from Blyth’s legendary 4-volume compilation of translations and critical study of Japanese haiku.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Don’s review — an Issa haiku and Don’s commentary on it:

Just simply alive,
Both of us, I
and the poppy.

Issa

“There it is, folks – doesn’t get plainer or simpler or truer or more beautiful than that.   After you read a poem like this, time to shut the book and get back to life.”

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Somehow I just managed to discover this week the Mann Library’s Daily Haiku site. Each day they republish a previously published haiku by an established haiku poet — each month is dedicated to the works of a different poet. The archives are a treasure for anyone exploring the world of contemporary English-language haiku — name a well-known haiku poet and they’re likely to have some of his or her works represented.

Here’s one of my favorites from this month’s poet, Gary Hotham:

time to go —
the stones we threw
at the bottom of the ocean

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Following up on my interest in foreign-language haiku: On the Haiku Foundation’s website, Troutswirl, last week, the regular feature “Periplum” (which is dedicated to haiku from around the world) was devoted to the work of a Bolivian poet, Tito Andres Ramos. Although Ramos’s first language is Spanish, he writes his haiku first in English and then translates them into Spanish. One I especially like:

sunny winter day
my packed suitcase
under the bed

dia soleado de invierno
mi maleta empacada
bojo mi cama

9.

Gene Myers of “The Rattle Bag” blog (and also the administrator of the “Haiku Now” page on Facebook) recently wrote about the chapbook of his haiku and other poetry that he put together on Scribd. (You can download the PDF here.) This looks like it could be a nice way to distribute collections of poetry without killing trees or inflicting boring design on people. I’m thinking about it myself, though I am also still attracted to the idea of the limited-edition dead-tree chapbook on handmade rice paper with custom calligraphy. But this is probably faster. 🙂

One of my favorite from Gene’s collection:

Moth between window and screen

I’m tired

 

And so am I. It’s exhausting, traversing the Haikuverse. Going to bed now. See you on the flip side …

November 15: Basho and me

I was inspired by some recent blog posts by Margaret Dornaus of Haiku-Doodle and Bill Kenney of haiku-usa to try writing riffs on classical haiku. I started with a list of favorite haiku by Basho I had jotted down while reading Makoto Ueda’s Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet. Then I tried to distill each of these down to some universal theme or structure or atmosphere — to figure out what it was about them that made them seem so great to me. And then for each of them I tried to write a haiku that echoed in some way the spirit of what Basho wrote, while coming up with some new insight or image that was entirely my own.

This exercise was seriously fun and exciting, and I am definitely going to repeat it. Some of the haiku I wrote are clearly just versions of Basho’s haiku; some of them seem to me like they are different enough from what Basho wrote that they could stand alone. I wouldn’t try to publish any of these, at least without acknowledging Basho’s influence, but I do think I learned a lot about how many ways there are to write a successful haiku (even if it’s only Basho’s haiku that are actually successful 🙂 ).

Basho’s haiku below are in regular type; mine are indented and in italics. The Basho haiku are all Ueda’s translations, except for the last one, which (as indicated) is by Jane Reichhold.

1.

At night, quietly,
A worm in the moonlight
Digs into the chestnut.

every morning
new holes in the leaves
someone’s night shift


2.

The sound of an oar beating the waves
Chills my bowels through
And I weep in the night.

 

winter morning
hearing the car start
my tears start


3.

The sea darkens
And a wild duck’s call
Is faintly white.

 

dark clouds gather —
the calls of songbirds
light in the distance


4.

Loneliness —
Sinking into the rocks,
A cicada’s cry.

 

frustration —
the stream rushes by
pounding the rocks


5.

A pile of leeks lie
Newly washed white:
How cold it is!

 

white onions
on the cutting board —
winter chill


6.

The daffodils
And the white paper screen
Reflecting one another’s color.

 

the forget-me-nots
and the sky —
an echo


7.

Whenever I speak out
My lips are chilled —
Autumn wind.

 

don’t tell me
what to say —
rising heat


8.

Autumn deepens —
The man next door, what
Does he do for a living?

 

winter approaches —
I try to learn the names
of the neighbors


9.

The squid-seller’s voice
Is indistinguishable
From the cuckoo’s!

 

the infomercial host
and the crow —
same voice


10.

Chrysanthemums’ scent —
In the garden, the worn-out
Shoe sole.

 

the scent of apples
left in the orchard
your torn sweater


11.

A bush warbler —
It lets its droppings fall on the rice cake
At the end of the veranda.

 

nuthatches—
shitting all over the sandwich
I left on the patio


12.

A white chrysanthemum —
However intently I gaze,
Not a speck of dust.

 

no matter how long
I stare at hydrangeas —
pure blue

13.

after the flowers
all there is left for my haiku
wisteria beans

(tr. Jane Reichhold)

 

after the leaves fall
nothing to write haiku about
until it snows

Across the Haikuverse, No. 2: Only Connect Edition

In which I present for your inspection all the things I found this week while exploring the haikuverse that I thought might interest, entertain, infuriate, intrigue, or otherwise engross you. Or might not. (No. 1 in this series is here, in case you’re interested.)

This week’s theme (because I’ve been rereading Howards End): Only Connect. (Every item connects somehow to the previous item, if only by the skin of its teeth.)

1.

Are you feeling competitive this week? This coming Saturday is the deadline for November’s Shiki Kukai. If you don’t know about Kukai, they are haiku contests in which all the entrants vote on and choose the winners. The Shiki Kukai is a long-running contest with two categories: one that requires a particular kigo (this month: geese), and one that is free format but on a particular theme (this month: weaving). If either of those themes inspire you, check out the rules and give it a try.


2.

And for those who just can’t get enough competition … If you checked out the Haiku Foundation’s Facebook page as I advised you to do last week, you’ll know that they are now running a Facebook haiku contest. Through the end of November, anyone can enter one haiku in the contest by posting it on the page in the comment section following the contest announcement. The top three (as judged by Jim Kacian, Haiku Foundation founder) will get prizes. And glory, of course.

There are lots of entries already. Go check them out even if you’re not sure you want to enter the contest. I’ve found that this is a great forum just to get your haiku looked at by other poets and get a little feedback, so you might want to think of that as your goal rather than winning the contest. I certainly am. 🙂

3.

And more from the wonderful world of Facebook … Last week I shared with you a haiku in French by Vincent Hoarau, which he originally posted on Facebook. This week I will take mercy on the non-French-readers among you. A few days ago Vincent posted the following haiku, which he translated into English:

jour de pluie …
je pense à la mort
elle au berceau

rainy day …
i think about death
she about a cradle

4.

And while I’m on the subject of haiku in French … I recently discovered on Twitter a Belgian haiku poet, Bill Bilquin. He posts new haiku several times a week; here’s my favorite from this week (French original, English translation by Bilquin):

presque trois ans
ses mots de plus en plus précis
premières mandarines

nearly three years old
her words more and more precise
first mandarins

5.

And while I’m on the subject of haiku in foreign languages … There’s a haiku translation site called “Versions” that I discovered a few weeks ago and have been very excited about. (Warning: Serious geek territory ahead.) You can enter your own haiku in your language, which will then be available for others to translate into their language(s). You can also translate the haiku of others. It’s searchable by author, so you can go look at the haiku of a poet you like and see all the different translations that have been made on the site of their haiku. It’s a lot of fun (if, as I say, you’re a complete language geek) to compare the different “versions.”

A caveat: although in theory the site is available to writers and translators of any language, for right now most of the haiku seem to be in, and to be translated into, either English or Russian. (It’s a Russian site.) This is great for those of us who know both those languages, but if you are more into, say, German, you won’t find nearly as much on the site to interest you. However, you will be doing us all a great service if you add more haiku and translations in other languages, so give it a try.

Here’s an example of a haiku by Lee Gurga and a couple of (very) different Russian translations of it. Bear with me — even if you don’t know Russian I’ll give you some idea what they’re all about:

Lee’s original haiku:

his side of it
her side of it.
winter silence

 

(translation 1, by Versions user Боруко)

его сторона…
её сторона…
зимняя тишина

(translation 2, by Versions user A.G.)

твоё моё наше
холод молчание

The first translation is quite literal; if I saw it only in the original Russian I would probably render it back into English almost exactly as Lee originally wrote it. The second is very different — it’s more of a free interpretation, I would say, of Lee’s haiku than a translation. I might translate it back into English something like this:

yours mine ours
cold, silence

Which Lee might recognize as his haiku, and might not. Anyway, if you’re interested in translation, and especially if you know Russian (I realize that I am addressing a minuscule, possibly nonexistent, subset of my readership here, but hey, it’s my blog and I’ll geek out if I want to), you will certainly want to check this site out.

6.

And on the subject of versions of things … Bill Kenney has started a new feature on his blog haiku-usa that he calls “afters.” That is, they are haiku “after” haiku of classical haiku poets — not translations per se (Bill doesn’t know Japanese), but loose interpretations, attempts to capture something of the feeling of the original. Here’s his first:

a bit drunk
stepping lightly
in the spring wind
Ryokan (1758-1831)

7.

And more on the blog front … Andrew Phillips and I became acquainted with each other on Twitter this week and I’ve been enjoying checking out the haiku on his blog Pied Hill Prawns. An example:

telephone wires
connecting –
possum’s nightly walk

8.

And yet more bloggy matters … From Matt Holloway of Beachcombing for the Landlocked, a haiku I really enjoyed reading this week:

a tray      of stored apples      not yet a poem

9.

And while we’re in one-line haiku mode: I’ve been blown away this week by the amazing contents of Marlene Mountain’s website. In case you don’t know about Marlene, she is something of a haiku legend; she’s been writing haiku since the sixties, and she was one of the first poets to work with haiku as one line in English.

Here’s a page showing some of her early 3-line haiku, and then the same haiku later rewritten as one line. Here’s a selection of her one-line haiku. (A wonderful example: off and on i’ve thought of you off and on.) Here are scans of some pages from her notebooks, showing her revisions — I love this kind of thing, getting to see into another writer’s mind as she works. Here are some of her “ink writings,” similar to haiga. Here are some wonderful things called “unaloud haiku,” and here are some really fun things called “visually aloud” haiku. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Marlene’s site is concerned. Enjoy!

And that’s all from the Haikuverse this week. Thanks for visiting.

Pseudohaiku: Search strings

what dives
in the water
red as a cardinal

 

 

 

usual syllables
haiku
for venus

 

 

 

haiku monastery
seen because flowers
have gone

 

 

folding knives
and pockets
in france

 

 

 

antique geisha screenprint
missing
left hands

____________________

It’s the end of a long, draining week. I thought we (at least we here in the U.S.) could all use some entertainment, and an opportunity to take ourselves not quite as seriously as usual.

So: The thing all these haiku have in common is that, clearly, they are not haiku. They are some of the eccentric search strings that have led people to this page from Google. I like to entertain myself by trying to imagine what was going through people’s minds when they entered these searches, and by what tortured logic the search engine directed them here in a vain attempt to fulfill their information needs.

I have a large collection of other search strings, most of which do not lend themselves so easily to being converted to pseudohaiku. Some of them are quite beautiful, though. Some are thought-provoking, probably in a way their author did not intend. Some I’m thinking of using as writing prompts in the future. (“Poems about bad wolves”? Yeah, I would read a poem about bad wolves.)

Here are a few of them. Enjoy. And take a few deep breaths this weekend.

the dragonfly land on you will they bite me or sting me

garden, fog, crescent moon, and stars

full moon and sleepless nights

haiku dragon shy rock

poems about bad wolves

why are the dragonflies red

why was the moon red last night

meaning of seeing a red dragonfly

“anxiety” “rustling leaves” “simile”

snowboarding villanelles

caterpillar incense cedar sphinx

Revision, rewriting, editing … stop me when you’ve heard enough

Coming up on six months into this project, I’ve been revisiting some of my earliest posts. This kind of retrospection is always a little scary for us perfectionists. I tend to do it with only one eye open, stealing a quick glance and then looking away, my heart beating faster, trying to ignore the gall-like taste of humiliation in my mouth. (Yeah, OK: too melodramatic. That’s what perfectionism is all about.)

I’m surprised, actually, that I don’t completely hate every haiku I wrote six months ago. My very first post, in fact? I have a secret fondness for it. I keep looking at it trying to figure out how I would change it, but I keep coming up empty. It works for me, if not for anybody else. Beginner’s luck, I guess.

Things go downhill from there for a while, unfortunately. Reading through the month of May, I kept squirming, going, “That’s not the way you do it! I could do it better than that now!” Okay, not much better, necessarily, but … anyway, the temptation became irresistible. I started to rewrite. Not every haiku, just the ones I really couldn’t bear to let stand as they were, and had some clue what to do to make them better.

Then I started to post the rewrites below the originals. I haven’t gotten very far yet. I’d like to work my way along through the months, slowly, leaving a trail of shattered dreams and broken hearts — I mean, revised haiku — in my wake. I’ll update you, every now and then, on what I’ve done.

For right now, these are the posts that have revisions attached to them. Feel free to let me know whether you think I’ve made them any better, or just botched them up irrevocably, or whether they were beyond redemption anyhow. You can tell me how you would change them too, if you want. I’m interested. This haiku stuff has kind of gotten to me…

 

May 1: 2 (Seven Eggs Today)

May 1: 3-4 (Two Spring Haiku)

May 3: 2 (Tea Cooling)


Batting 10,000: David Lanoue and Issa

Anyone who’s been hanging out around here for a while knows that I am a great admirer (OK, a rabid fan) of the classical Japanese haiku poet Issa, who lived and wrote at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. I am also a fan of Issa’s prolific and talented translator David Lanoue, whose amazing database of Issa’s haiku is one of the greatest resources haiku poets have at their disposal. So I feel I must mark here on the blog the occasion of David’s translation of his 10,000th Issa haiku (which, believe it or not, is less than half the haiku Issa ever wrote). I can’t even wrap my mind around the effort required to complete 10,000 skillful translations, and that isn’t even close to all David has done with his time since he started this project in, good God, 1984.

According to David, number 10,000 will be his last, although he’ll keep revising previous translations. I hope he’s sitting down in a comfortable chair right now, having a cup of tea (that is, after all, what “Issa” means) and feeling pleased with himself. He deserves a rest.

One of the numerous great features of David’s database is that it includes enlightening and frequently entertaining textual and biographical notes on many of the haiku, including this final one, so we get to learn that

the priest
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

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

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

It’s interesting to speculate on what was going on here: Was the second haiku a deliberate rewriting of the first? Had Issa simply forgotten that he had written a similar haiku all those years ago? Or did he think of the second haiku as being a completely new poem, the substitution of “priest” for “mountain hermit” sufficiently distinguishing the two that both could stand on their own? Knowing Issa, I tend to lean toward the last option. He was all about specificity. Two different guys may have the same attitude toward the fireflies that are getting in their face, but they’re still two different guys. Those two haiku are no more the same poem than Shakespeare’s love sonnets are all the same sonnet.

*

There’s a lot of stuff on David’s site to explore besides the haiku (and just exploring the haiku could take you a lifetime). While noodling around it recently I discovered two highly enlightening essays on Issa by two poets, Carlos Fleitas and Gabriel Rosenstock. The best thing would be to read them in their entirety, because they are not only informative but wonderfully written and wise and will give you a greater understanding not just of Issa but of the nature and possibilities of haiku in general. But I’ll just quote a few brief passages here to whet your appetite.

Carlos Fleitas discusses the possibility that Issa’s life history profoundly affected his haiku poetics:

“The series of tragic events in the course of his life contain, for the most part, one very special quality that stands out. This is the fact that they are all surprising, unexpected, and brutally sudden events. In this sense, the deaths of highly significant figures in his life from his infancy on provide a recurring theme in his destiny. These events might have shaped a certain characteristic I find in the poet’s haiku. I’m referring to the brusque and unforeseen character of the poetry’s resolution in the third line. If this is indeed a characteristic of haiku, in Issa it appears emphasized and magnified. How different this is from Basho’s poetic concept that develops without bumps—almost glidingly—so that the third line provides continuity, not harshly contrasting to what came before, but rather an effect that is flowing and harmonious.
“… Issa would seem to have been “hurled” into everyday life, instead of being introduced gradually to its most crude aspects. This is why in his works we encounter not only the beauty and rapture typical of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, but also elements far removed from the expected. Lice, piss, the body’s decline…emerge as aspects of phenomenological reality that live, side by side, with lotus, moon, and tea.”

— Carlos Fleitas, “Carlos Fleitas on Issa

I think that many people are put off by these qualities in Issa’s haiku — their earthiness, their jarring transitions — but for Gabriel Rosenstock, these elements are part of Issa’s “universal spirit,” one which embraces every element in the world, forcing an awareness and acceptance of reality that are connected to his Buddhist beliefs. Rosenstock tries to cultivate something of Issa’s spirit in himself:

My Romanian grandson, Seán, visited us recently and I introduced him to all my friends, including a dog turd. Flies had gathered. ‘Say hello to my friends, the poo-flies!” I said to him. He was somewhat astounded by my circle of friends but I think he got the message.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

Reading Issa’s haiku, for Rosenstock, is more like a spiritual than a literary experience:

I find myself being transformed by reading favourite haiku. It’s not easy to describe. As I said above, it’s more than a mood. It’s not like being injected with a mood-altering substance. It is really an awakening.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

I agree…and on that note I want to end with a sampling of some of my favorite haiku by Issa. These are all David Lanoue’s translations. Thanks, David.

 

today too, today too
the winter wind has strewn about
the vegetables

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

first winter rain–
the world fills up
with haiku

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

words
are a waste of time…
poppies

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

 

how irritating!
the wild geese freely
call their friends

[David notes that this haiku was written after Issa suffered a stroke and temporarily lost his power of speech.]

 

my favorite cormorant
the one who surfaces
with nothing

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

plum blossom scent–
for whoever shows up
a cracked teacup

weak tea–
every day the butterfly
stops by

the day is long
the day is so long!
tears

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

little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

[David notes: “This is the first haiku by Issa that I read. I found it in J. D. Salinger’s novel, Franny and Zooey.” Me too.]

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

banging the temple gong
just for fun…
cool air

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

your rice field
my rice field
the same green

one man, one fly
one large
sitting room

morning dew
more than enough
for face-washing

just being alive
I
and the poppy

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

rain on withered fields
resounds…
my pillow

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

in cold water
sipping the stars…
Milky Way

Kyoto, Kyoto
in the heart of Kyoto!
pufferfish soup

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

the distant mountain
reflected in his eyes…
dragonfly

I call dibs
on the red ones!
plum blossoms

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

October 25: My father’s birthday, and a brief discourse on ambiguity

if my father were here —
dawn colors
over green fields

— Issa, translated by David Lanoue

It’s my father’s birthday, the first since he died in February. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that I discovered this haiku of Issa’s yesterday.

It’s also interesting to try to decide what Issa meant by “if my father were here.” First of all, is his father dead or just not present with Issa at this moment? (I happen to know, biographically, that he was dead, but not everyone who reads this haiku would know that.)

And secondly — if his father were here, then what? If his father were here he would appreciate the dawn colors? If his father were here he would tell Issa to stop mooning around writing poetry about sunrises and get a real job? If his father were here — full stop: painful (or otherwise) train of thought interrupted by sight of lovely landscape?

Maybe the meaning is more clear in the Japanese. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the haiku is meant to open the mind of the reader to thoughts of his or her father, not tell them anything in particular about Issa’s.

Overall the haiku gives the impression both of being deeply personal and also of belonging not just to Issa but to everyone who reads it. Everyone has a father and everyone has been separated from him at some point. But that experience doesn’t have the same meaning to everyone.

This ambiguity, this refusal of the poet to constrain the imaginative options of the reader, is really central to haiku. They are short. You can’t say much in them, and you’re not supposed to. If you find yourself getting frustrated while writing haiku because you can’t say enough (never happens to me, nuh-uh, no way), you need to start thinking about what you’re trying to say that doesn’t need to be said. There is a lot that doesn’t need to be said.

Haiku should be full of space, at least as full of space as words. The reader should be able to sit in them for a while, and breathe, and hear herself think.

my father’s disappointment —
the first frost
melts beneath my finger

 

 

 

in memoriam david allen 10/25/1939 – 2/12/2010

Easy Does It …

I want to write a whole series of posts about Abigail Freedman’s The Haiku Apprentice, which I just finished and found enlightening and thought-provoking in so many ways. But for right now I’ll just submit for your perusal a quotation by Barthes from the book’s foreword (written by Michael Dylan Welch, a wonderful haiku poet and essayist — you should check out his amazing website, Graceguts):

“Haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.”
— Roland Barthes

If this blog had a motto, that would probably be it. I started out (way back in May!) with pretty much utter ignorance of what haiku was, other than “a more-or-less seventeen-syllable, three-line poem that originated in Japan.” I decided to write them because they were short, and I have a short attention span. That’s it. That was my thought process. Yeah…I admit it. I thought it would be easy.

My state of blissful ignorance did not last long, of course. As everyone who writes haiku quickly finds, writing haiku — writing it well — is much, much (much) harder than it looks. I suppose, really, this is true of all writing, probably all artistic endeavor — how many of us have also been convinced that we could write the Great American Novel, if only, you know, we could think of something to write about, and then, um, write it well? Yeah. How’s that working out for you?

I do think, though, that with haiku it’s probably much easier to deceive yourself not only that you could write haiku well, but that you are writing it well. After all, don’t you have some nice images in your haiku? Doesn’t it sound pretty when you read it? Isn’t it kind of, you know, deep and meaningful? And it’s — let’s see — fourteen syllables, which is about the right amount. So why doesn’t anyone seem to like it but you (and maybe a few of your best friends)?

The antidote to this confusion probably lies in reading good haiku — really, really good haiku. Really, really good haiku are not just pretty poems — actually, they may not be (quite frequently aren’t) pretty at all. They don’t just have an interesting image or two, or some memorable phrases, or a nice sentiment. They don’t make you smile for a second and then slip out of your mind, leaving no lasting impression.

Really good haiku are like tiny earthquakes, or miniature bombs that explode in your brain. They change everything, permanently, even if only in some minute way that you may not be able to perceive or describe clearly. They leave you breathless for half a second (sometimes more). They make you realize that you’ve been blind, all your life, to some profound reality. When you read a really, really good haiku, it makes you feel like scraping all the nice-enough haiku that you’ve ever read (which for me includes about one percent of the ones I’ve written, the others not even rising to nice-enough status) straight off the plate into the garbage. Why eat Kraft macaroni and cheese when a three-star chef has lovingly concocted an exquisite dish for you?

It’s hard to know where to tell people to look to find really, really good haiku, because in my experience, even the best haiku poets mostly did/do not write haiku of only, or even mostly, that quality, and even the best journals don’t publish haiku of only, or even mostly, that quality. Of course, I suppose it depends on how picky you are — I am notoriously picky, about just about everything, but especially literature. (Or maybe it’s not pickiness, maybe I’m just not perceptive enough to see the value of the vast majority of haiku that just make me shrug and go, “Eh.”) This is why I’m not going to give any examples of my favorite haiku here — you have to decide for yourself what kind of haiku make your brain explode.

Probably the most important thing is to read lots and lots of haiku, in all the most reputable places you can find — I have lists of links to high-quality journals and classic haiku poets in my sidebar, for starters — and notice your reactions. Which ones bore you, which ones do you think are pretty good, which excite you immeasurably? What do you think is the reason for the difference?

Do you notice some of the same names recurring as the authors of your favorites? Go and read more by those poets, and start sorting out which of their haiku work for you and which don’t. If you determine that they belong to some particular haiku movement or school, read more haiku by other poets in that movement. Are those kind of haiku more likely to speak to you than others? Or does it not matter?

Write down your favorite haiku. Read them over and over. Think about what it is about them that you love. Go ahead, shamelessly imitate them. (You might not want to submit the imitations for publication, but it’s a useful exercise.) Then when you’re done imitating, what you need to do is to start writing like yourself again. Only, you know, better …

In my experience, most of these well-meaning measures serve mostly to convince you that the haiku you’ve been writing are, um, pretty bad. (Apologies to any great haiku writers who are reading this, although I wish you would stop and go write more haiku instead.) They won’t necessarily (although they might, you never know) make the ones you write in the future significantly better. Or not right away. But it’s useful information to have, that your haiku are not all that great. And in a way it’s inspiring, and challenging — when you’re functioning at a pretty low level, there are so very many ways to improve!

Okay, I did it again — started out with the intention to share a sentence with you and ended up writing a whole glob of verbiage that most of you, and justifiably so, won’t read. Run along now, and read something more interesting.

Don’t forget to write.

September 8 (Evening wind): What is natural?

evening wind
a cicada shell rattles
on our doorstep

*
Wow … this feels incredibly traditional for me. I mean, I think it’s reasonably successful as a haiku, if a little boring, but it makes me a little nervous because it’s so … haiku-ish. Is that weird?

I don’t think I quite realized until now how much I try to avoid writing what is the “traditional” English-language type of haiku with only nature imagery and nicely balanced lines and seasonal indicators and all that jazz. I tend to like better, and to write, haiku with something a little more … unexpected about them. Or maybe I just mean haiku that are a little more … authentic, or contemporary, than this. I don’t say I necessarily succeed, just that that’s what I’m aiming for. (Insofar as I’m able to articulate what I mean at this time of the morning, in a state of sleep deprivation.)

I think maybe the reason the nature-imagery thing seems so stilted and played out now is that, as a society, we’re pretty far removed from nature; for most of us, a manufactured environment and human technologies are more prominent in our daily lives than the rhythms of seasons and weather and plant and animal life cycles.

So, unless we’re naturalists or dedicated country dwellers who spend most of the day outdoors, it does feel kind of fake to be constantly writing about birdsong and drifting clouds and rustling leaves, at least without some kind of human context to put these things in what is their proper place for most of us — concerns secondary to whether the furnace or air conditioner is doing its job, or how many emails we got this morning, or how the traffic is aiding or impeding us in our daily journeys.

It feels like we know that haiku is supposed to be about nature, so we glanced out the window and saw a pretty bird and said, “Oh — haiku material!”, ignoring the fact that we’re not quite sure what the bird is called or what it eats or how it sings or makes its nest or how far it flies when the seasons change. We’re not bird experts any more (apologies to those of you who are, but I have never been a bird enthusiast); we’re experts on minivans — We’re not experts on wildflowers, we’re experts on wall-to-wall carpeting — We’re not experts on mountain springs, we’re experts on running water from the tap.

Lots of people have the same concerns as I do, of course, and there is lots and lots of great haiku being written now that does feel real and contemporary and still respects the haiku idea of placing the writer (and reader) in a specific time and place and making a very specific observation or two. I must say that I often have the same sense of anxiety about haiku that don’t mention nature at all, maybe because I do respect the power of haiku to force us to regard ourselves as what we properly are, which is part of nature, despite how thoroughly unnatural most of our surroundings are these days.

I really like the tension (not just in haiku but really in all art, literature and painting and photography and even architecture) between the natural and the human-made. I remember seeing a series of photographs at an exhibition several years ago of what were very clearly human artifacts, often in brilliant unnatural colors, placed in more muted natural surroundings — the effect, to me, was to highlight the beauty and interest of both object and setting.

Another time, our local botanical garden hosted an amazing art installation of long chains of large round scavenged things (like bowling balls and weathered plastic Halloween pumpkins and giant ball bearings) hung from very tall trees — like tree jewelry, I suppose. I could have stared at those things all day; they seemed so completely in harmony with their surroundings despite being so very artificial. [New! Pictures!]

And really, that is a very Japanese aesthetic too — the art of mingling the human with the natural in such a way that both are enhanced. Think of a Japanese garden with its neatly raked stone beds and small water bridges and carefully planned views of carefully arranged plantings (and if you’ve never been to a good Japanese garden, you should go to one, preferably today), or a traditional Japanese house with its natural materials and minimal furniture and openness to the elements.  [And more pictures!]

I think that that same aesthetic is or properly should be at work in haiku — the tension or perhaps, the reconciling of tension between the works of human beings and their natural environments. When I imagine a classical haiku poet I see him sitting in a house or just outside one, or walking through a village or riding a boat down a river, looking around him with a gimlet eye at everything in his surroundings — the plants and animals and earth and sky and people and buildings and tools and vehicles — and connecting a couple of those elements in his mind, without particular regard to whether they were “natural” or not.

So maybe that should be our ideal, as haiku poets. Really being wherever we are, and seeing whatever we see, and being aware, yes, of the weather and what the sky looks like and whatever is blooming or singing within our purview, but also mindful of the indoor weather, of the smells and textures of the things we have bought and handle every day, of the moods and wardrobe and habits and speech of our fellow human beings. And making of, or seeing, something real in all that stew.

Cicada shells do rattle, on doorsteps and sidewalks and driveways, in the autumn — much more resonantly on those artificially hard surfaces, I imagine, than they would rattle in a loamy forest or on a mountain path — and the sound is both chilling, like the autumn wind, and oddly comforting, especially to those of us who live in houses and can shelter there from the elements, unlike the poor departed cicadas …

September 3: A lament, and a lot of pictures

summer sky
what a picture
is worth

I’m back in the office and feeling a little downcast. I had high hopes for the haiku-writing potential of my vacation. After all, traditionally, haiku are nature poems, right? (Yeah, I know we could have a really long debate about that, and I would happily join in on either or both sides, but let’s just go with it for now.) And I was going on a canoeing and camping trip in the wilderness! It was going to be nothing but nature! Surely I would be so inspired that haiku would pour from me like … well, like haiku from an inspired person.

It didn’t quite work out that way. For one thing, canoeing? Portaging? All day? Really exhausting. After eight or ten hours of that you have about enough energy to set up your tent, make and eat food, sit around staring at a campfire for a couple of hours, and then crawl into your sleeping bag and curse the tree root underneath you for a minute or two before passing out. Wielding a pen? Not on the agenda.

Also, I think — for me, anyway — being surrounded by nature is not the state most conducive to writing poetry. Or maybe it’s being in novel surroundings that is not the state most conducive to writing poetry. At any rate, I found myself so absorbed in just trying to take in and process all the new things I was seeing on a basic level that processing them on a higher intellectual level, making the kind of interesting connections that good haiku requires, was nearly impossible. I could write one or two lines of straight observation — but making the cognitive leap to turning observations into poetry was beyond me.

I’m hoping that after a few weeks home those observations will have marinated, or composted, or whatever it is they have to do, long enough that I will be able to turn them into haiku. Because really, it was an amazing trip, and there were plenty of connections to be made.

But right now I’m still sleep-deprived and my lower back is killing me. And after two days of grad school I’m already behind on my homework. So you’ll have to pardon me if for a few more days I keep resorting to posting haiku that I wrote last month when I had a more functional brain.

And in the meantime … here are some pictures to make up for my lack of verbal adroitness.

August 10: 1-5: The Technique of Finding the Divine in the Common (Found Haiku: Psalms)

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

Jane:


“This is a technique that seems to happen mostly without conscious control. A writer will make a perfectly ordinary and accurate statement about common things, but due to the combination of images and ideas and what happens betwen them, a truth will be revealed about the Divine. Since we all have various ideas about what the Divine is, two readers of the same haiku may not find the same truth or revelation in it. Here, again, the reader becomes a writer to find a greater truth behind the words.


smoke
incense unrolls
itself”


– Jane Reichhold, Writing and Enjoying Haiku

*

Me:

Jane played a terrible trick on me by adding a new technique in her book (Writing and Enjoying Haiku get it, read it). In addition to the 23 previously published in her online essay, she tacked on this one, which is a problem for me because in the strictest sense I don’t actually believe in any Divine.

I mean I believe that there are things in the universe that are a lot bigger and more important than piddly little human beings, but I don’t think they’re supernatural, or conscious, or in any way direct or guide any of the affairs of heaven or earth. I think that most of what there is to know about the universe we don’t, can’t, and will never know, and I am in awe of the unimaginable complexity of it all, but I don’t think that just because our tiny brains don’t understand it and can’t explain it we must invent some other entity that does understand it.

Anyway. Enough of my heathen metaphysics. I felt that if I wanted to complete this project, I was duty-bound to attempt to write some kind of haiku that referenced or implied the existence of some kind of divine entity. But I was utterly at a loss for how to do this. So I decided to cheat. (See, I told you I was a heathen.)

I turned to my trusty friend the Book of Psalms (King James Version), one of the world’s great literary achievements, reasoning that somewhere in there must be something that resembled a haiku in some way … right?

You tell me.

*

moisture …
turned into the drought
of summer
(Ps. 32:4)

out of the miry clay …
my foot
upon a rock
(Ps. 40:2)

deep calleth
unto deep …
the noise of waterspouts
(Ps. 42:7)

the noise of the seas …
the tumult
of the people
(Ps. 65:7)

blow up
the trumpet …
the new moon
(Ps. 81:3)

August 6: Hiroshima Day

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 …