Tanka? Okay, I Can Do That

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I check
to see what’s sprouted
we’re separated now
by the life span
of squash and cucumbers

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on the way
to see the apple blossoms —
I admire how
your story changes
with every streetlight

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(Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, 7:1, Spring 2011)

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Tanka. I keep mentioning tanka in what I know is this extremely skeptical tone of voice. I spent a long time trying not to think about them. I think I was having a hard enough time trying to understand haiku (not that that process is or ever will be over for me) and seeing these tanka things, which looked kind of like haiku but were the wrong length and sounded very different, confused me. And kind of annoyed me, too, because a lot of them (although not, by any means, as high a percentage as I used to think) are flowery and dreamy and romantic and … I’m not. Flowery, dreamy, romantic things usually just make me want to go balance my checkbook or something. Or throw up. (Yes, I am a fun date. Thanks for asking.)

So I was all grouchy about tanka and didn’t even want to learn anything about it, which is unusual for me because generally I want to learn everything about everything, and the sooner the better. I sneered at and winced about and cast aspersions on tanka … and then, at some point this winter, I started writing it. Still without having the slightest idea what it actually was. Don’t ask me what that was all about. I think I was just having one of those days where haiku seemed too short. You know those days. Where you’re like “Seventeen syllables? Max? Give me a break.”

I wrote a bunch of these things and eyed them warily, and then heaved a weary sigh and went crawling humbly around the web to find out what I had done. I was thrilled to find this essay about the origins of tanka by Jane Reichhold, because it’s very funny and made me feel like maybe I didn’t have to worry so much about tanka but could just enjoy it:

“From tanka’s long history – over 1300 years recorded in Japan — the most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers. Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji, the little poem expressing one’s feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return to his master.

Usually under some pressure – the writer had probably been either awake or engaged in strenuous activities all night – to write a verse that related, in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one’s feelings, and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again was not an easy task. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the personal messenger on his way with a note so written that he couldn’t know exactly what was what but that the beloved would understand and appreciate. Then the giggling servants would get back to work.

“…Looking at tanka history it seems that the only infallible way of writing great tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Do it now. But that doesn’t mean that it must be a behind-the-bushes affair in the no-tell motel. Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons; your own kids, grandkids or even – your mate, or just life itself. Whatever feels good and right for you.

Because of their original use as a way of privately expressing emotion and especially between friends and lovers unhappy because they are separated, the feelings expressed in traditional tanka were usually either longing for better time, more faithful lovers, younger years or grief because of old age, lack of lovers, or hard times. You get the picture. When reading a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.”

— Jane Reichhold,  “Tanka for the Memory

So that was my first tanka breakthrough. My second happened when I humbly sent a bunch of my lame tanka off to be edited by Aubrie Cox, who graciously refrained from telling me I had no idea what I was doing and with her magical touch lightly and deftly transformed the least lame of them into something that a tanka editor might not be too appalled to see appearing in his or her inbox. The two above are the first I had accepted for publication. It felt pretty weird, I have to tell you. “Wait — I’m not a tanka poet. Am I? Oh God. I guess I am. Can I go throw up now?”

I’ve gotten over it, though. For one thing, I’ve actually read a lot of tanka since then, and a lot of it I like a lot. Also, some of my best friends are wonderful tanka poets, so I’ve really had to force myself to examine my unwarranted prejudices. If you get this issue of Ribbons, for instance (which I highly recommend you do), you will find the following stupendous tanka by my buddy Margaret Dornaus of haiku-doodle gracing the back cover, and being wonderfully and lovingly dissected inside the journal by its editor, Dave Bacharach:

at Toad Suck
I contemplate syllables
and old ponds
like a child puddle-jumping
loudly through soft falling rain

— Margaret Dornaus

And right next to it you will find another stupendous tanka by Jeffrey Woodward (Haibun Today editor extraordinaire), which Bacharach has deliberately placed in counterpoint with Margaret’s:

sweet,
but with a slight tang,
the rejected
and twisted little
apples of Winesburg

— Jeffrey Woodward

Even I have to admit that there is nothing romantic, dreamy, etc. about either of these tanka, and that they are, in fact, quite brilliant and thought-provoking poems that just happen to be two lines longer than your typical haiku and to be attempting something rather different though not entirely unconnected. If you’re looking for a better explanation than I or probably anyone else but R.H. Blyth could provide of what exactly that something is, check out this essay by Don Wentworth over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, which gives us plenty of Blyth for our delectation.

For even more tanka information, Tanka Online and American Tanka are good places to look, and Charlotte Digregorio has recently written an essay on her blog that is a good, brief introduction to the subject. Besides Ribbons, the print journals Moonbathing, Eucalypt, and red lights publish tanka exclusively; bottle rockets publishes it among other Japanese verse forms, and so does the online journal Notes from the Gean. I’m probably forgetting someone. As I so often do. Feel free, as always, to tell me what I’m missing.

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[Note: If you subscribe to this blog, you are not imagining things. Another version of this essay appeared a few days ago. It was an accident — it wasn’t finished yet — and I promptly deleted it. Sorry about the confusion.]

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a jumble of flowers: some news

a jumble of
flowers planted —
see, the little garden!

— Masaoka Shiki, translated by Janine Beichman

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I’m very excited/pleased/proud/terrified (circle as many as apply) to share the following announcement with you:

haijinx welcomes Melissa Allen as our newest regular columnist.

Melissa is well-known for her haiku blog Red Dragonfly, where she shares “short-form poetry as well as related commentary and essays and news about developments in the world of haiku.”

a jumble of flowers, Melissa’s column within the quarterly haijinx, will be her own unique overview of what’s happening in the haikai world online and off. The first column will be a part of our spring 2011 issue. If you have news or announcements you would like Melissa to consider, please send email to

jumble -at- haijinx -dot- org

haijinx publishes around the solstices and equinoxes each year. The first 2011 issue will be released on March 20th and the submission deadline for Melissa’s a jumble of flowers is March 8th. All other submissions are due by March 1st. For more information, please visit our submissions page.

Me again: If any of you don’t know about haijinx, it will be well worth your time to go check it out. I mean now — don’t wait until my column appears, for goodness’ sake. It’s a great journal with a focus on humor in haiku, recently revived after a several-year furlough by its founder and editor, Mark Brooks, and staffed by an impressive roster of poets including Mark, Carmen Sterba, Alan Summers, Roberta Beary, Tom Clausen, Richard Krawiec … I’m a little awed and humbled by being included in their company.

Also, that thing about sending me news? Yeah, we mean it. Conferences? Events? Contests? Publications? New (or old) exciting blogs or websites? Anything? Anything? Shoot it to the email address above. Otherwise I’m going to have to comb the Web myself looking for news and you never know, I might miss you. So brag yourself up.

Thanks, everyone.

NaHaiWriMo, Week 3

15    bicycle light never stopping to let me catch up
16    multiplication tables all the things I can’t forget
17    peace pipe blowing bubbles beside the sea
18    expired passport all the nebulae I kept meaning to visit
19    protest march spring comes anyway
20    microwave platter my food comes from a dying star
21    resisting arrest unidentified weeds in the garden

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Week One is here. Week Two is here.

Am I getting any better? … Never mind, I don’t want to know.

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

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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

October 5 (The compost pile)

apples in the compost pile —
giving sweetness another chance

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(Edited 10/6/10)

I think Alegria was right. The first line wasn’t quite there. She suggested getting rid of the apples altogether, just leaving the compost pile, but I’m not ready to do that.

For one thing, I’m using the apples as a fall kigo (Midwestern version), for another, just “compost pile” doesn’t conjure up a strong enough image in my mind for me to find the ku wholly satisfying. I need the image of those half-rotten apples atop the compost to make the ku vivid and complete to me.

I’ll definitely entertain other suggestions for how to make this better, though!

September 8 (Evening wind): What is natural?

evening wind
a cicada shell rattles
on our doorstep

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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 …

Snow Country: the novel and haiku (June 30: 1-2)

I recently read the Japanese modern classic novel Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, which I recommend without reservation to anyone who likes both novels and haiku. Here’s why:

“Kawabata has been put, I think rightly, in a literary line that can be traced back to seventeenth-century haiku masters. Haiku are tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms. Thus the classical haiku characteristically fuses motion and stillness. Similarly Kawabata relies very heavily on a mingling of the senses. In Snow Country we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of the sound of running water, or, in a somewhat more elaborate figure, the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly becomes a woman’s feet. …

“The haiku manner presents a great challenge to the novelist. The manner is notable for its terseness and austerity, so that his novel must rather be like a series of brief flashes in a void.”

— Edward G. Seidensticker, from the introduction to his translation of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

I was totally fascinated by the idea of a novel inspired by haiku — two literary forms that on the surface could not possibly be more different. The novel, as it happens, is actually my favorite literary form; I just can’t write them (and believe me I’ve tried) because my attention span is not nearly long enough, which is why I write haiku instead. And much as I love the challenge of trying to recreate an experience and an insight in the few lines of a haiku, I frequently find myself frustrated by the tininess of its canvas — hence all my haiku sequences and narratives.

I love Seidensticker’s definition of haiku (another one to add to the collection on my mantelpiece) as “tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms.”

I was also really interested in Seidensticker’s further description of haiku as a fusion of “motion and stillness.” Something to think about. Does he mean literally motion and stillness, or something more like concrete images, an engagement with the physical world, vs. abstract insight or internal activity? That he then goes to equate this with “a mingling of the senses” confuses the issue further for me — does this imply that mixing senses creates a kind of movement in the poem and in the novel?

There is certainly not much literal movement in the novel; all that happens in it is that a pretentious, self-involved guy from Tokyo goes several times over several years to a mountain resort to visit a particular young geisha with whom he is — not exactly in love, but in fascination. There are only a few other characters who are named or described in any detail, and most of the book consists of conversations between the two main characters, detailed descriptions of their surroundings, and the thoughts of the male protagonist (the viewpoint is third-person limited, so we don’t get to find out what the geisha is thinking).

“Brief flashes in a void” — this is an excellent description of the overall impression the novel gives. There are the mountains, the snow, a fairly incoherent relationship between two people, all these things seeming blank and quiet, a canvas on which appear sudden splatters of awareness much like the condensed expression of awareness of a haiku, powerful, vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, feelings. They seem to be drawing the man from Tokyo forward, toward some kind of decision or personal change — though what kind, we’re not in the end quite sure. Here’s an example:

“From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back. The dark needles blocked out the sky, and the stillness seemed to be singing quietly. The trunk against which Shimamura leaned was the oldest of all. For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god.”

— Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, p. 30 (Perigee Books edition)

Here are the mixture of senses — sight, sound, touch — that Seidensticker refers to, and also the fusion of motion and stillness — this is a static picture of some trees and yet they are described in terms of active movement — they “threw up their trunks,” the needles “blocked out the sky,” they are ready, most shockingly, to be used as “a terrible weapon for some god.” There is both beauty and harshness and cruelty in this scene, as there is in the relationship between the two main characters.

There are several passages that you can easily imagine a classical haiku poet seizing on as material, like this one:

“Before a white wall, shaded by eaves, a little girl in ‘mountain trousers’ and an orange-red flannel kimono, clearly brand-new, was bouncing a rubber ball. For Shimamura, there was autumn in the little scene.”

— Kawabata, p. 109

(mountain autumn
in her new red kimono
she bounces a ball

— MLA)

or this one:

“[A building is on fire.] At the edge of the garden, withering chrysanthemums were silhouetted against the light from the inn — or the starlight. For an instant he almost thought it was the light from the fire.”

— Kawabata, p. 163

(chrysanthemums
withering in the light
from the stars

— MLA)

The final pages of the novel, the content of which I won’t discuss here because I hate spoilers, are a tour de force of sense-mixing, of powerful incongruities, of stillness and motion fused in the purest way imaginable. And the final line, just to give you a sense of how haiku-like Kawabata can be, is: “the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.” There are some modern haiku poets (and I might be one of them) for whom that would be a perfect, complete one-line haiku.

Don’t you want to go read it now instead of reading my long, boring treatise on it? Or did you stop reading my treatise a long time ago and go buy it or score it from the library? Either way, good for you.

Postscript: Via a link to “possibly related posts” at the bottom of this entry I discovered the following closely related essay by an Indian writer — she discusses both Snow Country and another Kawabata novel. Very interesting perspective.

Found haiku: Thoreau

Eager to procrastinate this morning (this is actually most of what I do every day), I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “I bet Thoreau is full of haiku.” So I pulled Walden off the bookshelf and started looking through it and giggling. (Yes, I know: I’m easily entertained.)

I did have to use some ellipsis to get haiku out of some of Thoreau’s meaty utterances (when you’ve been reading predominantly haiku even Thoreau’s vigorous prose seems a little Victorianly verbose), but in the end I was really happy with these. I stopped looking when I got to the last one, in fact, because it was so perfect I became too happy to sit still anymore and had to get up and go for a walk. It is equal parts Thoreau-ish and haiku-ish, and also is a nice counterpart to the first one below, which was actually the first one I found.

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gentle rain …
waters my beans …
keeps me in my house today


where a forest was cut down
last winter
another is springing up


hollow and
lichen-covered apple trees
gnawed by rabbits


the house … behind
a dense grove of red maples …
I heard the house-dog bark


the wood thrush
sang around and was heard
from shore to shore


faint hum of a mosquito …
invisible … tour …
at earliest dawn


while I drink I see
the sandy bottom …
how shallow it is


my beans ….
impatient to be hoed…
so many more than I wanted


— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Haiku: An Introduction (Apologies to J.D. Salinger)

I’m willing to be that there are thousands of people who first found out about, or got enthusiastic about, haiku, and Japanese poetry in general, by reading J.D. Salinger’s short novel (long short story?) Seymour: An Introduction. This is particularly likely to be true of the type of precious, oversensitive, self-involved adolescent that, um, I was.

I was devoted to Salinger through most of my teenage years, not so much Catcher in the Rye (though I liked that too), but, in particular, the stories about the precocious, intellectual, spirituality-seeking Glass family. During the summer I was sixteen, I believe I read Franny and Zooey no less than six times. I would be tempted to be more critical of myself for this, except it may have been the only thing that kept me sane that summer. Somehow it helped to know that there were people out there (even fictional people) as precious, oversensitive, etc. as I was. (I have since learned that we are legion, but at the time I thought I was special.)

Anyway, if you’re not familiar with Seymour and the other Glasses, they are a family of seven children who were all child prodigies, though they appear only as adults in most of the stories about them — adults who rarely stop talking and never, ever stop thinking too much, mostly about themselves and their angst about the human condition and the nature of the universe. Seymour, the oldest, is also the most brilliant — which doesn’t work out all that well for him, but no spoilers here. (Go read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” if you’re curious about his fate.)

Seymour: An Introduction is basically an extended character sketch purporting to have been written by the next-youngest Glass sibling, Buddy, a writer and college English professor (probably to some extent a Salinger stand-in). He devotes about twenty pages of a 120-page novel to describing Seymour’s career as a poet — much of it, since Seymour’s main poetic inspiration was Chinese and Japanese poetry, discussing the special nature of haiku and other forms of Eastern verse.

This section, fortunately for our purposes, may be the most readable one in the novel. Rereading Seymour now for the first time in many years, I’m finding it, well, pretty precious itself — much more so even than Franny and Zooey, which I revisited last year, and orders of magnitude more than Nine Short Stories, several of which are modern masterpieces. I’m having to skim most of it, the self-indulgent endless paragraphs, the ecstatic but vague descriptions of Seymour’s genius, Buddy’s overly cute cultural analysis and self-appraisal. But a lot of the discussion of poetry made me slow down and start typing out passages to consider later. Salinger (Buddy?) is guilty to a certain extent, like so many other people, of romanticizing Asian culture, but is still very perceptive about how Asian poetry differs from much Western poetry:

“At their most effective, I believe, Chinese and Japanese classical verses are intelligible utterances that please or enlighten or enlarge the invited eavesdropper to within an inch of his life. They may be, and often are, fine for the ear particularly, but for the most part, I’d say that unless a Chinese or Japanese poet’s real forte is knowing a good persimmon or a good crab or a good mosquito bite on a good arm when he sees one, then no matter how long or unusual or fascinating his semantic or intellectual intestines may be, or how beguiling they sound when twanged, no one in the Mysterious East speaks seriously of him as a poet, if at all.” (pp. 118-119)

I can clearly remember reading and being impressed by the following passage as a teenager, and somehow getting the names Issa and Basho stuck in my head for the rest of my life, so that even though I read hardly any of their writing for the next twenty years, they still seemed like old friends when I came to take them up seriously:

“I don’t really believe there is a word, in any language — thank God — to describe the Chinese or Japanese poet’s choice of material. … The great Issa will joyfully advise us that there’s a fat-faced peony in the garden. (No more, no less. Whether we go to see his fat-faced peony for ourselves is another matter … he doesn’t police us.) The very mention of Issa’s name convinces me that the true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it. A fat-faced peony will not show itself to anyone but Issa — not to Buson, not to Shiki, not even to Basho.” (p. 121)

Seymour criticizes his early attempts at writing poetry modeled on Chinese and Japanese forms, in words that resonate with me and with, I think, many other Western poets who are trying to honor the original spirit of this form while making it our own and acknowledging the realities of modern life:

“[The poems] were too un-Western, too lotusy. He said he felt that they were faintly affronting. He hadn’t quite made up his mind where the affronting came in, but he felt at times that the poems read as though they’d been written by an ingrate, of sorts, someone who was turning his back … on his own environment and the people in it who were close to him. He said he ate his food out of our big refrigerators, drove our eight-cylinder American cars, unhesitatingly used our medicines when he was sick, and relied on the U.S. Army to protect his parents and sisters from Hitler’s Germany, and nothing, not one single thing in all his poems, reflected these realities.” (p. 124-25)

Eventually Seymour does succeed at melding his Eastern and Western poetic influences, and Salinger/Buddy describes the results in what must be one of the most detailed descriptions ever written of a wholly imaginary verse form (at least I’m assuming it’s wholly imaginary, maybe somewhere in Salinger’s filing cabinet there are notebooks filled with poems like this):

“… Seymour probably loved the classical Japanese three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku as he loved no other form of poetry, and … he himself wrote — bled — haiku. … It could be said … that a late-period poem of Seymour’s looks substantially like an English translation of a sort of double haiku … a six-line verse, of no certain accent but usually more iambic than not, that, partly out of affection for dead Japanese masters and partly from his own natural bent, as a poet, for working inside attractive restricted areas, he has deliberately held down to thirty-four syllables, or twice the number of the classical haiku. … [E]ach of the poems is as unsonorous, as quiet, as he believed a poem should be, but there are intermittent short blasts of euphony … which have the effect on me personally of someone — surely no one completely sober — opening my door, blowing three or four or five unquestionably sweet and expert notes on a cornet into the room, then disappearing.” (p. 126-28)

For those of us who struggle with what kind of subject matter to bring to haiku — should we stick mostly to nature? how personal should we get? can we tell a story, make a joke, imagine things, or should we stick to personally experienced moments of Zen enlightenment? — it’s interesting to read about Seymour’s choice of subject matter, though they frankly remind me more than anything of possible plot summaries for Salinger’s next several short stories:

“The next-to-last poem is about a young married woman and mother who is plainly having what it refers to here in my old marriage manual as an extramarital love affair. … She comes home very late from a tryst — in my mind, bleary and lipstick-smeared — to find a balloon on her bedspread. Someone has simply left it there. The poet doesn’t say, but it can’t be anything but a large, inflated toy balloon, probably green, like Central Park in spring. The other poem … is about a young suburban widower who sits down on his patch of lawn one night, implicitly in his pajamas and robe, to look at the full moon. A bored white cat … comes up to him and rolls over, and he lets her bite his left hand as he looks at the moon.” (p. 128-29)

I can see now how much these long-forgotten passages have influenced my lifelong attitude toward haiku — although, as I’ve mentioned before, I hadn’t given an excessive amount of thought to the form before last month. There’s the idea that haiku can be made your own; you don’t have to be a slave to tradition. There’s the idea that poets should have a unique voice and should strive to see and write about the things that only they can see. There’s the idea that haiku are about revealing the world as it is, communicating some experience of authentic perception. There’s the idea that haiku should ring some kind of bell in the mind of the reader. There’s the idea that a wide variety of subject matter and to some extent form is possible in writing haiku; that perception and authenticity matter more than syllable counts or traditional topics.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else for whom reading Seymour was a formative experience in their haiku-writing career. Or, for that matter, from those for whom it wasn’t. What do you think of these passages — do they enlarge or confirm your understanding of haiku, or do you find them banal and twee? Would you rather gnaw your leg off than ever read another word of Salinger, or do you have a shrine to Franny and Zooey set up somewhere in the hidden recesses of your heart? (Or both?)

June 2: 1-3: The Technique of Sense-switching

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

Jane:

“This is another old-time favorite of the Japanese haiku masters, but one they have used very little and with a great deal of discretion. It is simply to speak of the sensory aspect of a thing and then change to another sensory organ. Usually it involves hearing something one sees or vice versa or to switch between seeing and tasting.


“home-grown lettuce

the taste of well-water

green”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques


*

me:

planes dance together
silently
sonic boom

the baby’s
soft cheek
strawberry jam

pounding
at the door
your bruised face

*

Yeah, okay, Jane, there’s a reason the “Japanese haiku masters” used this technique “very little and with a great deal of discretion.” It’s impossible, that’s why. Trying to write these made me feel like I understood what it must be like to write poetry in a foreign language. (Hmm…I should try that sometime…) I didn’t really understand what I was doing or why. But I did it. Let it never be said about me that I shirked my homework. Now can I do something else, please?