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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NaHaiWriMo, Week 4: On Being Weird

22    editing an elephant gray seems too vague
23    encoding fairy tales </eastofthesunwestofthemoon>
24    ovulation trying to locate the scent of apple
25    menstruation sinking lower in the waves
26    political protest a deathwatch beetle in the drum circle
27    the mouse in the kitchen does he also hear the owl
28    particles streaming from the sun we wait on this rock to receive them

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Whew. I made it.

I don’t know why this felt so hard. I’ve been writing haiku every day for ten months now. And, you know, sharing them with the reading public. I think it was just that I was trying to do something really different from what I usually do — trying to be weird and experimental, just kind of throw stuff against the wall and see what stuck.

And even though I told myself that this would be freeing and relaxing, I was surprised to find that I actually found it very stressful to try to come up with something Original and Interesting every day that I wasn’t incredibly embarrassed to let you guys see. Well, a lot of it I actually was incredibly embarrassed to let you guys see. This week may have started out the weirdest of all and then by the fifth day I was getting freaked out enough that I actually followed a couple of Michael Dylan Welch’s (excellent) NaHaiWriMo daily writing prompts, which until then I’d pretty much ignored in the spirit of experimental individualism. I just couldn’t take the pressure of marching to such a different drummer any more.

I thought sometimes this month of the title of the physicist Richard Feynman’s autobiography: “Why Do You Care What Other People Think?” This is a question his wife challenged him with when he was very young. Mostly Feynman didn’t care a lot what other people thought, which is part of what made him so brilliant. (The other part was that he was, you know, brilliant.)

So why do I care? I mean … no one scolded me for being too experimental this month, at least not out loud; people said nice things about the haiku they liked and politely kept their mouths shut about the ones that they didn’t. No one is ever mean to me on this blog. My readership didn’t go down, people didn’t unsubscribe. I still felt stupid and incompetent a lot of the time. Apparently I am way more insecure than I thought I was.

This worries me a little, because it must mean that most of the time I am trying to write haiku that I think other people will approve of. Of course this isn’t entirely bad, the point of writing is supposed to be communication after all, so if no one understands or likes what you’re writing … well, you can either carry on in the same vein hoping that future generations will be more enlightened, or you can seriously consider the possibility that there’s something wrong with your writing. But if you’re spending so much time worrying about what other people think that you never actually figure out what you think yourself, that’s a problem too.

Also, I think I freaked out a little at how good everyone else’s NaHaiWriMo stuff seemed to me. A lot of people seemed to take this exercise really seriously and put their best foot forward and come up with superlative work that really blew me away … and then there’s me, sitting in the corner tossing my word spaghetti at the wall, with a slightly village-idiot expression on my face.

Anyway. (She said defensively.) Just so you know, I wrote a lot of other haiku this month that are a lot more, you know, normal. You’ll probably be seeing a fair number of them in the next couple of months. So don’t unsubscribe! The worst is over … and I will be discussing my inferiority complex with my imaginary therapist, so don’t worry about me.

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.

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!

October 3 (Changing winds): What should haiku look like?

changing winds — your frozen apples
slush beneath my feet

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I’m trying to decide why this seems so satisfying to me as two lines, rather than three or one, both of which I tried and rejected. And why I like it broken up after “apples” instead of “winds,” or for that matter “slush.”

I tend to be really inarticulate about these things and to have instinctive preferences rather than intellectualized ones. Which worries me sometimes, maybe because I irrationally think that if I could figure out some systematic theory of poetics to justify my seemingly random choices, haiku writing would become a simple matter of following a foolproof poetic recipe and I would begin constantly spouting brilliant ku and writing lengthy, brilliant essays about why they were so brilliant and all the world would admire me and give me some kind of catchy haiku-poet nickname, like Banana Leaf. (Which in case you didn’t know, is what Basho means — apparently there was a banana tree in front of his house. All I have in front of mine, in case you are already trying to come up with a good nickname, is a lilac bush in desperate need of pruning and a bunch of flower beds that I absolutely never weed because I can never figure out which things are weeds and which things are flowers, so basically at this point the weeds have won and the beds are weed beds, and I might as well start over from scratch and pull everything out and plant new flowers.)

Anyway. I’ve been thinking about this line thing a bit lately, in my inarticulate non-thinking kind of thinking way, if only because of an interesting passage in The Haiku Apprentice. Abigail Freedman is having a conversation with her Japanese haiku master, Momoko, about haiku structure. Momoko starts out by explaining the conventional structure of Japanese haiku, good old seventeen syllables, three sections of 5-7-5 — then acknowledges that even in Japanese not everyone thinks this structure is an essential requirement of haiku:

“Writing haiku where the first phrase is six sounds, or ji-amari, it turned out, was common. Some haiku broke more naturally into two phrases, of seven and ten or ten and seven sounds. These were referred to as ‘two phrases, one haiku.’ Other haiku read best as a single phrase, not broken up at all. These were called ‘one phrase, one haiku.’ ”

(Abigail Freedman, The Haiku Apprentice, p. 86)

I would have loved to see more discussion of this, or some examples, just so I could get a grasp on what to the Japanese mind constitutes a “natural” two-line or one-line ku. Not that it necessarily matters. I’m writing in English, I don’t know Japanese; even if every single Japanese haiku poet insisted that every haiku had to break naturally into three sections or it wasn’t a haiku, it wouldn’t mean that my English-language haiku had to follow their dictates.

Freedman says,

“I asked Momoko whether I ought to use a seventeen-syllable structure in haiku in English. She replied almost with indifference, Oh, in other languages, other rhythmic patterns might be more appropriate. … I said I had read haiku in English that were written all in one line, and other haiku written in two lines. She nodded and … simply stated, You should ask an English-language linguist or poet what form is best in English. The important point is to seek a natural rhythm in your language, and work your haiku from there.”

(Abigail Freedman, The Haiku Apprentice, p. 87)


To seek a natural rhythm in your language. This sounds so simple and sensible, but what is natural in English? The Japanese seem to have a very clear idea of what kinds of sound patterns are natural in their language — they’ve been writing poetry broken into sections of five and seven syllables for well over a thousand years now and they seem very happy with it.

I don’t know much about modern poetry trends in Japanese, if there is a strong movement like the prevailing English movement of free verse that doesn’t follow any particular prescribed pattern of rhythm or rhyme. Even if there is one, still, there is such a strong tradition of syllabic poetry in Japanese that the free-verse poets must have a clear idea of what it is they are not doing, which I sometimes think is what many English-language free verse poets are lacking. Are we not-writing iambic pentameter, which did dominate English poetry for some centuries and which some people think more closely approximates natural English speech rhythms than other kinds of verse? Are we not-writing sprung rhythm? Are we not-writing sing-songy rhyming couplets of the greeting-card variety?

And are haiku poets in English closer to free-verse poets, or to poets like Robert Frost who considered the constraints of meter vital to the creation of effective poetry? What is it we’re doing, exactly, when we write a haiku? If we’re not slavishly counting syllables — and most of us don’t think we are — and we’re not rhyming, and we’re not muttering “da-dum, da-dum” under our breaths, what the heck are we doing? Just kind of looking at what we write uncertainly, and going, “Well, that sounds okay to me”?

Some people get all antsy about having the middle line longer than the other two, or about having a certain number of beats in each line. I think there’s value in experimenting with doing those things and seeing if you can make them work and when. And maybe, as some people think, you should only call what you write a haiku when it conforms to some such rule or expectation; if all you’re doing is writing a nice little poem of no particular form, maybe it’s just a “micropoem” and you can forget about the Japanese entirely, because what do they have to do with anything?

I do think it’s possible that English-language haiku may never come fully into its own as a poetic form, because it is just too borrowed and we are too uncertain about what we’re doing with it to make it entirely ours. I go back and forth between thinking that we should just forget about the Japanese when we’re writing haiku, and thinking that we should look to them more — not for considerations of form, but for a certain kind of confidence in the possibilities of haiku for emotional and artistic expression, which I think that English haiku poets who worry excessively about form can be lacking.

I read so many haiku that seem so “haiku-ish,” so perfectly reflective of the theoretical haiku form and structure, that they are actually completely devoid of emotional resonance. I don’t believe them. I don’t care about them. And yes, I place most of my own ku in this category. (I mean, not that they’re technically perfect, but that I don’t believe them.) I need to delve down deeper and be less afraid of somehow “breaking” my haiku or not “doing it right.” What difference does it make if I do it right, if “it” isn’t worth doing in the first place? I think the Japanese are so comfortable with the form of haiku, which is so natural to them, that they are able to focus on the content, and it ends up being so much richer and riskier than ours.

So that’s where I’m trying to go now — in the direction of more risk. It’s possible that this is not remotely apparent from the blog. 🙂 That’s okay. It’s just a blog, I’m just learning, they’re just words. (That’s my mantra for the month: repeat as needed.)