he asks to sit down
for a while
spring moon —
at the foot of our bed
the cat shuts half an eye
(NaHaiWriMo prompt: Eyes)
Moving on: NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 22nd, in honor of Earth Day:
See this post for an explanation of what this is.
See the NaHaiWriMo website.
See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)
you and I
Shiki Kukai February 2011
“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)
seven or eight sparrows count them again
For some reason, even though I wrote it in pretty much my first week of writing haiku, it is still one of my favorites of my own poems. Beginner’s luck, I guess.
Why do I like it so much? (You don’t have to ask so incredulously.) Well…first of all, there’s the whole “it’s true” thing. It’s impossible to count birds. (Impossible for me, anyway; maybe you’ve had better luck.) They keep moving. They’re transient, they’re transitory.
So many things in life are. You can’t pin them down. You look one minute and things look one way; the next minute they look entirely different. Don’t even ask about the differences between years.
But for some reason we (and by “we” I mean “I”) keep trying to get some kind of firm fix on the situation, whatever the situation is. Seven or eight sparrows? Well, does it matter? Rationally, no … but so much of life is spent trying to count those damn sparrows.
Also, I like numbers. I like numbers in general; I like arithmetic; I count things and add and subtract and multiply things all the time, just for the hell of it. Give me your phone number and I’ll tell you something interesting about the digits in, like, four seconds. “The sum of the first three digits is the product of the last two digits!” Or something. It’s a little weird. Kind of Junior Rain Man. (I do know the difference between the price of a car and the price of a candy bar, though. So your longstanding suspicion that I really should be institutionalized has not yet been entirely confirmed.)
I like numbers in poetry because they are so specific. Other things being equal, generally the more specific a poem is the more powerful it is, so numbers to me seem like high-octane gas or something for poetry.
Gabi Greve, on her mindblowingly complete haiku website, has a great page about numbers in haiku. Here are a couple of my favorites of the examples she gives:
saku hana o matsu ichi ni umi ni wa sakura
waiting for the cherry blossoms
one is the sea
two is the cherry tree
— Ishihara 石原重方
bitamiinzai ichi nichi ni joo taki kooru
each day two of them –
the waterfall freezes
— Ono Shuka (Oono Shuka) 大野朱香
Also, Issa is great at haiku that feature numbers. (Does this surprise you? I thought not.) A few examples, all translated by David Lanoue (and if you want more you should go over to David’s spectacular database of Issa translations and type your favorite number in the search box):
and three or four
houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…
three or five stars
by the time I fold it…
two drops for the rice cake tub
three drops for the winnow
suddenly three people
face to face
on three or four stools…
out of four gates
entering just one
on four or five
slender blades of grass
a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
and one of my favorites of all time —
one, two, three, four
five, six people
Interesting how many of these involve the kind of uncertainty about exact count that my own haiku does. I don’t remember whether I had read any Issa at the time I wrote it. I might have been shamelessly imitating him, or I might just have been trying to count sparrows. You try it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
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.
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.
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.
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!
the same whispers
the same sighs
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
>blossoms as they close
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
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.
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.
“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.”
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
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
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
And so am I. It’s exhausting, traversing the Haikuverse. Going to bed now. See you on the flip side …
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.)
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.
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. 🙂
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
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
nearly three years old
her words more and more precise
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.
Lee’s original haiku:
his side of it
her side of it.
(translation 1, by Versions user Боруко)
(translation 2, by Versions user A.G.)
твоё моё наше
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
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.
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 drunkstepping lightlyin the spring windRyokan (1758-1831)
possum’s nightly walk
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
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.
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
The Technique of the Paradox:
“One of the aims of playing with haiku is to confuse the reader just enough to attract interest. Using a paradox will engage interest and give the reader much to think about. Again, one cannot use nonsense but has to construct a true (connected to reality) paradox. …
climbing the temple hill
leg muscles tighten
in our throats”
The Technique of The Improbable World:
“This is very close to paradox … an old Japanese tool which is often used to make the poet sound simple and child-like. Often it demonstrates a distorted view of science – one we ‘know’ is not true, but always has the possibility of being true (as in quantum physics).
colors of the day
a patch of sunlight
wears out the chairs”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
one blue egg
the shape of a bird
in my hand
clutching my pen
to keep from falling
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
The Technique of Sabi
“… [T]he Japanese have maintained for centuries that no one can really, truly comprehend what sabi really is and thus, they change its definition according to their moods. Bill Higginson, in The Haiku Handbook, calls sabi – ‘(patina/loneliness) Beauty with a sense of loneliness in time, akin to, but deeper than, nostalgia.’ Suzuki maintains that sabi is ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude’ but that it can also be ‘miserable,’ ‘insignificant,’ and ‘pitiable,’ ‘asymmetry’ and ‘poverty.’ Donald Keene sees sabi as ‘an understatement hinting at great depths.’ So you see, we are rather on our own with this!
I have translated this as: sabi (SAH-BEE)- aged/loneliness – A quality of images used in poetry that expresses something aged or weathered with a hint of sadness because of being abandoned. A split-rail fence sagging with overgrown vines has sabi; a freshly painted picket fence does not.
lips taking a sip
from a stone mouth
[Note: In Jane’s book “Writing and Enjoying Haiku” (published later than and containing a revised version of this essay) she gives the example haiku for sabi as:
petals fall into
The Technique of Wabi
“The twin brother to sabi … can be defined as ‘(WAH-BEE) — poverty — Beauty judged to be the result of living simply. Frayed and faded Levis have the wabi that bleached designer jeans can never achieve.’ Thus one can argue that the above haiku samples are really more wabi than sabi – and suddenly one understands the big debate. However, I offer one more ku that I think is more wabi than sabi because it offers a scene of austere beauty and poignancy.
on wind barren meadows
birth of a lamb”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
More on wabi and sabi:
I think that when Jane originally wrote this the concepts of wabi and sabi (or wabi-sabi, the way they’re usually conjoined and made into one concept these days) were not really familiar to Americans. Then, of course, a segment of the interior design industry got hold of it and the next thing you knew there were entire shelves of the home-decorating section at Barnes & Noble dedicated to explaining how to improve your home by bringing home junky things from garage sales (or pre-distressed knickknacks from Target), arranging them artistically on your coffee table, and telling everyone they were part of your Japanese Zen aesthetic.
I’m being facetious. Kind of. I mean, in some ways my house is Wabi-Sabi Central, if only because I don’t have any actual money to buy shiny new stuff. (Also, shiny new stuff hurts my eyes.) Lots of my furniture was retrieved off curbs on trash day. (“Oh look! Another not-completely-broken chair that doesn’t match any of my other chairs! Score!”)
I buy all my clothes at thrift stores so I never have to worry about breaking in my jeans. I like museums and antique stores because they’re full of worn-out objects that lots of other people have touched and left psychic imprints on, and I would love to bring home more of these objects — you know, like beautifully weathered old maple furniture, and frayed hundred-year-old quilts made by thrifty ladies using up their fabric scraps, and those gorgeous grayish-brown stoneware jars to store your dry goods, and — what’s that you say? That stuff all costs a fortune?
Yeah, see, that’s the problem with wabi-sabi — once everyone started thinking how great it was to have worn-out old stuff, the worn-out old stuff got really expensive. And it all started feeling a little trite and silly, this frantic rush to spend lots of money to make your house look like you were impoverished.
But that surface interior-decorating concept of wabi-sabi isn’t — I know, I know — what it’s really about. What it is about, exactly — as Jane points out — nobody exactly knows, and the Japanese, I believe, are not all that eager to explain — detailed explanations, obviously, not being very Zen. I did find a really cool essay on the subject by someone who appears to be an American tea expert (tea ceremony master? hard to tell from the site). Here are some of his or her thoughts on the matter (it’s a long and really interesting essay, so as usual I recommend reading the whole thing even though — sigh — I know nobody will):
“Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. … It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. … My favorite Japanese phrase for describing wabi-sabi is ‘natsukashii furusato,’ or an old memory of my hometown. …
“Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquillity, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. …
“Sabi by itself means ‘the bloom of time.’ It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust — the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting. … An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America’s contribution to the evolution of sabi. … We seek sabi in antiques and even try to manufacture it in distressed furnishings. True sabi cannot be acquired, however. It is a gift of time. …
“Wabi-sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, which was brought from China to Japan by Eisai, a twelfth-century monk. Zen, with its principles of vast emptiness and nothing holy, stresses austerity, communion with nature, and above all, reverence for everyday life as the real path to enlightenment.”
— From noble harbor, “What is Wabi-Sabi?“
So. Now that we are all hopelessly confused (and have concluded that wabi-sabi and haiku have a lot in common, chiefly the complete inability of any two people to agree on a definition of them) … on to the poetry.
how few petals
from the kettle
on the tablecloth
the empty bench
the wind sweeps away
I had to throw this in … this is the most wabi-sabi-ish place I’ve ever seen. It’s part of the ruins of an old hotel that are now in the middle of a state park. This structure was a fish hatchery on a trout pond. You can click on it to get a much larger, more interesting view.
Make sure you make it to the bottom of this post. There is a delicious candy surprise waiting for you. Or, um, a pile of Brussels sprouts, depending on your opinion of derivative, semi-parodical poetry.
The other day somebody compared some of my work to Wallace Stevens’s. This was hugely flattering to me because, although I don’t really believe in picking favorites when it comes to poetry (or really anything else), if someone held a gun to my head and said, “Name your favorite poet or else,” I would have to say (or rather, probably, shriek in desperation), “Wallace Stevens! Wallace Stevens!”
Like everyone else who knows a fair amount about both Wallace Stevens and haiku, I’d noticed the resemblance between haiku and probably his best-known poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (great book! read it!), quote the first stanza as an example of the influence of the haiku on early-2oth-century poetry:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I could probably go on for a while about what Stevens’s theory of poetics was and why he’s so great and everyone should love him, but you don’t really care and if you do you can go read about him on Wikipedia or even better, pick up a copy of The Palm at the End of the Mind from someplace and just read his poetry until you fall over in a dead faint.
What you are really looking for here is some pseudo-haiku culled from Stevens’s work. And although I have some reservations about this exercise because I don’t think it gives all that accurate an impression of what his highly metaphorical, dense, intellectual poetry is about, I can oblige you, forthwith:
At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the falling leaves
(“Domination of Black”)
the grackles crack
their throats of bone
in the smooth air
The white cock’s tail
Streams to the moon.
Water in the fields.
(“Ploughing on Sunday”)
The skreak and skritter
of evening gone
and grackles gone
A bridge above the … water
And the same bridge
when the river is frozen
(“Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”)
Long autumn sheens
and pittering sounds like sounds
on pattering leaves
(“Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue”)
The grass in in seed.
The young birds are flying.
Yet the house is not built
(“Ghosts as Cocoons”)
Slowly the ivy
on the stones
becomes the stones
(“The Man with the Blue Guitar”)
A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter
when afternoons return
(“The Poems of Our Climate”)
a bough in the electric light…
so little to indicate
the total leaflessness
(“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”)
— All selections from Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play
Did you make it all the way through that? Okay…as either a reward or a punishment (you decide), I am now going to inflict on you a rare example of my non-haiku poetry. It is of course haiku-ish (being modeled on a haiku-ish poem), so it’s not too terrible. I don’t think. Oh — be sure you’ve actually read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” before you read it, or the full effect will be lost on you.
Something else you need to know to fully appreciate this is that Wallace Stevens famously had a day job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut.
Thirteen Ways of Looking At Wallace Stevens
The view from the window
Of the poet’s office:
Thin clouds spread
Over a hazy sky.
I drive down the avenues of Hartford
Looking for Wallace Stevens
Or for what he has left behind.
Precision, quiddity, and fancy,
The shape of Wallace Stevens’ mind.
A man sits at a mahogany desk
Holding his pen completely still over
An empty ledger book.
The black marks on an actuarial table
Look much like the black marks
On a page of poetry.
Wallace Stevens walks to work
Down streets blackbirds have flown along.
What will you pay me, Wallace Stevens,
Not to finish this poem?
I wake from a strange dream
Through which Wallace Stevens was flying.
The shadowy quality of a day in the mountains
Spent reading Wallace Stevens.
Like the thing and the image of the thing,
Like the two parts of Wallace Stevens’ life:
The doing, and the being.
Wallace Stevens leaves the office,
Carrying an umbrella,
His briefcase swinging
At the end of the arm he writes with.
The two eyes of the poet,
Seeing in two directions.
I sit down to write a poem.
I look up, and there is Wallace Stevens.
He casts his shadow over the paper.
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?)
my fat pantheon
I’ve been feeling like we need some pictures around here to liven things up. As Hamlet once said, “Words, words, words…give me a break.” Or something like that.
I’m not normally a picture kind of person — my husband is the photographer in the family, and there is no drawer or painter in the family. Until I was in my twenties I thought the only reason anyone ever put pictures in books was to help out people who couldn’t read very well. But then I began to see the light, at least in terms of art appreciation. I’m wildly entertained in art museums, and I have a couple of art books on my coffee table — oh, predictable stuff, Chagall, Matisse — that I tend to shake in the faces of visitors and repeat, “You’ve GOT to look at this! Isn’t this AMAZING?” until they get scared and go away.
Still — words are my medium, the stuff I swim in. Even when I look at other people’s blogs, I tend to hardly see the pictures; I’m all over the words, and if they don’t work I’m unlikely to care whether you’re the next Walker Evans or Cindy Sherman. But I’m told that I’m in the minority. People like pictures! The more the better! Reading is hard, especially reading long things — you know, more than three lines or so. (Don’t worry, I know this is not the case for any of my devoted readers. I do have devoted readers, don’t I? Don’t tell me if I don’t.)
And my husband (the source of most of my photos) really is a decent photographer. (I took the one up at the top of this post, though, so if you have anything mean to say about it, keep that in mind.) And I’ve been wanting to try writing haiku that aren’t necessarily drawn directly from life — though in this case, I was present for or at least know the context of all these photos, so it’s sort of at least second-hand life, if you know what I mean.
What I’m trying to say is, this blog will be getting very image-heavy over the next few days — after which it will probably revert to being language-centric. So don’t get too used to it.
I’m still feeling under the weather from semi-collapsing at the end of a half-marathon I ran on Sunday in 88-degree weather (it’s Wisconsin, and it’s been a cold spring, so no snickering from you Southwesterners). Pretty much confined to the couch, since standing up for more than a few minutes makes me dizzy. There are worse things, I guess. I’m surrounded by all the books and magazines I put off reading all semester, not to mention the omnipresent, time-sucking Interweb.
I’m having a hard time following a train of thought even long enough to write a sub-seventeen-syllable poem, though. So at the moment I’m taking it easy on my fried brain by resorting to found haiku, mostly from prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, better known as a poet — one of my all-time favorites. The first couple haiku are from poems. The rest are from his journals, which every aspiring poet should read. The man minutely observed and described everything he saw; whole paragraphs read like poems. I can’t help thinking that if he had known about haiku, he would have tried his hand at it.
I may repeat this experiment at intervals, mining the works of other poets and prose writers for haiku-like material (full credit to the original authors, of course). I agonized briefly over whether this exercise was a) cheating, or b) meaningful, but then decided I didn’t care. I enjoy it and it’s my blog. And I do think I’m learning something from this about what writing is haiku-like and what isn’t.
I’ve taken the liberty of haiku-izing Hopkins’s words by arranging them in three lines and removing some punctuation, but otherwise these are direct quotations, with no words removed or added.
the moon, dwindled and thinned
to the fringe of a fingernail
held to the candle
this air I gather
and I release
he lived on
with a not
of the ash, pencil buds
of the beech
almost think you can hear
of the swallows’ wings
over the green water
of the river passing
the slums of the town
of this tree is difficult
putting my hand up
against the sky
whilst we lay on the grass
silver mottled clouding
else like yesterday
Basel at night!
with a full moon
waking the river
the river runs so strong
that it keeps the bridge
some great star
whether Capella or not
I am not sure
two boys came down
the mountain yodelling
we saw the snow
the mountain summits
are not the place
for mountain views
the winter was called severe
there were three spells
of frost with skating
the next morning
a heavy fall
at the beginning of March
they were felling
some of the ashes in our grove
with taut tattered streaks
of crisp gritty snow
thunderstorm in the evening
first booming in gong-sounds
as at Aosta
I noticed the smell
of the big cedar
not just in passing
the comet —
I have seen it at bedtime
in the west
as we came home
the stars came out thick
I leaned back to look at them
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by W.H. Gardner
So the last few days got kind of heavy and I was starting to feel like I never wanted to see another haiku as long as I lived. Instant panic: I can’t be burning out already! Something must be done!
Well…what is the best thing to do when you start taking yourself way, way too seriously? Start acting incredibly silly, of course. Stand on your head. Do a funny dance. Write bad haiku.
Okay, maybe not bad, exactly. But…weird. Different. Not…haiku-like.
Oh! That reminds me of this thing I bookmarked the other day and vowed to come back to when I got a minute!
” ‘Haiku-like haiku aren’t particularly bad. But haiku that don’t seem haiku-like at all—nowadays that’s the kind I’m after.’
—Santoka (trans. Burton Watson)
“…The relatively narrow (and necessarily hybrid) basis of the tradition of haiku in English, with its emphasis on the here and now, can only take us so far; thus many published haiku seem ‘thin.’ Perhaps what’s needed is less striving to perfect the ‘same,’ more writing against the grain.”
–Philip Rowland, The Problem
Yeah, Philip (and Santoka), I know what you mean. Read and write enough haiku, and eventually even the good ones start seeming like parodies of themselves. All that nature! All those tiny exquisite details! All those lower-case letters! All that lack of punctuation! All those moments of enlightenment!
What if for one day I tossed out all those precious little haiku rules (as represented in italics below), and tried to write haiku that seemed un-haiku-like, and yet somehow preserved the spirit of haiku (whatever the hell that is)?
I think it would make me feel better. Though it might make you feel worse.
“Use concrete images.” And, “Don’t make direct references to emotion.” (You know, “Show, don’t tell.”) Also, “Slang is so unattractive.”
“Three lines (or even one) are nicer than two. Or four. Five is right out.” Also, “Metaphors are kind of tacky.” Also, “Cliches? Don’t even get me started.”
This cup of tea
Where I left the
balloon I bought
for your birthday:
On cloud nine
against the current:
like I’m standing still
“Don’t shout.” Also, “Don’t swear.”
WHAT THE HELL
IS A FROG
DOING IN THAT TREE?
“If seventeenth-century technology was good enough for Basho, it’s good enough for us.” Also, “Write in the present tense. Not the past. Or the future.”
My email vanished
before I hit “Send.”
Will Facebook reject me too?
“Please don’t be vulgar.” Also, metaphors, cliches, yadda yadda yadda.
No pot to piss in
when I need to piss.
Which I do.
in your armpit:
your long walk.
“Try to make at least a little bit of sense.” Also, “Minimize your syllables.”
Sticky tape, sticky buns
Fine reticulations of burnt toast
Mud sponging over black shoes
where it (oh who am I kidding anyway)
stopped (my stomach is growling, when did I have lunch)
Haiku (there is as much in the future as there is in the past)
“Rhyme should be used judiciously. If at all.”’
In bed tonight
I know you’re right.
Just turn out the light.
I opened it up.
There you were,
turned into packing peanuts.
freeze after thaw
cell phone ring
makes me slip on the ice
colder than yesterday
my sister’s voice
on the phone
on my back on the ice
clouds torn open
reveal more clouds
cell phone ring
a stranger’s car
roads darker than I’m used to
curve toward home
snow on dark steps
the family waits
in my stomach
throwing out his painkillers
the day after his death
the death of the neighbor’s dog
cold draft in his room
we used to play with
knocking with cold hands
at the wrong door
of the funeral home
list of funeral expenses
the polished table
white sheet pulled away
from his surprised face
snow on a low wall
two burial places
chairs with hard seats
stack of Sunday papers
can’t stop reading
running up the hills
I left behind
trying on dresses
I blow my nose
on his handkerchiefs
Googling the words of
his favorite hymn
steam from my mother’s tea
day of the funeral
rust from the leaky
unheated waiting room
one by one
we put coats back on
my father’s funeral
standing for a hymn
memory of my head
reaching his elbow
his sympathy card
will regret my unbelief
frost on the windowpane
sweet red punch
snow in the cemetery
fresh snow on his car
a car to drive
a thousand miles home
My father died in February. I’d made no effort whatsoever to write about his death before. Or speak about it, really. Or think about it, come to think about it.
Something about haiku makes it easier, by forcing you to remember and concentrate on the tiny physical details of the experience. Writing these has been like compiling a mental photo album of the week of his death. It’s allowed both distance and immediacy. I approach the experience, come close enough to touch it, then draw back quickly, as soon as I start to feel it burn.
the crying far away
of someone left behind
sandhill cranes at dawn
faint pencil marks
in the margins
the book you left behind
I “wrote” both of these in bed this morning, in my head, while I was barely awake. I could hear the cranes, the mournful bass underlying the rest of the dawn chorus. I don’t know where the pencil marks came from, maybe a dream. After I got up and wrote them down, the two haiku seemed connected to me and I couldn’t figure out why; then I realized they both contain the phrase “left behind.” My conscious will be interrogating my subconscious about that for the rest of the day.
cold spring morning
rising from bed to hang laundry
with fumbling fingers
I wish you’d come see
the cat. She no longer sleeps
on the guest room bed.
This was published in my high school literary magazine, after they rejected (with actual incredulous laughter) the haiku I really liked, which I can no longer find. It featured an upturned teapot, but I can’t remember anything else about it. Just for the record, my English teacher liked it too. I feel I must say this defensively even twenty-four years after the fact. Note to self: raise this issue in next therapy session.
I remember being extremely preoccupied with counting 5-7-5 syllables when I wrote haiku in high school (and for some time beyond). Partly this was because schoolteachers tend to place a lot of emphasis on this “requirement” of haiku (I have a post about this coming up), partly it was because I had then (and still must combat now) a tendency to take rules and limits very, very seriously. I still like writing (informal) sonnets, villanelles, all sorts of poetic forms with set structures: genuine free verse seems worryingly infinite in possibility to me. If I do write free verse, I tend to place some kind of loose metrical constraints on it, just so my choice of words is narrower.
That’s pretty much where I am right now with poetry in general and haiku in particular — not tight, not loose. There are haiku “requirements” I find pleasing and like to work with: the “one-breath” idea; the idea of a “kigo” or seasonal word (but my interpretation of this is looser than the Japanese idea); the idea of a “kireji” or cutting word (but for me this means more like a word that is a hinge that holds the parts of the haiku together, or a strong, vivid word that focuses the haiku’s image); the Zen idea of a fleeting image, a glimpse, something that can be grasped all at once and doesn’t need to be analyzed. Not all my haiku have to have all these elements, but I find it helpful to keep these things in mind when I’m writing haiku, and to the extent that I’m successful in incorporating them into my haiku, the more successful I tend to feel the haiku is.
Of course, modern English haiku don’t have strict syllabic requirements, but sometimes I still like to count 5-7-5, or at least 17, just for fun, or as a challenge to myself. Though I read recently that 12 syllables is more like the ideal for an English haiku (what this is based on I have no idea), so I might play around with that for a while and see how it works.
And then again I might experiment with truly minimalist haiku: two or three words. The interesting thing about my attempting such brevity is that (as you can see from this commentary) my natural tendency is to write long. I think of haiku as a way to force myself to identify the heart of my message, to discard the extraneous verbiage that clutters my arguments and muddies my images.