February 11 (Its Depth)

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

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World Haiku Review, January 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Basho:

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

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

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

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

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

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Haiku North America 2011 – Seattle, Washington

Logo for the Haiku North America Conference

Okay … forget everything else you’ve heard about where and when the Haiku North America conference will be held this summer. Just wipe it from your mind. This is the final, official, ultimate announcement about the conference. Only pay attention to this one. Got it?

Here goes: the official press release from the conference organizers:

Save the date! Haiku North America 2011 will be held August 3 to 7, 2011, in Seattle, Washington.

Members of the Haiku Northwest group have generously offered to host the 2011 conference and they have many exciting plans already in the works, including a harbor cruise. The conference itself will be held at the Seattle Center, at the foot of the Space Needle, providing easy access to haiku writing and walking opportunities such as Pike Place Market (via the monorail), the Olympic Sculpture Park, the Experience Music Project rock-and-roll museum and Science Fiction Museum, and countless other attractions—including fleet week and the Seafair festival, with the Blue Angels performing overhead.

The conference theme will be “Fifty Years of Haiku,” celebrating the past, present, and future of haiku in North America. The deadline for proposals has been extended to February 28, 2011 (http://www.haikunorthamerica.com/pages/2011.html), but sooner is better. Proposals do not have to fit the theme. If you’ve already submitted a proposal, please confirm with Michael Dylan Welch at WelchM@aol.com that you can come to Seattle on the new dates. Speakers already include Cor van den Heuvel, Richard Gilbert, David Lanoue, Carlos Colón, Fay Aoyagi, Jim Kacian, Emiko Miyashita, George Swede, and many others.

Detailed information on registration, lodging, and the conference schedule will be available in March. For further information as it becomes available, please visit http://www.haikunorthamerica.com. And check out the new HNA blog at http://haikunorthamerica.wordpress.com/.

See you in Seattle!

Garry Gay, Paul Miller, Michael Dylan Welch
Haiku North America

On being lectured at. And enjoying it.

I really, really hate sitting and listening to lectures. Especially long lectures. It’s hard for me to sit. It’s hard for me to concentrate for long stretches of time. It’s hard for me to take in information that is spoken — I’m a reader. In college I usually gave up going to my lecture classes after a while because I fell asleep after the first half hour anyway so it was more efficient just to stay home and read the textbook. Or take a nap.

Yesterday morning, however, I sat and listened to lectures for three hours straight, and never blinked. I was totally engrossed the entire time. Apparently lectures about haiku are an exception to my lecture-hating rule.

(It didn’t hurt that these lectures took place in the newly refurbished Mineral Point Opera House, originally built in 1919 and full of lovely architectural details. If you want pictures you’ll have to check out the link, since my iPhone decided at some point during the morning to go completely dead on me [don’t worry, my son performed some kind of magic rite on it when I got home and now it’s fine].

This also means, sadly, that I don’t have pictures of any of the wonderful people I met yesterday or of the town of Mineral Point, which is as far as I’m concerned the loveliest small town in Wisconsin. Also one of the oldest, and hilliest, so it makes this New England transplant feel right at home.)

Anyway. Back to the lectures. The first was a talk by Randy Brooks (one of the few haiku professors in the country) with the wonderful title of “A Tumbly Life of Haiku: The Poetics of Robert Spiess.” He took us through a chronological selection of Spiess’ poetry, analyzing his development as a haiku writer from, essentially, more to less traditional. The early ku are mostly conventional in form and nature-based, though keenly observed:

all water turned ice:
delicately a gray squirrel
is lapping snow

the day after rain;
a reach of river bank
scattered with morels

Later Spiess experimented more with both form and subject matter:

a    square
of    water
r e f l e c t s
the    moon

making lunch for refugees —
my back turned, a child
picks through the garbage pail

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The next lecture, which really enthralled me, was Lee Gurga’s talk on “Robert Spiess’s Muse and the Future of American Haiku.” Lee managed to touch on just about every issue in the writing of contemporary haiku that most interests and concerns me, and enhanced my understanding of all these issues by about five hundred percent. Also, he was entertaining and inspiring.

I took copious notes, which I will try to distill down to a reasonable length. This may mean that I don’t represent Lee’s ideas in the order they appeared in his talk. And needless to say, apologies to Lee if I don’t get the details right or end up misrepresenting what he was saying — this was a dense and challenging lecture and I struggled to type fast enough to get it all down.

Lee started out by saying that he was currently collaborating on an anthology of haiku from current journals with Scott Metz, whom he considers the most talented haiku poet in the under-40 generation. Despite the fact that Scott’s experimental haiku are at the opposite end of the haiku spectrum from Lee’s more traditional poems, Lee thinks the future of American haiku lies with experimental and gendai poets such as Metz, Richard Gilbert and Jim Kacian. (I find these guys exciting myself and have written a couple of essays about them.)

Lee spoke about the process of editing Gilbert’s seminal essay “The Disjunctive Dragonfly” in 2004 when he, Lee, was the editor of Modern Haiku. The essay outlines Gilbert’s view of haiku poetics, which emphasizes disjunction — a complicated concept, maybe best summed up as a sort of disorientation or shift in viewpoint, intended to “erupt the complacent mind” of the reader. Traditional haiku, in contrast, tend to favor juxtaposition — a finding of commonality between disparate elements — and to emphasize clarity of language, with a goal of enlightening the reader.

Disjunction, imagistic fusion, language as language rather than a way to convey meaning — these characteristics of experimental haiku, Lee said, have “sent haiku off in all different directions”  — an exciting development. He thinks these techniques will produce haiku that are successful both as haiku and as short poems.

Lee discussed a bit about the history of English-language haiku: The early haiku translator R.H. Blythe, one of the first to introduce haiku to the English-speaking world, had a romantic vision of haiku as poems of discovery rather than of invention. In the sixties and seventies, the haiku ideal tended to be “the aha moment” — a sudden experience of enlightenment.

Gradually poets began to realize that these aha moments could take place at the time of the experience or at the time of writing. And the new experimental poets tend to think that the idea of writing about aha moments at the time of experience is a little played out. Lee himself, although he thinks this type of haiku will always be written, doesn’t think they will provide the future direction for American haiku. The new haiku poetry tends to consider words themselves the object of the poem, not experience.

If  Lee were to encapsulate in a phrase what’s different about American haiku today, it would be “the opacity of language,” contrasted with the earlier haiku ideal of transparency of language. He said, memorably, “The ideal for me is not transparency but translucency.” This means that the haiku can be read at both the literal and deeper — metaphorical or symbolic — levels. These multiple levels add richness to haiku and make them worth keeping and adding to the English literary canon.

As Lee has been working with Scott Metz, he’s been finding that Scott also values translucency — but his haiku are more at the opaque end of the translucency spectrum, whereas Lee’s are more at the transparent end. Scott often finds more transparent poems “boring” — Lee often has the reaction “so what” to more opaque poems. Both poets, however, are beginning to open each other’s eyes to the value of ku closer to the other end of the spectrum from what they naturally prefer. (Lee entertainingly summed up his attitude: “Too opaque is not superior to too transparent, perhaps only more pretentious.”)

Lee’s goal in editing the anthology is to reflect the current state of haiku in Japan: There, three schools of haiku exist, with their own organizations and standards: the traditional, the mainstream, and the gendai (more experimental). He wants to show that something like these three schools currently exist in English language haiku as well.

Lee gave some memorable examples of experimental and mainstream haiku from current journals. From Roadrunner, the journal Scott Metz edits, he cited the following (all of which I have represented as one line; I have no idea if some actually have line breaks or where the line breaks might occur — apologies to the authors if I have misrepresented your work):

moon flower the fragrance of names

their wings like cellophane remember cellophane

his kiss deepens midnight’s throat of stars

like a mosquito or an old empire city night

where I go searching bare trees ending sentences

baby beans racing moonlight

razored through to the void raven

bird me catch me

I see the iris and its stamina and am blue

From Modern Haiku he gave these more mainstream examples (same disclaimer as before — no idea where the line breaks occur, if any):

dusk rearranging silences

small town small talk big moon

october light I open my ribs to pray

insomnia two parts doubt one part moon

a coyote’s skull reconsidering the way

when fire had sentience winter solstice

someone’s last first cicada

floating in the sonogram summer moon

sparrows pour through a blue hole into our gray world

Traditional poetry, like that of Robert Spiess, is quite easy to find in most haiku journals.

For Lee himself as a haiku poet, balance between the extremes of experimental and traditional haiku is important. He enjoys experimenting, but also sees its dangers. He cites William Ramsay from a Roadrunner essay, “How One Writes in the Haiku Moment: Mythos vs. Logos”: “The haiku that Gilbert shows as models of disjunctive technique are excellent … [but] I don’t want to write … demo haiku .. I want to write haiku” that reflect events in his life and his feelings about them.” Ramsey wants to avoid the phenomenon of “disjunctive haiku as bludgeon,” overpowering and confusing the reader.

Some of Ramsey’s own haiku, which Lee considers to achieve this balance between experimental and traditional, are:

on a white plate two figs in syrup deep winter

cool pillow stuffed with pale lives I have sloughed off

born to live I hoe and ah born to die I kiss the melon [my comment: WOW]

Lee sees an approaching bifurcation in American haiku — it will become not a single movement of like-minded poets but will be more divided into schools like the Japanese haiku movement, with journals becoming more specialized and oriented toward one school or another. He sees this development as an indication of the maturity of American haiku — leaving its adolescence behind.

Lee asks, “Haiku will survive but what will it be?” His answer: There will be a cross-fertilization between haiku and other minimalist poetry. Haiku will come to emphasize both attention to the world around us and attention to the material, the language, of the poem. Unequivocally, Lee said, “I believe this is the technique that will produce the best haiku.”

Lee does hope that the haiku of the future will not abandon completely two important elements of traditional haiku: the notion of seasons (whether of the solar year or, more metaphorically, of life), and the idea of “an invitation to the reader.” He doesn’t want haiku to lapse into narcissism or solipsism, but to reach out to its audience.

The best haiku, Lee believes, will enable us to “enrich our connection to others so that we become the best poets and the best human beings we can be.”

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I had really been looking forward to Charles Trumbull’s talk on “Verbs in Haiku” ever since I saw the title on the program. This is because I am a big geek and really like grammar. I even got excited when Charlie announced at the beginning of his lecture, “Things will get suddenly heavy now.” Hey, I like heavy! I was not disappointed. (And once again, any idiocies in the following discussion are certainly mine and not Charlie’s.)

Charlie is actually writing a book on grammar in haiku and his talk concerned his research into the role of verbs in strengthening or weakening haiku. He started out with the question — are verbs necessary in haiku? Traditionally, haiku present two separate images, usually noun-based, so perhaps verbs can be considered optional. He presented Cor Van der Heuvel’s haiku as an example:

the shadow in the folded napkin

To answer this question, Charlie read all the previous literature on verbs in haiku (which consisted of three articles, discussed below), and also examined 200 haiku from journals in two years, 2005 and 2008. He analyzed what verbs these haiku used, if any; what tense and mood they were; whether they were active or passive, transitive or intransitive, weak or strong. He considered the role of participles and gerunds in haiku. For all these categories he presented numerous examples from his research, which were fascinating but I will mostly skip them.

There were a few concepts Charlie went into in more depth, for instance the idea, very common among traditional haiku poets, that haiku should all be in the present tense. He presented a few quotes on the subject, for instance this one by Bruce Ross: “Haiku takes place in the present. This is its special feature.” Rebecca Rust, likewise, says unequivocally, “Haiku is a record of a present moment.” Jane Reichhold offers a slightly more nuanced explanation for her preference for present-tense haiku: stories are more gripping if told in the present tense.

Charlie did find that most haiku in his sample were written in the present tense, but presented several compelling examples of ku written in other tenses:

the crow flew so fast
that he left his lonely caw
behind the fields
— Richard Wright

a woman at last!
tonight, old moon,
you will have to sleep alone.
— Jim Tipton

Charlie also discussed the use of verbs in Japanese haiku, which are often difficult to translate into English precisely:

the faces of the dolls!
though I never intended to,
I have grown old.
— Seifu-jo (tr. Blythe)

In this haiku, Charlie said, the verb in the last line indicates a completed past action and might be more accurately translated as “old age had happened” — a sudden realization of the fact of the poet’s age.

Charlie discussed the three previous articles on verbs in haiku. The first, by Ted-Larry Pebworth, disparages weak verbs in haiku, saying that “ ‘to be’ is one of the most dangerous verbs available to the haiku poet.” Charlie tends to agree, saying that in his sample he could find no uses of the verb “to be” (the copula) used to represent simple equality. “Very few respectable haiku poets use this form anymore.”

However, one acceptable reason to use the copula is to convey the idea of transformation, as in this example by Fay Aoyagi:

new year’s eve bath —
I fail to become
a swan

The second essay, by Gustave Keyser, encourages the use of strong verbs as the “key to optimum effect in haiku.” One example Keyser gives, coincidentally, is the haiku that Gayle Bull cited as her favorite by Bob Spiess during the remembrances the night before. It was written about a bush in her own yard:

of the snow that fell
some lies on a common bush
uncommonly well

Here “lies,” Keyser says, is “the precisely right verb for the mood of the poem.”

Charlie also agrees that strong verbs improve haiku and notes that the number of strong verbs increased from his 2005 to his 2008 sample.

The third essay, by Bob Spiess himself, advocates for the use of no verbs in haiku. This does not mean, Spiess says, that the haiku will not have, or need, a “verbal element,” but this function can be taken over by other words.

Charlie found that in his sample, one quarter of the haiku had no verb at all, but most did have some kind of “verbal element” obliquely indicating action. In some, a verb, whether the copula or a more active verb, seemed to be implied:

early spring walk
your hand
in my pocket
— Roberta Beary

(Here Charlie suggested that “is” is implied after “hand.”)

Nouns can also have verbal overtones:

after making love
the slow click
of her knitting needles
— Michael Overhofer

(Here “click” is a noun that implies a verb.”

Participles, obviously, can have a verbal function:

a hole
in the starling’s skull
mint gone to seed
— John Barlow

Here once again Charlie discussed the difficulty of translating haiku from the Japanese and points out that different translations of the same haiku might use a verb, a participle, or no verb at all.

To my delight, he also presented Jane Reichhold’s idea of “The Technique of Noun-Verb Exchange,” using a word that can be interpreted in the haiku as either a noun or a verb:

spring rain
the willow strings
raindrops

After all his research, Charlie feels that either a verb or some kind of verbal element is desirable in haiku — haiku that don’t have any kind of implied verb seem weaker to him. I am still thinking about whether I agree with him.

Had enough? Yeah, by this point I had too. Let’s take a break for lunch.