March 31: Skinny Dipping (Prompted)

skinny dipping
the man in the moon
as shy as I am

.

(NaHaiWriMo prompt for March 31st, per Alan Summers: Skin )

______________________________

So you all know there was this thing called NaHaiWriMo back in February, right? National Haiku Writing Month? Where the participants were supposed to write a haiku every day in the month of February? And about a zillion people did this, and wrote some fantastic haiku, and a lot of them got their inspiration by following prompts cooked up and posted on Facebook by Michael Dylan Welch, the First Vice-President of the Haiku Society of America and NaHaiWriMo founder?

And everyone had so much fun that they begged and whined until Michael appointed Alan Summers, who is a founding editor of haijinx and the proprietor of Area 17 and does a whole lot of other exciting things with haiku, to continue to provide haiku prompts on the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page for the month of March? And tons of people kept following along and having all kinds of fun and no one really wanted the fun to end?

Well, to my shock and delight, Michael decided to ask me to keep all these NaHaiWriMo groupies happy by providing prompts for the month of April (which happens to be National Poetry Month). So if you have a Facebook account, and you haven’t already “liked” the NaHaiWriMo page (see link above), go do that now, please, and then my prompts will start showing up in your news feed, and if you want you can even write haiku inspired by them (or haiku not inspired by them) and post them on the NaHaiWriMo page and be part of this whole wild movement.

If you don’t have and don’t want a Facebook account, fear not, I will also be posting the prompts here after I post them on Facebook, so you can follow along. If you want, you can post haiku inspired by the prompts on your own blog, if you have one. Or you can post them in my comments, and let me know if you’d like me to post them on Facebook for you. (Just be forewarned that if you post haiku here [or usually on Facebook for that matter], most journals will consider them previously published and therefore ineligible for further publication — haijinx being one notable exception, yay us.)

Now, it’s true that I have not actually been following most of the NaHaiWriMo prompts myself, in the sense of, you know, writing haiku about the topics given. (I’m ornery that way. Also really busy.) But I have been following the results of the NaHaiWriMo prompts, and I find them fascinating and wonderful. All kinds of people who might not ordinarily write haiku regularly have been doing so. They’ve been challenged to write about things they might not ordinarily think to write about. They’ve demonstrated the vast variety of haiku it’s possible to write on a single topic. They’ve developed a camaraderie, started to build a community.

So I am thrilled to have the honor of contributing to this amazing movement. (Also, any idea how much fun it is to brainstorm a long crazy list of haiku prompts? Really fun.)

Look for my prompt for April 1st to appear late tonight. (In seventeen or eighteen hours from the time I posted this, that is, for those of you who are so inconsiderate as to live in drastically different time zones from me.) See you then.

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

*
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.”

*
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.

Reception, remembrances, readings

Highlights of last night’s festival events (which I was way too dead on my feet to post about last night):

The reception that opened the festival took place in Gayle Bull’s home, which is attached to the back of her store. It’s almost as full of books as the store.

I, unfortunately, am not the ideal person to report on reception-type events, because despite the impression you may get from this blog that I am the kind of person who never shuts up, I am actually paralyzingly shy in large crowds of people. Three at a time is about my maximum. Several dozen? None of whom I’ve ever met before? Most of whom seem to know each other? Not so much.

This is not to say that people weren’t friendly. Everyone I actually managed to meet and talk to was extremely welcoming and warm. Charlotte DiGregorio, the Midwest Regional Coordinator of the Haiku Society of America, with whom I corresponded earlier this summer about the conference, gave me some great tips about starting my own haiku group in Madison, and also some pointers about submitting my haiku to journals (which I have just recently, and very tentatively, started doing). Charlie Trumbull, a wonderful haiku poet and the venerable editor of what is probably the most prominent haiku journal in America, Modern Haiku, was kind enough to endure the gushing admiration of a newbie haikuist without throwing up.

(There was also really good chocolate at the reception, including one designed for the conference (by whom? must find out) called “Haiku.” It was in the shape of a leaf and was spicy and why didn’t I get a picture of it?)

During the reception Charlie was running around handing out sheets of haiku by Robert Spiess, the late editor of Modern Haiku whom the conference was commemorating. Everyone was meant to pick two from their sheet to read in the next phase of the evening …

We moved outside to take over the microphone of the singer-guitarist who had been quietly playing country and soft-rock standards all evening in order to present remembrances of Bob Spiess. I knew pretty much nothing about Bob at the start of the evening but by the end I almost felt I’d known him personally. Everyone emphasized his kindness and generosity, including Gayle’s two daughters who remembered his frequent visits to their home and the way he doled out quarters to them (at a time when a quarter would have been a much bigger deal to a kid than it is now).

Possibly the funniest story involved the time Bob visited Japan and was riding the bullet train with some other haikuists, and was very eager to see Mount Fuji. Then he had to use the restroom. The other poets watched in dismay as Mount Fuji flashed by while he was gone. He got a haiku out of it though, a very funny one which I am going to track down and add here.

Several people read Bob’s thoughts about what haiku is or should be. Lee Gurga, another amazing haiku poet who is Bob’s literary executor and took over the editorship of Modern Haiku after his death, read Bob’s list of what annoyed him in haiku, a lot of which are the same things that annoy me in haiku, including the overuse of words like “suddenly” and “silence.”

Someone else read an observation of Bob’s which really struck me (maybe because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately myself): “Haiku is the poetry of the healing of culture by nature.” Bob’s poetry is definitely heavy on nature imagery, which I have recently disparaged, but it feels very natural in his poetry because he has clearly spent a lot of time observing and thinking about it:

around the bend
a log lying in the stream
— the turtle’s ears

Not that he doesn’t closely observe human beings too:

some sticks and pebbles
and a place with mud
a child by himself

a high mountain path
the guide saying that monkey
tastes better than goat

He wrote a whole series of haiku, in fact — Tall River Junction, inspired, obviously, by Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology — with titles that were people’s names:


Fr. Augustine Confesso, Paris Priest
Smiles, “The pear you eat,
snitched from the tree, my neighbor boy,
be it doubly sweet.

This last poem illustrates something that I found interesting about Spiess’s haiku, which is how often it employs rhyme — and how well the rhyme works:

drifting in the skiff …
names of all the swallows now:
tree and barn and cliff

The rhyme almost always follows this pattern of the first and third line rhyming.

One of the most touching moments of the evening occurred during the reading of Spiess’s haiku. A Korean woman with a strong accent stood up and announced she was going to read only the shortest poem on her sheet because she knew her accent would be difficult for us to understand:

firefly
wakens
me

Then she added: “I have the pleasure to know Bob Spiess and he was the pure kindness.”

We had a brief break before the next phase of the evening, which was readings from our own (or others’, if we preferred) haiku. Many poets seemed to take this opportunity to further lubricate themselves with the local beer and wine that was for sale. (I don’t drink, not because I have any moral or health objections to alcohol or am a recovering alcoholic or anything, just because I have never acquired a grownup taste for the stuff. Or for coffee, for that matter. Or liver and onions. All equally disgusting as far as I’m concerned.)

Anyway, by the time the readings began, the poets were becoming kind of rowdy. Rowdy haiku poets. Heckling each other. It was quite a scene. Lots of the haiku involved double entendres or just subtle (or frank) references to sex, which all got great reactions.

Most of the haiku that were read were frankly wonderful; I wrote lots of them down thinking I would post some of them here and then realized I really can’t do that without the permission of the authors. If I can get that, I may put some up later.

Lee Gurga read a great haiku by Peter Yovu, and some commentary about it (some of which is reproduced in the link above), and announced he’d give everything he’d ever written to have written it. Everyone was familiar with the ku before he even read it, except, of course, me. But now I am and I also love it.

I really liked the Korean guy who got up and told us about the article he’d just written about how the origins of haiku were in Korea. I believe it’s traditional for the Japanese and Koreans to argue about who invented pretty much every cultural phenomenon they share, so that was entertaining.

I chose to read my “Full Moon” sequence, although, as I announced beforehand, this was completely inappropriate because we are at or near a new moon right now. This was politely, though not wildly enthusiastically, received. We all have to start somewhere.

Which reminds me that I never actually posted a new haiku yesterday. But I did write one! I swear!

new moon
haiku poets can’t forget
when it was full

Cradle of American Haiku Festival

Here’s an announcement of a haiku festival that is taking place about an hour from my house (in southern Wisconsin) in September. I’m very excited to go and meet some other haiku groupies in person. (I’m also very curious about their assertion that southwestern Wisconsin is the birthplace of American haiku. Anyone know anything about the history behind that?)

It doesn’t seem like most of my readers live anywhere near the Midwest, but if you do, or are in the mood for a really long road trip, I’d love to see some of you there. Think about it …

Join haikuists from the U.S. and Canada for their Second Annual Cradle of American Haiku Festival, at 2 p.m., Friday, Sept. 10, to 1 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 12, at Foundry Books, 105 Commerce St.,  Mineral Point. The festival is open to the public, and beginning and experienced haikuists are welcome.

… The festival will include several workshops and presentations on the form and art of haiku/related Japanese poetic forms, readings of haiku, and Japanese art.  This year’s theme is “Remembering Robert Spiess—His Life and Work.” Spiess was a longtime haikuist and author, and former editor of “Modern Haiku,” an international journal of haiku and haiku studies.

The festival will also feature an opening  reception; a “Kukai,” a peer-reviewed haiku contest on the theme “Transitions;” Tai Chi, meditative exercises; a presentation on “Kodo,” Japanese incense; mini-critique sessions with award-winning poets and publishers; a social with cocktails and Midwest style picnic/tailgate; and a “ginko” walk to observe nature and write haiku. Haikuists may also participate in a sale of books they’ve authored.

At the festival, The Haiku Society of America will hold its annual national quarterly meeting to which the public is invited. However, the HSA is not sponsoring the festival.

Southwest Wisconsin is the birthplace of American haiku. Mineral Point is a scenic  town of 19th century architecture,  listed in the National Register of Historic Places, located in the region’s hills. It is about a 45- minute drive from Madison and Dubuque, IA.

The cost of the festival is $30 which includes workshops, all activities, reception, and picnic. For more information, with a schedule of events and lodging options, contact Charlotte Digregorio, Midwest Regional Coordinator, The Haiku Society of America, at email cvpress@yahoo.com or by phone at 847-881-2664.

What is a haiku anyway?

So: I’m done with my term paper. My prose style spent weeks marinating in the foul brew of obfuscation and verbosity that generally characterizes academic writing, and was kept from being permanently pickled only by the judicious application of haiku. I’m hoping there is no lingering stench. (Like the sentence before last.)

One possible ill effect of my academic excursion may be my continuing pedantic worrying at the notion of finding a good definition of haiku. The problem here is not that there are no good definitions out there. The problem is that there are way too many good definitions, and no two of them are the same. So I’ve started a collection of them, to display on my mantelpiece. Care for a peek?

+

We should probably start with the definition given by the Haiku Society of America, if only because their name sounds so authoritative. Who should know what a haiku is if not a Haiku Society? They have bylaws and everything!

(If you’re wondering about the “America” part — hey, aren’t haiku Japanese? — I should point out that my quest here is for a definition of haiku as they are written in English. Japanese haiku are much better defined, but as I’ve mentioned before, much of the definition depends on language and cultural elements that don’t translate to English.)

Like all of us, the Haiku Society have changed their mind about some things over the years, and one of those things is what, exactly, a haiku is. In 1973, they defined “haiku” this way:

“a poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature. Usually a haiku in English is written in three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables.”

These days, however, the Society places less emphasis on the syllable count, more emphasis on the nature/seasonal part:

“A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”

Okay…seems like a good start. But kind of vague and dry, really. Hard to really imagine what they’re talking about. How about some Jack Kerouac to counteract the academic effect?

“The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.”

Much better. Makes me feel like I’m bursting to pop, in fact, and must start writing haiku immediately. Thanks, Jack!

Refreshed now and ready to consider something a little more academic again? Haruo Shirane, in his amazing, haiku-myth-debunking essay “Beyond the Haiku Moment” (about which I have much more to say in another post) considers the history of Japanese haiku, the origins of haiku in English, and the current state of English haiku writing, and concludes, somewhat in the same vein as the Haiku Society but, to me, more completely and inspirationally:

“I would say, echoing the spirit of Basho’s own poetry, that haiku in English is a short poem, usually written in one to three lines, that seeks out new and revealing perspectives on the human and physical condition, focusing on the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature, and on the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history.”

That’s a great description of what haiku is about, but what about the technicalities of the form? Gabi Greve devotes a whole page to haiku definitions on her blog Haiku Topics — but my favorite is her own description, which she puts in the form of a poem:

“The simple definition of
three short lines,
one season word and
a cut marker
and
write from personal experience …
this is where everyone should begin.”

(N.B.: If you’re confused by some of the terms Gabi uses, I have essays in me about the Japanese notions of the season word (kigo) and cut marker (kireji) — watch this space for them. Also, Haruo Shirane (above) has some tart things to say about the idea of writing only from personal experience. You can read his essay yourself, or I’ll share later.)

I’ve mentioned before one of my all-time favorite haiku definitions, the bare-bones one offered by David G. Lanoue:

“Haiku: a one-breath poem that discovers connection.”

David actually has a lot more to say about what haiku are all about, but his elaboration is as clear and incisive (and decisive) as his initial statement:

“Haiku in English usually appears as an unrhymed three-line verse. Its use of intense, fragmentary imagery and its stress on rhythm and sound place it in the poetry side of the language spectrum. … Though it can be presented on the page in three lines, a traditional Japanese haiku of Issa’s era structurally consists of two parts with a pause in between. Its power as poetry often derives from juxtaposition of the two images and the sense of surprise or revelation that the second image produces. A good haiku is like a good joke: the set-up (image 1), then the punch line (image 2).”

That emphasis on juxtaposition in haiku is key for me. I’m always trying to create that effect of “surprise or revelation,” trying both to see something I’ve never seen before in some fairly common sight, and to convey that vision to the reader. For me, if haiku doesn’t startle you into awareness at least a little, it hasn’t really done its job.

But in case you were thinking I would insist on all my readers agreeing with me, I’ll let Jane Reichhold (the subject of another upcoming essay) have the final word:

I am bothered by the several times it is asked, “Is this a haiku?” I think the better question is, “Do I want to accept this poem as an example of haiku for myself?” … The necessity of our asking ourselves this question becomes weightier when we each realize that we are responsible for what haiku IS; and what it is becoming. By our writing, we are defining the form. By our changes in the form it is being changed. If the style of current haiku seems to be going in a direction which is not compatible with yours, then you have an even greater load of responsibility to make sure people see the finest work you can do in your style.

Okay, I get it, Jane. I’ll let the whole definition thing rest and get back to work. I have 345 days to go, after all…