February 17: Numerical Order

“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)

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seven or eight
sparrows
count them again

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This haiku appeared on this blog last May, and on Haiku News last week (with the headline above).

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:

咲花をまつ一に梅二は櫻
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

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ビタミン剤一日二錠瀧凍る
bitamiinzai ichi nichi ni joo taki kooru

vitamin pills
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):

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

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houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…
two

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three or five stars
by the time I fold it…
futon

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rainstorm–
two drops for the rice cake tub
three drops for the winnow

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lightning flash–
suddenly three people
face to face

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mid-river
on three or four stools…
evening cool

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cool air–
out of four gates
entering just one

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on four or five
slender blades of grass
autumn rain

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a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
winter moon

and one of my favorites of all time –

first snowfall
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.

February 3 (Another snow)

another snow
another chance to change
the subject

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(First published in World Haiku Review, January 2011)
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I hope all of you who live in the 33 U.S. states that were pounded by the blizzard yesterday are dug out by now. Or that if you aren’t, you have plenty to read and eat (in that order) and some way of staying warm. And a nice view out your window.

By the way, this does not fall under my snow haiku moratorium because I wrote it a long time ago — back in December, when it was not yet a federal crime for haiku poets to write haiku about snow — and it was just published in the very interesting journal World Haiku Review, about which I will be writing more next week, when it is not so close to my bedtime.

(For those of you that are mourning the snow haiku [what, are you crazy?] I will point you in the direction of this page that lists 10 highly worthwhile snow poems, most of which are not haiku but one of which is Issa, and famous, spectacular Issa. Go ahead, take a look, I won’t report you to the feds.)

Across the Haikuverse, No. 9: Rabbit Edition

So. We’ve started another trip around the sun. Is everyone strapped in tightly? This planet can really get up some speed when it wants to. I have a feeling this is going to be an especially speedy year for me. So much haiku to read and write, so little time.

With that in mind — let’s start this week’s tour of the Haikuverse without further ado. This will be a long one. Go ahead, add an extra five minutes to your coffee break, I won’t tell.

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Haiku on New

I’ve mentioned before that 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit according to the Japanese calendar, and that rabbit haiku have been proliferating like, um, rabbits all over the Interwebs. If you’re interested in reading some (I make fun of them, just because I like to make fun of things — including, in all fairness, myself — but a lot of them are really good), there are a bunch of examples (and a bunch of other great New Year haiku) over at the Akita International Haiku Network blog.

Other places to read good New Year haiku (and haiga, and tanka, and gogyoghka) include the following, which is just a small sample of the pages I remembered to bookmark that had good New Year haiku and doesn’t include any of the many good New Year haiku I encountered on Facebook and Twitter in the last week or so. (You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Don’t you?)

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Vincent Tripi/Kuniharu Shimizu (haiga), see haiku here
Gary Hotham, Mann Library’s Daily Haiku
Bill Kenney, haiku-usa
Takuya Tomita, tr. by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
John McDonald, zen speug
Steve Mitchell, Heed Not Steve
Johannes S.H. Bjerg, scented dust
Chen-ou Liu, Stay Drunk on Writing

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Haiku Till You Drop

And on to haiku on other topics — quite a few of those were written recently too, believe it or not. We must start off with my obligatory Vincent Hoarau haiku in French. (My apologies to anyone who doesn’t know French and/or has no appreciation for the haiku of Vincent Hoarau, but he knocks my socks off. And I have somehow just managed to discover that he has a blog! so you don’t need to have a Facebook account to read his poetry after all! Though this one doesn’t seem to be on the blog at the moment.)

leur bébé dort
dans la neige
de l’échographie

– vincent hoarau

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Another new blog I’ve just discovered: Haiku by Two, where I found the following lovely offering by Alison (can’t seem to locate a last name):

whether or not
there is a god -
heavenly skies

— Alison

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This one from Blue Willow Haiku World really struck me for some reason. I was right out there on the ocean for a while after I read it. Caravels. Whales breaching. Waves, fog, salt spray. Japanese whaling ships. Guys in ruffed collars. An inundation of images, if you will.

the Age of Discovery
has ended
a whale

— Eiji Hashimoto, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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Over at The Haiku Diary, Elissa managed to perfectly capture the spirit of procrastination, especially the procrastination of us writers who can always think of some other creative thing to do that’s sort of like writing but nahhh. I should write this one down and tape it to my laptop.

To-do Listless

Gluing tiny
collages onto matchboxes
doesn’t count as “Write!”.

– Elissa

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New Year’s Resolution: Exercise

Somebody (who? who? I must remember to write these things down!) posted this link to Facebook a week or two ago. It’s “a training exercise … [that] helps condition the muscles necessary for making haiku.” The poster suggested that it would be of help to those pursuing Fiona Robyn’s a river of stones project this month, which it certainly would, but it also seems like an invaluable exercise for anyone interested in learning to write haiku, or improving the haiku they already write. If you try it, let me know how it worked out.

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Blog News

Out with the old, in with the new, isn’t that what they say this time of year? Well, right with the New Year a couple of new blogs worth watching started up and another one of my old favorites closed up shop.

First I’d like to pay tribute to the latter, David Marshall’s wonderful haiku streak. At this blog and another, David has been posting a daily haiku for five years (yes, you did read right). He says he’s giving up his streak now because he’s starting to feel that writing them is becoming a routine and he’s no longer sure of the purpose. But I have to say that practically everything he writes seems utterly inspired to me. His haiku are like no one else’s on the planet, and that kind of intense personal vision is rare.

Here’s his last entry, posted on New Year’s Eve:

Moved Out

In the empty room
an empty box—everything
inside me at last

– David Marshall

Fortunately, David is not giving up poetry altogether. I will be following him at his other poetry site, derelict satellite, where he says he plans to post weekly “haiku sonnets” — fascinating concept.

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And to console me a little, Anne Lessing and Aubrie Cox started up new blogs on the first of the year. I have been eagerly awaiting Anne’s The Haiku Challenge ever since she announced way back last May that she would be starting to write a daily haiku on 1/1/11. Anne, gloriously, is a teenager who is a relative newcomer to haiku, but not to writing, and she too has a very well-defined personal vision. I loved her first offering:

first second of a new year
and all I see is
glitter
— Anne Lessing

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Aubrie Cox, whom I met at the “Cradle of American Haiku” Festival back in September, is not new to haiku, although she too is very young. She’s a senior in college who has been studying haiku for several years now under the aegis of Randy Brooks, has published her very skillful haiku many times, and has a vast store of knowledge about the history and poetics of haiku that awes me. You can find out more about her at her personal blog, Aubrie Cox. But she’s just started up another blog called Yay Words! (which is, of course, the best blog name ever). She started it to participate in a river of stones, and also plans to use it for just generally celebrating words in all their forms. I love enthusiasm combined with knowledge (that will be the name of my next blog), so I’m sure Aubrie’s blog will become a favorite very soon. Here’s her first “small stone”:

new hat
trying to make it fit like the old one

– Aubrie Cox

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I discovered a site this week that is new to me although not to the world, and although it may be of interest to none of my readers I just had to let you know about it because I am jumping up and down in my mind with excitement whenever I think about it. It’s called Taming the Monkey Mind and it features — wait for it — Russian translations of Issa’s haiku. Yeah. I know. My life is pretty much complete now. Okay, so it doesn’t look like they’ve updated since 2008 but they have just recently started tweeting on Twitter, so I’m hoping that means that more translations are in the works. A girl can dream, can’t she?
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Another great site that I can’t believe I never discovered before is Haiku Chronicles, featuring wonderful podcasts about various aspects of haiku. I’ve only had time to listen to one, which was about a renku party and went into fascinating detail about the composition of renku in general and one renku in particular. If you listen to any others, send me reviews — I will be working my way through the rest slowly.

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Essaying Essays

I found a few essays that blew my mind this week. I’m starting to get a little tired here (this is actually the last section of this post I am writing, even though it doesn’t appear at the end — I like to jump around when I write, it makes things more interesting). So I might not go into as much detail about them as I had planned to (you are probably giving devout thanks for this right now to whatever deity floats your boat).

This is where I implore you to follow the links and read some of this stuff. Okay, I won’t lecture you any more. You probably have one or two other important things to do with your time, like making a living or raising children or growing prize orchids or something. Or, you know, writing haiku instead of reading about it. How sensible of you!

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Last week Chen-ou Liu posted on his blog Poetry in the Moment an essay called “The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku” that might forever change the way you look at good old furuike ya. He discusses the necessity of viewing this poem in the context of the literature of its time — for instance, “frog” is a spring kigo that was “used in poems since ancient times, and had always referred to its singing and calling out to a lover.” By making the frog’s sound a splash instead of singing, Basho parodies literary convention. The poem also works, of course, on a purely literal, objective level, but this second dimension of allusion to earlier literature is usually missing from most Western translations and considerations of this poem.

Chen-ou concludes with his own poetic sequence paying tribute to this ku and to Basho and other earlier literary masters, including this verse:

this frog
crouches on a lotus leaf –
reciting Basho

– Chen-ou Liu

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At Still in the Stream there is an essay by Richard R. Powell called “Wabi-Sabi in Haiku,” which gives many examples with a detailed analysis of what makes them wabi-sabi. You will definitely want to go look at this one, if only for the wonderful examples. It’s beautifully laid out and wabi-sabi is always fascinating to contemplate.

Here’s one of the examples and a bit of Powell’s commentary to go along with it, just to whet your appetite:

wings aglow -
gulls rising above
the garbage

- Eric Houck Jr.

Yesterday while on a walk with my son we observed two herring gulls alight on a lamp pole. They seemed to be a pair and one stuck out its neck and emitted the common and recognizable call gulls everywhere make. I thought of Mr. Houck’s haiku and watched as the two birds leapt into the air and soared over us. Looking up at these birds I was struck by their clean appearance, the sharp line between the white feathers and gray ones. Their bodies, when they glide, are smooth and elegant, heads pivoting on otherwise plane-rigid bodies. I was charged with a subtle joy, not overwhelming, but hopeful.

Mr. Houck’s poem is an excellent example of a haiku that contains karumi, the quality Basho considered to be the hallmark of his mature style.

– Richard R. Powell, “Wabi-Sabi in Haiku”

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This one isn’t really an essay, but a review. But Don Wentworth’s reviews over at Issa’s Untidy Hut are always so in-depth and thought-provoking that they give the same satisfaction to me as a well-wrought essay. This one concerns John Martone’s book of short poetry, scrittura povera. I had never heard of this poet before but I will certainly be searching out more of his work. Here’s an example:

how much time
do you need
morning glory

– John Martone

Don, a fellow Issa aficionado, says of this one (and I agree with him) that, “In terms of modern haiku, it just doesn’t get much better than this.  There is certainly a touch of Issa here, a perfect balancing between the comic and the serious. It is, as is life, both at the same time.”

I would definitely recommend that you follow the link and at least read through the example poems by Martone, even if you don’t have time to read the full review. They are all superb.

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Competition Corner

A bunch of fun competitions are in the works at the moment. As always, there are the monthly Shiki Kukai (which I wrote about a few days ago; this month’s topics still haven’t been announced but should be any day now so keep your eyes peeled, if that isn’t too painful) and Caribbean Kigo Kukai (this month’s kigo: calendar). Kukai are a great way to get your feet wet in the contest world, and they’re judged by the participants so you get to have fun picking out your favorite ku from among the entries.

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But there are also a couple of contests that don’t come around as often. You’ll have to act fast on the first one: XII bilingual Calico Cat Contest. It’s a blitz — it just started yesterday, and the deadline is tomorrow. But it’s a fun one for several reasons: It involves using one of the wonderful sumi-e paintings of Origa Olga Hooper (contest organizer) as a prompt, the prize being said sumi-e painting; and — so you know I’m definitely going to enter — all the entries will be translated into Russian (if they’re in English) or English (if they’re in Russian), and posted on the contest site in both languages for everyone to see before the judging. You can submit up to three haiku; maybe I’ll try writing one in Russian. Or not. I might have to work up to that level of bravery.

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The final contest on my list is the biggest. Just opening today, with a deadline of March 31, is The Haiku Foundation’s yearly HaikuNow contest. There are three categories: Traditional, Contemporary, and Innovative — go to the site for more explanation and examples of what exactly these categories mean. This contest gives out actual monetary awards and it’s free to enter, so there’s no downside, really. Go for it!

Full disclosure: I am helping out (on basically a peon level) with coordinating this contest. Specifically, I, along with two other helper elves, will be fetching contest entries from email, taking the authors’ names off for anonymity’s sake, and sending them off to the judges to be judged. This is a great gig for me, of course, because I get to see a lot of really cool haiku before anyone else. Sadly, I of course cannot share these really cool haiku with you or anyone else, but maybe the inspiration I derive from reading them will help make the haiku I post here a little better, which will surely improve your life.

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Dead Tree News

After I got the “Close, But No Cigar” award in The Haiku Foundation’s Facebook contest in November (basically, I was a runner-up, but Jim Kacian, the judge, invented this humorous award name to indicate that he liked the idea of my ku but was not so wild about its execution), the Foundation kindly sent me and all the other winners and runners-up a copy of where the wind turns: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku.

This turned out to be a great prize. The panel of ten editors, led by Jim, chose their favorites from the past year’s journal output and web content, and I assure you that they have excellent taste. I spent a lot of my extensive driving time over the holidays reading it. I started out marking all the stuff I liked, until I realized that I was marking pretty much every page. Want some examples? Yeah, I thought you did.

Okay, here are just a couple of the ku that blew me away. Okay, more than a couple. Really, I narrowed it down as much as I could:

autumn rain
deeper and darker
the taste of tea
— Mary Ahearn

cemetery gate
she let me
go first
— Yu Chang

new year’s day all my anxieties in alphabetical order
—Carlos Colon

leaves too small
to touch each other
spring chill
— Burnell Lippy

blue sky
maybe I don’t need
to be right
— Harriot West

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Haiku were not the only things in this anthology either. There were some amazing haibun, and in my experience amazing haibun are not all that easy to find. The most touching of these was William (Bill) Higginson’s last piece of writing before he died in 2008, “Well-Bucket Nightfall, or New Day?,” a masterly meditation on well buckets, life transitions, death, and haiku. I also commend to you Johnny Baranski’s “Gandhi’s Game” and Bob Lucky’s “Shiraz.”

And then there were the essays … oh God, the essays. I wish I had time to write essays about the essays. But most of them you can find online so you can read them yourselves. (I know most of you won’t though. Uh-oh. Starting to lecture again.)

There was a reprint of one of my longtime favorite essays, a consideration of the haiku of Fay Aoyagi (one of my favorite poets) by David Lanoue (one of my favorite translators). A very interesting meditation on haiku and capitalism (which I’m not sure I entirely understood), by Dimitar Anakiev. A fascinating essay on haiku from the World War II Japanese internment camps, by Margaret Chula (the essay doesn’t seem to be online but here’s a link to her book on the same subject).

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The only essay I would like to say a little more about is Jim Kacian’s, called So::Ba, which I am still thinking about, because it both crystallized some of the ideas that I have been having about haiku myself and also added some new information and ideas to support my previously vague, uncertain thinking. Basically, Jim takes the English sentence “So here we are” and relates it to the Japanese word “ba,” which he translates as “a pointer to a kind of awareness that something of importance is happening in time and space.” In his vision of haiku poetics, ba is essential: “Ba is the basis for pretty much everything we do in haiku. In fact, ba is the message of haiku: so here we are!”

A lot of the essay is taken up with denigration of the vast amount of “trash” haiku out there these days, and with historical notes about the development of haiku, in which Basho gets a hero’s welcome and Shiki gets piled on for his objectivism: his insistence on merely observing nature, rather than alluding to human history or culture or literature, or making use of the kind of richness of emotional expression that characterized the haiku of, among others, Basho and Buson. Jim regrets that the West encountered haiku right at the moment when Shiki was the dominant influence on haiku, since what he considers as the wrong-headed separation of Nature from Man in the minds of most haiku poets tends to persist to this day.

So how should we be thinking about haiku, according to Jim? Well, as far as I can make out, as a form of poetry that expresses a moment of the poet’s consciousness, that makes use of art and imagination as well as purely objective observation (this discussion will undoubtedly seem familiar to those of you who read my “Willow Buds” post the other day). I really love this passage from the essay in particular:

Haiku is not photography, a simple exact limning of what lies before our eyes. If it is an art, then it must be the selecting and ordering of words into a cogent form that helps lead another’s mind along the path that the poet’s has followed, with perhaps a similar reaction to be had at the end. And this rarely takes place before the butterfly’s wing, but usually in the roiling of the mind, consciously and unconsciously, whenever it can — for me that often means in the middle of the night.

And yet despite this we still retain some residual disdain for what are termed “desk haiku.” In truth, every haiku I’ve ever written has been a desk haiku. It may have had its origins in some natural spectacle, and I may even have written it on the spot. But always, some time later and in the darkness of my mind and study, I look again. It’s this revisiting that is the actual work of art — even if I don’t change a word. “Desk haiku” is another way of saying I’m a working poet.

– Jim Kacian, “So:Ba”

Lots to think about here. I hope you go and read this one if you have a spare half-hour. Jim’s thoughts are always worth encountering.

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Note: For those of you who are holding your breath, Dead Tree News will return next week to the thrilling saga of the early development of Japanese haikai (haiku), as recounted in Donald Keene’s World Within Walls. Don’t miss this exciting installment in which master Basho arrives on the scene!

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Okay. [Heaves sigh of relief.] I made it through yet another massive list of indispensable haiku-related reading for yet another week. What is the deal with you people — you keep writing too much good stuff. Or I keep reading too much good stuff. I don’t know who has the bigger problem. Is there some kind of 12-step program for people like us — oh, look, there is! (Thanks, Michael!)

Happy Rabbiting, fellow traversers of the Haikuverse. And hey, I am dying for a day off here, so don’t forget to send me your haiku for my 400th post next week!

Across the Haikuverse, No. 6: Telegraphic Edition

Hello fellow inhabitants of the Haikuverse,

There was so much to explore in the Haikuverse this week that I feel a little overwhelmed by it all. If I’m ever going to get through the list I’ve got in front of me I will have to be brief and efficient, possibly even telegraphic. So … here goes.

First of all, congratulations to Andrew Phillips, of Pied Hill Prawns, and his wife on the recent birth of a baby boy. Andrew wrote a lovely poem, Sacred Space in the Suburbs, with haiku-like stanzas, about the home birth — I highly recommend it. Here’s an excerpt:

This is a room for women. I clamp
a hose to the tap, filling the pool
with warm waters.

– Andrew Phillips

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Lots of haiku journals published new issues in the last week. I naturally feel compelled to start with Notes from the Gean, which contains my first published haiku (reposted in this space last week). (Yes, I am excited. Thanks for asking.) They also published one of my haibun. (Excited, again.) But there are so many other wonderful things in this issue that are not by me that I demand you go over there and take a look.

For instance: There are the amazing photo haiga of Aubrie Cox and Carmella Braniger. There are some stunning renku — I like “Scribing Lines” (The Bath Spa Railway Station Renku) in particular. And, of course, there are dozens and dozens of great haiku. I was especially excited to see this one by Lee Gurga, which was thoroughly dissected in a workshop I attended in Mineral Point:

an unspoken assumption tracks through the petals

– Lee Gurga

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Heron’s Nest also published last week and is also full of wonderful haiku. Here are a couple that particularly struck me (and I just noticed they both mention the wind, what’s that about?):

north wind
the holes
in my beliefs
– Christopher Patchel

autumn wind
the leaves too
made of oak
– Joyce Clement

This issue also contains a lengthy and interesting commentary by Alice Frampton on the following amazing ku (winner of the Heron’s Nest Award), well worth reading if you’re interested in getting a better insight into how haiku are put together:

ragged clouds
how it feels
to hold a rake
– Robert Epstein

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A very exciting development last week was the publication of the first issue of Haijinx since 2002! Congratulations to the team who put this together. Because of a mouse-related incident that took place in my house this week, I was attracted to this haiku by the great Peggy Willis Lyles, who, sadly, died in September:

sharp cheese
I sometimes
feel trapped
— peggy willis lyles

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Yet another December publication: Haibun Today. They usually have a great selection of haibun, though I have to admit I have not had time to make my way through all the contents of this issue yet. Of those I’ve read, one that I really loved, especially because I am always thinking that there should be more short-story or fiction haibun, was Weight, Balance, and Escapement by Jeffrey Harpeng. This is wildly imaginative and may make your brain explode, so watch out.

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I can’t believe I didn’t know about before about this seriously awesome site: Haiku News. They publish haiku based on news stories, along with links to the story in question. This sounds like a gimmick (well, I guess it is in a way) that might involve mediocre or silly haiku, but in fact the haiku are very high quality and the interaction between haiku and news story is thought-provoking. Like this one by Claire Everett, based on the headline “Hunger index shows one billion without enough food.”

nothing left
but the wishbone
November sky
— Claire Everett

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Troutswirl this week published an essential read for those interested in the history of English-language haiku: an essay about Anita Virgil and Robert Spiess, who were two of the most prominent and innovative haiku poets in this country in the sixties and seventies and whose haiku still seems original and exciting. Here’s Anita:

walking the snow crust
not sinking
sinking

– Anita Virgil

and here’s Robert:

Muttering thunder . . .
the bottom of the river
scattered with clams

– Robert Spiess

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I don’t know how I have happened not to write about John McDonald before, because his blog Zen Speug was one of the first I discovered when I first started writing haiku and I still love it devotedly. For one thing: Great haiku, often very Shiki-ish, with wonderful nature images. For another: Scots! John (who is a retired mason, which is another reason to love him) writes his haiku in both Scots and English, and Scots, in case you weren’t aware, is one of the best. languages. ever.

In fact someone called David Purves has written an essay about how Scots may be a better language for haiku than English (actually, I think lots and lots of languages are better for haiku than English, and I’m not even counting Japanese, which is one reason why I am so devoted to foreign-language haiku).

This was one of my favorites of John’s from this week:

snaw -
the treen
aw yin flourish

snow
the trees
all one blossom

– John McDonald

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Over at Blue Willow Haiku World Fay Aoyagi this week translated and shared this amazing haiku:

my husband with hot sake
he, too, must have
a dream he gave up

– Kazuko Nishimura

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At Beachcombing For the Landlocked the other day, Mark Holloway posted the following tanka, which I took to immediately because it perfectly expresses my feelings about living in the, ahem, landlocked (but very lake-y) Midwest. (Note: I can’t get the formatting of this to work right here; the fourth line should be indented to begin about under the word “lake” from the line above.)

no matter
how beautiful
the lake
it’s still
not the sea

– Mark Holloway

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At Issa’s Untidy Hut Don Wentworth shares with us his review of a great used-book-store find he made this week (note to self: go to used book stores more often): an autographed copy of The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa, translated by Lucien Stryk. Stryk’s translations are highly minimalist and often (no pun intended, I swear) striking. For instance:

First cicada:
life is
cruel, cruel, cruel.

– Issa, tr. Lucien Stryk

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Over at Haiku Bandit Society there is always so very much to love. This week I watched a rengay in the process of composition — every day or two when I checked back a new verse had been added. It was like a magic trick. Here are the first couple of verses — go read the rest yourself.

I’ve had sake
only once or twice
but, as for dreams… / b

a walk on the moon
with Neil Armstrong / l’o

*

Recently I discovered a Japanese newspaper, The Mainichi Daily News, which publishes English-language haiku every day — go ahead, send yours in, they have a submission form and everything. I really like today’s entry, in fact:

fog thinning out–
more and more visible
the way to nowhere
– Marek Kozubek (Zywiec, Poland)

*

Check out this Japanese haiku blog by Hidenori Hiruta: AkitaHaiku. The author posts his haiku in both Japanese and English, accompanied by wonderful photographs. They’re grouped seasonally. Here’s an Autumn one that for obvious reasons I am very fond of:

red dragonflies
hiding in dahlias
the blue sky

– Hidenori Hiruta

*
Chen-ou Liu is a very well-known English-language haiku (and tanka, and free-verse) poet whose blog Stay Drunk on Writing, for some reason, I just came upon this week. Here’s a great pair of ku about the upcoming Chinese Year of the Rabbit:

New Year’s Eve
a white rabbit falls
into my dream

New Year’s morning
standing before the mirror
it’s me, and yet …

– Chen-ou Liu

*

Okay … so why didn’t anyone ever tell me about zip haiku before? Geez. You people.

What are zip haiku, you ask? Well, they’re an invention of the amazing John Carley, probably best known for his great work with renku (check out Renku Reckoner). At some point around the turn of the millennium John got fed up with all the squabbling about what constitutes an English-language haiku and decided to invent his own form of haiku that would be unique to English and capitalize on its special properties. You can read his essay about this yourself, but basically he got all scientific about it and crunched numbers with translations and did a little rummaging around in the basement of linguistics and ended up with this 15-syllable poem, divided into two parts, that he called a zip haiku. (You must understand that I am seriously oversimplifying what John did, and I won’t be surprised if he writes and tells me I’ve got it all wrong.)

ANYWAY. Here’s an example, and I am going to go off and write some of these myself. Soon.

orange and tan
tan orange and tan
the butterflies
beat on 

– John Carley

.r*

The Irish Haiku Society announced the results of their International Haiku Competition 2010 this week. Lots of great winners. Here’s an honorable mention I liked a lot.

recession
more tree
less leaf
— Hugh O’Donnell

*

Few editions of the Haikuverse are complete for me without a French haiku by Vincent Hoarau, posted this week on Facebook. Please don’t ask me to translate.

Sinterklaas -
tombent les flocons
et les poemes inacheves
.
– Vincent Hoarau

*

I absolutely loved this highly minimalist haiku by Angie Werren, posted this week both on Twitter and on her blog feathers. I wrote Angie a long comment about it talking about all the ways I love it (you can see it if you go over there), which may seem over-the-top because it’s only four words long and how much can you say about four words? A lot, it turns out.

snow
black crow
tea

– Angie Werren

*

Bill Kenney of haiku-usa continues with his fine series of “Afters,” loose interpretations of classical Japanese haiku. This week: Basho and Issa on radishes. Really, there is nothing better. I could use a radish right now.

the chrysanthemums gone
there’s nothing
but radishes

– Basho (1644-1694)

the radish grower
pointing the way
with a radish

– Issa (1763-1827)

*

It’s that time again — the topics for the December Shiki Kukai have been announced. The deadline is December 18. The kigo is “Winter sky,” and the theme for the free format is “ring” (used as a noun). Get composing.

And without further ado, I am going to bed. It’s been an exhausting whirl around the Haikuverse … but what great company! See you all next week.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 5: Too Much Homework Edition

Dear Fellow Travelers,

Some weeks the Haikuverse seems to stir up a lot of Deep Thoughts in me, but not this week. This week I was too busy for Thinking Deeply. (I can hear you sighing in relief. Stop that.)

So what have I got for you? Well, a lot of really great haiku (other people’s, natch), snatched out of the ether during moments stolen from homework, fiction writing, Thanksgiving dinner, and sleep. For some reason, most of them seem to relate to one of two themes: astronomical phenomena or snow.

(It’s snowing in a lot of places these days, apparently. So interesting, the sense you can get of world weather patterns by following the world’s daily haiku output.)

Anyway. To start off our journey … here are some of my favorite responses to a polite request that The Haiku Foundation’s Facebook page recently made of its followers: “Please share a haiku inspired by the onset of cold weather.” (They frequently make interesting requests like this. You should go over and oblige them occasionally. It’s nice to share.)

premières gelées blanches -
une envie soudaine
de carrot cake
.
…first white frosts -
…a sudden urge
for a carrot cake

– Vincent Hoarau

first snow
she pockets a large carrot
for later use

– Laura Sherman

(Yes, two carrot haiku, right next to each other. It freaked me out too.)

 

closure…
a ring around
the moon

– George O Hawkins

 

listening to myself
on the walk home
fresh snow

– Michael Rehling

 

Twitter was all cold this week too. And for some reason (okay, maybe my foreign-language fetish), it seemed very polyglot.

First of all, my Twitter friend Polona Oblak, or one cloud, whose username is cirrusdream, overheard me raving in a tweet about how much I liked foreign-language haiku and generously offered to translate some of her haiku into Slovenian, her first language. (Great quotation from Polona: “the problem is, although i’m not a native english speaker, my muse appears to be.”)

There are SO many things I love about this — first of all the fact that Slovenian is a Slavic language, so I can actually semi-follow what’s going on here. (All Slavic languages are alike, but some are more alike than others. [Whoa -- Tolstoy/Orwell mashup! Didn't see that coming.])

Secondly the fact that in Slovenian, this haiku is so highly alliterative and even rhymes a little. English haiku needs more of that. Remind me to do some of that some time soon.

first chill
a spider weaves its web
under a neon light
.
prvi mraz
pajek plete mrežo
pod neonsko lučjo

– Polona Oblak (cirrusdream)

Then, I believe the very same day, I had the incredibly thrilling experience of discovering a Twitterer who writes haiku in Esperanto. Not just any haiku. Good haiku. (Excuse me: hajko.) I am still in shock that there is a person like this in the world. I like the world better now.

pelas norda vent’ unuopajn neĝerojn… sonoriladon

.

north wind drives snowflakes one by one… a bell rings and rings.

– Steven D. Brewer (limako)

David Serjeant, over at distant lightning, had a great snow moment this week too. I caught a whiff of Issa drifting from this haiku. (I’m very sensitive to that scent.)

midnight snowfall
my neighbour
coughing away

– David Serjeant

I caught even more of a whiff of Issa, maybe even something more like a deliberate (and extremely successful) tribute, coming from Elissa’s recent snow haiku, “who’s counting,” at the haiku diary:

Watching the first one,
two, three . . . four, five, six . . . seven
snowflakes fall outside.

— Elissa

(And okay … I got a little sidetracked here. I have a huge weakness, for some reason, for haiku with numbers in them. In fact, one of my favorites among my own haiku is still this one that I wrote way back in, like, the first week I ever wrote haiku. I went looking for more information about these number-haiku things and ended up, naturally enough, on Gabi Greve’s territory, reading this amazing essay-full-of-inspiring-examples. I have to read it again, when I can spend more time on it.)

(And another slight detour, this one possibly even verging on Deep Thought. This quotation, from a very famous Japanese haiku poet, got in my face when I read it on someone’s Facebook page this week — I’m sorry, Facebook person, I don’t remember who you are, but thanks for posting this! It reminded me of the essay by Aubrie Cox I wrote about a couple of weeks ago:

“The reader of a haiku is indispensable to the working of ma. This person must notice the ma and sense the kokoro of the poet. A haiku is not completed by the poet. The poet creates half of the haiku, while the remaining half must wait for…the appearance of a superior reader. Haiku is literature created jointly by the poet and the reader. A Western poem is the product of the poet alone, and thus here also the way of thinking about haiku is different.”

– Hasegawa Kai

I must say, I feel very fortunate to have had the occasional “superior reader” show up here to complete my haiku, because God knows they [my haiku, that is] need all the help they can get…)

This haiku from David Marshall, at haiku streak, is an exception to this week’s astronomy-and-snow theme, but it does seem somehow to complement Hasegawa’s words. It’s called Old Friends, and don’t tell me haiku aren’t supposed to have titles. They can if they want to. It’s a free country.

Silence that ripens,
silence that stays green, silence
fallen and sere

– David Marshall

I’ll finish up with the astronomical phenomena, since this is, after all, a voyage across the Haikuverse…

Here’s one from Terri L. French’s recent week as the featured poet on the Daily Haiku blog — I love this image:

long road trip —
Orion’s belt rests
on the dashboard

– Terri L. French

And here’s one I like a lot from the blog of extra special bitter:

November sky —
I used to remember
which planet that was

– extra special bitter

As I recently mentioned to someone, I sometimes have difficulty myself even in recalling exactly which planet we are supposed to be on, so I can relate to this sentiment. You know — keeping track of where you are can get to be a challenge when you spend as much time wandering the Haikuverse as I do …

Have a great week, and don’t get lost in space.

_______________________________

The Haikuverse in the fourth dimension:

No. 1

No. 2

No. 3

No. 4

Across the Haikuverse, No. 3: Underappreciated Edition

(For no. 1 in this series, look here. For no. 2, look here.)

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.


1.

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.

silent night
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.

2.

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!

hydrangeas–
the same whispers
the same sighs

3.

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
>particles/waves illume
>blossoms as they close

4.

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

 

5.

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.

6.
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.

Issa

“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.”

7.

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

8.

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

9.

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

I’m tired

 

And so am I. It’s exhausting, traversing the Haikuverse. Going to bed now. See you on the flip side …

Across the Haikuverse, No. 1: Let’s Get Started Edition

I’ve been feeling lately like I need to share some of the amazing haiku (and other short-form verse) and writing about haiku that other people post on the Interwebs. After all, this blog for me is not just about having a forum to post my own haiku, it’s about developing a community of people who are learning about and sharing their knowledge and appreciation of haiku with each other.

I follow a few dozen haiku blogs on a regular basis, some by quite well-known haiku poets and some by haiku poets who deserve to be much better known. I also read haiku journals and haiku essays and informational sites about haiku, and I follow a bunch of haiku poets on Twitter (also occasionally post stuff there that I don’t post here, in case you’re interested — my username is myyozh), and I am a member of a few different haiku-related groups on Facebook. (And oh, yeah — sometimes I read haiku-related things on pieces of dead tree, too.) There is always enough new and exciting stuff in all these places to keep me interested and inspired. So I think on a weekly (or so) basis I’ll let you know what has stuck with me, or challenged me, or stopped me short and made me glad to be alive. I hope some of what I share does something similar for some of you.

(N.B.: I’m limiting myself to what has been posted, or what I have discovered, in the last week or so. You have to draw the line somewhere. And this got way longer than I expected even with that constraint. That being said … if you find something haiku-related this week that you think others would enjoy, send me the URL and I may post it in my next version of this feature.)

___________________________

For this All Souls’ Eve, Margaret Dornaus, over at Haiku-doodle, has posted a great selection of haiku that pay tribute to loved ones who have passed away. (The haiku for my father that I wrote for his birthday earlier this week is one of them.) It’s worth taking a look at them. I mean, not only are the haiku worth reading, but Margaret has an actual ability to do layout (the bane of my existence), which means they are literally worth looking at.

I really like the ambiguity caused by the way Patti Niehoff of A Night Kitchen has split up the lines in her autumn (Halloween?) themed poem “can’t avoid.

As usual I found all kinds of treasures this week at Fay Aoyagi’s Blue Willow Haiku World, including her translations of the Japanese haiku autumn wind, still lonely (which I think must be a riff on Basho’s famous haiku about the autumn road along which no one is passing), and holding my knees. Also, Fay’s own haiku Halloween.

Daily Haiku usually has plenty worth reading — my favorite this week was Robert Epstein’s Indian summer day.

David Marshall’s Haiku Streak is one of the first haiku blogs I started reading and still one of those I enjoy the most. He writes a daily haiku; they are often surreal, always utterly original — he has his own inimitable style which is not quite like anyone else’s. This week I found myself drawn to “The New Apocalypse.”

Issa’s Sunday Service at Issa’s Untidy Hut (the blog of The Lilliput Review) is one of the highlights of my week. It combines rock music (including embedded audio), haiku (always including one by my man Issa!), other poetry, and literary and philosophical musings to create a mind-altering experience. This week’s song is Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out This Morning”; Tom Paine’s Common Sense is mentioned in the context of the upcoming midterm elections; there are a couple of great autumn-related poems; and the Issa haiku about cherry blossoms is going on my list of all-time favorites. Added bonus: Check out the jukebox in the sidebar that enables you to play all the songs from all 76 Sunday Services.

At his blog lakes and now wolves, Scott Metz’s “leaf shadows” is as thought-provoking as most of his ku.

Stacey Wilson’s found haiku collages at the odd inkwell are wonderful both to look at and read. I especially liked “autumn sun” this week.

I just got around to downloading the most recent issue of Roadrunner (X:3, issued in September) and all kinds of wild ku are now spinning through my head, including Peter Yovu’s wonderful

the night heron’s cry
your left elbow slightly
sharper than your right

Notes from the Gean also published its most recent issue in September and I have been revisiting it more or less weekly since then. This journal publishes a lot of haiku (and tanka, haiga, haibun, renga) and it’s hard to absorb it all at once. Right now I’m very fond of Chen-ou Liu’s one-line haiku:

single married single again a rushing river

And I also think it would be worth your while to read Zane Parks’s haibun “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

I found a lot to think about in Susan Antolin’s essay on her blog Artichoke Season about what makes a “good” poem. (If you go there, you should also spend some time reading Susan’s wonderful haiku and haibun.)

Curtis Dunlap’s Blogging Along Tobacco Road has a great feature called “Three Questions” in which the same three questions are posed to a wide variety of haiku poets, which provides a fascinating look at their varied motivations for writing haiku and understandings of what haiku is. This week the featured poet is Aubrie Cox, a college student who is already a fine haiku poet (and whom I met at Mineral Point and have spent some time batting around ideas about haiku and other literature since then).

If you are on Facebook, I highly recommend joining the pages (or liking them, or whatever the heck it is they call it these days) “haiku now” and “The Haiku Foundation,” where there is almost always some kind of lively discussion of some aspect of haiku going on and where haiku poets from all over share their work and comment on others’. The Haiku Foundation has a regular, weekly-or-so feature where they ask members to contribute a haiku on a particular theme — the current one is “water.” It’s fascinating to see all the different riffs on the topic.

Also on Facebook: Michael Dylan Welch has just come up with the brilliant idea of NaHaiWriMo, a takeoff on NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month that is starting tomorrow (and that I have, probably unwisely, signed up to participate in, because I don’t have enough to do, I guess.) NaHaiWriMo, naturally, calls for participants to write one haiku a day for a month, in this case the mercifully short month of February. You can join the group now, though, and start commiserating with your fellow participants several months ahead of time.

Via Facebook I have recently become an admirer of the haiku of Vincent Hoarau, who writes primarily in French but frequently translates his haiku into English for the benefit of the non-Francophones among us. I find that my high-school French (as well as the services of a good French-English dictionary) is just sufficient to allow me to enjoy the rhythms of Vincent’s French haiku, such as the one he posted on Facebook yesterday without translation (but I am not going to attempt to translate for you lest I completely embarrass myself):

l’heure d’hiver
dans la paleur de l’aube
un peu perdue

Dead-tree news: From the Everyman’s Library Haiku, which I have been slowly making my way through, several verses have been resonating with me this week (all translations by the not-necessarily-accurate but stylistically pleasant R.H. Blyth):

The flea
That is poor at jumping,
All the more charming.
— Issa

A cage of fireflies
For the sick child:
Loneliness.
— Ryota

The beginning of autumn,
Decided
By the red dragonfly.
— Shirao

Between the moon coming out
And the sun going in —
The red dragonflies.
— Nikyu

The peony
Made me measure it
With my fan.
— Issa

Having cut the peony,
I felt dejected
That morning.
— Buson

From what flowering tree
I know not,
But ah, the fragrance!
— Basho

Roses;
The flowers are easy to paint,
The leaves difficult.
— Shiki

This willow-tree
That looks like a white cat,
Is also a votive flower.
— Issa

As if nothing had happened,
The crow,
And the willow.
— Issa

And that’s the Haikuverse for this week. See you again soon.

Batting 10,000: David Lanoue and Issa

Anyone who’s been hanging out around here for a while knows that I am a great admirer (OK, a rabid fan) of the classical Japanese haiku poet Issa, who lived and wrote at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. I am also a fan of Issa’s prolific and talented translator David Lanoue, whose amazing database of Issa’s haiku is one of the greatest resources haiku poets have at their disposal. So I feel I must mark here on the blog the occasion of David’s translation of his 10,000th Issa haiku (which, believe it or not, is less than half the haiku Issa ever wrote). I can’t even wrap my mind around the effort required to complete 10,000 skillful translations, and that isn’t even close to all David has done with his time since he started this project in, good God, 1984.

According to David, number 10,000 will be his last, although he’ll keep revising previous translations. I hope he’s sitting down in a comfortable chair right now, having a cup of tea (that is, after all, what “Issa” means) and feeling pleased with himself. He deserves a rest.

One of the numerous great features of David’s database is that it includes enlightening and frequently entertaining textual and biographical notes on many of the haiku, including this final one, so we get to learn that

the priest
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

is remarkably similar to another haiku Issa wrote six years earlier:

the mountain hermit
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

It’s interesting to speculate on what was going on here: Was the second haiku a deliberate rewriting of the first? Had Issa simply forgotten that he had written a similar haiku all those years ago? Or did he think of the second haiku as being a completely new poem, the substitution of “priest” for “mountain hermit” sufficiently distinguishing the two that both could stand on their own? Knowing Issa, I tend to lean toward the last option. He was all about specificity. Two different guys may have the same attitude toward the fireflies that are getting in their face, but they’re still two different guys. Those two haiku are no more the same poem than Shakespeare’s love sonnets are all the same sonnet.

*

There’s a lot of stuff on David’s site to explore besides the haiku (and just exploring the haiku could take you a lifetime). While noodling around it recently I discovered two highly enlightening essays on Issa by two poets, Carlos Fleitas and Gabriel Rosenstock. The best thing would be to read them in their entirety, because they are not only informative but wonderfully written and wise and will give you a greater understanding not just of Issa but of the nature and possibilities of haiku in general. But I’ll just quote a few brief passages here to whet your appetite.

Carlos Fleitas discusses the possibility that Issa’s life history profoundly affected his haiku poetics:

“The series of tragic events in the course of his life contain, for the most part, one very special quality that stands out. This is the fact that they are all surprising, unexpected, and brutally sudden events. In this sense, the deaths of highly significant figures in his life from his infancy on provide a recurring theme in his destiny. These events might have shaped a certain characteristic I find in the poet’s haiku. I’m referring to the brusque and unforeseen character of the poetry’s resolution in the third line. If this is indeed a characteristic of haiku, in Issa it appears emphasized and magnified. How different this is from Basho’s poetic concept that develops without bumps—almost glidingly—so that the third line provides continuity, not harshly contrasting to what came before, but rather an effect that is flowing and harmonious.
“… Issa would seem to have been “hurled” into everyday life, instead of being introduced gradually to its most crude aspects. This is why in his works we encounter not only the beauty and rapture typical of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, but also elements far removed from the expected. Lice, piss, the body’s decline…emerge as aspects of phenomenological reality that live, side by side, with lotus, moon, and tea.”

– Carlos Fleitas, “Carlos Fleitas on Issa

I think that many people are put off by these qualities in Issa’s haiku — their earthiness, their jarring transitions — but for Gabriel Rosenstock, these elements are part of Issa’s “universal spirit,” one which embraces every element in the world, forcing an awareness and acceptance of reality that are connected to his Buddhist beliefs. Rosenstock tries to cultivate something of Issa’s spirit in himself:

My Romanian grandson, Seán, visited us recently and I introduced him to all my friends, including a dog turd. Flies had gathered. ‘Say hello to my friends, the poo-flies!” I said to him. He was somewhat astounded by my circle of friends but I think he got the message.

– Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

Reading Issa’s haiku, for Rosenstock, is more like a spiritual than a literary experience:

I find myself being transformed by reading favourite haiku. It’s not easy to describe. As I said above, it’s more than a mood. It’s not like being injected with a mood-altering substance. It is really an awakening.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

I agree…and on that note I want to end with a sampling of some of my favorite haiku by Issa. These are all David Lanoue’s translations. Thanks, David.

 

today too, today too
the winter wind has strewn about
the vegetables

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

first winter rain–
the world fills up
with haiku

evening–
he wipes horse shit off his hand
with a chrysanthemum

words
are a waste of time…
poppies

my dead mother–
every time I see the ocean
every time…

 

how irritating!
the wild geese freely
call their friends

[David notes that this haiku was written after Issa suffered a stroke and temporarily lost his power of speech.]

 

my favorite cormorant
the one who surfaces
with nothing

from the great bronze
Buddha’s nose…
a swallow!

plum blossom scent–
for whoever shows up
a cracked teacup

weak tea–
every day the butterfly
stops by

the day is long
the day is so long!
tears

a blind child–
to his right, to his left
steady winter rain

little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

[David notes: "This is the first haiku by Issa that I read. I found it in J. D. Salinger's novel, Franny and Zooey." Me too.]

you’ve wrecked
my year’s first dream!
cawing crow

banging the temple gong
just for fun…
cool air

this year there’s someone
for me to nag…
summer room

your rice field
my rice field
the same green

one man, one fly
one large
sitting room

morning dew
more than enough
for face-washing

just being alive
I
and the poppy

on the great flood’s
100th anniversary…
“cuckoo!”

rain on withered fields
resounds…
my pillow

the owl’s year
is running out…
atop the pole

in cold water
sipping the stars…
Milky Way

Kyoto, Kyoto
in the heart of Kyoto!
pufferfish soup

first snowfall
one, two, three, four
five, six people

the distant mountain
reflected in his eyes…
dragonfly

I call dibs
on the red ones!
plum blossoms

don’t sing, insects!
the world will get better
in its own time

October 25: My father’s birthday, and a brief discourse on ambiguity

if my father were here –
dawn colors
over green fields

– Issa, translated by David Lanoue

It’s my father’s birthday, the first since he died in February. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that I discovered this haiku of Issa’s yesterday.

It’s also interesting to try to decide what Issa meant by “if my father were here.” First of all, is his father dead or just not present with Issa at this moment? (I happen to know, biographically, that he was dead, but not everyone who reads this haiku would know that.)

And secondly — if his father were here, then what? If his father were here he would appreciate the dawn colors? If his father were here he would tell Issa to stop mooning around writing poetry about sunrises and get a real job? If his father were here — full stop: painful (or otherwise) train of thought interrupted by sight of lovely landscape?

Maybe the meaning is more clear in the Japanese. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the haiku is meant to open the mind of the reader to thoughts of his or her father, not tell them anything in particular about Issa’s.

Overall the haiku gives the impression both of being deeply personal and also of belonging not just to Issa but to everyone who reads it. Everyone has a father and everyone has been separated from him at some point. But that experience doesn’t have the same meaning to everyone.

This ambiguity, this refusal of the poet to constrain the imaginative options of the reader, is really central to haiku. They are short. You can’t say much in them, and you’re not supposed to. If you find yourself getting frustrated while writing haiku because you can’t say enough (never happens to me, nuh-uh, no way), you need to start thinking about what you’re trying to say that doesn’t need to be said. There is a lot that doesn’t need to be said.

Haiku should be full of space, at least as full of space as words. The reader should be able to sit in them for a while, and breathe, and hear herself think.

my father’s disappointment —
the first frost
melts beneath my finger

 

 

 

in memoriam david allen 10/25/1939 – 2/12/2010

October 15: 1-5 (Geese fly), and A Short Discourse on Kigo

geese fly —
towing darkness
behind them

geese fly —
change dribbles
out of my pocket

geese fly —
this lover, too,
is cold

geese fly —
down trickles
out of our pillow

geese fly —
haiku etched
in the sky

_____________________

I wrote half a dozen more of these, but I wouldn’t inflict them on my suffering public. Fortunately I have a lot of other things to do today or I would probably sit here in a trance free-associating on flying geese all day.

I don’t always use kigo in my haiku nor do I think they’re always necessary or even desirable, but whenever I start to think that they’re an artificial and burdensome construct that should just be tossed out altogether, I go read Basho and Issa and those other long-ago poets who basically created this genre. I’ve been making my way through the David Lanoue-translated Issa: Cup of Tea Poems and that guy (Issa) riffs on kigo like jazz. He takes a kigo like “night cold” or “winter rain” (pages 80 and 81, in case you’re interested) and uses it like a chord, putting it into so many different contexts and surrounding it with so many different tones that you hardly even notice the same phrase has been used in many successive ku. That’s when you start realizing that kigo can actually be the basis for creativity rather than a hindrance to it.

_____________________

Oh, and hey — don’t forget to send me haiku for my 300th post.

Oh yeah! My books!

I forgot to show you the haiku books I bought at Foundry Books over the weekend. I’m very excited about them…

Issa: Cup of Tea Poems

by Issa, translated by David Lanoue

The fascinating preface of this book begins, “…Issa … is at once the most profoundly devout and down-in-the-mud silly of all the great masters of Japanese haiku. … [He] approaches the natural miracles of this world evenly, showing the same reverent awe and artistic excitement for plum trees in full bloom and dog crap covered by a light snow.” True that…that’s what I love about Issa.

Lanoue goes on to discuss Issa’s “liberating, iconoclastic, democratic” vision and thoroughly dissects what he sees as the critical influence of Issa’s Pure Land Buddhist beliefs on his poetry.

These are quite literal translations, written in one vertical line, one word to a line, reflecting, of course, the original format of the haiku in Japanese. Lanoue’s rationale for this format is that this allows the reader to follow the revelation of images in the haiku in the same order as the original poem. Issa’s haiku are often set up to have punch lines or surprises at the end, and less literal translations can ruin this effect. An example:

snow

melting

village

brimming

over

kids

I am having so much fun reading this. I highly recommend it if you don’t read Japanese but want to get some sense of how haiku might read in the original. Or if you just love Issa and can’t get enough of him, like me.

The Master Haiku Poet: Matsuo Basho

by Makoto Ueda

I haven’t read this yet, but I’m very excited to because Basho is the seminal haiku poet (as well as a great renku poet) and I don’t know nearly enough about him.

This is a 1970 biography and critical appraisal by a Stanford professor which contains tons of the haiku and excerpts from the renku. Here’s one of my favorites that I just came across while browsing:

Will you start a fire?

I’ll show you something nice –

A huge snowball.

The book looks information-packed but very readable. Thre’s even a map at the beginning (love maps!) of Basho’s various journeys, which he famously wrote about at length.

When I actually get around to reading this (I hope soon) I will give you a more thorough rundown.

The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan

by Abigail Freedman

Another one I’m really excited to read. It’s the memoir of an American diplomat in Japan who joins a haiku group and gets a thoroughly Japanese grounding in the writing of haiku and, in the process, learns quite a bit about Japanese culture.

Just paging through, I see lots and lots of really wonderful haiku (given in both English and Japanese) — some classical and some contemporary. Here’s a great one (by an elderly man being tested for cancer):

into my kidney

a tube pierces

ah, the summer heat!

I’m really looking forward to finding out more about the haiku scene in Japan — even though we are developing our own strong traditions, I think we English-language haiku poets have a lot to learn from the Japanese still. So many of their haiku seem so much fresher and more imaginative than most English-language haiku.

Again, I will give you a more thorough report on this book once I’ve actually read it. It’s on the top of the pile on my nightstand, so with any luck you won’t have long to wait.

July 22: 1-2: The Technique of Humor

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

Jane:

“This is the dangerous stuff … [b]ecause one has no way of judging another person’s tolerance for wisecracks, jokes, slurs, bathroom and bedroom references.… Very often the humor of a haiku comes from the honest reactions of humankind. Choose your terms carefully, add to your situation with appropriate leaps, and may the haiku gods smile on you.

dried prune faces
guests when they hear
we have only a privy”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:
Hmmm … okay, here’s the thing. My sense of humor tends toward the … obscurely satirical? Wait, is that just a synonym for “not funny”? Well, you can judge for yourself.

1.

For my first effort at humor I set out to write a haiku that would encompass as many stereotypes about Japan and haiku as possible in seventeen syllables (5-7-5, of course).

origami cranes
sipping tea on Mount Fuji —
white cherry blossoms

2.
For my second effort I felt like making fun of haiku poets. Yeah, all of us, cawing away, trying to impress our significance on the world …

Basho, Issa,
and the rest of us —
a convention of crows

Had enough yet? Can’t say I blame you. But come on, are they really any worse than Jane’s privy joke?

(And don’t forget my invitation!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushing Ahead: Haiku Technique

So I’ve reached the point in this project, inevitable whenever I start learning about something new, when I realize that I know. absolutely. nothing. about what I’m doing. Three weeks ago when I decided suddenly to start this blog, having previously only infrequently written haiku, or really any poetry (you begin to see the depth of my naivete here), I thought (if I thought anything, which I very much doubt), “Haiku! How charming they are! And short! So very short! I could write one of those every day!” Really, I just wanted something to blog about daily, and since I have the attention span of [insert annoying, buzzing insect of your choice here], a three-line poem seemed pretty much perfect for my purposes.

So I blithely started writing the damn things, rapidly became addicted to both seeing and writing in this new compressed way, and started sensing that there might be more to this charming little poetic form than I had suspected. And then, and only then, did I start reading other people’s haiku, and reading about the form, trying to figure out what it was really about.

It didn’t seem too complicated at first. Sure, there were all those competing definitions, but really, they had a lot in common — the general idea being that haiku should express in a handful of syllables some brief but complete moment of passing enlightenment. I was totally down with that. I need more enlightenment anyway. I ran around looking for it and sat with my laptop for hours permutating (sometimes mutilating) words to try to express it. Those first efforts seemed pretty satisfying to me, sort of the way their first few drunken lurches on their own two feet seem pretty satisfying to babies. Haiku! Like walking! Nothing to it!

But just as babies are no longer content to wobble when they observe the rapid and graceful locomotion of their elders, the more I read the haiku of others, the humbler I became. Not just the classical greats, your Basho, your Issa: just scrolling through the latest issue of one of the modern haiku journals or visiting one of my favorite haiku blogs can leave me gaping: How do they do that? How do they contrive to crank the moon roof open and reveal the stars of a newly expanded universe with so few and such elegant motions? Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually writing in the same language as these people, or if they have discovered some kind of sleek, turbocharged English that can perform technical feats undreamt of by those of us who are still running version 1.0.

Clearly I needed some kind of instruction, or inspiration, or possibly a reboot of my brain — was there some kind of drug that would do that, perhaps? Just as I was beginning to consider entering a Zen monastery or selling my soul to the ghost of William Carlos Williams, I discovered a great essay by Jane Reichhold that not only pretty much blew the top of my head off but gave me renewed hope that someday, perhaps around the time I undergo my third hip replacement, I will write a haiku that seems like it actually has something to offer the world.

In this essay, entitled “Haiku Techniques,” Jane, who is one of the great American haiku poets/guides/instructors of the last fifty years, and whose writing on the subject of haiku is almost without exception brave, exciting, enlightening, and reassuring in equal measure, describes the haiku scene of the seventies and eighties, when a lot of emphasis was placed on authenticity and not so much on literary skill:

“[T]here seemed a disinterest in others wanting to study these aspects which I call techniques. Perhaps this is because in the haiku scene there continues to be such a reverence for the haiku moment and such a dislike for what are called ‘desk haiku.’ The definition of a desk haiku is one written from an idea or from simply playing around with words. If you don’t experience an event with all your senses it is not valid haiku material. A ku from your mind was half-dead and unreal. An experienced writer could only smile at such naiveté, but the label of ‘desk haiku’ was the death-knell for a ku declared as such. This fear kept people new to the scene afraid to work with techniques or even the idea that techniques were needed when it came time to write down the elusive haiku moment.”

Jane then goes on to list and describe no less than 23 different techniques she has discovered for writing haiku, the names of some of which seem like they could themselves be lines in haiku — The Technique of Sense-Switching, The Technique of Mixing It Up, The Above As Below Technique. I advise you to go read about them now if you harbor any ambitions at all in the haiku-writing line yourself and have the slightest degree of dissatisfaction with your efforts to date.

I plan to try them all. Maybe one a day, or maybe not. This is a project ideally suited to a completist, perfectionist, basically uptight academician who likes to analyze things to death but who nevertheless harbors a secret desire to write the kind of poetry that makes people gasp and pant a little, hands to their heart, when they read it. I don’t mean that I think that just working my way through Jane’s techniques will enable me to attain that goal, I just mean that I think that this project is a way of declaring, to myself as much as anybody else, that the goal is worthy.

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…

May 12: 2: When it isn’t working

outside hatchlings cry
in the kitchen, hot tea,
bread and butter

This was another one of those days where I tried repeatedly to write a haiku beginning with a particular line, and mostly failed spectacularly. I don’t even like this one very much.*

I never can figure out what to do when this was happening. Should I give up and move on to another beginning line? Accept that the haiku mojo is just not there today? Stop trying to write so many haiku in the first place, and just wait to experience a Zen moment or something?

Sometimes it seems like the thought I’m trying to express is really too large to fit into a haiku in the first place. That I need to either shrink the thought, or find a new thought, or write a different kind of poem. (But I’m not so hot at the writing regular poems thing. I’ve written about one and a half in my life that I actually might consider showing to another human being.)

The spirit of haiku can be elusive. And when you’re trying to churn out at least one halfway decent one a day, you can get all cranky and anxious when it doesn’t seem to be happening. This is also probably not conducive to attaining haiku enlightenment. Must. Curb. Perfectionist. Tendencies. …

What can help is reading large numbers of the haiku of the great masters — they were mostly all extremely prolific, and frankly, most of their haiku is not particularly memorable. For every brilliant flash of insight from Issa:

o snail

climb Mt. Fuji –

but slowly, slowly!

(Issa, translated by D.T. Suzuki)

there are several more Issa efforts that seem uninspired at best. It’s possible (probable) that they’re a lot better in Japanese, but I have heard Japanese-speaking scholars of haiku say the same thing.

And of course, I am not Issa, nor was meant to be. (Apologies to T.S. Eliot, the thought of whom has suddenly made me realize that “April is the cruelest month” might work as an opening line for a haiku.) I’m the humblest of apprentices, and it’s almost arrogant of me to presume that I’ll be able to write a decent haiku more than once in a blue moon. (Blue moon! Also good haiku material. Okay, starting to feel better now.)

People who write haiku — what’s your working method? Do you frequently rewrite your haiku, or do they mostly come to you whole in a flash of insight, or do you think rewrites are destructive to the haiku spirit? (Or can you just not be bothered?) Do you sit down and say, “I think I’ll write a haiku now,” or is that just the form your thoughts take? Do you have to write a lot of them before you get one you’re relatively satisfied with? Share, please, I’m feeling a little isolated at the moment…

(Later note: I had no sooner published this when I saw an edit that would make it better. So I changed it and published it again. And then immediately saw another edit, which I promptly made. Now I’m feeling slightly more cheerful about the whole thing. But only slightly.)

*And a few days later: Okay, how about:

hatchlings cry
fresh bread
cooling

I like that better. Still not great. But way too many words in the first one.

Why Red Dragonfly? Ask Issa

The name of this blog, as you will see if you look under “Epigraph” in the right-hand column, comes from a translation of one of Kobayashi Issa’s haiku by David G. Lanoue. The red dragonfly of this haiku is a stand-in for all the small sights that startle and move us enough to get our haiku juices flowing.

If you are interested in reading (translations of) some of the most famous Japanese haiku, a fantastic place to start is David’s archive of his translations of thousands of Issa’s haiku. (I’ve linked to it above, and under “More Haiku” to the right.) It’s searchable and the results are beautifully laid out and organized, making it a joy to browse through. Pick a word, any word — how about “tea” or “rain”? — and spend a pleasant half hour scrolling down through the results, smiling at Issa’s images and at David’s elegant translations and many helpful and entertaining comments. If you’re shorter on time, you can choose to see a random haiku. You can also sign up to have one haiku a day emailed to you, which for me is like having Issa place a friendly hand on my shoulder and remind me to get writing.

Issa (along with Basho, Buson, and Shiki) is considered one of the four greatest Japanese haiku writers. He straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and brought to haiku writing a sense of earthy humor and humanism. His haiku tend to appeal to those of us who find haiku that are entirely focused on nature a little too abstract to handle, and who prefer the surprising and moving connections between human concerns and impersonal nature that Issa so frequently discovers.

David’s site also contains a general introduction to haiku, featuring one of my all-time favorite (and one of the briefest I’ve seen) definitions of the form: “Haiku: a one-breath poem that discovers connection.” When I feel like I’m getting lost in the tangle of competing, complicated haiku definitions that are floating around out there, I come back to David’s definition and breathe a little easier. That really is the essence of haiku for me.

The site also has lots of great links to Issa sites and haiku sites. I am extremely honored that David links to this site, and extremely grateful to him for giving me permission to reprint his translation here — and to Issa for seeing the red dragonfly in the first place.