the Milky Way
trying to remember
my old home
the Milky Way
the Milky Way
trying to remember
my old home
the Milky Way
I recently read the Japanese modern classic novel Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, which I recommend without reservation to anyone who likes both novels and haiku. Here’s why:
“Kawabata has been put, I think rightly, in a literary line that can be traced back to seventeenth-century haiku masters. Haiku are tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms. Thus the classical haiku characteristically fuses motion and stillness. Similarly Kawabata relies very heavily on a mingling of the senses. In Snow Country we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of the sound of running water, or, in a somewhat more elaborate figure, the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly becomes a woman’s feet. …
“The haiku manner presents a great challenge to the novelist. The manner is notable for its terseness and austerity, so that his novel must rather be like a series of brief flashes in a void.”
— Edward G. Seidensticker, from the introduction to his translation of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
I was totally fascinated by the idea of a novel inspired by haiku — two literary forms that on the surface could not possibly be more different. The novel, as it happens, is actually my favorite literary form; I just can’t write them (and believe me I’ve tried) because my attention span is not nearly long enough, which is why I write haiku instead. And much as I love the challenge of trying to recreate an experience and an insight in the few lines of a haiku, I frequently find myself frustrated by the tininess of its canvas — hence all my haiku sequences and narratives.
I love Seidensticker’s definition of haiku (another one to add to the collection on my mantelpiece) as “tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms.”
I was also really interested in Seidensticker’s further description of haiku as a fusion of “motion and stillness.” Something to think about. Does he mean literally motion and stillness, or something more like concrete images, an engagement with the physical world, vs. abstract insight or internal activity? That he then goes to equate this with “a mingling of the senses” confuses the issue further for me — does this imply that mixing senses creates a kind of movement in the poem and in the novel?
There is certainly not much literal movement in the novel; all that happens in it is that a pretentious, self-involved guy from Tokyo goes several times over several years to a mountain resort to visit a particular young geisha with whom he is — not exactly in love, but in fascination. There are only a few other characters who are named or described in any detail, and most of the book consists of conversations between the two main characters, detailed descriptions of their surroundings, and the thoughts of the male protagonist (the viewpoint is third-person limited, so we don’t get to find out what the geisha is thinking).
“Brief flashes in a void” — this is an excellent description of the overall impression the novel gives. There are the mountains, the snow, a fairly incoherent relationship between two people, all these things seeming blank and quiet, a canvas on which appear sudden splatters of awareness much like the condensed expression of awareness of a haiku, powerful, vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, feelings. They seem to be drawing the man from Tokyo forward, toward some kind of decision or personal change — though what kind, we’re not in the end quite sure. Here’s an example:
“From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back. The dark needles blocked out the sky, and the stillness seemed to be singing quietly. The trunk against which Shimamura leaned was the oldest of all. For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god.”
— Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, p. 30 (Perigee Books edition)
Here are the mixture of senses — sight, sound, touch — that Seidensticker refers to, and also the fusion of motion and stillness — this is a static picture of some trees and yet they are described in terms of active movement — they “threw up their trunks,” the needles “blocked out the sky,” they are ready, most shockingly, to be used as “a terrible weapon for some god.” There is both beauty and harshness and cruelty in this scene, as there is in the relationship between the two main characters.
There are several passages that you can easily imagine a classical haiku poet seizing on as material, like this one:
“Before a white wall, shaded by eaves, a little girl in ‘mountain trousers’ and an orange-red flannel kimono, clearly brand-new, was bouncing a rubber ball. For Shimamura, there was autumn in the little scene.”
— Kawabata, p. 109
in her new red kimono
she bounces a ball
or this one:
“[A building is on fire.] At the edge of the garden, withering chrysanthemums were silhouetted against the light from the inn — or the starlight. For an instant he almost thought it was the light from the fire.”
— Kawabata, p. 163
withering in the light
from the stars
The final pages of the novel, the content of which I won’t discuss here because I hate spoilers, are a tour de force of sense-mixing, of powerful incongruities, of stillness and motion fused in the purest way imaginable. And the final line, just to give you a sense of how haiku-like Kawabata can be, is: “the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.” There are some modern haiku poets (and I might be one of them) for whom that would be a perfect, complete one-line haiku.
Don’t you want to go read it now instead of reading my long, boring treatise on it? Or did you stop reading my treatise a long time ago and go buy it or score it from the library? Either way, good for you.
Postscript: Via a link to “possibly related posts” at the bottom of this entry I discovered the following closely related essay by an Indian writer — she discusses both Snow Country and another Kawabata novel. Very interesting perspective.
Yesterday’s post on gendai haiku is now already my most popular post of all time, which kind of blows me away because I assumed a total of about three people would ever read it and at least two of them would hate it. This makes me think I should strike while the iron is hot and write my promised post on innovators in English-language haiku. Once again, try not to be put off by the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Yes, I’m a newcomer to the haiku world, a rank amateur, probably nothing more than a poseur, but no one, at least, can accuse me of a lack of enthusiasm, which you will just have to accept in place of expertise.
A good place to start, I think, would be with a comment Scott Metz posted on troutswirl quite recently in response to the essay of Richard Gilbert’s I mentioned in another post the other day: The Morning After: Haiku Faces a New Century. Be forewarned, these are some pretty polemical remarks (as remarks by poets go). If you are not entirely sold on the whole gendai/avant-garde haiku scene, try not to be offended by them but to take them in the spirit of sincere love for haiku and the English language with which I believe Scott offers them:
“…Japanese haiku are indeed, very much so, a word-based poetry, not the enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra so many continue to espouse and cling to. … [English language haiku] are … for the most part, still, ‘slavish imitations’ of translations of what westerners *think* Japanese haiku are. Creative oversimplifications, most of which lack internal energy/dynamics. creative misreadings are cool. but i think they’ve lost their virginal glow in this case. …
“One direction i find interesting for [English language haiku] is that of symbolism and literary allusions/references being used within them, either in a mythological way, or in a more canonically literary way. knowingly or unknowingly. …
“Japanese haiku, at their root, are not simply, or only, about images at all, or moments, or ‘real/true’ experiences … but about language and culture and literature: an intricately woven rug of all these elements. …
“What also strikes me … is how strangely satisfied those writing [English language haiku] are with their nature imagery. Considering how radical Basho and his followers were about always trying to do something new and fresh with kigo, it seems a shame, and kind of mortifying, that so many writing [English language haiku] don’t try to experiment more with nature/environmental imagery. To try to turn them on their heads. To twist them. Play with them. …
“I think folks writing [English language haiku] need to play more: with images, words and techniques. and that not just western poetry/poetics should be considered and sampled, but anything and everything we can get our hands on. which is why it’s exciting to see things like ‘kire’ and ‘ma’ and vampires and sufism and gendai popping up. what can we do with these things?”
— Scott Metz, comments on troutswirl
Well…I think I should let what Scott said stand as most of the commentary here, and dedicate my efforts to displaying haiku by sundry poets that I think meet at least some of his criteria for “playing” with the haiku form, doing something “new and fresh” instead of, in Scott’s immortal words, remaining content with the “enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra.”
Whether we use the word “gendai” to refer to these poets or whether we should stick to some term more familiar to us in English like avant-garde, experimental, non-traditional, I think we can all agree that most of them are attempting something different than is espoused by the mainstream haiku movement in the English-speaking world, and closer to what gendai haiku poets in Japan are doing with the genre.
It seems logical to start with Scott himself. On his blog lakes and now wolves, Scott republishes those of his haiku that have been printed in journals. References to pop culture, politics, and current events are par for the course; so is a fresh (if sometimes somewhat obscure) use of language. A couple of examples:
the milky way . . .
we start to discuss
walrus with its mouth wide open war statistics
— Scott Metz
second dawn the dream ghosts re-rehearsing
— John Barlow
A candle is a sweet machine
to fly across the crow-
— Grant Hackett
reading a poem
of urbane intelligence
how dead it is
— William M. Ramsey
O what the hell
haiku poet finally
kills the fly
— Le Wild
for something to happen —
The Evening Standard
— Ruth Holzer – USA
the echo of fireworksthe echo ofthe echo
not speaking the boiled egg clings to its shell
— Bob Lucky – Ethiopia
Richard Gilbert, the gendai haiku scholar I referred to extensively in my essay on that topic, also is a haiku poet himself, some of whose recent, innovative haiku appear on the website Word Riot:
dedicated to the moon
without a decent alibi
a drowning man
pulled into violet worlds
(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 1, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: 2004, pp. 25-27.)
the curving radius
(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 6, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: Summer, 2008.)
— Richard Gilbert
Fay Aoyagi is another poet doing innovative work with haiku. In my gendai haiku essay I mentioned her website Blue Willow Haiku World, on which she presents many of her English translations of Japanese gendai haiku. Her own haiku are described by David Lanoue, in his Modern Haiku essay, Something with Wings: Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape, as “avant-garde” and “new-style.” Following are a couple of Fay’s haiku with enlightening commentary by David from his essay:
in the oyster shell
[Lanoue’s commentary on this haiku:]
“I believe that haiku is about discovery: the deeper the feeling of discovery, the better the haiku, in my opinion. In a great haiku we sense the poet finding out something in the process of composition, not reporting on a thing that has been previously mentally digested. When Aoyagi brings us with her to the table for her pre-surgery dinner, we suspect that she has no a priori idea that the journey will take us to a tiny ocean in an oyster shell. We arrive there with her, sharing the ‘ah!-moment’ of the vision and sensing its nonlinear, non-logical connection to the poet’s (and our) interior life. Thoughts of mortality, the fear of the surgeon’s knife, a vague feeling of dread and lament … so many emotions ebb and flow in the tiny ocean in the shell. The shell on the plate is itself a post-op carcass that on closer inspection becomes a gleaming continental shelf enclosing a tiny, salty sea. Aoyagi doesn’t say what she feels about her vision, whether it comforts or terrifies her; she invites us into the intimacy of the moment to contemplate for ourselves what it might mean.”
ants out of a hole —
when did I stop playing
the red toy piano?
[David’s general commentary on Fay’s technique:]
“Her decision to probe her inner life is not new in haiku tradition, though few do it as well or as interestingly. The contemporary Japanese poet Hasegawa Kai (whose work Aoyagi has translated) describes the shift from outer to inner focus within a haiku as a sort of kire or “cutting.” In a interview with Richard Gilbert, Hasegawa defines zengo no kire as “The cutting which cuts a haiku from this reality within which we live — from the literal place / environment / atmosphere (‘ba’) of literal existence.” Such cutting, according to Hasegawa, entails a shift of focus from outward scenes to the “realm of the mind” — exactly Fay Aoyagi’s method.”
— Fay Aoyagi/David Lanoue, Something with Wings: Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape
There are a number of haiku bloggers I’ve discovered (many of whom also publish in journals, but I know their work mainly through their blogs) who, consciously or unconsciously, play with the traditional Western haiku form with interesting results. For example, John Sandbach of Crystal Dragon says, “I am deeply enamoured of the modern haiku of Japan, which, like modern art, is of many styles and energies, and which is constantly recreating itself as it unfolds. Unfortunately, the West is still primarily focused on traditional haiku and has not yet tuned in to the wonders of modern Japanese experimental artisans of this form.” Below is one of his haiku sequences:
in a hippo’s jaws —
the lettuce’s bliss
for tearing up a violet
so I ate it
On T.V. a spider
liquifies a frog —
spring in Kansas City
a stone mason —
servant of the endless wall
smooth and white —
the pyramid’s youth
— John Sandbach
Nicole Hyde of the blog “noodle,” who commented on my gendai haiku post, “I’ve bought a ticket on the Gendai Haiku train too,” has some interesting examples of nontraditional haiku on her site. Since she is also a painter, her haiku often refer to art.
unbound, the English
Bay in fog —
not seen: some weird duck
soundlessin the night museum
from end to end —
— Nicole Hyde
Alan Segal, or “Old Pajamas,” from the blog “old pajamas: from the dirt hut,” innovates in many ways, often describing what are clearly imaginary or fantasy scenes.
But aren’t haiku meant to be exactly 17 syllables long?
You’re right. They’re also meant to include a seasonal reference (kigo) and a structural break (kireji). But I’ve never been good at following rules.
If your poems don’t meet the criteria for haiku, why confuse the issue?
I like haiku. I think these are similar in mood and intention. And I quite enjoy confusion.
A few of Brian’s “paiku” follow:
For idea of cat
To go away
There’s a big field
Where you can dig up
Everything you ever lost
— Brian Pike
Yi Ching-Lin of the blog y writes primarily short free verse but occasionally writes haiku, and they are generally nontraditional, as in this recent example (the link on the second line connects to Yi’s photography):
it happens daily (6 June 2010)
it happens dailywith a wounded twist— Yi Ching-Lin
Anne Lessing, the teenage writer of the blog “Phantasma,” who is just beginning to write haiku (and intends to start a project of writing haiku daily in January 2011), has produced some very interesting haiku about zombies based on the video game “Call of Duty,” one of which I’ve reproduced below:
that flower looked so pretty
so I choked it
with my child’s blood
— Anne Lessing
Finally, Elissa of The Haiku Diary writes daily haiku describing events in her life, some of which are simply quotidian or jokelike, but many of which seem to transcend the category of mere diary-entry and evoke deeper feelings and meanings.
The second of the two haiku of Elissa’s I’ve quoted below is especially interesting in light of Scott Metz’s and Richard Gilbert’s discussions of the way haiku has always been in a dialogue with the past, constantly referring back to previous poetry and other literature and history. In a way this haiku of Elissa’s, referring as it does to a famous haiku of Basho’s (“The bee emerging/from deep within the peony/departs reluctantly”), is both modern and completely classical — so it seems like an appropriate place to bring this post to an end. Hope it was a fun ride.
Closing my eyes and
swaying with the music makes
me that girl, but so what?
watched a bumble bee stumble
out of a peony!
— Elissa of The Haiku Diary