Category: ponds

Tanka? Okay, I Can Do That

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I check
to see what’s sprouted
we’re separated now
by the life span
of squash and cucumbers

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on the way
to see the apple blossoms —
I admire how
your story changes
with every streetlight

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(Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, 7:1, Spring 2011)

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Tanka. I keep mentioning tanka in what I know is this extremely skeptical tone of voice. I spent a long time trying not to think about them. I think I was having a hard enough time trying to understand haiku (not that that process is or ever will be over for me) and seeing these tanka things, which looked kind of like haiku but were the wrong length and sounded very different, confused me. And kind of annoyed me, too, because a lot of them (although not, by any means, as high a percentage as I used to think) are flowery and dreamy and romantic and … I’m not. Flowery, dreamy, romantic things usually just make me want to go balance my checkbook or something. Or throw up. (Yes, I am a fun date. Thanks for asking.)

So I was all grouchy about tanka and didn’t even want to learn anything about it, which is unusual for me because generally I want to learn everything about everything, and the sooner the better. I sneered at and winced about and cast aspersions on tanka … and then, at some point this winter, I started writing it. Still without having the slightest idea what it actually was. Don’t ask me what that was all about. I think I was just having one of those days where haiku seemed too short. You know those days. Where you’re like “Seventeen syllables? Max? Give me a break.”

I wrote a bunch of these things and eyed them warily, and then heaved a weary sigh and went crawling humbly around the web to find out what I had done. I was thrilled to find this essay about the origins of tanka by Jane Reichhold, because it’s very funny and made me feel like maybe I didn’t have to worry so much about tanka but could just enjoy it:

“From tanka’s long history – over 1300 years recorded in Japan — the most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers. Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji, the little poem expressing one’s feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return to his master.

Usually under some pressure – the writer had probably been either awake or engaged in strenuous activities all night – to write a verse that related, in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one’s feelings, and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again was not an easy task. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the personal messenger on his way with a note so written that he couldn’t know exactly what was what but that the beloved would understand and appreciate. Then the giggling servants would get back to work.

“…Looking at tanka history it seems that the only infallible way of writing great tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Do it now. But that doesn’t mean that it must be a behind-the-bushes affair in the no-tell motel. Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons; your own kids, grandkids or even – your mate, or just life itself. Whatever feels good and right for you.

Because of their original use as a way of privately expressing emotion and especially between friends and lovers unhappy because they are separated, the feelings expressed in traditional tanka were usually either longing for better time, more faithful lovers, younger years or grief because of old age, lack of lovers, or hard times. You get the picture. When reading a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.”

— Jane Reichhold,  “Tanka for the Memory

So that was my first tanka breakthrough. My second happened when I humbly sent a bunch of my lame tanka off to be edited by Aubrie Cox, who graciously refrained from telling me I had no idea what I was doing and with her magical touch lightly and deftly transformed the least lame of them into something that a tanka editor might not be too appalled to see appearing in his or her inbox. The two above are the first I had accepted for publication. It felt pretty weird, I have to tell you. “Wait — I’m not a tanka poet. Am I? Oh God. I guess I am. Can I go throw up now?”

I’ve gotten over it, though. For one thing, I’ve actually read a lot of tanka since then, and a lot of it I like a lot. Also, some of my best friends are wonderful tanka poets, so I’ve really had to force myself to examine my unwarranted prejudices. If you get this issue of Ribbons, for instance (which I highly recommend you do), you will find the following stupendous tanka by my buddy Margaret Dornaus of haiku-doodle gracing the back cover, and being wonderfully and lovingly dissected inside the journal by its editor, Dave Bacharach:

at Toad Suck
I contemplate syllables
and old ponds
like a child puddle-jumping
loudly through soft falling rain

— Margaret Dornaus

And right next to it you will find another stupendous tanka by Jeffrey Woodward (Haibun Today editor extraordinaire), which Bacharach has deliberately placed in counterpoint with Margaret’s:

sweet,
but with a slight tang,
the rejected
and twisted little
apples of Winesburg

— Jeffrey Woodward

Even I have to admit that there is nothing romantic, dreamy, etc. about either of these tanka, and that they are, in fact, quite brilliant and thought-provoking poems that just happen to be two lines longer than your typical haiku and to be attempting something rather different though not entirely unconnected. If you’re looking for a better explanation than I or probably anyone else but R.H. Blyth could provide of what exactly that something is, check out this essay by Don Wentworth over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, which gives us plenty of Blyth for our delectation.

For even more tanka information, Tanka Online and American Tanka are good places to look, and Charlotte Digregorio has recently written an essay on her blog that is a good, brief introduction to the subject. Besides Ribbons, the print journals Moonbathing, Eucalypt, and red lights publish tanka exclusively; bottle rockets publishes it among other Japanese verse forms, and so does the online journal Notes from the Gean. I’m probably forgetting someone. As I so often do. Feel free, as always, to tell me what I’m missing.

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[Note: If you subscribe to this blog, you are not imagining things. Another version of this essay appeared a few days ago. It was an accident — it wasn’t finished yet — and I promptly deleted it. Sorry about the confusion.]

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December 15: The Past is a Different Country

There is always something new to learn about yourself, I’ve found — in particular, there are always things you’ve forgotten about yourself that when you remember them, or are reminded of them, you are astounded by. In my case, I was astounded the other day when, rummaging around in an old filing cabinet, I pulled out a small sheaf of paper torn from a 2003 page-a-day diary and discovered that apparently at least once before in my life — in the first week of 2003 — I attempted to write a haiku every day for a year.

I only made it a week, so I guess it’s not surprising that this venture didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I guess it’s also not surprising that all these haiku are 5-7-5 and that none of them are much good, although a few of them are not completely terrible either. What does surprise me is that when I started writing haiku (again) back in May, I honestly thought it was the first time I’d ever seriously considered taking up the form. I mean I knew I’d written the odd haiku in the past because that’s just the kind of odd thing I’m always doing, but I’d had no idea that I’d once spent an entire cold week fixated on them.

I’m glad I didn’t remember, in a way. If I had, I might have been discouraged — “Oh, haiku. Tried that once. Didn’t work out.” It just goes to show that you never know exactly what’s changed in you and in what way you might catch fire next.

I know you’re dying to read some of these. I’ve reproduced them below exactly as I wrote them, punctuation and capitalization and similes and incredibly embarrassing diction and all.

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January first
Christmas trees like bad habits
discarded at curbs

January cold:
even the seed pods shiver.
Hand me a sweater.

 

This winter landscape
everything is different
except the stone wall

Down by the duck pond
we trace letters in the snow:
“Please don’t feed the ducks.”

 

low sun in my eyes
I walk holding my head down
shy until spring comes

 

a fir tree sideways
beneath the lilac bush —
the corpse of Christmas

 

 

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(I also must share an entertaining piece of commentary from this notebook: “I really wanted to write a haiku about how the garbage men turn the garbage cans upside down after they collect the garbage, but it turns out that’s a really difficult thing to write a haiku about.”

I’m (pretty) sure that was meant to be deadpan humor …)

365 Poems

Because we are big geeks in our family, this is what my son got for his sixteenth birthday*:

Basically what it is, is an empty box. That I ineptly decoupaged with a bunch of random scraps of paper I had left over from various other inept craft projects that I have unwisely attempted over the years. I know! I’m the world’s best mother, right?

The thing is — because, as I mentioned, we’re all geeks here — once I explained the purpose of this box, my son, instead of giving me a look like, “Now I have plenty of material for the therapy sessions I will require in ten years or so,” said, “Oh! Cool!” And from the way his eyes lit up I could tell he was not just indulging his insane mother while making a mental note to go to college as far away from home as possible.

The purpose of the box, you see, is to accumulate poems. One a day for a year. Not my poems, God forbid — if he’s really dying to read those he can check out the blog, which I have reason to believe he does occasionally when he has nothing better to do, which is hardly ever. No, these are, you know, real poems. By real poets. I’ve been photocopying up a storm from my small but select collection of poetry books, as well as printing things off the Interwebs, and late at night the Poetry Fairy comes and … okay, I don’t really make an attempt to perpetuate that fiction with a sixteen-year-old. I have my limits. But I do put a poem in the box every day (unless I go to a haiku festival and forget, in which case I put three in the day I remember).

The main criteria I have for these poems is that they be: a) not crap; b) poems I enjoy; c) poems I sincerely believe my son will enjoy. I’m not attempting to provide him with the Greatest Hits of English Poetry. (Though I do try to cover a range of eras and types of poetry, just because you never know what will click with someone.) The purpose here is not really educational, except in the sense that everything is educational. (Ask me about my educational philosophy some time if you really want me to blather on interminably.) The purpose is more — to foster joy. Joy in the possibilities of language, the possibilities of imagination, the possibilities of human thought.

This is a kid who has been performing in uncut productions of Shakespeare’s plays a couple of times a year since he was nine, so he knows from great poetry, and he appreciates wonderful language. But I’ve been thinking for a while that he would enjoy a lot of other types of poetry, while being confounded about how, exactly, to sneak in a course of poetry appreciation amid all his other myriad activities. (Oh — he doesn’t go to school, did I mention? Who has time for that, anyway?) Then I thought, “One poem a day. That’s how to do it.” And the box was born.

So the reason I’m bringing this up now — I can hear you sighing in relief as I get to the bloody point already — is that what went in the box today was a couple of Japanese haiku, each in two different translations. Because reading different translations of Japanese haiku is one of my favorite things to do, and I thought my son would enjoy it too. And then I thought that you might enjoy it, too. So here they are.

I hope you can actually read them. They’re by Basho and Moritake. I’m not sure who the translators are because the poetry textbook I took them from didn’t say (bad poetry textbook!).

If you are interested in comparative haiku translation there are lots of great books and websites that feature competing translations — sometimes 30 or more translations of the same ku, such as this page which offers up translations of perhaps the most famous classical Japanese ku, Basho’s furuike ya or frogpond haiku. (There’s a link to it on my sidebar as well.)

Here are two different versions from that page, just to give you some sense of how widely translations can vary:

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.

— Lafcadio Hearn

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

— Curtis Hidden Page

Does that blow your mind or what? I think it’s pretty safe to say that the second version takes some, um, considerable liberties with Basho’s verse. The first is pretty literal, which is much more the trend these days (though Hearn was writing in the nineteenth century). Even closely literal translations, though, can vary quite a bit, just because of the effort of cramming Japanese syntax into something readable by English speakers.

Okay, thus endeth the lesson for the day. You can all return to your regularly scheduled lives now, and think fondly about your own mothers, who would never have dreamed of pulling such a stunt on you.

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*That wasn’t all he got for his birthday, in case you are thinking of reporting me to Child Welfare or something. He also got some cool running shoes and new shifters for his bike. And with his birthday money from relatives he bought himself an iPhone 4. We don’t live entirely in the past around here. Though sometimes we think it would be nice to try.

July 1: 1-4: The Techniques of Wabi and Sabi

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

Jane:

The Technique of Sabi


“… [T]he Japanese have maintained for centuries that no one can really, truly comprehend what sabi really is and thus, they change its definition according to their moods. Bill Higginson, in The Haiku Handbook, calls sabi – ‘(patina/loneliness) Beauty with a sense of loneliness in time, akin to, but deeper than, nostalgia.’ Suzuki maintains that sabi is ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude’ but that it can also be ‘miserable,’ ‘insignificant,’ and ‘pitiable,’ ‘asymmetry’ and ‘poverty.’ Donald Keene sees sabi as ‘an understatement hinting at great depths.’ So you see, we are rather on our own with this!

I have translated this as: sabi (SAH-BEE)- aged/loneliness – A quality of images used in poetry that expresses something aged or weathered with a hint of sadness because of being abandoned. A split-rail fence sagging with overgrown vines has sabi; a freshly painted picket fence does not.

rocky spring
lips taking a sip
from a stone mouth

coming home
flower
by flower”

[Note: In Jane’s book “Writing and Enjoying Haiku” (published later than and containing a revised version of this essay) she gives the example haiku for sabi as:

listening ears
petals fall into
the silence]


The Technique of Wabi


“The twin brother to sabi … can be defined as ‘(WAH-BEE) — poverty — Beauty judged to be the result of living simply. Frayed and faded Levis have the wabi that bleached designer jeans can never achieve.’ Thus one can argue that the above haiku samples are really more wabi than sabi – and suddenly one understands the big debate. However, I offer one more ku that I think is more wabi than sabi because it offers a scene of austere beauty and poignancy.

parting fog
on wind barren meadows
birth of a lamb”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

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Me:

More on wabi and sabi:

I think that when Jane originally wrote this the concepts of wabi and sabi (or wabi-sabi, the way they’re usually conjoined and made into one concept these days) were not really familiar to Americans. Then, of course, a segment of the interior design industry got hold of it and the next thing you knew there were entire shelves of the home-decorating section at Barnes & Noble dedicated to explaining how to improve your home by bringing home junky things from garage sales (or pre-distressed knickknacks from Target), arranging them artistically on your coffee table, and telling everyone they were part of your Japanese Zen aesthetic.

I’m being facetious. Kind of. I mean, in some ways my house is Wabi-Sabi Central, if only because I don’t have any actual money to buy shiny new stuff. (Also, shiny new stuff hurts my eyes.) Lots of my furniture was retrieved off curbs on trash day. (“Oh look! Another not-completely-broken chair that doesn’t match any of my other chairs! Score!”)

I buy all my clothes at thrift stores so I never have to worry about breaking in my jeans. I like museums and antique stores because they’re full of worn-out objects that lots of other people have touched and left psychic imprints on, and I would love to bring home more of these objects — you know, like beautifully weathered old maple furniture, and frayed hundred-year-old quilts made by thrifty ladies using up their fabric scraps, and those gorgeous grayish-brown stoneware jars to store your dry goods, and — what’s that you say? That stuff all costs a fortune?

Yeah, see, that’s the problem with wabi-sabi — once everyone started thinking how great it was to have worn-out old stuff, the worn-out old stuff got really expensive. And it all started feeling a little trite and silly, this frantic rush to spend lots of money to make your house look like you were impoverished.

But that surface interior-decorating concept of wabi-sabi isn’t — I know, I know — what it’s really about. What it is about, exactly — as Jane points out — nobody exactly knows, and the Japanese, I believe, are not all that eager to explain — detailed explanations, obviously, not being very Zen. I did find a really cool essay on the subject by someone who appears to be an American tea expert (tea ceremony master? hard to tell from the site). Here are some of his or her thoughts on the matter (it’s a long and really interesting essay, so as usual I recommend reading the whole thing even though — sigh — I know nobody will):

“Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. … It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. … My favorite Japanese phrase for describing wabi-sabi is ‘natsukashii furusato,’ or an old memory of my hometown. …

“Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquillity, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. …

Sabi by itself means ‘the bloom of time.’ It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust — the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting. … An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America’s contribution to the evolution of sabi. … We seek sabi in antiques and even try to manufacture it in distressed furnishings. True sabi cannot be acquired, however. It is a gift of time. …

Wabi-sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, which was brought from China to Japan by Eisai, a twelfth-century monk. Zen, with its principles of vast emptiness and nothing holy, stresses austerity, communion with nature, and above all, reverence for everyday life as the real path to enlightenment.”

— From noble harbor, “What is Wabi-Sabi?

So. Now that we are all hopelessly confused (and have concluded that wabi-sabi and haiku have a lot in common, chiefly the complete inability of any two people to agree on a definition of them) … on to the poetry.

your roses
how few petals
remain

the steam
from the kettle
floating dreams

one petal
on the tablecloth
your name

the empty bench
the wind sweeps away
memories

I had to throw this in … this is the most wabi-sabi-ish place I’ve ever seen. It’s part of the ruins of an old hotel that are now in the middle of a state park. This structure was a fish hatchery on a trout pond. You can click on it to get a much larger, more interesting view.

June 10: 2-3: The Technique of Double Entendre

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

Jane:

“Anyone who has read translations of Japanese poetry has seen how much poets delighted in saying one thing and meaning something else. … In some cases the pun was to cover up a sexual reference by seeming to speaking of something commonplace. There are whole lists of words with double meanings: spring rain = sexual emissions and jade mountain = the Mound of Venus, just to give you an sampling. But we have them in English also…


eyes in secret places
deep in the purple middle
of an iris”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

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Me:

cattails bob
he swims the pond
with strong strokes

early morning tide
salt waters
mingling