(Artwork by Rick Daddario, 19 Planets)
three or four gumballs
in my pockets
“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)
seven or eight sparrows count them again
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:
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
bitamiinzai ichi nichi ni joo taki kooru
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):
and three or four
houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…
three or five stars
by the time I fold it…
two drops for the rice cake tub
three drops for the winnow
suddenly three people
face to face
on three or four stools…
out of four gates
entering just one
on four or five
slender blades of grass
a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
and one of my favorites of all time —
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.
“Happy New Year” in Japanese, as illustrated by a couple of lovely women at the folk-traditions festival I just spent several days at. Those books it’s sitting on are all the haiku- and Japanese-literature-related books I am currently reading. I highly recommend all of them.
So a couple of weeks ago I offered to give one of you a present. And all you had to do in return was cut off the pinky finger on your right hand and mail it to me … wait, was that not your understanding of the deal? Oh, okay, all you really had to do was comment on the blog sometime between then and yesterday, and then hope you got lucky in the present lottery.
This is how the present lottery worked: I made a list of everyone who commented in the appropriate time period, numbered them in the order they commented, and then went to look for the teenager. I found him in his mad-scientist lab in the basement, crouched over a computer hooked up to a number of unidentifiable electronic parts, typing gobbledygook into a little window. (He does this kind of thing a lot. I’m always a little afraid that someday the Interwebs will explode and I’ll find out it was his fault.)
I said to him, “Hey, quit typing your gobbledygook and make me a random-number generator to pick a random number between 1 and 18. Because that’s how many people commented on my blog and I have to give one of them a present and I want this to be a completely scientific, unbiased process.”
He gave me a strange look, but obediently (he is a good boy, really, despite the exploding Interwebs), he opened another little window, typed some different gobbledygook, Googled some stuff real quick, typed more gobbledygook, and then said, “Four.” I am trusting that he did actually create a random number generator and didn’t just pick a number out of his head to make me go away. But whatever, four it is.
And the winner is … Alegria Imperial, whose wonderful blog jornales you must all go take a look at right now. Her New Year haiku there is great — it features a rabbit stole, which I love because I have never read another haiku about a rabbit stole. Also it is a refreshing variation on all the other New Year rabbit haiku floating around out there right now. (2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, in case you had somehow managed not to find this out despite the fact that every single haiku poet in the universe has written a New Year’s haiku with a rabbit reference in it in the last week. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. You can never have too many haiku about rabbits, as far as I’m concerned. I’m just jealous because I haven’t been able to write a good one yet myself.)
So the present, as I mentioned in my original post, is a copy of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, which I completely-on-purpose-but-utterly-foolishly purchased a copy of at a used bookstore even though I already own one. The really great thing is that, as she mentioned in her comment, Alegria already owns one too! But it’s one of her favorite books and it’s beginning to get a little decrepit, and she was wanting another copy. So off it goes to sit on the shelf next to its brother. (Email me your snail mail address, Alegria!)
By an amazing coincidence, on Christmas Day Kuniharu Shimizu, at his fantastic haiga site see haiku here, wrote a post featuring a haiga inspired by Snow Country, along with a brief commentary. (I really recommend you visit his site to see the wonderful photo that accompanies the haiku.)
the other end of the tunnel
is a snow country
“I can almost hear someone in the car yelling, ” Hey, close the window, shut the cold wind out”.
This photo reminded me of Kawabata, Yasunari’s “Snow Country”. The haiku got a hint from the first sentence of the novel.
When I had chance to visit the same snow country, which is in Niigata, I took Jyoetsu Shinkan-sen train. It is the super express train with fixed window so nobody cannot open it. When a long tunnel ended, snow covered fields and mountains of Echigo-Yuzawa sprawled before my eyes. It was so nice to view such a pristine landscape from the warm and comfortable seat of the train.
— Kuniharu Shimizu
And it’s been so nice over the last eight months to view the landscape of the haiku world from the warm and comfortable seat of this blog, surrounded by so many wonderful traveling companions. I wish I could send you all presents. But I’ll give you what I can: My deepest gratitude to all of you for reading, writing back, and sharing your lives and thoughts and writing with me. I wish you all the happiest of New Years.
a word of it
I keep writing these haiku lately that want to be four lines. That’s new. What’s the deal with that? There must be something wrong with me. Can’t I do anything right? What kind of sorry future do I have ahead of me?
(Oops, sorry, existential crisis overflowing onto haiku blog. Will go clean up the mess and be back later.)
october stars —
lighting up the ghosts
I’ll be someday —
the leaf I can’t catch
hoping to meet
crows in autumn—
I normally have a little bit of a compulsion to write haiku sequences in odd numbers (I just like it better that way, okay?), but four is a good number of haiku about ghosts. For the Japanese, the number four signifies death. (The words are homophones, I believe. Correct me if I’m starting to sound ignorant, as so often happens.)
I’m not scared of ghosts. For one thing, I don’t believe they exist. For another, I kind of wish they did, because who wouldn’t want to talk someone who had died and find out what the scoop was on the whole afterlife thing? Especially if it was someone you’d liked while they were alive.
So these haiku are not exactly calculated to strike terror into your heart. They’re more wistful, I think. Happy All Hallows’ Eve to you all.
Happy Independence Day, to all the Americans out there. And to all the rest of you … enjoy your freedoms too.
In that vein …
“fireflies are indeed a fascinating topic. of course, they allow total freedom.”
— Scott Metz
on the same wind
as if you weren’t there
spending the night
for the first time
waxing and waning
never to know
a thousand fireflies
the consolation of
imagining the afterlives
spitting out the seeds
at the breakfast table
last night’s fireflies
a hand cupped
around a firefly
the light from
this wind today!
(not a narrative)
four a.m. bitterly spitting sleep out of my mouth
the speeds of light and sound meet in the storm
where they were left
the dolls sleep
at the end of the storm the birds begin again
the newspaper brought
by the car in the night
the crane cries
light reorganizes itself around the edges of the leaves
the cat crows
in my ear
a green bug climbs up
the broom handle
You’re not going crazy. I’ve revised a bunch of these since the last time you read them.
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?)
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“[T]his is probably one of the very oldest poetical techniques. It has been guessed that early spiritual knowledge was secretly preserved and passed along through riddles….
“One can ask: ‘what is still to be seen’
on all four sides
of the long gone shack
The answer is:
“Or another one would be:
waving from cacti
“…The more intriguing the ‘set-up’ and the bigger surprise the answer is, the better the haiku seems to work. … keep it true, keep it simple and keep it accurate and make it weird.
“Oh, the old masters favorite trick with riddles was the one of: is that a flower falling or is it a butterfly? … if you wish to experiment (the ku may or may not be a keeper) you can ask yourself the question: if I saw snow on a branch, what else could it be? Or seeing a butterfly going by you ask yourself what else besides a butterfly could that be?”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
chewing the stale crumbs
of my future
new leaves stained with
gouts of fresh blood
So the last few days got kind of heavy and I was starting to feel like I never wanted to see another haiku as long as I lived. Instant panic: I can’t be burning out already! Something must be done!
Well…what is the best thing to do when you start taking yourself way, way too seriously? Start acting incredibly silly, of course. Stand on your head. Do a funny dance. Write bad haiku.
Okay, maybe not bad, exactly. But…weird. Different. Not…haiku-like.
Oh! That reminds me of this thing I bookmarked the other day and vowed to come back to when I got a minute!
” ‘Haiku-like haiku aren’t particularly bad. But haiku that don’t seem haiku-like at all—nowadays that’s the kind I’m after.’
—Santoka (trans. Burton Watson)
“…The relatively narrow (and necessarily hybrid) basis of the tradition of haiku in English, with its emphasis on the here and now, can only take us so far; thus many published haiku seem ‘thin.’ Perhaps what’s needed is less striving to perfect the ‘same,’ more writing against the grain.”
–Philip Rowland, The Problem
Yeah, Philip (and Santoka), I know what you mean. Read and write enough haiku, and eventually even the good ones start seeming like parodies of themselves. All that nature! All those tiny exquisite details! All those lower-case letters! All that lack of punctuation! All those moments of enlightenment!
What if for one day I tossed out all those precious little haiku rules (as represented in italics below), and tried to write haiku that seemed un-haiku-like, and yet somehow preserved the spirit of haiku (whatever the hell that is)?
I think it would make me feel better. Though it might make you feel worse.
“Use concrete images.” And, “Don’t make direct references to emotion.” (You know, “Show, don’t tell.”) Also, “Slang is so unattractive.”
“Three lines (or even one) are nicer than two. Or four. Five is right out.” Also, “Metaphors are kind of tacky.” Also, “Cliches? Don’t even get me started.”
This cup of tea
Where I left the
balloon I bought
for your birthday:
On cloud nine
against the current:
like I’m standing still
“Don’t shout.” Also, “Don’t swear.”
WHAT THE HELL
IS A FROG
DOING IN THAT TREE?
“If seventeenth-century technology was good enough for Basho, it’s good enough for us.” Also, “Write in the present tense. Not the past. Or the future.”
My email vanished
before I hit “Send.”
Will Facebook reject me too?
“Please don’t be vulgar.” Also, metaphors, cliches, yadda yadda yadda.
No pot to piss in
when I need to piss.
Which I do.
in your armpit:
your long walk.
“Try to make at least a little bit of sense.” Also, “Minimize your syllables.”
Sticky tape, sticky buns
Fine reticulations of burnt toast
Mud sponging over black shoes
where it (oh who am I kidding anyway)
stopped (my stomach is growling, when did I have lunch)
Haiku (there is as much in the future as there is in the past)
“Rhyme should be used judiciously. If at all.”’
In bed tonight
I know you’re right.
Just turn out the light.
I opened it up.
There you were,
turned into packing peanuts.
The other day I came across a funny (but serious) essay on the subject of rhyme in haiku, with some general discussion of what exactly makes a haiku a haiku: “Can a Haiku Rhyme?“, by Chuck from “Unbecoming Levity.” Chuck’s friend Brian doesn’t like rhyme in haiku, but Chuck (in company with most haiku authorities, if that’s not an oxymoron) doesn’t see why it shouldn’t be allowed:
There’s a reason why Frost chose to say “But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep.” instead of “But I’ve got obligations / And a long way to go before I hit the sack.”
I hadn’t thought much about this subject before, which is interesting because unlike some contemporary poets (and like Chuck), I don’t object to rhyme in poetry. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I have a slight free-verse fear which I can usually only manage to overcome by introducing some element of unfreedom — either meter or rhyme, however loosely construed. (I sometimes express this as, “I can’t decide what word to put here, so I think I’ll pick the one that rhymes with the word at the end of the line before last.” There is a reason I’m not putting these poems up on this blog. Or any other.)
I don’t have these rhyming impulses when I write haiku, though, so I was interested to hear that at least some people do, sometimes. I went looking for more information on the subject, starting with one of the sources Chuck cites: “Rhyming Haiku“, by Charles Trumbull. This is a much dryer consideration of the subject, but it has a lot of nice examples of rhyming haiku, including a comparison of several translations of a Basho haiku with the (I think correct) conclusion that the rhyming translation is the best one:
into the rocks it pierces
(Basho, translated by Harold Henderson)
Some modern poets tend to claim that rhymes (pace, alliteration, etc.) are “unnatural.” I consider such people immature and LAZY*; and usually I reply that correct spelling is also “unnatural,” not even talking about writing “from left-to-right” which is “unnatural” not only for left-handed people and Arabs but also for the very haiku inventors, ancient Japanese, who wrote their texts “from-top-to-bottom”!
So, my point is that poetry is honest with a fluent language; good eyesight plus a good-working tongue. Thus, if you have keen eyes — fine! If you also speak “the higher language” where rhymes appear as naturally and fluently as correct spelling — it won’t make any harm but only some benefit; and rhymed haiku will be “haiku plus something,” not “haiku minus something”: …[Example:]
some lights far away,
some drops on the pane
— Alexey Andreyev
I’ll finish with some thoughtful words from a great essay called “Haiku Rules” by Dr. Gabi Greve. In it Greve considers, and then reconsiders, numerous “rules” about haiku that have been proposed at one time or another. She has mixed feelings about rhyme in haiku:
>Do not use end rhyme.
End rhyme sometimes occurs in English and very often in Japanese haiku. The problem with end rhyme in English is that it has the tendency to ‘close down’ the ku, to finish it off when you really wish to keep the ku open and reverberating in the reader’s mind. Also, our poetry reading habits have conditioned us to grasp the rhyme and think we ‘have’ the poem. Haiku offer so much more, it is a shame to let the rhyme finish the poem.
>Do not use internal rhyme or repeated sounds for their own sake.
Why not? The Japanese do and did it all the time. In fact, they admire poems using this technique skillfully. Why deny the tool for us?
So there you have it. As with so much else in haiku: four poets, four opinions. What’s mine?
a moment in time
*Editorial comment: Check out Andreyev’s use of all-caps throughout his essay. It’s so heartfelt it kills me.