(Artwork by Rick Daddario, 19 Planets)
three or four gumballs
in my pockets
So as you all know (right? right?) the Haiku Foundation is running a haiku contest right now called HaikuNow. The deadline is March 31 and you are all going to enter (waves Jedi hand). I’m planning on entering myself, and here is where my story for today starts.
There are three categories in the contest: Traditional, Contemporary, and Innovative. I want to enter all three categories, because hey, why not. It’s probably best to go to the site for the explanation of what all these categories consist of, but suffice it to say, probably the majority of haiku you see here (mine and other people’s) fall into the Contemporary category, a few into the Innovative category, and practically none into the Traditional category, because the Traditional category requires that the haiku be three lines, 5-7-5 syllables. Yes! Isn’t that cool and retro!
On seeing this in the rules, I thought, “Wow. 5-7-5. Can I even do that? I mean, you know, without sounding like an idiot?” Whenever I’ve tried writing 5-7-5 in the past , they’ve ended up stilted and wordy, and that’s usually what I think about most 5-7-5 efforts by other people as well. I don’t think 5-7-5 works well most of the time for English haiku, for whatever reason. Unnecessary words and unnatural syntax seem to be almost inevitable.
But I’m always up for a challenge. So I devised this little project for myself about a week ago to try to ensure that by March 31 I would have a 5-7-5 haiku whose guts I didn’t hate. I decided to write one every day. Okay, that doesn’t sound like much of a project. But I also decided to then rewrite it in the way that I would write it if I were addressing the subject in my usual haiku style (whatever that is — if you’ve figured it out please let me know because I don’t have a clue).
I’m hoping that this exercise will help me figure out, not just how to write 5-7-5 better, but also a few other things I’ve been wondering about haiku, like whether maybe most people (including me) are in fact writing them too short these days, and what kind of information and words it is necessary or optimal to have in haiku, and … I don’t know. Some other stuff I don’t remember right now. It’s been a long day.
So just for fun … here’s one of my attempts at 5-7-5 and Not 5-7-5. You’re welcome to join me in this project if you want, for the month or just for a day or two or whatever. Let me know what your thoughts are.
three humpbacks breaching
three blue hills in the distance
that seem to rise, rise —
blue hills breach
“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.
So here we are again, exhibiting the peculiar human fascination with round numbers by celebrating my 300th blog post. It’s only fair that I should do this by letting some of you get a word in edgewise for a change — after all, without you there wouldn’t be a me. Or rather, there would, of course. I think. Or is it like the tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it?
Anyway. You’re all such great listeners. And responders. The comments on this blog are like food and drink to me, and I say that as a person with more than a passing interest in food and drink. I have a suspicion I might have given up this whole crazy enterprise long ago if it weren’t for all of you, jollying me along, telling me politely what’s what, suggesting I might want to rethink one or two things, and just generally making me feel like I knew something but not too much, which is the right attitude to encourage in a blatant newcomer to any enterprise. There is some kind of charmed atmosphere around this blog which I can only attribute to the kind, thoughtful, and intelligent way all of you have received me, and each other.
These contributions were all so wonderful to read and made me feel luckier than ever. I loved seeing tanka and haiga among the contributions as well as haiku — I can’t do those things, or at least I haven’t tried yet, so it’s nice to have readers who can and are willing to share. I’ve posted all the contributions in the order they arrived in my email inbox. I hope you all enjoy.
Note: There were four haikuists who took up my (tongue-in-cheek) challenge to use the number 300 in their haiku in some way. They earn the promised bonus points, though I’m not quite sure yet what those can be redeemed for. 🙂 Congrats to Alan Summers, Steve Mitchell (tricky, that one), Max Stites, and Rick Daddario.
at the cafe . . .
caught in the firing line
of the poetry slam
(Previously published, Modern Haiku, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Winter-Spring, 1999)
— Charlotte Digregorio, charlottedigregorio.wordpress.com
was played on that New Year’s Eve
that’s all that was needed
to fall in love
from my home to Hull
a renga love verse
goodnight to the needlemouse*
as I check the stars
(Previously published, Presence magazine [September 2010] ISSN 1366-5367)
*Linguistic notes on the word “needlemouse”:
Kanji: 針鼠 or 蝟
Combination Meaning: needle ( ハリ) mouse (ネズミ)
— Alan Summers, area17.blogspot.com/
the last of his regulars
buried among fall debris–
(unpublished, inspired by the post “acorn time”)
in the bare willows —
the shape of longing
— Alegria Imperial, jornales.wordpress.com
Down this road – alone
silent, solitary, still
watching autumn fall.
(after Basho’s Kono michi ya!)
— Margaret Dornaus, haikudoodle.wordpress.com
when did my father grow
an old man’s neck?
(Previously published, Frogpond, Fall 2006)
sprinkling her ashes
on the rocks at high tide
the long walk back
(From the haibun, In the Air [Planet, The Welsh Internationalist Spring 2007])
— Lynne Rees, www.lynnerees.com
the last but the most vivid
the scent of their soft touch
on my cheek
first serial publication
when I started drinking
(Previously published, bottle rockets #22)
haiku history lecture
(Previously published, tinywords 9.1)
— Aubrie Cox, aubriecox.wordpress.com
Bird told me
— Laz Freedman, lazfreedman.wordpress.com
crow lands on post
carries a grasshopper
can’t talk now
I regard nature, but wait —
I am nature
— Steve Mitchell, heednotsteve.wordpress.com
I want to believe
the earth tugging
at my footsteps
(These two both took first place in the Shiki Kukai for the months in which they were submitted. I regard the first of them as my “signature haiku.”)
— Bill Kenney, haiku-usa.blogspot.com
seagulls gather on the beach
then fly away
(From Poems from Oostburg, Wisconsin: ellenolinger.wordpress.com)
turning the page
of a new book
branch of gold leaves
(From New Poems: Inspired by the Psalms and Nature: elingrace.wordpress.com)
— Ellen Olinger
the photo booth
becomes a grave-marker
how nice to see the sun
— Ashley Capes, ashleycapes.wordpress.com/
three hundred facebook friends when
haiku are three lines
three fluttering notes
drift through the passage to find
the player and score
— Max Stites, outspokenomphaloskeptic.wordpress.com
a solitary bird calls to the space between lightning and thunder
(Previously published, http://tinywords.com/2010/08/11/2175/)
— Angie Werren, triflings.wordpress.com/
eight syllables only
to tap your haiku
across my wall
— Lawrence Congdon, novaheart.wordpress.com
sharing full moon
with all the world’s
inspire each other
— Kerstin Neumann
overcast midday sky-
her shrill voice calling
the ducks home
— Devika Jyothi
This one is just silly. It’s that kind of day. And week. And month. And, I suspect, life.
Too much technology, coming at me too fast.
You should have seen the one I wrote about the digital divide. (I am extremely digitally divided.)
A few weeks ago Angie Werren, in one of her comments, pointed me to a fascinating essay about American sentences, which she writes a lot of on her wonderful blog feathers. I don’t know if these strictly qualify, but I’ve been enjoying writing some as a break from haiku — sometimes trying to think in three carefully balanced lines is more than I can handle when my brain is especially fried. I just want some nice, normal English syntax. But, you know, poetic…or at least as close as I can get on four hours of sleep.
The birds have stopped calling warnings now that the fledglings are gone.
My sense of wonder is growing again — is this middle age?
Waiting for my son, I see that he’s dancing to a song I don’t know.
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“What I mean here is mixing up the action so the reader does not know if nature is doing the acting or if a human is doing it. … Very often when I use a gerund in a haiku I am basically saying, ‘I am. . .’ making an action but leaving unsaid the ‘I am.’ … It is a good way to combine humanity’s action with nature in a way that minimizes the impact of the author but allows an interaction between humanity and nature.
end of winter
covering the first row
of lettuce seeds“
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
Three yellow birds
riffing on an old song
in the garden
Up the hill,
the iPod strapped to my arm,
playing it cool
Everything I know
seething in my mind
the dream begins
The fire next door
the boys trade equations
Bearing the pain —
the tree laid low with snow —
ready to snap
The empty porch
waiting for the UPS guy
to leap up the stairs
Hunting for a home —
the birds perched on the roof —
pausing to consider
Dancing to James Brown
the ants we can’t get rid of
track our steps
Yellow light —
hesitating as we approach —
hoping to move forward
Okay, I basically could have gone on with these forever, but I have about a million other things to do so I forced myself to stop. But I will be writing more. The ambiguity really appeals to me. You may have noticed that I am interpreting “nature” in Jane’s explanation as meaning “all inanimate objects” (so iPods and yellow lights are fair game).
I also was playing around with using actual punctuation and capitalization, which will probably get me thrown out of the Proper Haiku Writers’ Society. I apologize if I have horrified anyone, but I have been wanting to do this for a long time and only hesitated out of cowardice, not wanting to buck the trend and alienate the Powers That Be. But that’s kind of silly.
It’s fine with me if other haiku writers don’t want to punctuate or capitalize, but I think the arguments about that being the Only Way to write haiku are seriously overblown. I don’t really have time to write a treatise about this today, but suffice it to say that I think writers in English should be able to use all the tools that written English offers to convey their meaning and give aid and comfort to the reader. That being said, I tried very hard not to let the punctuation here erase the ambiguity or favor one interpretation of the haiku over another. And who knows, maybe I’ll go back to the minimalist look myself. I just really need to experiment with this to see how it works for me.
he comes back
singing “Am I Blue”
a jay squawks
sky clouded over
this blue pill
It started out as a coincidence that I had a couple of haiku featuring the word “blue” in my gigantic slush pile of rough ku that I need to either revise or flush down the toilet. Then I decided that I liked them (or rather their heavily revised reincarnations) paired together, except they needed another companion, because two haiku aren’t really a sequence, but three are. But I’ll shut up now with the boring commentary and let you discover what else you can about this grouping.
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
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?)
December 2008: We* were home† for Christmas, for what we knew or suspected would be the last time we would all be together because my father‘s cancer was taking root deep in his body and could no longer be eradicated, and we (the younger two generations) got up one morning and decided we needed to make a road trip to go get the world’s best doughnuts§. Forty-five minutes away, through the countryside. About halfway there, there’s this tree. My father had reminded us about it before we left, so we were on the lookout for it. This amazing tree. I had never seen it so didn’t really know what to expect; how amazing could a tree be? Well. It’s the oldest tree in the state. An oak. Hundreds of years old, with huge branches, bigger than a lot of trees, literally grown into the ground. And as we discovered, if all five of us stood around it and stretched our arms as far as they would go, we could just touch fingertips. The tree’s circumference was exactly the same as our combined heights. We’re all short. But still.
the oldest tree we know
to touch each other’s fingers
That’s me on the left. My sister on the right. My son in the middle. The men are in the back, stretching invisibly.
Happy birthday, sister.
If you’re going to force me to be brief you at least have to let me have footnotes:
* me, my husband, my son, my sister, and my sister’s then-boyfriend
† at my father’s apartment and my mother’s house (they hadn’t lived together for nine years but they never got divorced and they still saw each other all the time), in the area where we grew up, eight states away from where I live now and three states away from where my sister lives
§ I don’t want to turn this blog into an advertisement so I’m not going to say the name of the place that makes these doughnuts, but if you email me privately and ask nicely I might be willing to reveal all.
my fat pantheon
I’ve been feeling like we need some pictures around here to liven things up. As Hamlet once said, “Words, words, words…give me a break.” Or something like that.
I’m not normally a picture kind of person — my husband is the photographer in the family, and there is no drawer or painter in the family. Until I was in my twenties I thought the only reason anyone ever put pictures in books was to help out people who couldn’t read very well. But then I began to see the light, at least in terms of art appreciation. I’m wildly entertained in art museums, and I have a couple of art books on my coffee table — oh, predictable stuff, Chagall, Matisse — that I tend to shake in the faces of visitors and repeat, “You’ve GOT to look at this! Isn’t this AMAZING?” until they get scared and go away.
Still — words are my medium, the stuff I swim in. Even when I look at other people’s blogs, I tend to hardly see the pictures; I’m all over the words, and if they don’t work I’m unlikely to care whether you’re the next Walker Evans or Cindy Sherman. But I’m told that I’m in the minority. People like pictures! The more the better! Reading is hard, especially reading long things — you know, more than three lines or so. (Don’t worry, I know this is not the case for any of my devoted readers. I do have devoted readers, don’t I? Don’t tell me if I don’t.)
And my husband (the source of most of my photos) really is a decent photographer. (I took the one up at the top of this post, though, so if you have anything mean to say about it, keep that in mind.) And I’ve been wanting to try writing haiku that aren’t necessarily drawn directly from life — though in this case, I was present for or at least know the context of all these photos, so it’s sort of at least second-hand life, if you know what I mean.
What I’m trying to say is, this blog will be getting very image-heavy over the next few days — after which it will probably revert to being language-centric. So don’t get too used to it.
I’m still feeling under the weather from semi-collapsing at the end of a half-marathon I ran on Sunday in 88-degree weather (it’s Wisconsin, and it’s been a cold spring, so no snickering from you Southwesterners). Pretty much confined to the couch, since standing up for more than a few minutes makes me dizzy. There are worse things, I guess. I’m surrounded by all the books and magazines I put off reading all semester, not to mention the omnipresent, time-sucking Interweb.
I’m having a hard time following a train of thought even long enough to write a sub-seventeen-syllable poem, though. So at the moment I’m taking it easy on my fried brain by resorting to found haiku, mostly from prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, better known as a poet — one of my all-time favorites. The first couple haiku are from poems. The rest are from his journals, which every aspiring poet should read. The man minutely observed and described everything he saw; whole paragraphs read like poems. I can’t help thinking that if he had known about haiku, he would have tried his hand at it.
I may repeat this experiment at intervals, mining the works of other poets and prose writers for haiku-like material (full credit to the original authors, of course). I agonized briefly over whether this exercise was a) cheating, or b) meaningful, but then decided I didn’t care. I enjoy it and it’s my blog. And I do think I’m learning something from this about what writing is haiku-like and what isn’t.
I’ve taken the liberty of haiku-izing Hopkins’s words by arranging them in three lines and removing some punctuation, but otherwise these are direct quotations, with no words removed or added.
the moon, dwindled and thinned
to the fringe of a fingernail
held to the candle
this air I gather
and I release
he lived on
with a not
of the ash, pencil buds
of the beech
almost think you can hear
of the swallows’ wings
over the green water
of the river passing
the slums of the town
of this tree is difficult
putting my hand up
against the sky
whilst we lay on the grass
silver mottled clouding
else like yesterday
Basel at night!
with a full moon
waking the river
the river runs so strong
that it keeps the bridge
some great star
whether Capella or not
I am not sure
two boys came down
the mountain yodelling
we saw the snow
the mountain summits
are not the place
for mountain views
the winter was called severe
there were three spells
of frost with skating
the next morning
a heavy fall
at the beginning of March
they were felling
some of the ashes in our grove
with taut tattered streaks
of crisp gritty snow
thunderstorm in the evening
first booming in gong-sounds
as at Aosta
I noticed the smell
of the big cedar
not just in passing
the comet —
I have seen it at bedtime
in the west
as we came home
the stars came out thick
I leaned back to look at them
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by W.H. Gardner
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.
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.
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.)
“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
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.)
“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.
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…
I wish you’d come see
the cat. She no longer sleeps
on the guest room bed.
This was published in my high school literary magazine, after they rejected (with actual incredulous laughter) the haiku I really liked, which I can no longer find. It featured an upturned teapot, but I can’t remember anything else about it. Just for the record, my English teacher liked it too. I feel I must say this defensively even twenty-four years after the fact. Note to self: raise this issue in next therapy session.
I remember being extremely preoccupied with counting 5-7-5 syllables when I wrote haiku in high school (and for some time beyond). Partly this was because schoolteachers tend to place a lot of emphasis on this “requirement” of haiku (I have a post about this coming up), partly it was because I had then (and still must combat now) a tendency to take rules and limits very, very seriously. I still like writing (informal) sonnets, villanelles, all sorts of poetic forms with set structures: genuine free verse seems worryingly infinite in possibility to me. If I do write free verse, I tend to place some kind of loose metrical constraints on it, just so my choice of words is narrower.
That’s pretty much where I am right now with poetry in general and haiku in particular — not tight, not loose. There are haiku “requirements” I find pleasing and like to work with: the “one-breath” idea; the idea of a “kigo” or seasonal word (but my interpretation of this is looser than the Japanese idea); the idea of a “kireji” or cutting word (but for me this means more like a word that is a hinge that holds the parts of the haiku together, or a strong, vivid word that focuses the haiku’s image); the Zen idea of a fleeting image, a glimpse, something that can be grasped all at once and doesn’t need to be analyzed. Not all my haiku have to have all these elements, but I find it helpful to keep these things in mind when I’m writing haiku, and to the extent that I’m successful in incorporating them into my haiku, the more successful I tend to feel the haiku is.
Of course, modern English haiku don’t have strict syllabic requirements, but sometimes I still like to count 5-7-5, or at least 17, just for fun, or as a challenge to myself. Though I read recently that 12 syllables is more like the ideal for an English haiku (what this is based on I have no idea), so I might play around with that for a while and see how it works.
And then again I might experiment with truly minimalist haiku: two or three words. The interesting thing about my attempting such brevity is that (as you can see from this commentary) my natural tendency is to write long. I think of haiku as a way to force myself to identify the heart of my message, to discard the extraneous verbiage that clutters my arguments and muddies my images.
three weeks early this spring
after spring rain
like scoured bone china
the lilac blooms
three weeks early —
thinking about leaving
drinking from a sky
like bone china