a hawk comes to live
in the neighborhood
Incidentally, my haiku are being featured on DailyHaiku all week this week again, starting today. Feel free to hop over there and see what’s going on.
you bake me a sweet cake
in a sugarless country
skiing in Gorky Park—
where we’re going
babushkas chiding us
for our warmth
Happy birthday, honey.
the last chocolate
in the box
This first appeared on Gillena Cox’s blog Lunch Break a few days ago. It was her birthday, and she very sensibly solicited haiku about chocolate to make her life delicious during the first couple of weeks of February.
Gillena is a lovely person and poet (well, she’s an Aquarius, what do you expect?), go over there and wish her a happy Valentine’s Day and a belated happy birthday.
for my birthday
For my birthday (yes, it’s today), I gave myself permission to write another haiku about the moon (despite their currency being even more debased than that of haiku about snow). Or rather, to post another haiku about the moon that I wrote a while ago and saved up for my birthday.
I’m giving myself another present, too. I decided to do this last weekend, when I had been sitting at my kitchen table staring at my computer for about nine hours, mostly performing various haiku-related
chores delightful activities (no, seriously) like writing the Haikuverse and preparing journal submissions and replying to fascinating blog comments and visiting everybody else’s fascinating blogs and figuring out what tanka were all about anyway. Finally I realized it was going to be dark soon and I quickly stood up on my wobbly legs and put on my running shoes and headed outside.
The air was cold and the light was pure and as I walked the air started flowing more freely to my brain, and within about ten minutes I felt a sense of deep peace and I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “I give you permission not to blog every single day anymore. Because this is getting crazy.”
I know. I know I said I would post a haiku every day for a year, and it’s only been nine months and change. But think about it. Nine months is a long time. In nine months I could have created an entire new human being from scratch. (I’m familiar with the technique involved.) Though I did do this, in a way. I created, or rather re-created, myself.
Okay, melodrama. I know. I hate it too. But in this case I don’t feel that this is too strong a statement. Before I started this blog, I had been wandering around aimlessly through most of my adult life with an unfocused desire to write stuff, but not really sure what that stuff was, or what exactly I had to say. I never finished much of anything I started writing. I lost track of it halfway through; it stopped seeming important or interesting. I was starting to think maybe I wasn’t really a writer after all, except that I had an uncomfortable awareness that the only time I ever felt completely aware and fulfilled and alive was when I was writing something.
And then haiku came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and quietly told me to give it a try, and since I wasn’t doing much of anything else at the time I said, “Okay.” On a whim I wrote a few haiku, on a whim I started a blog. As it turned out, this was kind of like going to a party on a whim and meeting the love of your life. Yeah … we’ve been chatting each other up for the last nine months, haiku and I, finding out all the things we have in common, marveling at the similarity of our personal philosophies, sharing our hopes and dreams for the future … at this point, I have to say, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine living without each other.
Which is to say, the reasons for my promising, back in May, to post a haiku every day for a year have essentially been rendered moot. I wanted to make a commitment to a body of writing and not give up on it for a change. I wanted to heal myself of my perfectionism and my reluctance to put any writing out in the world in case someone saw it and laughed at it. Well, none of these things are problems anymore. In fact, the problem I have now is that I would rather write haiku, and read haiku, and write about reading and writing haiku, and communicate with my fellow haiku enthusiasts, than do pretty much anything else. And I have a lot of other things to do. You know, school, and work, and laundry, and interacting with my family more than five minutes a day.
Also, it was fine for a while for me to just write any old haiku and slap it up on the blog without much thought, because I didn’t really know any better. But if I want to grow as a poet I have to not just write a lot of haiku, I have to take the time to live with them, and think about them, and revise them, and make them not just good-enough, but the best they can be. I’m not talking about perfectionism, I’m talking about craftsmanship; I’m talking about artistic integrity … oh God, is this starting to sound pretentious?
You do know what I mean, don’t you? At some point it’s not respectful to your art, or to your audience, to produce too much. To churn out publications just for the sake of publication. I mean, I still write haiku like there’s no tomorrow, but it’s starting to make me slightly sick to post things here that either I think are not really worth anyone’s time to read, or else that I could make even better if I took the time. It’s not that I’m afraid that you’ll laugh at me and point as I walk by and say, “Look, there goes the mediocre haiku poet!” It’s more just that I’m resentful of the time I spend putting up poems on this site that I don’t respect a whole lot instead of writing better poems.
I’m not going away. And the site certainly isn’t going away, it will be here indefinitely as far as I’m concerned. I’ll probably still be posting two or three times a week — you know, when I have something worth saying. I hope you’ll think it’s worth saying, anyway. I hope you’ll keep dropping by. This blog has transformed my life so profoundly — and just writing haiku wouldn’t have done that on its own. The presence of all you fantastic readers, and correspondents, and supporters, and friends is what has made the biggest difference. Not writing in isolation, wondering if I’m crazy. (I mean of course I am crazy, but most of the time you’re nice enough not to point it out.)
Thanks for once again listening to me as I go on and on interminably. (Admit it — you’re a little relieved that you won’t have to deal with that every single day anymore, aren’t you?) Someday, I promise, I am going to learn to pare my prose down the way I pare down haiku.
of birthday cake
what happened before
my mother was born
looking up the answer
in my mother’s face
replanting the flowers
from my mother’s garden
Happy birthday, Mom … have a wonderful day.
if my father were here —
over green fields
— Issa, translated by David Lanoue
It’s my father’s birthday, the first since he died in February. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that I discovered this haiku of Issa’s yesterday.
It’s also interesting to try to decide what Issa meant by “if my father were here.” First of all, is his father dead or just not present with Issa at this moment? (I happen to know, biographically, that he was dead, but not everyone who reads this haiku would know that.)
And secondly — if his father were here, then what? If his father were here he would appreciate the dawn colors? If his father were here he would tell Issa to stop mooning around writing poetry about sunrises and get a real job? If his father were here — full stop: painful (or otherwise) train of thought interrupted by sight of lovely landscape?
Maybe the meaning is more clear in the Japanese. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the haiku is meant to open the mind of the reader to thoughts of his or her father, not tell them anything in particular about Issa’s.
Overall the haiku gives the impression both of being deeply personal and also of belonging not just to Issa but to everyone who reads it. Everyone has a father and everyone has been separated from him at some point. But that experience doesn’t have the same meaning to everyone.
This ambiguity, this refusal of the poet to constrain the imaginative options of the reader, is really central to haiku. They are short. You can’t say much in them, and you’re not supposed to. If you find yourself getting frustrated while writing haiku because you can’t say enough (never happens to me, nuh-uh, no way), you need to start thinking about what you’re trying to say that doesn’t need to be said. There is a lot that doesn’t need to be said.
Haiku should be full of space, at least as full of space as words. The reader should be able to sit in them for a while, and breathe, and hear herself think.
my father’s disappointment —
the first frost
melts beneath my finger
in memoriam david allen 10/25/1939 – 2/12/2010
the old man’s birthday —
all day the tree
quietly sheds leaves
It’s my grandfather’s ninety-fifth birthday. He’s happy and healthy, and got to go to a big party yesterday in his honor. I am hoping that if I live so long, it’s with such grace.
After I had written this I realized that it reminded me of the first four lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 73. And I suppose it is a cliche, um, I mean, a universal literary theme, to use falling leaves as a metaphor for old age. Still … there are always new ways to say things, right? Right?
Sigh. Sometimes the burden of trying to be original seems way too heavy. Why am I doing this anyway? Hasn’t someone else, of the billions of human beings past and present, already said everything I want to say, better than I can?
I try to think of ways to startle fresh utterance out of myself. Wake myself up, or send myself into a dream. Spin myself around, or achieve perfect stillness. Babble nonsense until a gem of insight emerges. Methodically revise until the trite becomes brilliant. Climb a mountain and watch everything I know shrink and become insignificant. Step into a cold lake and let the shock briefly stop my heart. Sit in a dark cave for a while and then light a match. Read everything. Read nothing. Break something I love and step on the shards with bare feet. Build something and feel it growing more solid beneath my hands. Grow up. Act like a child. Scream uncontrollably. Say nothing, nothing at all, and listen as hard as I can.
I have to go do homework right now, though. I can feel the originality draining out of me, to be replaced by the list of definitions I must memorize for my cataloging exam. Unless I can find some way of making haiku out of them. Stay tuned for further details.
Hey, remember to send me haiku for my 300th post.
This is why I’m here, after all. This is why I left. This is why. Do you understand now?
Do you want to go? Of course, do you? Should we go together? When should we go?
Voices on the train. At first we understand them only in theory. Stand very still, listening. Look at each other, calculating.
What are they saying?
They’ve closed the metro stations all around Red Square.
Why? I guess to make it harder to get there?
The train stops short, and we see it has no intention of proceeding. All the passengers get off and walk away in the same direction. It’s as if the world has ended and everyone understands it but us, everyone else knows the way to the afterlife.
Do we really want to do this? How will we get there? Is it this way? Well, that’s the way everyone else is going, right?
There are a million people in the street — not hyperbolically, but literally. One million people with no concept of personal space. Two million feet, just missing mine. I feel like a stick that’s fallen into a swollen stream. I feel like a penny tossed in a jar and shaken. I feel like a stranger. I feel like someone who left home and isn’t sure how to get back.
Hold my hand. We don’t want to get separated.
I’m terrified of being lost. I’m holding on tight, being pulled along. I remember this feeling. Do I want to feel like this again?
Can I trust you?
Up ahead, someone is calling for freedom. He shouts so loudly that the voices in my head quiet in response. He shouts so loudly that I understand everything he says.
the first taste
I am taking the many helpful suggestions on my last haibun into advisement. Feel free to dissect this one too. I still feel like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing in the haibun arena, so I am just throwing things up against the wall to see if they stick.
This one’s connected to the last one, obviously — actually it comes right before it in the sequence. How does that work out for you? Are you mystified? Do you mind being mystified? (I often quite enjoy it, but I find that most other people are far less tolerant of the sensation.)
I am foreseeing that all these haibun will end up looking very little like their original versions — when I get them into something more like a final state I’ll put them all up together in order. Then you can tell me what’s wrong with them as a whole instead of just individually.
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.
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.
*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.
Nine ku for my son’s beginning on its sixteenth anniversary
a positive test field mice breed in the walls
barely alive you already disagree with me about what to eat
wind from the west a body shifts in my body
Ides of March on the ultrasound screen your state of incompletion
love’s effects visible I read from Corinthians to the wedding
drawn by heat you try to arrive but they restrain you
after my water breaks another solitaire loss
the maze of my bones cracking open too slowly
I don’t know
anything about you,
then you emerge
on the birthday of a childhood friend, of which I was reminded by Facebook but had never really forgotten
the dog greeted me first
she was sienna
by name and color
my friend next
and then her mother
jeans and long hair
and its massive fireplace
big enough to roast a pig
the house was old
and felt more like my own
than my own
the past and the present
lived there together
jazz records on the shelves
classical music on the piano
above the Chiquita Banana stickers
paintings on the walls
with tilted points of view
and flower-gaudy colors
both parents painters
two studios to peek in
and feel small and colorless
an old, gray, small cat
wandering from room to room
like a fragile ghost
books I’d never seen before
the minute I touched them
two sets of stairs
narrow and wide
so many ways to get everywhere
but in the summer
the house was no match
for the brook
paper bags of lunch
the sienna dog
following us across the fields
I didn’t always like
or not until I tasted them
I never remembered the way
but my friend led
as if there were signposts
after sun-filled fields, the wood
dark and disconcerting
and then, after a period
of approaching its sound
a swift, wide, cold, dark path
in a hot world
glacial rocks lined the streambed
the debate was always
shoes or no shoes
no shoes always won
despite the pain of the rocks
I was the less brave one
I whined as we walked
on the water
thrilled and aching
sneakers tied around my neck
I vowed to wear shoes next time
but I never did
I always chose the pain
over the inconvenience
of wet sneakers
to travel the road of the brook
to the paved road
took forever and no time
when we climbed out
and put our sneakers back on
the world seemed heavier
it was hard to believe
there would ever again
we were tired of each other
and our feet hurt
and it was almost five o’clock
time to go home
where the water was a pool
with a smooth lined bottom
chlorine kept the water clear
and a filter removed
only sometimes in the night
a possum drowned, or
some other unfilterable animal
my father would remove
the dead things with a pole
before we saw them
that was what it was like
at our house, that was what
it was like at my friend’s
thirty years ago
in the hills of Connecticut
ten miles apart
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.
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.