April 20: Punk Rock Haiku (Wildflowers in Progress)

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abandoned building site wildflowers in progress

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Daily Haiku, 4/18/2011

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A couple of months ago, my old friend John, whom I used to hang out with while he played guitar in his parents’ basement when we were still young enough to live with our parents (because, you know, we were still in school), sent me an MP3 file (“a what?” my 1988 self asks) of a song he had recorded in the basement of the house he lives in now with his wife and daughter and makes mortgage payments on. How does time pass like this?

Anyway, if you must know, it was a cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Arms of Love,” done all Phil Spector-ish and Wall-of-Sound-y, with sleigh bells, no less. It was awesome. But that’s not the point here.

The point is that when I opened this file in iTunes, I noticed that in the “album” field it said “Wildflowers in Progress.” A small firecracker went off in my brain and I emailed him and said, “What is this thing it says for the album name?” and he wrote back and said (I quote), “It’s going to be the eventual title of the solo record I’ve been compiling tunes for for the last couple of years (got the name from an enclosure of flowers I saw on an off-ramp on I-81 on the way to New Jersey a few years back).”

Well, that was all very nice, but I wrote back and informed him that what it really was, was part of a haiku. And the next day I carried out my threat. See above.

Yes, that’s right: this is a six-word poem and I only wrote half of it. The less interesting half, needless to say. I mean, a phrase like “wildflowers in progress” is pretty close to being a haiku on its own — to get it all the way there you just need someone to pull some kind of workmanlike juxtaposition out of the air and tack it on somewhere, and that’s all I did.

I’m extremely grateful to John for tossing his amazing found poetry to me and letting me run away with it. (He still gets to use it as his album title, in case you were wondering.) And I’m even more grateful to him for tossing me, around the same time, this music-geek-worthy aphorism, which I have added to the lengthy file I am amassing of the seemingly infinite definitions of haiku:

“Haiku is kind of the punk rock of poetry. Three chords and the truth.”

Truth. It’s good to see someone identifying this as the key characteristic of haiku, rather than the number of syllables, or the presence of a seasonal reference, or some kind of structural requirement like juxtaposition or kireji, or the presence of a difficult-to-define quality like ma or yugen or karumi.

For the record, I find all those things really interesting to think about and work with, and recognize that in a poem as short as a haiku, the ability to surprise and enlighten the reader is greatly enhanced by the use of these time-honored techniques and concepts, which are vital to understand and master.

But that’s what haiku are, not what they’re about. What they’re about is the truth. If you don’t have some kind of truth to work with to begin with, nothing in your technique will conjure it into existence, and your haiku will be dead on the page.

Now I’m starting to sound all pompous and truthier-than-thou. I think I’ll have to let John save me from myself again. This is what else he says about writing haiku: It’s “deceptively simple. But insanely hard to do well. The difference between The Clash and some run-of-the-mill hardcore band, if you will.”

Well, okay. I have to admit it never occurred to me before to compare, say, Basho’s frogpond haiku to London Calling. But it works for me.

So my revised haiku-writing advice: Be true. But also: be punk. And pay attention the next time you’re driving through New Jersey. You never know what you’ll find.

January 20: Different Melodies

New Year’s Eve —
the fiddler tries out
an unfamiliar tune
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birdsong
from the pine branches
evergreen

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mountain snow
trying to sing loud enough
for you to hear me
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These were my entries in Origa Olga Hooper’s recent “Calico Cat” contest, in which she asked haiku writers to use this sumi-e painting of hers as a prompt.

I really enjoy Origa’s sumi-e, but I was primarily attracted to this contest because of its bilingual nature: Origa accepted entries in both English and Russian and translated all of them into the other language. Then all the haiku appeared in both languages on her website for several days for everyone to read and discuss before the contest results were announced.

Russian geek that I am, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have some of my haiku translated into Russian by a native speaker. You can see the translations of my entries on this page (they’re entries number 173 to 175). They’re very clear, natural, faithful translations.

The contest produced a lot of great haiku and reading them all in two languages was a fun field trip for my brain. I learned a lot about both Russian and haiku this way.

If you know any other languages, I highly recommend that you try to find haiku written in them. The structure of other languages often makes possible different poetic effects than are available to us in English, or at least different than we normally employ. Forcing your brain out of its well-worn language ruts can help you find new ways to think about and express ideas. And that makes for more exciting poetry.