March 23: The Boys Emerge, from haijinx

summer dusk —
the boys emerge
with robots

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(haijinx IV:1, March 2011)

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For a fun time, you should all dial up the latest issue of haijinx. It was just sent out into the ether to seek its fortune yesterday, packed full of juicy and irresistible stuff. And I say this not just as someone who helped write it, but as an avid reader who is deeply impressed with the amazing work of all the contributors and of my fellow editors.

There are something like 36 pages of wonderful haiku, haibun, and haiga, there is phenomenal artwork by Kris Moon, there is a great writeup by Aubrie Cox telling you everything you ever wanted to know about NaHaiWriMo, there are reviews and articles galore. It’s nicely laid out, I love the color scheme, and it’s filled with great vibes because some incredibly nice people put it together.

Mark Brooks, our fearless leader, should get some kind of Herding Cats Award for spending the last couple of weeks chasing down the contributions of recalcitrant editors like, um, me, and forgoing vast quantities of sleep making sure every last detail was perfect and that his news editor didn’t get Newfoundland mixed up with New Zealand. (Look at how similar those names are, just look at them!)

I’m not going to quote anything from the issue here (well, except for my haiku above) because I don’t want anyone to think they can get away with skipping visiting it themselves. Go get a cup of tea, or pomegranate juice or absinthe or whatever it is cool people are drinking these days, and put up your feet for an hour or so and forget about the strange noise your car is making and the way it never seems to stop raining now that spring is finally here. There is poetry in the world. Do yourself a favor and read it.

NaHaiWriMo, Week 4: On Being Weird

22    editing an elephant gray seems too vague
23    encoding fairy tales </eastofthesunwestofthemoon>
24    ovulation trying to locate the scent of apple
25    menstruation sinking lower in the waves
26    political protest a deathwatch beetle in the drum circle
27    the mouse in the kitchen does he also hear the owl
28    particles streaming from the sun we wait on this rock to receive them

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Whew. I made it.

I don’t know why this felt so hard. I’ve been writing haiku every day for ten months now. And, you know, sharing them with the reading public. I think it was just that I was trying to do something really different from what I usually do — trying to be weird and experimental, just kind of throw stuff against the wall and see what stuck.

And even though I told myself that this would be freeing and relaxing, I was surprised to find that I actually found it very stressful to try to come up with something Original and Interesting every day that I wasn’t incredibly embarrassed to let you guys see. Well, a lot of it I actually was incredibly embarrassed to let you guys see. This week may have started out the weirdest of all and then by the fifth day I was getting freaked out enough that I actually followed a couple of Michael Dylan Welch’s (excellent) NaHaiWriMo daily writing prompts, which until then I’d pretty much ignored in the spirit of experimental individualism. I just couldn’t take the pressure of marching to such a different drummer any more.

I thought sometimes this month of the title of the physicist Richard Feynman’s autobiography: “Why Do You Care What Other People Think?” This is a question his wife challenged him with when he was very young. Mostly Feynman didn’t care a lot what other people thought, which is part of what made him so brilliant. (The other part was that he was, you know, brilliant.)

So why do I care? I mean … no one scolded me for being too experimental this month, at least not out loud; people said nice things about the haiku they liked and politely kept their mouths shut about the ones that they didn’t. No one is ever mean to me on this blog. My readership didn’t go down, people didn’t unsubscribe. I still felt stupid and incompetent a lot of the time. Apparently I am way more insecure than I thought I was.

This worries me a little, because it must mean that most of the time I am trying to write haiku that I think other people will approve of. Of course this isn’t entirely bad, the point of writing is supposed to be communication after all, so if no one understands or likes what you’re writing … well, you can either carry on in the same vein hoping that future generations will be more enlightened, or you can seriously consider the possibility that there’s something wrong with your writing. But if you’re spending so much time worrying about what other people think that you never actually figure out what you think yourself, that’s a problem too.

Also, I think I freaked out a little at how good everyone else’s NaHaiWriMo stuff seemed to me. A lot of people seemed to take this exercise really seriously and put their best foot forward and come up with superlative work that really blew me away … and then there’s me, sitting in the corner tossing my word spaghetti at the wall, with a slightly village-idiot expression on my face.

Anyway. (She said defensively.) Just so you know, I wrote a lot of other haiku this month that are a lot more, you know, normal. You’ll probably be seeing a fair number of them in the next couple of months. So don’t unsubscribe! The worst is over … and I will be discussing my inferiority complex with my imaginary therapist, so don’t worry about me.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 10: Bleak Midwinter Edition

One of my favorite Christmas songs (I remembered recently, when I was part of a hastily-thrown-together chorus that sang it for a New Year’s Eve celebration) is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is a setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti. The first verse, in particular, is really a masterpiece of English poetry, full of humble but strong Anglo-Saxon words, not a single one unnecessary and no necessary one left out:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long, long ago.

— Christina Rossetti

There are obviously too many words and too much meter and rhyme and too many metaphors in this for it to be a haiku, though it does have the requisite elements of simplicity and clear, evocative images, and I think there’s some wabi-sabi and yugen going on here as well. And I see possibilities in that third line for some kind of avant-garde haiku:

snow had fallen snow on snow snow on snow

Really, I think probably someone could rewrite this verse, or part of it, into an effective haiku, though I’ve been trying and not finding it so easy. Any of you like to give it a shot? Let me know what you come up with.

Anyway. It is definitely bleak midwinter here. Snow on snow indeed.  It’s nice that it’s not for so many of you — you dwellers in the tropics and subtropics and summery Southern Hemisphere. I like to imagine your lives, walking outside barefoot, wearing short sleeves, smelling flowers. (Well, those of you who aren’t flooded. I’m sorry about the flooded part. I hope no one has floated away.) I’m not really jealous, it will be our turn soon enough. And though I complain bitterly about the cold and can never seem to get really warm, there is something about this downtime, for both the earth and me, that I grudgingly appreciate. Cycles. The world is full of them, and best just to accept them.

Which reminds me. Aren’t we supposed to be taking a spin around the Haikuverse? Best get started on that before you get bored with my waxing philosophical and wander away, never to return.

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Haiku of the Week

That’s haiku, plural. As in, the haiku I saw on the Internet this week that most struck me as interesting for whatever reason (could be my discerning literary taste, could be the state of my digestion) and that I actually managed to remember to bookmark. (This whole process is an art, not a science.)

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Mark Holloway over at Beachcombing For the Landlocked has been on a roll this week. You should really just go over there and read everything he’s written lately because I had a hard time choosing just one. I settled on this one in the end:

moss growing on the roof tiles      unsuspected      metastasis

Mark Holloway

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This wonderful piece from a handful of stones isn’t a haiku, I suppose. Do I care? Not really.

A mushroom sprouts
from the base of the locust tree,
and it will not be distracted
from its small brown task.

— Tamra Hays

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In this piece Angie Werren from feathers did a nice job responding to the same ku on this prompt that I did this morning:

sometimes the rain
I stand behind this window
counting trees

— Angie Werren

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This wonderful offering at Jars of Stars was originally posted on Twitter by @cirrusdream, otherwise known as Polona:

winter thaw
i ignore
his white lie

— Polona (@cirrusdream)

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Another one of Bill Kenney’s “afters” appeared at haiku-usa (maybe I appreciated this one because I’ve been having weird dreams lately myself):

piercing cold
I kiss a plum blossom
in my dream

— Soseki 1867-1916

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Also at haiku-usa, Bill points us to a collection of his “urban haiku” recently featured on Gabi Greve’s Haiku Topics and Keywords blog. Gabi also links to works by many other authors of such “urban haiku” (i.e., haiku that reflects the reality of the lives of most modern writers of haiku, who live not in pastoral Japan or pastoral anywhere, but in bustling outposts of the global economy). An example from Alan Summers:

Waterloo sunset
the Thames disappears
from the Tube map

— Alan Summers

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Every week there’s at least one something at Blue Willow Haiku World that I feel like reading over and over — usually several somethings. This week my favorite was this one:

月の汚れやすくてかなしき手   黒田杏子
ichigatsu no yogoreyasukute kanashiki te

January
hands that are easy
to get dirty and sad
— Momoko Kuroda, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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And while we’re on the topic of Fay Aoyagi (I never mind being on the topic of Fay Aoyagi), someone on Facebook (MDW — was that you?) recently reminded me about the wonderful series of essays she wrote several years ago for Frogpond about non-traditional use of kigo in haiku. I could swear I’ve read this entire series on the Interwebs, either on Frogpond’s site or Fay’s own, but I can’t seem to find any of them now except this one: “Haiku Traditions: Flowers and Plants.” But just this one will take you a long way. Fay discusses how traditional Japanese kigo like “cherry blossoms,” which are so evocative in their own culture, have given way in her own poetry to seasonal terms or keywords that are more meaningful to the American culture she now inhabits:

While cherry blossoms symbolize where I came from, roses represent Western culture and where I am now.  I think roses demand a lot of care.  To have a gorgeous, perfect flower, one has to tend them with water, fertilizers and pesticides.  Roses are somewhat the manifestation of my borrowed culture.  “Rose” itself is a summer kigo, but I prefer to use it in a winter setting.  I can put contradictory feelings or images together in this way.

winter roses—
I am tired of reading
between the lines
— Fay Aoyagi

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OtherHais (Haiga, Haibun)

Every week I am amazed at how many cool haiku-related sites I have yet to discover. Since I have been thinking about venturing into haiga territory in collaboration with my amateur photographer husband, I went noodling around this week looking for haiga online and discovered … Haigaonline. (Warning: this link will lead you to a page where there are sounds of sparrows twittering and some music, which is sweet and pretty but if you’re in a quiet place or just not in the mood, you may want to hit the “mute” button.)

The December 2010 issue of this online journal features lots of good stuff, including a feature on “family haiga” — lots of husband-and-wife teams, so I appreciated that. What I really loved, though, was an exhibit of “experimental haiga” by Renee Owen — they’re colorful collages with intriguing haiku, such as:

waiting for God
to finish creation
leftover rocks
— Renee Owen

And yes you MUST go look at the picture! That’s the entire point! Click! Click! I think the link will just bring you to a page of thumbnails, all of which are worth looking at, but the one I’ve quoted above can be found if you click on the picture of columns in the bottom center.
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And I’m always looking for good haibun, so I was excited to stumble on Hortensia Anderson’s site The Plenitude of Emptiness. All haibun, all the time! I’m trying to write more haibun so I will be dropping by here often.

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Tanka Corner

I’ve been making some headway lately in my ongoing quest to get over my fear of tanka. I was helped recently in my endeavor by my discovery of this mind-blower over at Michele Harvey’s site. This is not only one of my favorite tanka I’ve ever read, it’s some of the best poetry I’ve read lately, period.

a fall cricket
sings alone on the porch
I too, wonder
about being born too late
or too soon

— Michele Harvey

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Alegria Imperial also published some wonderful trilingual tanka (English, Spanish, and the native Philippine language Iluko) over at qarrtsiluni this week. I have long been a fan of Alegria’s multilingual poetry, it is so amazingly dense with meaning and emotional resonance. And as usual at qarrtsiluni, there is an audio file so you can hear Alegria reading her beautiful words. Please check it out!

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Renku Everywhere

With the new year, the thoughts of many seem to be turning to starting new renku. Over at Issa’s Snail, Ashley Capes has done a nice site redesign and, after a long hiatus, has started up a couple of new junicho, with a third possibly in the works. I think most of these have filled up with participants already but it’s still fun to watch the process of a renku in the making, which you can do by reading the comments on the site. The “sabaki” or renku leader guides the group in choosing subject matter and making sure the poem flows and doesn’t repeat itself in theme or language, which is no easy task, but Ashley (I know from personal experience) is great at doing this. Plus he is just an all-around nice guy who is easy and fun to work with.

The same can be said of Willie Sorlien, who is currently guiding the development of a shisan renku at Green Tea and Bird Song. Again, don’t think they’re looking for new participants, but it might be worthwhile watching how it’s done by the pros before you leap in on your own.

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Haiku in the News

Haiku made an appearance in the mass media this week in the form of a lengthy radio interview on NPR’s “On Point” show with haiku venerables George Swede and Dylan Tweney and an economist named Stephen Ziliak, who wrote an article making a fascinating connection between economic models and haiku. An excerpt from Ziliak’s article:

The typical haiku budget constraint is limited by three lines of seventeen syllables. Basho himself understood well the joyful paradox of haiku economics: less is more, and more is better!

Stephen Ziliak

This was a fun interview to listen to — I especially enjoyed George Swede’s anecdote about his son, who as a fifth-grader took up a position as a conscientious objector by refusing to do as he was instructed by his teacher and write a haiku in 5-7-5. He wrote some twelve-syllable haiku instead and got them published in Modern Haiku (which at the time accepted haiku from students). Then his teacher was all impressed and wanted to put them in the school yearbook, but the young Swede told her (I’m sure in very well-mannered language) where she could put her yearbook. Go ahead and stream this one while you’re making dinner or something tonight, you won’t be sorry.

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The News in Haiku


Is everyone getting psyched up for NaHaiWriMo (remember, that’s the thing where you can sign up to write a haiku a day in the month of February)? Michael Dylan Welch has put together a website for the event so now you don’t need to be on Facebook to sign up (although go ahead and like the Facebook page too if you want). Think about it.

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A call for submissions for a new issue of haijinx has gone out (deadline: March 1), along with the exciting news that Roberta Beary will be their new haibun editor. Roberta is one of the best writers of haibun around so I can’t wait to see what she picks out. Also new on the haijinx website: Richard Krawiec’s latest installment of his column “Shooting My Poetry Mouth Off.” This month he implores us haiku poets not to try to publish everything we write but to be selective and try to recognize our best work, which will not only benefit us personally (since our poetic reputations will not be sullied by inferior work), but also haiku as a genre, since the journals will not be flooded with mediocre work. Worth reading and thinking about.

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Dead Tree News

Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694. The first great master of haikai/haiku. Where on earth did he come from?

It’s a little like asking where Shakespeare (1564-1616) came from, in my opinion. I mean you can see how before and all around Shakespeare, English writers were producing supple, lively, image-rich poems and plays, much of it in a natural and flexible blank verse — really, nobody could do English like the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, at the moment when modern English was brand new and no one had gotten around to inventing rules for it yet so writers had no compunction about bending the language to their will. That was the glorious and fortunate tradition Shakespeare was working in, but nobody else was Shakespeare, before or after.

So pity poor Donald Keene, who in chapters four and five of World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867 has the unenviable job of explaining how the often-pleasant-and-skillful, but usually not much more, haikai of the haijin that preceded Basho produced the unparalleled haikai genius that is Basho. In the end, about all he can do is trace the literary movements that Basho’s work responded to and grew out of, and then throw up his hands and say, “The rest — that’s just Basho.”

As I discussed in Haikuverse No. 8, Basho was influenced by both the careful craftsmanship of the Teitoku school of haikai and the iconoclasm and experimentation of the Danrin school, as well as by his intensive study of Chinese verse and by his interest in Zen Buddhism. But he didn’t just sit around studying and writing poetry; he spent much of his life traveling around Japan, living at various times both in the city and in the country, meeting people, seeing things, gathering material. As Keene points out, “Haikai shared the literary spirit of the great Chinese and Japanese masters, and the Zen quality of … poet … Han Shan, but it had its own domain too, in the familiar and even vulgar activities of contemporary life.”

It’s when Keene discusses Basho’s masterpieces that his efforts to relate Basho’s genius to his poetic predecessors break down. Basho was just Basho; his vision was unique. In his most famous poem, the frog pond haiku furuike ya, Keene points out, “The ancient pond is eternal, but in order for us to become aware of its eternity there must be some momentary disruption…This verse is about stillness, yet only by sound can we know silence.” He contrasts Basho’s first line here (“old pond”) with the well-meaning and not unskillful suggestion of one of his disciples, “the yellow roses”:

[A]lthough the picture of yellow flowers surrounding the frog … is visually appealing, it lacks the eternity of ‘ancient pond.’ … Only by suggesting the age of the pond, its unchanging nature, is the momentary life of the frog evoked. This was the kind of understanding Basho demanded. He believed that the smallest flower or insect if properly seen and understood could suggest all of creation, and each had its reason for existence.

— Donald Keene, World Within Walls

By the end of his life Basho’s poetic ideal was karumi, or “lightness,” “a word used in contrast to technical finish or decorative effects.” Basho was seeing ever deeper into the hearts of things, in a way no haikai poet had done before and few if any have done since. He was going past the words into the essence.

What Keene’s discussion made me want to do more than ever was just sit down with Basho himself and engage with him, rather than the ideas about him. So that’s what’s on the agenda for this week. Feel free to join me.

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And thanks again for letting me ramble on at length; special thanks to those of you who actually made it to the end of this post. Love, love, love making these trips with you. It may seem like I’m the guide but I assure you I’m learning the territory as I go. There is still so much more of the Haikuverse left to explore, hope you’ll keep me company as I wander.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 5: Too Much Homework Edition

Dear Fellow Travelers,

Some weeks the Haikuverse seems to stir up a lot of Deep Thoughts in me, but not this week. This week I was too busy for Thinking Deeply. (I can hear you sighing in relief. Stop that.)

So what have I got for you? Well, a lot of really great haiku (other people’s, natch), snatched out of the ether during moments stolen from homework, fiction writing, Thanksgiving dinner, and sleep. For some reason, most of them seem to relate to one of two themes: astronomical phenomena or snow.

(It’s snowing in a lot of places these days, apparently. So interesting, the sense you can get of world weather patterns by following the world’s daily haiku output.)

Anyway. To start off our journey … here are some of my favorite responses to a polite request that The Haiku Foundation’s Facebook page recently made of its followers: “Please share a haiku inspired by the onset of cold weather.” (They frequently make interesting requests like this. You should go over and oblige them occasionally. It’s nice to share.)

premières gelées blanches –
une envie soudaine
de carrot cake
.
…first white frosts –
…a sudden urge
for a carrot cake

— Vincent Hoarau

first snow
she pockets a large carrot
for later use

— Laura Sherman

(Yes, two carrot haiku, right next to each other. It freaked me out too.)

 

closure…
a ring around
the moon

— George O Hawkins

 

listening to myself
on the walk home
fresh snow

— Michael Rehling

 

Twitter was all cold this week too. And for some reason (okay, maybe my foreign-language fetish), it seemed very polyglot.

First of all, my Twitter friend Polona Oblak, or one cloud, whose username is cirrusdream, overheard me raving in a tweet about how much I liked foreign-language haiku and generously offered to translate some of her haiku into Slovenian, her first language. (Great quotation from Polona: “the problem is, although i’m not a native english speaker, my muse appears to be.”)

There are SO many things I love about this — first of all the fact that Slovenian is a Slavic language, so I can actually semi-follow what’s going on here. (All Slavic languages are alike, but some are more alike than others. [Whoa — Tolstoy/Orwell mashup! Didn’t see that coming.])

Secondly the fact that in Slovenian, this haiku is so highly alliterative and even rhymes a little. English haiku needs more of that. Remind me to do some of that some time soon.

first chill
a spider weaves its web
under a neon light
.
prvi mraz
pajek plete mrežo
pod neonsko lučjo

— Polona Oblak (cirrusdream)

Then, I believe the very same day, I had the incredibly thrilling experience of discovering a Twitterer who writes haiku in Esperanto. Not just any haiku. Good haiku. (Excuse me: hajko.) I am still in shock that there is a person like this in the world. I like the world better now.

pelas norda vent’ unuopajn neĝerojn… sonoriladon

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north wind drives snowflakes one by one… a bell rings and rings.

— Steven D. Brewer (limako)

David Serjeant, over at distant lightning, had a great snow moment this week too. I caught a whiff of Issa drifting from this haiku. (I’m very sensitive to that scent.)

midnight snowfall
my neighbour
coughing away

— David Serjeant

I caught even more of a whiff of Issa, maybe even something more like a deliberate (and extremely successful) tribute, coming from Elissa’s recent snow haiku, “who’s counting,” at the haiku diary:

Watching the first one,
two, three . . . four, five, six . . . seven
snowflakes fall outside.

— Elissa

(And okay … I got a little sidetracked here. I have a huge weakness, for some reason, for haiku with numbers in them. In fact, one of my favorites among my own haiku is still this one that I wrote way back in, like, the first week I ever wrote haiku. I went looking for more information about these number-haiku things and ended up, naturally enough, on Gabi Greve’s territory, reading this amazing essay-full-of-inspiring-examples. I have to read it again, when I can spend more time on it.)

(And another slight detour, this one possibly even verging on Deep Thought. This quotation, from a very famous Japanese haiku poet, got in my face when I read it on someone’s Facebook page this week — I’m sorry, Facebook person, I don’t remember who you are, but thanks for posting this! It reminded me of the essay by Aubrie Cox I wrote about a couple of weeks ago:

“The reader of a haiku is indispensable to the working of ma. This person must notice the ma and sense the kokoro of the poet. A haiku is not completed by the poet. The poet creates half of the haiku, while the remaining half must wait for…the appearance of a superior reader. Haiku is literature created jointly by the poet and the reader. A Western poem is the product of the poet alone, and thus here also the way of thinking about haiku is different.”

— Hasegawa Kai

I must say, I feel very fortunate to have had the occasional “superior reader” show up here to complete my haiku, because God knows they [my haiku, that is] need all the help they can get…)

This haiku from David Marshall, at haiku streak, is an exception to this week’s astronomy-and-snow theme, but it does seem somehow to complement Hasegawa’s words. It’s called Old Friends, and don’t tell me haiku aren’t supposed to have titles. They can if they want to. It’s a free country.

Silence that ripens,
silence that stays green, silence
fallen and sere

— David Marshall

I’ll finish up with the astronomical phenomena, since this is, after all, a voyage across the Haikuverse…

Here’s one from Terri L. French’s recent week as the featured poet on the Daily Haiku blog — I love this image:

long road trip —
Orion’s belt rests
on the dashboard

— Terri L. French

And here’s one I like a lot from the blog of extra special bitter:

November sky —
I used to remember
which planet that was

— extra special bitter

As I recently mentioned to someone, I sometimes have difficulty myself even in recalling exactly which planet we are supposed to be on, so I can relate to this sentiment. You know — keeping track of where you are can get to be a challenge when you spend as much time wandering the Haikuverse as I do …

Have a great week, and don’t get lost in space.

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The Haikuverse in the fourth dimension:

No. 1

No. 2

No. 3

No. 4

Across the Haikuverse, No. 3: Underappreciated Edition

(For no. 1 in this series, look here. For no. 2, look here.)

The haikuverse? You want to know what that is? Why, children, it’s a wonderful place, where mostly underappreciated writers toil night and day to produce a body of short poetry that at its best makes you jump out of your shoes, clutch your hair in awe, and possibly weep. Also, where other underappreciated writers explain how these poems work, and talk about the people who’ve written them, and so on and so forth. Where can you find out about some of the most interesting things that happened there this week? Why, right here, of course.


1.

Last week Rick Daddario of 19 Planets was inspired by my link to Marlene Mountain’s “ink writings” to post a similar haiga of his own, rather than save it for Christmastime as he’d been planning. Since Rick lives in Hawaii, his images of the holiday are a little different than ours here in Wisconsin. I found this pleasantly jarring, and also just thought that both the ku and the drawing were a very successful combination. Here’s the haiku, but you really should visit 19 Planets to see the complete haiga.

silent night
the grass grows taller
with each note*

Rick also celebrated his blog’s 100th post this week — I’ll let you visit to find out how. Congratulations, Rick!

*This version is slightly different from the one I originally posted here, since Rick called my attention to the fact that he had modified his ku since I had last checked on it. I like this version even better.

2.

Congratulation also to another blog which celebrated its 100th post this week — Alegria Imperial’s “jornales.” In it she recounts the story of her first “ginko walk,” which her haiku group took to obtain inspiration for haiku. In Alegria’s case I’d say the walk was extremely successful — I love the haiku that resulted from it!

hydrangeas–
the same whispers
the same sighs

3.

I really liked several of the haiku that Steve Mitchell of heednotsteve posted this week. First there was his sequence “always wind,” inspired by his visit to the apparently constantly windswept Norman, Oklahoma. My favorite from that sequence:

always wind –
rush to the south, no,
now rush north

Then there was his humorous but thought-provoking “ku 00000010,” a followup to another robot-inspired haiku he posted earlier this month. This haiku is clever, but for me it works as a genuine haiku, not just a gimmick:

> 1: standby mode
>particles/waves illume
>blossoms as they close

4.

The wonderful online journal “tinywords,” curated by d.f. tweney, features a new haiku or piece of micropoetry every weekday (there are submission guidelines here, if anyone is interested). My favorite this week, by Janice Campbell:

amid fallen leaves

a business card

still doing its job

 

5.

Aubrie Cox’s personal website is well worth a look for her varied portfolio of haiku and other short-form poetry and critical writings. Since I’ve been thinking so much lately about how this blog is in some ways a collaboration between me and my community of readers, I especially enjoyed reading her essay “Writing with the Reader as a Co-Creator.” An excerpt:

“The inviting audience is ‘like talking to the perfect listener: we feel smart and come up with the ideas we didn’t know we had’ (Elbow 51). More importantly, however, is that the inviting reader can have an active role within the exchange between writer and reader. By doing so, the writer is not relinquishing all power back to the reader, or giving in to the tyranny, but merely developing a partnership. The reader can be the writer’s partner in the writing process if there is a mutual trust and cooperation, if the writer lets the reader become a part of the meaning-making process.”

Aubrie goes on to discuss how she sent one of her haiku to several acquaintances and asked for their reactions; their interpretations of its meaning were for the most part nothing like her own, but she points out that they were no less valid for all that — something I constantly have cause to remember when I’m reading my readers’ comments here.

6.
At Issa’s Untidy Hut this week, the Sunday Service is on hiatus for a week, but Don Wentworth has given us instead an insightful review of Silent Flowers, a short volume of haiku translated by the person who perhaps did more than anyone else to popularize haiku for English speakers: R.H. Blyth. Silent Flowers, published in 1967, was apparently excerpted from Blyth’s legendary 4-volume compilation of translations and critical study of Japanese haiku.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Don’s review — an Issa haiku and Don’s commentary on it:

Just simply alive,
Both of us, I
and the poppy.

Issa

“There it is, folks – doesn’t get plainer or simpler or truer or more beautiful than that.   After you read a poem like this, time to shut the book and get back to life.”

7.

Somehow I just managed to discover this week the Mann Library’s Daily Haiku site. Each day they republish a previously published haiku by an established haiku poet — each month is dedicated to the works of a different poet. The archives are a treasure for anyone exploring the world of contemporary English-language haiku — name a well-known haiku poet and they’re likely to have some of his or her works represented.

Here’s one of my favorites from this month’s poet, Gary Hotham:

time to go —
the stones we threw
at the bottom of the ocean

8.

Following up on my interest in foreign-language haiku: On the Haiku Foundation’s website, Troutswirl, last week, the regular feature “Periplum” (which is dedicated to haiku from around the world) was devoted to the work of a Bolivian poet, Tito Andres Ramos. Although Ramos’s first language is Spanish, he writes his haiku first in English and then translates them into Spanish. One I especially like:

sunny winter day
my packed suitcase
under the bed

dia soleado de invierno
mi maleta empacada
bojo mi cama

9.

Gene Myers of “The Rattle Bag” blog (and also the administrator of the “Haiku Now” page on Facebook) recently wrote about the chapbook of his haiku and other poetry that he put together on Scribd. (You can download the PDF here.) This looks like it could be a nice way to distribute collections of poetry without killing trees or inflicting boring design on people. I’m thinking about it myself, though I am also still attracted to the idea of the limited-edition dead-tree chapbook on handmade rice paper with custom calligraphy. But this is probably faster. 🙂

One of my favorite from Gene’s collection:

Moth between window and screen

I’m tired

 

And so am I. It’s exhausting, traversing the Haikuverse. Going to bed now. See you on the flip side …

Across the Haikuverse, No. 2: Only Connect Edition

In which I present for your inspection all the things I found this week while exploring the haikuverse that I thought might interest, entertain, infuriate, intrigue, or otherwise engross you. Or might not. (No. 1 in this series is here, in case you’re interested.)

This week’s theme (because I’ve been rereading Howards End): Only Connect. (Every item connects somehow to the previous item, if only by the skin of its teeth.)

1.

Are you feeling competitive this week? This coming Saturday is the deadline for November’s Shiki Kukai. If you don’t know about Kukai, they are haiku contests in which all the entrants vote on and choose the winners. The Shiki Kukai is a long-running contest with two categories: one that requires a particular kigo (this month: geese), and one that is free format but on a particular theme (this month: weaving). If either of those themes inspire you, check out the rules and give it a try.


2.

And for those who just can’t get enough competition … If you checked out the Haiku Foundation’s Facebook page as I advised you to do last week, you’ll know that they are now running a Facebook haiku contest. Through the end of November, anyone can enter one haiku in the contest by posting it on the page in the comment section following the contest announcement. The top three (as judged by Jim Kacian, Haiku Foundation founder) will get prizes. And glory, of course.

There are lots of entries already. Go check them out even if you’re not sure you want to enter the contest. I’ve found that this is a great forum just to get your haiku looked at by other poets and get a little feedback, so you might want to think of that as your goal rather than winning the contest. I certainly am. 🙂

3.

And more from the wonderful world of Facebook … Last week I shared with you a haiku in French by Vincent Hoarau, which he originally posted on Facebook. This week I will take mercy on the non-French-readers among you. A few days ago Vincent posted the following haiku, which he translated into English:

jour de pluie …
je pense à la mort
elle au berceau

rainy day …
i think about death
she about a cradle

4.

And while I’m on the subject of haiku in French … I recently discovered on Twitter a Belgian haiku poet, Bill Bilquin. He posts new haiku several times a week; here’s my favorite from this week (French original, English translation by Bilquin):

presque trois ans
ses mots de plus en plus précis
premières mandarines

nearly three years old
her words more and more precise
first mandarins

5.

And while I’m on the subject of haiku in foreign languages … There’s a haiku translation site called “Versions” that I discovered a few weeks ago and have been very excited about. (Warning: Serious geek territory ahead.) You can enter your own haiku in your language, which will then be available for others to translate into their language(s). You can also translate the haiku of others. It’s searchable by author, so you can go look at the haiku of a poet you like and see all the different translations that have been made on the site of their haiku. It’s a lot of fun (if, as I say, you’re a complete language geek) to compare the different “versions.”

A caveat: although in theory the site is available to writers and translators of any language, for right now most of the haiku seem to be in, and to be translated into, either English or Russian. (It’s a Russian site.) This is great for those of us who know both those languages, but if you are more into, say, German, you won’t find nearly as much on the site to interest you. However, you will be doing us all a great service if you add more haiku and translations in other languages, so give it a try.

Here’s an example of a haiku by Lee Gurga and a couple of (very) different Russian translations of it. Bear with me — even if you don’t know Russian I’ll give you some idea what they’re all about:

Lee’s original haiku:

his side of it
her side of it.
winter silence

 

(translation 1, by Versions user Боруко)

его сторона…
её сторона…
зимняя тишина

(translation 2, by Versions user A.G.)

твоё моё наше
холод молчание

The first translation is quite literal; if I saw it only in the original Russian I would probably render it back into English almost exactly as Lee originally wrote it. The second is very different — it’s more of a free interpretation, I would say, of Lee’s haiku than a translation. I might translate it back into English something like this:

yours mine ours
cold, silence

Which Lee might recognize as his haiku, and might not. Anyway, if you’re interested in translation, and especially if you know Russian (I realize that I am addressing a minuscule, possibly nonexistent, subset of my readership here, but hey, it’s my blog and I’ll geek out if I want to), you will certainly want to check this site out.

6.

And on the subject of versions of things … Bill Kenney has started a new feature on his blog haiku-usa that he calls “afters.” That is, they are haiku “after” haiku of classical haiku poets — not translations per se (Bill doesn’t know Japanese), but loose interpretations, attempts to capture something of the feeling of the original. Here’s his first:

a bit drunk
stepping lightly
in the spring wind
Ryokan (1758-1831)

7.

And more on the blog front … Andrew Phillips and I became acquainted with each other on Twitter this week and I’ve been enjoying checking out the haiku on his blog Pied Hill Prawns. An example:

telephone wires
connecting –
possum’s nightly walk

8.

And yet more bloggy matters … From Matt Holloway of Beachcombing for the Landlocked, a haiku I really enjoyed reading this week:

a tray      of stored apples      not yet a poem

9.

And while we’re in one-line haiku mode: I’ve been blown away this week by the amazing contents of Marlene Mountain’s website. In case you don’t know about Marlene, she is something of a haiku legend; she’s been writing haiku since the sixties, and she was one of the first poets to work with haiku as one line in English.

Here’s a page showing some of her early 3-line haiku, and then the same haiku later rewritten as one line. Here’s a selection of her one-line haiku. (A wonderful example: off and on i’ve thought of you off and on.) Here are scans of some pages from her notebooks, showing her revisions — I love this kind of thing, getting to see into another writer’s mind as she works. Here are some of her “ink writings,” similar to haiga. Here are some wonderful things called “unaloud haiku,” and here are some really fun things called “visually aloud” haiku. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Marlene’s site is concerned. Enjoy!

And that’s all from the Haikuverse this week. Thanks for visiting.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 1: Let’s Get Started Edition

I’ve been feeling lately like I need to share some of the amazing haiku (and other short-form verse) and writing about haiku that other people post on the Interwebs. After all, this blog for me is not just about having a forum to post my own haiku, it’s about developing a community of people who are learning about and sharing their knowledge and appreciation of haiku with each other.

I follow a few dozen haiku blogs on a regular basis, some by quite well-known haiku poets and some by haiku poets who deserve to be much better known. I also read haiku journals and haiku essays and informational sites about haiku, and I follow a bunch of haiku poets on Twitter (also occasionally post stuff there that I don’t post here, in case you’re interested — my username is myyozh), and I am a member of a few different haiku-related groups on Facebook. (And oh, yeah — sometimes I read haiku-related things on pieces of dead tree, too.) There is always enough new and exciting stuff in all these places to keep me interested and inspired. So I think on a weekly (or so) basis I’ll let you know what has stuck with me, or challenged me, or stopped me short and made me glad to be alive. I hope some of what I share does something similar for some of you.

(N.B.: I’m limiting myself to what has been posted, or what I have discovered, in the last week or so. You have to draw the line somewhere. And this got way longer than I expected even with that constraint. That being said … if you find something haiku-related this week that you think others would enjoy, send me the URL and I may post it in my next version of this feature.)

___________________________

For this All Souls’ Eve, Margaret Dornaus, over at Haiku-doodle, has posted a great selection of haiku that pay tribute to loved ones who have passed away. (The haiku for my father that I wrote for his birthday earlier this week is one of them.) It’s worth taking a look at them. I mean, not only are the haiku worth reading, but Margaret has an actual ability to do layout (the bane of my existence), which means they are literally worth looking at.

I really like the ambiguity caused by the way Patti Niehoff of A Night Kitchen has split up the lines in her autumn (Halloween?) themed poem “can’t avoid.

As usual I found all kinds of treasures this week at Fay Aoyagi’s Blue Willow Haiku World, including her translations of the Japanese haiku autumn wind, still lonely (which I think must be a riff on Basho’s famous haiku about the autumn road along which no one is passing), and holding my knees. Also, Fay’s own haiku Halloween.

Daily Haiku usually has plenty worth reading — my favorite this week was Robert Epstein’s Indian summer day.

David Marshall’s Haiku Streak is one of the first haiku blogs I started reading and still one of those I enjoy the most. He writes a daily haiku; they are often surreal, always utterly original — he has his own inimitable style which is not quite like anyone else’s. This week I found myself drawn to “The New Apocalypse.”

Issa’s Sunday Service at Issa’s Untidy Hut (the blog of The Lilliput Review) is one of the highlights of my week. It combines rock music (including embedded audio), haiku (always including one by my man Issa!), other poetry, and literary and philosophical musings to create a mind-altering experience. This week’s song is Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out This Morning”; Tom Paine’s Common Sense is mentioned in the context of the upcoming midterm elections; there are a couple of great autumn-related poems; and the Issa haiku about cherry blossoms is going on my list of all-time favorites. Added bonus: Check out the jukebox in the sidebar that enables you to play all the songs from all 76 Sunday Services.

At his blog lakes and now wolves, Scott Metz’s “leaf shadows” is as thought-provoking as most of his ku.

Stacey Wilson’s found haiku collages at the odd inkwell are wonderful both to look at and read. I especially liked “autumn sun” this week.

I just got around to downloading the most recent issue of Roadrunner (X:3, issued in September) and all kinds of wild ku are now spinning through my head, including Peter Yovu’s wonderful

the night heron’s cry
your left elbow slightly
sharper than your right

Notes from the Gean also published its most recent issue in September and I have been revisiting it more or less weekly since then. This journal publishes a lot of haiku (and tanka, haiga, haibun, renga) and it’s hard to absorb it all at once. Right now I’m very fond of Chen-ou Liu’s one-line haiku:

single married single again a rushing river

And I also think it would be worth your while to read Zane Parks’s haibun “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

I found a lot to think about in Susan Antolin’s essay on her blog Artichoke Season about what makes a “good” poem. (If you go there, you should also spend some time reading Susan’s wonderful haiku and haibun.)

Curtis Dunlap’s Blogging Along Tobacco Road has a great feature called “Three Questions” in which the same three questions are posed to a wide variety of haiku poets, which provides a fascinating look at their varied motivations for writing haiku and understandings of what haiku is. This week the featured poet is Aubrie Cox, a college student who is already a fine haiku poet (and whom I met at Mineral Point and have spent some time batting around ideas about haiku and other literature since then).

If you are on Facebook, I highly recommend joining the pages (or liking them, or whatever the heck it is they call it these days) “haiku now” and “The Haiku Foundation,” where there is almost always some kind of lively discussion of some aspect of haiku going on and where haiku poets from all over share their work and comment on others’. The Haiku Foundation has a regular, weekly-or-so feature where they ask members to contribute a haiku on a particular theme — the current one is “water.” It’s fascinating to see all the different riffs on the topic.

Also on Facebook: Michael Dylan Welch has just come up with the brilliant idea of NaHaiWriMo, a takeoff on NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month that is starting tomorrow (and that I have, probably unwisely, signed up to participate in, because I don’t have enough to do, I guess.) NaHaiWriMo, naturally, calls for participants to write one haiku a day for a month, in this case the mercifully short month of February. You can join the group now, though, and start commiserating with your fellow participants several months ahead of time.

Via Facebook I have recently become an admirer of the haiku of Vincent Hoarau, who writes primarily in French but frequently translates his haiku into English for the benefit of the non-Francophones among us. I find that my high-school French (as well as the services of a good French-English dictionary) is just sufficient to allow me to enjoy the rhythms of Vincent’s French haiku, such as the one he posted on Facebook yesterday without translation (but I am not going to attempt to translate for you lest I completely embarrass myself):

l’heure d’hiver
dans la paleur de l’aube
un peu perdue

Dead-tree news: From the Everyman’s Library Haiku, which I have been slowly making my way through, several verses have been resonating with me this week (all translations by the not-necessarily-accurate but stylistically pleasant R.H. Blyth):

The flea
That is poor at jumping,
All the more charming.
— Issa

A cage of fireflies
For the sick child:
Loneliness.
— Ryota

The beginning of autumn,
Decided
By the red dragonfly.
— Shirao

Between the moon coming out
And the sun going in —
The red dragonflies.
— Nikyu

The peony
Made me measure it
With my fan.
— Issa

Having cut the peony,
I felt dejected
That morning.
— Buson

From what flowering tree
I know not,
But ah, the fragrance!
— Basho

Roses;
The flowers are easy to paint,
The leaves difficult.
— Shiki

This willow-tree
That looks like a white cat,
Is also a votive flower.
— Issa

As if nothing had happened,
The crow,
And the willow.
— Issa

And that’s the Haikuverse for this week. See you again soon.

October 25: My father’s birthday, and a brief discourse on ambiguity

if my father were here —
dawn colors
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

October 24: You and only you

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

_____________

Prince’s 1999
was played on that New Year’s Eve
300 seconds
that’s all that was needed
to fall in love

(unpublished)


300 klicks
from my home to Hull
a renga love verse

(unpublished)

 


warm evening
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

Kana: ハリネズミ

Rōmaji: harinezumi

English: hedgehog

Combination Meaning: needle ( ハリ) mouse (ネズミ)

— Alan Summers, area17.blogspot.com/

_____________

obituary notice
the last of his regulars
died yesterday

— Stacey Wilson, theoddinkwell.com and inkwellwhispers.com

_____________

acorn
buried among fall debris–
the waiting

(unpublished, inspired by the post “acorn time”)


symmetry
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

_____________

sunlit garden
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

_____________

october roses
the last but the most vivid
than ever

faded petals
the scent of their soft touch
on my cheek

 

— Claire

_____________

first serial publication
grandma asks
when I started drinking

(Previously published, bottle rockets #22)



haiku history lecture
doodling
paper lanterns

(Previously published, tinywords 9.1)


— Aubrie Cox, aubriecox.wordpress.com

_____________

Rivers Fast

Rivers fast!
Strongest
Clean…
Refreshing

 

Flower Waits

Flower waits
For bee
You see,
Bird told me

 

— Laz Freedman, lazfreedman.wordpress.com

_____________

crow lands on post
carries a grasshopper
can’t talk now

 

 

soft breeze
I regard nature, but wait —
I am nature

 

— Steve Mitchell, heednotsteve.wordpress.com

_____________

February wind
I want to believe
the crocus

early thaw––
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

_____________

reading history
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
our snapshots

how nice to see the sun
again, despite
returning spiders

 

— Ashley Capes, ashleycapes.wordpress.com/

_____________

who needs
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/

_____________

— Rick Daddario, www.rickdaddario.com/, 19planets.wordpress.com/, wrick.gather.com, www.cafeshops.com/19planets

_____________

spider song

eight syllables only
to tap your haiku
across my wall

— Lawrence Congdon, novaheart.wordpress.com

_____________

sharing full moon
with all the world’s
haiku poets

 

summer’s meadow
flowers too
inspire each other

— Kerstin Neumann

 

_____________

 

 

overcast midday sky-
her shrill voice calling
the ducks home

— Devika Jyothi

_______________________________________

July 30: 1-4: The Technique of Above as Below

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

Jane:

“… Some say one should be able to read the first line and the third line to find it makes a complete thought. Sometimes one does not know in which order to place the images in a haiku. When the images in the first and third lines have the strongest relationship, the haiku usually feels ‘complete.’ For exercise, take any haiku and switch the lines around to see how this factor works, or try reading the haiku without the second line.


holding the day
between my hands
a clay pot”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

This was way harder than it looked. And it looked hard.

I think part of the problem was that I really loved Jane’s example and none of my efforts came anywhere near her standard. I even resorted to breaking down her ku into parts of speech hoping that would provide some sort of formula for success:

gerund, noun object
prepositional phrase
modifier, noun

It didn’t.

But now I am a little bit obsessed with making one of these work, somehow, sometime. Anyone else got anything?

*

summer rain
one leftover cloud
frustrates

watching your eyes
by moonlight
the summer stars

a tree full
squirrels making lists
of supplies

night sheltering
from sunrise
our dark words

July 26: Shared Water: a renga

A month or so ago I wrote about renga (or renku), the form of collaborative linked verse from which the haiku evolved. Everything I’d read about it fascinated me and I was itching to try it, so I issued an invitation for renga partners. Steve Mitchell of Heed Not Steve was the only one brave (or crazy) enough to take me up on it. This means that Steve was the only one who got to have the fun of spending the last month emailing renga verses back and forth with me as we tried to master the notorious intricacies of renga link and shift.

See, here are the most basic rules of renga: each verse should link to the verse immediately before it — should connect to it somehow, say in subject or tone or viewpoint or just linguistically, as for instance when one word suggests a variety of meanings that can be played on in different ways. It should also shift completely from the verse two before it — should have nothing in common in the ways I just mentioned. You’re also, technically, not supposed to repeat significant words (nouns, verbs and the like) in the course of a renga. And you should try to cover as many different subjects as you can in the course of a renga — to create a little microcosm. By the time you get to about verse 18 of a 36-verse kasen renga, the type we attempted, these rules are starting to drive you (and by “you” I mean “me”) out of your mind. In a good way, of course.

Steve and I, both complete newcomers to this form of poetry and a little intimidated by the whole thing, elected to take the (relatively) easy route of using one of Jane Reichhold’s ready-made seasonal kasen renga forms — in this case, the one for summer. These specify for each verse who should be writing it (with two people writing, you more or less switch back and forth each verse, except when you don’t), how many lines it should be (you alternate 3 and 2 line verses), and what the subject matter should be. Jane’s forms are loosely based on the great Basho’s kasen renga rules: the renga moves through the seasons, making a couple of complete cycles of the year, and contains a certain number of references to moon and blossoms and love. You can entertain yourself trying to figure out which verses are which in our renga.

Steve was lots of fun to work with — I enjoyed trying to figure out how the heck each new verse he sent me was supposed to link to the verse I’d just sent him. Links can be very subtle and devious sometimes. We both kept notes on each verse we wrote — how we linked, what we were thinking as we wrote it and how we saw it fitting into the renga as a whole. I’ll link at the bottom to a separate page I’ve created with all our notes, so if you feel like reading them you can.

The overall impression a renga should leave is not of a neatly ordered landscape, as in a traditional Western poem with a unified theme, but a sort of whirlwind tour of the world  via several different modes of transportation and with a constantly changing group of travel companions — moving like lightning from one subject to another, from one kind of weather to another, from one mind to another. For this reason, they can be challenging to read if you’re not used to them — but once you start to get the hang of it, they are exhilarating. Or at least I think so. Hope you do too.

*

Shared Water

a summer kasen renga between Steve Mitchell and Melissa Allen
June-July 2010

balmy blue lakes
shimmering dry heat
shared water

organic milk on the strawberries
the shortcake dissolves

copper strands
entwine the land
quaint bitumen

bright socks on her needles
she watches the people on the bus watch her

playing parlor games
unmindful as the moon peeks
through the drapes

bleached plastic pumpkins
holding a seance on the lawn

stalking through frosty grass
the cat leaps
on the tail of a leaf

the young boy makes a muscle
dad gives a low whistle

biology class picture
the children
divided by sex

anonymous in the dark
feral peafowl invade the trees

the third day of fever
he writes a poem
about the war

those brothers interred
their silence accuses

the moon
through a row of icicles
flashes of insight

on the roads a glacial crawl —
fly away Snowbirds!

andante
their conversation waltzes
to the music

light steam in his nose
hot tea hides his fortune

bright pink sweater
the unexpected shyness
of the blossom

iridescent hummingbird
faster than gravity

the soothing cool wind
so brief
windows left open

under the microscope
the fruit flies are born and die

(ME) gnashing ego
believes (ME) its own truth
fear (ME) and (ME) death

half asleep, waiting for the sound
of the false teeth being brushed

the a.c. hums
our summer lullaby
the meter spins

fish reeled from the river
silver-clad for the boating party

dressed for dinner
“Where’s your new brooch?”
she pins it on

cuttings from the jade plant
he returns her Polaroids

the oak tree
with enduring scars
carved initials

Moscow beer line —
passing the communal cup

moonlit haze
I think I hailed this cab
it looks amber

goosebumps on her arms
he rushes through the painting

cold autumn rain
she counts the money
one more time

fragile sand dollars
half-buried by the surf

the oily sea
punishment from the gods
for digging too deep

wool coats forgotten
a reprieve from the frost

damp violets underfoot
trying to imagine
cactus flowers

the riverbed mesquite
imagining water

*

You can look over here if you’re interested in reading our notes about our writing process.

*

(And if you’ve made it this far and you are intrigued by renga, I hereby issue another invitation. Ashley Capes of Issa’s Snail, a renku site, who has done a whole lot of writing and coordinating of this fascinating kind of poetry and really knows what he’s talking about, has kindly offered to organize a renga for readers of this blog to participate in — leave a comment if you are interested in participating.)

July 24: Not Me

This is my 200th post. Yes, I do blather on a lot. So as promised, today I am giving you all a break from my words (well, okay, at least from my haiku … you didn’t think I’d be content to just shut up completely for an entire day, did you?) and sharing those of my readers.

When I started this blog I thought of it as a way to express myself and become a better writer, not really as a way to communicate with people. I knew, of course, that there were these things called “comments” on blogs and I’d even made a few in my time. But I didn’t realize how completely vital to the whole enterprise those comments would be. It still amazes me how quickly a small community formed around this blog: All these like-minded, talented, thoughtful, funny people, stopping by on a regular basis to have a friendly chat! It’s been a great gift. And so has your poetry — without the example and inspiration of which my own poetry would still be limping along in a much sorrier state.

Thanks for sharing, and for giving me the chance to share back. Without further blathering, here are your words (in the order they appeared in my email inbox, in case you were wondering).

*

waiting for fruit
plum blossoms
cover the stall

underfoot
the rough music
of beetle shells

— Ashley Capes, http://ashleycapes.wordpress.com/

*

leaves flicker
the notes of a piano
in the breeze

stars appear
the sunset sky
a painting

— Rick Daddario, http://19planets.wordpress.com/

*

a mirror –
the universe reflected
backwards

moments drop
faster
memory puddles

— Steve Mitchell, http://heednotsteve.wordpress.com

*

pecking grass for seed
ruffled bird with wary eyes
hope is tenacious

— Max Stites, http://outspokenomphaloskeptic.wordpress.com

*

the hawk’s belly
full or empty
casts a shadow

— Pearl Nelson, http://pearlnelson.wordpress.com

*

sea crashes below
a kiss smelling of heather
and love becomes love

strawberry and cream
balloons dance over snow
fields giggles chase after

— John Alwyine-Mosely, http://ramdom-short-stories.blogspot.com

*

this last breath
honeysuckle thick with
hummingbirds

I picked up the wrong basket
accidentally;
we both have plum tomatoes.

— Angie Werren, feathers, http://triflings.wordpress.com/

*

I dreamt the earth flat—
every journey elbowing
at the horizon

— David Marshall, haiku streak, http://dmarshall58.wordpress.com/

*
Mouse Sleeps

Mouse sleeps
Nestled in…
Warmest drawer


Morning Dew

Wild Rose,
Sparkles
With,
Morning dew

— Laz Freedman, http://lazfreedman.wordpress.com/

*

Memoirs of a tree

There’s no connection,
no soul between us.
Daisies, but no butterflies.

— Evonity, http://evonity.wordpress.com/

*

The clock strikes one-fifteen
for whom does the bell toll
but corpses?

— Anne Lessing, Phantasma, http://annelessing.wordpress.com/

*

what winds bring dreams tonight
zephyrs siroccos mariahs
lift signs from distant stones

— Lawrence Congdon, http://novaheart.wordpress.com

*

entering the night kitchen
the scent of basil
before the light goes on

— Patti Niehoff, http://white-pebble.net

July 18: 1-2: The Techniques of the Paradox and the Improbable World

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

Jane:

The Technique of the Paradox:

“One of the aims of playing with haiku is to confuse the reader just enough to attract interest. Using a paradox will engage interest and give the reader much to think about. Again, one cannot use nonsense but has to construct a true (connected to reality) paradox. …

climbing the temple hill
leg muscles tighten
in our throats”

The Technique of The Improbable World:

“This is very close to paradox … an old Japanese tool which is often used to make the poet sound simple and child-like. Often it demonstrates a distorted view of science – one we ‘know’ is not true, but always has the possibility of being true (as in quantum physics).

evening wind
colors of the day
blown away


or


waiting room
a patch of sunlight
wears out the chairs”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

one blue egg
the shape of a bird
in my hand

dizziness
clutching my pen
to keep from falling

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

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

Jane:

The Technique of Sabi


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

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

rocky spring
lips taking a sip
from a stone mouth

coming home
flower
by flower”

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

listening ears
petals fall into
the silence]


The Technique of Wabi


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

parting fog
on wind barren meadows
birth of a lamb”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

More on wabi and sabi:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your roses
how few petals
remain

the steam
from the kettle
floating dreams

one petal
on the tablecloth
your name

the empty bench
the wind sweeps away
memories

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

Snow Country: the novel and haiku (June 30: 1-2)

I recently read the Japanese modern classic novel Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, which I recommend without reservation to anyone who likes both novels and haiku. Here’s why:

“Kawabata has been put, I think rightly, in a literary line that can be traced back to seventeenth-century haiku masters. Haiku are tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms. Thus the classical haiku characteristically fuses motion and stillness. Similarly Kawabata relies very heavily on a mingling of the senses. In Snow Country we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of the sound of running water, or, in a somewhat more elaborate figure, the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly becomes a woman’s feet. …

“The haiku manner presents a great challenge to the novelist. The manner is notable for its terseness and austerity, so that his novel must rather be like a series of brief flashes in a void.”

— Edward G. Seidensticker, from the introduction to his translation of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

I was totally fascinated by the idea of a novel inspired by haiku — two literary forms that on the surface could not possibly be more different. The novel, as it happens, is actually my favorite literary form; I just can’t write them (and believe me I’ve tried) because my attention span is not nearly long enough, which is why I write haiku instead. And much as I love the challenge of trying to recreate an experience and an insight in the few lines of a haiku, I frequently find myself frustrated by the tininess of its canvas — hence all my haiku sequences and narratives.

I love Seidensticker’s definition of haiku (another one to add to the collection on my mantelpiece) as “tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms.”

I was also really interested in Seidensticker’s further description of haiku as a fusion of “motion and stillness.” Something to think about. Does he mean literally motion and stillness, or something more like concrete images, an engagement with the physical world, vs. abstract insight or internal activity? That he then goes to equate this with “a mingling of the senses” confuses the issue further for me — does this imply that mixing senses creates a kind of movement in the poem and in the novel?

There is certainly not much literal movement in the novel; all that happens in it is that a pretentious, self-involved guy from Tokyo goes several times over several years to a mountain resort to visit a particular young geisha with whom he is — not exactly in love, but in fascination. There are only a few other characters who are named or described in any detail, and most of the book consists of conversations between the two main characters, detailed descriptions of their surroundings, and the thoughts of the male protagonist (the viewpoint is third-person limited, so we don’t get to find out what the geisha is thinking).

“Brief flashes in a void” — this is an excellent description of the overall impression the novel gives. There are the mountains, the snow, a fairly incoherent relationship between two people, all these things seeming blank and quiet, a canvas on which appear sudden splatters of awareness much like the condensed expression of awareness of a haiku, powerful, vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, feelings. They seem to be drawing the man from Tokyo forward, toward some kind of decision or personal change — though what kind, we’re not in the end quite sure. Here’s an example:

“From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back. The dark needles blocked out the sky, and the stillness seemed to be singing quietly. The trunk against which Shimamura leaned was the oldest of all. For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god.”

— Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, p. 30 (Perigee Books edition)

Here are the mixture of senses — sight, sound, touch — that Seidensticker refers to, and also the fusion of motion and stillness — this is a static picture of some trees and yet they are described in terms of active movement — they “threw up their trunks,” the needles “blocked out the sky,” they are ready, most shockingly, to be used as “a terrible weapon for some god.” There is both beauty and harshness and cruelty in this scene, as there is in the relationship between the two main characters.

There are several passages that you can easily imagine a classical haiku poet seizing on as material, like this one:

“Before a white wall, shaded by eaves, a little girl in ‘mountain trousers’ and an orange-red flannel kimono, clearly brand-new, was bouncing a rubber ball. For Shimamura, there was autumn in the little scene.”

— Kawabata, p. 109

(mountain autumn
in her new red kimono
she bounces a ball

— MLA)

or this one:

“[A building is on fire.] At the edge of the garden, withering chrysanthemums were silhouetted against the light from the inn — or the starlight. For an instant he almost thought it was the light from the fire.”

— Kawabata, p. 163

(chrysanthemums
withering in the light
from the stars

— MLA)

The final pages of the novel, the content of which I won’t discuss here because I hate spoilers, are a tour de force of sense-mixing, of powerful incongruities, of stillness and motion fused in the purest way imaginable. And the final line, just to give you a sense of how haiku-like Kawabata can be, is: “the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.” There are some modern haiku poets (and I might be one of them) for whom that would be a perfect, complete one-line haiku.

Don’t you want to go read it now instead of reading my long, boring treatise on it? Or did you stop reading my treatise a long time ago and go buy it or score it from the library? Either way, good for you.

Postscript: Via a link to “possibly related posts” at the bottom of this entry I discovered the following closely related essay by an Indian writer — she discusses both Snow Country and another Kawabata novel. Very interesting perspective.

Do You Hate Haiku?

Jim Murdoch from The Truth About Lies wrote, a while back, probably the most well-informed, interesting essay about haiku ever written by someone who self-confessedly hates haiku. You should go read it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

For those of you who are going, “Eh, who has the time,” I’ll humor you and tell you about it. There is a lot of great stuff in there — haiku-like utterances by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, quite clear explanations of the difference between syllables and morae and the concept of the kigo, a comparison of several different translations of a Shiki haiku, a discussion of whether haiku written in Scots are closer to the spirit of Japanese haiku than those written in English, an in-depth discussion of a haiku-like poem of his own and whether it is or could ever be a haiku … you get the idea. Did I mention that he hates haiku?

So why? Why does he have such strong negative feelings about something he has obviously studied in such depth and thought about so much?

The answer seems to be that (like everyone else in the world) he isn’t really sure exactly what an English haiku is. It makes him uncomfortable:

“There are modern poets who say unless your poem has this ‘Aha! Moment’ you’re not writing haiku. Others emphasise the experience. And, of course, there will be those who say that as long as your poem has three lines containing 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively then it’s a haiku. … This is why I hate haiku. It has moved so far away from its roots that a good haiku is more a matter of fluke than anything else … This is not to suggest that short poems cannot be excellent but they’re just not haiku.”

He does admit that perhaps, since he hasn’t actually written any, it might be premature for him to come down so firmly in the anti-haiku camp. But clearly, that lack of consensus on a definition really, really bugs him:

“In all honesty I can’t say, ‘I hate haiku,’ because Haiku’s response would be, ‘But, you don’t know me,’ and that’s why I hate it, it won’t stay still long enough to be known. Maybe once back in the day the Japanese might have come up with a short list but somehow I think the argument about what a haiku can or cannot be has raged since Masaoka Shiki coined the expression at the end of the 19th century.”

And then we really get down to brass tacks — the haiku just isn’t a form that suits the way he thinks or writes:

“I think there’s a lot newbie poets can learn from working with a short form like the haiku. Whether what they produce is haiku is neither here nor there. I’ve never deliberately avoided writing them perhaps because I’ve always written in a condensed way. I think the problem is that they’re just a tad too short for the thoughts I want to express and that’s all.”

All right, the faint whiff of condescension drifting from this aside … this is a perfectly reasonable way to feel. It’s fine not to want to write haiku. Most people don’t want to write haiku. Quite often, I don’t want to write haiku. (Can I go to bed now?) But still … I have a hard time believing that anyone who has delved so deeply into the history and structure of the haiku form really, truly hates it …

How about you? Do you hate haiku? Do you write it anyway? Why or why not? Defend your position.

June 26: 2-10: The Technique of Mixing It Up

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

Jane:

“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

*

Me:

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
burning marshmallows
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.

Haiku in “The Makioka Sisters”

When I was writing about renga the other day, I said something about poetry writing having been a basic communication tool for the Japanese (at least the upper classes) back in the old days.

At the time, I was thinking “old days” = hundreds of years ago. But later, I remembered a scene from my favorite Japanese novel, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, which is set in the 1930s. This wonderful scene describes a family — three adults and a ten-year-old girl — writing poetry together as an evening activity the way an American family might play a board game.

Background: The book describes the lives of an upper-middle-class family consisting of four sisters, two married and two not. (Much of the drama of the story lies in the family’s efforts to get the two single sisters married off, and protect their reputations in the meantime. The book reads amazingly like a nineteenth-century English or French or Russian novel.)

At the beginning of the story, one married sister is living in Tokyo with her family; the other three are living in Osaka in the household of the other married sister. Then, due to complicated circumstances, one of the single sisters goes to live in Tokyo too. Everyone misses her. So — apparently more or less as a matter of course — they decide one night to write her some poetry:

“Suppose we each write something,” said Teinosuke [the married sister’s husband]. It was some twenty days later, on the night of the autumn full moon. Everyone thought this an excellent idea, and after dinner Teinosuke, Sachiko, Taeko, and Etsuko gathered near the veranda of a Japanese-style room downstairs. The traditional moon-viewing flowers and fruit had been set out. When O-haru had ground the ink, Teinosuke, Sachiko, and Etsuko each composed a poem. Taeko, who was not good at poetry, did a quick ink wash of the moon coming through pine branches.

The clouds are passing.

The pines reach out for the moon.

Teinosuke

The night of the full moon.

Here, one shadow is missing.

— Sachiko

The moon tonight–

Yukiko sees it in Tokyo.

— Etsuko

— Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters, trans. Edward Seidensticker

(The final poem, by the way, is by the ten-year-old.)

I don’t know whether these poems are meant to be haiku in the original Japanese. They are certainly haiku-like, though. And it’s interesting to me that there doesn’t seem to be any discussion among the family about what kind of poetry to write, yet everyone produces the same kind, as if everyone just knows that this is the kind of poetry you write on an occasion like this. Clearly poetry-writing has been a standard part of their upbringing and education. (I also think it’s touching and funny that there’s one sister who considers herself, or is considered, “not good at poetry,” and who instead specializes in a different sort of traditional Japanese art.)

Tanizaki wrote this book during and after World War II partly out of nostalgia for what he saw as the lost culture of prewar Japan — there is a lot of information about the family engaging in traditional Japanese music, dance, theater, and crafts as well. So maybe he was simply more inclined to portray characters as cultured and artistic, and this is not a realistic representation of what a typical Japanese family of their class and time would have done. But the scene seems so quiet and matter-of-fact that it’s hard to believe it was a complete fantasy on his part.



Renga: An introduction and an invitation

I’ve been meaning for a while now to write something about renga*, the form of long collaborative verse from which the haiku was derived (by the great Basho), and which is still being written and enjoyed by millions around the globe … well, okay, maybe thousands on a good day. It fascinates me, because we have nothing like this art form in English — for us, poetry is a solo sport, in popular mythology the province of tortured, lonely geniuses sweating it out in their attic bedrooms or sordid studio apartments. (Or suburban kitchens, as the case may be.)

For the Japanese, however, poetry was for a long time a basic social skill, at least for the upper classes, a way of impressing lovers and court rivals. In The Tale of Genji, the eleventh-century work that is generally called the world’s first novel, the hero, an illegitimate son of the emperor who is implausibly and annoyingly talented at everything, is always seducing his (many, many) ladies with little verses he tosses off practically without thinking about it, and they are always replying in kind.

At that time, the tanka was one of the most prominent verse forms — five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese syllables. Tanka contests were popular among those with nothing better to do with their time. Renga, it’s hypothesized, began as a way of, um, relaxing after these contests — by writing more poetry, except this time in collaboration with your rivals instead of in competition with them. That is, it was a party game. Those crazy Japanese!

The basic idea behind renga is that one person writes the first part of the tanka (the 5-7-5 — sound familiar?) and another person writes the second part (the 7-7) — and then someone else writes another 5-7-5 connected to the 7-7, and someone else writes another 7-7 connected to that, and on and on — sometimes, in the good old days, for a thousand stanzas or more.

By Basho’s time (seventeenth century), even the Japanese were beginning to feel that this length was a little bit crazy. Basho had the idea to cap the renga at 36 stanzas, which he neatly and sensibly laid out in a little 4-page book, 6 stanzas on the first and last pages and 12 on the 2 middle pages. He also made up all kinds of rules about what kind of subjects each stanza was supposed to cover. You were supposed to start the renga with a verse about the season you were in, for instance. (This first verse of the renga is called a hokku. Basho liked writing hokku so much that he wrote a whole bunch of them without bothering with the rest of the renga, and thus the haiku was born — though it didn’t get that name until Shiki thought it up in the nineteenth century.)

These days people still frequently write Basho-style 36-stanza renga (they’re called kasen), but renga can be any number of stanzas really, written by any number of people — sometimes even solo, though that seems to kind of miss the point as far as I’m concerned. On the wondrous Interweb, you can find all kinds of detailed instructions and blank forms for composing renga of different types and different numbers of stanzas — I’ll throw some links down at the bottom of this in case you’re really interested.

For me, though, the really interesting thing about renga isn’t the form per se, it’s the way they’re composed and the way the stanzas link together. William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (from which I admit I have cribbed a lot of the preceding information), explain memorably:

“The point of renga writing is not to tell a story in a logical progression. Each stanza must move in some new direction, connected to the stanza just before it but usually not to earlier stanzas. When reading a renga we do not discover a narrative sequence, but zig-zag over the different imaginary landscapes of the poets’ minds, much as a spaceship coming out of polar orbit might flash now over ice and snow, now over teeming cities, now over green forests, ultimately to splash down into blue ocean. As readers we should enjoy the flow of sights, sounds, and insights as they tumble past.”

— Higginson and Harter, The Haiku Handbook, p. 192

Just as memorably, Jane Reichhold explains how to link renga stanzas and comments a little on what it actually feels like to engage in this dance of minds:

“[T]he important thing to watch is what happens BETWEEN the links. Think of each stanza as a springboard from which you are going to jump. As your mind leaps (and you think you know where the poem is going) you should be forced to make a somersault in order to land upright in the next link. It is the twist your mind makes between links that makes renga interesting.

Some leaps are close (as in the beginning and end of the poem) so the subject is moved only slightly ahead. In the middle of the poem renga whizzes can pirouette until your head spins — and that is just what is desired.

Take your partner by the hand. Start tapping your feet. Bow. And away you go.”

— Jane Reichhold, “Jump Start to Renga

I have to say that when I first started reading renga I was a little baffled — as Jane says, my head was spinning a little. Finding the connections between stanzas can be challenging, and understanding the point of a poem that whirls from subject to subject and thought to thought so quickly was difficult for my linear Western mind.

I didn’t really get it until I found “Omelet” — a renga written by Jane and Sue Stafford, this online version of which they have helpfully annotated so that you understand what was going on in the poet’s minds when they made their leaps between stanzas. Another great annotated example is “The Click of Mahjong Tiles,” written by six different authors. I also really like the example given in The Haiku Handbook, a renga by five authors called “Eleven Hours” that can be found on pages 202-206 of the 25th anniversary edition.

Once you start to get it, it’s exhilarating to watch the flashes of understanding and communication from mind to mind, from stanza to stanza: as I said, nothing like any English poetry, and as Jane says, more like a dance, or maybe a jazz band riffing.

These days, renga aren’t written so often as a party game, because how often do you have two or more capable haiku poets, with at least several hours to spare, at a party? But the Internet and its instant communication have made it much easier to write renga long-distance. Which brings me to my (highly shy and diffident) invitation —

anyone want to renga with me? Obvious disclaimer: I don’t have any actual idea how to do this, I’m just really interested in learning. I don’t care whether you have any renga experience or not. I just kind of want to see what it’s like to pass poetry back and forth with one or more other minds. (My experiment the other day writing haibun in collaboration with my friend Alex has whetted my appetite for this even more.)

Drop me a comment or an email if this sounds interesting to you, and we’ll see what we can do.

*

More information about renga/renku:

How to Renga (Jane Reichhold’s Aha! Poetry site) — information, instructions, forms for composing renga (Basho, kasen style)

Renku Home — a world of information, mostly by William J. Higginson

Renku Reckoner — John Carley’s site that has detailed instructions and forms for composing many different types of renku

4 Elements Renga — forms and instructions for composing renga based on the four elements

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*Some people call it renku. I am not equipped to comment on or settle the debate on this issue. Call it whatever you want. Renga, renku, let’s call the whole thing off.

June 15: 23-24: The Techniques of Using Puns and Word-Play

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

Jane:

The Technique of Using Puns

“Again we can only learn from the master punsters – the Japanese. … [W]e [English] haiku writers may not be so well-versed as the Japanese are in using these because there have been periods of Western literary history where this skill has been looked down upon.


a sign

at the fork in the road

‘fine dining’ ”

The Technique of Word-plays [Place Names]

“[The] work [of the Japanese] is made easier by so many of their place names either having double meaning or many of their words being homonyms (sounding the same). …  A steady look at many of our cities’ names could give new inspiration: Oak-land, Anchor Bay, Ox-ford, Cam-bridge and even our streets give us Meadowgate, First Street, and one I lived on – Ten Mile Cutoff.

moon set

now it’s right – how it fits

Half Moon Bay”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:
driving rain
windshield wipers
try to keep up

Fond du Lac:
my boat has sunk
and I don’t even know it yet

*

Once again I combined two techniques because the second seems to me obviously a special case of the first — puns based on place names.

I didn’t feel terribly inspired by this — not that I have anything against puns, I make groanworthy ones all the time, but I guess they need to come up naturally in the context of something for me, not be forced for an exercise.