April 10: 1-2: Books and libraries

wild nights —
Emily Dickinson asleep
on my nightstand

.

library hush
he reads my mind
a little

 

(NaHaiWriMo prompt: Books and libraries)

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Moving on: NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 11th

Really big things (it’s all relative, of course)

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See this post for an explanation of what this is.

See the NaHaiWriMo website.

See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)

 

July 2: Lost

I’m not in the mood to write haiku today.

Well, okay, I will probably write one, because I promised myself I would write one every day for a year. But I doubt it will be anything you will want to see.

I’m feeling a little pressed for time these days, and (as usual) very bad at managing it. I write long essays on this blog and respond to comments at ridiculous length while the to-do list keeps getting longer. The to-do list of important stuff. Stuff I’m getting graded on and paid for. (And yes, I am still Western enough to consider that stuff more important than stuff I just love to do.)

So here’s a Real Poem (as opposed to, you know, those fluffy little haiku things) I wrote a while back and did some half-hearted tinkering with recently. It needs something — probably a Real Poet to take it apart and put it back together again. But we do what we can.

*

I will write a poem
about the loss
of poetry.

What do we have instead of poetry?
Slick thoughts,
Puddling on the surface of our minds:
A seamless liquid spreading over the page.

Instead of —
A lithe sleeping animal curling its back in ecstasy,
Unfurling its claws one by one,
Spiking holes in our perception.

This is not what I meant to write,
And it is not
poetry.

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.

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

—–

*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 11: A story in eleven haiku and one photograph

Photo credit: James A. Otto

Through the screenless window comes
a bird.
I watch it disport itself.

The house fills with wings.
The hearts of birds beat
more rapidly than our own.

I inquire of Google
what to do.
The response is dissatisfying.

The Russian story of
the Firebird.
A keen, glittering eye.

Many versions
of roast chicken.
I choose the most savory.

Dancing, I lift up my skirts
for the bird to pass
under.

The oven is still hot.
I stand beside it,
flapping my arms.

I don’t dream anymore
I can fly.
I have scraped my mind of such stuff.

I trap the bird in the closet.
When you get home,
it will amaze you.

I am reciting famous poetry
silently.
I am petting the cats.

The cats are hot, they breathe
rapidly. Wait, I say,
you will be rewarded.

*

I was feeling a little claustrophobic yesterday. Haiku seemed too small. Even the most wonderful of them — just a blink! I had a novel-lover’s need for extended narrative.

But I do love the haiku form and the challenge of containing an entire experience, a full impression, in just a few syllables. Several things I’ve been thinking about lately began to come together in my mind, things I’m hoping to write more about in the next few days — gendai haiku, renga. Unconventional ways of writing haiku, and ways of linking them together to create a larger picture than a single haiku allows.

I wondered what would happen if you piled a bunch of nontraditional haiku on top of each other to form a narrative. I wanted each haiku to be able to make sense separately on its own, and also to form a part of a coherent story. This photograph I’ve been thinking about for a few days entered the mix; a bird began to fly around in my head.

Writing this was a lot of fun. I’ve begun a couple other similar narratives, and I want to try more. This kind of structure seems to work the way my mind works — I’m really only capable of brief bursts of attention, but I also hunger for depth of character, for details of setting, for continuity of action.

(A bird really did get into our house through a screenless window a few years ago; but the rest of this is fantasy. In case you were worried about its fate at the paws of the cats.)