Tanka? Okay, I Can Do That

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I check
to see what’s sprouted
we’re separated now
by the life span
of squash and cucumbers

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on the way
to see the apple blossoms —
I admire how
your story changes
with every streetlight

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(Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, 7:1, Spring 2011)

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Tanka. I keep mentioning tanka in what I know is this extremely skeptical tone of voice. I spent a long time trying not to think about them. I think I was having a hard enough time trying to understand haiku (not that that process is or ever will be over for me) and seeing these tanka things, which looked kind of like haiku but were the wrong length and sounded very different, confused me. And kind of annoyed me, too, because a lot of them (although not, by any means, as high a percentage as I used to think) are flowery and dreamy and romantic and … I’m not. Flowery, dreamy, romantic things usually just make me want to go balance my checkbook or something. Or throw up. (Yes, I am a fun date. Thanks for asking.)

So I was all grouchy about tanka and didn’t even want to learn anything about it, which is unusual for me because generally I want to learn everything about everything, and the sooner the better. I sneered at and winced about and cast aspersions on tanka … and then, at some point this winter, I started writing it. Still without having the slightest idea what it actually was. Don’t ask me what that was all about. I think I was just having one of those days where haiku seemed too short. You know those days. Where you’re like “Seventeen syllables? Max? Give me a break.”

I wrote a bunch of these things and eyed them warily, and then heaved a weary sigh and went crawling humbly around the web to find out what I had done. I was thrilled to find this essay about the origins of tanka by Jane Reichhold, because it’s very funny and made me feel like maybe I didn’t have to worry so much about tanka but could just enjoy it:

“From tanka’s long history – over 1300 years recorded in Japan — the most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers. Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji, the little poem expressing one’s feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return to his master.

Usually under some pressure – the writer had probably been either awake or engaged in strenuous activities all night – to write a verse that related, in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one’s feelings, and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again was not an easy task. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the personal messenger on his way with a note so written that he couldn’t know exactly what was what but that the beloved would understand and appreciate. Then the giggling servants would get back to work.

“…Looking at tanka history it seems that the only infallible way of writing great tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Do it now. But that doesn’t mean that it must be a behind-the-bushes affair in the no-tell motel. Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons; your own kids, grandkids or even – your mate, or just life itself. Whatever feels good and right for you.

Because of their original use as a way of privately expressing emotion and especially between friends and lovers unhappy because they are separated, the feelings expressed in traditional tanka were usually either longing for better time, more faithful lovers, younger years or grief because of old age, lack of lovers, or hard times. You get the picture. When reading a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.”

— Jane Reichhold,  “Tanka for the Memory

So that was my first tanka breakthrough. My second happened when I humbly sent a bunch of my lame tanka off to be edited by Aubrie Cox, who graciously refrained from telling me I had no idea what I was doing and with her magical touch lightly and deftly transformed the least lame of them into something that a tanka editor might not be too appalled to see appearing in his or her inbox. The two above are the first I had accepted for publication. It felt pretty weird, I have to tell you. “Wait — I’m not a tanka poet. Am I? Oh God. I guess I am. Can I go throw up now?”

I’ve gotten over it, though. For one thing, I’ve actually read a lot of tanka since then, and a lot of it I like a lot. Also, some of my best friends are wonderful tanka poets, so I’ve really had to force myself to examine my unwarranted prejudices. If you get this issue of Ribbons, for instance (which I highly recommend you do), you will find the following stupendous tanka by my buddy Margaret Dornaus of haiku-doodle gracing the back cover, and being wonderfully and lovingly dissected inside the journal by its editor, Dave Bacharach:

at Toad Suck
I contemplate syllables
and old ponds
like a child puddle-jumping
loudly through soft falling rain

— Margaret Dornaus

And right next to it you will find another stupendous tanka by Jeffrey Woodward (Haibun Today editor extraordinaire), which Bacharach has deliberately placed in counterpoint with Margaret’s:

sweet,
but with a slight tang,
the rejected
and twisted little
apples of Winesburg

— Jeffrey Woodward

Even I have to admit that there is nothing romantic, dreamy, etc. about either of these tanka, and that they are, in fact, quite brilliant and thought-provoking poems that just happen to be two lines longer than your typical haiku and to be attempting something rather different though not entirely unconnected. If you’re looking for a better explanation than I or probably anyone else but R.H. Blyth could provide of what exactly that something is, check out this essay by Don Wentworth over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, which gives us plenty of Blyth for our delectation.

For even more tanka information, Tanka Online and American Tanka are good places to look, and Charlotte Digregorio has recently written an essay on her blog that is a good, brief introduction to the subject. Besides Ribbons, the print journals Moonbathing, Eucalypt, and red lights publish tanka exclusively; bottle rockets publishes it among other Japanese verse forms, and so does the online journal Notes from the Gean. I’m probably forgetting someone. As I so often do. Feel free, as always, to tell me what I’m missing.

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[Note: If you subscribe to this blog, you are not imagining things. Another version of this essay appeared a few days ago. It was an accident — it wasn’t finished yet — and I promptly deleted it. Sorry about the confusion.]

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March 5: The 5-7-5 Project

So as you all know (right? right?) the Haiku Foundation is running a haiku contest right now called HaikuNow. The deadline is March 31 and you are all going to enter (waves Jedi hand). I’m planning on entering myself, and here is where my story for today starts.

There are three categories in the contest: Traditional, Contemporary, and Innovative. I want to enter all three categories, because hey, why not. It’s probably best to go to the site for the explanation of what all these categories consist of, but suffice it to say, probably the majority of haiku you see here (mine and other people’s) fall into the Contemporary category, a few into the Innovative category, and practically none into the Traditional category, because the Traditional category requires that the haiku be three lines, 5-7-5 syllables. Yes! Isn’t that cool and retro!

On seeing this in the rules, I thought, “Wow. 5-7-5. Can I even do that? I mean, you know, without sounding like an idiot?” Whenever I’ve tried writing 5-7-5 in the past , they’ve ended up stilted and wordy, and that’s usually what I think about most 5-7-5 efforts by other people as well. I don’t think 5-7-5 works well most of the time for English haiku, for whatever reason. Unnecessary words and unnatural syntax seem to be almost inevitable.

But I’m always up for a challenge. So I devised this little project for myself about a week ago to try to ensure that by March 31 I would have a 5-7-5 haiku whose guts I didn’t hate. I decided to write one every day. Okay, that doesn’t sound like much of a project. But I also decided to then rewrite it in the way that I would write it if I were addressing the subject in my usual haiku style (whatever that is — if you’ve figured it out please let me know because I don’t have a clue).

I’m hoping that this exercise will help me figure out, not just how to write 5-7-5 better, but also a few other things I’ve been wondering about haiku, like whether maybe most people (including me) are in fact writing them too short these days, and what kind of information and words it is necessary or optimal to have in haiku, and … I don’t know. Some other stuff I don’t remember right now. It’s been a long day.

So just for fun … here’s one of my attempts at 5-7-5 and Not 5-7-5. You’re welcome to join me in this project if you want, for the month or just for a day or two or whatever. Let me know what your thoughts are.

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three humpbacks breaching
three blue hills in the distance
that seem to rise, rise —

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whale watch
on shore
blue hills breach

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January 5 (Dirty Snow)

dirty snow
my neighbor’s
cigarette
smoke
drifting

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Two tanka in one week? What is this? Am I losing my knack for brevity?

Actually, as with the last one I wrote, this is plenty brief enough to be a haiku — twelve syllables. It just seems to work better as a five-liner, because of what it says and what it alludes to. I’m actually still not sure what to call things like this, haiku or tanka or gogyoghka or micropoems … but it probably doesn’t matter, except to obsessive-compulsive types like me.

December 15: The Past is a Different Country

There is always something new to learn about yourself, I’ve found — in particular, there are always things you’ve forgotten about yourself that when you remember them, or are reminded of them, you are astounded by. In my case, I was astounded the other day when, rummaging around in an old filing cabinet, I pulled out a small sheaf of paper torn from a 2003 page-a-day diary and discovered that apparently at least once before in my life — in the first week of 2003 — I attempted to write a haiku every day for a year.

I only made it a week, so I guess it’s not surprising that this venture didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I guess it’s also not surprising that all these haiku are 5-7-5 and that none of them are much good, although a few of them are not completely terrible either. What does surprise me is that when I started writing haiku (again) back in May, I honestly thought it was the first time I’d ever seriously considered taking up the form. I mean I knew I’d written the odd haiku in the past because that’s just the kind of odd thing I’m always doing, but I’d had no idea that I’d once spent an entire cold week fixated on them.

I’m glad I didn’t remember, in a way. If I had, I might have been discouraged — “Oh, haiku. Tried that once. Didn’t work out.” It just goes to show that you never know exactly what’s changed in you and in what way you might catch fire next.

I know you’re dying to read some of these. I’ve reproduced them below exactly as I wrote them, punctuation and capitalization and similes and incredibly embarrassing diction and all.

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January first
Christmas trees like bad habits
discarded at curbs

January cold:
even the seed pods shiver.
Hand me a sweater.

 

This winter landscape
everything is different
except the stone wall

Down by the duck pond
we trace letters in the snow:
“Please don’t feed the ducks.”

 

low sun in my eyes
I walk holding my head down
shy until spring comes

 

a fir tree sideways
beneath the lilac bush —
the corpse of Christmas

 

 

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(I also must share an entertaining piece of commentary from this notebook: “I really wanted to write a haiku about how the garbage men turn the garbage cans upside down after they collect the garbage, but it turns out that’s a really difficult thing to write a haiku about.”

I’m (pretty) sure that was meant to be deadpan humor …)

Pseudohaiku: Search strings

what dives
in the water
red as a cardinal

 

 

 

usual syllables
haiku
for venus

 

 

 

haiku monastery
seen because flowers
have gone

 

 

folding knives
and pockets
in france

 

 

 

antique geisha screenprint
missing
left hands

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It’s the end of a long, draining week. I thought we (at least we here in the U.S.) could all use some entertainment, and an opportunity to take ourselves not quite as seriously as usual.

So: The thing all these haiku have in common is that, clearly, they are not haiku. They are some of the eccentric search strings that have led people to this page from Google. I like to entertain myself by trying to imagine what was going through people’s minds when they entered these searches, and by what tortured logic the search engine directed them here in a vain attempt to fulfill their information needs.

I have a large collection of other search strings, most of which do not lend themselves so easily to being converted to pseudohaiku. Some of them are quite beautiful, though. Some are thought-provoking, probably in a way their author did not intend. Some I’m thinking of using as writing prompts in the future. (“Poems about bad wolves”? Yeah, I would read a poem about bad wolves.)

Here are a few of them. Enjoy. And take a few deep breaths this weekend.

the dragonfly land on you will they bite me or sting me

garden, fog, crescent moon, and stars

full moon and sleepless nights

haiku dragon shy rock

poems about bad wolves

why are the dragonflies red

why was the moon red last night

meaning of seeing a red dragonfly

“anxiety” “rustling leaves” “simile”

snowboarding villanelles

caterpillar incense cedar sphinx

October 3 (Changing winds): What should haiku look like?

changing winds — your frozen apples
slush beneath my feet

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I’m trying to decide why this seems so satisfying to me as two lines, rather than three or one, both of which I tried and rejected. And why I like it broken up after “apples” instead of “winds,” or for that matter “slush.”

I tend to be really inarticulate about these things and to have instinctive preferences rather than intellectualized ones. Which worries me sometimes, maybe because I irrationally think that if I could figure out some systematic theory of poetics to justify my seemingly random choices, haiku writing would become a simple matter of following a foolproof poetic recipe and I would begin constantly spouting brilliant ku and writing lengthy, brilliant essays about why they were so brilliant and all the world would admire me and give me some kind of catchy haiku-poet nickname, like Banana Leaf. (Which in case you didn’t know, is what Basho means — apparently there was a banana tree in front of his house. All I have in front of mine, in case you are already trying to come up with a good nickname, is a lilac bush in desperate need of pruning and a bunch of flower beds that I absolutely never weed because I can never figure out which things are weeds and which things are flowers, so basically at this point the weeds have won and the beds are weed beds, and I might as well start over from scratch and pull everything out and plant new flowers.)

Anyway. I’ve been thinking about this line thing a bit lately, in my inarticulate non-thinking kind of thinking way, if only because of an interesting passage in The Haiku Apprentice. Abigail Freedman is having a conversation with her Japanese haiku master, Momoko, about haiku structure. Momoko starts out by explaining the conventional structure of Japanese haiku, good old seventeen syllables, three sections of 5-7-5 — then acknowledges that even in Japanese not everyone thinks this structure is an essential requirement of haiku:

“Writing haiku where the first phrase is six sounds, or ji-amari, it turned out, was common. Some haiku broke more naturally into two phrases, of seven and ten or ten and seven sounds. These were referred to as ‘two phrases, one haiku.’ Other haiku read best as a single phrase, not broken up at all. These were called ‘one phrase, one haiku.’ ”

(Abigail Freedman, The Haiku Apprentice, p. 86)

I would have loved to see more discussion of this, or some examples, just so I could get a grasp on what to the Japanese mind constitutes a “natural” two-line or one-line ku. Not that it necessarily matters. I’m writing in English, I don’t know Japanese; even if every single Japanese haiku poet insisted that every haiku had to break naturally into three sections or it wasn’t a haiku, it wouldn’t mean that my English-language haiku had to follow their dictates.

Freedman says,

“I asked Momoko whether I ought to use a seventeen-syllable structure in haiku in English. She replied almost with indifference, Oh, in other languages, other rhythmic patterns might be more appropriate. … I said I had read haiku in English that were written all in one line, and other haiku written in two lines. She nodded and … simply stated, You should ask an English-language linguist or poet what form is best in English. The important point is to seek a natural rhythm in your language, and work your haiku from there.”

(Abigail Freedman, The Haiku Apprentice, p. 87)


To seek a natural rhythm in your language. This sounds so simple and sensible, but what is natural in English? The Japanese seem to have a very clear idea of what kinds of sound patterns are natural in their language — they’ve been writing poetry broken into sections of five and seven syllables for well over a thousand years now and they seem very happy with it.

I don’t know much about modern poetry trends in Japanese, if there is a strong movement like the prevailing English movement of free verse that doesn’t follow any particular prescribed pattern of rhythm or rhyme. Even if there is one, still, there is such a strong tradition of syllabic poetry in Japanese that the free-verse poets must have a clear idea of what it is they are not doing, which I sometimes think is what many English-language free verse poets are lacking. Are we not-writing iambic pentameter, which did dominate English poetry for some centuries and which some people think more closely approximates natural English speech rhythms than other kinds of verse? Are we not-writing sprung rhythm? Are we not-writing sing-songy rhyming couplets of the greeting-card variety?

And are haiku poets in English closer to free-verse poets, or to poets like Robert Frost who considered the constraints of meter vital to the creation of effective poetry? What is it we’re doing, exactly, when we write a haiku? If we’re not slavishly counting syllables — and most of us don’t think we are — and we’re not rhyming, and we’re not muttering “da-dum, da-dum” under our breaths, what the heck are we doing? Just kind of looking at what we write uncertainly, and going, “Well, that sounds okay to me”?

Some people get all antsy about having the middle line longer than the other two, or about having a certain number of beats in each line. I think there’s value in experimenting with doing those things and seeing if you can make them work and when. And maybe, as some people think, you should only call what you write a haiku when it conforms to some such rule or expectation; if all you’re doing is writing a nice little poem of no particular form, maybe it’s just a “micropoem” and you can forget about the Japanese entirely, because what do they have to do with anything?

I do think it’s possible that English-language haiku may never come fully into its own as a poetic form, because it is just too borrowed and we are too uncertain about what we’re doing with it to make it entirely ours. I go back and forth between thinking that we should just forget about the Japanese when we’re writing haiku, and thinking that we should look to them more — not for considerations of form, but for a certain kind of confidence in the possibilities of haiku for emotional and artistic expression, which I think that English haiku poets who worry excessively about form can be lacking.

I read so many haiku that seem so “haiku-ish,” so perfectly reflective of the theoretical haiku form and structure, that they are actually completely devoid of emotional resonance. I don’t believe them. I don’t care about them. And yes, I place most of my own ku in this category. (I mean, not that they’re technically perfect, but that I don’t believe them.) I need to delve down deeper and be less afraid of somehow “breaking” my haiku or not “doing it right.” What difference does it make if I do it right, if “it” isn’t worth doing in the first place? I think the Japanese are so comfortable with the form of haiku, which is so natural to them, that they are able to focus on the content, and it ends up being so much richer and riskier than ours.

So that’s where I’m trying to go now — in the direction of more risk. It’s possible that this is not remotely apparent from the blog. 🙂 That’s okay. It’s just a blog, I’m just learning, they’re just words. (That’s my mantra for the month: repeat as needed.)

July 22: 1-2: The Technique of Humor

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

Jane:

“This is the dangerous stuff … [b]ecause one has no way of judging another person’s tolerance for wisecracks, jokes, slurs, bathroom and bedroom references.… Very often the humor of a haiku comes from the honest reactions of humankind. Choose your terms carefully, add to your situation with appropriate leaps, and may the haiku gods smile on you.

dried prune faces
guests when they hear
we have only a privy”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

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Me:
Hmmm … okay, here’s the thing. My sense of humor tends toward the … obscurely satirical? Wait, is that just a synonym for “not funny”? Well, you can judge for yourself.

1.

For my first effort at humor I set out to write a haiku that would encompass as many stereotypes about Japan and haiku as possible in seventeen syllables (5-7-5, of course).

origami cranes
sipping tea on Mount Fuji —
white cherry blossoms

2.
For my second effort I felt like making fun of haiku poets. Yeah, all of us, cawing away, trying to impress our significance on the world …

Basho, Issa,
and the rest of us —
a convention of crows

Had enough yet? Can’t say I blame you. But come on, are they really any worse than Jane’s privy joke?

(And don’t forget my invitation!)

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.

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.

Innovators in English-language haiku: Gendai or not gendai…

Yesterday’s post on gendai haiku is now already my most popular post of all time, which kind of blows me away because I assumed a total of about three people would ever read it and at least two of them would hate it. This makes me think I should strike while the iron is hot and write my promised post on innovators in English-language haiku. Once again, try not to be put off by the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Yes, I’m a newcomer to the haiku world, a rank amateur, probably nothing more than a poseur, but no one, at least, can accuse me of a lack of enthusiasm, which you will just have to accept in place of expertise.

A good place to start, I think, would be with a comment Scott Metz posted on troutswirl quite recently in response to the essay of Richard Gilbert’s I mentioned in another post the other day: The Morning After: Haiku Faces a New Century. Be forewarned, these are some pretty polemical remarks (as remarks by poets go). If you are not entirely sold on the whole gendai/avant-garde haiku scene, try not to be offended by them but to take them in the spirit of sincere love for haiku and the English language with which I believe Scott offers them:

“…Japanese haiku are indeed, very much so, a word-based poetry, not the enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra so many continue to espouse and cling to. … [English language haiku] are … for the most part, still, ‘slavish imitations’ of translations of what westerners *think* Japanese haiku are. Creative oversimplifications, most of which lack internal energy/dynamics. creative misreadings are cool. but i think they’ve lost their virginal glow in this case. …

“One direction i find interesting for [English language haiku] is that of symbolism and literary allusions/references being used within them, either in a mythological way, or in a more canonically literary way. knowingly or unknowingly. …

“Japanese haiku, at their root, are not simply, or only, about images at all, or moments, or ‘real/true’ experiences … but about language and culture and literature: an intricately woven rug of all these elements. …

“What also strikes me … is how strangely satisfied those writing [English language haiku] are with their nature imagery. Considering how radical Basho and his followers were about always trying to do something new and fresh with kigo, it seems a shame, and kind of mortifying, that so many writing [English language haiku] don’t try to experiment more with nature/environmental imagery. To try to turn them on their heads. To twist them. Play with them. …

“I think folks writing [English language haiku] need to play more: with images, words and techniques. and that not just western poetry/poetics should be considered and sampled, but anything and everything we can get our hands on. which is why it’s exciting to see things like ‘kire’ and ‘ma’ and vampires and sufism and gendai popping up. what can we do with these things?”

— Scott Metz, comments on troutswirl

Well…I think I should let what Scott said stand as most of the commentary here, and dedicate my efforts to displaying haiku by sundry poets that I think meet at least some of his criteria for “playing” with the haiku form, doing something “new and fresh” instead of, in Scott’s immortal words, remaining content with the “enlightenment-‘moment’/zen-image-sketching-experience-based mantra.”

Whether we use the word “gendai” to refer to these poets or whether we should stick to some term more familiar to us in English like avant-garde, experimental, non-traditional, I think we can all agree that most of them are attempting something different than is espoused by the mainstream haiku movement in the English-speaking world, and closer to what gendai haiku poets in Japan are doing with the genre.

It seems logical to start with Scott himself. On his blog lakes and now wolves, Scott republishes those of his haiku that have been printed in journals. References to pop culture, politics, and current events are par for the course; so is a fresh (if sometimes somewhat obscure) use of language.  A couple of examples:

5/21/2010:

the milky way . . .
we start to discuss
Pac-Man strategies

4/17/2010:

walrus with its mouth wide open war statistics

— Scott Metz

The next obvious place to go would be Roadrunner, the haiku journal Scott edits in accordance with his preferred haiku aesthetics. Here are some examples from issue IX: 4:

second dawn the dream ghosts re-rehearsing

— John Barlow

A candle is a sweet machine

to fly across the crow-

shaped night

—  Grant Hackett

A couple of other journals frequently feature non-traditional haiku, such as Modern Haiku. Here are a couple of examples from the Autumn 2009 issue (vol. 40:3):

reading a poem
of urbane intelligence
how dead it is

— William M. Ramsey

O what the hell
haiku poet finally
kills the fly

— Le Wild


Here are some examples from the journal Notes From the Gean (vol. 2 issue 1, June 2010).


waiting
for something to happen —
The Evening Standard

— Ruth Holzer – USA

the echo of fireworksthe echo ofthe echo

not speaking the boiled egg clings to its shell

— Bob Lucky – Ethiopia

Richard Gilbert, the gendai haiku scholar I referred to extensively in my essay on that topic, also is a haiku poet himself, some of whose recent, innovative haiku appear on the website Word Riot:

dedicated to the moon

I rise

without a decent alibi


a drowning man

pulled into violet worlds

grasping hydrangea

(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 1, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: 2004, pp. 25-27.)

blood orange:

the curving radius

of sunset

(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 6, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: Summer, 2008.)

— Richard Gilbert

Fay Aoyagi is another poet doing innovative work with haiku. In my gendai haiku essay I mentioned her website Blue Willow Haiku World, on which she presents many of her English translations of Japanese gendai haiku. Her own haiku are described by David Lanoue, in his Modern Haiku essay, Something with Wings:
 Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape, as “avant-garde” and “new-style.” Following are a couple of Fay’s haiku with enlightening commentary by David from his essay:

pre-surgery dinner

tiny ocean

in the oyster shell

[Lanoue’s commentary on this haiku:]

“I believe that haiku is about discovery: the deeper the feeling of discovery, the better the haiku, in my opinion. In a great haiku we sense the poet finding out something in the process of composition, not reporting on a thing that has been previously mentally digested. When Aoyagi brings us with her to the table for her pre-surgery dinner, we suspect that she has no a priori idea that the journey will take us to a tiny ocean in an oyster shell. We arrive there with her, sharing the ‘ah!-moment’ of the vision and sensing its nonlinear, non-logical connection to the poet’s (and our) interior life. Thoughts of mortality, the fear of the surgeon’s knife, a vague feeling of dread and lament … so many emotions ebb and flow in the tiny ocean in the shell. The shell on the plate is itself a post-op carcass that on closer inspection becomes a gleaming continental shelf enclosing a tiny, salty sea. Aoyagi doesn’t say what she feels about her vision, whether it comforts or terrifies her; she invites us into the intimacy of the moment to contemplate for ourselves what it might mean.”


ants out of a hole —

when did I stop playing

the red toy piano?

[David’s general commentary on Fay’s technique:]

“Her decision to probe her inner life is not new in haiku tradition, though few do it as well or as interestingly. The contemporary Japanese poet Hasegawa Kai (whose work Aoyagi has translated) describes the shift from outer to inner focus within a haiku as a sort of kire or “cutting.” In a interview with Richard Gilbert, Hasegawa defines zengo no kire as “The cutting which cuts a haiku from this reality within which we live — from the literal place / environment / atmosphere (‘ba’) of literal existence.” Such cutting, according to Hasegawa, entails a shift of focus from outward scenes to the “realm of the mind” — exactly Fay Aoyagi’s method.”

— Fay Aoyagi/David Lanoue, Something with Wings:
 Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku of Inner Landscape

There are a number of haiku bloggers I’ve discovered (many of whom also publish in journals, but I know their work mainly through their blogs) who, consciously or unconsciously, play with the traditional Western haiku form with interesting results. For example, John Sandbach of Crystal Dragon says, “I am deeply enamoured of the modern haiku of Japan, which, like modern art, is of many styles and energies, and which is constantly recreating itself as it unfolds. Unfortunately, the West is still primarily focused on traditional haiku and has not yet tuned in to the wonders of modern Japanese experimental artisans of this form.” Below is one of his haiku sequences:

Lettuce’s Bliss: 5 Haiku

1

To die
in a hippo’s jaws —
the lettuce’s bliss

2

Remorseful
for tearing up a violet
so I ate it

3

On T.V. a spider
liquifies a frog —
spring in Kansas City

4

In spring
a stone mason —
servant of the endless wall

5

Skin
smooth and white —
the pyramid’s youth

— John Sandbach


Nicole Hyde of the blog “noodle,” who commented on my gendai haiku post, “I’ve bought a ticket on the Gendai Haiku train too,” has some interesting examples of nontraditional haiku on her site. Since she is also a painter, her haiku often refer to art.

English Bay Lune

unbound, the English

Bay in fog —

not seen: some weird duck


Art Tiny Poem

soundless

in the night museum

Wyeth’s boots


Prairie Town

prairie town

from end to end —

one haiku

— Nicole Hyde


Alan Segal, or “Old Pajamas,” from the blog “old pajamas: from the dirt hut,” innovates in many ways, often describing what are clearly imaginary or fantasy scenes.

mourner’s kaddish
does the fly, too,
wear a yamulke?

6/2/2010

unwrapping an impossibly blue bird, flown from a castle keep

— Alan Segal


Brian Pike of paiku describes his poetry as “Haiku. More or less.” In the Q&A for his site he explains:

But aren’t haiku meant to be exactly 17 syllables long?

You’re right. They’re also meant to include a seasonal reference (kigo) and a structural break (kireji). But I’ve never been good at following rules.

If your poems don’t meet the criteria for haiku, why confuse the issue?

I like haiku. I think these are similar in mood and intention. And I quite enjoy confusion.

A few of Brian’s “paiku” follow:

10 May 2010

Blackbird waiting
For idea of cat
To go away

21 March 2010

There’s a big field
Where you can dig up
Everything you ever lost

— Brian Pike


Yi Ching-Lin of the blog y writes primarily short free verse but occasionally writes haiku, and they are generally nontraditional, as in this recent example (the link on the second line connects to Yi’s photography):

it happens daily (6 June 2010)

it happens daily
with a wounded twist
— Yi Ching-Lin

Anne Lessing, the teenage writer of the blog “Phantasma,” who is just beginning to write haiku (and intends to start a project of writing haiku daily in January 2011), has produced some very interesting haiku about zombies based on the video game “Call of Duty,” one of which I’ve reproduced below:

6/4/2010

that flower looked so pretty

so I choked it

with my child’s blood

— Anne Lessing

Finally, Elissa of The Haiku Diary writes daily haiku describing events in her life, some of which are simply quotidian or jokelike, but many of which seem to transcend the category of mere diary-entry and evoke deeper feelings and meanings.

The second of the two haiku of Elissa’s I’ve quoted below is especially interesting in light of Scott Metz’s and Richard Gilbert’s discussions of the way haiku has always been in a dialogue with the past, constantly referring back to previous poetry and other literature and history. In a way this haiku of Elissa’s, referring as it does to a famous haiku of Basho’s (“The bee emerging/from deep within the peony/departs reluctantly”), is both modern and completely classical — so it seems like an appropriate place to bring this post to an end. Hope it was a fun ride.

Front and Center, June 8, 2010

Closing my eyes and

swaying with the music makes

me that girl, but so what?


I literally

watched a bumble bee stumble

out of a peony!

— Elissa of The Haiku Diary

Gendai haiku

Continuing in my time-honored tradition of writing lengthy, dull essays about things I know practically nothing about, I wanted to ramble on for a while about my recent explorations of gendai haiku. A plea: even if you are not interested in my sketchy research, uninformed opinions, or pretentious literary analysis, you should at least skim down to read what are some pretty cool haiku. (By other people, needless to say.)

The Japanese term “gendai” simply means “modern,” but in the context of haiku it seems to carry the connotation of something more like “avant-garde” or “experimental” in English. Scott Metz, who is a pretty avant-garde American haiku poet himself, explains its origins on his blog “lakes and now wolves”:

“… influenced by changes in culture, society, economics, art, and literature—globalization—many different schools and strands of haiku developed during the 20th century. … Starting with a foundation centered more on realism and experience, 20th century haiku immediately expanded into areas such as politics, subjectivity, the avant-garde, feminism, urbanism, surrealism, the imaginary, symbolism, individuality, and science fiction: in general, free-form and experimental aesthetics. … The rigid limitations and conservatism of traditional techniques (namely 5-7-5 on/syllabets and the necessity of a kigo) were no longer absolutes for Japanese poets.”

— Scott Metz, for ku by

I first encountered the term “gendai” in an essay by Peter Yovu on the website of The Haiku Foundation, troutswirl, where several compelling examples of the genre are cited, such as:

like squids

bank clerks are fluorescent

from the morning


—Kaneko Tōta (trans. Makoto Ueda)


in front of the scarlet mushroom

my comb slips off


—Yagi Mikajo
 (trans. by Richard Gilbert)


from the sight

of the man who was killed

we also vanished


—Murio Suzuki (trans. by Gendai Haiku Kyokai)

(All examples from Peter Yovu, What is Your Reponse to Gendai Haiku?)

These examples seemed so exciting to me, so much more interesting than the standard Zen-nature-moment haiku, which I confess I’m getting a little weary of, that I went straight off to gendaihaiku.com, a website by Richard Gilbert, one of the most influential Western scholars and proponents of gendai. It contains profiles of some of the masters of gendai haiku, videotaped interviews with them, and examples of their work. There I found stuff like this:

wheat –
realizing death as one color
gold

Uda Kiyoko

revolution

in the snowy kiosk

for sale        .?

Hoshinaga

–[Gilbert adds an explanatory note to this haiku:] … Kiosks filled with novel items began to appear in train stations throughout postwar Japan as the rail lines developed, and represented a new world, a new era of consumption and economic development. The resulting revolution spoken of here is domestic and cultural. A unique formal feature of this haiku is its last, fragmentary character na, which follows a question marker (ka), comma, and space, a uniquely creative contribution. Hovering between a statement of certainty and strong doubt (disbelief?), an indefinite solution is created by the orthography, causing this haiku to reflect back upon its topic, deepening the question.


cherry blossoms fall

—
you too must become

a hippo

Nenten Tsubouchi

water of spring
as water wetted
water, as is

Hasegawa Kai

–Hasegawa comments.
 Almost anything in this world can be wetted by water. However, the one thing that cannot be wetted in this way is water itself. Although water wets other things but cannot itself be wetted, I nonetheless intuit that the water of spring, uniquely, has a special quality in that it can be wetted — though it too is water.


There are clearly a lot of cultural and translation barriers to a non-Japanese fully understanding these poems — among other problems, I still don’t quite get why Tsubouchi wants me to be a hippo. But it struck me forcefully that these poets were clearly not interested in following the “rules” about haiku, particularly about haiku subject matter, that so many English haiku poets seem insistent on and fearful of breaking.

These poems aren’t about “haiku moments.” They have vivid and compelling images; but they’re allusive, elusive, experimental, full of large ideas — not just tiny moments of awareness. I say this not to cast aspersions on tiny moments of awareness, just to point out that in the culture where haiku developed, there is apparently a much broader conception of what constitutes a “real” haiku than in our own.

In an interview with Robert Wilson, Gilbert points out that gendai haiku poets are not breaking off decisively from the classical haiku tradition, that haiku has always been about referencing the past while making accommodation to the present:

“Gendai haiku partake of a tradition and culture in which, unlike that of the historical Judeo-Christian West, nature and culture were not extensively polarized. So in gendai haiku exists an invitation to the present and a future, in congruence with the past. This congruency is also an uprooting, accomplished via expansive and often experimental avant-garde language and techniques. Yet the old is likewise held in the new, in plying the form. The key to haiku, what makes it a brilliant literature, is that haiku cut through time and space …

“The gendai haiku tradition partakes of Bashō’s ‘world of mind,’ and like Bashō and other accomplished classical masters, extends a literary conversation. … [H]aiku are never merely singular works of art, they swim in an ocean of poetry, in which any given term (e.g. kigo or kidai) and image has multiple reference to over 1000 years of literary history (poems, historical events, personages, authors, myths, etc.). …”

— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert

I would add that haiku, in its several hundred years of existence, has undergone many changes in style and approach and has never been as limited in subject matter and structure as many Westerners seem to believe. A lot of what we now think of as “proper” haiku (the nature observation, the Zen moment of enlightenment) was a late-nineteenth-century development and actually, ironically, owed a lot to the realism of Western poetry, which was just beginning to be known in Japan at the time. Haruo Shirane, in his great essay Beyond the Haiku Moment, points out that early haiku were just as likely (or more so) to concern historical or literary or entirely imaginary subjects as the personal experience of the poet:

Basho traveled to explore the present, the contemporary world, to meet new poets, and to compose linked verse together. Equally important, travel was a means of entering into the past, of meeting the spirits of the dead, of experiencing what his poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced. In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems. …  Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti- traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.

— Haruo Shirane, Beyond the Haiku Moment

An interesting historical note about this movement is that gendai haiku poets underwent significant persecution at the hands of the Japanese government during World War II, as is chillingly explained in an article in the haiku journal “Roadrunner” (again, by Richard Gilbert):

“[B]y the 1920s … the ‘New Rising Haiku movement’ (shinkô haiku undô) wished to compose haiku on new subjects, and utilize techniques and topics related to contemporary social life. These poets frequently wrote haiku without kigo (muki-teki haiku), and explored non-traditional subjects, such as social inequity, utilizing avant‑garde styles including surrealism, etc. …

“During the war, over 40 New Rising Haiku poets were persecuted; they were imprisoned and tortured, and some died in prison. … [The director of a haiku society associated with the government stated:] ‘I will not allow haiku even from the most honorable person, from left-wing, or progressive, or anti-war, groups to exist. If such people are found in the haiku world, we had better persecute them, and they should be punished.’

“… According to the fascist-traditionalists, to write haiku without kigo meant anti-tradition, which in turn meant anti-Imperial order and high treason. …

“One sees that, historically, ‘freedom of expression’ in the gendai haiku movement was not an idle aesthetic notion. … The liberal, democratic spirit and freedom of expression exhibited by the New Rising Haiku poets remains at the core of gendai haiku.”

— Richard Gilbert, “Gendai Haiku Translations

In this same article Gilbert and Ito Yuki offer translations of some haiku by this generation of persecuted poets, all of which, naturally, are a little on the dark side — but exhibit the same freshness of approach as my previous examples:

clean kills: in a night war a canyon a crab
–
Hirahata Seito

the shriek of artillery
birds beasts fish shellfish
chilling dim

— 
Saito Sanki

leaving a withered tree
being shot as a withered tree
— 
Sugimura Seirinshi

machine gun
in the forehead
the killing flower blooms
— 
Saito Sanki

(Translations by Richard Gilbert and Ito Yuki, from Gendai Haiku Translations“)

If you’re starting to wonder if all gendai haiku are dark and depressing…fear not. A wonderful place to sample a wide variety of gendai haiku is Blue Willow Haiku World, the website of the fine Japanese-American haiku poet Fay Aoyagi, which features both her own haiku and that of modern Japanese haiku poets in her own translations. A few examples:

no hesitation

he comes and whispers

in a dancer’s ear

–Suju Takano

from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996

— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 9, 2010


azuki-bean jelly

I prefer a comic play

with a quiet plot

–Shuoshi Mizuhara

from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996

— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 7, 2010


bubbled water

it wets

an equation

— Keishu Ogawa

from “Gendai Haiku Hyakunin Nijukku” (“Modern Haiku: 20 Haiku per100 Poets”), edited by Kazuo Ibaraki, Kiyoko Uda, Nenten Tsubouchi, Kazuko Nishimura, You-shorin, Nagano, 2004

Fay’s Note:  “sôda-sui” (bubbled/carbonated water) is a summer kigo.

One can write a Japanese haiku without a subject word.   Most of time, the subject is “I,” the poet.   But this one, I am not sure.   I see two people (somehow, a male and female students) studying together.   It is a summer time.

Between them, cans (or glasses) of bubbled water…   But the translation can be

bubbled water

I wet

an equation

— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 6, 2010

So far I’ve been discussing this genre as a strictly Japanese phenomenon. But the inevitable question is: Are there “gendai haiku” in English?

Richard Gilbert responds:

“I’m not even sure [the term ‘gendai’] should be used for any haiku natively-written in English. For instance, I would not say so-and-so a haiku is ‘gendai’ as a matter of style, unless I meant it was similar in style to that of a known gendai poet of Japan … As of yet, we do not have a ‘gendai-like’ movement in English-language haiku poetry, though there are some poets writing innovative works. … It’s my thought that we can learn and appreciate, though innovate with autonomy.”

— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert

I’m planning to write a post soon about some English-language haiku poets who are innovating in what seem to me gendai-like ways — including Metz and Gilbert themselves. In the meantime, I’d welcome comments on these poems and this poetic phenomenon: How do you feel about haiku in this style? Do you think there is a similar movement in English? Should I just stick to haiku and leave the dry academic treatises to the experts? Let your opinion be known.

Haiku: An Introduction (Apologies to J.D. Salinger)

I’m willing to be that there are thousands of people who first found out about, or got enthusiastic about, haiku, and Japanese poetry in general, by reading J.D. Salinger’s short novel (long short story?) Seymour: An Introduction. This is particularly likely to be true of the type of precious, oversensitive, self-involved adolescent that, um, I was.

I was devoted to Salinger through most of my teenage years, not so much Catcher in the Rye (though I liked that too), but, in particular, the stories about the precocious, intellectual, spirituality-seeking Glass family. During the summer I was sixteen, I believe I read Franny and Zooey no less than six times. I would be tempted to be more critical of myself for this, except it may have been the only thing that kept me sane that summer. Somehow it helped to know that there were people out there (even fictional people) as precious, oversensitive, etc. as I was. (I have since learned that we are legion, but at the time I thought I was special.)

Anyway, if you’re not familiar with Seymour and the other Glasses, they are a family of seven children who were all child prodigies, though they appear only as adults in most of the stories about them — adults who rarely stop talking and never, ever stop thinking too much, mostly about themselves and their angst about the human condition and the nature of the universe. Seymour, the oldest, is also the most brilliant — which doesn’t work out all that well for him, but no spoilers here. (Go read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” if you’re curious about his fate.)

Seymour: An Introduction is basically an extended character sketch purporting to have been written by the next-youngest Glass sibling, Buddy, a writer and college English professor (probably to some extent a Salinger stand-in). He devotes about twenty pages of a 120-page novel to describing Seymour’s career as a poet — much of it, since Seymour’s main poetic inspiration was Chinese and Japanese poetry, discussing the special nature of haiku and other forms of Eastern verse.

This section, fortunately for our purposes, may be the most readable one in the novel. Rereading Seymour now for the first time in many years, I’m finding it, well, pretty precious itself — much more so even than Franny and Zooey, which I revisited last year, and orders of magnitude more than Nine Short Stories, several of which are modern masterpieces. I’m having to skim most of it, the self-indulgent endless paragraphs, the ecstatic but vague descriptions of Seymour’s genius, Buddy’s overly cute cultural analysis and self-appraisal. But a lot of the discussion of poetry made me slow down and start typing out passages to consider later. Salinger (Buddy?) is guilty to a certain extent, like so many other people, of romanticizing Asian culture, but is still very perceptive about how Asian poetry differs from much Western poetry:

“At their most effective, I believe, Chinese and Japanese classical verses are intelligible utterances that please or enlighten or enlarge the invited eavesdropper to within an inch of his life. They may be, and often are, fine for the ear particularly, but for the most part, I’d say that unless a Chinese or Japanese poet’s real forte is knowing a good persimmon or a good crab or a good mosquito bite on a good arm when he sees one, then no matter how long or unusual or fascinating his semantic or intellectual intestines may be, or how beguiling they sound when twanged, no one in the Mysterious East speaks seriously of him as a poet, if at all.” (pp. 118-119)

I can clearly remember reading and being impressed by the following passage as a teenager, and somehow getting the names Issa and Basho stuck in my head for the rest of my life, so that even though I read hardly any of their writing for the next twenty years, they still seemed like old friends when I came to take them up seriously:

“I don’t really believe there is a word, in any language — thank God — to describe the Chinese or Japanese poet’s choice of material. … The great Issa will joyfully advise us that there’s a fat-faced peony in the garden. (No more, no less. Whether we go to see his fat-faced peony for ourselves is another matter … he doesn’t police us.) The very mention of Issa’s name convinces me that the true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it. A fat-faced peony will not show itself to anyone but Issa — not to Buson, not to Shiki, not even to Basho.” (p. 121)

Seymour criticizes his early attempts at writing poetry modeled on Chinese and Japanese forms, in words that resonate with me and with, I think, many other Western poets who are trying to honor the original spirit of this form while making it our own and acknowledging the realities of modern life:

“[The poems] were too un-Western, too lotusy. He said he felt that they were faintly affronting. He hadn’t quite made up his mind where the affronting came in, but he felt at times that the poems read as though they’d been written by an ingrate, of sorts, someone who was turning his back … on his own environment and the people in it who were close to him. He said he ate his food out of our big refrigerators, drove our eight-cylinder American cars, unhesitatingly used our medicines when he was sick, and relied on the U.S. Army to protect his parents and sisters from Hitler’s Germany, and nothing, not one single thing in all his poems, reflected these realities.” (p. 124-25)

Eventually Seymour does succeed at melding his Eastern and Western poetic influences, and Salinger/Buddy describes the results in what must be one of the most detailed descriptions ever written of a wholly imaginary verse form (at least I’m assuming it’s wholly imaginary, maybe somewhere in Salinger’s filing cabinet there are notebooks filled with poems like this):

“… Seymour probably loved the classical Japanese three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku as he loved no other form of poetry, and … he himself wrote — bled — haiku. … It could be said … that a late-period poem of Seymour’s looks substantially like an English translation of a sort of double haiku … a six-line verse, of no certain accent but usually more iambic than not, that, partly out of affection for dead Japanese masters and partly from his own natural bent, as a poet, for working inside attractive restricted areas, he has deliberately held down to thirty-four syllables, or twice the number of the classical haiku. … [E]ach of the poems is as unsonorous, as quiet, as he believed a poem should be, but there are intermittent short blasts of euphony … which have the effect on me personally of someone — surely no one completely sober — opening my door, blowing three or four or five unquestionably sweet and expert notes on a cornet into the room, then disappearing.” (p. 126-28)

For those of us who struggle with what kind of subject matter to bring to haiku — should we stick mostly to nature? how personal should we get? can we tell a story, make a joke, imagine things, or should we stick to personally experienced moments of Zen enlightenment? — it’s interesting to read about Seymour’s choice of subject matter, though they frankly remind me more than anything of possible plot summaries for Salinger’s next several short stories:

“The next-to-last poem is about a young married woman and mother who is plainly having what it refers to here in my old marriage manual as an extramarital love affair. … She comes home very late from a tryst — in my mind, bleary and lipstick-smeared — to find a balloon on her bedspread. Someone has simply left it there. The poet doesn’t say, but it can’t be anything but a large, inflated toy balloon, probably green, like Central Park in spring. The other poem … is about a young suburban widower who sits down on his patch of lawn one night, implicitly in his pajamas and robe, to look at the full moon. A bored white cat … comes up to him and rolls over, and he lets her bite his left hand as he looks at the moon.” (p. 128-29)

I can see now how much these long-forgotten passages have influenced my lifelong attitude toward haiku — although, as I’ve mentioned before, I hadn’t given an excessive amount of thought to the form before last month. There’s the idea that haiku can be made your own; you don’t have to be a slave to tradition. There’s the idea that poets should have a unique voice and should strive to see and write about the things that only they can see. There’s the idea that haiku are about revealing the world as it is, communicating some experience of authentic perception. There’s the idea that haiku should ring some kind of bell in the mind of the reader. There’s the idea that a wide variety of subject matter and to some extent form is possible in writing haiku; that perception and authenticity matter more than syllable counts or traditional topics.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else for whom reading Seymour was a formative experience in their haiku-writing career. Or, for that matter, from those for whom it wasn’t. What do you think of these passages — do they enlarge or confirm your understanding of haiku, or do you find them banal and twee? Would you rather gnaw your leg off than ever read another word of Salinger, or do you have a shrine to Franny and Zooey set up somewhere in the hidden recesses of your heart? (Or both?)

Oh please/ like THIS/ is a haiku? (May 24: 1-12)

So the last few days got kind of heavy and I was starting to feel like I never wanted to see another haiku as long as I lived. Instant panic: I can’t be burning out already! Something must be done!

Well…what is the best thing to do when you start taking yourself way, way too seriously? Start acting incredibly silly, of course. Stand on your head. Do a funny dance. Write bad haiku.

Okay, maybe not bad, exactly. But…weird. Different. Not…haiku-like.

Oh! That reminds me of this thing I bookmarked the other day and vowed to come back to when I got a minute!

” ‘Haiku-like haiku aren’t particularly bad. But haiku that don’t seem haiku-like at all—nowadays that’s the kind I’m after.’

—Santoka (trans. Burton Watson)

“…The relatively narrow (and necessarily hybrid) basis of the tradition of haiku in English, with its emphasis on the here and now, can only take us so far; thus many published haiku seem ‘thin.’ Perhaps what’s needed is less striving to perfect the ‘same,’ more writing against the grain.”

–Philip Rowland,  The Problem

Yeah, Philip (and Santoka), I know what you mean. Read and write enough haiku, and eventually even the good ones start seeming like parodies of themselves. All that nature! All those tiny exquisite details! All those lower-case letters! All that lack of punctuation! All those moments of enlightenment!

What if for one day I tossed out all those precious little haiku rules (as represented in italics below), and tried to write haiku that seemed un-haiku-like, and yet somehow preserved the spirit of haiku (whatever the hell that is)?

I think it would make me feel better. Though it might make you feel worse.

*

“Use concrete images.” And, “Don’t make direct references to emotion.” (You know, “Show, don’t tell.”) Also, “Slang is so unattractive.”


1.

Yeah,
I’m sad.
Also happy.

*

“Three lines (or even one) are nicer than two. Or four. Five is right out.” Also, “Metaphors are kind of tacky.” Also, “Cliches? Don’t even get me started.”


2.
This cup of tea
isn’t everyone’s.

3.
Where I left the
balloon I bought
for your birthday:
On cloud nine

4.
Swimming
against the current:
Fish
passes me
like I’m standing still

*

“Don’t shout.” Also, “Don’t swear.”


5.

WHAT THE HELL
IS A FROG
DOING IN THAT TREE?

*

“If seventeenth-century technology was good enough for Basho, it’s good enough for us.” Also, “Write in the present tense. Not the past. Or the future.”


6.

My email vanished
before I hit “Send.”
Will Facebook reject me too?

*

“Please don’t be vulgar.” Also, metaphors, cliches, yadda yadda yadda.


7.

No pot to piss in
when I need to piss.
Which I do.

8.

My nose
in your armpit:
your long walk.

*

“Try to make at least a little bit of sense.” Also, “Minimize your syllables.”


9.

Sticky tape, sticky buns
Fine reticulations of burnt toast
Mud sponging over black shoes

10.

where it (oh who am I kidding anyway)
stopped (my stomach is growling, when did I have lunch)
Haiku (there is as much in the future as there is in the past)

*

Rhyme should be used judiciously. If at all.”’


11.

In bed tonight
I know you’re right.
Just turn out the light.

*

“No entitlements.”


12.

The Box

I opened it up.
There you were,
turned into packing peanuts.




Rhyme time

The other day I came across a funny (but serious) essay on the subject of rhyme in haiku, with some general discussion of what exactly makes a haiku a haiku: “Can a Haiku Rhyme?“, by Chuck from “Unbecoming Levity.” Chuck’s friend Brian doesn’t like rhyme in haiku, but Chuck (in company with most haiku authorities, if that’s not an oxymoron) doesn’t see why it shouldn’t be allowed:

There’s a reason why Frost chose to say “But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep.” instead of “But I’ve got obligations / And a long way to go before I hit the sack.”

I hadn’t thought much about this subject before, which is interesting because unlike some contemporary poets (and like Chuck), I don’t object to rhyme in poetry. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I have a slight free-verse fear which I can usually only manage to overcome by introducing some element of unfreedom — either meter or rhyme, however loosely construed. (I sometimes express this as, “I can’t decide what word to put here, so I think I’ll pick the one that rhymes with the word at the end of the line before last.” There is a reason I’m not putting these poems up on this blog. Or any other.)

I don’t have these rhyming impulses when I write haiku, though, so I was interested to hear that at least some people do, sometimes. I went looking for more information on the subject, starting with one of the sources Chuck cites: “Rhyming Haiku“, by Charles Trumbull. This is a much dryer consideration of the subject, but it has a lot of nice examples of rhyming haiku, including a comparison of several translations of a Basho haiku with the (I think correct) conclusion that the rhyming translation is the best one:

So still…
into the rocks it pierces
the cicada-shrill
(Basho, translated by Harold Henderson)

Then I remembered that Alexey Andreyev had something to say about rhyming haiku in his essay — not surprising, since modern Russian poetry is much more likely than modern English poetry to rhyme:

Some modern poets tend to claim that rhymes (pace, alliteration, etc.) are “unnatural.” I consider such people immature and LAZY*; and usually I reply that correct spelling is also “unnatural,” not even talking about writing “from left-to-right” which is “unnatural” not only for left-handed people and Arabs but also for the very haiku inventors, ancient Japanese, who wrote their texts “from-top-to-bottom”!

So, my point is that poetry is honest with a fluent language; good eyesight plus a good-working tongue. Thus, if you have keen eyes — fine! If you also speak “the higher language” where rhymes appear as naturally and fluently as correct spelling — it won’t make any harm but only some benefit; and rhymed haiku will be “haiku plus something,” not “haiku minus something”: …[Example:]

night rain–
some lights far away,
some drops on the pane
— Alexey Andreyev

I’ll finish with some thoughtful words from a great essay called “Haiku Rules” by Dr. Gabi Greve. In it Greve considers, and then reconsiders, numerous “rules” about haiku that have been proposed at one time or another. She has mixed feelings about rhyme in haiku:

>Do not use end rhyme.

End rhyme sometimes occurs in English and very often in Japanese haiku. The problem with end rhyme in English is that it has the tendency to ‘close down’ the ku, to finish it off when you really wish to keep the ku open and reverberating in the reader’s mind. Also, our poetry reading habits have conditioned us to grasp the rhyme and think we ‘have’ the poem. Haiku offer so much more, it is a shame to let the rhyme finish the poem.

>Do not use internal rhyme or repeated sounds for their own sake.

Why not? The Japanese do and did it all the time. In fact, they admire poems using this technique skillfully. Why deny the tool for us?

So there you have it. As with so much else in haiku: four poets, four opinions. What’s mine?

rhyme or
not-rhyme —
a moment in time

*Editorial comment: Check out Andreyev’s use of all-caps throughout his essay. It’s so heartfelt it kills me.

“there is no need to stuff it with more syllables”

Alexey Andreyev, a Russian poet, wrote a great essay several years ago called “The Definition of Haiku“. You should read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that I’ve spent a while thinking about the last few days.

“When poets write or translate haiku into their language they try to save haiku spirit, and somehow imitate the Japanese form (the length of the lines, the breaks) — but at the same time they take into account the common patterns of their own language so that it sounds natural. This way most of Russian translations of classic Japanese haiku have about 20 syllables; on the other hand, a haiku in English, according to W. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, is better when it’s about 12 syllables…[T]here is no need to stuff it with more syllables.”

I mentioned this 12-syllable thing the other day. 12 still seems pretty arbitrary to me, but I will agree that the haiku I really like usually seem to have significantly less than 17 syllables. 17 syllables — that’s a lot in English for one breath, one fleeting thought. When I revise my haiku it’s usually to pare the syllable count back to minimum. All those extraneous verbs, articles, pronouns! They seem embarrassing when I look at my first effort, the same way all those extraneous adverbs and adjectives embarrass me when I look at my rough drafts of my prose.

(One interesting tangent on this subject is that I was a Russian major in college, and Russian famously has no articles at all, doesn’t have the verb “to be” in the present tense, and can often do without pronouns due to its heavily inflected verb forms. True, it has a lot of long words — maybe this accounts for their feeling that they need 20 syllables to do a good haiku — but in other ways it’s a pretty minimalist sort of language. I found that studying Russian was a good thing for my English prose style — you quickly learn how few words are really necessary to say what you want.)

Another quote:

“Every haiku is a sort of little picture, an interesting image. Two main ideas about these images:

A) They come from direct experience; certain bright moments of life you managed to catch with your ‘internal camera’: wonders, strange coincidences, funny situations, sceneries that resonate with your current ‘soul state’ or even change, shock you suddenly, giving you a moment of sadness or another sensation YOU COULDN’T EVEN NAME.

B) This image, being written down, should evoke certain deep feelings in readers, too; this is really difficult — not only to present the experience in words but to do it in such a way that it could be effectively reflected in someone’s mind.

The art of haiku (as I see it) is a dance on the sharp blade between these (A) and (B): you can write about what you saw but it won’t grab your reader as you write merely ‘there are leaves on the tree’ — extreme (A); on the other hand, going to the extreme (B), you can make up a fancy abstract construction but it’ll be too far from the immediate perception; this artificial fake will be visible and will impress no one.”

This A/B distinction interests me, since I’ve been surfing around the Web the last few weeks reading other people’s haiku and have noticed that the ones I don’t really like (don’t worry, I’m not going to cite any examples) are usually too heavy on either the A or the B. Either they’re very concrete, just straightforward images that may be pretty but aren’t really connected to anything and don’t evoke any particular thought or emotion; or they’re very abstract, grandiose declarations about the poet’s state of mind or life philosophy or opinions about the universe. It’s the ones that connect — only connect! — the concrete and the abstract that I end up catching my breath over. I try to keep this connection in mind when I write haiku. Some days I’m more successful than others.

Andreyev again:

“Imagine yourself walking by the river and seeing an unfinished bridge: maybe, just a half of the bridge from one side to the middle of the river, or some pillars stuck in the bottom, or even ruins — an old cement block on one side and a similar one on the other. Anyway, there’s no bridge, no connection now, you can’t reach the other side of the river — yet you can finish the bridge in your mind and say exactly where it starts and ends. That is the way the unfinished links in haiku work…”

Well, this is an image I’ll be thinking about for a long time, that’s all I have to say. Writing haiku so that the bridge is imaginable but not actually there — that’s a goal I can get behind.

(By the way, I have discovered lots of Andreyev’s Russian haiku on the Web and want to try to translate some of them soon. They’re excellent — though interestingly, most of them seem to have not only fewer than 20 but fewer than 17 syllables. Apparently Andreyev is not defeated by the notorious polysyllabicism of the Russian language.)

1986

I wish you’d come see
the cat. She no longer sleeps
on the guest room bed.

This was published in my high school literary magazine, after they rejected (with actual incredulous laughter) the haiku I really liked, which I can no longer find. It featured an upturned teapot, but I can’t remember anything else about it. Just for the record, my English teacher liked it too. I feel I must say this defensively even twenty-four years after the fact. Note to self: raise this issue in next therapy session.

I remember being extremely preoccupied with counting 5-7-5 syllables when I wrote haiku in high school (and for some time beyond). Partly this was because schoolteachers tend to place a lot of emphasis on this “requirement” of haiku (I have a post about this coming up), partly it was because I had then (and still must combat now) a tendency to take rules and limits very, very seriously. I still like writing (informal) sonnets, villanelles, all sorts of poetic forms with set structures: genuine free verse seems worryingly infinite in possibility to me. If I do write free verse, I tend to place some kind of loose metrical constraints on it, just so my choice of words is narrower.

That’s pretty much where I am right now with poetry in general and haiku in particular — not tight, not loose. There are haiku “requirements” I find pleasing and like to work with: the “one-breath” idea; the idea of a “kigo” or seasonal word (but my interpretation of this is looser than the Japanese idea); the idea of a “kireji” or cutting word (but for me this means more like a word that is a hinge that holds the parts of the haiku together, or a strong, vivid word that focuses the haiku’s image); the Zen idea of a fleeting image, a glimpse, something that can be grasped all at once and doesn’t need to be analyzed. Not all my haiku have to have all these elements, but I find it helpful to keep these things in mind when I’m writing haiku, and to the extent that I’m successful in incorporating them into my haiku, the more successful I tend to feel the haiku is.

Of course, modern English haiku don’t have strict syllabic requirements, but sometimes I still like to count 5-7-5, or at least 17, just for fun, or as a challenge to myself. Though I read recently that 12 syllables is more like the ideal for an English haiku (what this is based on I have no idea), so I might play around with that for a while and see how it works.

And then again I might experiment with truly minimalist haiku: two or three words. The interesting thing about my attempting such brevity is that (as you can see from this commentary) my natural tendency is to write long. I think of haiku as a way to force myself to identify the heart of my message, to discard the extraneous verbiage that clutters my arguments and muddies my images.