Reception, remembrances, readings

Highlights of last night’s festival events (which I was way too dead on my feet to post about last night):

The reception that opened the festival took place in Gayle Bull’s home, which is attached to the back of her store. It’s almost as full of books as the store.

I, unfortunately, am not the ideal person to report on reception-type events, because despite the impression you may get from this blog that I am the kind of person who never shuts up, I am actually paralyzingly shy in large crowds of people. Three at a time is about my maximum. Several dozen? None of whom I’ve ever met before? Most of whom seem to know each other? Not so much.

This is not to say that people weren’t friendly. Everyone I actually managed to meet and talk to was extremely welcoming and warm. Charlotte DiGregorio, the Midwest Regional Coordinator of the Haiku Society of America, with whom I corresponded earlier this summer about the conference, gave me some great tips about starting my own haiku group in Madison, and also some pointers about submitting my haiku to journals (which I have just recently, and very tentatively, started doing). Charlie Trumbull, a wonderful haiku poet and the venerable editor of what is probably the most prominent haiku journal in America, Modern Haiku, was kind enough to endure the gushing admiration of a newbie haikuist without throwing up.

(There was also really good chocolate at the reception, including one designed for the conference (by whom? must find out) called “Haiku.” It was in the shape of a leaf and was spicy and why didn’t I get a picture of it?)

During the reception Charlie was running around handing out sheets of haiku by Robert Spiess, the late editor of Modern Haiku whom the conference was commemorating. Everyone was meant to pick two from their sheet to read in the next phase of the evening …

We moved outside to take over the microphone of the singer-guitarist who had been quietly playing country and soft-rock standards all evening in order to present remembrances of Bob Spiess. I knew pretty much nothing about Bob at the start of the evening but by the end I almost felt I’d known him personally. Everyone emphasized his kindness and generosity, including Gayle’s two daughters who remembered his frequent visits to their home and the way he doled out quarters to them (at a time when a quarter would have been a much bigger deal to a kid than it is now).

Possibly the funniest story involved the time Bob visited Japan and was riding the bullet train with some other haikuists, and was very eager to see Mount Fuji. Then he had to use the restroom. The other poets watched in dismay as Mount Fuji flashed by while he was gone. He got a haiku out of it though, a very funny one which I am going to track down and add here.

Several people read Bob’s thoughts about what haiku is or should be. Lee Gurga, another amazing haiku poet who is Bob’s literary executor and took over the editorship of Modern Haiku after his death, read Bob’s list of what annoyed him in haiku, a lot of which are the same things that annoy me in haiku, including the overuse of words like “suddenly” and “silence.”

Someone else read an observation of Bob’s which really struck me (maybe because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately myself): “Haiku is the poetry of the healing of culture by nature.” Bob’s poetry is definitely heavy on nature imagery, which I have recently disparaged, but it feels very natural in his poetry because he has clearly spent a lot of time observing and thinking about it:

around the bend
a log lying in the stream
— the turtle’s ears

Not that he doesn’t closely observe human beings too:

some sticks and pebbles
and a place with mud
a child by himself

a high mountain path
the guide saying that monkey
tastes better than goat

He wrote a whole series of haiku, in fact — Tall River Junction, inspired, obviously, by Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology — with titles that were people’s names:


Fr. Augustine Confesso, Paris Priest
Smiles, “The pear you eat,
snitched from the tree, my neighbor boy,
be it doubly sweet.

This last poem illustrates something that I found interesting about Spiess’s haiku, which is how often it employs rhyme — and how well the rhyme works:

drifting in the skiff …
names of all the swallows now:
tree and barn and cliff

The rhyme almost always follows this pattern of the first and third line rhyming.

One of the most touching moments of the evening occurred during the reading of Spiess’s haiku. A Korean woman with a strong accent stood up and announced she was going to read only the shortest poem on her sheet because she knew her accent would be difficult for us to understand:

firefly
wakens
me

Then she added: “I have the pleasure to know Bob Spiess and he was the pure kindness.”

We had a brief break before the next phase of the evening, which was readings from our own (or others’, if we preferred) haiku. Many poets seemed to take this opportunity to further lubricate themselves with the local beer and wine that was for sale. (I don’t drink, not because I have any moral or health objections to alcohol or am a recovering alcoholic or anything, just because I have never acquired a grownup taste for the stuff. Or for coffee, for that matter. Or liver and onions. All equally disgusting as far as I’m concerned.)

Anyway, by the time the readings began, the poets were becoming kind of rowdy. Rowdy haiku poets. Heckling each other. It was quite a scene. Lots of the haiku involved double entendres or just subtle (or frank) references to sex, which all got great reactions.

Most of the haiku that were read were frankly wonderful; I wrote lots of them down thinking I would post some of them here and then realized I really can’t do that without the permission of the authors. If I can get that, I may put some up later.

Lee Gurga read a great haiku by Peter Yovu, and some commentary about it (some of which is reproduced in the link above), and announced he’d give everything he’d ever written to have written it. Everyone was familiar with the ku before he even read it, except, of course, me. But now I am and I also love it.

I really liked the Korean guy who got up and told us about the article he’d just written about how the origins of haiku were in Korea. I believe it’s traditional for the Japanese and Koreans to argue about who invented pretty much every cultural phenomenon they share, so that was entertaining.

I chose to read my “Full Moon” sequence, although, as I announced beforehand, this was completely inappropriate because we are at or near a new moon right now. This was politely, though not wildly enthusiastically, received. We all have to start somewhere.

Which reminds me that I never actually posted a new haiku yesterday. But I did write one! I swear!

new moon
haiku poets can’t forget
when it was full

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.




What is a haiku anyway?

So: I’m done with my term paper. My prose style spent weeks marinating in the foul brew of obfuscation and verbosity that generally characterizes academic writing, and was kept from being permanently pickled only by the judicious application of haiku. I’m hoping there is no lingering stench. (Like the sentence before last.)

One possible ill effect of my academic excursion may be my continuing pedantic worrying at the notion of finding a good definition of haiku. The problem here is not that there are no good definitions out there. The problem is that there are way too many good definitions, and no two of them are the same. So I’ve started a collection of them, to display on my mantelpiece. Care for a peek?

+

We should probably start with the definition given by the Haiku Society of America, if only because their name sounds so authoritative. Who should know what a haiku is if not a Haiku Society? They have bylaws and everything!

(If you’re wondering about the “America” part — hey, aren’t haiku Japanese? — I should point out that my quest here is for a definition of haiku as they are written in English. Japanese haiku are much better defined, but as I’ve mentioned before, much of the definition depends on language and cultural elements that don’t translate to English.)

Like all of us, the Haiku Society have changed their mind about some things over the years, and one of those things is what, exactly, a haiku is. In 1973, they defined “haiku” this way:

“a poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature. Usually a haiku in English is written in three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables.”

These days, however, the Society places less emphasis on the syllable count, more emphasis on the nature/seasonal part:

“A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”

Okay…seems like a good start. But kind of vague and dry, really. Hard to really imagine what they’re talking about. How about some Jack Kerouac to counteract the academic effect?

“The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.”

Much better. Makes me feel like I’m bursting to pop, in fact, and must start writing haiku immediately. Thanks, Jack!

Refreshed now and ready to consider something a little more academic again? Haruo Shirane, in his amazing, haiku-myth-debunking essay “Beyond the Haiku Moment” (about which I have much more to say in another post) considers the history of Japanese haiku, the origins of haiku in English, and the current state of English haiku writing, and concludes, somewhat in the same vein as the Haiku Society but, to me, more completely and inspirationally:

“I would say, echoing the spirit of Basho’s own poetry, that haiku in English is a short poem, usually written in one to three lines, that seeks out new and revealing perspectives on the human and physical condition, focusing on the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature, and on the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history.”

That’s a great description of what haiku is about, but what about the technicalities of the form? Gabi Greve devotes a whole page to haiku definitions on her blog Haiku Topics — but my favorite is her own description, which she puts in the form of a poem:

“The simple definition of
three short lines,
one season word and
a cut marker
and
write from personal experience …
this is where everyone should begin.”

(N.B.: If you’re confused by some of the terms Gabi uses, I have essays in me about the Japanese notions of the season word (kigo) and cut marker (kireji) — watch this space for them. Also, Haruo Shirane (above) has some tart things to say about the idea of writing only from personal experience. You can read his essay yourself, or I’ll share later.)

I’ve mentioned before one of my all-time favorite haiku definitions, the bare-bones one offered by David G. Lanoue:

“Haiku: a one-breath poem that discovers connection.”

David actually has a lot more to say about what haiku are all about, but his elaboration is as clear and incisive (and decisive) as his initial statement:

“Haiku in English usually appears as an unrhymed three-line verse. Its use of intense, fragmentary imagery and its stress on rhythm and sound place it in the poetry side of the language spectrum. … Though it can be presented on the page in three lines, a traditional Japanese haiku of Issa’s era structurally consists of two parts with a pause in between. Its power as poetry often derives from juxtaposition of the two images and the sense of surprise or revelation that the second image produces. A good haiku is like a good joke: the set-up (image 1), then the punch line (image 2).”

That emphasis on juxtaposition in haiku is key for me. I’m always trying to create that effect of “surprise or revelation,” trying both to see something I’ve never seen before in some fairly common sight, and to convey that vision to the reader. For me, if haiku doesn’t startle you into awareness at least a little, it hasn’t really done its job.

But in case you were thinking I would insist on all my readers agreeing with me, I’ll let Jane Reichhold (the subject of another upcoming essay) have the final word:

I am bothered by the several times it is asked, “Is this a haiku?” I think the better question is, “Do I want to accept this poem as an example of haiku for myself?” … The necessity of our asking ourselves this question becomes weightier when we each realize that we are responsible for what haiku IS; and what it is becoming. By our writing, we are defining the form. By our changes in the form it is being changed. If the style of current haiku seems to be going in a direction which is not compatible with yours, then you have an even greater load of responsibility to make sure people see the finest work you can do in your style.

Okay, I get it, Jane. I’ll let the whole definition thing rest and get back to work. I have 345 days to go, after all…

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.