the history book open
to the last page
.(NaHaiWriMo topic: History)
When I gave this prompt, I suspected it might cause a little angst for some people who saw it as overly abstract or intellectual for haiku. And in fact, one person (whom I respect enormously as a person and a poet) did wonder whether haiku on this topic weren’t “desk haiku,” haiku based more on ideas than images. I understand why people might feel that way — the word “history” sounds so abstract, so theoretical. It might seem as if I’m asking for a term paper instead of a poem.
But the classical haiku poets didn’t shy away from historical topics — perhaps the most famous example being Basho’s haiku written after his visit to the site of a famous historic battle:
summer grass …
those mighty warriors’
— Basho, translated by William H. Higginson
There’s also Buson’s deathbed verse:
Winter warbler —
long ago in Wang Wei’s
— Buson, translated by Robert Hass
I think maybe for some people history is a very textbook kind of thing; it doesn’t seem real to them, not in the same way that the events of their own daily life do. But as soon as these events happen — they pass into the realm of history. History isn’t all politics, philosophy, sociology — it’s the clothes people wore when you were a child, it’s the squat, homely horse Abe Lincoln rode to review the troops during the Civil War, it’s the birds that were singing right before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, it’s what your mother gave you for breakfast the morning JFK was shot. It’s the world, the whole concrete world of concrete details, the one that haiku poets cherish, only in the past.
This is how I responded on the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page when this prompt was called into question:
“Maybe I’m weird — history for me is about images a lot more than ideas, but then I tend to think in pictures a lot. For instance, when someone says ‘the battles of Lexington and Concord’ to me, I don’t start thinking about battle strategy or the philosophical underpinnings of the Revolution, I start thinking about the field in Concord where the battle was, which I’ve visited; there’s a great wooden bridge there and the grass is very green in the summer, and it’s not far from Walden Pond, where there’s a stone cairn in the woods on the site of Thoreau’s cabin…
the battle site
children run back and forth
across the bridge
the cries of swimmers
we add one more stone
to his grave”
Anyway: Moving on:
NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 19th
See this post for an explanation of what this is.
See the NaHaiWriMo website.
See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)