Across the Haikuverse, No. 30: All Fall Down

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The flowers are hardening, tightening up. You look at them expecting to see their familiar open faces, warm-hearted smiles, but they look back at you stiffly, politely; the entire encounter is awkward. You avert your eyes, hurry by. Just last week you had a friendly conversation, they seemed to approve of you. Now you’re their son’s girlfriend from the other side of the tracks, the salesman who’s about to lose the sale, the kid no one wants to choose for their team. Cold. They’re cold. You can see the future, your future, and they’re not in it.

This whole side of the street–rust. That brick wall–crumbled. All the newspapers–faded. (And no one reads them anymore.)

You feel a pain you’ve never felt before and you know it’s just the first of many.

Andante, adagio, largo, decelerando, decelerando.

first frost
but the key still fits
in the lock

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In this (extremely belated) edition of the Haikuverse:

Autumn wind:
Everything I see
Is haiku.

— Takahama Kyoshi (tr. Geoffrey Bownas)

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this turning of the year (the light fades [slowly] ) to fall... (I'm learning to lean against) I guess there's nothing to stop it (an axis of absence)

— Johannes S. H. Bjerg, 3ournals & Frags 

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everyone waits / for the light to change... / little chestnut moon.

everyone waits
for the light to change–
little chestnut moon

— Angie Werren (haiku and image), feathers 

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You are gathered to go,
Strip-lining phone wires,
Faced to the south,
After all that’s been said,
I wish I was with you.

— Matt Morden, Morden Haiku

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dog days / the universe still / a thrown stick.

dog days
the universe still
a thrown stick

–Rick Daddario (haiku and artwork), 19 Planets 

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approaching autumn / in my pocket / a chain for the black dog.

approaching autumn
in my pocket
a chain for the black dog

–Johannes S. H. Bjerg, Scented Dust

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off
looking for paradise–
cicada husk

— Josh Hockensmith, No More Moon Poems

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my friends say leaf-fall
but I say apple-fall
dull-drubbing the grass

— Marie Marshall, Kvenna Rad

(See also: Marie’s “Fragment 200“)

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The casualty report,
made into a bag
for ripening an apple.

— Sanki Saito (1939), on R’r Blog

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taiheiyô nomikomeba aki futto kuru

when I swallow
the Pacific Ocean… unexpectedly
autumn

— Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World

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an octopus trap
in the pawn shop, still wet—
harvest moon

— Mark Harris, from Sea Bandits, edited by Aubrie Cox, downloadable from Yay Words!

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Scent of burning leaves
the four chambers
of my heart

— Patrick Sweeney, on Issa’s Untidy Hut

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invited to feel
the stubble on her legs
autumn rain

Shawn Lindsay, on ant ant ant ant ant’s blog

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This new venture looks interesting: Bones: Journal for New Haiku. Editors: Johannes S. H. Bjerg, Alan Summers, Sheila Windsor. They are poets whose work and taste I admire, and they have a manifesto that I like a lot. In part it reads: “Haiku that stands on the firm ground of tradition but has internalized it and is now written for today and the future.”

Fall is always a good time to start things, especially things that require a flow of brisk air to the brain. I hope this venture flourishes. I hope we all do. Have a gentle fall.

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Across the Haikuverse, No. 21: Mad Libs Edition

Dear _______,

In this edition of the ________ you will find many ________ and __________. My favorite is probably the ________ by __________. I hope you ________ this post. It took me a long time to ______ it and now I’m really ______.

This week I have been ______ing and _______ing. _________ are blooming in my yard. I saw ________ the other day for the first time in a while and got very _______. I spent about _______ hours watching them hoping I would be able to write a good _______ about them, but no luck so far.

Hope you’re having a good _______. I’ve been kind of ________ myself.

Always nice to ________ with you,

Melissa

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Haiku (Etc.) For You

It’s fascinating to me how in every edition of the Haikuverse the haiku seem to clump themselves into themes, with very few haiku left off by themselves. I don’t know if this is because haiku do tend to be written about a fairly narrow set of subjects, or because human beings are really good at seeing patterns where there aren’t necessarily any, or both, or what. But this time I’m starting off with four haiku about various insects and ending with three haiku about debris, gravel, and pebbles. With rain and toys and lilacs holding down the fort in the middle, staunchly independent.

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larva and silkworm-
once upon a time
there was a girl

— Stella Pierides, Stella Pierides

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身のなかのまつ暗がりの蛍狩り   河原枇杷男
mi no naka no makkuragari no hotaru-gari

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pitch darkness
inside of me
my firefly hunt

— Biwao Kawahara, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
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what does the wasp
know about the blossoms —
windfall apples

— Polona Oblak, Crows & Daisies

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monkey cage
a butterfly drifts
in and out

— Laura Garrison, DailyHaiku

(Actually, I had a hard time picking just one from Laura’s seven haiku on DailyHaiku last week. It was an outstanding selection of original, thought-provoking haiku. If you don’t believe me, you can look for yourself.)

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toys my father
couldn’t fix . . .
summer rain

— Aubrie Cox, Yay words!

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scent of lilac –
one final breath
after another

— Paul Smith, Paper Moon

(Last week Paul celebrated acquiring the 100th follower on his blog. Really, he should have a lot more. Paper Moon is a must-read. Did you hear me? Must. Read. Go. Now.)

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Summer clouds,
how fast they build up
over fields of debris

— Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here

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yard gravel –
I build a demanding religion
from popsicle sticks

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havegrus –
jeg bygger en krævende religion
af ispinde

— Johannes S.H. Bjerg, 2 tongues . 2 tunger

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beneath me
pebbles congregate
expectantly

— Philip Damian-Grint, a handful of stones

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Cool Things You Can Do With Blogs: A List

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1. You can write haiku and post it. Then you can add two lines to the haiku and turn it into a tanka and post that too. That’s what Angie Werren is doing this month on feathers. (And I thought she couldn’t top last month.) More people should do this. It makes me happy.

summer pond
her body slipping
through the fog
I bookmark pages
with birthday photos

—Angie Werren, feathers

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2. You can take other people’s fantastic haiku and turn them into digital works of art and post them on your blog. Then you can ALSO post a link to a great essay about haiku that is connected in some way to the haiku you posted, as well as an excerpt from the essay that will tempt your readers to go read it right now. You can do this every day for a month and call this brilliant feature “Spliced In.” If you do this, you will be Gillena Cox and your blog will be Lunch Break and it will be July 2011. And you will be one of my favorite people.

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inte ett ljud hörs —
den nytjärade ekan
slukas av natten

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Without a sound
the fresh-tarred rowing-boat
slips into the dark

— Johan Bergstad, Sweden

(To get the full effect you must go see what Gillena has done with this.)

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3. You can write a series of brief, thoughtful, perceptive commentaries about individual haiku in simple, clear prose. This will make everyone happy, because there are not enough of these. From what I’ve seen so far, Jim (Sully) Sullivan’s new blog, haiku and commentary and tales, will be an excellent and much-needed addition to the Haikuverse. I’ve included a brief excerpt from one of his most interesting commentaries below.

soldier unfolding the scent of a letter

— Chad Lee Robinson

“A quick read and you think a soldier is unfolding a scented letter from a girl friend. … But on another level the haiku could be read as two distinct images.

soldier unfolding
the scent of a letter

… The beauty of this haiku is in the many interpretations.   And the one line format (monostich) enhances this ambiguity; it leaves no clues to image breaks.”

— Jim Sullivan, “Soldier unfolding

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Cool Things You Can Do With Websites: Another List

1. You can be Haiku Chronicles. I have written about them before but I should keep reminding you that there is a website devoted to podcasts about haiku. And if you have not listened to any of them, say while you’re chopping leeks a la Basho or staring at cobwebs deciding not to dust them a la Issa, then why are you wasting your time reading this when you could be doing that? Go. The latest installment is Anita Virgil (on whose haiku I have a massive crush) reading the fourth in her series of essays on the four great masters of haiku: Basho, Buson, Issa, and now … ladies and gentlemen … for your edification and entertainment … Shiki.
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2. You can be Bob Lucky. Okay, okay, most of us can’t be Bob Lucky, but at least we can go read Bob Lucky and the 25 tanka prose by other people that Bob Lucky (who is one of the most talented and, um, fun writers of haiku and tanka and haibun and tanka prose out there) lovingly selected for a special feature over at the website of the tanka journal Atlas Poetica. Not only are the tanka prose themselves more than worth reading, but Bob’s introductory essay on the selection and editing process is one of the most frank, funny things I’ve ever read on the subject.

“I never wanted to be an editor. I wanted to be a lumberjack. Not really, but there were days when working on this project I would wander from room to room, occasionally picking up a ukulele and singing momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be editors, while my mind wrestled with choices I had to make.”

— Bob Lucky, “TP or not TP, That is the Question

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Dead Tree News: Dead Tree Journals

What showed up in my mailbox the last couple of weeks and made me very happy. I may be a bit telegraphic here because it’s late and words are starting to fail me (or I’m starting to fail them). Just imagine I had something more profound and appreciative to say about both these publications, because I do, it’s just kind of trapped in a yawn at the moment.

Presence

Out of the U.K., glossy cover, haiku arranged thoughtfully by season (including a non-seasonal section). There are tanka and haibun too. And reviews. It’s good, you should get it.

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all the bones
scattered in the cave
imagining God

— Bob Lucky
[See? I told you.]

hand-thrown
another bowl for fruit
I’ll never taste

— Thomas Powell

last night of September
a tear darkens
the facial mud pack

— Maeve O’Sullivan

winter closing in…
I visit the simplest words
in the dictionary

— Philip Rowland

holiday snapshots —
all the years
I was invisible

— Johannes Bjerg

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red lights

A tanka journal, tall and thin and, naturally, red. Nice paper, nice print, pleasant to hold and look at and, oh, yes, read.

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summertime
a boy leans over
a riverbank
with a foot raised
over the world

— David Caruso

some nights
someone screamed
for us all
in the dark
down the hall

— Susan Marie LaVallee

a stranger
to the sound of my voice
on a recording;
are there other parts of me
that people know and I don’t?

— Adelaide Shaw

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Okay, back to ________. I still have to ________ that _________ about the ________, prepare my ________ for _________, and ________. Hope you have a great ________!

Blossoms (and Blossoms, and Blossoms, and Blossoms)

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ki no moto wa shiru mo namasu mo sakura kana

— Basho (1654-1694)
1690
Season: Spring
Kigo: Cherry blossoms

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Under the cherry-trees,
On soup, and fish-salad and all,
Flower-petals

— R.H. Blyth, 1950
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Under the trees
Soup, fish salad, and everywhere
Cherry blossoms.

— Makoto Ueda, 1970

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Under the cherry–
blossom soup,
blossom salad.

— Lucien Stryk, 1985

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From all these trees,
in the salads, the soup, everywhere,
cherry blossoms fall.

— Robert Hass, 1994

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I spent part of this semester completing a class assignment by developing a structure for a database of classical haiku, using XML and related markup tools. Don’t get too impressed. It’s pretty primitive. And at the moment it contains fourteen haiku. And I don’t have any real enthusiasm for spending the hundreds of hours that would be required to expand and refine it enough to make it at all useful.

But I do think it would be really, really cool if such a thing existed. As you can see from my example above, there’s the Japanese (romaji) version of the haiku, accompanied by numerous translations (love, love, love comparative translation), and information about the season and kigo associated with the haiku, which can easily be indexed using markup tools. I can’t even imagine how useful and fun that kind of database would be, if it had enough haiku in it.

But barring some really bored person coming along with a fondness for both haiku and data entry (do such people exist?), this dream will probably not come to fruition any time soon. But I felt like I had to get some kind of real-world satisfaction out of this project, so here’s one of Basho’s more delightful spring haiku for you to enjoy, in all its delightful versions. (I’m kind of fond of Lucien Stryk’s translation. You?)

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first apples
sniffing for the lost scent
of blossoms

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NaHaiWriMo, Week 4: On Being Weird

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

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Whew. I made it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across the Haikuverse, No. 12: The Imperative Mood Edition

I’m feeling a little bossy this week, maybe because I’ve spent so much of it being bossed around now that I’m back at school and work after my long winter break. “Read this! Write that! Discuss! Answer these questions! Learn this XML syntax! Go to this meeting! Hand in the proper forms! Scan these photos!” Yes, yes, I know it’s the way of the world. And of course, all these things I’m being commanded to do are tons of fun and highly educational. It’s for my own good, really. But it does get a bit wearying. And I start to think, “So why can’t I give people orders to do things that are entertaining and edifying?”

So as your tour guide this week I will be issuing firm commands rather than making quiet observations or gentle suggestions. Obviously, you’re always free to ignore me and wander away to find a cup of coffee and a slightly more soft-spoken guide. But try to just go with it, okay? Pretend you’re taking, I don’t know, Haiku 101, and if you don’t do your assignments, a door will be opened and a man-eating tiger will be released … no, wait, that’s a Monty Python skit. Well, whatever. Humor me, is all I’m saying. I’m tired.

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Read These

That is, the haiku (and tanka) I stumbled on this week that made me stop and go, “Wait…what? That was cool. Say it again!”

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From Morden Haiku:

winter rain
sometimes it’s hard to know
if it’s ending or beginning

— Matt Morden

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From Daily Haiku:

twilight
the silver statue of a man
i don’t know

— Dietmar Tauchner

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From scented dust:

biting an apple
the silent sky
of midwinter
— Johannes S.H. Bjerg

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Two tanka from jars of stars:

Who is to say
that the restlessness
will end

after I tear a few pages
and break a few things?

@sunilgivesup

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I love you
she’d said until
the words were hieroglyphs
faded, in need
of interpretation

@myearthgirl

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From Mann Library’s Daily Haiku:

monarch
folding and unfolding
its shadow

– Christopher Herold

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From Blue Willow Haiku World:

毛糸編はじまり妻の黙(もだ)はじまる            加藤楸邨

keito-ami hajimari tsuma no moda hajimaru

knitting starts
my wife’s silence
starts

— Shuson Kato, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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From The Outspoken Omphaloskeptic:

the past
lives
where lightning bugs flash

— Max Stites

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From Beachcombing for the Landlocked:

old obsessions
fall away, and yet …
pine needles

— Mark Holloway

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From Yay words!:

raspberry jam
grandma asks
if I’m still
doing that
poetry thing

— Aubrie Cox

A note about this one: As with all good poetry, you can easily understand and appreciate this piece without having any additional knowledge of the backstory. But in this case, the backstory happens to be really fun. And there is actually a long tradition in Japan of publishing haiku with explanatory commentary (according, anyway, to Abigail Freedman’s The Haiku Apprentice, a book I’ll talk about more in “Dead Tree News” today). I’ll let Aubrie do the explaining, since it’s her story:

 

“My grandmother has never understood much of anything I do. On several occasions when she asked what classes I was taking I’d say something like, ‘Haiku writing roundtable,’ being exceptionally vague. I’ve always been apprehensive about showing her anything, because I know she’d take everything at face value. A couple times she picked up one of the collections I’d made of my work and opened to a random page, only to grill me for answers as to what the micropoems meant. So when I published my first haiku:

confessional
alcohol breath
from his side of the grate
(bottle rockets #21)

I wrote a senryu that reflected how I thought she’d react:

first serial publication
grandma asks
when I started drinking
(bottle rockets #22)

“One day she said she had Googled me and found my haiku. For a moment, my brain just shut down. It’s not that I don’t love my grandmother, but I had a really hard time trying to think where to begin when she started asking what this and that meant. Even more so when she asked, ‘So how do you write a haiku?’ She noted on her own that all of them seemed to have two images, but couldn’t figure out the significance. Mum and I tried to explain it to her, but I felt hard pressed where to start. That was probably about a year (or more) ago.

“This last Friday, I went over to my grandparents’ to pick up some dishes my mother had left at Christmas. While handing me the dishes (saying there was a surprise for me inside), my grandmother asked about school. I glossed over my tanka and renga courses by calling them, ‘Writing classes.’ That’s when she asked, ‘So are you still doing that poetry thing… sudoku?’ Immediately, she caught herself when I started to crack up and I told her the word she was looking for. I told her yes and left it at that. When I got into the car, I peeked inside the bag to find a homemade jar of raspberry jam. And thus a kyoka was created.”

— Aubrie Cox

Me again: I think from now on whenever anyone asks me what kind of poetry I write I will say “sudoku” and see how many of them register any kind of confusion.

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Check It Out

The journals published recently, that is. First, Contemporary Haibun Online. This is one of my favorite places for haibun, always worth perusing for an hour or three. Most haibun are really too long to post here in their entirety (I mean, you already think this column is way too long, don’t you?), but my favorites in this issue by author’s last name were these: Baker, Coats, delValle, Felton, Harvey, Kessler, Lucky, Myers, Rohrig, Rowe.

Oh, okay, you talked me into it, I’ll just throw in one here because it’s really short.

Mindfulness

Nothing lasts. Closet doors, light bulbs, refrigerators, paint, jeans – they break, burn out, quit, fade, fray. Even the breath dies. In my fifth decade, I try to pay attention, but mostly, my lungs go unnoticed.

crescent
waxing moon disappears
in a wisp of cloud

— Deb Baker

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LYNX also published this week — you may have noticed. This is the journal edited by Jane and Werner Reichhold, and I am thrilled to be published by them since Jane was so instrumental in inspiring me to write haiku and helping me get started learning about it.

LYNX focuses on collaborative and linking forms of poetry, as well as sequences by individual poets, but it also publishes some stand-alone poems. I’ll start with some excerpts from the collaborations — although they are well worth reading in their entirety, again, they’re a little too long to post here. Consider this an amuse-bouche. (I had dinner at a fancy restaurant last night, can you tell?)

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From “Four Elements Cycle: Cleaved Wind” by Claudia Brefeld, Heike Gewi, and Walter Mathois:

Traffic jam
at the lilac bush
breathing deeply

— Heike Gewi

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From “Doors” by June Moreau and Giselle Maya:

the name
I was trying to remember
came to me
just as I put my hand
on the doorknob

— June Moreau

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From “Making Soup” by Alex Pieroni and Jane Reichhold:

only the best tea
is drunk
from an empty bowl

— Alex Pieroni

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And some verses from solo efforts:

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From the sequence “The Woods Road“:

the woods road
never going
to the end of it

— Jenny Ward Angyal

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And a couple of untitled tanka and haiku:

my mother and I
in fading summer light—
stand still, she says
adding a pin
to the jagged hem

— Lisa Alexander Baron

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first frost—
the last of the roses
have lost their names

— Alegria Imperial

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Be There

In the Chicago area, that is. So close to where I live! Charlotte DiGregorio, the Midwest Regional Coordinator of the Haiku Society of America, has announced a couple of fun events to take place there in the next few months. In all likelihood I will be at both of them. Come see me! Really. I’m not scary at all, except sometimes when I’m really tired and first I start bossing people around and then I cry. But I probably won’t be doing that at these events.

Here’s the scoop, from Charlotte’s press releases:

Jan. 12 event:

 

“You can learn to appreciate and write haiku in English from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.,  Saturday, Feb. 12 at the Winnetka Public Library, 768 Oak St., Winnetka. The program is free and open to the public. …Pre-registration is required.

“Three haiku poets will speak on topics for both beginning and experienced haikuists. …[The presentation ] ‘Learning The Fun Art of Haiku’ [will be given by] Charlotte Digregorio. The second presentation will be ‘Hey, Sparrow! The Poetry of Issa,’ given by poet Heather Jagman. … Haiku poet Michael Nickels-Wisdom will speak on ‘Beneath The Waterflower: Currents of Haiku in Lorine Niedecker’s Poetry.’ … After the presentations, participants may read some of their haiku to be critiqued by the group.

“For more information and to pre-register, contact Charlotte Digregorio, 847-881-2664.”

 

May 7 event: Haikufest

 

“Beginning and advanced poets will learn to appreciate, write, and enhance their haiku skills, from 1 to 5:30 p.m., Saturday, May 7 at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., Evanston, IL. The event with lecture, discussion, and exhibition of poetry and art, is free and open to the public. … [P]re-registration is required.

“The first presentation, [by diGregorio], ‘Haiku: A Path Leading to Conservation Thought,’ will integrate a lecture on haiku style, form, and history with a discussion of the underlying thought of reverence for nature. … ‘A Writing Life in Seventeen Syllables or Less,’ will follow, by award-winning Iowa poet Francine Banwarth. She will discuss what inspires her to write haiku, and her methods of writing with multi-layers of meaning. … Subsequently, Randy Brooks … will speak on ‘The Role of Kukai in The Haiku Tradition.’ … Preceding Haikufest, attendees may submit from three to five haiku by April 23 to Brooks at brooksbooks@sbcglobal.net. These haiku will be exhibited at Haikufest and judged. … The last presentation will be ‘Haiga: History and Technique.’ Poet and artist Lidia Rozmus  will  reveal the art of haiku accompanied by an ink painting. She will exhibit and discuss her work.

“For more information on Haikufest, and to pre-register, contact Charlotte Digregorio, 847-881-2664 or the Evanston Public Library, 847-448-8600.”

 

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Enter Here

Just a reminder … The Haiku Foundation‘s HaikuNow contest is still going on, deadline March 31st, and you want to enter because if you win you could get money for nothing and if you don’t, all you’ll be out is the three minutes of your time it will take to paste your best haiku into the submission form. Don’t be lame, enter.

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Listen Up…

… to this brand-new podcast from The Haiku Chronicles about (YES!) Issa! I don’t think I should really even have to say any more than that, unless this is the very first time you’ve read this blog, in which case you should click on the picture of the dragonfly off there to the right and get the scoop on my relationship with Issa. (We’re very close.)

This edition was written and read by legendary haiku poet Anita Virgil (it was originally published in the Red Moon Anthology in 1998 and is available at the Haiku Chronicles site as a PDF download). It is both scholarly and profoundly moving, in the details it reveals about Issa’s life and in Virgil’s response to his poetry. While deeply admiring of much of Issa’s work, Virgil feels that the extreme difficulty of Issa’s life (wicked stepmother; lifelong poverty; the early deaths of his wife and children) and the fact that he tended to use his writing as an emotional catharsis as often as an artistic outlet means that many of his haiku are either second-rate or can’t be properly considered haiku at all:

“Issa’s sheer volume speaks more of catharsis than of craftsmanship. Of the variety of Issa’s poems available to Western readers, it appears to me he wrote three very different kinds of poetry. Unfortunately, it is all presented under the umbrella of haiku. One kind manifests the aesthetic constraint which does belong to the special province of haiku. Another whose primary focus is clearly on human nature (whether treated humorously or not, containing so-called season words or not) is senryu. And the third which, no doubt, is responsible for Issa’s broad appeal as a vulnerable human being to whom all can relate, is a pure cri de coeur that cannot seriously be considered as haiku when characterized by unrestrained emotionalism, intellectualization, and a failure to stand alone without explanations. These run counter to Bashô’s advice: ‘But always leave your old Self behind, otherwise it will get between you and the object.’ Too often, Issa cannot.”

— Anita Virgil

I can’t say I really disagree with Virgil on these points — I am one of Issa’s biggest fans, and I too think that the vast majority of his 20,000 haiku are not really worth reading. But I guess I tend to think that the same is true of most poets. Maybe the effect is magnified with Issa, because he wrote so much and has had so much popular appeal, but really, poets tend to get judged by their greatest hits, and get forgiven (thank God) for the bulk of their work, which is usually not nearly to the same standard. Most of us aren’t “on” most of the time. Most of us, to one extent or another, use our poetry to help us work through what’s going on in our hearts and minds. Most of us probably feel, in retrospect, that the majority of our work would better not have seen the light of day. (Or is that just me?)

Still, this is an amazing listen and read and I highly recommend it.

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Think About It

Okay, here we are back at The Haiku Foundation again. This time for Essence #6, the latest installment of a column that “explores the roots of the ‘haiku movement’ in North America.” And, wow, is this amazing stuff: Carmen Sterba interviewing Canadian haiku poet Rod Willmot. I must humbly admit that I’d never heard of Willmot before but he appears to have lived a fascinating life and he certainly has plenty of fascinating things to say, some of which you may find controversial. I’m just going to quote a whole bunch of it and make you think about it. Discuss. Optional: Three to five page essay, properly cited, due next week.

“Let me emphasize that I never had any interest in things Japanese, that romantic enchantment that infects haiku circles across North America. Discovering haiku, for me, was like coming across an old tin can at a time of need. I need a drum—there’s my drum!  I need a scoop—there’s my scoop!  I need a knife, an amulet—there they are!  I’ve got no need for an old tin can from Japan, to be preserved and worshipped and imitated.

“The best readers know how to let themselves fall apart as if they knew nothing.

“Haiku takes the four dimensions (including time) and smashes them into a point; well, it may not always seem that way, but when it does, it can make you feel as if you’re trying to spend your life standing on one foot. This is when poets bust out of the box and start stringing haiku together, whether alone or with others, to create a kind of living-space. In the early days we didn’t need that, were incapable of it. We had to start by getting to the point. But gradually a need evolved that was not mere imitation of Japanese renga, but rather a sign of maturity: an insistence on taking the point and extending it, giving it context, connecting points and connecting poets. In this vein, I consider the haiku sequence to be an American invention, from the hand of Marlene Mountain.

“Canadians have always had a more individualistic, experience-based approach to haiku. Americans have a tendency to be dogmatic, traditionalist, rule-oriented. I first saw this when [Bill] Higginson came to Toronto in the late sixties, making himself out as an authority because he could read Japanese. Fast-forward to the bunk about season-words, and the proliferation of Japanese terminology in writing about haiku. I’m talking about the overall picture; the brightest lights in haiku have been American, but they are an infinitesimal minority, swamped and drowned out by the noisy religiosity of dead-tradition preachers. Unfortunately, the fog has drifted into Canada. The amount of publishing activity is incredible, but for quality and originality—will any of it be remembered?

black dog
snatches a tulip bulb
and tears off down the street

“This is my version of Blake’s ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright.’ It is the seething energy at the heart of existence, the source of everything, death as well as life. It’s the wild joy I live for. And looking over my work, I see something emerging in my haiku that gives me hope, what I think I’ll call a nexus of narrative. This is different from haiku as distillation, experience imploded to a point. A nexus of narrative is the intersecting shafts of multiple dimensions, not just the four of physical experience but our countless human dimensions and others besides. Narrative, because in each shaft you sense a ‘comes from,’ a ‘oes to,’ the possibility of an entire person, a story, a mystery. This gives me hope, knowing that where I am in life now, I can write haiku as a witness, seeing with all my eyes, attentive to haiku that do not implode, do not stand still, but extend in rich and unpredictable ways . . . the ways of this reality.”

— Rod Willmot

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Save the Trees. But Wait, Aren’t Books Printed on Pieces of Dead Tree? And Aren’t We Supposed to Revere Books? Oh, God, The Moral Conundrums of Modern Life Make Me Crazy.

I didn’t get around to reading any more of Donald Keene on the development of haikai this week, because I was too busy reading textbooks and stuff, but I do have some stuff from Abigail Freedman’s The Haiku Apprentice I’ve been meaning to discuss with you all for a while, so I will seize this opportunity to do so.

I’ve mentioned Freedman’s book several times before, but apparently not for a long time. This seems strange to me, because I’m constantly thinking about it and rereading parts of it and, you know, planning to write about it, but I guess I always get overwhelmed by how much I have to say. I need to stick to one topic at a time. And the topic that feels closest to my heart right now is what Freedman (or really her Japanese mentors in the art of haiku) have to say about making sure that haiku are “the vessel into which you pour your feelings.”

That phrase comes from Momoko Kuroda, Freedman’s haiku master, who critiques one of Freedman’s haiku about cooking noodles for a family dinner by pointing out, “It isn’t just the noodles, but what they evoked for you that is worth pointing out, in this case a feeling of family harmony.” She also refers to haiku as “a piece of one’s soul.” These things are clearly even more important to her than the technical details of writing haiku — the syllables, the kigo, the kireji — though she also takes these very seriously. For her, a haiku can meet all these technical requirements and be highly proficient, and still fail at the deepest level if it does not express something that is meaningful to the writer.

Another haiku poet friend of Freedman’s, whose haiku name is Traveling Man Tree, tells her that “if you write a haiku about your personal experience, it’s impossible to express the whole experience. So you have to think about what is the most deeply impressive part — the true essence of the thing or the event — and write about that.”

And later, yet another poet friend called Professor Kotani, in trying to decide why one of her haiku had been judged a failure by Momoko, finally realizes, “Perhaps I have put too much intellectual rumination into this poem. … It lacks the sensibility of a really good haiku.”

Various other people Freedman meets tell her about the experiences and, most importantly, feelings that led them to write some of their best haiku. They don’t talk about how they chose the kigo, or made the syllables come out right, or used the kireji to good effect. They talk about a profound emotional experience — love, loneliness, severe illness — and how a profound haiku grew out of it.

So. Here’s where I abandon my humorous, carefree air and admit that I have been feeling, for quite a while, that haiku have become too much of an intellectual exercise for me, something I was using to display verbal virtuosity (insofar as I possess such a thing, which is not very far) and superficial cleverness, rather than digging down inside me to get to the really good stuff that makes poems living things instead of dead artifacts. I really need to change that, both because I have a lot of other outlets for intellectual achievement and relatively few emotional outlets, and also because haiku means too much to me for me to treat it with so little respect.

There will probably be a few changes around here in the near future, is what I’m saying. In fact, one change that I am going to announce right now is that this column will be posted less frequently — it’s been every seven to ten days, and I’d like to make it fortnightly. (You know I just really needed an excuse to say “fortnightly.”) So the next edition will be Feb. 13. Don’t worry, it will still be insanely long. Probably even longer. More stuff to write about. But this will hopefully give me a little more time to, you know, write haiku itself, rather than writing about it.

Then I’ll need to be thinking about how else to adjust my life to make more room for the writing of non-trivial haiku. I don’t have much time to think, but I’ll try to get back to you soon with my plans. I’m sure you’ll be waiting with bated breath.

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Okay, class, that’s about it for this week. I really enjoyed our little time together — the sharing, the learning, the giving out of onerous assignments, the stern warnings about academic honesty and citation procedure…I think we’re going to have a wonderful semester. But the tour’s over, so get back on the shuttle and go home. Shoo. That’s an order.

October 5 (The compost pile)

apples in the compost pile —
giving sweetness another chance

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(Edited 10/6/10)

I think Alegria was right. The first line wasn’t quite there. She suggested getting rid of the apples altogether, just leaving the compost pile, but I’m not ready to do that.

For one thing, I’m using the apples as a fall kigo (Midwestern version), for another, just “compost pile” doesn’t conjure up a strong enough image in my mind for me to find the ku wholly satisfying. I need the image of those half-rotten apples atop the compost to make the ku vivid and complete to me.

I’ll definitely entertain other suggestions for how to make this better, though!

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.)