Across the Haikuverse, No. 11: Snail Mail Edition

Whoosh! That was the sound of my time flying by. The semester’s started up again, so no more spending Saturdays pottering around the Interwebs and lovingly polishing this column to a high sheen. Get in, get out. That’s my new motto. Excuse me, I need to go throw some laundry in the washer. You can get up and get a snack if you want. Make sure you’re back before the tour begins, though — you don’t want to miss anything.

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Dead Tree News

Contrary to my usual practice, I’m starting out this week with my section on print resources, in order to do justice to the great snail mail I’ve been receiving lately. You see, I finally got around to subscribing to a ton of print haiku journals, which I really should have done a long time ago. But better late than never.

You can’t find this stuff online, folks. I know it seems like everything is online these days, but this is a mirage. A whole world of otherwise invisible but glorious haiku (and other short poetry) awaits you if you will take the time to send a few hard-working editors a few bucks. In return, they will send you their lovely printed-on-actual-paper collections of lovingly selected poetry, in nice big fat envelopes that do not, praise the Lord/Allah/Buddha/Zeus, contain credit card solicitations.

So just this week I got bottle rockets No. 24 (brand-new), Lilliput Review #177 & 178 (from December), and Acorn No. 25 (from last fall, but new to me). Bottom line: They’re all worth it, get out your checkbook. More details:

  • bottle rockets: a collection of short verse. Edited by Stanford Forrester, this snazzy-looking journal the size of a trade paperback contains copious amounts of haiku, tanka, and haibun. A few examples that stood out for me:

beginner’s mind …
an afternoon spent
with back issues

— Jennifer Gomoli Popolis

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next to the temple
the industrial plant
swept spotless

— Michael Fessler

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the kitchen clock
trying to keep
up w rain

— john martone

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cicadas the itch under the cast

— Bob Lucky

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first violets
it’s all about
staying small

— Peggy Willis Lyles

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early snowfall
places the flakes miss
at first

— Jay Friedenberg

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the most respect
we can show the dead
is not to tell them how it is:
the candle I lit
flickers

— Mike Dillon

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still waiting
for an apology,
on my walking route
passing a garden
of forget-me-nots

— Charlotte DiGregorio

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and I won’t quote the whole thing, but I enjoyed the haibun “To Wondering Eyes” by Liz Fenn (among others).

  • Lilliput Review: In keeping with its name, this is a tiny (3.5″ x 4.25″) stapled-together zine-like publication. It’s edited by Don Wentworth (see also: Issa’s Untidy Hut), who sends two issues out into the world together to keep each other company, and contains not only haiku but short poems (up to 10 lines) of whatever form. A couple that especially struck my fancy (of the many, many I enjoyed):

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From # 177:
snow flurries
yes and no
melt away
— Scott Watson
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From #178:
at home
a full two hours
before I remove the hat
— paul m.

  • Acorn: a journal of contemporary haiku: An attractive, minimalistic publication, about the size of a rack-sized paperback, printed on high-quality paper and laid out with care and lots of white space. Edited by Carolyn Hall, it contains only haiku, which is somewhat of a rarity for haiku publications, but makes for a nicely focused journal. Again, just a few of the poems that impressed me here:

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rain all day
I carve the darkness
from a peach
— Marilyn Appl Walker
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before I know it
my mind has changed …
whitebait shoal
— Lorin Ford

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the cherry blossoms arrive without a god
— Gregory Hopkins
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the need
to need
gull shrieks
— George Swede

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a shadow under the pier
what it is
and isn’t
— Francine Banwarth

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where does the time go squids of Wyoming
— Dave Russo
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Arcturus
a pine cone glows
in the campfire
— Allan Burns

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Haiku in Ones and Zeroes

Back to the digital world. It all feels so ephemeral now, I must say. But no less worth reading for that. Here’s some posts from this week you might want to take a look at, starting with a couple about this week’s full moon, which haiku poets will never, ever be able to let alone:

Stop and Glow

She gets off the bus
where I’m waiting. Time to view
the moon together.

— Elissa

  • And speaking of viewing the moon: Instead of trying to pick three favorites from the entries for the January Moon Viewing Party over at Haiku Bandit Society, Bandit (and his dog Dottie) threw in the towel and found a moon haiku by Issa that’s way more worth reading than any of ours. (I also HIGHLY recommend that you watch the video here of Dottie snoring.)

a toy flute trills
a cane click-clacks…
winter moon

-Issa, translated David G. Lanoue

stacking my coins
two for the ferryman
rest for the laundromat

— Johannes S.J. Bjerg

  • From Andrew, Twitter name @coffeeperc, at jars of stars (originally posted on Twitter):

The swish of parting grass
as she searches
for a reason

— Andrew Rossiter/@coffeeperc

  • From Tomoya Tokita via translator Fay Aoyagi at Blue Willow Haiku World, complete with fascinating translation notes:

人参を並べておけば分かるなり 鴇田智哉

ninjin o narabeteokeba wakarunari

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if you arrange

carrots in a line

you’ll understand

— Tomoya Tokita

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Fay’s Note:  This haiku has several ‘issues’ when it is translated; 1) it sounds like ‘a sentence,’ because there is only one image; 2) because Japanese does not use ‘subject,’ this could be ‘if I arrange…’ Even in Japanese original, a reader will not know what one will understand. About a carrot? About a poet himself? Yet, I am attracted to this haiku….

— Fay Aoyagi

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You Must Submit

This edition of the Haikuverse is going to mention Issa’s Untidy Hut a lot so you might as well get used to it. I am very excited about Don Wentworth’s upcoming new regular feature, Wednesday Haiku, for which he invites readers to send in their haiku for consideration (wednesdayhaiku AT gmail DOT com). One at a time only, folks; previously published poems okay. You’ll get a couple of copies of Lilliput Review (see above) if your poem is selected, which should be more than enough motivation for you to get something sent off to Don posthaste. As far as what qualifies as haiku, well, if you’re reading this you and Don are probably more or less on the same wavelength in that regard, but it’s still entertaining to read what he has to say on the subject:

I will not be supplying a definition of what a haiku is.  You are all big girls and boys.  I will simply say it is not what passes for haiku in the popular media; this site’s occasional patron and consummate poet/artist /curmudgeon, Ed Baker, likes to call them shorties, and I defer to that, since he doesn’t know so much more than I don’t know or am likely to ever not know.

— Don Wentworth

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Another forum for publication that just sent out a call for submissions is MOONBATHING: A Journal of Women’s Tanka. This is a print journal that just published its third issue and is accepting submissions for Issue #4. Submission instructions: 
Send your tanka IN THE BODY OF AN E-MAIL TO: Pamela A Babusci … 
moongate44 (at) gmail (dot) com…PLEASE NO ATTACHMENTS!!! E-mail submissions only. (And oh yeah — in case this wasn’t sufficiently obvious from the journal’s title, they only accept submissions from women.)

And I know I haven’t provided much help on this blog in terms of explaining what exactly tanka are and what they do, but I’m hoping to rectify that soon because I have been writing a ton of them lately, which freaks me out a little because for a long time I had a staunch anti-tanka stance. In the meantime, a quick Google search should be able to help you out if you don’t already know what the whole tanka deal is.

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A Review. Wait, Two.


1.

Ever since I first heard about Fifty-Seven Damn Good Haiku By a Bunch of Our Friends, the brilliantly-titled collection edited by Alan Summers and Michael Dylan Welch which Michael’s press, Press Here, released at the end of last year, I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first reviews. Well, here (again) is Don Wentworth, giving us the lowdown. The book sounds great, I think I’ll be whipping out my checkbook again soon. Here’s a fantastic sample of one of what Don calls “the many strong voices” among the collection’s poets:

a cloud across the sun
and suddenly
I am old

— Helen Russell

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The other day I was hanging out in the poetry section of my local Giant Chain Bookstore Whose Poetry Collection Is Not Exactly Stellar, But It Could Be Worse, and I came across a book called Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart, by Patricia Donegan. I looked through it and thought that the selection of haiku was wonderful, but felt kind of “eh” about the commentary appended to each one, which seemed a little too, um, enlightening for me. (I tend not to be so much about the cultivating awareness and opening your heart, more about the cultivating skepticism and keeping an open mind. I have a slight allergy to anything mystical or inspiring.) Anyway, I ended up passing on it in favor of a couple of other books (which I brought home and instructed my husband to give me for my upcoming birthday, so I’ve already officially forgotten what they are and I can’t tell you anything about them. Yet.).

But then I read, in the Autumn 2009 edition of Modern Haiku online, a review of this book by Mark Brooks (who is, besides being the editor of haijinx, a wonderful haiku poet in his own right and also not exactly a sucker for mystical treatises). First off, I knew Mark and I were on the same wavelength as soon as I read the first sentence of the review: “I own multiple copies of books I love, that way I am unencumbered enough to gift a copy whenever one matches a friend.” I do that too, you may remember. Anyway, Mark’s in-depth analysis of what exactly was contained in the commentaries for each haiku made me reconsider my quickly-drawn impression that they were all about spiritual enlightenment — apparently there is also a significant amount of scholarly information included. As Mark says,

Every haiku includes the English text, an informed discussion, and a paragraph of biographical data. Donegan even includes the headnotes for the Japanese haiku when they exist. Reliably, case by case, Donegan the teacher enriches the material for every level of reader.

Mark further suggests that this book is a good one for sharing and explaining haiku with those who are unfamiliar with it, since it does so much to clarify and expand on each haiku. So now I’m reconsidering my decision not to buy this book — I may have to head back to Giant Chain again before my birthday. Thanks, Mark.

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Essays About Fun Stuff You May Never Have Thought About Before, Or Even If You Have You’ll Want to Read These Anyway

Not long ago I had a little discussion with someone about the phenomenon of the appearance of haiku that seem uncannily similar to other, previously published haiku, which if you’ve spent a fair amount of time reading haiku you know is not a rare phenomenon at all. (I have had the experience both of writing haiku that I later discovered were remarkably similar to other published haiku, which I’m pretty sure I had never read, and of reading haiku that I thought were remarkably similar to haiku I had written earlier.)

My thoughts on this subject kind of boil down to: Perhaps occasionally this is a matter of deliberate plagiarism, but far more often it probably involves either unconscious recall of the previous haiku, the fact that haiku poets are not always fantastically original in choosing subject matter (see also: full moon; falling leaves; crows; geese; butterflies; cherry blossoms; sunset; sunrise; snowfall; cicadas; and I could go on interminably but you get the idea), and also the fact that haiku are so short that if two poets happen to independently come up with more or less the same, slightly unusual image, that image will take up enough of the space of their separate poems that they will give a strong impression of being more or less the same poem.

In his very interesting essay “Some Thoughts on Deja Ku” (which is a great name for this phenomenon), Michael Dylan Welch gives many examples of uncannily similar haiku and explores what he thinks is the reason for the similarity in each instance (or asks the reader to speculate on the reason). He explores the topic in much more depth than I have here and it’s well worth a read.

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Here’s another interesting essay from Modern Haiku, this one not a review but a scholarly examination, by Paul Miller, of the work of Japanese haiku poet Ban’ya Natsuishi, specifically his well-known series of “Flying Pope” haiku. (I originally heard about this essay while eavesdropping on a Facebook conversation about Michael Dylan Welch’s entertaining series of “Neon Buddha” haiku, which were partly inspired by the Flying Pope, and which are also briefly considered in Miller’s essay.)

This essay, too, has a great first line: “As more and more modern Japanese haiku arrive at our shore, it is worthwhile to look closer at some of them before fully stamping their passports.” This sets the tone for Miller’s essay, which is respectful of much of Ban’ya’s work while remaining skeptical that all of it is effective or even particularly comprehensible. Falling squarely in the Japanese gendai tradition, haiku such as those about the Flying Pope, which often use language in non-straightforward ways and present confusing, incongruous images, frequently bemuse and infuriate Westerners (and I’m not claiming always to be an exception to this trend). As Miller says tartly,

[I]f all the reader is looking for is clever juxtapositions or clever wordplay, then randomly picked words/images from a dictionary will suffice—and the poet is not needed. Poets are needed to convey some sense of purpose to the chosen images, and in doing so they need to be conscious of the readers. Many modern Japanese haiku do not seem to do this, and one has to wonder how Japanese editors parse such mysterious verses for publication.

Miller goes on to discuss in more detail what qualities he feels makes for effective haiku, including examples from both classical and modern Japanese haiku and modern English language haiku such as Welch’s. Most centrally, Miller feels that “a successful haiku is one that moves from the known to the unknown. The shift from realism to strangeness can be an exciting adventure, but it can also be a risk…” I find this idea fascinating, and if you agree with me, you will certainly want to read all of Miller’s excellent essay.

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The News in Haiku

NOTE (2/9/11): HNA 2011’s final resting place is Seattle, Washington. The conference will take place from August 3-7. Details at the above link or at the HNA website.

You may remember that a while back I featured a news story about the moving of next summer’s Haiku North America conference from Decatur, IL to Rochester, NY. Well, the latest news out from conference organizers Garry Gay, Paul Miller, and Michael Dylan Welch is this:

“Regretfully, Rochester, New York will not be able to host Haiku North America in 2011. Since the conference is such an important part of the haiku tradition in North America, and because so many poets, scholars, and editors look forward to the biennial event, work is underway to quickly find a suitable replacement location. We plan to have more news shortly.

This is unfortunate and must be very frustrating for the conference organizers. I wish them luck in quickly finding another hosting site. (Hint: Madison, Wisconsin is lovely in July …)

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So wait a minute …. wasn’t this supposed to be a short one? How does this keep happening? Someday I’m going to go too far and find myself out in some part of the Haikuverse that’s previously unexplored, having forgotten my GPS, maps, and compass, and with no one around, not even a dreamy, impractical haiku poet, to ask for directions…

This must stop! Just you wait and see, next time I will be positively terse. Terse, I’m telling you! You won’t even recognize this as the same column!

(You can start the betting pool now on how likely you think this is. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended.)

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Across the Haikuverse, No. 10: Bleak Midwinter Edition

One of my favorite Christmas songs (I remembered recently, when I was part of a hastily-thrown-together chorus that sang it for a New Year’s Eve celebration) is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is a setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti. The first verse, in particular, is really a masterpiece of English poetry, full of humble but strong Anglo-Saxon words, not a single one unnecessary and no necessary one left out:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long, long ago.

— Christina Rossetti

There are obviously too many words and too much meter and rhyme and too many metaphors in this for it to be a haiku, though it does have the requisite elements of simplicity and clear, evocative images, and I think there’s some wabi-sabi and yugen going on here as well. And I see possibilities in that third line for some kind of avant-garde haiku:

snow had fallen snow on snow snow on snow

Really, I think probably someone could rewrite this verse, or part of it, into an effective haiku, though I’ve been trying and not finding it so easy. Any of you like to give it a shot? Let me know what you come up with.

Anyway. It is definitely bleak midwinter here. Snow on snow indeed.  It’s nice that it’s not for so many of you — you dwellers in the tropics and subtropics and summery Southern Hemisphere. I like to imagine your lives, walking outside barefoot, wearing short sleeves, smelling flowers. (Well, those of you who aren’t flooded. I’m sorry about the flooded part. I hope no one has floated away.) I’m not really jealous, it will be our turn soon enough. And though I complain bitterly about the cold and can never seem to get really warm, there is something about this downtime, for both the earth and me, that I grudgingly appreciate. Cycles. The world is full of them, and best just to accept them.

Which reminds me. Aren’t we supposed to be taking a spin around the Haikuverse? Best get started on that before you get bored with my waxing philosophical and wander away, never to return.

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Haiku of the Week

That’s haiku, plural. As in, the haiku I saw on the Internet this week that most struck me as interesting for whatever reason (could be my discerning literary taste, could be the state of my digestion) and that I actually managed to remember to bookmark. (This whole process is an art, not a science.)

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Mark Holloway over at Beachcombing For the Landlocked has been on a roll this week. You should really just go over there and read everything he’s written lately because I had a hard time choosing just one. I settled on this one in the end:

moss growing on the roof tiles      unsuspected      metastasis

Mark Holloway

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This wonderful piece from a handful of stones isn’t a haiku, I suppose. Do I care? Not really.

A mushroom sprouts
from the base of the locust tree,
and it will not be distracted
from its small brown task.

— Tamra Hays

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In this piece Angie Werren from feathers did a nice job responding to the same ku on this prompt that I did this morning:

sometimes the rain
I stand behind this window
counting trees

— Angie Werren

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This wonderful offering at Jars of Stars was originally posted on Twitter by @cirrusdream, otherwise known as Polona:

winter thaw
i ignore
his white lie

— Polona (@cirrusdream)

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Another one of Bill Kenney’s “afters” appeared at haiku-usa (maybe I appreciated this one because I’ve been having weird dreams lately myself):

piercing cold
I kiss a plum blossom
in my dream

— Soseki 1867-1916

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Also at haiku-usa, Bill points us to a collection of his “urban haiku” recently featured on Gabi Greve’s Haiku Topics and Keywords blog. Gabi also links to works by many other authors of such “urban haiku” (i.e., haiku that reflects the reality of the lives of most modern writers of haiku, who live not in pastoral Japan or pastoral anywhere, but in bustling outposts of the global economy). An example from Alan Summers:

Waterloo sunset
the Thames disappears
from the Tube map

— Alan Summers

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Every week there’s at least one something at Blue Willow Haiku World that I feel like reading over and over — usually several somethings. This week my favorite was this one:

月の汚れやすくてかなしき手   黒田杏子
ichigatsu no yogoreyasukute kanashiki te

January
hands that are easy
to get dirty and sad
— Momoko Kuroda, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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And while we’re on the topic of Fay Aoyagi (I never mind being on the topic of Fay Aoyagi), someone on Facebook (MDW — was that you?) recently reminded me about the wonderful series of essays she wrote several years ago for Frogpond about non-traditional use of kigo in haiku. I could swear I’ve read this entire series on the Interwebs, either on Frogpond’s site or Fay’s own, but I can’t seem to find any of them now except this one: “Haiku Traditions: Flowers and Plants.” But just this one will take you a long way. Fay discusses how traditional Japanese kigo like “cherry blossoms,” which are so evocative in their own culture, have given way in her own poetry to seasonal terms or keywords that are more meaningful to the American culture she now inhabits:

While cherry blossoms symbolize where I came from, roses represent Western culture and where I am now.  I think roses demand a lot of care.  To have a gorgeous, perfect flower, one has to tend them with water, fertilizers and pesticides.  Roses are somewhat the manifestation of my borrowed culture.  “Rose” itself is a summer kigo, but I prefer to use it in a winter setting.  I can put contradictory feelings or images together in this way.

winter roses—
I am tired of reading
between the lines
— Fay Aoyagi

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OtherHais (Haiga, Haibun)

Every week I am amazed at how many cool haiku-related sites I have yet to discover. Since I have been thinking about venturing into haiga territory in collaboration with my amateur photographer husband, I went noodling around this week looking for haiga online and discovered … Haigaonline. (Warning: this link will lead you to a page where there are sounds of sparrows twittering and some music, which is sweet and pretty but if you’re in a quiet place or just not in the mood, you may want to hit the “mute” button.)

The December 2010 issue of this online journal features lots of good stuff, including a feature on “family haiga” — lots of husband-and-wife teams, so I appreciated that. What I really loved, though, was an exhibit of “experimental haiga” by Renee Owen — they’re colorful collages with intriguing haiku, such as:

waiting for God
to finish creation
leftover rocks
— Renee Owen

And yes you MUST go look at the picture! That’s the entire point! Click! Click! I think the link will just bring you to a page of thumbnails, all of which are worth looking at, but the one I’ve quoted above can be found if you click on the picture of columns in the bottom center.
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And I’m always looking for good haibun, so I was excited to stumble on Hortensia Anderson’s site The Plenitude of Emptiness. All haibun, all the time! I’m trying to write more haibun so I will be dropping by here often.

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Tanka Corner

I’ve been making some headway lately in my ongoing quest to get over my fear of tanka. I was helped recently in my endeavor by my discovery of this mind-blower over at Michele Harvey’s site. This is not only one of my favorite tanka I’ve ever read, it’s some of the best poetry I’ve read lately, period.

a fall cricket
sings alone on the porch
I too, wonder
about being born too late
or too soon

— Michele Harvey

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Alegria Imperial also published some wonderful trilingual tanka (English, Spanish, and the native Philippine language Iluko) over at qarrtsiluni this week. I have long been a fan of Alegria’s multilingual poetry, it is so amazingly dense with meaning and emotional resonance. And as usual at qarrtsiluni, there is an audio file so you can hear Alegria reading her beautiful words. Please check it out!

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Renku Everywhere

With the new year, the thoughts of many seem to be turning to starting new renku. Over at Issa’s Snail, Ashley Capes has done a nice site redesign and, after a long hiatus, has started up a couple of new junicho, with a third possibly in the works. I think most of these have filled up with participants already but it’s still fun to watch the process of a renku in the making, which you can do by reading the comments on the site. The “sabaki” or renku leader guides the group in choosing subject matter and making sure the poem flows and doesn’t repeat itself in theme or language, which is no easy task, but Ashley (I know from personal experience) is great at doing this. Plus he is just an all-around nice guy who is easy and fun to work with.

The same can be said of Willie Sorlien, who is currently guiding the development of a shisan renku at Green Tea and Bird Song. Again, don’t think they’re looking for new participants, but it might be worthwhile watching how it’s done by the pros before you leap in on your own.

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Haiku in the News

Haiku made an appearance in the mass media this week in the form of a lengthy radio interview on NPR’s “On Point” show with haiku venerables George Swede and Dylan Tweney and an economist named Stephen Ziliak, who wrote an article making a fascinating connection between economic models and haiku. An excerpt from Ziliak’s article:

The typical haiku budget constraint is limited by three lines of seventeen syllables. Basho himself understood well the joyful paradox of haiku economics: less is more, and more is better!

Stephen Ziliak

This was a fun interview to listen to — I especially enjoyed George Swede’s anecdote about his son, who as a fifth-grader took up a position as a conscientious objector by refusing to do as he was instructed by his teacher and write a haiku in 5-7-5. He wrote some twelve-syllable haiku instead and got them published in Modern Haiku (which at the time accepted haiku from students). Then his teacher was all impressed and wanted to put them in the school yearbook, but the young Swede told her (I’m sure in very well-mannered language) where she could put her yearbook. Go ahead and stream this one while you’re making dinner or something tonight, you won’t be sorry.

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The News in Haiku


Is everyone getting psyched up for NaHaiWriMo (remember, that’s the thing where you can sign up to write a haiku a day in the month of February)? Michael Dylan Welch has put together a website for the event so now you don’t need to be on Facebook to sign up (although go ahead and like the Facebook page too if you want). Think about it.

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A call for submissions for a new issue of haijinx has gone out (deadline: March 1), along with the exciting news that Roberta Beary will be their new haibun editor. Roberta is one of the best writers of haibun around so I can’t wait to see what she picks out. Also new on the haijinx website: Richard Krawiec’s latest installment of his column “Shooting My Poetry Mouth Off.” This month he implores us haiku poets not to try to publish everything we write but to be selective and try to recognize our best work, which will not only benefit us personally (since our poetic reputations will not be sullied by inferior work), but also haiku as a genre, since the journals will not be flooded with mediocre work. Worth reading and thinking about.

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Dead Tree News

Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694. The first great master of haikai/haiku. Where on earth did he come from?

It’s a little like asking where Shakespeare (1564-1616) came from, in my opinion. I mean you can see how before and all around Shakespeare, English writers were producing supple, lively, image-rich poems and plays, much of it in a natural and flexible blank verse — really, nobody could do English like the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, at the moment when modern English was brand new and no one had gotten around to inventing rules for it yet so writers had no compunction about bending the language to their will. That was the glorious and fortunate tradition Shakespeare was working in, but nobody else was Shakespeare, before or after.

So pity poor Donald Keene, who in chapters four and five of World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867 has the unenviable job of explaining how the often-pleasant-and-skillful, but usually not much more, haikai of the haijin that preceded Basho produced the unparalleled haikai genius that is Basho. In the end, about all he can do is trace the literary movements that Basho’s work responded to and grew out of, and then throw up his hands and say, “The rest — that’s just Basho.”

As I discussed in Haikuverse No. 8, Basho was influenced by both the careful craftsmanship of the Teitoku school of haikai and the iconoclasm and experimentation of the Danrin school, as well as by his intensive study of Chinese verse and by his interest in Zen Buddhism. But he didn’t just sit around studying and writing poetry; he spent much of his life traveling around Japan, living at various times both in the city and in the country, meeting people, seeing things, gathering material. As Keene points out, “Haikai shared the literary spirit of the great Chinese and Japanese masters, and the Zen quality of … poet … Han Shan, but it had its own domain too, in the familiar and even vulgar activities of contemporary life.”

It’s when Keene discusses Basho’s masterpieces that his efforts to relate Basho’s genius to his poetic predecessors break down. Basho was just Basho; his vision was unique. In his most famous poem, the frog pond haiku furuike ya, Keene points out, “The ancient pond is eternal, but in order for us to become aware of its eternity there must be some momentary disruption…This verse is about stillness, yet only by sound can we know silence.” He contrasts Basho’s first line here (“old pond”) with the well-meaning and not unskillful suggestion of one of his disciples, “the yellow roses”:

[A]lthough the picture of yellow flowers surrounding the frog … is visually appealing, it lacks the eternity of ‘ancient pond.’ … Only by suggesting the age of the pond, its unchanging nature, is the momentary life of the frog evoked. This was the kind of understanding Basho demanded. He believed that the smallest flower or insect if properly seen and understood could suggest all of creation, and each had its reason for existence.

— Donald Keene, World Within Walls

By the end of his life Basho’s poetic ideal was karumi, or “lightness,” “a word used in contrast to technical finish or decorative effects.” Basho was seeing ever deeper into the hearts of things, in a way no haikai poet had done before and few if any have done since. He was going past the words into the essence.

What Keene’s discussion made me want to do more than ever was just sit down with Basho himself and engage with him, rather than the ideas about him. So that’s what’s on the agenda for this week. Feel free to join me.

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And thanks again for letting me ramble on at length; special thanks to those of you who actually made it to the end of this post. Love, love, love making these trips with you. It may seem like I’m the guide but I assure you I’m learning the territory as I go. There is still so much more of the Haikuverse left to explore, hope you’ll keep me company as I wander.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 7: Please Don’t Make Me Go Christmas Shopping Edition

Yes, it’s that time again — time to check your booster rockets, lay in a supply of freeze-dried sushi, and climb into the shuttle for a whirlwind tour of the Haikuverse.

I am going to try to make this snappy since, in anticipation of the Holiday of Boundless Capitalist Delight, I’m planning to swing back by Earth later this afternoon in an attempt to observe this planet’s December ritual of purchasing an overabundance of material goods to honor the birth of someone who spent a lot of time talking about how stupid money was. If you joined me, we could amuse ourselves by trading senryu about the foibles of our holiday-crazed fellow human beings and then repairing to a tea shop to eat cookies and regain a Zenlike state of tranquility. Wouldn’t that be fun? Oh, well, maybe next year.

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If you’re as stressed out by Chrismukkwanzaa as I am, you should go check out The Haiku Foundation’s new user forums. They have kind and helpful moderators, interesting discussion topics, opportunities to get feedback on your haiku from wiser and more experienced poets, and a generally happy, relaxed atmosphere, which we can all use this time of year.

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Chris Gordon from ant ant ant ant ant stopped by here this week and left a brilliant comment that made me very happy, which reminded me that I hadn’t visited his wonderful blog in a while. Lots of great poetry there, including this lovely one-liner of Chris’s from his 2007 book Echoes:

the rain warmer than the air around it I find your scar

— Chris Gordon

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Fiona Robyn, who posts her own lovely writing at a small stone and other peoples’ at a handful of stones, has gotten on the “write a whole bunch of stuff in a month in the company of other people” bandwagon (see: NaNoWriMo, NaHaiWriMo).

Her version is called “International Small Stones Writing Month,” and it’s headquartered at a river of stones. In a nutshell, the idea is to sign up to write one of the tiny poems Fiona calls “small stones” every day in the month of January. This seems like it would be a lot of fun for someone who, unlike me, had some extra time on his or her hands in the month of January. So if you’re one of those people, go make Fiona happy and hop on her bandwagon.

And speaking of a handful of stones, here’s one of my favorite posts from last week:

the fog finally
lifted, revealing distant
condominiums

— @HaikuDiem

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I’ve really been enjoying the haiku that George O. Hawkins has been posting lately on Facebook and Twitter. Like this one, for instance:

open water
the icy countenance
of a swan

— George O. Hawkins

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Speaking of Twitter, CoyoteSings has created a blog featuring some of the best Twitter haiku and tanka, so if you’re wondering what’s going on over there on Twitter but you don’t want to actually get an account, you could check out Jars of Stars. Here’s a ku you might like, for instance:

such heat
then snow

our lives

— @PerlyGates

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I liked this Daily Haiku entry last week:

first raindrops
an inaudible voice
on the answering machine
— Robert Epstein

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I am so glad to see that Alan Segal, who had been on hiatus from his blog for a while, is back to posting fairly regularly at old pajamas: from the dirt hut. Alan’s poetry is surreal and challenging but I like the interesting things his images do to my brain. Example:

my horse dreams
of tracing the pattern
between stars…
and, ironhooved, shape,
sew his wooden kimono

— Alan Segal

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I don’t pay nearly enough attention to haiga (there are only so many hours in the day) but every once in a while one really grabs me, like this illustration of a Ban’ya Natsuishi ku by Kuniharu Shimizu from see haiku here. (Go look at it. It’s a picture, see?)

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“Issa’s Sunday Service,” over at Issa’s Untidy Hut keeps on making me happy. Last week there was a Grateful Dead song (“Althea”) that so, so geekily references both “Hamlet” and a 17th-century poem by Richard Lovelace (and, interesting to nobody but me, I just noticed that the version of the song linked to here was recorded in 1981, when I was twelve, at the Hartford Civic Center in Hartford, CT, about fifty miles from where I was living at the time).

Then there were several poems and ku on the subject of temple bells, including:

the praying mantis
hangs by one hand…
temple bell

— Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

Really, what’s not to like?

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At Haiku Bandit Society the monthly Full Moon Viewing Party is coming right up on the 21st. Go on over there and share your ku on the subject of the full moon. All the cool kids are doing it.

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On Michael Dylan Welch’s website, Graceguts, there is a great Lee Gurga interview, from 1991 but still well worth reading. (Michael reminded us of it on Facebook this week.) Here’s an excerpt:

My personal destiny is somehow intertwined with haiku, and has been since the dawning of consciousness in adolescence. I don’t feel this with any other kind of writing, nor with any other activity with the exception of planting trees and wildflowers. But please don’t misunderstand me: this is not to say that I suppose there is anything “special” about my work, or that it is better than the writing of those differently related to haiku. But then, of course, the aim of haiku is “nothing special”—that special “nothing special” that somehow touches us at the core of our being.

— Lee Gurga


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Over at extra special bitter, Paul David Mena blew me away with this one this week:

December rain —
the long night
longer

— Paul David Mena

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At Tobacco Road Poet, the “Three Questions” this week were answered by Jim Kacian, who is the founder and president of The Haiku Foundation and also one of my favorite living haiku poets. He wrote this, for example (and I had a really hard time choosing this one from among many other favorites), so you see what I mean:

just now
as my life turns crazy
forsythia

— Jim Kacian

It’s worth reading Jim’s answers to the Three Questions and also worth reading much of the copious other material by and about him that is available out there on the Interwebs. There is this index that can get you started. I love the first essay it links to, “Haiku as Anti-Story”, which starts out this way:

Haiku are not really difficult, once you are willing to take the words at their own valuation. … So why is it so hard? Why does it need explanation? Because the mother, friend, reader is looking for story. “Yes, it’s a lily, but what is it really?” Your audience is looking for story, but you’re giving them — anti-story.

— Jim Kacian, “Haiku as Anti-Story”

Oh — so hard for those of us who love stories so passionately to let go of that narrative pull. This makes me wonder if I am guilty of wanting haiku to do too much — if I want them, too often, to be tiny stories. It also makes me wonder if it’s really impossible for haiku ever to be tiny stories. So much to think about…
But if you really want to be blown away by the comprehensiveness of Jim’s thoughts about and understanding of haiku, you’ll have to set aside a little time to read his magnum opus: First Thoughts: A Haiku Primer. This covers everything about haiku, from history to form to content to technique to language, in exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, but exhilarating detail. (If for some reason you’re a little short on time this week and want to read a short excerpt to get an idea of what the Primer is all about, you could just read “How to Write Haiku.”) Try it, you’ll like it.

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Dead Tree News: During the same used-bookstore visit in which I picked up the Johan Huizinga book on play I wrote about the other day, I found a thick tome by Donald Keene entitled World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. It covers poetry, fiction, and drama. I am making my way through it slowly. Very, very slowly. Okay, so I’ve only read two chapters. But they were great chapters!

These were two of six chapters on the early development of “haikai,” which are what we know today as haiku (in case you weren’t aware, no one called them that until Shiki coined the term in the nineteenth century). Keene doesn’t even get around to Basho until chapter 5, so this is the really early development of haikai.

Some of this story was familiar to me — I knew that haikai originally were the first verses of renga, a linked verse form which at the time was primarily a kind of parlor game or a form of court entertainment, often employing crude humor or at best clever word play. But I didn’t know that no one took them seriously as an independent art form until a guy named Matsunaga Teitoku came along. He wasn’t a great poet or anything and he seems to have been a little OCD-ish in insisting that everyone follow the Official Rules of Haikai, which he kind of made up himself. (Some things never change.)

However, Teitoku did haikai the great favor of saying that it was just as valid a poetic form as renga or the fancier poetry known as waka, and also of saying that it was all right to use a simpler, more ordinary vocabulary — “haigon” — in haikai, compared to the more elevated, literary vocabulary that writers of waka usually employed. Here’s what Keene says about this development:

[Teitoku’s] insistence on haigon not only enriched the vocabulary of poetry but opened up large areas of experience that could not be described except with such words. Haikai was especially popular with the merchant class which, though it retained a lingering admiration for the cherry blossoms and maple leaves of the old poetry, welcomed a variety of poetry that could describe their pleasures in an age of peace and prosperity. … [W]ithout his formal guidance haikai poetry might have remained forever on the level of the limerick.

— Donald Keene, “Matsunaga Teitoku and the Creation of Haikai Poetry” from World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867

So there you have it … the next time you are writing a haiku and striving to keep it simple, stupid, you can thank Teitoku.

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Okay, off to brave retail hell in the name of peace on earth. As ever, it was a joy circumnavigating the Haikuverse with you this week. I wish you many silent nights in which to read, and write, haiku, unless you are the kind of person who prefers the company of merry gentlemen this time of year, in which case, by all means, go for it.