character study

She wakes up sometimes, thinking about her dilemma. It always takes a minute to remember what the dilemma is because it’s always a different dilemma than the last time she woke up. It’s that kind of story. The solution to her dilemma is often obvious to her, as it is to every reader of that kind of story, but she knows her own judgment makes no difference to the resolution of the dilemma. She’s made efforts in the past–to leave the man, to save the child, to cross the street, to pursue her ambition–but whether she succeeds or not is entirely up to the storyteller. He might be trying to write a cautionary tale, or make his readers cry, or make the heroine of the story look good in contrast to her, in which case she will surely make the wrong choice, do the foolish thing, die in poverty, be shunned by the townsfolk. By now she’s used to failure. By now she’s used to contempt. By now she’s used to losing things that seemed impossible to lose. It’s almost exhilarating to her now, that kind of loss. She knows it doesn’t really matter. The next time she wakes up, she’ll be a character in a new story. There’s always the possibility that this time, she’ll have magical powers, or a mighty army, or an uncanny ability to bend people to her will. There’s always the possibility that by the end of the story, she’ll be ruling the world.

these damn cicadas
with their confessional tone
I promise myself
I’ll admit everything
when nothing’s left to admit

(Prose: here, now. Tanka: Eucalypt, November 2011.)

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

.

~~~~~~~~

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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April 9 (Cicada Trill)

cicada trill
when did I last play
the harmonica

.

(NaHaiWriMo prompt: Music)

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Moving on: NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 1oth (the start of National Library Week)

Books and libraries

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See this post for an explanation of what this is.

See the NaHaiWriMo website.

See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)

 

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

.

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
.

the need
to need
gull shrieks
— George Swede

.

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

.

where does the time go squids of Wyoming
— Dave Russo
.

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

.

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

*
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

2.

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.

*

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.)

September 8 (Evening wind): What is natural?

evening wind
a cicada shell rattles
on our doorstep

*
Wow … this feels incredibly traditional for me. I mean, I think it’s reasonably successful as a haiku, if a little boring, but it makes me a little nervous because it’s so … haiku-ish. Is that weird?

I don’t think I quite realized until now how much I try to avoid writing what is the “traditional” English-language type of haiku with only nature imagery and nicely balanced lines and seasonal indicators and all that jazz. I tend to like better, and to write, haiku with something a little more … unexpected about them. Or maybe I just mean haiku that are a little more … authentic, or contemporary, than this. I don’t say I necessarily succeed, just that that’s what I’m aiming for. (Insofar as I’m able to articulate what I mean at this time of the morning, in a state of sleep deprivation.)

I think maybe the reason the nature-imagery thing seems so stilted and played out now is that, as a society, we’re pretty far removed from nature; for most of us, a manufactured environment and human technologies are more prominent in our daily lives than the rhythms of seasons and weather and plant and animal life cycles.

So, unless we’re naturalists or dedicated country dwellers who spend most of the day outdoors, it does feel kind of fake to be constantly writing about birdsong and drifting clouds and rustling leaves, at least without some kind of human context to put these things in what is their proper place for most of us — concerns secondary to whether the furnace or air conditioner is doing its job, or how many emails we got this morning, or how the traffic is aiding or impeding us in our daily journeys.

It feels like we know that haiku is supposed to be about nature, so we glanced out the window and saw a pretty bird and said, “Oh — haiku material!”, ignoring the fact that we’re not quite sure what the bird is called or what it eats or how it sings or makes its nest or how far it flies when the seasons change. We’re not bird experts any more (apologies to those of you who are, but I have never been a bird enthusiast); we’re experts on minivans — We’re not experts on wildflowers, we’re experts on wall-to-wall carpeting — We’re not experts on mountain springs, we’re experts on running water from the tap.

Lots of people have the same concerns as I do, of course, and there is lots and lots of great haiku being written now that does feel real and contemporary and still respects the haiku idea of placing the writer (and reader) in a specific time and place and making a very specific observation or two. I must say that I often have the same sense of anxiety about haiku that don’t mention nature at all, maybe because I do respect the power of haiku to force us to regard ourselves as what we properly are, which is part of nature, despite how thoroughly unnatural most of our surroundings are these days.

I really like the tension (not just in haiku but really in all art, literature and painting and photography and even architecture) between the natural and the human-made. I remember seeing a series of photographs at an exhibition several years ago of what were very clearly human artifacts, often in brilliant unnatural colors, placed in more muted natural surroundings — the effect, to me, was to highlight the beauty and interest of both object and setting.

Another time, our local botanical garden hosted an amazing art installation of long chains of large round scavenged things (like bowling balls and weathered plastic Halloween pumpkins and giant ball bearings) hung from very tall trees — like tree jewelry, I suppose. I could have stared at those things all day; they seemed so completely in harmony with their surroundings despite being so very artificial. [New! Pictures!]

And really, that is a very Japanese aesthetic too — the art of mingling the human with the natural in such a way that both are enhanced. Think of a Japanese garden with its neatly raked stone beds and small water bridges and carefully planned views of carefully arranged plantings (and if you’ve never been to a good Japanese garden, you should go to one, preferably today), or a traditional Japanese house with its natural materials and minimal furniture and openness to the elements.  [And more pictures!]

I think that that same aesthetic is or properly should be at work in haiku — the tension or perhaps, the reconciling of tension between the works of human beings and their natural environments. When I imagine a classical haiku poet I see him sitting in a house or just outside one, or walking through a village or riding a boat down a river, looking around him with a gimlet eye at everything in his surroundings — the plants and animals and earth and sky and people and buildings and tools and vehicles — and connecting a couple of those elements in his mind, without particular regard to whether they were “natural” or not.

So maybe that should be our ideal, as haiku poets. Really being wherever we are, and seeing whatever we see, and being aware, yes, of the weather and what the sky looks like and whatever is blooming or singing within our purview, but also mindful of the indoor weather, of the smells and textures of the things we have bought and handle every day, of the moods and wardrobe and habits and speech of our fellow human beings. And making of, or seeing, something real in all that stew.

Cicada shells do rattle, on doorsteps and sidewalks and driveways, in the autumn — much more resonantly on those artificially hard surfaces, I imagine, than they would rattle in a loamy forest or on a mountain path — and the sound is both chilling, like the autumn wind, and oddly comforting, especially to those of us who live in houses and can shelter there from the elements, unlike the poor departed cicadas …