Across the Haikuverse, No. 15: Catfish Edition

Hi fellow travelers,

It’s been a long time since I’ve been here, at least in the form of tour guide. A lot has happened. The earth has shaken. It isn’t tilted quite the same way anymore. I think I can feel it. I’m a little off kilter these days. Not that I can complain, seeing as how I don’t live in Japan.

It’s strange — last year at this time I didn’t even know anyone who lived in Japan, and now I know many people there, whose welfare I am deeply concerned about. They mostly all seem to be mostly okay, at least physically. But their sense of security has been pretty much shattered; they’re living with a lot of fear and uncertainty, and I am so admiring of the way they are keeping themselves centered despite this.

I think haiku helps. Maybe any art helps. It’s a way to take the broken pieces and make something whole out of them.

And on that note…here are a few places you might want to drop by for earthquake news and art:

1. Gabi Greve’s earthquake blog, Japan — After the Big Earthquake. It’s very Gabi-like, meaning insanely comprehensive and completely fascinating. Mostly it’s full of Japanese news reports about all the details of the earthquake/tsunami aftermath and aaathe ongoing nuclear disaster saga, but there are also lots of Gabi-style notes about Japanese earthquake folklore and plenty of earthquake haiku from all over the world. A couple of examples:

A giant catfish (namazu) lived in mud beneath the earth. The catfish liked to play pranks and could only be restrained by Kashima, a deity who protected the Japanese people from earthquakes. So long as Kashima kept a mighty rock with magical powers over the catfish, the earth was still. But when he relaxed his guard, the catfish thrashed about, causing earthquakes.

— Gabi Greve

unseen
the third wave
blossoms

— Svetlana Marisova

2. Scott Watson’s amazing, moving earthquake journal from Sendai, being published serially at Issa’s Untidy Hut. The prose is mostly spare and economical and to the point, which makes his picture of the deprivations they are suffering in Sendai all the more effective. Here’s a typical passage, from Part 6:

On the way back meet an elderly neighbor walking his Akita dog. The dog is up in years too. We talk a while about how we canʼt flush our toilets.  Such an inconvenience. When will gas service resume. When will we have water. Some American friends, I tell him, strongly urge me and my family to flee Japanʼs nuclear disaster. But how would you get out of Sendai, he asks. Thatʼs exactly what I tell them. They donʼt understand that we canʼt go anywhere even if we want to.

— Scott Watson

Sometimes Scott waxes a little more lyrical, as in this passage from Part 5 — the last sentence is one of my favorite statements about poetry, ever:

Nukes in Japan. Earthquake land. They are safe, they are necessary, the people are told. Experts are telling the people. Government officials are telling the people. Electric power companies are telling the people. Eventually the people come around. The people repeat what they are told.

Poets tell people nothing. People donʼt repeat poems. They sing them in the here and now, which is when, exactly.

— Scott Watson

3. Kuniharu Shimizu’s haiga site, see haiku here, where the haiga are all about the earthquake these days, and are heartwrenching and beautiful. Speaking of Sendai, he illustrated a wonderful Basho haiku that follows a Sendai episode in Narrow Road to the Deep North:

I will bind iris
blossoms round about my feet –
straps for my sandals

— Basho

and followed it up with “after” pictures of Sendai, which, unfortunately, are not nearly as pretty as iris sandals.

One of my favorite of Kuni’s own haiku about the earthquake is this one, also a stunning haiga:

tsunami swells—
how I wish
I were a bird

— Kuniharu Shimizu

4. Miriam Sagan’s Miriam’s Well, where she has been posting many earthquake haiku submitted to her — I believe she’s still accepting submissions. Here’s one of my favorites:

tsunami
pieces of future days
wash away

— Mark Brooks

5. This haiku of Bill Kenney’s from haiku-usa:

all the names
I’m learning to pronounce –
tsunami

— Bill Kenney

6. We Are All Japan, the brainchild of Sasa Vazic and Robert Wilson (who edit the journal Simply Haiku). It’s a very active Facebook group that is open to all comers and is a sort of clearinghouse for earthquake news, support, and poetry. Sasa and Robert are also putting together an anthology of earthquake-related poetry (all forms, not just haiku or other Japanese poetry) whose proceeds will benefit earthquake victims. They’ll accept (previously unpublished) submissions until May 15 at svtojapan@gmail.com. If you’re not Facebook-y, their website is http://wearealljapan.blogspot.com.

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Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch

People have also been known to write haiku (and tanka) that aren’t about the earthquake these days. Those are fun to read too.

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From Miso Soup:

Satie –
the rain
eases

— Alison

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From Haiku Etc.:


I am not here
but these red peppers are
so I buy one

— Kris Lindbeck

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From Heed Not Steve (there is also a great illustration so go visit):

oh I see you
in the scrawl and scribble
Graphite Buddha

— Steve Mitchell

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From old pajamas: from the dirt hut:

leaving my lover alone for a minute my tongue hunts a lost cloud

— Alan Segal

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From jornales:

haiku truths–
crocus and frogs after rain
kestrels and hyacinths
telling you secrets non-stop
oh, poet for you, no rest

— Alegria Imperial

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From a lousy mirror:

the surplus
of words burrowed in
spring darkness . . .
a mole eating his way
through the may or may not

— Robert D. Wilson

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From Stay Drunk on Writing:

stepping stones
to the Zen Garden —
dog dung

— Chen-ou Liu

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From Yay Words!, the hokku of a great kasen renku in progress between Aubrie Cox and Wayne Chou — go read the other verses:

spring breeze
tea stains
on the atlas

— Aubrie Cox

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From Blue Willow Haiku World, two entries, because there is no way I could choose just one out of four whole weeks of daily entries:

ボブ・ディラン掛けよ蛙の夜なれば     榮 猿丸

bobu diran kakeyo kaeru no yoru nareba

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play Bob Dylan
it is a night
of frogs

— Sarumaru Sakae, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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春なれや水の厚みの中に魚      岩田由美

haru nare ya mizu no atsumi no naka ni uo

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spring—
fish inside
the water’s thickness

— Yumi Iwata, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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From Crows & Daisies, see note above about impossibility of choosing, etc.:

snowflakes
the white mare’s whinny
lifts a cloud

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hedgehog ball
i always was
the odd one out

— Polona Oblak

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From Mann Library’s Daily Haiku:

summit road
once more the moon
changes windows

— Tom Painting

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From a handful of stones, the haiku that wins the Most Makes Me Want to Read It Aloud Award for this edition:

sick train the night heron shifts silt for all of us

— Alan Summers

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From rolling stones:

women’s day
more to the moon
than this sliver

— Jill

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From Jars of Stars:

invisible
to those around me
I watch blossoms
fall
a thousand years from now

— Paul Smith (@monkeywillow)

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From Daily Haiku:

crows in a pine
moving the dark
from limb to limb

— Carolyne Rohrig

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From Beachcombing for the Landlocked, a great haiga — go look:

the equinox
what winter has taken
what winter has spared

— Mark Holloway

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In case you’re wondering, “Isn’t there someone who collects great haiku from all the haiku poets on Facebook and puts it somewhere where we poor Facebook-less souls can take it in? And maybe sometimes translates it into French or English depending on which language it started out in?”, the answer is yes, yes there is. He is Vincent Hoarau and his blog is La Calebasse. From a set of fantastic spring haiku he shared recently, here’s one of his own that I love (I am presuming this was probably written first in French and then translated into English, but this was the order it appeared in on the blog):

sun ! sun ! sun !
the daffodils don’t know
where to look

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le soleil ! le soleil !
les jonquilles ne savent plus
où donner d’la tête

— haiku and translation by Vincent Hoarau

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Journaling

Anyone who hasn’t discovered Contemporary Haibun Online (cho) yet? They released a new edition a couple of weeks ago (dated April 2011 — now that’s efficiency). Please go check it out now so I don’t have to hunt you down and stand over you while you read it. Here’s one of my favorites from the issue to get you started.

Midsummer Night

Into the garden
take a small square of Kozo paper.
Fold, crease, fold and fold again.
Now place upon an upturned mirror:

crossing a dark sea
of reflected galaxies
this empty boat

—Jann Wirtz

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The Wild, Wild Web

A roundup of amazing haiku websites I’ve stumbled upon since the last time I rapped at you.

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How to explain Basho’s Road? The posts there are infrequent but worth waiting for. The site is beautifully designed and all the posts contain both poetry (usually Japanese short-form, but sometimes not — the most recent post as of this writing contains a quotation from Montaigne) and art, wonderful art. It’s a quiet and thoughtful place and I can feel my breathing slowing down and my brain speeding up whenever I stop by. The proprietor is Norbert Blei, stop by and thank him (I guess now that I’ve said that, I should do it too…).

……………………………………………ah!
…………….today haiku come as easy
as picking them off a small fruit tree

Ronald Baatz, from White Tulips

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Since I discovered John Martone’s poetry a few months ago (via Issa’s Untidy Hut), I’ve been noticing it — and hungrily seeking out more of it — everywhere I go. Then recently I got this brainstorm to use this amazing new “Google” thing the kids are all talking about and what do you know, it chewed up my search request and spat me right out at a web page called “john martone’s poetry projects,” which contains links to about a zillion pdf’s of collections of John’s work, and now I’m locking myself in the bathroom and not coming out until I’ve read them all.

Most of these collections are best read as collections — they contain variations on one or several themes and have much the same effect, on me at least, as a turning kaleidoscope, a really well-made one that you just can’t tear away from your eye. Here’s one verse, though, that I think works well on its own.

look at
that cloud
thats you

— John Martone, from box turtle (2008)

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Ray Rasmussen, a Canadian poet well-known for his haiku and haibun, has just recently put together a couple of very striking and well-edited sites that you’ll want at least to go take a look at, and possibly to contribute to.

The first one is Day’s End, which looks at various aspects of aging through (mostly previously published) haiku, senryu, tanka and haibun. It was put together by Ray and guest editor Anita Virgil. Here’s a sample:

first time together
kissing a grandmother
for real

— Charles Trumbull

The second site, which is still a work in progress, is Romance under a Waning Moon, a website of haiku, tanka, haibun and images about the ups and downs of later-in-life romance. Ray’s still accepting submissions for this one (he prefers them previously published) — check out the details at the site.

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Deep Thought

The website of the British haiku journal Presence contains numerous fascinating essays, including several meditations on that perennially fascinating topic: what, exactly, is a haiku?

The one that made me think the most, although I did wish the author would stop shouting, was this one by David Cobb. I’ve italicized the passages I found the most thought-provoking.

My mind is kind of spinning in circles, now, actually — I have to try to integrate these ideas (which I find compelling and convincing) into my mental conception of haiku.

Two Differing Views of Time and Nature in Haiku

1. A haiku is an unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of A MOMENT keenly perceived, IN WHICH NATURE IS LINKED TO HUMAN NATURE. (From A Haiku Path, recording the official definition adopted by the Haiku Society of America and used in Frogpond magazine.) [My (meaning Mr. Cobb’s) capitals.]

2. In the first place, Japanese haiku are NOT NATURE POEMS AT ALL. Japanese poems are concerned with the four seasons of the year, so they are SEASON-POEMS. Haiku are TIME-POEMS; where content is concerned, haiku deal with the passage of time, with things that have passed away, with the present and the future. And the poet illustrates this process of becoming and passing away within a short or long period of time by referring to things in the natural world, both alive and dead. (tr. from an article by Thomas Hemstege in Vierteljahresschrift der Deutschen Haiku-Gesellschaft, Vol.16, No.60, March 2003.) [My (yes, Mr. Cobb’s) capitals again.]

This definition argues that references to Nature are incidental or instrumental to the poet’s impressions of the passage of time. The nub of the action is something that poets do with Nature. The case is made for a haiku continuum rather than a haiku moment.

— David Cobb

[Editorial note to Mr. Cobb: I love your — well, Mr. Hemstege’s, I suppose — ideas, but there are these things called italics which are used by most authors to provide emphasis, and which are MUCH LESS UNNERVING to the reader than ALL CAPS.]

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Dead Tree News

Recently I was reminded again that I really needed and wanted to read R.H. Blyth’s seminal four-volume work Haiku, first published in the late forties, which was one of the main instruments for introducing haiku to the general public in the Western world. Blyth introduced a lot of misconceptions about haiku too — the idea that it was somehow fundamentally attached to Zen Buddhism, perhaps, being the main one. But he also passionately loved and was intimately familiar with the body of classical Japanese haiku (not to mention having an encyclopedic knowledge of Western poetry), and did translations of thousands of them that, although they sometimes are more poetic than accurate, are really, really lovely. So as long as you take him with several pounds of salt, he is still well worth reading.

The problem is, Haiku is out of print and commands an impressive price on the used-book market. And though I had no problem borrowing the volumes from my university’s library (libraries, people! wonderful things! use them!</librarian sales pitch>), I realized almost as soon as I started reading them that I needed to own them myself. So one night I was noodling around on Amazon looking at the ridiculous prices that some dealers were asking for these volumes ($700 just for the “Spring” volume?!), when I found what seemed like a very reasonable deal. And almost quicker than I could ask my husband, “Honey, would I be crazy if I paid this much money for four books?”, I’d ordered the things, and a few days later they arrived at my house all nicely wrapped in gloriously old-fashioned layers of brown paper. And lo, when I had removed all the wrapping paper, I discovered they were beautiful, and I was very happy.

I haven’t read them all yet. I suspect it will take months, if not years. But I am in love. The first volume is all about Eastern culture and haiku in general (and contains lots of very authoritative-sounding, incredibly well-written and inspiring, and dubious theories), and the remaining three volumes contain haiku translations and (highly subjective) commentary, in seasonal order starting with Spring and grouping the haiku by kigo. Pretty much any page you open to you’ll find something you love. I just opened the “Summer-Autumn” volume at random and look what I found:

Striking the fly
I hit also
A flowering plant.

— Issa, translated by R.H. Blyth

I swear, I will never hit a fly again.

I’ll be back with more about Blyth someday soon, I promise.

(Note: Don Wentworth, over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, has been writing some thoughts about Blyth lately too — you’re well advised to take them in.)

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Winding Down

Long day. (Although the days have gotten a bit shorter due to the earthquake, did you know?) Long month. All kinds of things shifting and spinning. That catfish still restless underground.

But haiku is still there. The haikuverse is still full, still worth exploring. It’s some comfort to me, how about you?

February 11 (Its Depth)

first snow
I no longer have a child
to measure its depth

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World Haiku Review, January 2011

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I enjoyed a lot of things about World Haiku Review this time around but I can’t say I enjoyed the essay “Haiku as a World Phenomenon” by editor Susumu Takiguchi. My appreciation for it went way, way deeper than enjoyment. If I were feeling more flippant about it I’d say it rocked my world but really, that’s entirely the wrong tone for this essay. I learned so much from it and can’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those essays — there have been so many since last May [hey, remind me to create a list of links to them in my sidebar] — that both gives voice to some things I had been incoherently thinking about and also gives me entirely new and exciting ideas and information to work with. I feel like a different poet after reading it. Probably I’m not really a different poet but I’m trying to be. That counts, right?

I know you’re busy and you don’t really feel like reading the whole thing. So let me tell you about it. First of all, it’s not a new essay, it was written in 2000. That doesn’t matter, it could have been written last week. And Susumu starts out by referencing what is now a twenty-five-year-old question but also seems last-weekish: “… After about twenty-five years of English language haiku do we know what haiku is?” (Cor van den Heuvel, from the preface to the Second Edition, The Haiku Anthology, Haiku and Senryu in English, Simon & Schuster, 1986)

Lamenting the endless quarrels over the definition of haiku, Susumu refers to the “dialectic poetics” of Basho as a way of beginning to settle the matter. He outlines some of the fundamental principles of Basho’s haiku aesthetic, none of which, in my profound ignorance, I had ever heard of, but all of which make so much sense. Here’s the outline:

  1. Fueki ryuko“: “Fueki … can represent unchanging tradition while ryuko can represent changing fashion. Since the two are contradictory there should be a kind of creative tension generated between them … [which] should keep haiku fresh, creative and interesting. If people cling to tradition and neglect newness (or atarashimi) inherent in fashion, then haiku could become stale, imitative and boring. If, on the other hand, people indulge in newness without tradition, haiku could become gimmicky, incomprehensible and nonsensical.”
  2. Kogo kizoku”: ” ‘[O]btaining high enlightenment but coming back to the populace.’ There has been a tendency to polarise these two essential factors … Some people have become ‘elitists,’ armed with their own creed and are negligent of kizoku, or addressing plebeian needs. Others have gone the opposite way and vulgarised haiku by neglecting kogo. Again, we need both of these factors interacting and forming creative tension.”
  3. “The third answer may be found in the teaching of Basho, ‘Don’t follow ancient masters, seek what they tried to seek.’ We see people blindly following not only ancient masters but also modern masters without knowing what they tried to seek.”

(This last point is fascinating to me. I try to read and write haiku now asking myself these questions: “What was this poet trying to seek? Is it something I’m seeking too, or want to seek? What am I trying to seek?”)

Susumu isn’t outlining these principles as a way of creating a new, narrow definition of haiku that will further factionalize haiku poets; he sees them as very broad principles which can usefully describe a wide range of styles of haiku. He makes a very interesting analogy with schools of art:

“Avant-garde haiku poets cannot possibly be speaking the same language as fundamentalists of the traditional haiku school. In paintings, we accept the co-existence of the Old Masters, religious paintings, landscapes, still lifes, seascapes, figurative, abstract, surrealism, conceptual art, pop art, minimalist, Japanese paintings, African art, or whatever. There is no point in denying somebody else’s haiku as being not haiku, when we have such varieties of haiku poems in [so many] different languages.”

But in the end Susumu leaves behind all of these principles and details and tells it like it is: “Ultimately, we are after truths. … [T]he essence of poetry must be truths, and universal truths at that.”

Back to Basho:

“When Basho talks about fuga no makoto, this is normally interpreted as poetic sincerity. However, makoto also means truths, or true words, or true things. … In terms of poets, makoto is that which springs from their magokoro (true heart, or soul). Haiku is certainly capable of (local, particular) truths. Sometimes it is capable of universal truths and that is when great haiku poems are born.

“Poetic truths, then, must be a criterion against which inferior and dubious haiku poems can be weeded out. Haiku is part of the haiku poet’s way of life. Haiku is partly what he or she is. If he or she is not truthful his or her haiku cannot be good poetry. In today’s climate where haiku values are confused, it is important for us to go back to such stringent criterion as poetic truths.” [italics mine]

Telling the truth. I’m working on it really hard now. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s not, of course, about the facts. Sometimes the facts interfere with it, actually. (There’s nothing factual about the haiku that starts this post, but I’m hoping it’s at least a little bit true.)

So you kind of have to stumble around, trying to figure out what the truth is, exactly. But I think it’s worth it, in the end.

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What is a haiku anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haiku discipline

Another excerpt from an essay that is worth reading in its entirety.

I have been having a lot of conversations lately about what the “rules” of haiku are. Part of the problem of defining haiku in English is that the form was imported from another language with a very different structure and another country with a very different culture, so the Japanese “rules” don’t entirely work here. For this reason, we are somewhat free to make up our own.

My “rules,” as you can probably tell, change from day to day. But yes, I like the discipline of shaping the language in a very specific, stylized way to fit my thoughts.

“Writing haiku is a discipline and if you are interested in haiku you are seeking more discipline in your life. Go for it. Make rules for yourself and follow them exactly, or break them completely, outgrow them and find new ones. We are all students and no one “really” knows how to write a haiku. That, however, does not stop us from trying…”

— Jane Reichhold, Another Attempt To Define Haiku

(Written for and first posted on the Shiki International Haiku Salon, April 16, 1996)