March 31: Skinny Dipping (Prompted)

skinny dipping
the man in the moon
as shy as I am

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(NaHaiWriMo prompt for March 31st, per Alan Summers: Skin )

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So you all know there was this thing called NaHaiWriMo back in February, right? National Haiku Writing Month? Where the participants were supposed to write a haiku every day in the month of February? And about a zillion people did this, and wrote some fantastic haiku, and a lot of them got their inspiration by following prompts cooked up and posted on Facebook by Michael Dylan Welch, the First Vice-President of the Haiku Society of America and NaHaiWriMo founder?

And everyone had so much fun that they begged and whined until Michael appointed Alan Summers, who is a founding editor of haijinx and the proprietor of Area 17 and does a whole lot of other exciting things with haiku, to continue to provide haiku prompts on the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page for the month of March? And tons of people kept following along and having all kinds of fun and no one really wanted the fun to end?

Well, to my shock and delight, Michael decided to ask me to keep all these NaHaiWriMo groupies happy by providing prompts for the month of April (which happens to be National Poetry Month). So if you have a Facebook account, and you haven’t already “liked” the NaHaiWriMo page (see link above), go do that now, please, and then my prompts will start showing up in your news feed, and if you want you can even write haiku inspired by them (or haiku not inspired by them) and post them on the NaHaiWriMo page and be part of this whole wild movement.

If you don’t have and don’t want a Facebook account, fear not, I will also be posting the prompts here after I post them on Facebook, so you can follow along. If you want, you can post haiku inspired by the prompts on your own blog, if you have one. Or you can post them in my comments, and let me know if you’d like me to post them on Facebook for you. (Just be forewarned that if you post haiku here [or usually on Facebook for that matter], most journals will consider them previously published and therefore ineligible for further publication — haijinx being one notable exception, yay us.)

Now, it’s true that I have not actually been following most of the NaHaiWriMo prompts myself, in the sense of, you know, writing haiku about the topics given. (I’m ornery that way. Also really busy.) But I have been following the results of the NaHaiWriMo prompts, and I find them fascinating and wonderful. All kinds of people who might not ordinarily write haiku regularly have been doing so. They’ve been challenged to write about things they might not ordinarily think to write about. They’ve demonstrated the vast variety of haiku it’s possible to write on a single topic. They’ve developed a camaraderie, started to build a community.

So I am thrilled to have the honor of contributing to this amazing movement. (Also, any idea how much fun it is to brainstorm a long crazy list of haiku prompts? Really fun.)

Look for my prompt for April 1st to appear late tonight. (In seventeen or eighteen hours from the time I posted this, that is, for those of you who are so inconsiderate as to live in drastically different time zones from me.) See you then.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 14: Abridged Edition

Everyone have a nice Valentine’s Day? Looking forward to warmer weather? (Or cooler, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere?) Great. Glad to hear it.

Okay, got the chitchat out of the way. No time. Must be fast. Short. Abbreviated. Abridged. Yes, that’s it. This is the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books of haiku columns. Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s just my boring words that are abridged, not the haiku.

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Haiku (Etc.) of the Week

(Poems I found and liked the last couple of weeks.)

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I am giving pride of place this week to Amy Claire Rose Smith, the 13-year-old winner of the youth haiku contest at The Secret Lives of Poets. This haiku is not just “good for a thirteen-year-old.” I would be proud of having written it. Amy is the co-proprietor of The Spider Tribe Blog and Skimming the Water along with her mother, Claire Everett, also a fine haiku and tanka poet (I mean, she’s okay for a grownup, you know?) who has been featured in this space previously.

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listening
to the brook’s riddles
a moorhen and I
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— Amy Claire Rose Smith

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From Haiku Bandit Society:

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pearl diver
a full breath,
a full moon

— el coyote

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From Crows & Daisies:

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sleet shower
plum blossoms
on flickr

— Polona Oblak

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From Via Negativa:

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moon in eclipse
I remember every place
I’ve seen that ember

— Dave Bonta

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(The first line links to a spectacular photo by Dave, take a look.)

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From Morden Haiku:

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stretching out
the peloton
a hint of spring

— Matt Morden

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From scented dust:

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still winter –
a heavy book about
nutritional supplements

— Johannes S.H. Bjerg

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(Johannes has also been writing a lengthy series of haiku about penguins that are delighting my son and me. A few of them are at his blog, linked above, and he’s also been tweeting a lot of them (@jshb32). Both in English and in Danish, because I asked nicely. 🙂 Thanks, Johannes.)

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the auld fushwife
sits steekin –
her siller needle dertin
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the old fishwife
sits sewing –
her silver needle darting
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— John McDonald

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From Yay words! :

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late winter cold
I suckle
a honey drop

— Aubrie Cox

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From The Haiku Diary:

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Ripeness Is All

In the produce section:
A very pregnant woman,
smelling a grapefruit.

— Elissa

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From a handful of stones:

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Joyfulness Keeps Pushing Through

I’m reading
T. S. Eliot

Goethe
and the Old Testament

But I can’t help it

— Carl-Henrik Björck

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From haiku-usa:

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returning spring
in the dawn light she looks like
my first love

— Bill Kenney

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(Bill’s comment: “Line 1 may be a bit optimistic, but it is warming up, and, in my personal saijiki, spring begins on Valentine’s Day, regardless of the weather.”)
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have you thought
of your effect on us?
full moon
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— Stella Pierides
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(Stella’s note about the genesis of this haiku: “I wrote this haiku trying to understand aspects of (by skirting close to) Issa’s poem, posted as an epigraph on the Red Dragonfly blog.” I found this interesting because I, too, have been thinking about my epigraph lately, after having kind of pushed it to the back of my mind for some time. And loving moon haiku as I do, I really liked Stella’s take on it.)
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a bit of parade
from the sparrow …
first flakes, last snow
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— Ricky Barnes
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まどろむの活用形に春の雪   小川楓子
madoromu no katsuyôkei ni haru no yuki
.
conjugation
of ‘doze’
spring snow
.
— Fuko Ogawa, translated by Fay Aoyagi
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how many haiku
must I write…
waiting for you
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— Miriam Sagan
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(The person Miriam was waiting for in this haiku was the great Natalie Goldberg — check out the link for a wonderful story by Natalie about an evening she and Miriam spent together.)
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my gate–
just six radishes
remain in supply
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four, five, nine years
always the first to bloom…
cherry tree
.
— Issa, translated by David Lanoue
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(Does everyone know that you can get one of Issa’s haiku emailed to you daily if you ask nicely? These are a couple that landed in my inbox this week, and of course after confessing my love of number haiku I had to include them here.)
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“Class Warfare in Wisconsin: 10 Things You Should Know” (Tikkun Daily)

a long day…
field laborers
fasten stars
to the under belly of
a snail shaped moon
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— Robert D. Wilson
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(Normally I try to keep this blog a politics-free zone, but can I help it if Robert wrote a great tanka and Haiku News connected it to a headline about the protests in my state against the governor’s budget bill? I’m all for art for art’s sake, but if art happens to intersect with politics in an artistically pleasing way, I’m all for that too.)

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A Story, A Story

At jornales, Alegria Imperial recently recounted a wonderful story (originally written for the Vancouver Haiku Group) about meeting a Japanese woman who critiqued her haiku in a way that seems to me very reminiscent of the way that Momoko critiques Abigail Freedman’s haiku in The Haiku Apprentice, something I wrote about not so long ago. The point of both Momoko and Mutsumi, Alegria’s mentor, is that haiku must come from the heart, must not just be a linguistic or intellectual exercise but must express something fundamental about what the poet is feeling.
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I think you should really go over and read the whole story yourself, but I’ll quote a few choice passages to give you an idea of what it’s all about.
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The white gold moon: A Japanese haiku experience
Or how a hole in the sky turned into a pair of wings in my heart

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Mutsumi and I did meet over spare egg sandwiches and coconut muffins at the 411 Seniors Centre Cafeteria. … I laid the printed sheets out on the table, two pages of ten haiku. I had noticed her wince as she read them and then, she pushed the pages away.

… She pointed to one of them and asked me, or to my mind, accused me, “Where is your heart?”

The haiku she had her forefinger on is this:

hole in dark sky?
but
the white moon

… “When you wrote this how did you feel?”

“Well, in the dark night sky on a full moon, I looked up and there was the moon like a white hole in the sky.”

“So…”

“Seeing a hole although it was bright sort of scared me but it also delighted me because I realized it is but the moon.”

“And so…”

“That’s it.”

“That’s why, it can’t be a haiku. It cannot stop there. It has to stop right here,” she tapped her chest with her hand and to mine, finally a gesture which uplifted me, “in the heart, your heart.”

We plumbed the idea deeper. She focused on my delight to see the moon. What did I want to do about it? And how would I have wanted to reach the moon. I said the only I could would be “to fly”. She began to smile and latched on to the image, to the idea of flying. She asked how I would have wanted to fly. And I said with wings, of course.

“But you can’t have wings. Still you can fly with your thoughts, your thoughts of happiness,” she said. “Think of where these come from,” she urged me on.

“In my heart, of course!”

“There you are! There is your haiku!”

She took the piece of paper from my hand and began writing in Japanese, translating the characters into this:

gin-iro* tsuki no hikari*
kurai yoru watashi no kokoro
tsubasa

I asked what each word meant and the haiku flowed:

white gold moon
on a dark night in my heart
a pair of wings

— Alegria Imperial


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Dead Tree News: Journaled

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Frogpond, the venerable journal of the Haiku Society of America, edited by George Swede, came in the mail last week. First I clasped it to my heart and carried it around with me everywhere for a few days. Then I started making the difficult decisions about which tiny portion of the contents I could share with you guys. Here’s what I came up with:

First of all, I’ll mention right off the bat that there was an essay by Randy Brooks called “Where Do Haiku Come From?” that I am going to have to write a separate post about because I can’t do it justice here. So remind me about that if I haven’t come through in, say, a couple of months.

There were also a couple of interesting and related essays by Ruth Yarrow and David Grayson about bringing current events and economic realities into the writing of haiku. Ruth wrote about the recent/current financial crisis and David about homelessness. Both discussed the importance of not neglecting this aspect of our reality when we look for haiku material; David also discussed how to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality and cliche when dealing with topics that start out with such strong emotional associations. I tend to think that the reality of the urban environment and the modern political and economic climate are seriously neglected in haiku (and I am as guilty as anyone else of neglecting them), so I was happy to see these essays here.

Second of all, here are the titles of some haibun you might want to take a look at if a copy of Frogpond falls into your path (which it will do if you join the Haiku Society of America, hint hint):

Little Changes, by Peter Newton; The First Cold Nights, by Theresa Williams; Not Amused, by Ray Rasmussen; Marry Me, by Genie Nakano; Gail, by Lynn Edge; This Strange Summer, by Aurora Antonovic; Home, by John Stevenson; Looking Back, by Roberta Beary; Koln, by David Grayson.

And lastly … the haiku. Those that particularly struck me for whatever reason:

sunset
warmth from within
the egg

— Johnette Downing

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high beams visit
a small bedroom
my thin cotton life

— Dan Schwerin

 

coffee house babble
among all the voices
my conscience

— Robert Moyer

 

pruning
the bonsai…
my knotty life

— Charlotte DiGregorio

 

if only she had been buried wild crimson cyclamen

— Clare McCotter

 

Christmas tree
wrong from every angle
trial separation

— Marsh Muirhead

 

morning obituaries …
there i am
between the lines

— Don Korobkin

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full moon —
all night the howling
of snowmobiles

— John Soules

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the cumulonimbus
full of faces
hiroshima day

— Sheila Windsor

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leaves changing…
the river
………….lets me be who I am

— Francine Banwarth

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Done! Okay, for me, that really wasn’t bad.

Just wanted to say that I will probably not have another Haikuverse update for at least 3 weeks, possibly 4, since in March I will be contending vigorously with midterms, family visits, a new job, and oh, yeah, this haijinx column gig. (Send me news!) I’ll miss droning endlessly on at you guys but at least this will give you a chance to catch up with all the old columns.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 13: Lucky Edition

Yes, this is the thirteenth edition of the Haikuverse and it is appearing on the thirteenth of February. But don’t worry, nothing can possibly go wrong! I’m a very experienced tour guide and I’ve never lost a passenger yet. Just don’t touch that red button over there on the control panel marked “Eject.” Got that? Okay, I’m gonna count you all at the end to make sure one of you didn’t give in to your curiosity. (Haiku poets, like cats, are notorious for their curiosity.)

I’m feeling a little bumptious tonight because I just got back from a great meeting of the Midwest Regional Chapter of the Haiku Society of America. It was wonderful seeing other haiku poets in person, which I very rarely do, although of course I adore interacting with all you people on the blog and via email and Facebook and Twitter … man, I love living in a time when such things are possible. But real live human beings are impossible to resist, even when you have to drive three hours one way to go see them.

Sadly, I overslept (up too late writing haiku again) and got slightly lost a couple of times on the way there, so I missed Charlotte DiGregorio‘s presentation on haiku for beginners, which I would have liked to hear because I am always trying to figure out good ways to explain haiku to beginners myself. But I did catch superlative presentations by Heather Jagman on Issa (you may think I already know a bit about Issa, but believe me, Heather knows more) and by Michael Nickels-Wisdom on the highly original Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, whose collected works I have made a note to buy very soon. (I should write more about these talks later when I don’t have three thousand other words to write.)

And, of course, I saw a lot of the fantastic people I met at the “Cradle of American Haiku” conference last September (Charlotte and Heather among them), and met a lot of new fantastic people. A bunch of us had lunch together afterwards. It was weird to be at a whole long table full of haiku poets, but fun. I guess I should get out more.

Anyway. You would really rather read good poetry than my incoherent ramblings about my inadequate social life, wouldn’t you? Fine. The tour will now commence. Don’t touch the red button.

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Haiku (Haibun, Haiga, Etc.) Of the Week

The usual disclaimers apply. A random and eccentric sampling of haiku that gave me the shivers in the last couple of weeks.

Note: It was really hard these last couple of weeks because NaHaiWriMo has increased everyone’s output so considerably, and so much of that output is so good. Tons of it is on Facebook, tons of it is on Twitter. Some people (I love these people, even though I’m not one of them) are keeping it on their blogs. I made the executive decision not to feature any of the NaHaiku that exist only on social media sites, because there would be no end to it if I started to copy-paste every single haiku I’ve “liked” on Facebook or retweeted on Twitter in the last two weeks. I would have a nervous breakdown, and you don’t want to see what that looks like.

Another note: I know it seems like I feature the same people here over and over again. That’s because I kind of do. Please don’t think I don’t know that there are about ten thousand more fantastic haiku poets in the world than the ones that keep showing up on this blog. But these are mostly the ones who keep blogs themselves, blogs that a) I’ve managed to discover (feel free to send me URLs of any haiku blogs you love that you don’t think I’ve discovered); b) I love to pieces, so I really can’t help wanting everyone else to love them too.

I do try to honor and pass around the work of poets who don’t keep blogs in various other ways — by, as I mentioned, showing my appreciation on Facebook and Twitter, and by singling out in this column my favorite haiku published in  journals. (See this week’s “Dead Tree News,” for instance.) Again, let me know about any journals or other publications I’ve missed. Keeping up with the frantic and increasing activity in every corner of the Haikuverse would be a full-time job if I let it be. I welcome reports from correspondents in areas I may not have traveled heavily.

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From The Spider Tribe’s Blog (an excerpt from a “tanka sonnet”):

the first splash
of ewe’s milk…
snowdrops

— Claire Everett

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From feathers:

snow-fog field
geese ignore the sound
of my phone

— Angie Werren

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From Haiku Bandit Society:

an empty screen;
a crow’s broad wings
disappear into glass

— William Sorlien

(And while you’re over there, make sure you check out this great haibun of Willie’s.)

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Speaking of haibun, there was one I loved at Heed Not Steve recently. Here’s the haiku:

an icy breeze
whistling through bare limbs
the future

— Steve Mitchell

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An “after” from Bill Kenney at haiku-usa:

first snow
having looked at it
I wash my face

— Etsujin 1656-1739

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From scented dust:


February rain
stacking pills too round
to stack

— Johannes S.H. Bjerg

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From season creep:

summer afternoon
on hats
the sound of rain

— Comrade Harps

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From Yay words! (a NaHaiWriMo entry):


snow day—
I cradle a bowl
of steamed rice

— Aubrie Cox

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From zen speug:

lightning
lingering
on the snowdrops

— John McDonald

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From jornales:

meringue—
the children’s laughter
rise in the air

— Alegria Imperial

(By the way, lately Alegria has been writing some really fascinating meditations on her own haiku and the writing of haiku in general. Wander around over there and take a look at some of them.)
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From my Facebook page, where Vincent Hoarau left me this great birthday present (a response to one of my own haiku):

les étoiles

exactement les mêmes

qu’à ma naissance

.

the stars

exactly the same

as the day i was born

— vincent

(By the way, a lot of people wrote me great haiku for my birthday, many of them on this very blog. They were amazing gifts. Thanks, Bill and Rick and Alegria.)
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From Blue Willow Haiku World:


春浅し旧姓で待つ上野駅   森 裕子
haru asashi kyûsei de matsu ueno-eki

early spring
with my maiden name
I wait at Ueno Station

— Yuko Mori, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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From The Perpetual Bird:

waning moon—
stars coming back
that were never gone

— Joseph Hutchinson

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From A Lousy Mirror, a fascinating online publication by Robert D. Wilson:

dry wheat grass . . .
the whiteness of
a child dying
— Robert D. Wilson
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From see haiku here: a wonderful haiga based on this haiku —

a cuckoo’s flight —
dissecting diagonally
the emperor’s city of Heian

— Buson

Kuniharu wrote the following fascinating commentary about this haiga, which will make no sense to you if you don’t go look at the haiga, people.

“Hototogisu, or cuckoo, is the kigo of summer, so this haiku is about the season. But what interests me is the word ‘diagonally.’

The city of Heian is a planned city, modeled after old Chinese capital city; the streets are just like in the haiga, in rigid lattice. And this lattice shape corrisponds to the ritual manner also. Many formal ceremonies took place at the emperor’s palace. One basic rule of human movements in the formal ritual is that you never move diagonally, they should be always right-angled. …

Knowing all these, our appreciation of the word ‘diagonally’ deepens more. Cuckoo is so free, free from all the rigidness and restraints in human world, which culminates at the emperor’s city.”

— Kuniharu Shimizu

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From Roadrunner, August 2008, Issue VIII:3:

I can’t reproduce this here, but you absolutely have to go take a look at it. Scott Metz put together an interactive graphic that reveals some “found haiku” in poetry of Whitman and Thoreau. It’s stunning.

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Deep Thought

This isn’t directly about haiku, but if you like haiku I’m pretty sure you’ll like this. (Your money back if not completely satisfied.)

A while back I mentioned in this column my sadness at the fact that David Marshall was giving up his five-year-old haiku streak. Well, I’ve been finding my grief easier to bear since starting to follow his prose blog, Signals to Attend. David’s writing itself is beautiful — clear and concrete and at the same time lyrical and original — but even more important, what he writes about is in my view urgently worth writing about (I’m talking about a big-picture kind of urgency, not a news-at-ten kind of urgency).

One of his recent essays, “Making Scenes,” seems especially valuable for haiku writers (and other human beings, but this is at least theoretically a haiku blog). He starts out by saying simply, “I like to think about what people are doing right now,” and gives a list of examples — “a seventh-grade girlfriend talking to her new son-in-law,” “a former student hanging a print in a narrow apartment powder room.” People he knows, people he doesn’t know, mostly all doing the kind of mundane things we do all day that make up the vital texture of our lives. “[A] sort of peace,” David writes, “settles in me when I imagine everyone okay.” On News at Ten, after all, something terrible is always happening to someone. But something terrible is not happening to most of us most of the time. If you take the time to look around the world at what people are doing, you’ll mostly find them at a myriad of ordinary activities.

Then David jumps straight from the daily routines of humanity into poetry — in particular, Walt Whitman. “Little moments,” David says, “populate [Whitman’s] poems,” moments that are “companionable, reaffirming people flow in one river that, at least in our daily lives, moves in similar ways to the same sea.” He quotes Whitman on the universality of human experience across time and space:

“I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence; …
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d; …”

This amazing verse of Whitman’s ramps up the reader’s expectations, and David doesn’t let them down in the final paragraph of his essay. He wonders if technology is really helping us to empathize with each other or is further emphasizing our tendencies toward individuality and solipsism. After all, he reminds us, “we have imagination. Why can’t we see how closely other lives parallel our own, how, at any instant, we are all acting in the same scenes?”

To me, this is what poets do, or at least should do. They use the power of a sympathetic imagination to place themselves in the situation of another human being, to see the world from another person’s point of view, to figure out what makes other people tick. Maybe this is part of why, when people talk about the necessity of haiku faithfully reflecting our personal experience, it troubles me slightly. Obviously there isn’t anything wrong with reporting our own experience in poetry — sharing our experiences is one of the things that helps other people imagine what it’s like to be us. But we have to return the favor. We have to remember that we’re part of the wide river of humanity, and try to place ourselves in context in that stream by looking around us and thinking about what’s going on in the lives and hearts of other people.

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Dead Tree News

A couple more print journals came in the mail for me this week. One was the venerable Modern Haiku, which has been around for several decades now and is going stronger than ever under the editorship of Charles Trumbull. The other was the very-recently-started, but already well-established, tanka journal Moonbathing, which features exclusively tanka by women and is edited by Pamela A. Babusci. (I wrote more about Moonbathing in Haikuverse no. 11, with information about how to contact Pamela for submission and subscription information.)

Modern Haiku 42:1, featuring the stunning Eagle Nebula on the cover (I know what it is because my physics-major husband told me, not because I have a nebula-classifying hobby — not that there’s anything wrong with that!), is full of so many things — haiku and senryu, haibun, haiga, essays, book reviews, news — that getting through it all has eaten up much of my free-reading time for the last week or so. I cannot possibly tell you all the things that impressed me in here. I will say that I thought the haibun selection was outstanding, and I am very picky about haibun. Then there were the haiku … okay, you’ve been patient, here’s a ridiculously small selection of the juicy stuff:

sparkler
at
its
end
cicadas

— Joyce Clement

 

nothing more to say —
the thunk
of an axe at sundown

—Susan Constable

 

I read aloud
the part about the rabbit hole …
falling snow

— Sari Grandstaff

 

How can one write
This ceaseless rain
Makes everything inseparable

— M Hasan

 

larch
burl
hack
marks
another
miracle
cure

— Mark F. Harris

 

father’s day —
an airplane flies us over
the fault line

— Michael Meyerhofer

 

 

goldenrod —
as if I should be happy
to hear from her

— Christopher Patchel

 

back from the war
all his doors
swollen shut

— Bill Pauly

in an urn
if only she knew
its pear shape

— George Swede

Einkaufszentrummenschen!
Wisst ihr wie bald wir
sterben werden?
.
mall people!
do you know how soon
we will die?

— Dietmar Tauchner

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I am still trying to figure out tanka. I’m getting there, I think. But I still have a reflexive feeling much of the time when I read tanka that they are overgrown haiku that need to be pruned. Tanka aren’t just long haiku, of course, they have different aims than haiku — they’re much more personal, much more about feelings — so it’s not fair to judge them by haiku standards. And I did enjoy a great deal of what I read in Moonbathing. For instance(s):

rising winds
scatter fallen leaves
I hang
swinging between
two moons

— Marilyn Humbert

 

the illegitimate child —
I imagine turning up
on their doorstep
one day
in a bright red beret

— Angela Leuck

 

a gray cloud
through the window
motionless…
when I close my eyes
a single cry of migrating birds

— Sasa Vazic

 

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Ready to cry uncle yet? (So often that’s people’s response to my helpful attempts to educate and reform them. Baffling.) Okay, I’ll open the hatch in just a moment, but first I want to know … did anyone press the red button? Anyone? Anyone?

No one? Okay, I guess my perfect record stands intact. No one yet has died of reading too much haiku. Not on my watch, anyway. And I have just scientifically proven that there is nothing unlucky about the number thirteen. Relax. Go write a nice little poem.

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…