my wedding ring stuck
in the drain
Second Place, Jane Reichhold International Prize
my wedding ring stuck
in the drain
Second Place, Jane Reichhold International Prize
to see what’s sprouted
we’re separated now
by the life span
of squash and cucumbers
on the way
to see the apple blossoms —
I admire how
your story changes
with every streetlight
(Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, 7:1, Spring 2011)
Tanka. I keep mentioning tanka in what I know is this extremely skeptical tone of voice. I spent a long time trying not to think about them. I think I was having a hard enough time trying to understand haiku (not that that process is or ever will be over for me) and seeing these tanka things, which looked kind of like haiku but were the wrong length and sounded very different, confused me. And kind of annoyed me, too, because a lot of them (although not, by any means, as high a percentage as I used to think) are flowery and dreamy and romantic and … I’m not. Flowery, dreamy, romantic things usually just make me want to go balance my checkbook or something. Or throw up. (Yes, I am a fun date. Thanks for asking.)
So I was all grouchy about tanka and didn’t even want to learn anything about it, which is unusual for me because generally I want to learn everything about everything, and the sooner the better. I sneered at and winced about and cast aspersions on tanka … and then, at some point this winter, I started writing it. Still without having the slightest idea what it actually was. Don’t ask me what that was all about. I think I was just having one of those days where haiku seemed too short. You know those days. Where you’re like “Seventeen syllables? Max? Give me a break.”
I wrote a bunch of these things and eyed them warily, and then heaved a weary sigh and went crawling humbly around the web to find out what I had done. I was thrilled to find this essay about the origins of tanka by Jane Reichhold, because it’s very funny and made me feel like maybe I didn’t have to worry so much about tanka but could just enjoy it:
“From tanka’s long history – over 1300 years recorded in Japan — the most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers. Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji, the little poem expressing one’s feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return to his master.
Usually under some pressure – the writer had probably been either awake or engaged in strenuous activities all night – to write a verse that related, in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one’s feelings, and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again was not an easy task. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the personal messenger on his way with a note so written that he couldn’t know exactly what was what but that the beloved would understand and appreciate. Then the giggling servants would get back to work.
“…Looking at tanka history it seems that the only infallible way of writing great tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Do it now. But that doesn’t mean that it must be a behind-the-bushes affair in the no-tell motel. Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons; your own kids, grandkids or even – your mate, or just life itself. Whatever feels good and right for you.
Because of their original use as a way of privately expressing emotion and especially between friends and lovers unhappy because they are separated, the feelings expressed in traditional tanka were usually either longing for better time, more faithful lovers, younger years or grief because of old age, lack of lovers, or hard times. You get the picture. When reading a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.”
— Jane Reichhold, “Tanka for the Memory“
So that was my first tanka breakthrough. My second happened when I humbly sent a bunch of my lame tanka off to be edited by Aubrie Cox, who graciously refrained from telling me I had no idea what I was doing and with her magical touch lightly and deftly transformed the least lame of them into something that a tanka editor might not be too appalled to see appearing in his or her inbox. The two above are the first I had accepted for publication. It felt pretty weird, I have to tell you. “Wait — I’m not a tanka poet. Am I? Oh God. I guess I am. Can I go throw up now?”
I’ve gotten over it, though. For one thing, I’ve actually read a lot of tanka since then, and a lot of it I like a lot. Also, some of my best friends are wonderful tanka poets, so I’ve really had to force myself to examine my unwarranted prejudices. If you get this issue of Ribbons, for instance (which I highly recommend you do), you will find the following stupendous tanka by my buddy Margaret Dornaus of haiku-doodle gracing the back cover, and being wonderfully and lovingly dissected inside the journal by its editor, Dave Bacharach:
at Toad Suck
I contemplate syllables
and old ponds
like a child puddle-jumping
loudly through soft falling rain
— Margaret Dornaus
And right next to it you will find another stupendous tanka by Jeffrey Woodward (Haibun Today editor extraordinaire), which Bacharach has deliberately placed in counterpoint with Margaret’s:
but with a slight tang,
and twisted little
apples of Winesburg
— Jeffrey Woodward
Even I have to admit that there is nothing romantic, dreamy, etc. about either of these tanka, and that they are, in fact, quite brilliant and thought-provoking poems that just happen to be two lines longer than your typical haiku and to be attempting something rather different though not entirely unconnected. If you’re looking for a better explanation than I or probably anyone else but R.H. Blyth could provide of what exactly that something is, check out this essay by Don Wentworth over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, which gives us plenty of Blyth for our delectation.
For even more tanka information, Tanka Online and American Tanka are good places to look, and Charlotte Digregorio has recently written an essay on her blog that is a good, brief introduction to the subject. Besides Ribbons, the print journals Moonbathing, Eucalypt, and red lights publish tanka exclusively; bottle rockets publishes it among other Japanese verse forms, and so does the online journal Notes from the Gean. I’m probably forgetting someone. As I so often do. Feel free, as always, to tell me what I’m missing.
[Note: If you subscribe to this blog, you are not imagining things. Another version of this essay appeared a few days ago. It was an accident — it wasn’t finished yet — and I promptly deleted it. Sorry about the confusion.]
So. It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. (That’s a line from some song we sang at our third-grade choral concert. Amazing that I still remember it.)
This is how long it was: Have you ever had one of those dreams where the whole time you knew something really great was about to happen, something really fantastic you could hardly wait for, and the dream went on and on and all kinds of other humdrum, boring things happened, and you were thinking, “Okay, isn’t it about time the really great thing happened now?”, and then it was just about to happen, oh man, and … you woke up. And it never happened.
Yeah. I was seriously afraid this winter was going to turn out to be like one of those dreams. There was the cold. And the snow. And the more cold. And the unrelenting brownness and grayness. … Did I mention the cold? All through March. All through April. Into May. May!
Everyone else in the world (it seemed) was writing these cheerful blossom haiku and I kept looking out my window wondering if this was one of those dreams after all. Cold rain. Bare branches. Me shivering in my sweaters and occasionally even long underwear still, the grass like straw, the cold! so painful it felt like some kind of bone disease! (Should I go to the doctor?)
Well. So okay, it was still only about fifty degrees today with a stiff breeze. But there was sun! There’s supposed to be sun all week. And there are flowers everywhere. There are blossoms! There are lilacs! The grass is green, the leaves are green. …It finally happened!
Not only that, but I handed in my last assignments of the semester last week. Another thing I thought would never happen. And my son finally got his driver’s license, which means I don’t have to drive him everywhere anymore. [Though he will kill me if I don’t mention that he’s been getting himself practically everywhere on his bike since he was like ten, so it’s not like I’ve been a slave to his transportation.]
And my husband finally got over whatever microbial infestation had him in its death grip for the last month, so he can do something besides sit around making exploding-lung noises. Like take me to the Arboretum to look at apple blossoms. And wait patiently while I scribble illegible things about them in a notebook. Cold and lonely no more. So glad that dream is over.
falling in love with a memory apple blossoms
Haiku of the Month: All Spring and Summer, All the Time
I’ve mentioned before how you can follow the world’s weather patterns by observing the haiku that is posted on the Internet. Well, I was looking through all the haiku I had collected over the last three weeks and noticed that not a single one referred to autumn or winter. (I must not have been hanging out on enough southern hemisphere blogs or something. I apologize to that half of the globe.)
a girl’s shadow
swims from my ankles
— Lorin Ford, Mann Library’s Daily Haiku
as it lands
the mallard shatters the house
in the river
— Polona Oblak, Crows & Daisies
the shapes of chins
in a crowd
— an’ya, DailyHaiga
(Please go visit this very lovely haiga.)
spring dusk –
the river pauses
for a moment
to take the weight
of a swan
— Paul Smith, Paper Moon
settling on all
the unfound eggs
— Pearl Nelson, Pearl Nelson
a card game called
— Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
summer rain I’m still a fool around gravity
— Johannes S.H. Bjerg, scented dust
a careless butterfly:
lost among thousands
of heavy raindrops
— Vladimir Devide/haiga by Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here
“The typhoon rain seems to have stopped this morning here, but the clouds are still pretty heavy. People walking on the street are taking umbrella along. Small insects, however, are sometimes careless and venture into the pouring rain only to be slapped down on the ground.
I heard that when the tsunami was approaching, quite a few people actually went out to the pier or seaside to watch the wave. How careless I thought, but I guess that is what happens when one underestimates the real power of the nature. Being curious and being careful are both the working of the mind. It makes a big difference which working one chooses in time of danger. I certainly choose not to be a careless butterfly.”
— Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here
harusamu no yama no hitotsu ga hagurekeri
one of the mountains
— Shinji Saito, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
it has to end:
to cherry blossoms
— Alegria Imperial, jornales
cherry petals are falling
— Taro Kunugi, from Donna Fleischer’s Word Pond
that life owes me
– lupins !
— Mark Holloway, Beachcombing for the Landlocked
(I had a hard time choosing between this tanka and several others Mark posted this week that were equally wonderful. You should really go over there and decide for yourself which is your favorite.)
between tour groups
just the garden
— Sandra Simpson, DailyHaiku
open scissors beside a vase of water
— Eve Luckring, from A New Resonance : Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, Red Moon Press, 2009, quoted on Basho’s Road
This is the toy theatre room. You’ll notice the wooden Lawyer. Took forty-two hours to get his jaw right. We’re staging Visions on Wednesday. You should come.
— Ben Pullar, a handful of stones
(You’re right, this is not a haiku. It’s a small stone, which is sometimes the same thing and sometimes not. You should let Fiona Robyn tell you about them if you don’t already know. And this reminds me — Fiona and her fiance Kaspalita, who are getting married on June 18, are asking for a wedding present of small stones written on their wedding day. They are lovely people and if you write them a poem I promise you’ll get some good karma. Shhhh. Don’t tell them I told you.)
Web Wide World
So much fun stuff to read this month, so little time…
“Understanding Modern English-Language Haiku” from Winning Writers, April 2010
This is a fascinating essay that features the editors of five haiku journals speaking about the process they go through when writing haiku in general and one specific haiku in particular. The introductory remarks feature a discussion of one of my pet peeves, how profoundly haiku is marginalized in the wider world of poetry and the serious ignorance and misunderstanding of what haiku is among mainstream poets.
It’s encouraging that this essay appears on a mainstream poetry website. I hope that the remarks of Jane Reichhold, John Stevenson, George Swede, Linda Papanicolau, and Colin Stewart Jones do something to enlighten at least a few writers about the real nature and potential of haiku.
the dashboard lights
of another car
— John Stevenson
Speaking of Colin Stewart Jones…I got the link to that last essay off his blog, serendipiku, which is very interesting, as is his static website, also, slightly confusingly, called serendipiku. (It’s called branding, I guess. I must get with the times. Nice work, Col.)
Colin is a wonderful poet and artist. His one-word bird haiga are really fun, and I especially like his graphic haibun, which are unlike any other haibun you’ve ever seen. I recommend in particular “Menu” and “Burberry” and “Midsummer Moon.” The last, about insomnia, contains one of my favorite poetic lines of the month: “Can’t even conjure up a pathetic fallacy.”A possibly crippling ailment for some writers of haiku, probably including me.
almost thirty years now
since I was
the twelve-year-old boy
looking over a high wall
— Colin Stewart Jones (originally published in Muse India 37, May/June 2011)
You can download this unpublished manuscript from 1959, by Harold J. Isaacson and Helen Shigeko Isaacson, from the Internet Archive (an amazing collection of online texts, images, and audio which if you aren’t careful will suck you into its orbit and never let you go).
It’s an excellent collection of classical haiku about insects, with commentary. What makes it really interesting, though (to me, anyway, big geek that I am), is that the translations incorporate (untranslated, because they have no real translation) the kireji or cutting words (ya, kana, and keri) that the Japanese employ in many of their haiku for emphasis and/or as a way of marking a pause between the two parts of the poem.
Here are a couple of examples:
the helmet on which sleeps
a butterfly kana
— Choi, tr. Isaacson
Golden flies ya
Where on the ground has spilled
a melon’s entrails
— Chikuba, tr. Isaacson
At first I thought this manner of translation was very strange and awkward and disliked it. But now I kind of like the rhythm it gives and feel that in some ways it helps me understand better what these poems must be like in the original. I wouldn’t want these to be the only translations I read of these haiku, but I think there’s definitely a place for them in the world. That’s my final answer.
Women Poets of Japan from The Green Leaf
“The Green Leaf” has a lot on it, from mainstream poems by contemporary authors to classical haiku in translation to vast quantities of photo haiga to contemporary haiku to…the works of women poets of Japan, which is what I feel like featuring today because I just do, okay? The whole site, though, is well worth rummaging around in, though it feels incomplete and uneven (but who am I to talk) and also it does something which drives me completely out of my mind, which is fail to credit the translator of translated poems.
I hate this because it’s inconsiderate not only to the translator, who has done a very difficult job that deserves to be acknowledged, but to readers who might like to know where they can seek out (or, ahem, avoid) other translations by a particular translator or compare translations between translators. So I was feeling a strange mixture of annoyance and delight as I browsed around here. But then I came upon this tanka and forgave everything.
Gazing across the fields,
at Taketa I hear the cranes
not a space not a moment
of pause in my longing.
— Lady Otomo-no-Sakanoue (8th century)
(There’s a haiga of this poem, too, if you follow the link from the poet’s name above.)
So Jane Reichhold has done it again. Last year when I was just getting started writing haiku I used Jane’s list of 24 haiku-writing techniques to help me understand what haiku were all about and all the different ways they can be written. You can find her list here on the web and also in her excellent book, Writing and Enjoying Haiku.
Jane is great at explaining how haiku work and breaking down the process of writing them in a way even a more-or-less clueless newbie can understand, as I can attest. She does have her own particular understanding of what haiku are, which is not necessarily everyone’s understanding, but hey, who doesn’t.
Anyway, what she’s done now is create this series of fourteen quite brief lessons that take a beginner through the process of learning what a haiku is, what the various parts of a haiku are, what a good haiku looks and feels and sounds like. You could do way worse as a beginner than start with these lessons and their exercises. I really like this one, for instance:
“Find a haiku that you really admire and write it [down]. It would be kind to the author to record his or her name and where you found the poem.
Then begin to rewrite the poem. Maybe start by just changing one word. Or changing one line. Or take a phrase of image you greatly admire and see how many ways you can make it work with other images.”
— Jane Reichhold, “Bare Bones Haiku, Lesson Two: Before Writing Your Own Haiku“
(Disclaimer: Obviously, this is just an exercise for your own poetic development — you wouldn’t want to try to publish the results of this exercise or pass them off as your own poetry unless they ended up really, really, really different from the originals.)
Once again The Haiku Foundation has created a very cool resource for readers and writers of haiku, which is this archive of past winners of most of the major haiku contests. If you are looking for an online collection of excellent contemporary haiku, needless to say this would be a good place to start.
This is an older (2001) essay by Florence Vilen, discussing when and how repetition makes haiku more effective. Most of the essay is taken up by examples, which really is my favorite kind of essay. And haiku with repetition are some of my favorite kind of haiku, so this made me very happy.
the sound they make
the sound I make
— Gary Hotham
Dead Tree News
So you wanna see the most adorable haiku book ever published? Do you? Do you? You do? Yay! Okay…here’s the cover:
Yes…that is a hand-sewn Japanese binding in red thread, thanks for asking. And that is a tiny little sketch of the moon reflected in a teacup. I did say it was adorable, didn’t I?
… Not sold yet? Looking for some more substance? Okay, here are a couple of the inside pages:
… I know, right? All the pages are like that. Aubrie’s haiku are amazing, and Katie’s illustrations are awesome, and you just keep looking through the book going, “Why don’t more people write more haiku that so movingly combine the personal and the universal, that are filled with such astute and original observations of the concrete world, that are simultaneously mercilessly honest and lovingly generous?… And then why don’t they have an artist with the same rare sensibility draw touching little illustrations to go with their haiku… And then why don’t they put the whole thing together in a lovingly designed package and sew it up with red thread?”
It’s a mystery, really. But I wouldn’t spend too long agonizing over it. Just get the book and enjoy it. You’re welcome.
Sigh. No matter how much I write it always feels like I’m forgetting something. If you figure out what it is, let me know, okay? I’m getting old, I need help with these things.
what I meant to say
still folded into
I’m feeling a little bossy this week, maybe because I’ve spent so much of it being bossed around now that I’m back at school and work after my long winter break. “Read this! Write that! Discuss! Answer these questions! Learn this XML syntax! Go to this meeting! Hand in the proper forms! Scan these photos!” Yes, yes, I know it’s the way of the world. And of course, all these things I’m being commanded to do are tons of fun and highly educational. It’s for my own good, really. But it does get a bit wearying. And I start to think, “So why can’t I give people orders to do things that are entertaining and edifying?”
So as your tour guide this week I will be issuing firm commands rather than making quiet observations or gentle suggestions. Obviously, you’re always free to ignore me and wander away to find a cup of coffee and a slightly more soft-spoken guide. But try to just go with it, okay? Pretend you’re taking, I don’t know, Haiku 101, and if you don’t do your assignments, a door will be opened and a man-eating tiger will be released … no, wait, that’s a Monty Python skit. Well, whatever. Humor me, is all I’m saying. I’m tired.
That is, the haiku (and tanka) I stumbled on this week that made me stop and go, “Wait…what? That was cool. Say it again!”
From Morden Haiku:
sometimes it’s hard to know
if it’s ending or beginning
— Matt Morden
From Daily Haiku:
the silver statue of a man
i don’t know
From scented dust:
biting an applethe silent skyof midwinter— Johannes S.H. Bjerg
Who is to say
that the restlessness
after I tear a few pages
and break a few things?
I love you
she’d said until
the words were hieroglyphs
faded, in need
folding and unfolding
– Christopher Herold
From Blue Willow Haiku World:
keito-ami hajimari tsuma no moda hajimaru
my wife’s silence
— Shuson Kato, translated by Fay Aoyagi
where lightning bugs flash
— Max Stites
fall away, and yet …
— Mark Holloway
From Yay words!:
if I’m still
— Aubrie Cox
A note about this one: As with all good poetry, you can easily understand and appreciate this piece without having any additional knowledge of the backstory. But in this case, the backstory happens to be really fun. And there is actually a long tradition in Japan of publishing haiku with explanatory commentary (according, anyway, to Abigail Freedman’s The Haiku Apprentice, a book I’ll talk about more in “Dead Tree News” today). I’ll let Aubrie do the explaining, since it’s her story:
“My grandmother has never understood much of anything I do. On several occasions when she asked what classes I was taking I’d say something like, ‘Haiku writing roundtable,’ being exceptionally vague. I’ve always been apprehensive about showing her anything, because I know she’d take everything at face value. A couple times she picked up one of the collections I’d made of my work and opened to a random page, only to grill me for answers as to what the micropoems meant. So when I published my first haiku:
from his side of the grate
(bottle rockets #21)
I wrote a senryu that reflected how I thought she’d react:
first serial publication
when I started drinking
(bottle rockets #22)
“One day she said she had Googled me and found my haiku. For a moment, my brain just shut down. It’s not that I don’t love my grandmother, but I had a really hard time trying to think where to begin when she started asking what this and that meant. Even more so when she asked, ‘So how do you write a haiku?’ She noted on her own that all of them seemed to have two images, but couldn’t figure out the significance. Mum and I tried to explain it to her, but I felt hard pressed where to start. That was probably about a year (or more) ago.
“This last Friday, I went over to my grandparents’ to pick up some dishes my mother had left at Christmas. While handing me the dishes (saying there was a surprise for me inside), my grandmother asked about school. I glossed over my tanka and renga courses by calling them, ‘Writing classes.’ That’s when she asked, ‘So are you still doing that poetry thing… sudoku?’ Immediately, she caught herself when I started to crack up and I told her the word she was looking for. I told her yes and left it at that. When I got into the car, I peeked inside the bag to find a homemade jar of raspberry jam. And thus a kyoka was created.”
— Aubrie Cox
Me again: I think from now on whenever anyone asks me what kind of poetry I write I will say “sudoku” and see how many of them register any kind of confusion.
Check It Out
The journals published recently, that is. First, Contemporary Haibun Online. This is one of my favorite places for haibun, always worth perusing for an hour or three. Most haibun are really too long to post here in their entirety (I mean, you already think this column is way too long, don’t you?), but my favorites in this issue by author’s last name were these: Baker, Coats, delValle, Felton, Harvey, Kessler, Lucky, Myers, Rohrig, Rowe.
Oh, okay, you talked me into it, I’ll just throw in one here because it’s really short.
Nothing lasts. Closet doors, light bulbs, refrigerators, paint, jeans – they break, burn out, quit, fade, fray. Even the breath dies. In my fifth decade, I try to pay attention, but mostly, my lungs go unnoticed.
waxing moon disappears
in a wisp of cloud
— Deb Baker
LYNX also published this week — you may have noticed. This is the journal edited by Jane and Werner Reichhold, and I am thrilled to be published by them since Jane was so instrumental in inspiring me to write haiku and helping me get started learning about it.
LYNX focuses on collaborative and linking forms of poetry, as well as sequences by individual poets, but it also publishes some stand-alone poems. I’ll start with some excerpts from the collaborations — although they are well worth reading in their entirety, again, they’re a little too long to post here. Consider this an amuse-bouche. (I had dinner at a fancy restaurant last night, can you tell?)
From “Four Elements Cycle: Cleaved Wind” by Claudia Brefeld, Heike Gewi, and Walter Mathois:
at the lilac bush
— Heike Gewi
From “Doors” by June Moreau and Giselle Maya:
I was trying to remember
came to me
just as I put my hand
on the doorknob
— June Moreau
From “Making Soup” by Alex Pieroni and Jane Reichhold:
only the best tea
from an empty bowl
— Alex Pieroni
And some verses from solo efforts:
From the sequence “The Woods Road“:
the woods road
to the end of it
— Jenny Ward Angyal
And a couple of untitled tanka and haiku:
my mother and I
in fading summer light—
stand still, she says
adding a pin
to the jagged hem
— Lisa Alexander Baron
the last of the roses
have lost their names
— Alegria Imperial
In the Chicago area, that is. So close to where I live! Charlotte DiGregorio, the Midwest Regional Coordinator of the Haiku Society of America, has announced a couple of fun events to take place there in the next few months. In all likelihood I will be at both of them. Come see me! Really. I’m not scary at all, except sometimes when I’m really tired and first I start bossing people around and then I cry. But I probably won’t be doing that at these events.
Here’s the scoop, from Charlotte’s press releases:
Jan. 12 event:
“You can learn to appreciate and write haiku in English from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 12 at the Winnetka Public Library, 768 Oak St., Winnetka. The program is free and open to the public. …Pre-registration is required.
“Three haiku poets will speak on topics for both beginning and experienced haikuists. …[The presentation ] ‘Learning The Fun Art of Haiku’ [will be given by] Charlotte Digregorio. The second presentation will be ‘Hey, Sparrow! The Poetry of Issa,’ given by poet Heather Jagman. … Haiku poet Michael Nickels-Wisdom will speak on ‘Beneath The Waterflower: Currents of Haiku in Lorine Niedecker’s Poetry.’ … After the presentations, participants may read some of their haiku to be critiqued by the group.
“For more information and to pre-register, contact Charlotte Digregorio, 847-881-2664.”
May 7 event: Haikufest
“Beginning and advanced poets will learn to appreciate, write, and enhance their haiku skills, from 1 to 5:30 p.m., Saturday, May 7 at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., Evanston, IL. The event with lecture, discussion, and exhibition of poetry and art, is free and open to the public. … [P]re-registration is required.
“The first presentation, [by diGregorio], ‘Haiku: A Path Leading to Conservation Thought,’ will integrate a lecture on haiku style, form, and history with a discussion of the underlying thought of reverence for nature. … ‘A Writing Life in Seventeen Syllables or Less,’ will follow, by award-winning Iowa poet Francine Banwarth. She will discuss what inspires her to write haiku, and her methods of writing with multi-layers of meaning. … Subsequently, Randy Brooks … will speak on ‘The Role of Kukai in The Haiku Tradition.’ … Preceding Haikufest, attendees may submit from three to five haiku by April 23 to Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org. These haiku will be exhibited at Haikufest and judged. … The last presentation will be ‘Haiga: History and Technique.’ Poet and artist Lidia Rozmus will reveal the art of haiku accompanied by an ink painting. She will exhibit and discuss her work.
“For more information on Haikufest, and to pre-register, contact Charlotte Digregorio, 847-881-2664 or the Evanston Public Library, 847-448-8600.”
Just a reminder … The Haiku Foundation‘s HaikuNow contest is still going on, deadline March 31st, and you want to enter because if you win you could get money for nothing and if you don’t, all you’ll be out is the three minutes of your time it will take to paste your best haiku into the submission form. Don’t be lame, enter.
… to this brand-new podcast from The Haiku Chronicles about (YES!) Issa! I don’t think I should really even have to say any more than that, unless this is the very first time you’ve read this blog, in which case you should click on the picture of the dragonfly off there to the right and get the scoop on my relationship with Issa. (We’re very close.)
This edition was written and read by legendary haiku poet Anita Virgil (it was originally published in the Red Moon Anthology in 1998 and is available at the Haiku Chronicles site as a PDF download). It is both scholarly and profoundly moving, in the details it reveals about Issa’s life and in Virgil’s response to his poetry. While deeply admiring of much of Issa’s work, Virgil feels that the extreme difficulty of Issa’s life (wicked stepmother; lifelong poverty; the early deaths of his wife and children) and the fact that he tended to use his writing as an emotional catharsis as often as an artistic outlet means that many of his haiku are either second-rate or can’t be properly considered haiku at all:
“Issa’s sheer volume speaks more of catharsis than of craftsmanship. Of the variety of Issa’s poems available to Western readers, it appears to me he wrote three very different kinds of poetry. Unfortunately, it is all presented under the umbrella of haiku. One kind manifests the aesthetic constraint which does belong to the special province of haiku. Another whose primary focus is clearly on human nature (whether treated humorously or not, containing so-called season words or not) is senryu. And the third which, no doubt, is responsible for Issa’s broad appeal as a vulnerable human being to whom all can relate, is a pure cri de coeur that cannot seriously be considered as haiku when characterized by unrestrained emotionalism, intellectualization, and a failure to stand alone without explanations. These run counter to Bashô’s advice: ‘But always leave your old Self behind, otherwise it will get between you and the object.’ Too often, Issa cannot.”
— Anita Virgil
I can’t say I really disagree with Virgil on these points — I am one of Issa’s biggest fans, and I too think that the vast majority of his 20,000 haiku are not really worth reading. But I guess I tend to think that the same is true of most poets. Maybe the effect is magnified with Issa, because he wrote so much and has had so much popular appeal, but really, poets tend to get judged by their greatest hits, and get forgiven (thank God) for the bulk of their work, which is usually not nearly to the same standard. Most of us aren’t “on” most of the time. Most of us, to one extent or another, use our poetry to help us work through what’s going on in our hearts and minds. Most of us probably feel, in retrospect, that the majority of our work would better not have seen the light of day. (Or is that just me?)
Still, this is an amazing listen and read and I highly recommend it.
Think About It
Okay, here we are back at The Haiku Foundation again. This time for Essence #6, the latest installment of a column that “explores the roots of the ‘haiku movement’ in North America.” And, wow, is this amazing stuff: Carmen Sterba interviewing Canadian haiku poet Rod Willmot. I must humbly admit that I’d never heard of Willmot before but he appears to have lived a fascinating life and he certainly has plenty of fascinating things to say, some of which you may find controversial. I’m just going to quote a whole bunch of it and make you think about it. Discuss. Optional: Three to five page essay, properly cited, due next week.
“Let me emphasize that I never had any interest in things Japanese, that romantic enchantment that infects haiku circles across North America. Discovering haiku, for me, was like coming across an old tin can at a time of need. I need a drum—there’s my drum! I need a scoop—there’s my scoop! I need a knife, an amulet—there they are! I’ve got no need for an old tin can from Japan, to be preserved and worshipped and imitated.
“The best readers know how to let themselves fall apart as if they knew nothing.
“Haiku takes the four dimensions (including time) and smashes them into a point; well, it may not always seem that way, but when it does, it can make you feel as if you’re trying to spend your life standing on one foot. This is when poets bust out of the box and start stringing haiku together, whether alone or with others, to create a kind of living-space. In the early days we didn’t need that, were incapable of it. We had to start by getting to the point. But gradually a need evolved that was not mere imitation of Japanese renga, but rather a sign of maturity: an insistence on taking the point and extending it, giving it context, connecting points and connecting poets. In this vein, I consider the haiku sequence to be an American invention, from the hand of Marlene Mountain.
“Canadians have always had a more individualistic, experience-based approach to haiku. Americans have a tendency to be dogmatic, traditionalist, rule-oriented. I first saw this when [Bill] Higginson came to Toronto in the late sixties, making himself out as an authority because he could read Japanese. Fast-forward to the bunk about season-words, and the proliferation of Japanese terminology in writing about haiku. I’m talking about the overall picture; the brightest lights in haiku have been American, but they are an infinitesimal minority, swamped and drowned out by the noisy religiosity of dead-tradition preachers. Unfortunately, the fog has drifted into Canada. The amount of publishing activity is incredible, but for quality and originality—will any of it be remembered?
snatches a tulip bulb
and tears off down the street
“This is my version of Blake’s ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright.’ It is the seething energy at the heart of existence, the source of everything, death as well as life. It’s the wild joy I live for. And looking over my work, I see something emerging in my haiku that gives me hope, what I think I’ll call a nexus of narrative. This is different from haiku as distillation, experience imploded to a point. A nexus of narrative is the intersecting shafts of multiple dimensions, not just the four of physical experience but our countless human dimensions and others besides. Narrative, because in each shaft you sense a ‘comes from,’ a ‘oes to,’ the possibility of an entire person, a story, a mystery. This gives me hope, knowing that where I am in life now, I can write haiku as a witness, seeing with all my eyes, attentive to haiku that do not implode, do not stand still, but extend in rich and unpredictable ways . . . the ways of this reality.”
— Rod Willmot
Save the Trees. But Wait, Aren’t Books Printed on Pieces of Dead Tree? And Aren’t We Supposed to Revere Books? Oh, God, The Moral Conundrums of Modern Life Make Me Crazy.
I didn’t get around to reading any more of Donald Keene on the development of haikai this week, because I was too busy reading textbooks and stuff, but I do have some stuff from Abigail Freedman’s The Haiku Apprentice I’ve been meaning to discuss with you all for a while, so I will seize this opportunity to do so.
I’ve mentioned Freedman’s book several times before, but apparently not for a long time. This seems strange to me, because I’m constantly thinking about it and rereading parts of it and, you know, planning to write about it, but I guess I always get overwhelmed by how much I have to say. I need to stick to one topic at a time. And the topic that feels closest to my heart right now is what Freedman (or really her Japanese mentors in the art of haiku) have to say about making sure that haiku are “the vessel into which you pour your feelings.”
That phrase comes from Momoko Kuroda, Freedman’s haiku master, who critiques one of Freedman’s haiku about cooking noodles for a family dinner by pointing out, “It isn’t just the noodles, but what they evoked for you that is worth pointing out, in this case a feeling of family harmony.” She also refers to haiku as “a piece of one’s soul.” These things are clearly even more important to her than the technical details of writing haiku — the syllables, the kigo, the kireji — though she also takes these very seriously. For her, a haiku can meet all these technical requirements and be highly proficient, and still fail at the deepest level if it does not express something that is meaningful to the writer.
Another haiku poet friend of Freedman’s, whose haiku name is Traveling Man Tree, tells her that “if you write a haiku about your personal experience, it’s impossible to express the whole experience. So you have to think about what is the most deeply impressive part — the true essence of the thing or the event — and write about that.”
And later, yet another poet friend called Professor Kotani, in trying to decide why one of her haiku had been judged a failure by Momoko, finally realizes, “Perhaps I have put too much intellectual rumination into this poem. … It lacks the sensibility of a really good haiku.”
Various other people Freedman meets tell her about the experiences and, most importantly, feelings that led them to write some of their best haiku. They don’t talk about how they chose the kigo, or made the syllables come out right, or used the kireji to good effect. They talk about a profound emotional experience — love, loneliness, severe illness — and how a profound haiku grew out of it.
So. Here’s where I abandon my humorous, carefree air and admit that I have been feeling, for quite a while, that haiku have become too much of an intellectual exercise for me, something I was using to display verbal virtuosity (insofar as I possess such a thing, which is not very far) and superficial cleverness, rather than digging down inside me to get to the really good stuff that makes poems living things instead of dead artifacts. I really need to change that, both because I have a lot of other outlets for intellectual achievement and relatively few emotional outlets, and also because haiku means too much to me for me to treat it with so little respect.
There will probably be a few changes around here in the near future, is what I’m saying. In fact, one change that I am going to announce right now is that this column will be posted less frequently — it’s been every seven to ten days, and I’d like to make it fortnightly. (You know I just really needed an excuse to say “fortnightly.”) So the next edition will be Feb. 13. Don’t worry, it will still be insanely long. Probably even longer. More stuff to write about. But this will hopefully give me a little more time to, you know, write haiku itself, rather than writing about it.
Then I’ll need to be thinking about how else to adjust my life to make more room for the writing of non-trivial haiku. I don’t have much time to think, but I’ll try to get back to you soon with my plans. I’m sure you’ll be waiting with bated breath.
Okay, class, that’s about it for this week. I really enjoyed our little time together — the sharing, the learning, the giving out of onerous assignments, the stern warnings about academic honesty and citation procedure…I think we’re going to have a wonderful semester. But the tour’s over, so get back on the shuttle and go home. Shoo. That’s an order.
I was inspired by some recent blog posts by Margaret Dornaus of Haiku-Doodle and Bill Kenney of haiku-usa to try writing riffs on classical haiku. I started with a list of favorite haiku by Basho I had jotted down while reading Makoto Ueda’s Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet. Then I tried to distill each of these down to some universal theme or structure or atmosphere — to figure out what it was about them that made them seem so great to me. And then for each of them I tried to write a haiku that echoed in some way the spirit of what Basho wrote, while coming up with some new insight or image that was entirely my own.
This exercise was seriously fun and exciting, and I am definitely going to repeat it. Some of the haiku I wrote are clearly just versions of Basho’s haiku; some of them seem to me like they are different enough from what Basho wrote that they could stand alone. I wouldn’t try to publish any of these, at least without acknowledging Basho’s influence, but I do think I learned a lot about how many ways there are to write a successful haiku (even if it’s only Basho’s haiku that are actually successful :) ).
Basho’s haiku below are in regular type; mine are indented and in italics. The Basho haiku are all Ueda’s translations, except for the last one, which (as indicated) is by Jane Reichhold.
At night, quietly,
A worm in the moonlight
Digs into the chestnut.
new holes in the leaves
someone’s night shift
The sound of an oar beating the waves
Chills my bowels through
And I weep in the night.
hearing the car start
my tears start
The sea darkens
And a wild duck’s call
Is faintly white.
dark clouds gather —
the calls of songbirds
light in the distance
Sinking into the rocks,
A cicada’s cry.
the stream rushes by
pounding the rocks
A pile of leeks lie
Newly washed white:
How cold it is!
on the cutting board —
And the white paper screen
Reflecting one another’s color.
and the sky —
Whenever I speak out
My lips are chilled —
don’t tell me
what to say —
Autumn deepens —
The man next door, what
Does he do for a living?
winter approaches —
I try to learn the names
of the neighbors
The squid-seller’s voice
From the cuckoo’s!
the infomercial host
and the crow —
Chrysanthemums’ scent —
In the garden, the worn-out
the scent of apples
left in the orchard
your torn sweater
A bush warbler —
It lets its droppings fall on the rice cake
At the end of the veranda.
shitting all over the sandwich
I left on the patio
A white chrysanthemum —
However intently I gaze,
Not a speck of dust.
no matter how long
I stare at hydrangeas —
after the flowers
all there is left for my haiku
(tr. Jane Reichhold)
after the leaves fall
nothing to write haiku about
until it snows
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“This is a technique that seems to happen mostly without conscious control. A writer will make a perfectly ordinary and accurate statement about common things, but due to the combination of images and ideas and what happens betwen them, a truth will be revealed about the Divine. Since we all have various ideas about what the Divine is, two readers of the same haiku may not find the same truth or revelation in it. Here, again, the reader becomes a writer to find a greater truth behind the words.
– Jane Reichhold, Writing and Enjoying Haiku
Jane played a terrible trick on me by adding a new technique in her book (Writing and Enjoying Haiku — get it, read it). In addition to the 23 previously published in her online essay, she tacked on this one, which is a problem for me because in the strictest sense I don’t actually believe in any Divine.
I mean I believe that there are things in the universe that are a lot bigger and more important than piddly little human beings, but I don’t think they’re supernatural, or conscious, or in any way direct or guide any of the affairs of heaven or earth. I think that most of what there is to know about the universe we don’t, can’t, and will never know, and I am in awe of the unimaginable complexity of it all, but I don’t think that just because our tiny brains don’t understand it and can’t explain it we must invent some other entity that does understand it.
Anyway. Enough of my heathen metaphysics. I felt that if I wanted to complete this project, I was duty-bound to attempt to write some kind of haiku that referenced or implied the existence of some kind of divine entity. But I was utterly at a loss for how to do this. So I decided to cheat. (See, I told you I was a heathen.)
I turned to my trusty friend the Book of Psalms (King James Version), one of the world’s great literary achievements, reasoning that somewhere in there must be something that resembled a haiku in some way … right?
You tell me.
turned into the drought
out of the miry clay …
upon a rock
unto deep …
the noise of waterspouts
the noise of the seas …
of the people
the trumpet …
the new moon
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“… Some say one should be able to read the first line and the third line to find it makes a complete thought. Sometimes one does not know in which order to place the images in a haiku. When the images in the first and third lines have the strongest relationship, the haiku usually feels ‘complete.’ For exercise, take any haiku and switch the lines around to see how this factor works, or try reading the haiku without the second line.
holding the day
between my hands
a clay pot”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
This was way harder than it looked. And it looked hard.
I think part of the problem was that I really loved Jane’s example and none of my efforts came anywhere near her standard. I even resorted to breaking down her ku into parts of speech hoping that would provide some sort of formula for success:
gerund, noun object
But now I am a little bit obsessed with making one of these work, somehow, sometime. Anyone else got anything?
one leftover cloud
watching your eyes
the summer stars
a tree full
squirrels making lists
our dark words