Tanka? Okay, I Can Do That

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I check
to see what’s sprouted
we’re separated now
by the life span
of squash and cucumbers

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on the way
to see the apple blossoms —
I admire how
your story changes
with every streetlight

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(Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, 7:1, Spring 2011)

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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:

sweet,
but with a slight tang,
the rejected
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.

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[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.]

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Across the Haikuverse, No. 18: Here Comes the Sun Edition

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.

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falling in love with a memory apple blossoms

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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.)

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river sunrise
a girl’s shadow
swims from my ankles

– Lorin Ford, Mann Library’s Daily Haiku

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as it lands
the mallard shatters the house
in the river

– Polona Oblak, Crows & Daisies

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migrating geese
the shapes of chins
in a crowd

— an’ya, DailyHaiga

(Please go visit this very lovely haiga.)

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spring dusk -
the river pauses
for a moment
to take the weight
of a swan

— Paul Smith, Paper Moon

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twilight
settling on all
the unfound eggs

— Pearl Nelson, Pearl Nelson

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Palm Sunday
a card game called
‘doubt’

– Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World

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summer rain I’m still a fool around gravity

— Johannes S.H. Bjerg, scented dust

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a careless butterfly:
lost among thousands
of heavy raindrops

— Vladimir Devide/haiga by Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here

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“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

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春寒の山のひとつがはぐれけり   齋藤愼爾
harusamu no yama no hitotsu ga hagurekeri

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spring chill
one of the mountains
goes astray

– Shinji Saito, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World

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it has to end:
the wind
to cherry blossoms

— Alegria Imperial, jornales

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in tranquility
cherry petals are falling
abyssal fish

— Taro Kunugi, from Donna Fleischer’s Word Pond


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secretly
still expecting
the living
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.)

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between tour groups
the garden
just the garden

— Sandra Simpson, DailyHaiku

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open scissors beside a vase of water

— Eve Luckring, from A New Resonance [6]: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, Red Moon Press, 2009, quoted on Basho’s Road

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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

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(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.)

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Web Wide World


So much fun stuff to read this month, so little time…

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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.

cold night
the dashboard lights
of another car

– John Stevenson

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Serendipiku

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.

secret promise…
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)

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Insect Haiku From the Shiki-School

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:

Ownerless
the helmet on which sleeps
a butterfly kana

— Choi, tr. Isaacson
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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.

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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
ceaselessly crying:
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.)

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Bare Bones Haiku

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.)

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The Haiku Foundation Contest Archive

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.

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“Repetition in Haiku

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
autumn leaves

– Gary Hotham

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Dead Tree News

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tea’s aftertaste,
by Aubrie Cox,
graphic design and illustrations by Katie Baird,
published by Bronze Man Books ($12)
(ordering information)

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So you wanna see the most adorable haiku book ever published? Do you? Do you? You do? Yay! Okay…here’s the cover:

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Cover of the haiku chapbook "tea's aftertaste"

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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:

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distant galaxies / all the things / I could have been

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… 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.

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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
unopened blossoms

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Across the Haikuverse, No. 12: The Imperative Mood Edition

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.

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Read These

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!”

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From Morden Haiku:

winter rain
sometimes it’s hard to know
if it’s ending or beginning

– Matt Morden

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From Daily Haiku:

twilight
the silver statue of a man
i don’t know

– Dietmar Tauchner

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From scented dust:

biting an apple
the silent sky
of midwinter
– Johannes S.H. Bjerg

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Two tanka from jars of stars:

Who is to say
that the restlessness
will end

after I tear a few pages
and break a few things?

@sunilgivesup

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I love you
she’d said until
the words were hieroglyphs
faded, in need
of interpretation

@myearthgirl

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From Mann Library’s Daily Haiku:

monarch
folding and unfolding
its shadow

- Christopher Herold

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From Blue Willow Haiku World:

毛糸編はじまり妻の黙(もだ)はじまる            加藤楸邨

keito-ami hajimari tsuma no moda hajimaru

knitting starts
my wife’s silence
starts

– Shuson Kato, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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From The Outspoken Omphaloskeptic:

the past
lives
where lightning bugs flash

– Max Stites

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From Beachcombing for the Landlocked:

old obsessions
fall away, and yet …
pine needles

– Mark Holloway

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From Yay words!:

raspberry jam
grandma asks
if I’m still
doing that
poetry thing

– 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:

confessional
alcohol breath
from his side of the grate
(bottle rockets #21)

I wrote a senryu that reflected how I thought she’d react:

first serial publication
grandma asks
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.

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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.

Mindfulness

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.

crescent
waxing moon disappears
in a wisp of cloud

– Deb Baker

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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?)

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From “Four Elements Cycle: Cleaved Wind” by Claudia Brefeld, Heike Gewi, and Walter Mathois:

Traffic jam
at the lilac bush
breathing deeply

– Heike Gewi

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From “Doors” by June Moreau and Giselle Maya:

the name
I was trying to remember
came to me
just as I put my hand
on the doorknob

– June Moreau

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From “Making Soup” by Alex Pieroni and Jane Reichhold:

only the best tea
is drunk
from an empty bowl

– Alex Pieroni

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And some verses from solo efforts:

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From the sequence “The Woods Road“:

the woods road
never going
to the end of it

– Jenny Ward Angyal

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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

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first frost—
the last of the roses
have lost their names

– Alegria Imperial

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Be There

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 brooksbooks@sbcglobal.net. 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.”

 

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Enter Here

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.

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Listen Up…

… 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?

black dog
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.

November 15: Basho and me

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.

1.

At night, quietly,
A worm in the moonlight
Digs into the chestnut.

every morning
new holes in the leaves
someone’s night shift


2.

The sound of an oar beating the waves
Chills my bowels through
And I weep in the night.

 

winter morning
hearing the car start
my tears start


3.

The sea darkens
And a wild duck’s call
Is faintly white.

 

dark clouds gather —
the calls of songbirds
light in the distance


4.

Loneliness —
Sinking into the rocks,
A cicada’s cry.

 

frustration —
the stream rushes by
pounding the rocks


5.

A pile of leeks lie
Newly washed white:
How cold it is!

 

white onions
on the cutting board —
winter chill


6.

The daffodils
And the white paper screen
Reflecting one another’s color.

 

the forget-me-nots
and the sky —
an echo


7.

Whenever I speak out
My lips are chilled —
Autumn wind.

 

don’t tell me
what to say —
rising heat


8.

Autumn deepens —
The man next door, what
Does he do for a living?

 

winter approaches —
I try to learn the names
of the neighbors


9.

The squid-seller’s voice
Is indistinguishable
From the cuckoo’s!

 

the infomercial host
and the crow —
same voice


10.

Chrysanthemums’ scent —
In the garden, the worn-out
Shoe sole.

 

the scent of apples
left in the orchard
your torn sweater


11.

A bush warbler —
It lets its droppings fall on the rice cake
At the end of the veranda.

 

nuthatches—
shitting all over the sandwich
I left on the patio


12.

A white chrysanthemum —
However intently I gaze,
Not a speck of dust.

 

no matter how long
I stare at hydrangeas —
pure blue

13.

after the flowers
all there is left for my haiku
wisteria beans

(tr. Jane Reichhold)

 

after the leaves fall
nothing to write haiku about
until it snows

August 10: 1-5: The Technique of Finding the Divine in the Common (Found Haiku: Psalms)

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:


“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.


smoke
incense unrolls
itself”


– Jane Reichhold, Writing and Enjoying Haiku

*

Me:

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.

*

moisture …
turned into the drought
of summer
(Ps. 32:4)

out of the miry clay …
my foot
upon a rock
(Ps. 40:2)

deep calleth
unto deep …
the noise of waterspouts
(Ps. 42:7)

the noise of the seas …
the tumult
of the people
(Ps. 65:7)

blow up
the trumpet …
the new moon
(Ps. 81:3)

July 30: 1-4: The Technique of Above as Below

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“… 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

*

Me:

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
prepositional phrase
modifier, noun

It didn’t.

But now I am a little bit obsessed with making one of these work, somehow, sometime. Anyone else got anything?

*

summer rain
one leftover cloud
frustrates

watching your eyes
by moonlight
the summer stars

a tree full
squirrels making lists
of supplies

night sheltering
from sunrise
our dark words

July 10: 1-5: The Technique of Yugen

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:
“Another of these Japanese states of poetry which is usually defined as ‘mystery’ and ‘unknowable depth.’ … In my glossary I am brave enough to propound: ‘One could say a woman’s face half-hidden behind a fan has yûgen. The same face half-covered with pink goo while getting a facial, however, does not.’ … (Jeanne Emrich … suggests one can obtain yûgen by having something disappear, or something appear suddenly out of nowhere, or by the use of night, fog, mist, empty streets, alleys, and houses. Using the sense-switching technique can create an air of mystery because of the information from the ‘missing’ sense.)

tied to the pier
the fishy smells
of empty boats”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

I am even more at sea with this concept than I was with wabi-sabi, because I’d never heard of it before (which seems like a major fail on my part, fascinated as I have been for some time with Japanese aesthetics). I also don’t have anything concrete to associate it with, the way I associate wabi-sabi with images of actual objects like rough pottery or weathered wood or faded jeans.

I did my usual thing and noodled around on the Internet to see if someone could give me a better idea of what this was. Good old Wikipedia explained patiently to me that:

“In the Chinese philosophical texts the term was taken from, yūgen meant ‘dim,’ ‘deep’ or ‘mysterious.’ In the criticism of Japanese waka poetry, it was used to describe the subtle profundity of things that are only vaguely suggested by the poems. …

Yugen suggests that beyond what can be said but is not an allusion to another world. It is about this world, this experience. All of these are portals to yugen:


” ‘To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds. And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo.’ — Zeami Motokiyo”


– Wikipedia, Japanese Aesthetics
(italics mine)

That definitely got me closer, especially the part about suggesting beyond that which can be said. Lately I have been having a lot of conversations about, and reading and thinking a lot about, the idea that haiku are just as much (or more) about what is not said in them as what is. The empty space outside the syllables — it has real content. I find my haiku are stronger the more willing I am to let that empty space exist and acknowledge that it is doing the same work as the actual words I write.
Urban Dictionary, of all places, got me even closer to an understanding of what yugen might be:
“Yugen is at the core of the appreciation of beauty and art in Japan. It values the power to evoke, rather than the ability to state directly. The principle of Yugen shows that real beauty exists when, through its suggestiveness, only a few words, or few brush strokes, can suggest what has not been said or shown, and hence awaken many inner thoughts and feelings.”

– Urban Dictionary, yugen (italics mine)
Okay, so now I think I might be starting to get it … though I’m still a little nervous about writing haiku based on this concept in case someone who actually understands it stumbles across them and mocks me relentlessly. But I guess I’ll have to take my chances …
afternoon sun
in the shop window
I see not-me

rising tide
the beach forgets
we were here

bedtime
your face replaced
by a blank screen

looking out
the vine-covered window
hints of weather

thin blue air
from the mountain’s top
the unseen bottom

July 1: 1-4: The Techniques of Wabi and Sabi

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

The Technique of Sabi


“… [T]he Japanese have maintained for centuries that no one can really, truly comprehend what sabi really is and thus, they change its definition according to their moods. Bill Higginson, in The Haiku Handbook, calls sabi – ‘(patina/loneliness) Beauty with a sense of loneliness in time, akin to, but deeper than, nostalgia.’ Suzuki maintains that sabi is ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude’ but that it can also be ‘miserable,’ ‘insignificant,’ and ‘pitiable,’ ‘asymmetry’ and ‘poverty.’ Donald Keene sees sabi as ‘an understatement hinting at great depths.’ So you see, we are rather on our own with this!

I have translated this as: sabi (SAH-BEE)- aged/loneliness – A quality of images used in poetry that expresses something aged or weathered with a hint of sadness because of being abandoned. A split-rail fence sagging with overgrown vines has sabi; a freshly painted picket fence does not.

rocky spring
lips taking a sip
from a stone mouth

coming home
flower
by flower”

[Note: In Jane’s book "Writing and Enjoying Haiku" (published later than and containing a revised version of this essay) she gives the example haiku for sabi as:

listening ears
petals fall into
the silence]


The Technique of Wabi


“The twin brother to sabi … can be defined as ‘(WAH-BEE) — poverty — Beauty judged to be the result of living simply. Frayed and faded Levis have the wabi that bleached designer jeans can never achieve.’ Thus one can argue that the above haiku samples are really more wabi than sabi – and suddenly one understands the big debate. However, I offer one more ku that I think is more wabi than sabi because it offers a scene of austere beauty and poignancy.

parting fog
on wind barren meadows
birth of a lamb”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

More on wabi and sabi:

I think that when Jane originally wrote this the concepts of wabi and sabi (or wabi-sabi, the way they’re usually conjoined and made into one concept these days) were not really familiar to Americans. Then, of course, a segment of the interior design industry got hold of it and the next thing you knew there were entire shelves of the home-decorating section at Barnes & Noble dedicated to explaining how to improve your home by bringing home junky things from garage sales (or pre-distressed knickknacks from Target), arranging them artistically on your coffee table, and telling everyone they were part of your Japanese Zen aesthetic.

I’m being facetious. Kind of. I mean, in some ways my house is Wabi-Sabi Central, if only because I don’t have any actual money to buy shiny new stuff. (Also, shiny new stuff hurts my eyes.) Lots of my furniture was retrieved off curbs on trash day. (“Oh look! Another not-completely-broken chair that doesn’t match any of my other chairs! Score!”)

I buy all my clothes at thrift stores so I never have to worry about breaking in my jeans. I like museums and antique stores because they’re full of worn-out objects that lots of other people have touched and left psychic imprints on, and I would love to bring home more of these objects — you know, like beautifully weathered old maple furniture, and frayed hundred-year-old quilts made by thrifty ladies using up their fabric scraps, and those gorgeous grayish-brown stoneware jars to store your dry goods, and — what’s that you say? That stuff all costs a fortune?

Yeah, see, that’s the problem with wabi-sabi — once everyone started thinking how great it was to have worn-out old stuff, the worn-out old stuff got really expensive. And it all started feeling a little trite and silly, this frantic rush to spend lots of money to make your house look like you were impoverished.

But that surface interior-decorating concept of wabi-sabi isn’t — I know, I know — what it’s really about. What it is about, exactly — as Jane points out — nobody exactly knows, and the Japanese, I believe, are not all that eager to explain — detailed explanations, obviously, not being very Zen. I did find a really cool essay on the subject by someone who appears to be an American tea expert (tea ceremony master? hard to tell from the site). Here are some of his or her thoughts on the matter (it’s a long and really interesting essay, so as usual I recommend reading the whole thing even though — sigh — I know nobody will):

“Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. … It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. … My favorite Japanese phrase for describing wabi-sabi is ‘natsukashii furusato,’ or an old memory of my hometown. …

“Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquillity, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. …

Sabi by itself means ‘the bloom of time.’ It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust — the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting. … An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America’s contribution to the evolution of sabi. … We seek sabi in antiques and even try to manufacture it in distressed furnishings. True sabi cannot be acquired, however. It is a gift of time. …

Wabi-sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, which was brought from China to Japan by Eisai, a twelfth-century monk. Zen, with its principles of vast emptiness and nothing holy, stresses austerity, communion with nature, and above all, reverence for everyday life as the real path to enlightenment.”

– From noble harbor, “What is Wabi-Sabi?

So. Now that we are all hopelessly confused (and have concluded that wabi-sabi and haiku have a lot in common, chiefly the complete inability of any two people to agree on a definition of them) … on to the poetry.

your roses
how few petals
remain

the steam
from the kettle
floating dreams

one petal
on the tablecloth
your name

the empty bench
the wind sweeps away
memories

I had to throw this in … this is the most wabi-sabi-ish place I’ve ever seen. It’s part of the ruins of an old hotel that are now in the middle of a state park. This structure was a fish hatchery on a trout pond. You can click on it to get a much larger, more interesting view.

June 26: 2-10: The Technique of Mixing It Up

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“What I mean here is mixing up the action so the reader does not know if nature is doing the acting or if a human is doing it.  … Very often when I use a gerund in a haiku I am basically saying, ‘I am. . .’ making an action but leaving unsaid the ‘I am.’ … It is a good way to combine humanity’s action with nature in a way that minimizes the impact of the author but allows an interaction between humanity and nature.

end of winter

covering the first row

of lettuce seeds

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

Three yellow birds
riffing on an old song
in the garden

Up the hill,
the iPod strapped to my arm,
playing it cool

Everything I know
seething in my mind
the dream begins

The fire next door
burning marshmallows
the boys trade equations

Bearing the pain —
the tree laid low with snow —
ready to snap

The empty porch
waiting for the UPS guy
to leap up the stairs

Hunting for a home —
the birds perched on the roof —
pausing to consider

Dancing to James Brown
the ants we can’t get rid of
track our steps

Yellow light —
hesitating as we approach —
hoping to move forward

*

Okay, I basically could have gone on with these forever, but I have about a million other things to do so I forced myself to stop. But I will be writing more. The ambiguity really appeals to me. You may have noticed that I am interpreting “nature” in Jane’s explanation as meaning “all inanimate objects” (so iPods and yellow lights are fair game).

I also was playing around with using actual punctuation and capitalization, which will probably get me thrown out of the Proper Haiku Writers’ Society. I apologize if I have horrified anyone, but I have been wanting to do this for a long time and only hesitated out of cowardice, not wanting to buck the trend and alienate the Powers That Be. But that’s kind of silly.

It’s fine with me if other haiku writers don’t want to punctuate or capitalize, but I think the arguments about that being the Only Way to write haiku are seriously overblown. I don’t really have time to write a treatise about this today, but suffice it to say that I think writers in English should be able to use all the tools that written English offers to convey their meaning and give aid and comfort to the reader. That being said, I tried very hard not to let the punctuation here erase the ambiguity or favor one interpretation of the haiku over another. And who knows, maybe I’ll go back to the minimalist look myself. I just really need to experiment with this to see how it works for me.

June 22: 1-6: The Techniques of Close Linkage and Leap Linkage

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

The Technique of Close Linkage

“… In making any connection between the two parts of a haiku, the leap can be a small and even a well-known one. Usually beginners are easily impressed with close linkage and experiment first with this form. …


winter cold

finding on a beach

an open knife”


The Technique of Leap Linkage

“Then as a writer’s skills increase, and as he or she reads many haiku (either their own or others) such ‘easy’ leaps quickly fade in excitement. Being human animals we seem destined to seek the next level of difficulty and find that thrilling. So the writer begins to attempt leaps that a reader new to haiku may not follow … I think the important point in creating with this technique is that the writer is always totally aware of his or her ‘truth’. … Usually, if you think about the ku long enough and deeply enough, one can find the author’s truth. …


wildflowers

the early spring sunshine

in my hand”


– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

Okay, the problem I had here is that although I (think I) understand very well what Jane means by the difference between close linkage and leap linkage, and I have certainly seen many ku where the connection was either invisible to me or I had to think really hard to figure it out, I didn’t actually consider the connection in her second ku here to be any more of a leap than the connection in her first ku. So either I’m unusually perspicacious or I didn’t really understand the second ku at all, or maybe even the first.

I’m actually very interested in this because it does seem to me that how and whether people understand haiku depends much on their experiences and frame of mind, and what one person considers to be an obscure connection can be completely obvious to another. I also frequently wonder whether people get a lot of the connections in my ku at all, and whether, if they don’t, it’s my fault or theirs. I think I’m just going to throw a bunch of ku down here in order (more or less) from what I consider closely to distantly linked, and you can tell me whether you agree with me.

pins and needles
she sews a quilt for
the first baby

lines of code
ants march over the
breakfast dishes

spring downpour
eggshells float in
garbage cans

the hair-clogged drain
she whispers something
he can’t hear

speeding up to pass
we never eat anything
he doesn’t like

trimming square
will her mother give her
the money


June 18: 3-5: The Technique of Verb/Noun Exchange

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“This is a very gentle way of doing word play and getting double duty out of words. In English we have many words which function as both verbs and nouns. By constructing the poem carefully, one can utilize both aspects of such words as leaves, spots, flowers, blossoms, sprouts, greens, fall, spring, circles and hundreds more. …  This is one of those cases where the reader has to decide which permissible stance the ku has taken.

spring rain

the willow strings

raindrops

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:
sunset
on the beach
red burns

the rain spells
come and go on
our bare backs

barefoot
sand spits
water on our toes

Renga: An introduction and an invitation

I’ve been meaning for a while now to write something about renga*, the form of long collaborative verse from which the haiku was derived (by the great Basho), and which is still being written and enjoyed by millions around the globe … well, okay, maybe thousands on a good day. It fascinates me, because we have nothing like this art form in English — for us, poetry is a solo sport, in popular mythology the province of tortured, lonely geniuses sweating it out in their attic bedrooms or sordid studio apartments. (Or suburban kitchens, as the case may be.)

For the Japanese, however, poetry was for a long time a basic social skill, at least for the upper classes, a way of impressing lovers and court rivals. In The Tale of Genji, the eleventh-century work that is generally called the world’s first novel, the hero, an illegitimate son of the emperor who is implausibly and annoyingly talented at everything, is always seducing his (many, many) ladies with little verses he tosses off practically without thinking about it, and they are always replying in kind.

At that time, the tanka was one of the most prominent verse forms — five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese syllables. Tanka contests were popular among those with nothing better to do with their time. Renga, it’s hypothesized, began as a way of, um, relaxing after these contests — by writing more poetry, except this time in collaboration with your rivals instead of in competition with them. That is, it was a party game. Those crazy Japanese!

The basic idea behind renga is that one person writes the first part of the tanka (the 5-7-5 — sound familiar?) and another person writes the second part (the 7-7) — and then someone else writes another 5-7-5 connected to the 7-7, and someone else writes another 7-7 connected to that, and on and on — sometimes, in the good old days, for a thousand stanzas or more.

By Basho’s time (seventeenth century), even the Japanese were beginning to feel that this length was a little bit crazy. Basho had the idea to cap the renga at 36 stanzas, which he neatly and sensibly laid out in a little 4-page book, 6 stanzas on the first and last pages and 12 on the 2 middle pages. He also made up all kinds of rules about what kind of subjects each stanza was supposed to cover. You were supposed to start the renga with a verse about the season you were in, for instance. (This first verse of the renga is called a hokku. Basho liked writing hokku so much that he wrote a whole bunch of them without bothering with the rest of the renga, and thus the haiku was born — though it didn’t get that name until Shiki thought it up in the nineteenth century.)

These days people still frequently write Basho-style 36-stanza renga (they’re called kasen), but renga can be any number of stanzas really, written by any number of people — sometimes even solo, though that seems to kind of miss the point as far as I’m concerned. On the wondrous Interweb, you can find all kinds of detailed instructions and blank forms for composing renga of different types and different numbers of stanzas — I’ll throw some links down at the bottom of this in case you’re really interested.

For me, though, the really interesting thing about renga isn’t the form per se, it’s the way they’re composed and the way the stanzas link together. William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (from which I admit I have cribbed a lot of the preceding information), explain memorably:

“The point of renga writing is not to tell a story in a logical progression. Each stanza must move in some new direction, connected to the stanza just before it but usually not to earlier stanzas. When reading a renga we do not discover a narrative sequence, but zig-zag over the different imaginary landscapes of the poets’ minds, much as a spaceship coming out of polar orbit might flash now over ice and snow, now over teeming cities, now over green forests, ultimately to splash down into blue ocean. As readers we should enjoy the flow of sights, sounds, and insights as they tumble past.”

– Higginson and Harter, The Haiku Handbook, p. 192

Just as memorably, Jane Reichhold explains how to link renga stanzas and comments a little on what it actually feels like to engage in this dance of minds:

“[T]he important thing to watch is what happens BETWEEN the links. Think of each stanza as a springboard from which you are going to jump. As your mind leaps (and you think you know where the poem is going) you should be forced to make a somersault in order to land upright in the next link. It is the twist your mind makes between links that makes renga interesting.

Some leaps are close (as in the beginning and end of the poem) so the subject is moved only slightly ahead. In the middle of the poem renga whizzes can pirouette until your head spins — and that is just what is desired.

Take your partner by the hand. Start tapping your feet. Bow. And away you go.”

– Jane Reichhold, “Jump Start to Renga

I have to say that when I first started reading renga I was a little baffled — as Jane says, my head was spinning a little. Finding the connections between stanzas can be challenging, and understanding the point of a poem that whirls from subject to subject and thought to thought so quickly was difficult for my linear Western mind.

I didn’t really get it until I found “Omelet” — a renga written by Jane and Sue Stafford, this online version of which they have helpfully annotated so that you understand what was going on in the poet’s minds when they made their leaps between stanzas. Another great annotated example is “The Click of Mahjong Tiles,” written by six different authors. I also really like the example given in The Haiku Handbook, a renga by five authors called “Eleven Hours” that can be found on pages 202-206 of the 25th anniversary edition.

Once you start to get it, it’s exhilarating to watch the flashes of understanding and communication from mind to mind, from stanza to stanza: as I said, nothing like any English poetry, and as Jane says, more like a dance, or maybe a jazz band riffing.

These days, renga aren’t written so often as a party game, because how often do you have two or more capable haiku poets, with at least several hours to spare, at a party? But the Internet and its instant communication have made it much easier to write renga long-distance. Which brings me to my (highly shy and diffident) invitation –

anyone want to renga with me? Obvious disclaimer: I don’t have any actual idea how to do this, I’m just really interested in learning. I don’t care whether you have any renga experience or not. I just kind of want to see what it’s like to pass poetry back and forth with one or more other minds. (My experiment the other day writing haibun in collaboration with my friend Alex has whetted my appetite for this even more.)

Drop me a comment or an email if this sounds interesting to you, and we’ll see what we can do.

*

More information about renga/renku:

How to Renga (Jane Reichhold’s Aha! Poetry site) — information, instructions, forms for composing renga (Basho, kasen style)

Renku Home — a world of information, mostly by William J. Higginson

Renku Reckoner — John Carley’s site that has detailed instructions and forms for composing many different types of renku

4 Elements Renga — forms and instructions for composing renga based on the four elements

—–

*Some people call it renku. I am not equipped to comment on or settle the debate on this issue. Call it whatever you want. Renga, renku, let’s call the whole thing off.

June 15: 23-24: The Techniques of Using Puns and Word-Play

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

The Technique of Using Puns

“Again we can only learn from the master punsters – the Japanese. … [W]e [English] haiku writers may not be so well-versed as the Japanese are in using these because there have been periods of Western literary history where this skill has been looked down upon.


a sign

at the fork in the road

‘fine dining’ “

The Technique of Word-plays [Place Names]

“[The] work [of the Japanese] is made easier by so many of their place names either having double meaning or many of their words being homonyms (sounding the same). …  A steady look at many of our cities’ names could give new inspiration: Oak-land, Anchor Bay, Ox-ford, Cam-bridge and even our streets give us Meadowgate, First Street, and one I lived on – Ten Mile Cutoff.

moon set

now it’s right – how it fits

Half Moon Bay”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:
driving rain
windshield wipers
try to keep up

Fond du Lac:
my boat has sunk
and I don’t even know it yet

*

Once again I combined two techniques because the second seems to me obviously a special case of the first — puns based on place names.

I didn’t feel terribly inspired by this — not that I have anything against puns, I make groanworthy ones all the time, but I guess they need to come up naturally in the context of something for me, not be forced for an exercise.

June 10: 2-3: The Technique of Double Entendre

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“Anyone who has read translations of Japanese poetry has seen how much poets delighted in saying one thing and meaning something else. … In some cases the pun was to cover up a sexual reference by seeming to speaking of something commonplace. There are whole lists of words with double meanings: spring rain = sexual emissions and jade mountain = the Mound of Venus, just to give you an sampling. But we have them in English also…


eyes in secret places
deep in the purple middle
of an iris”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

cattails bob
he swims the pond
with strong strokes

early morning tide
salt waters
mingling

June 9: 2-4: The Technique of the Sketch or Shiki’s Shasei

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“Though this technique is often given Shiki’s term shasei (sketch from life) or shajitsu (reality) it had been in use since the beginning of poetry in the Orient. The poetic principle is ‘to depict as is.’ The reason he took it up as a ’cause’ and thus, made it famous, was his own rebellion against the many other techniques used in haiku. Shiki was, by nature it seemed, against whatever was the status quo. If poets had over-used any idea or method his personal goal was to point this out and suggest something else. … Thus, Shiki hated word-plays, puns, riddles – all the things you are learning here! He favored the quiet simplicity of just stating what he saw without anything else having to happen in the ku.

evening 
waves

come into the cove

one at a time”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:

wind in the maples
gray seeds spin
against gray sky

after the storm
fallen branch
dries to gray

Mississippi source
travelers
tiptoe across

June 6: 3-5: The Technique of Metaphor and the Technique of Simile

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

The Technique of Metaphor:

“I can just hear those of you who have had some training in haiku, sucking in your breath in horror. There IS that ironclad rule that one does not use metaphor in haiku. Posh. Basho used it in his most famous ‘crow ku.’

on a bare branch
a crow lands
autumn dusk


“What he was saying in other words (not haiku words) was that an autumn evening comes down on one the way it feels when a crow lands on a bare branch.”

The Technique of Simile:

“Usually in English you know a simile is coming when you spot the words ‘as’ and ‘like.’ Occasionally one will find in a haiku the use of a simile with these words still wrapped around it, but the Japanese have proved to us that this is totally unnecessary. … [T]he unspoken rule is that you can use simile (which the rule-sayers warn against) if you are smart enough to simply drop the ‘as’ and ‘like.’ …[B]y doing this you give the reader some active part that makes him or her feel very smart when they discover the simile for him/herself.


a long journey
some cherry petals
begin to fall”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:
I combined these techniques because it’s difficult for me to see how a simile that doesn’t use the words “like” or “as” is different from a metaphor. There obviously is a subtle distinction in Jane’s mind but I am not subtle enough to understand it. I’d love to hear from anyone who is.

tree climbing
boys taller
than last year

hot water running
your hands on
my shoulders

cats paw at the screen door
we sign
the papers

*

June 7: I edited one of these haiku slightly. Anyone who can tell me how gets a prize. :)

June 4: 4-7: The Technique of Narrowing Focus

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“This is something Buson used a lot because he, being an artist, was a very visual person. Basically what you do is to start with a wide-angle lens on the world in the first line, switch to a normal lens for the second line and zoom in for a close-up in the end.


“the whole sky

in a wide field of flowers

one tulip”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques


Me:

ten thousand runners
I stand alone
and look at my feet

on the horizon a freighter
with a box
with a man inside

reading Anna Karenina
once again
finding that sentence

forest full of
maple saplings
guessing which one will live

June 2: 1-3: The Technique of Sense-switching

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“This is another old-time favorite of the Japanese haiku masters, but one they have used very little and with a great deal of discretion. It is simply to speak of the sensory aspect of a thing and then change to another sensory organ. Usually it involves hearing something one sees or vice versa or to switch between seeing and tasting.


“home-grown lettuce

the taste of well-water

green”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques


*

me:

planes dance together
silently
sonic boom

the baby’s
soft cheek
strawberry jam

pounding
at the door
your bruised face

*

Yeah, okay, Jane, there’s a reason the “Japanese haiku masters” used this technique “very little and with a great deal of discretion.” It’s impossible, that’s why. Trying to write these made me feel like I understood what it must be like to write poetry in a foreign language. (Hmm…I should try that sometime…) I didn’t really understand what I was doing or why. But I did it. Let it never be said about me that I shirked my homework. Now can I do something else, please?

May 29: 1-2: The Technique of the Riddle

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“[T]his is probably one of the very oldest poetical techniques. It has been guessed that early spiritual knowledge was secretly preserved and passed along through riddles….


“One can ask: ‘what is still to be seen’


on all four sides

of the long gone shack

The answer is:
calla lilies

“Or another one would be:


spirit bodies

waving from cacti

plastic bags


“…The more intriguing the ‘set-up’ and the bigger surprise the answer is, the better the haiku seems to work. … keep it true, keep it simple and keep it accurate and make it weird.


“Oh, the old masters favorite trick with riddles was the one of: is that a flower falling or is it a butterfly? … if you wish to experiment (the ku may or may not be a keeper) you can ask yourself the question: if I saw snow on a branch, what else could it be? Or seeing a butterfly going by you ask yourself what else besides a butterfly could that be?”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*
Me:

chewing the stale crumbs
of my future
fortune cookie

new leaves stained with
gouts of fresh blood
first strawberries