I made it to Seattle, and now I’m sitting here chatting in the beautiful courtyard of the Inn at Queen Anne with Debbie Kolodji…
… and Cara Holman.
I love haiku poets.
More to come soon.
Hi fellow travelers,
It’s been a long time since I’ve been here, at least in the form of tour guide. A lot has happened. The earth has shaken. It isn’t tilted quite the same way anymore. I think I can feel it. I’m a little off kilter these days. Not that I can complain, seeing as how I don’t live in Japan.
It’s strange — last year at this time I didn’t even know anyone who lived in Japan, and now I know many people there, whose welfare I am deeply concerned about. They mostly all seem to be mostly okay, at least physically. But their sense of security has been pretty much shattered; they’re living with a lot of fear and uncertainty, and I am so admiring of the way they are keeping themselves centered despite this.
I think haiku helps. Maybe any art helps. It’s a way to take the broken pieces and make something whole out of them.
And on that note…here are a few places you might want to drop by for earthquake news and art:
1. Gabi Greve’s earthquake blog, Japan — After the Big Earthquake. It’s very Gabi-like, meaning insanely comprehensive and completely fascinating. Mostly it’s full of Japanese news reports about all the details of the earthquake/tsunami aftermath and aaathe ongoing nuclear disaster saga, but there are also lots of Gabi-style notes about Japanese earthquake folklore and plenty of earthquake haiku from all over the world. A couple of examples:
A giant catfish (namazu) lived in mud beneath the earth. The catfish liked to play pranks and could only be restrained by Kashima, a deity who protected the Japanese people from earthquakes. So long as Kashima kept a mighty rock with magical powers over the catfish, the earth was still. But when he relaxed his guard, the catfish thrashed about, causing earthquakes.
— Gabi Greve
the third wave
— Svetlana Marisova
2. Scott Watson’s amazing, moving earthquake journal from Sendai, being published serially at Issa’s Untidy Hut. The prose is mostly spare and economical and to the point, which makes his picture of the deprivations they are suffering in Sendai all the more effective. Here’s a typical passage, from Part 6:
On the way back meet an elderly neighbor walking his Akita dog. The dog is up in years too. We talk a while about how we canʼt ﬂush our toilets. Such an inconvenience. When will gas service resume. When will we have water. Some American friends, I tell him, strongly urge me and my family to ﬂee Japanʼs nuclear disaster. But how would you get out of Sendai, he asks. Thatʼs exactly what I tell them. They donʼt understand that we canʼt go anywhere even if we want to.
— Scott Watson
Sometimes Scott waxes a little more lyrical, as in this passage from Part 5 — the last sentence is one of my favorite statements about poetry, ever:
Nukes in Japan. Earthquake land. They are safe, they are necessary, the people are told. Experts are telling the people. Government ofﬁcials are telling the people. Electric power companies are telling the people. Eventually the people come around. The people repeat what they are told.
Poets tell people nothing. People donʼt repeat poems. They sing them in the here and now, which is when, exactly.
— Scott Watson
3. Kuniharu Shimizu’s haiga site, see haiku here, where the haiga are all about the earthquake these days, and are heartwrenching and beautiful. Speaking of Sendai, he illustrated a wonderful Basho haiku that follows a Sendai episode in Narrow Road to the Deep North:
I will bind iris
blossoms round about my feet –
straps for my sandals
and followed it up with “after” pictures of Sendai, which, unfortunately, are not nearly as pretty as iris sandals.
One of my favorite of Kuni’s own haiku about the earthquake is this one, also a stunning haiga:
how I wish
I were a bird
— Kuniharu Shimizu
4. Miriam Sagan’s Miriam’s Well, where she has been posting many earthquake haiku submitted to her — I believe she’s still accepting submissions. Here’s one of my favorites:
pieces of future days
— Mark Brooks
5. This haiku of Bill Kenney’s from haiku-usa:
all the names
I’m learning to pronounce –
— Bill Kenney
6. We Are All Japan, the brainchild of Sasa Vazic and Robert Wilson (who edit the journal Simply Haiku). It’s a very active Facebook group that is open to all comers and is a sort of clearinghouse for earthquake news, support, and poetry. Sasa and Robert are also putting together an anthology of earthquake-related poetry (all forms, not just haiku or other Japanese poetry) whose proceeds will benefit earthquake victims. They’ll accept (previously unpublished) submissions until May 15 at email@example.com. If you’re not Facebook-y, their website is http://wearealljapan.blogspot.com.
Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch
People have also been known to write haiku (and tanka) that aren’t about the earthquake these days. Those are fun to read too.
From Miso Soup:
From Haiku Etc.:
I am not here
but these red peppers are
so I buy one
— Kris Lindbeck
From Heed Not Steve (there is also a great illustration so go visit):
oh I see you
in the scrawl and scribble
— Steve Mitchell
leaving my lover alone for a minute my tongue hunts a lost cloud
— Alan Segal
crocus and frogs after rain
kestrels and hyacinths
telling you secrets non-stop
oh, poet for you, no rest
— Alegria Imperial
From a lousy mirror:
of words burrowed in
spring darkness . . .
a mole eating his way
through the may or may not
— Robert D. Wilson
From Stay Drunk on Writing:
to the Zen Garden —
— Chen-ou Liu
From Yay Words!, the hokku of a great kasen renku in progress between Aubrie Cox and Wayne Chou — go read the other verses:
on the atlas
— Aubrie Cox
From Blue Willow Haiku World, two entries, because there is no way I could choose just one out of four whole weeks of daily entries:
ボブ・ディラン掛けよ蛙の夜なれば 榮 猿丸
bobu diran kakeyo kaeru no yoru nareba
play Bob Dylan
it is a night
— Sarumaru Sakae, translated by Fay Aoyagi
haru nare ya mizu no atsumi no naka ni uo
the water’s thickness
— Yumi Iwata, translated by Fay Aoyagi
From Crows & Daisies, see note above about impossibility of choosing, etc.:
the white mare’s whinny
lifts a cloud
i always was
the odd one out
— Polona Oblak
once more the moon
— Tom Painting
From a handful of stones, the haiku that wins the Most Makes Me Want to Read It Aloud Award for this edition:
sick train the night heron shifts silt for all of us
— Alan Summers
From rolling stones:
more to the moon
than this sliver
From Jars of Stars:
to those around me
I watch blossoms
a thousand years from now
— Paul Smith (@monkeywillow)
From Daily Haiku:
crows in a pine
moving the dark
from limb to limb
— Carolyne Rohrig
From Beachcombing for the Landlocked, a great haiga — go look:
what winter has taken
what winter has spared
— Mark Holloway
In case you’re wondering, “Isn’t there someone who collects great haiku from all the haiku poets on Facebook and puts it somewhere where we poor Facebook-less souls can take it in? And maybe sometimes translates it into French or English depending on which language it started out in?”, the answer is yes, yes there is. He is Vincent Hoarau and his blog is La Calebasse. From a set of fantastic spring haiku he shared recently, here’s one of his own that I love (I am presuming this was probably written first in French and then translated into English, but this was the order it appeared in on the blog):
sun ! sun ! sun !
the daffodils don’t know
where to look
le soleil ! le soleil !les jonquilles ne savent plusoù donner d’la tête
— haiku and translation by Vincent Hoarau
Anyone who hasn’t discovered Contemporary Haibun Online (cho) yet? They released a new edition a couple of weeks ago (dated April 2011 — now that’s efficiency). Please go check it out now so I don’t have to hunt you down and stand over you while you read it. Here’s one of my favorites from the issue to get you started.
Into the garden
take a small square of Kozo paper.
Fold, crease, fold and fold again.
Now place upon an upturned mirror:
crossing a dark sea
of reflected galaxies
this empty boat
The Wild, Wild Web
A roundup of amazing haiku websites I’ve stumbled upon since the last time I rapped at you.
How to explain Basho’s Road? The posts there are infrequent but worth waiting for. The site is beautifully designed and all the posts contain both poetry (usually Japanese short-form, but sometimes not — the most recent post as of this writing contains a quotation from Montaigne) and art, wonderful art. It’s a quiet and thoughtful place and I can feel my breathing slowing down and my brain speeding up whenever I stop by. The proprietor is Norbert Blei, stop by and thank him (I guess now that I’ve said that, I should do it too…).
…………….today haiku come as easy
as picking them off a small fruit tree
— Ronald Baatz, from White Tulips
Since I discovered John Martone’s poetry a few months ago (via Issa’s Untidy Hut), I’ve been noticing it — and hungrily seeking out more of it — everywhere I go. Then recently I got this brainstorm to use this amazing new “Google” thing the kids are all talking about and what do you know, it chewed up my search request and spat me right out at a web page called “john martone’s poetry projects,” which contains links to about a zillion pdf’s of collections of John’s work, and now I’m locking myself in the bathroom and not coming out until I’ve read them all.
Most of these collections are best read as collections — they contain variations on one or several themes and have much the same effect, on me at least, as a turning kaleidoscope, a really well-made one that you just can’t tear away from your eye. Here’s one verse, though, that I think works well on its own.
— John Martone, from box turtle (2008)
Ray Rasmussen, a Canadian poet well-known for his haiku and haibun, has just recently put together a couple of very striking and well-edited sites that you’ll want at least to go take a look at, and possibly to contribute to.
The first one is Day’s End, which looks at various aspects of aging through (mostly previously published) haiku, senryu, tanka and haibun. It was put together by Ray and guest editor Anita Virgil. Here’s a sample:
first time together
kissing a grandmother
— Charles Trumbull
The second site, which is still a work in progress, is Romance under a Waning Moon, a website of haiku, tanka, haibun and images about the ups and downs of later-in-life romance. Ray’s still accepting submissions for this one (he prefers them previously published) — check out the details at the site.
The website of the British haiku journal Presence contains numerous fascinating essays, including several meditations on that perennially fascinating topic: what, exactly, is a haiku?
The one that made me think the most, although I did wish the author would stop shouting, was this one by David Cobb. I’ve italicized the passages I found the most thought-provoking.
My mind is kind of spinning in circles, now, actually — I have to try to integrate these ideas (which I find compelling and convincing) into my mental conception of haiku.
Two Differing Views of Time and Nature in Haiku
1. A haiku is an unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of A MOMENT keenly perceived, IN WHICH NATURE IS LINKED TO HUMAN NATURE. (From A Haiku Path, recording the official definition adopted by the Haiku Society of America and used in Frogpond magazine.) [My (meaning Mr. Cobb’s) capitals.]
2. In the first place, Japanese haiku are NOT NATURE POEMS AT ALL. Japanese poems are concerned with the four seasons of the year, so they are SEASON-POEMS. Haiku are TIME-POEMS; where content is concerned, haiku deal with the passage of time, with things that have passed away, with the present and the future. And the poet illustrates this process of becoming and passing away within a short or long period of time by referring to things in the natural world, both alive and dead. (tr. from an article by Thomas Hemstege in Vierteljahresschrift der Deutschen Haiku-Gesellschaft, Vol.16, No.60, March 2003.) [My (yes, Mr. Cobb’s) capitals again.]
This definition argues that references to Nature are incidental or instrumental to the poet’s impressions of the passage of time. The nub of the action is something that poets do with Nature. The case is made for a haiku continuum rather than a haiku moment.
— David Cobb
[Editorial note to Mr. Cobb: I love your — well, Mr. Hemstege’s, I suppose — ideas, but there are these things called italics which are used by most authors to provide emphasis, and which are MUCH LESS UNNERVING to the reader than ALL CAPS.]
Dead Tree News
Recently I was reminded again that I really needed and wanted to read R.H. Blyth’s seminal four-volume work Haiku, first published in the late forties, which was one of the main instruments for introducing haiku to the general public in the Western world. Blyth introduced a lot of misconceptions about haiku too — the idea that it was somehow fundamentally attached to Zen Buddhism, perhaps, being the main one. But he also passionately loved and was intimately familiar with the body of classical Japanese haiku (not to mention having an encyclopedic knowledge of Western poetry), and did translations of thousands of them that, although they sometimes are more poetic than accurate, are really, really lovely. So as long as you take him with several pounds of salt, he is still well worth reading.
The problem is, Haiku is out of print and commands an impressive price on the used-book market. And though I had no problem borrowing the volumes from my university’s library (libraries, people! wonderful things! use them!</librarian sales pitch>), I realized almost as soon as I started reading them that I needed to own them myself. So one night I was noodling around on Amazon looking at the ridiculous prices that some dealers were asking for these volumes ($700 just for the “Spring” volume?!), when I found what seemed like a very reasonable deal. And almost quicker than I could ask my husband, “Honey, would I be crazy if I paid this much money for four books?”, I’d ordered the things, and a few days later they arrived at my house all nicely wrapped in gloriously old-fashioned layers of brown paper. And lo, when I had removed all the wrapping paper, I discovered they were beautiful, and I was very happy.
I haven’t read them all yet. I suspect it will take months, if not years. But I am in love. The first volume is all about Eastern culture and haiku in general (and contains lots of very authoritative-sounding, incredibly well-written and inspiring, and dubious theories), and the remaining three volumes contain haiku translations and (highly subjective) commentary, in seasonal order starting with Spring and grouping the haiku by kigo. Pretty much any page you open to you’ll find something you love. I just opened the “Summer-Autumn” volume at random and look what I found:
Striking the fly
I hit also
A flowering plant.
— Issa, translated by R.H. Blyth
I swear, I will never hit a fly again.
I’ll be back with more about Blyth someday soon, I promise.
(Note: Don Wentworth, over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, has been writing some thoughts about Blyth lately too — you’re well advised to take them in.)
Long day. (Although the days have gotten a bit shorter due to the earthquake, did you know?) Long month. All kinds of things shifting and spinning. That catfish still restless underground.
But haiku is still there. The haikuverse is still full, still worth exploring. It’s some comfort to me, how about you?
a jumble of
flowers planted —
see, the little garden!
— Masaoka Shiki, translated by Janine Beichman
I’m very excited/pleased/proud/terrified (circle as many as apply) to share the following announcement with you:
haijinx welcomes Melissa Allen as our newest regular columnist.
Melissa is well-known for her haiku blog Red Dragonfly, where she shares “short-form poetry as well as related commentary and essays and news about developments in the world of haiku.”
a jumble of flowers, Melissa’s column within the quarterly haijinx, will be her own unique overview of what’s happening in the haikai world online and off. The first column will be a part of our spring 2011 issue. If you have news or announcements you would like Melissa to consider, please send email to
jumble -at- haijinx -dot- org
haijinx publishes around the solstices and equinoxes each year. The first 2011 issue will be released on March 20th and the submission deadline for Melissa’s a jumble of flowers is March 8th. All other submissions are due by March 1st. For more information, please visit our submissions page.
Me again: If any of you don’t know about haijinx, it will be well worth your time to go check it out. I mean now — don’t wait until my column appears, for goodness’ sake. It’s a great journal with a focus on humor in haiku, recently revived after a several-year furlough by its founder and editor, Mark Brooks, and staffed by an impressive roster of poets including Mark, Carmen Sterba, Alan Summers, Roberta Beary, Tom Clausen, Richard Krawiec … I’m a little awed and humbled by being included in their company.
Also, that thing about sending me news? Yeah, we mean it. Conferences? Events? Contests? Publications? New (or old) exciting blogs or websites? Anything? Anything? Shoot it to the email address above. Otherwise I’m going to have to comb the Web myself looking for news and you never know, I might miss you. So brag yourself up.
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“This is the dangerous stuff … [b]ecause one has no way of judging another person’s tolerance for wisecracks, jokes, slurs, bathroom and bedroom references.… Very often the humor of a haiku comes from the honest reactions of humankind. Choose your terms carefully, add to your situation with appropriate leaps, and may the haiku gods smile on you.
dried prune faces
guests when they hear
we have only a privy”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
Hmmm … okay, here’s the thing. My sense of humor tends toward the … obscurely satirical? Wait, is that just a synonym for “not funny”? Well, you can judge for yourself.
For my first effort at humor I set out to write a haiku that would encompass as many stereotypes about Japan and haiku as possible in seventeen syllables (5-7-5, of course).
sipping tea on Mount Fuji —
white cherry blossoms
For my second effort I felt like making fun of haiku poets. Yeah, all of us, cawing away, trying to impress our significance on the world …
and the rest of us —
a convention of crows
Had enough yet? Can’t say I blame you. But come on, are they really any worse than Jane’s privy joke?
(And don’t forget my invitation!)
I’m not in the mood to write haiku today.
Well, okay, I will probably write one, because I promised myself I would write one every day for a year. But I doubt it will be anything you will want to see.
I’m feeling a little pressed for time these days, and (as usual) very bad at managing it. I write long essays on this blog and respond to comments at ridiculous length while the to-do list keeps getting longer. The to-do list of important stuff. Stuff I’m getting graded on and paid for. (And yes, I am still Western enough to consider that stuff more important than stuff I just love to do.)
So here’s a Real Poem (as opposed to, you know, those fluffy little haiku things) I wrote a while back and did some half-hearted tinkering with recently. It needs something — probably a Real Poet to take it apart and put it back together again. But we do what we can.
I will write a poem
about the loss
What do we have instead of poetry?
Puddling on the surface of our minds:
A seamless liquid spreading over the page.
Instead of —
A lithe sleeping animal curling its back in ecstasy,
Unfurling its claws one by one,
Spiking holes in our perception.
This is not what I meant to write,
And it is not
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.
poets live in an
imaginary city in a
with apologies to Marianne Moore
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
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.
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.
now it’s right – how it fits
Half Moon Bay”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
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.
Make sure you make it to the bottom of this post. There is a delicious candy surprise waiting for you. Or, um, a pile of Brussels sprouts, depending on your opinion of derivative, semi-parodical poetry.
The other day somebody compared some of my work to Wallace Stevens’s. This was hugely flattering to me because, although I don’t really believe in picking favorites when it comes to poetry (or really anything else), if someone held a gun to my head and said, “Name your favorite poet or else,” I would have to say (or rather, probably, shriek in desperation), “Wallace Stevens! Wallace Stevens!”
Like everyone else who knows a fair amount about both Wallace Stevens and haiku, I’d noticed the resemblance between haiku and probably his best-known poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (great book! read it!), quote the first stanza as an example of the influence of the haiku on early-2oth-century poetry:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I could probably go on for a while about what Stevens’s theory of poetics was and why he’s so great and everyone should love him, but you don’t really care and if you do you can go read about him on Wikipedia or even better, pick up a copy of The Palm at the End of the Mind from someplace and just read his poetry until you fall over in a dead faint.
What you are really looking for here is some pseudo-haiku culled from Stevens’s work. And although I have some reservations about this exercise because I don’t think it gives all that accurate an impression of what his highly metaphorical, dense, intellectual poetry is about, I can oblige you, forthwith:
At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the falling leaves
(“Domination of Black”)
the grackles crack
their throats of bone
in the smooth air
The white cock’s tail
Streams to the moon.
Water in the fields.
(“Ploughing on Sunday”)
The skreak and skritter
of evening gone
and grackles gone
A bridge above the … water
And the same bridge
when the river is frozen
(“Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”)
Long autumn sheens
and pittering sounds like sounds
on pattering leaves
(“Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue”)
The grass in in seed.
The young birds are flying.
Yet the house is not built
(“Ghosts as Cocoons”)
Slowly the ivy
on the stones
becomes the stones
(“The Man with the Blue Guitar”)
A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter
when afternoons return
(“The Poems of Our Climate”)
a bough in the electric light…
so little to indicate
the total leaflessness
(“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”)
— All selections from Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play
Did you make it all the way through that? Okay…as either a reward or a punishment (you decide), I am now going to inflict on you a rare example of my non-haiku poetry. It is of course haiku-ish (being modeled on a haiku-ish poem), so it’s not too terrible. I don’t think. Oh — be sure you’ve actually read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” before you read it, or the full effect will be lost on you.
Something else you need to know to fully appreciate this is that Wallace Stevens famously had a day job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut.
Thirteen Ways of Looking At Wallace Stevens
The view from the window
Of the poet’s office:
Thin clouds spread
Over a hazy sky.
I drive down the avenues of Hartford
Looking for Wallace Stevens
Or for what he has left behind.
Precision, quiddity, and fancy,
The shape of Wallace Stevens’ mind.
A man sits at a mahogany desk
Holding his pen completely still over
An empty ledger book.
The black marks on an actuarial table
Look much like the black marks
On a page of poetry.
Wallace Stevens walks to work
Down streets blackbirds have flown along.
What will you pay me, Wallace Stevens,
Not to finish this poem?
I wake from a strange dream
Through which Wallace Stevens was flying.
The shadowy quality of a day in the mountains
Spent reading Wallace Stevens.
Like the thing and the image of the thing,
Like the two parts of Wallace Stevens’ life:
The doing, and the being.
Wallace Stevens leaves the office,
Carrying an umbrella,
His briefcase swinging
At the end of the arm he writes with.
The two eyes of the poet,
Seeing in two directions.
I sit down to write a poem.
I look up, and there is Wallace Stevens.
He casts his shadow over the paper.
Continuing in my time-honored tradition of writing lengthy, dull essays about things I know practically nothing about, I wanted to ramble on for a while about my recent explorations of gendai haiku. A plea: even if you are not interested in my sketchy research, uninformed opinions, or pretentious literary analysis, you should at least skim down to read what are some pretty cool haiku. (By other people, needless to say.)
The Japanese term “gendai” simply means “modern,” but in the context of haiku it seems to carry the connotation of something more like “avant-garde” or “experimental” in English. Scott Metz, who is a pretty avant-garde American haiku poet himself, explains its origins on his blog “lakes and now wolves”:
“… influenced by changes in culture, society, economics, art, and literature—globalization—many different schools and strands of haiku developed during the 20th century. … Starting with a foundation centered more on realism and experience, 20th century haiku immediately expanded into areas such as politics, subjectivity, the avant-garde, feminism, urbanism, surrealism, the imaginary, symbolism, individuality, and science fiction: in general, free-form and experimental aesthetics. … The rigid limitations and conservatism of traditional techniques (namely 5-7-5 on/syllabets and the necessity of a kigo) were no longer absolutes for Japanese poets.”
— Scott Metz, for ku by
bank clerks are fluorescent
from the morning
—Kaneko Tōta (trans. Makoto Ueda)
in front of the scarlet mushroom
my comb slips off
—Yagi Mikajo (trans. by Richard Gilbert)
from the sight
of the man who was killed
we also vanished
—Murio Suzuki (trans. by Gendai Haiku Kyokai)
(All examples from Peter Yovu, What is Your Reponse to Gendai Haiku?)
These examples seemed so exciting to me, so much more interesting than the standard Zen-nature-moment haiku, which I confess I’m getting a little weary of, that I went straight off to gendaihaiku.com, a website by Richard Gilbert, one of the most influential Western scholars and proponents of gendai. It contains profiles of some of the masters of gendai haiku, videotaped interviews with them, and examples of their work. There I found stuff like this:
realizing death as one color
in the snowy kiosk
for sale .?
–[Gilbert adds an explanatory note to this haiku:] … Kiosks filled with novel items began to appear in train stations throughout postwar Japan as the rail lines developed, and represented a new world, a new era of consumption and economic development. The resulting revolution spoken of here is domestic and cultural. A unique formal feature of this haiku is its last, fragmentary character na, which follows a question marker (ka), comma, and space, a uniquely creative contribution. Hovering between a statement of certainty and strong doubt (disbelief?), an indefinite solution is created by the orthography, causing this haiku to reflect back upon its topic, deepening the question.
cherry blossoms fall
— you too must become
water of spring
as water wetted
water, as is
–Hasegawa comments. Almost anything in this world can be wetted by water. However, the one thing that cannot be wetted in this way is water itself. Although water wets other things but cannot itself be wetted, I nonetheless intuit that the water of spring, uniquely, has a special quality in that it can be wetted — though it too is water.
There are clearly a lot of cultural and translation barriers to a non-Japanese fully understanding these poems — among other problems, I still don’t quite get why Tsubouchi wants me to be a hippo. But it struck me forcefully that these poets were clearly not interested in following the “rules” about haiku, particularly about haiku subject matter, that so many English haiku poets seem insistent on and fearful of breaking.
These poems aren’t about “haiku moments.” They have vivid and compelling images; but they’re allusive, elusive, experimental, full of large ideas — not just tiny moments of awareness. I say this not to cast aspersions on tiny moments of awareness, just to point out that in the culture where haiku developed, there is apparently a much broader conception of what constitutes a “real” haiku than in our own.
In an interview with Robert Wilson, Gilbert points out that gendai haiku poets are not breaking off decisively from the classical haiku tradition, that haiku has always been about referencing the past while making accommodation to the present:
“Gendai haiku partake of a tradition and culture in which, unlike that of the historical Judeo-Christian West, nature and culture were not extensively polarized. So in gendai haiku exists an invitation to the present and a future, in congruence with the past. This congruency is also an uprooting, accomplished via expansive and often experimental avant-garde language and techniques. Yet the old is likewise held in the new, in plying the form. The key to haiku, what makes it a brilliant literature, is that haiku cut through time and space …
“The gendai haiku tradition partakes of Bashō’s ‘world of mind,’ and like Bashō and other accomplished classical masters, extends a literary conversation. … [H]aiku are never merely singular works of art, they swim in an ocean of poetry, in which any given term (e.g. kigo or kidai) and image has multiple reference to over 1000 years of literary history (poems, historical events, personages, authors, myths, etc.). …”
— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert”
I would add that haiku, in its several hundred years of existence, has undergone many changes in style and approach and has never been as limited in subject matter and structure as many Westerners seem to believe. A lot of what we now think of as “proper” haiku (the nature observation, the Zen moment of enlightenment) was a late-nineteenth-century development and actually, ironically, owed a lot to the realism of Western poetry, which was just beginning to be known in Japan at the time. Haruo Shirane, in his great essay Beyond the Haiku Moment, points out that early haiku were just as likely (or more so) to concern historical or literary or entirely imaginary subjects as the personal experience of the poet:
Basho traveled to explore the present, the contemporary world, to meet new poets, and to compose linked verse together. Equally important, travel was a means of entering into the past, of meeting the spirits of the dead, of experiencing what his poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced. In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems. … Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti- traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.
— Haruo Shirane, Beyond the Haiku Moment
An interesting historical note about this movement is that gendai haiku poets underwent significant persecution at the hands of the Japanese government during World War II, as is chillingly explained in an article in the haiku journal “Roadrunner” (again, by Richard Gilbert):
“[B]y the 1920s … the ‘New Rising Haiku movement’ (shinkô haiku undô) wished to compose haiku on new subjects, and utilize techniques and topics related to contemporary social life. These poets frequently wrote haiku without kigo (muki-teki haiku), and explored non-traditional subjects, such as social inequity, utilizing avant‑garde styles including surrealism, etc. …
“During the war, over 40 New Rising Haiku poets were persecuted; they were imprisoned and tortured, and some died in prison. … [The director of a haiku society associated with the government stated:] ‘I will not allow haiku even from the most honorable person, from left-wing, or progressive, or anti-war, groups to exist. If such people are found in the haiku world, we had better persecute them, and they should be punished.’
“… According to the fascist-traditionalists, to write haiku without kigo meant anti-tradition, which in turn meant anti-Imperial order and high treason. …
“One sees that, historically, ‘freedom of expression’ in the gendai haiku movement was not an idle aesthetic notion. … The liberal, democratic spirit and freedom of expression exhibited by the New Rising Haiku poets remains at the core of gendai haiku.”
— Richard Gilbert, “Gendai Haiku Translations“
In this same article Gilbert and Ito Yuki offer translations of some haiku by this generation of persecuted poets, all of which, naturally, are a little on the dark side — but exhibit the same freshness of approach as my previous examples:
clean kills: in a night war a canyon a crab
– Hirahata Seito
the shriek of artillery
birds beasts fish shellfish
— Saito Sanki
leaving a withered tree
being shot as a withered tree
— Sugimura Seirinshi
in the forehead
the killing flower blooms
— Saito Sanki
(Translations by Richard Gilbert and Ito Yuki, from “Gendai Haiku Translations“)
If you’re starting to wonder if all gendai haiku are dark and depressing…fear not. A wonderful place to sample a wide variety of gendai haiku is Blue Willow Haiku World, the website of the fine Japanese-American haiku poet Fay Aoyagi, which features both her own haiku and that of modern Japanese haiku poets in her own translations. A few examples:
he comes and whispers
in a dancer’s ear
from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996
— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 9, 2010
I prefer a comic play
with a quiet plot
from “Gendai no Haiku” (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996
— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 7, 2010
— Keishu Ogawa
from “Gendai Haiku Hyakunin Nijukku” (“Modern Haiku: 20 Haiku per100 Poets”), edited by Kazuo Ibaraki, Kiyoko Uda, Nenten Tsubouchi, Kazuko Nishimura, You-shorin, Nagano, 2004
Fay’s Note: “sôda-sui” (bubbled/carbonated water) is a summer kigo.
One can write a Japanese haiku without a subject word. Most of time, the subject is “I,” the poet. But this one, I am not sure. I see two people (somehow, a male and female students) studying together. It is a summer time.
Between them, cans (or glasses) of bubbled water… But the translation can be
— posted by Fay Aoyagi on Blue Willow Haiku World June 6, 2010
So far I’ve been discussing this genre as a strictly Japanese phenomenon. But the inevitable question is: Are there “gendai haiku” in English?
Richard Gilbert responds:
“I’m not even sure [the term ‘gendai’] should be used for any haiku natively-written in English. For instance, I would not say so-and-so a haiku is ‘gendai’ as a matter of style, unless I meant it was similar in style to that of a known gendai poet of Japan … As of yet, we do not have a ‘gendai-like’ movement in English-language haiku poetry, though there are some poets writing innovative works. … It’s my thought that we can learn and appreciate, though innovate with autonomy.”
— Richard Gilbert, “A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert“
I’m planning to write a post soon about some English-language haiku poets who are innovating in what seem to me gendai-like ways — including Metz and Gilbert themselves. In the meantime, I’d welcome comments on these poems and this poetic phenomenon: How do you feel about haiku in this style? Do you think there is a similar movement in English? Should I just stick to haiku and leave the dry academic treatises to the experts? Let your opinion be known.
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“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
he swims the pond
with strong strokes
early morning tide
I’m willing to be that there are thousands of people who first found out about, or got enthusiastic about, haiku, and Japanese poetry in general, by reading J.D. Salinger’s short novel (long short story?) Seymour: An Introduction. This is particularly likely to be true of the type of precious, oversensitive, self-involved adolescent that, um, I was.
I was devoted to Salinger through most of my teenage years, not so much Catcher in the Rye (though I liked that too), but, in particular, the stories about the precocious, intellectual, spirituality-seeking Glass family. During the summer I was sixteen, I believe I read Franny and Zooey no less than six times. I would be tempted to be more critical of myself for this, except it may have been the only thing that kept me sane that summer. Somehow it helped to know that there were people out there (even fictional people) as precious, oversensitive, etc. as I was. (I have since learned that we are legion, but at the time I thought I was special.)
Anyway, if you’re not familiar with Seymour and the other Glasses, they are a family of seven children who were all child prodigies, though they appear only as adults in most of the stories about them — adults who rarely stop talking and never, ever stop thinking too much, mostly about themselves and their angst about the human condition and the nature of the universe. Seymour, the oldest, is also the most brilliant — which doesn’t work out all that well for him, but no spoilers here. (Go read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” if you’re curious about his fate.)
Seymour: An Introduction is basically an extended character sketch purporting to have been written by the next-youngest Glass sibling, Buddy, a writer and college English professor (probably to some extent a Salinger stand-in). He devotes about twenty pages of a 120-page novel to describing Seymour’s career as a poet — much of it, since Seymour’s main poetic inspiration was Chinese and Japanese poetry, discussing the special nature of haiku and other forms of Eastern verse.
This section, fortunately for our purposes, may be the most readable one in the novel. Rereading Seymour now for the first time in many years, I’m finding it, well, pretty precious itself — much more so even than Franny and Zooey, which I revisited last year, and orders of magnitude more than Nine Short Stories, several of which are modern masterpieces. I’m having to skim most of it, the self-indulgent endless paragraphs, the ecstatic but vague descriptions of Seymour’s genius, Buddy’s overly cute cultural analysis and self-appraisal. But a lot of the discussion of poetry made me slow down and start typing out passages to consider later. Salinger (Buddy?) is guilty to a certain extent, like so many other people, of romanticizing Asian culture, but is still very perceptive about how Asian poetry differs from much Western poetry:
“At their most effective, I believe, Chinese and Japanese classical verses are intelligible utterances that please or enlighten or enlarge the invited eavesdropper to within an inch of his life. They may be, and often are, fine for the ear particularly, but for the most part, I’d say that unless a Chinese or Japanese poet’s real forte is knowing a good persimmon or a good crab or a good mosquito bite on a good arm when he sees one, then no matter how long or unusual or fascinating his semantic or intellectual intestines may be, or how beguiling they sound when twanged, no one in the Mysterious East speaks seriously of him as a poet, if at all.” (pp. 118-119)
I can clearly remember reading and being impressed by the following passage as a teenager, and somehow getting the names Issa and Basho stuck in my head for the rest of my life, so that even though I read hardly any of their writing for the next twenty years, they still seemed like old friends when I came to take them up seriously:
“I don’t really believe there is a word, in any language — thank God — to describe the Chinese or Japanese poet’s choice of material. … The great Issa will joyfully advise us that there’s a fat-faced peony in the garden. (No more, no less. Whether we go to see his fat-faced peony for ourselves is another matter … he doesn’t police us.) The very mention of Issa’s name convinces me that the true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it. A fat-faced peony will not show itself to anyone but Issa — not to Buson, not to Shiki, not even to Basho.” (p. 121)
Seymour criticizes his early attempts at writing poetry modeled on Chinese and Japanese forms, in words that resonate with me and with, I think, many other Western poets who are trying to honor the original spirit of this form while making it our own and acknowledging the realities of modern life:
“[The poems] were too un-Western, too lotusy. He said he felt that they were faintly affronting. He hadn’t quite made up his mind where the affronting came in, but he felt at times that the poems read as though they’d been written by an ingrate, of sorts, someone who was turning his back … on his own environment and the people in it who were close to him. He said he ate his food out of our big refrigerators, drove our eight-cylinder American cars, unhesitatingly used our medicines when he was sick, and relied on the U.S. Army to protect his parents and sisters from Hitler’s Germany, and nothing, not one single thing in all his poems, reflected these realities.” (p. 124-25)
Eventually Seymour does succeed at melding his Eastern and Western poetic influences, and Salinger/Buddy describes the results in what must be one of the most detailed descriptions ever written of a wholly imaginary verse form (at least I’m assuming it’s wholly imaginary, maybe somewhere in Salinger’s filing cabinet there are notebooks filled with poems like this):
“… Seymour probably loved the classical Japanese three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku as he loved no other form of poetry, and … he himself wrote — bled — haiku. … It could be said … that a late-period poem of Seymour’s looks substantially like an English translation of a sort of double haiku … a six-line verse, of no certain accent but usually more iambic than not, that, partly out of affection for dead Japanese masters and partly from his own natural bent, as a poet, for working inside attractive restricted areas, he has deliberately held down to thirty-four syllables, or twice the number of the classical haiku. … [E]ach of the poems is as unsonorous, as quiet, as he believed a poem should be, but there are intermittent short blasts of euphony … which have the effect on me personally of someone — surely no one completely sober — opening my door, blowing three or four or five unquestionably sweet and expert notes on a cornet into the room, then disappearing.” (p. 126-28)
For those of us who struggle with what kind of subject matter to bring to haiku — should we stick mostly to nature? how personal should we get? can we tell a story, make a joke, imagine things, or should we stick to personally experienced moments of Zen enlightenment? — it’s interesting to read about Seymour’s choice of subject matter, though they frankly remind me more than anything of possible plot summaries for Salinger’s next several short stories:
“The next-to-last poem is about a young married woman and mother who is plainly having what it refers to here in my old marriage manual as an extramarital love affair. … She comes home very late from a tryst — in my mind, bleary and lipstick-smeared — to find a balloon on her bedspread. Someone has simply left it there. The poet doesn’t say, but it can’t be anything but a large, inflated toy balloon, probably green, like Central Park in spring. The other poem … is about a young suburban widower who sits down on his patch of lawn one night, implicitly in his pajamas and robe, to look at the full moon. A bored white cat … comes up to him and rolls over, and he lets her bite his left hand as he looks at the moon.” (p. 128-29)
I can see now how much these long-forgotten passages have influenced my lifelong attitude toward haiku — although, as I’ve mentioned before, I hadn’t given an excessive amount of thought to the form before last month. There’s the idea that haiku can be made your own; you don’t have to be a slave to tradition. There’s the idea that poets should have a unique voice and should strive to see and write about the things that only they can see. There’s the idea that haiku are about revealing the world as it is, communicating some experience of authentic perception. There’s the idea that haiku should ring some kind of bell in the mind of the reader. There’s the idea that a wide variety of subject matter and to some extent form is possible in writing haiku; that perception and authenticity matter more than syllable counts or traditional topics.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone else for whom reading Seymour was a formative experience in their haiku-writing career. Or, for that matter, from those for whom it wasn’t. What do you think of these passages — do they enlarge or confirm your understanding of haiku, or do you find them banal and twee? Would you rather gnaw your leg off than ever read another word of Salinger, or do you have a shrine to Franny and Zooey set up somewhere in the hidden recesses of your heart? (Or both?)
I’m still feeling under the weather from semi-collapsing at the end of a half-marathon I ran on Sunday in 88-degree weather (it’s Wisconsin, and it’s been a cold spring, so no snickering from you Southwesterners). Pretty much confined to the couch, since standing up for more than a few minutes makes me dizzy. There are worse things, I guess. I’m surrounded by all the books and magazines I put off reading all semester, not to mention the omnipresent, time-sucking Interweb.
I’m having a hard time following a train of thought even long enough to write a sub-seventeen-syllable poem, though. So at the moment I’m taking it easy on my fried brain by resorting to found haiku, mostly from prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, better known as a poet — one of my all-time favorites. The first couple haiku are from poems. The rest are from his journals, which every aspiring poet should read. The man minutely observed and described everything he saw; whole paragraphs read like poems. I can’t help thinking that if he had known about haiku, he would have tried his hand at it.
I may repeat this experiment at intervals, mining the works of other poets and prose writers for haiku-like material (full credit to the original authors, of course). I agonized briefly over whether this exercise was a) cheating, or b) meaningful, but then decided I didn’t care. I enjoy it and it’s my blog. And I do think I’m learning something from this about what writing is haiku-like and what isn’t.
I’ve taken the liberty of haiku-izing Hopkins’s words by arranging them in three lines and removing some punctuation, but otherwise these are direct quotations, with no words removed or added.
the moon, dwindled and thinned
to the fringe of a fingernail
held to the candle
this air I gather
and I release
he lived on
with a not
of the ash, pencil buds
of the beech
almost think you can hear
of the swallows’ wings
over the green water
of the river passing
the slums of the town
of this tree is difficult
putting my hand up
against the sky
whilst we lay on the grass
silver mottled clouding
else like yesterday
Basel at night!
with a full moon
waking the river
the river runs so strong
that it keeps the bridge
some great star
whether Capella or not
I am not sure
two boys came down
the mountain yodelling
we saw the snow
the mountain summits
are not the place
for mountain views
the winter was called severe
there were three spells
of frost with skating
the next morning
a heavy fall
at the beginning of March
they were felling
some of the ashes in our grove
with taut tattered streaks
of crisp gritty snow
thunderstorm in the evening
first booming in gong-sounds
as at Aosta
I noticed the smell
of the big cedar
not just in passing
the comet —
I have seen it at bedtime
in the west
as we came home
the stars came out thick
I leaned back to look at them
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by W.H. Gardner