Found haiku: Thoreau

Eager to procrastinate this morning (this is actually most of what I do every day), I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “I bet Thoreau is full of haiku.” So I pulled Walden off the bookshelf and started looking through it and giggling. (Yes, I know: I’m easily entertained.)

I did have to use some ellipsis to get haiku out of some of Thoreau’s meaty utterances (when you’ve been reading predominantly haiku even Thoreau’s vigorous prose seems a little Victorianly verbose), but in the end I was really happy with these. I stopped looking when I got to the last one, in fact, because it was so perfect I became too happy to sit still anymore and had to get up and go for a walk. It is equal parts Thoreau-ish and haiku-ish, and also is a nice counterpart to the first one below, which was actually the first one I found.

*

gentle rain …
waters my beans …
keeps me in my house today


where a forest was cut down
last winter
another is springing up


hollow and
lichen-covered apple trees
gnawed by rabbits


the house … behind
a dense grove of red maples …
I heard the house-dog bark


the wood thrush
sang around and was heard
from shore to shore


faint hum of a mosquito …
invisible … tour …
at earliest dawn


while I drink I see
the sandy bottom …
how shallow it is


my beans ….
impatient to be hoed…
so many more than I wanted


— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

June 3: 1: A sort of haibun (Old Letters)

For my 100th post I thought I’d try my hand at haibun (which for the uninitiated is haiku preceded by a sort of brief prose commentary), but as usual I am unable to be brief in prose, so this is more like a wordy, boring essay with a haiku tacked on at the end, like an afterthought.

*

Down in my basement I have a plastic tub full of rubber-banded sheaves of hundreds of handwritten letters, most of them 80s-era. I went to boarding school in the mid-80s and my friends and I, tossed to separate corners of the globe (Ohio, Vermont, Saudi Arabia) over the summers,  wrote each other obsessively. A letter arrived in the mail for me every few days, it seemed, and I would repair to my bedroom, take it out of the envelope as if it were a holy artifact, and read it so many times I practically memorized it.

What did we write about? What we would have talked about, if we’d been together, or excessive long-distance phone calls hadn’t been prohibitively expensive in those days. Or, these days, what we would text or IM about. Boys, a lot of the time. (Or girls.) How bored we were. How much our parents drove us out of our mind. How crazy we were, and weird, and how nobody understood us except each other. We could write really long letters about all this stuff.

I rummaged through the piles lately and found I could still recognize different friends’ letters from the different styles of envelope they used and from their still-familiar handwriting. My best friend had terrible handwriting and liked to send ten-page missives in manila envelopes. She wrote crazy things all over the outside of them. She ended up dropping out of school our junior year and spending the rest of the year as a beach bum in Hawaii, but now she’s an anesthesiologist, married with two lovely children. Or so I see from her Facebook profile. We all seemed to have a lot of difficulty finding ourselves as adults. Maybe we were as crazy and weird as we thought we were.

Like everyone else I don’t write letters on paper anymore and I love the immediacy and convenience of email and other online communication, but these letters, as artifacts, as physical representations of my long-ago friendships and the personalities of my long-ago friends, filled me with an intense longing for that experience of missing someone and then receiving a talisman of them, one which would sustain me until the next one arrived, one which I could keep piled up with the other talismans and hold whenever I needed to. Are things better or worse now? Just different, I suspect. It seems impossible that teenagers today could ever feel as lonely and longing and isolated as I felt then on a daily basis. I wish I could have emailed my friends in high school and college. I wish I’d had a Facebook page, an online support group, a way of getting instant feedback when I felt like I was making important and difficult decisions all alone. But I still kind of wish for letters with scrawled, handwritten addresses to show up in my mailbox from time to time.

*

old letters
the strangeness
of handwriting

*

100 posts in 34 days does seem excessive. Things should slow down considerably once I start my summer school course in a couple of weeks, and even more when I’m in grad school full time in the fall, in case you’re concerned.

Found haiku: Gerard Manley Hopkins

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.

So…here’s Gerard:


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

*

mealy clouds

with a not

brilliant moon

*

blunt buds

of the ash, pencil buds

of the beech

*

almost think you can hear

the lisp

of the swallows’ wings

*

over the green water

of the river passing

the slums of the town

*

oaks

the organization

of this tree is difficult

*

putting my hand up

against the sky

whilst we lay on the grass

*

silver mottled clouding

and clearer;

else like yesterday

*

Basel at night!

with a full moon

waking the river

*

the river runs so strong

that it keeps the bridge

shaking

*

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

of snow

*

at the beginning of March

they were felling

some of the ashes in our grove

*

ground sheeted

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

What is a haiku anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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