Somebody want to comment and let me know what you’re writing these days? It might make me feel better to know that someone in the world is not experiencing a creative slump.
Of course, there are all those people I quote down below. They seem to be doing just fine. Terrific, in fact. There are some spectacular images here. Some precise and lovely language. Some mind-altering revelations.
All of these poems are ones that made me step back when I saw them and go, “Whoa.” And then just breathe for a while, and read the poem again a few times, and feel really thankful I’d seen it.
In case you were wondering what my criteria were for choosing poems for this feature…that’s pretty much it. If a poem seems to me to be saying something that no one else in the world ever had or could say better…it’s going in.
It’s interesting to me, now that I’ve been reading haiku for a while, and have become familiar with the work of so many poets, how even in a form as short and relatively prescribed in form and content as the haiku (or tanka), there is such a wild and woolly assortment of styles possible and extant.
Reading the poems of people whose work you know and love is a little bit like looking at the faces of people you know and love: so familiar, and utterly unique, and the uniqueness makes you love them even more. You smile when you see them and say, “Oh, yes, that couldn’t possibly be anyone but [for instance] John Martone.”
Yes, I’m feeling much better now. Thanks.
Poetry To Which Attention Must Be Paid
yes, this one,
gently close the humidor
- the smell of cedar
both dogs whining in the hall
eager to join me outside
—Steve Mitchell, Heed Not Steve
sun between clouds
the flies on a dead bird
— Mark Holloway, Beachcombing for the Landlocked
the water tasted like iron
from which I’m made
– Charles Easter, Tinywords
mono iruru bin mo mono iu bin mo natsu
a jar to keep things
and a jar which speaks
– Yasunobu Nakamura, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
wishing on the first star for the last time … mockingbird’s song
— Terri L. French, The Mulling Muse (Please go check out Terri’s wonderful haiga associated with this poem)
white sky -
the absent wind
with a girl’s name
hvid himmel -
den fraværende vind
med et pigenavn
— Johannes S.H. Bjerg, 2 tongues/2 tunger
not feeling it
between my hands
– Sandra Simpson, DailyHaiku
– John Martone, originally published in Lilliput Review and quoted on Don Wentworth’s Issa’s Untidy Hut
everything I see
— Paul Smith, winner of the 2011 Haiku Pen Contest sponsored by Lyrical Passion E-Zine
Delicious Bloggy Goodness
Since I am giving this talk next week about blogging I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good blog and which blogs I am devoutly grateful for (there are a lot of them). I mentioned a few in the last Haikuverse and here are a few more.
1. Kuniharu Shimizu, whose haiga on see haiku here are a marvel of nature most of the time anyway, has been posting some mind-blowing “linked haiga” lately. They’re like haiku sequences, except…they’re haiga sequences, and they are linked not only thematically but graphically. I’m just gonna stop trying to describe them now and order you to go look at them. My favorites are:
2. The fascinating people over at Icebox recently took a poll about which characteristics participants considered essential to haiku. Of a long list of possibilities, you were allowed to choose three. Now they have revealed and analyzed the results of some 104 responses, and it’s a fascinating read, especially if like me you find numbers a welcome break at times from all those words we’re always bandying about.
Full disclosure: I participated in this poll, and I am (I guess?) relieved to find out that my top three choices are identical to the top three vote-getters in the poll. Either I have a vague idea what I’m doing, or I just like to be exactly like everyone else. I haven’t decided yet.
3. Over at Morden Haiku, Matt Morden’s long haibun about his cycling tour of Scotland with his 18-year-old daughter (it was a school-leaving present) had me captivated every step of the way, which surprised me because I normally have very little interest in travelogue haibun. But Matt is so good at painting images in both prose and poetry. And he managed to capture the nature of the bond between him and his daughter without any overt description of it or any sentimentality.
at the end of a day
when I could not ask for more
– Matt Morden, Morden Haiku
4. At La Calebasse, Vincent Hoarau has written a moving and perceptive essay about the work of Svetlana Marisova, an excellent haiku poet from New Zealand. Unfortunately for many of you, it’s in French; fortunately for those same people, he quotes Svetlana’s haiku in English (as well as in his own French translation), so at least you can read those, and Svetlana’s haiku are must-reads.
I can’t really translate French so I wouldn’t inflict my garbled version of Vincent’s essay on you, but I will briefly quote one of his descriptions of Svetlana’s characteristic style, which “depends on the juxtaposition of images, on allusion, suggestion, and concision.” This might be a description of all or most good haiku, but it is true that there is more of a sense of mystery and a deeper resonance to Svetlana’s haiku than to most.
This makes it all the more painful to have to report that Svetlana has an aggressive form of brain cancer, for which she is currently being treated in Russia. I think it’s safe to say that everyone who knows Svetlana and her work is keeping her in their thoughts these days.
wintry sky …
these dark tumours
ciel hivernal … / ces tumeurs noires / drainant la lumière
– Svetlana Marisova, French translation by Vincent Hoarau
Essaying: Words, Words, Words
The last few weeks I kept stumbling across, or getting pointed toward, thought-provoking essays about haiku, many of which I kept constantly open as tabs in my browser so I could reread them or bits of them at stray moments when, say, Facebook was failing to completely capture my attention. After a while (sometimes I’m slow) I started to notice a common theme between several of these essays: Words.
No, I don’t mean that they all contain words. I mean that they all deal in one way or another with the inadequacy of mere words to convey the meaning of haiku, with the fact that in haiku it is just as often what is not said that is important. That space, wordlessness, ma … there are so many ways people have tried to explain this notion of the open-endedness of haiku, the sense of possibility it offers the reader. But these three essays have a lot to contribute to this conversation.
Ian Marshall and Megan Simpson, in an often dense discussion of the literary theory of deconstructionism as it pertains (or doesn’t pertain) to haiku, spend a lot of time trying to decide whether the words in haiku can be trusted: whether they are revealing some kind of absolute truth or faithful depiction of the world, or whether they are saying more about the mind of their author than about any objective reality.
“What I’m getting at, what I’ve been getting at, is that the supposed ideal of ‘wordlessness’ of haiku, meaning that its language can represent the natural world in such a way that it becomes fully present in language, in seventeen syllables or less, is a fiction. But the best haiku are aware of the fiction and of the difficulty or impossibility of using words to achieve no-mind, or selflessness, or wordlessness. Bringing deconstruction to bear on haiku reveals that even haiku to some extent concern themselves with the problematics of representation, and recognizing this enriches our readings of haiku.”
– Ian Marshall and Megan Simpson, “Deconstructing Haiku: A Dialogue“
Randy Brooks, in a long and rich interview with Robert Wilson in the most recent issue of the journal Simply Haiku, elaborates on his vision of haiku poetics, which considers the reader to be “co-creator” with the writer of the meaning of the haiku.
“Haiku is not a closed form of verse with three lines of five-seven-five syllables, self-contained and finished by the author. Haiku is an open form of poetry in which the silences before, within and after the haiku resonate with surplus meaning. Basho called this surplus of meaning ‘yojô.’ These unfinished silences are deliberately left open to the reader, so that the reader can enter into the imagined space of the haiku as a co-creator with the author to discover the feelings, thoughts, insights, and overall significance of the haiku. This surplus meaning is shared by the writer and reader, with a playful variety of unpredictable responses. In my opinion, this is the primary joy of haiku—the writer has crafted a haiku as a creative response to nature, reality, dreams, art, imagination, or to other haiku, and the reader gets to enter into that playful haiku with his or her own creative response and imagination.”
— Randy Brooks, interviewed by Robert Wilson in Simply Haiku
And Fay Aoyagi, in a fascinating essay about the history of the moon in haiku, talks about the necessity for subtlety and ambiguity in haiku, the need to leave things out. (The first paragraph of her essay is not specifically about this idea, but it was too wonderful not to quote here.)
“If somebody asked me to choose between the sun and the moon as a place to live, I would choose the moon. In my mind, there are highways with 10 lanes on the sun, but the moon has alleys and narrow streets I can explore on foot. For me, the sun is a destination, but the moon is a gateway and a peep-hole to an unknown world. …
“One of my Japanese friends told me that she did not understand how people write haiku in English. According to her, Japanese culture, including haiku, is very subtle. She said Japanese is a more ambiguous language than English; it is a more suitable language to express feelings. Writing in Japanese, a poet can avoid too much explicitness. I am not sure I totally agree. I think English haiku can be very suggestive, as well. … Haiku is a poetry form which requires reading between the lines. I strongly believe that we can achieve subtlety in English.”
– Fay Aoyagi, “Moon in the Haiku Tradition“
Well. I think in this edition I’ve had more of a sense than most of actually going somewhere, of making some kind of journey.
I can’t help thinking back to when I first started this blog, with a light-hearted, innocent notion that I would be spending a few minutes every day composing these charming little poems. And then…the deluge.
After just a few days of surfing erratically around the Interwebs, I began to realize that the well I had fallen into was deeper and had far more at the bottom of it than I had dreamed.
I was stunned by the richness of so much of the haiku I had found, by how different it was than the haiku I had previously seen or imagined.
I was amazed by the amount and variety of writing about haiku that I discovered, and by the amount of disagreement that existed about what exactly haiku was anyway, and by the quality and profundity of thought that so many poets and scholars poured into these tiny poems.
I had a sense of having found another country. And I knew almost immediately that it was one I wanted to emigrate to permanently, and spend a lifetime exploring.
Well, why not? The scenery is astounding, the population is warm and welcoming, the cultural traditions … well, I need say no more. But sometimes I just kind of look around and think, Wow. I am so lucky to be here.
Thank you for being here too.
So. It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. (That’s a line from some song we sang at our third-grade choral concert. Amazing that I still remember it.)
This is how long it was: Have you ever had one of those dreams where the whole time you knew something really great was about to happen, something really fantastic you could hardly wait for, and the dream went on and on and all kinds of other humdrum, boring things happened, and you were thinking, “Okay, isn’t it about time the really great thing happened now?”, and then it was just about to happen, oh man, and … you woke up. And it never happened.
Yeah. I was seriously afraid this winter was going to turn out to be like one of those dreams. There was the cold. And the snow. And the more cold. And the unrelenting brownness and grayness. … Did I mention the cold? All through March. All through April. Into May. May!
Everyone else in the world (it seemed) was writing these cheerful blossom haiku and I kept looking out my window wondering if this was one of those dreams after all. Cold rain. Bare branches. Me shivering in my sweaters and occasionally even long underwear still, the grass like straw, the cold! so painful it felt like some kind of bone disease! (Should I go to the doctor?)
Well. So okay, it was still only about fifty degrees today with a stiff breeze. But there was sun! There’s supposed to be sun all week. And there are flowers everywhere. There are blossoms! There are lilacs! The grass is green, the leaves are green. …It finally happened!
Not only that, but I handed in my last assignments of the semester last week. Another thing I thought would never happen. And my son finally got his driver’s license, which means I don’t have to drive him everywhere anymore. [Though he will kill me if I don't mention that he's been getting himself practically everywhere on his bike since he was like ten, so it's not like I've been a slave to his transportation.]
And my husband finally got over whatever microbial infestation had him in its death grip for the last month, so he can do something besides sit around making exploding-lung noises. Like take me to the Arboretum to look at apple blossoms. And wait patiently while I scribble illegible things about them in a notebook. Cold and lonely no more. So glad that dream is over.
falling in love with a memory apple blossoms
Haiku of the Month: All Spring and Summer, All the Time
I’ve mentioned before how you can follow the world’s weather patterns by observing the haiku that is posted on the Internet. Well, I was looking through all the haiku I had collected over the last three weeks and noticed that not a single one referred to autumn or winter. (I must not have been hanging out on enough southern hemisphere blogs or something. I apologize to that half of the globe.)
a girl’s shadow
swims from my ankles
– Lorin Ford, Mann Library’s Daily Haiku
as it lands
the mallard shatters the house
in the river
– Polona Oblak, Crows & Daisies
the shapes of chins
in a crowd
— an’ya, DailyHaiga
(Please go visit this very lovely haiga.)
spring dusk -
the river pauses
for a moment
to take the weight
of a swan
— Paul Smith, Paper Moon
settling on all
the unfound eggs
— Pearl Nelson, Pearl Nelson
a card game called
– Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
summer rain I’m still a fool around gravity
— Johannes S.H. Bjerg, scented dust
a careless butterfly:
lost among thousands
of heavy raindrops
— Vladimir Devide/haiga by Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here
“The typhoon rain seems to have stopped this morning here, but the clouds are still pretty heavy. People walking on the street are taking umbrella along. Small insects, however, are sometimes careless and venture into the pouring rain only to be slapped down on the ground.
I heard that when the tsunami was approaching, quite a few people actually went out to the pier or seaside to watch the wave. How careless I thought, but I guess that is what happens when one underestimates the real power of the nature. Being curious and being careful are both the working of the mind. It makes a big difference which working one chooses in time of danger. I certainly choose not to be a careless butterfly.”
— Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here
harusamu no yama no hitotsu ga hagurekeri
one of the mountains
– Shinji Saito, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
it has to end:
to cherry blossoms
— Alegria Imperial, jornales
cherry petals are falling
— Taro Kunugi, from Donna Fleischer’s Word Pond
that life owes me
- lupins !
— Mark Holloway, Beachcombing for the Landlocked
(I had a hard time choosing between this tanka and several others Mark posted this week that were equally wonderful. You should really go over there and decide for yourself which is your favorite.)
between tour groups
just the garden
— Sandra Simpson, DailyHaiku
open scissors beside a vase of water
— Eve Luckring, from A New Resonance : Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, Red Moon Press, 2009, quoted on Basho’s Road
This is the toy theatre room. You’ll notice the wooden Lawyer. Took forty-two hours to get his jaw right. We’re staging Visions on Wednesday. You should come.
— Ben Pullar, a handful of stones
(You’re right, this is not a haiku. It’s a small stone, which is sometimes the same thing and sometimes not. You should let Fiona Robyn tell you about them if you don’t already know. And this reminds me — Fiona and her fiance Kaspalita, who are getting married on June 18, are asking for a wedding present of small stones written on their wedding day. They are lovely people and if you write them a poem I promise you’ll get some good karma. Shhhh. Don’t tell them I told you.)
Web Wide World
So much fun stuff to read this month, so little time…
“Understanding Modern English-Language Haiku” from Winning Writers, April 2010
This is a fascinating essay that features the editors of five haiku journals speaking about the process they go through when writing haiku in general and one specific haiku in particular. The introductory remarks feature a discussion of one of my pet peeves, how profoundly haiku is marginalized in the wider world of poetry and the serious ignorance and misunderstanding of what haiku is among mainstream poets.
It’s encouraging that this essay appears on a mainstream poetry website. I hope that the remarks of Jane Reichhold, John Stevenson, George Swede, Linda Papanicolau, and Colin Stewart Jones do something to enlighten at least a few writers about the real nature and potential of haiku.
the dashboard lights
of another car
– John Stevenson
Speaking of Colin Stewart Jones…I got the link to that last essay off his blog, serendipiku, which is very interesting, as is his static website, also, slightly confusingly, called serendipiku. (It’s called branding, I guess. I must get with the times. Nice work, Col.)
Colin is a wonderful poet and artist. His one-word bird haiga are really fun, and I especially like his graphic haibun, which are unlike any other haibun you’ve ever seen. I recommend in particular “Menu” and “Burberry” and “Midsummer Moon.” The last, about insomnia, contains one of my favorite poetic lines of the month: “Can’t even conjure up a pathetic fallacy.”A possibly crippling ailment for some writers of haiku, probably including me.
almost thirty years now
since I was
the twelve-year-old boy
looking over a high wall
– Colin Stewart Jones (originally published in Muse India 37, May/June 2011)
You can download this unpublished manuscript from 1959, by Harold J. Isaacson and Helen Shigeko Isaacson, from the Internet Archive (an amazing collection of online texts, images, and audio which if you aren’t careful will suck you into its orbit and never let you go).
It’s an excellent collection of classical haiku about insects, with commentary. What makes it really interesting, though (to me, anyway, big geek that I am), is that the translations incorporate (untranslated, because they have no real translation) the kireji or cutting words (ya, kana, and keri) that the Japanese employ in many of their haiku for emphasis and/or as a way of marking a pause between the two parts of the poem.
Here are a couple of examples:
the helmet on which sleeps
a butterfly kana
— Choi, tr. Isaacson
Golden flies ya
Where on the ground has spilled
a melon’s entrails
— Chikuba, tr. Isaacson
At first I thought this manner of translation was very strange and awkward and disliked it. But now I kind of like the rhythm it gives and feel that in some ways it helps me understand better what these poems must be like in the original. I wouldn’t want these to be the only translations I read of these haiku, but I think there’s definitely a place for them in the world. That’s my final answer.
Women Poets of Japan from The Green Leaf
“The Green Leaf” has a lot on it, from mainstream poems by contemporary authors to classical haiku in translation to vast quantities of photo haiga to contemporary haiku to…the works of women poets of Japan, which is what I feel like featuring today because I just do, okay? The whole site, though, is well worth rummaging around in, though it feels incomplete and uneven (but who am I to talk) and also it does something which drives me completely out of my mind, which is fail to credit the translator of translated poems.
I hate this because it’s inconsiderate not only to the translator, who has done a very difficult job that deserves to be acknowledged, but to readers who might like to know where they can seek out (or, ahem, avoid) other translations by a particular translator or compare translations between translators. So I was feeling a strange mixture of annoyance and delight as I browsed around here. But then I came upon this tanka and forgave everything.
Gazing across the fields,
at Taketa I hear the cranes
not a space not a moment
of pause in my longing.
– Lady Otomo-no-Sakanoue (8th century)
(There’s a haiga of this poem, too, if you follow the link from the poet’s name above.)
So Jane Reichhold has done it again. Last year when I was just getting started writing haiku I used Jane’s list of 24 haiku-writing techniques to help me understand what haiku were all about and all the different ways they can be written. You can find her list here on the web and also in her excellent book, Writing and Enjoying Haiku.
Jane is great at explaining how haiku work and breaking down the process of writing them in a way even a more-or-less clueless newbie can understand, as I can attest. She does have her own particular understanding of what haiku are, which is not necessarily everyone’s understanding, but hey, who doesn’t.
Anyway, what she’s done now is create this series of fourteen quite brief lessons that take a beginner through the process of learning what a haiku is, what the various parts of a haiku are, what a good haiku looks and feels and sounds like. You could do way worse as a beginner than start with these lessons and their exercises. I really like this one, for instance:
“Find a haiku that you really admire and write it [down]. It would be kind to the author to record his or her name and where you found the poem.
Then begin to rewrite the poem. Maybe start by just changing one word. Or changing one line. Or take a phrase of image you greatly admire and see how many ways you can make it work with other images.”
– Jane Reichhold, “Bare Bones Haiku, Lesson Two: Before Writing Your Own Haiku“
(Disclaimer: Obviously, this is just an exercise for your own poetic development — you wouldn’t want to try to publish the results of this exercise or pass them off as your own poetry unless they ended up really, really, really different from the originals.)
Once again The Haiku Foundation has created a very cool resource for readers and writers of haiku, which is this archive of past winners of most of the major haiku contests. If you are looking for an online collection of excellent contemporary haiku, needless to say this would be a good place to start.
This is an older (2001) essay by Florence Vilen, discussing when and how repetition makes haiku more effective. Most of the essay is taken up by examples, which really is my favorite kind of essay. And haiku with repetition are some of my favorite kind of haiku, so this made me very happy.
the sound they make
the sound I make
– Gary Hotham
Dead Tree News
So you wanna see the most adorable haiku book ever published? Do you? Do you? You do? Yay! Okay…here’s the cover:
Yes…that is a hand-sewn Japanese binding in red thread, thanks for asking. And that is a tiny little sketch of the moon reflected in a teacup. I did say it was adorable, didn’t I?
… Not sold yet? Looking for some more substance? Okay, here are a couple of the inside pages:
… I know, right? All the pages are like that. Aubrie’s haiku are amazing, and Katie’s illustrations are awesome, and you just keep looking through the book going, “Why don’t more people write more haiku that so movingly combine the personal and the universal, that are filled with such astute and original observations of the concrete world, that are simultaneously mercilessly honest and lovingly generous?… And then why don’t they have an artist with the same rare sensibility draw touching little illustrations to go with their haiku… And then why don’t they put the whole thing together in a lovingly designed package and sew it up with red thread?”
It’s a mystery, really. But I wouldn’t spend too long agonizing over it. Just get the book and enjoy it. You’re welcome.
Sigh. No matter how much I write it always feels like I’m forgetting something. If you figure out what it is, let me know, okay? I’m getting old, I need help with these things.
what I meant to say
still folded into
the rain arrives
(NaHaiWriMo prompt: Wind)
Moving on: NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 20th:
See this post for an explanation of what this is.
See the NaHaiWriMo website.
See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)
the history book open
to the last page
.(NaHaiWriMo topic: History)
When I gave this prompt, I suspected it might cause a little angst for some people who saw it as overly abstract or intellectual for haiku. And in fact, one person (whom I respect enormously as a person and a poet) did wonder whether haiku on this topic weren’t “desk haiku,” haiku based more on ideas than images. I understand why people might feel that way — the word “history” sounds so abstract, so theoretical. It might seem as if I’m asking for a term paper instead of a poem.
But the classical haiku poets didn’t shy away from historical topics — perhaps the most famous example being Basho’s haiku written after his visit to the site of a famous historic battle:
summer grass …
those mighty warriors’
– Basho, translated by William H. Higginson
There’s also Buson’s deathbed verse:
Winter warbler —
long ago in Wang Wei’s
— Buson, translated by Robert Hass
I think maybe for some people history is a very textbook kind of thing; it doesn’t seem real to them, not in the same way that the events of their own daily life do. But as soon as these events happen — they pass into the realm of history. History isn’t all politics, philosophy, sociology — it’s the clothes people wore when you were a child, it’s the squat, homely horse Abe Lincoln rode to review the troops during the Civil War, it’s the birds that were singing right before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, it’s what your mother gave you for breakfast the morning JFK was shot. It’s the world, the whole concrete world of concrete details, the one that haiku poets cherish, only in the past.
This is how I responded on the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page when this prompt was called into question:
“Maybe I’m weird — history for me is about images a lot more than ideas, but then I tend to think in pictures a lot. For instance, when someone says ‘the battles of Lexington and Concord’ to me, I don’t start thinking about battle strategy or the philosophical underpinnings of the Revolution, I start thinking about the field in Concord where the battle was, which I’ve visited; there’s a great wooden bridge there and the grass is very green in the summer, and it’s not far from Walden Pond, where there’s a stone cairn in the woods on the site of Thoreau’s cabin…
the battle site
children run back and forth
across the bridge
the cries of swimmers
we add one more stone
to his grave”
Anyway: Moving on:
NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 19th
See this post for an explanation of what this is.
See the NaHaiWriMo website.
See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)
This looks like it’s from a printed page because it is. It’s from Wet Cement, which is a lovely little conference anthology from the “Cradle of American Haiku” Haiku Society of America conference back in September. Mike Montreuil edited it, Aubrie Cox laid it out (check out her beloved Optima typeface) and Lidia Rozmus did some understated, beautiful artwork (in her usual style) for it. It was a delight to get it in the mail last week and be reminded of that wonderful weekend and so many of the wonderful poets I met.
The title comes from a haiku by Gayle Bull, the proprietress of Foundry Books, where part of the conference was held (and where I really need to get back to, soon, to check out the mind-blowing haiku section, because, ha ha, I don’t have enough to read). It is, fittingly, written in concrete on the ledge of a window in her shop. (Also in ink, on page 24 of the anthology.)
wet cement —
kids hide in the bushes
— Gayle Bull
March: It’s not just about the wind.
Light from the sun reaches us
and keeps going.
Raindrops flow like glass on glass.
My son is tracing circuit diagrams
on the back of a page from Hamlet.
We all dream that way sometimes.
When you climb a mountain
it divides the day.
Spring at the bottom and
winter at the top.
I pick up the phone, put it down again.
It’s not the right season to go backward.
I wish some year I’d remember
to write down the date
I hear the first bird sing.
Once a red-tailed hawk
moved into our neighborhood
and surveyed the chipmunks for days
before deciding to move on.
Don’t tell me you’ve never been tempted
to stay too long.
I’m sure there’s a song about that.
The equinox is coming:
are you equal to it?
This is when we realize
that snow is water.
That ice is light.
That every day the sun reaches us
at a slightly different angle:
So I’m really busy this week. Really. Insanely. Busy. Right now I should be doing six other things. Going to bed being one of them. Every minute for the last week I should have been doing six other things. A lot of those minutes I spent writing poetry instead. I’m hopeless that way.
At one point I guess I decided that it wasn’t enough to jot down a haiku or two in my off minutes, I needed to write a longer poem instead, one that would require some concentrated effort and allow me to put off my much more boring tasks for as long as possible. So I wrote this. Sorry.
of wind and deer
First published in LYNX, XXVI:1, February 2011
nothing more to report
winter wind —
if only I could calm
the oak leaves
the way the wind
this catalog of breezes
making a distinction
between the air
don’t stop blowing
keep turning my pages
my lips chafed
by the wind
I stop trying to explain myself
inside the cyclone
my soul free to repeat itself
spending time the way the wind spends breath
this catalog of breezes making a distinction between the air
don’t stop blowing wind keep turning my pages
my lips chafed by the wind I stop trying to explain myself
inside the cyclone my soul free to repeat itself indefinitely
The world here has been trying to turn itself inside out the last couple of days. It’s a little frightening and a little beautiful. Everything, including the people, is torn between resisting the wind and yielding to it. This is me, yielding.
I’m not sure what these want to be, or how much space they want to occupy. They’re mutable, it seems. They could be haiku. They could be some kind of meditation. They could stay with me, or they could take the next gust out of town.
The sun and the leaves and the wind are almost enough to live on today. But I ate breakfast anyway. I believe in eating a good breakfast, even when the world is blowing away.
changing winds — your frozen apples
slush beneath my feet
I’m trying to decide why this seems so satisfying to me as two lines, rather than three or one, both of which I tried and rejected. And why I like it broken up after “apples” instead of “winds,” or for that matter “slush.”
I tend to be really inarticulate about these things and to have instinctive preferences rather than intellectualized ones. Which worries me sometimes, maybe because I irrationally think that if I could figure out some systematic theory of poetics to justify my seemingly random choices, haiku writing would become a simple matter of following a foolproof poetic recipe and I would begin constantly spouting brilliant ku and writing lengthy, brilliant essays about why they were so brilliant and all the world would admire me and give me some kind of catchy haiku-poet nickname, like Banana Leaf. (Which in case you didn’t know, is what Basho means — apparently there was a banana tree in front of his house. All I have in front of mine, in case you are already trying to come up with a good nickname, is a lilac bush in desperate need of pruning and a bunch of flower beds that I absolutely never weed because I can never figure out which things are weeds and which things are flowers, so basically at this point the weeds have won and the beds are weed beds, and I might as well start over from scratch and pull everything out and plant new flowers.)
Anyway. I’ve been thinking about this line thing a bit lately, in my inarticulate non-thinking kind of thinking way, if only because of an interesting passage in The Haiku Apprentice. Abigail Freedman is having a conversation with her Japanese haiku master, Momoko, about haiku structure. Momoko starts out by explaining the conventional structure of Japanese haiku, good old seventeen syllables, three sections of 5-7-5 — then acknowledges that even in Japanese not everyone thinks this structure is an essential requirement of haiku:
“Writing haiku where the first phrase is six sounds, or ji-amari, it turned out, was common. Some haiku broke more naturally into two phrases, of seven and ten or ten and seven sounds. These were referred to as ‘two phrases, one haiku.’ Other haiku read best as a single phrase, not broken up at all. These were called ‘one phrase, one haiku.’ “
(Abigail Freedman, The Haiku Apprentice, p. 86)
I would have loved to see more discussion of this, or some examples, just so I could get a grasp on what to the Japanese mind constitutes a “natural” two-line or one-line ku. Not that it necessarily matters. I’m writing in English, I don’t know Japanese; even if every single Japanese haiku poet insisted that every haiku had to break naturally into three sections or it wasn’t a haiku, it wouldn’t mean that my English-language haiku had to follow their dictates.
“I asked Momoko whether I ought to use a seventeen-syllable structure in haiku in English. She replied almost with indifference, Oh, in other languages, other rhythmic patterns might be more appropriate. … I said I had read haiku in English that were written all in one line, and other haiku written in two lines. She nodded and … simply stated, You should ask an English-language linguist or poet what form is best in English. The important point is to seek a natural rhythm in your language, and work your haiku from there.”
(Abigail Freedman, The Haiku Apprentice, p. 87)
To seek a natural rhythm in your language. This sounds so simple and sensible, but what is natural in English? The Japanese seem to have a very clear idea of what kinds of sound patterns are natural in their language — they’ve been writing poetry broken into sections of five and seven syllables for well over a thousand years now and they seem very happy with it.
I don’t know much about modern poetry trends in Japanese, if there is a strong movement like the prevailing English movement of free verse that doesn’t follow any particular prescribed pattern of rhythm or rhyme. Even if there is one, still, there is such a strong tradition of syllabic poetry in Japanese that the free-verse poets must have a clear idea of what it is they are not doing, which I sometimes think is what many English-language free verse poets are lacking. Are we not-writing iambic pentameter, which did dominate English poetry for some centuries and which some people think more closely approximates natural English speech rhythms than other kinds of verse? Are we not-writing sprung rhythm? Are we not-writing sing-songy rhyming couplets of the greeting-card variety?
And are haiku poets in English closer to free-verse poets, or to poets like Robert Frost who considered the constraints of meter vital to the creation of effective poetry? What is it we’re doing, exactly, when we write a haiku? If we’re not slavishly counting syllables — and most of us don’t think we are — and we’re not rhyming, and we’re not muttering “da-dum, da-dum” under our breaths, what the heck are we doing? Just kind of looking at what we write uncertainly, and going, “Well, that sounds okay to me”?
Some people get all antsy about having the middle line longer than the other two, or about having a certain number of beats in each line. I think there’s value in experimenting with doing those things and seeing if you can make them work and when. And maybe, as some people think, you should only call what you write a haiku when it conforms to some such rule or expectation; if all you’re doing is writing a nice little poem of no particular form, maybe it’s just a “micropoem” and you can forget about the Japanese entirely, because what do they have to do with anything?
I do think it’s possible that English-language haiku may never come fully into its own as a poetic form, because it is just too borrowed and we are too uncertain about what we’re doing with it to make it entirely ours. I go back and forth between thinking that we should just forget about the Japanese when we’re writing haiku, and thinking that we should look to them more — not for considerations of form, but for a certain kind of confidence in the possibilities of haiku for emotional and artistic expression, which I think that English haiku poets who worry excessively about form can be lacking.
I read so many haiku that seem so “haiku-ish,” so perfectly reflective of the theoretical haiku form and structure, that they are actually completely devoid of emotional resonance. I don’t believe them. I don’t care about them. And yes, I place most of my own ku in this category. (I mean, not that they’re technically perfect, but that I don’t believe them.) I need to delve down deeper and be less afraid of somehow “breaking” my haiku or not “doing it right.” What difference does it make if I do it right, if “it” isn’t worth doing in the first place? I think the Japanese are so comfortable with the form of haiku, which is so natural to them, that they are able to focus on the content, and it ends up being so much richer and riskier than ours.
So that’s where I’m trying to go now — in the direction of more risk. It’s possible that this is not remotely apparent from the blog. :) That’s okay. It’s just a blog, I’m just learning, they’re just words. (That’s my mantra for the month: repeat as needed.)
a cicada shell rattles
on our doorstep
Wow … this feels incredibly traditional for me. I mean, I think it’s reasonably successful as a haiku, if a little boring, but it makes me a little nervous because it’s so … haiku-ish. Is that weird?
I don’t think I quite realized until now how much I try to avoid writing what is the “traditional” English-language type of haiku with only nature imagery and nicely balanced lines and seasonal indicators and all that jazz. I tend to like better, and to write, haiku with something a little more … unexpected about them. Or maybe I just mean haiku that are a little more … authentic, or contemporary, than this. I don’t say I necessarily succeed, just that that’s what I’m aiming for. (Insofar as I’m able to articulate what I mean at this time of the morning, in a state of sleep deprivation.)
I think maybe the reason the nature-imagery thing seems so stilted and played out now is that, as a society, we’re pretty far removed from nature; for most of us, a manufactured environment and human technologies are more prominent in our daily lives than the rhythms of seasons and weather and plant and animal life cycles.
So, unless we’re naturalists or dedicated country dwellers who spend most of the day outdoors, it does feel kind of fake to be constantly writing about birdsong and drifting clouds and rustling leaves, at least without some kind of human context to put these things in what is their proper place for most of us — concerns secondary to whether the furnace or air conditioner is doing its job, or how many emails we got this morning, or how the traffic is aiding or impeding us in our daily journeys.
It feels like we know that haiku is supposed to be about nature, so we glanced out the window and saw a pretty bird and said, “Oh — haiku material!”, ignoring the fact that we’re not quite sure what the bird is called or what it eats or how it sings or makes its nest or how far it flies when the seasons change. We’re not bird experts any more (apologies to those of you who are, but I have never been a bird enthusiast); we’re experts on minivans — We’re not experts on wildflowers, we’re experts on wall-to-wall carpeting — We’re not experts on mountain springs, we’re experts on running water from the tap.
Lots of people have the same concerns as I do, of course, and there is lots and lots of great haiku being written now that does feel real and contemporary and still respects the haiku idea of placing the writer (and reader) in a specific time and place and making a very specific observation or two. I must say that I often have the same sense of anxiety about haiku that don’t mention nature at all, maybe because I do respect the power of haiku to force us to regard ourselves as what we properly are, which is part of nature, despite how thoroughly unnatural most of our surroundings are these days.
I really like the tension (not just in haiku but really in all art, literature and painting and photography and even architecture) between the natural and the human-made. I remember seeing a series of photographs at an exhibition several years ago of what were very clearly human artifacts, often in brilliant unnatural colors, placed in more muted natural surroundings — the effect, to me, was to highlight the beauty and interest of both object and setting.
Another time, our local botanical garden hosted an amazing art installation of long chains of large round scavenged things (like bowling balls and weathered plastic Halloween pumpkins and giant ball bearings) hung from very tall trees — like tree jewelry, I suppose. I could have stared at those things all day; they seemed so completely in harmony with their surroundings despite being so very artificial. [New! Pictures!]
And really, that is a very Japanese aesthetic too — the art of mingling the human with the natural in such a way that both are enhanced. Think of a Japanese garden with its neatly raked stone beds and small water bridges and carefully planned views of carefully arranged plantings (and if you’ve never been to a good Japanese garden, you should go to one, preferably today), or a traditional Japanese house with its natural materials and minimal furniture and openness to the elements. [And more pictures!]
I think that that same aesthetic is or properly should be at work in haiku — the tension or perhaps, the reconciling of tension between the works of human beings and their natural environments. When I imagine a classical haiku poet I see him sitting in a house or just outside one, or walking through a village or riding a boat down a river, looking around him with a gimlet eye at everything in his surroundings — the plants and animals and earth and sky and people and buildings and tools and vehicles — and connecting a couple of those elements in his mind, without particular regard to whether they were “natural” or not.
So maybe that should be our ideal, as haiku poets. Really being wherever we are, and seeing whatever we see, and being aware, yes, of the weather and what the sky looks like and whatever is blooming or singing within our purview, but also mindful of the indoor weather, of the smells and textures of the things we have bought and handle every day, of the moods and wardrobe and habits and speech of our fellow human beings. And making of, or seeing, something real in all that stew.
Cicada shells do rattle, on doorsteps and sidewalks and driveways, in the autumn — much more resonantly on those artificially hard surfaces, I imagine, than they would rattle in a loamy forest or on a mountain path — and the sound is both chilling, like the autumn wind, and oddly comforting, especially to those of us who live in houses and can shelter there from the elements, unlike the poor departed cicadas …
this wind today!
(not a narrative)
four a.m. bitterly spitting sleep out of my mouth
the speeds of light and sound meet in the storm
where they were left
the dolls sleep
at the end of the storm the birds begin again
the newspaper brought
by the car in the night
the crane cries
light reorganizes itself around the edges of the leaves
the cat crows
in my ear
a green bug climbs up
the broom handle
You’re not going crazy. I’ve revised a bunch of these since the last time you read them.
breathing the same wind
as the fireflies
I burst into flames
the year’s hottest day
is made of bees
(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)
“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.
come into the cove
one at a time”
– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques
wind in the maples
gray seeds spin
against gray sky
after the storm
dries to gray
Mexican ice-cream truck
sails past our window