The Tools

blue moon / I isolate the remaining variable


 

I’m great at mental arithmetic which they say is a strange thing for a writer to be but to me it’s all the same thing. Words and numbers: underneath them both there’s an invisible foundation of pictures.

blue moon I isolate the remaining variable


10 years without fire
1,000,000 tragedies
no less

full two hours
the compass in view
the sky lost

over 50 percent of these mountains
you carry face upward

in the morning one live deer
such injuries are called wounds

two voices,
this imagined world.

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what happened on my refrigerator last weekend

A young person was at my house the other day devoting a great deal of attention to the words that live on my refrigerator. I have unfortunately ceased to see these words–that’s what happens with words, you get used to them, take them for granted, stop working at the relationship. Seeing her kneel in front of the words and arrange them so lovingly was a blow to my conscience. As penance I assisted her with locating the sundry conjunctions and prepositions she requested, handing them to her like scalpels to a surgeon. 

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Earlier in the day we’d trudged through mud to chop down a tree and bring it back to my house and festoon it with entirely unnecessary decorations. Sometimes this is how writing feels to me, an unnecessary festooning, except then I remember the part about the tree being both lovely and comforting and how in the dead of winter, in the dark of winter, it doesn’t actually feel unnecessary. 

they eat blue woman and stand and blossom into a dandelion they live by the side of a spring

One of the greatest obstacles to writing well is the necessity of simultaneously forgetting everything you ever knew about language and remembering everything you know about language. It’s the complicated business of being every age you’ve ever been all at once, knowing and unknowing all the things you’ve ever been ignorant of and then learned. It’s a strange trick you have to play with your mind and it doesn’t work, not often, not well, not for most of us. Knowing and forgetting, dreaming and being aware. I think it can sometimes work better for children because they have learned less and forgotten more. But that might be my romanticism speaking. Or my continual yearning for beginner’s mind.

it is hot this is my face like an child


prose: me
refrigerator poetry: Sophia S., age nine

realistic dialogue

“So I get this word-a-day thing emailed to me every day by the Oxford English Dictionary and…”

“I hate the way the Oxford English Dictionary controls all the words. It’s elitist. They’re profiteering off the English language. Somebody has to challenge their power.”

“We could storm the ramparts of their headquarters and ride triumphantly away with a new vocabulary.”

“It’s not that easy. They control the meanings of the words ‘ramparts’ and ‘storm,’ so our options are limited.”

snowed in
the war is just
an anagram


 

with thanks to Brad for half of the dialogue and most of the humor

July 26: Shared Water: a renga

A month or so ago I wrote about renga (or renku), the form of collaborative linked verse from which the haiku evolved. Everything I’d read about it fascinated me and I was itching to try it, so I issued an invitation for renga partners. Steve Mitchell of Heed Not Steve was the only one brave (or crazy) enough to take me up on it. This means that Steve was the only one who got to have the fun of spending the last month emailing renga verses back and forth with me as we tried to master the notorious intricacies of renga link and shift.

See, here are the most basic rules of renga: each verse should link to the verse immediately before it — should connect to it somehow, say in subject or tone or viewpoint or just linguistically, as for instance when one word suggests a variety of meanings that can be played on in different ways. It should also shift completely from the verse two before it — should have nothing in common in the ways I just mentioned. You’re also, technically, not supposed to repeat significant words (nouns, verbs and the like) in the course of a renga. And you should try to cover as many different subjects as you can in the course of a renga — to create a little microcosm. By the time you get to about verse 18 of a 36-verse kasen renga, the type we attempted, these rules are starting to drive you (and by “you” I mean “me”) out of your mind. In a good way, of course.

Steve and I, both complete newcomers to this form of poetry and a little intimidated by the whole thing, elected to take the (relatively) easy route of using one of Jane Reichhold’s ready-made seasonal kasen renga forms — in this case, the one for summer. These specify for each verse who should be writing it (with two people writing, you more or less switch back and forth each verse, except when you don’t), how many lines it should be (you alternate 3 and 2 line verses), and what the subject matter should be. Jane’s forms are loosely based on the great Basho’s kasen renga rules: the renga moves through the seasons, making a couple of complete cycles of the year, and contains a certain number of references to moon and blossoms and love. You can entertain yourself trying to figure out which verses are which in our renga.

Steve was lots of fun to work with — I enjoyed trying to figure out how the heck each new verse he sent me was supposed to link to the verse I’d just sent him. Links can be very subtle and devious sometimes. We both kept notes on each verse we wrote — how we linked, what we were thinking as we wrote it and how we saw it fitting into the renga as a whole. I’ll link at the bottom to a separate page I’ve created with all our notes, so if you feel like reading them you can.

The overall impression a renga should leave is not of a neatly ordered landscape, as in a traditional Western poem with a unified theme, but a sort of whirlwind tour of the world  via several different modes of transportation and with a constantly changing group of travel companions — moving like lightning from one subject to another, from one kind of weather to another, from one mind to another. For this reason, they can be challenging to read if you’re not used to them — but once you start to get the hang of it, they are exhilarating. Or at least I think so. Hope you do too.

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Shared Water

a summer kasen renga between Steve Mitchell and Melissa Allen
June-July 2010

balmy blue lakes
shimmering dry heat
shared water

organic milk on the strawberries
the shortcake dissolves

copper strands
entwine the land
quaint bitumen

bright socks on her needles
she watches the people on the bus watch her

playing parlor games
unmindful as the moon peeks
through the drapes

bleached plastic pumpkins
holding a seance on the lawn

stalking through frosty grass
the cat leaps
on the tail of a leaf

the young boy makes a muscle
dad gives a low whistle

biology class picture
the children
divided by sex

anonymous in the dark
feral peafowl invade the trees

the third day of fever
he writes a poem
about the war

those brothers interred
their silence accuses

the moon
through a row of icicles
flashes of insight

on the roads a glacial crawl —
fly away Snowbirds!

andante
their conversation waltzes
to the music

light steam in his nose
hot tea hides his fortune

bright pink sweater
the unexpected shyness
of the blossom

iridescent hummingbird
faster than gravity

the soothing cool wind
so brief
windows left open

under the microscope
the fruit flies are born and die

(ME) gnashing ego
believes (ME) its own truth
fear (ME) and (ME) death

half asleep, waiting for the sound
of the false teeth being brushed

the a.c. hums
our summer lullaby
the meter spins

fish reeled from the river
silver-clad for the boating party

dressed for dinner
“Where’s your new brooch?”
she pins it on

cuttings from the jade plant
he returns her Polaroids

the oak tree
with enduring scars
carved initials

Moscow beer line —
passing the communal cup

moonlit haze
I think I hailed this cab
it looks amber

goosebumps on her arms
he rushes through the painting

cold autumn rain
she counts the money
one more time

fragile sand dollars
half-buried by the surf

the oily sea
punishment from the gods
for digging too deep

wool coats forgotten
a reprieve from the frost

damp violets underfoot
trying to imagine
cactus flowers

the riverbed mesquite
imagining water

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You can look over here if you’re interested in reading our notes about our writing process.

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(And if you’ve made it this far and you are intrigued by renga, I hereby issue another invitation. Ashley Capes of Issa’s Snail, a renku site, who has done a whole lot of writing and coordinating of this fascinating kind of poetry and really knows what he’s talking about, has kindly offered to organize a renga for readers of this blog to participate in — leave a comment if you are interested in participating.)

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…