Friday, February 21, 2014

Loving Haiku

Oh Dear! It seems we have come to the end of another cycle of Tinywords, which means it will be several weeks at least before my next fix! It may leave me feeling like this...

"Noh" Tinywords Mask
However I should definitely be able to survive because I have just this week purchased a Kindle version of a marvellous haiku book by David G. Lanoue called "Pure Land Haiku The Art of Priest Issa", and which I have just linked to my Amazon store.

For less than the price of a coffee I have already received more enjoyment than any cup of coffee has ever brought me - and I am only a quarter way through!

David Lanoue obviously loves his subject (after all, he has translated all 10,000 Issa poems and has published over a thousand of these in his other book, "Issa's Best", as well as sharing one each day on his Issa website - also linked in my sidebar). He brings a genuine understanding of Issa and sympathy for all the aspects of his life, and an enthusiasm for his poetic output that it is positively contagious.

Reading this book has really rekindled my love of haiku. It has revived my own efforts at writing haiku: reading someone like Issa in translations such as those of Lanoue sets my brain into a sort of "haiku mode" all day, and I find myself naturally thinking and breathing in haiku throughout, and spontaneously finding those haiku moments that for so many months had been missed by me.

I'm left feeling more like this:



And Lanoue provides an excellent examplar for a haiku commentator to follow. Here is a brief exerpt, following a discussion of a series of haiku involving sparrows, of his commentary on the following:

"flying in and out
of the prison ...
baby sparrows

The prisoners are unseen, but we feel their presence - and feel for them. Issa brilliantly juxtaposes bondage and freedom, guilt and innocence, stasis and movement, sorrow and joy, society and Nature. The baby sparrows flit easily over walls and through barred windows, but the human beings inside them know no such freedom. With deft understatement Issa intimates pathos in the scene. He says nothing overt about emotion yet gently tugs at the reader's heartstrings.
They aren't Japanese, but these sparrows are free
Lanoue refers to earlier commentators of Japanese into English, including Blyth, Henderson and English-language haiku advocates such as Higginson, and while respectful of them, is quite prepared to disagree with them on the basis of his own deeper and more extensive experience of Issa's opus. For instance Lanoue has a keen sensitivity to ninjo in the poetry of Issa. This Japanese term means "human emotion or compassion". According to Lanoue,
"Depending on context, English equivalents of ninjo include sympathy, kindness, humanity, and human nature ... the ability to feel sincerely for others [that] is believed to be an essential ingredient of one's humanity"

Monday, February 17, 2014

Returning to verse

My previous post was almost a year ago now!

I wish my absence from this blog had been because of an incredible artistic retreat, retracing Basho's travels perhaps, or that I could report I was returning having completed some great course of study, or with a vast new store of knowledge to share.



Unfortunately, the absence was due to a chaotic year with personal and professional storms which - sad to say - drowned out poetry in a sea of urgency.



That is not to say that the year has been without wisdom gained. Shortly after my last post I was privileged to enter an email correspondence over several months with the superb haiku poet, Polona Oblak, who kindly provided something of a masterclass on some of my verses, as well as sharing her own, and thereby gave me incredible insight into the labour and artistic ruthlessness required to produce such high quality verse. I had intended (and still do) to share in greater detail the lessons Polona imparted to me. But the time and effort require to produce a quality post to do justice to her has been not available to me since then. Instead, I will reprint the poem of my own, inspired by the correspondence with Polona, which was published on Tinywords in July last year:

magpie calls
the verses we exchange
by email



For several months after I last posted, I instead enjoyed the routine of reading, reflecting, and commenting on the poems of Tinywords - something which provided me with an escape - at least for a brief period each day - from my other work. And I have come to realize my particular gifts may not lie in the direction of writing haiku myself. But what I particularly have come to enjoy - and received much positive feedback about - has been the commentary I leave in response to other people's poems.

Of course, I have still been writing sporadically. Haiku is about experiencing the world around us, being attentive to moments. It is about living mindfully. Balancing left and right halves of the brain. But stress does not make for sensitivity. It focuses the brain on solving problems and avoiding harm. Sometimes it takes someone else to remind us to change our focus, and last week a work colleague provided that shake up which brought me back to Tinywords, and to haiku.

My posts will therefore generally be more focused and brief, sharing my commentary on haiku that move and inspire me. It will include many more contemporary poets from the Tinywords site, as well as reflections on the works of the Japanese masters from my library.


Copyright © 2014 The Haiku Apprentice

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Taking Enough Time to Appreciate a Haiku

The Importance of Learning to Look Closely at a Haiku

A haiku apprentice needs to give themself time to absorb a great poem. After reading it a few times they should begin with a bit of systematic analysis, along the lines I have recommended in my earlier post. This will ensure the apprentice learns how to focus on the different elements and pay precise attention. Although this might seem like a restrictive and unpoetic way of doing things I believe it ultimately frees us to be more poetic, because as well as making habitual the processes of reading critically (a skill I think is like learning to drive a car) actually it also gives us the freedom to give voice to what exactly moves us and affects us when we read a poem. It sharpens our observational skills, broadens our descriptive vocabulary, and enriches our poetic sensitivity. We can contribute to poetry appreciation forums with more than a one or two word response like: "nice." It is just like how once we acquire the skills of driving we have the freedom to drive wherever we like! 

So I am continually striving to apply my analytic approach when I read a new poem on Tinywords or elsewhere. A fascinating benefit is my own poetry has noticeably improved. It appears the same creative muse responsible for poetic inspiration, is also responsible for poetic interpretation.

Neurologically, the right hemisphere of the brain is the site where the "muses" tickles our inner senses. So by deliberately learning to analyze haiku poetry, we are also building better neural pathways for poetry of our own to flow through. Of course, the old masters never knew about neuroscience. They just taught their disciples and apprentices: "Keep practicing this, keep studying and your poetry will improve."

The Importance of  Learning NOT to Look at an Author's Name

Another attitude which I believe is important for a haiku apprentice to maintain is humility and deep respect towards anyone's and everyone's poetic output. By this I mean, on the one hand, being careful not to judge a poem by first looking at the name of the author. The reputation of the author (or lack thereof) of course is irrelevant. What stands before us is the poem, and it always should be judged on its own merits. A haiku beginner could draw on a lifetime of human experience and produce a poem of startling insight and beauty. An unknown poet could have been developing their craft for years without seeking publication. An author's "name" is really only another label, and as I have indicated before, I believe labels are potentially hazardous distractions when it comes to reading poetry.

The Importance of Learning Humility Before a Haiku

But there is another sense of humility which I also want to consider. I mean, if (when) we find ourself thinking we see flaws in a poem, or if we think we would have written it differently, to improve it, we should train ourself to instead straightaway begin to ask, "Why did they write it that way?" and look for a superior insight directing the poet's choice. This is actually part of the attitude of critical analysis. The poetic critic should not be "critical", but quizzical. I always find that whenever I think I the poet has made a mistake, later I will identify a reason  why they might have made a deliberate decision to craft the poem the way they have, which is superior either aesthetically, or poetically, or both.

The Importance of Taking More Time Before Responding to a Haiku

This tendency reminds me yet again that I always need to allow the busy poetic muses (or right hemisphere of my brain) time to draw together the necessary connections and insights to really understand a poem.

There is also a strong temptation, given the accessibility of commenting engines on websites such as Tinywords or Blogger or Wordpress poetry sites, to jump in and make comments before I have given myself time to properly think about the poem in a balanced left-brain right-brain way. It is another important discipline for the haiku apprentice to practice - to refrain from commenting the moment a new poem is available in the morning, but to leave it until the end of the day, or even for a few days, before sharing our own thoughts. Make notes, by all means. Even draft an initial response - on paper , on a phone app, or a word processor. But don't submit for at least a few hours.

After making your private first analysis go back a bit later and look to see if other readers have picked up and shared different insights. These might change or deepen your initial response. The wonderful thing about poetry is that there is no single "right" answer, and the more insights shared the richer all the readers become.

Mea Culpa  - Catching Myself Out

Here is a case example of how I could have poorly misjudged and misinterpreted a poem (by an excellent poet), but how by taking a humble, questioning approach, I found a better interpretation to the poem and its construction - one which offers an even better lesson for my own future poetry writing.

The poem in question comes again from the website of S.M. Abeles, where it was posted on 3rd April 2013.


casually reapplying
her lipstick --
the year's first blizzard

My initial response: I love the striking parallel between the weather and the emotional situation implied between the poet and the "her". And such a powerful juxtaposition of the (imagined) red lipstick and white snow. Conjures the idea of a cold-hearted ice queen, with blood on her lips. Brilliant.

But as I thought about the construction I wondered about the arrangement of the first two lines: 7 syllables and 3 syllables. Odd. It would be more natural for a haiku to have the shorter line first, then the longer one. That would give a more traditional structure of 3-7-5 syllables. And, so it seemed to me, it would be a more striking beginning - opening with that strong visual image of (red) lipstick. The starting word "casually" seemed to be slightly weaker or too relaxed to convey the malevolent image of the "ice queen" I was envisioning. Rather, to my mind focusing at the beginning on her lipstick would allow the "casual" movement of the second line to flow quite naturally, and it would have also added, I believe, a slightly more deliberate, sinister, and therefore malevolent connotation to the conclusion.

But later that night it struck me that Abeles had indeed thought of that possible arrangement and deliberately avoided it. That he didn't want such a malevolent conclusion to be drawn. He purposefully  softened the scenario because the unmentioned but key emotion in the poem is his love for her, and hers for him. A blizzard is merely a periodic  natural event in the atmosphere. There may be several in a year (note Abeles' deliberate choice of that word - "year" - and that he didn't use "season's first blizzard"). They always pass, and so do our disagreements in a normal relationship. The opening word "Casually" therefore is indeed the key word of the poem. It connotes comfortable, relaxed, flexible. The blizzard appears to have already blown itself out. Red lipstick reapplied now denotes reconciliation, a romantic image indeed!

Also, the fact that this poem was posted as one of a pair should have alerted me to be wary of rushing to judge the poem out of that context. I now see the poems as making a diptych. The matching poem is this one:


the name I carve
down a frosted glass --
winter's end

Here winter is over. The blizzard has passed. Whose name would he be carving? Surely that of his beloved. The frosted glass is a striking visual element. Of course in winter, frosty windows are a frequent feature of every home. Children usually delight to make names or pictures out of the frost with their fingers. The warmth  of their fingers melts the thin layer of ice to leave an enduring picture. But Abeles uses the unexpected word "carve". Young lovers often carve their names into tree bark. So I read Abeles reproducing that act of spring love, carving the name of his love on the frosted window. Winter indeed is ended. (Even though the frost is still thick on the glass!) Spring love has indeed returned. 

Absolutely beautiful poetry!

Beware the Power of the Bard

A really good poet can be frightening. They can really harm with words. In the Celtic Bardic tradition, the power of a bard to bring eternal shame on the behaviour of the wicked was a force strong enough to cause kings to be mindful how they acted. Abeles is a mature poet. He is aware of the power of his art. His words could hurt, or they can heal. He has no wish to do the former. This diptych is a beautiful illustration of the later.



Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Leaving the Basho Hut

Haiku Apprentice and Haiku Hermit

I am very glad that for the past year I have been something of a haiku hermit. I have had my books of Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki, as well as a few anthologies with other early Japanese haiku poets. I deliberately kept myself away from modern poets. I wanted to imbibe "pure" haiku, taking my inspiration from its original sources, and model my own writing on the great masters.

Past of my reluctance stems from my exposure to examples of relatively early English haiku, as compiled in William Higginson's "The Haiku Handbook". I found many of these works unappealing and pretentious - much like other "Modernist" and "Post-Modernist" poetry, for which I have very little respect.

Away from the Basho Hut - I'm Not In Kansas Anymore!

It is now a year that I have been so apprenticed to these haiku masters, and I have begun to leave my Basho hut and travel into the new world, tasting the fresh haiku of modern English writers; for instance on the Tinywords.com website, and the personal sites of various poets who feature or visit there. And I am feeling like Dorothy who has blown from black-and-white Kansas into the technicolor Land of Oz. There is so much wonderful haiku, and many great wizards of poetry!

Sho-Fu (sort of)

Now, let me say at the outset I believe the discipline I placed on myself when it has come to writing my own haiku has been extremely fruitful, and in fact I recommend it to other haiku apprentices to try. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I have sought to write haiku in 3 lines and with a syllable count of 5-7-5. Not because that is the "authentic" way it must be done, but because the effort to focus my thoughts, explore my vocabulary, and hone my descriptive skills to meet this formal challenge has been beneficial to my poetic development. Haiku poetry is a craft, not only an art. And as we know, Basho himself frequently revised and amended his poems throughout his life. I also know that Basho not-infrequently broke the much-more-strict rules of Japanese hokku in some of his poems, for instance in syllable count. So although I try to push myself to match my poem to the 5-7-5 which I am aiming for, sometimes I allow that the poem simply can't be told that way, and that some other form is not only allowable, but necessary for the integrity of the poem.

Maintaining this disciplined approach for so long has also given me a deep appreciation of the natural movement of haiku - the breath-like balance between the words and phrases that make the poem, and the story-like thought process that produces it. I believe this sensitivity allows me to better appreciate the haiku-structure and haiku-truth of poems by modern English writers which do not fit the "traditional" mold.

Discerning the Poetry from Among the Dribbles of Prose

Of course, it is possible for anyone to throw a few words across 3 lines, or arranged vertically, or horizontally without punctuation, and to think they are writing profound and avant garde poetry. The early translator of Japanese haiku, Harold Henderson, was scornful of the early undisciplined experiments with haiku form in English, and famously asserted that haiku in English, as a poem, would necessarily require a form of some kind, and not be merely "a dribble of prose". But truly great haiku poets are able to craft their own form appropriate to a particular poem. However it is my observation that they do it only occasionally, and always for a particular reason, a specific effect. And the reason is found through analyzing the poem. I have already commented on several contemporary poems in earlier posts which deliberately violate the expected structure of the haiku, for the precise purpose of the poet.

Horizontal Haiku

I would like to comment today on some more excellent haiku poems written in a single line, but with such purpose and poetic integrity that no one could mistake them for prose masquerading as poetry.

The first is again taken from Tinywords:

unable to help myself rip tide



Issue 13.1 | 21 March 2013

What a wonderful poem. My first impression was that in this one unpunctuated line Clarke conveys the breathless terror of this experience. And the shape of the line, the rise and fall of the characters, is like an ocean swell.

In its brevity, she conveys the suddenness, the unexpectedness of the encounter.

Where I live there is a brand of surf products called "Rip Tide", which are supposed to be trendy. The lack of capitalization in this poem also serves to remind the reader of how nature is no respecter of brands or persons. In the future when such companies have disappeared, as in the past, the awesome terrifying power of the rip tide will still lurk beneath.

But Marion responded to my commentary with the following:
Thank you, haikuapprentice, I like your reading.

As well as the obvious nod to nature's power, I was hinting also at the power of addiction. 

Wow. That just opened a whole new set of interesting parallels and raises the poem to another level! What a perfect and rich analogy.

In my experience often patients suffering from drug addiction have not only a sense of being swept along by a force outside their control, they also frequently suffer anxieties and even terror when they try to withdraw from the drug, and experience a sense of suffocation quite akin to drowning.

Also their lives are homogenized without the natural flow of ups and downs, just as your poem runs on without natural punctuation or capitalization.

At the beaches where I live swimmers caught in a rip usually need to be rescued by the surf lifesavers. Those suffering from addiction also rarely survive without the assistance of professional life savers such as doctors and counsellors.

And the final irony is that where I grew up the surf culture was rampant with drug taking, so the connection was there to be made if I had thought more about it!

In all these ways, the horizontal form of her poem is perfectly matched to the poetic intent and the emotional experiences of the reader.

Transcending the Horizon

This next poem comes from the website of the poet S.M Abeles, and he has kindly granted permission to reproduce it here:

circling the earth my first and last breaths
It seems unfair to single out just one of Abeles' poems to comment on, because so many of them are really excellent. But this one I find outstanding. It deserves to gain a wider audience and appreciation. The first thing to know is that Abeles usually writes haiku in a traditional 3-line form. But here the mature poet demonstrates his poetic skill as well as his discernment; he knows a special form is appropriate in this case.

There is an existential truth contained in this line that is profoundly moving and deeply spiritual. The subject is the human condition, stripped of every pretention. No punctuation: Life is as brief as a line, and we cannot even add a comma, let alone a capital!

The "location" of the poem is the atmosphere, which of course, circles, envelopes the earth in an embrace that is as warm and life-sustaining as a mother's. It is also our holy communion. For in that vastness, as invisible as spirit, our own life's breaths find their place. Somewhere, dissolved amidst it all, the air of our first breath, now shared by countless other creatures. And swirling, the force of fate is somehow, somewhere, bringing together the molecules and atoms that will one day comprise our final breath.

Yet this does not alarm or terrify. There is a calm serenity in this poem, and a comfort in the movement that returns our breath to that embracing atmosphere which will continue always to embrace the earth, and to share with other beings in a communion of saints the spirit of life that is "breath".

Truly, this horizontal poem transcends the earthly horizon, and leads a perceptive reader to contemplate vertical or "spiritual" realities. And as a demonstration of form, it is a perfect counterpoint to the vertical poem of Chad Robinson, which I suggested in an earlier post brought emphasis to the horizontality implied in his work.

It is a wonderful time to be reading poetry!

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Epiphany


I am finding daily inspiration from the Tinywords website. I particularly like the fact that it is just a single haiku each day. It gives me time to ponder and mull on the work, and to find layers of depth and meaning. Here is today's:
the creek
where she was baptized
sun after rain

—Deborah P Kolodji

Issue 13.1 | 29 March 2013

This is a very affecting poem. I would be interested to know when the author wrote it, and whether she has ever revised it. Is this a first version, or a latest version? As most haiku enthusiasts know, the great master Basho was renowned for his perfectionism regarding his haiku. His disciples report how frequently he would later revise a poem because he was not happy that one or other words perfectly matched his vision. The classic example of this is the crow on a branch haiku:

on a bare branch
a crow has stopped
autumn dusk

In the original 1680 version Basho wrote:

kare eda ni
karasu no tomaritaru ya
aki no kure

However in 1689, five years before he died, he re-wrote the second line:

kare eda ni
karasu no tomari keri
aki no kure

In translation there is probably little a native English reader will be able to discern, however in Japanese the effect is marked. According to Stephen Wolff, in a paper titled "The History and Significance of Basho's Autumn Crow Haiku" as well as shortening the second line, the effects include:
"adding a sense of finality to the crow's action, [and] add[ing] another dissonant "k" sound to the already present kare, karasu, aki and kure to suggest the latent cacophonous cawing of the crow behind the silent, immobile veneer of this haiku"

What prompts this questioning and reference to this work of Basho? I have been thinking about Kolodji's poem all day. And it has had an interesting effect on me. It keeps playing in my mind, as if looking for completion. Like a song you start to hear on the radio, but which is cut off before you get to the end. It seems to me there is something about the structure and composition of this poem which seems not quite finished.

I think it is the break between the first line and second, which starts with the word "where". Sentences in English don't usually start with "where" unless they are questions, and in this poem that is not how Kolodji has used the word. So instead I keep reading the first two lines as a single line, a single thought, which locates the poet. Then the third line provides a beautiful epiphany which is intensely sensual. But still my mind seems to want some sort of intellectual contact with the poet. It seems to me she has set a scene, but failed to give us her response to it. So instead my brain keeps producing varieties of response that would give me a satisfying completion:

rendered holy
the creek where she was baptized
sun after rain

epiphany
baptismal stream
sun after rain
- Strider
Of course given Kolodji's experience as a haiku poet, I assume this is indeed a final version, and that she has deliberately chosen the words and structure precisely for this effect. To force us to complete the poem. Which makes this a profoundly spiritual haiku. By leaving to the reader to complete the poem, she is almost forcing us to live a spiritual journey like the protagonist (the unnamed "she" who was baptized in the creek).

We are confronted here with the mystery of grace, or salvation. Finding the holy in the ordinary. Encountering the hand of God in our life, gently guiding us toward a meeting.

Some people like to assert haiku is intrinsically connected to Zen and Buddhism. I have elsewhere written extensively why that is not so. But here is an even more eloquent rejoinder. An extraordinary and specifically Christian haiku!

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Structure of Haiku and the Structure of Thought


For me, haiku is about living more deeply engaged in life. 

Writing, reading and sharing haiku we not only are granted opportunities to engage more deeply when we encounter situations like those captured in the poems we read. We also live more deeply our own past life through the calling up of memories and experiences perhaps forgotten. Or even repressed.

How The Mind Works

I believe the traditional 3-line structure of haiku is well-suited to this dynamic. Our brains appear to be hardwired in a certain way so that our default mode of processing information about the world is causal and teleological. We see and seek causes. We seek and see goals or purposes. The very structure of every sentence embodies this 3-part "grammar" of thought - subject, verb (or action), object in some manner of arrangement. Every sentence is therefore a microscopic "story". And the traditional 3-part form of haiku appears to perfectly match the story dynamic. There is a setting (or object), an encounter (or verb) and a response. In great haiku this subjective response is crafted in an open ended way, so that the reader can insert their own subjectivity, and so share in and even expand on the poet's experience.

So there seems to be good reason why the traditional tripartite three-line form of haiku has persisted for hundreds of years, and even while migrating across cultures has preserved a similar structure in those different languages, including English.

And yet...


at
the
deep
end
of
the
sky
prairie


—Chad Lee Robinson


Big Sky - The Canadian Prairies


There is always an exception which proves the value of a rule, and this poem by Chad Robinson is exceptional.

The first thing that strikes the reader obviously is the unusual form. Robinson has structured the poem in a single vertical line. While unexpected in English haiku, of course in Japanese haiku are always written vertically, often in a single line. 

Original calligraphy of the "Old Pond" haiku by Basho himself!


So although he has apparently "violated" the expected English form, he has very deliberately identified his work with the native form of haiku in Japan. And he does this for a very particular reason. The act of reading of the poem reproduces the experience that it contains. On a vast open field, perhaps in the American Midwest, or the prairies of Canada stands a figure looking up. The sky is overwhelming and awesome in its vastness. In its blueness it can be literally seen as another kind of ocean - a connection which Robinson appears to deliberately want us to draw, through his use of the word "deep". He is alone, surveying an ocean of sky. 

The very structure of his poem appears to represent him, standing there, a mere twig on the vast spreading plains - and yet defiantly human, standing upright against that unrelenting horizon. In an overwhelming cosmos, indifferent to humanity, the poet stands. 

The vertical line of the poem can also serve as a bridge between the earth and the sky, elevating our horizon, connecting us to the limitless sky. Like a Japanese woodblock print this poem itself is an icon, drawing us in. Deliberately Robinson is painting an artwork for transcending and perfecting human nature - just through his construction of words on page.

But unlike a static picture this artwork is dynamic. As the poet scans the sky with a downward movement of his head, when reading the poem, so do we, until we touch down on land - on the prairie.

There is something almost vertiginous in this movement and this poem, which remarkably has managed to capture the vast horizontal plains of the prairie through a vertical line of words.  Had Robinson written it in a single horizontal line, or even in the traditional three lines, it would have had none of this effect.

A Poignant Memory

The poem also captures for me a memory of childhood wonder, and brings it back to me with fresh appreciation. I have certainly stood in a field and gazed up into the sky, twirling around with arms outstretched and laughing. But not for decades, and now that memory, rekindled from this poem, is rendered with a poignancy that comes from experience and years; the knowledge and appreciation of the fragility of life.

As mentioned at the start of this post, I believe by reading and writing haiku, by sharing haiku, we are not only granted opportunities to engage more deeply when we encounter similar situations, but we also live more deeply our own past life through the calling up of memories and experiences perhaps forgotten or repressed, and colouring or flavouring them with the addition of emotions though new insights accumulated through the passage of life.

So, this wonderful haiku by Robinson, with the use of its unconventional but totally appropriate and powerful vertical structure, has triggered a personal response from my own childhood, recalling my own fears at the time.

swimming lessons
cold dread
the
deep
end
of
the
pool
         —Strider

It is yet another benefit of haiku that through these precise and specific works we can nevertheless transcend time and space and sometimes even offer a form of therapy. The adult-parent-doctor I am now, can embrace and comfort my terrified child-self, whose fears are now acknowledged and fully owned.

 

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ignore Misguided Labels and Just Read the Haiku

Warning! Rant Alert!

I had intended my post tonight to be on the subject of haibun. But I have been completely distracted from that topic by my distress and frustration at encountering again the pervasive and noxious practice of labelling haiku poems as "senryu."

A Happy Discovery

Many readers are probably already aware of the website Tinywords.com, which publishes and emails to subscribers a haiku or other brief poem each day. In light of my previous post, about how culturally I can be more moved by haiku by contemporary English writers than the Japanese "greats" Basho, Buson and Issa, I actually was looking for a regular source of such inspiring work and came to Tinywords. Yesterday the poem published was this one, by Stanford M. Forrester:


day moon –
the poem sounded better
last night


(originally published in ko 27.4, autumn-winter 2012)


A Day Moon

I really like that Tinywords has a comments engine, and that they encourage readers to contribute their own responses to the poem of the day, for instance in the form of their own poems, or other reflections and appreciation. As a haiku apprentice I have found it not only stimulating to respond to an external challenge, for instance as provided by their periodic photographic prompts, but I am also full of admiration and even exhilaration at reading the offerings of other poets to the same stimuli.  So many talented haiku poets are writing in English today!

An Unhappy Encounter - The Pervasive Disease of "Senryu" - labelling 


But what upset me so much tonight, and set me ranting, was how frequently those comments contain the judgement that a particular poem was "senryu."

The poem above, by Forrester, out of less than a dozen comments, has twice had reference made to it as "senryu" and others mentioning how "funny" it is, what a "chuckle" it provoked, and so on!

Am I missing something? This looks like haiku to me? Did the author indicate that they wanted their poem judged as a "senryu"?

I think, unless an author indicates they consider the work to be something other than haiku, then good manners means we as readers should respect their poem and treat it as intended - as haiku.

Especially because as soon as people start labelling someone else's work as "senryu" it usually indicates they don't think it is really "good enough" for instance, or "profound enough", to be haiku.

In Japan, of course, no one "seriously" writes senryu today to publish. They were only ever throwaway verses for bawdy company.  As Basho expert and haiku translator Jane Reichhold argues, the translator R H Blyth has popularized a false distinction for English readers, to disparage poems and poets he did not approve of. In English, we have plenty of opportunity for sharing our bawdy verses among friends, however the distinction of "haiku" and supposed "senryu" is artificial, misleading, and frankly insulting to the experience of the poet. It is not one that exists among haiku writers in Japan.

Basho Did Not Write Senryu, and Neither Do I 


Indeed, I can find dozens of poems in the work of Basho, Buson, and especially Issa, quite similar to this poem by Forrester, but which misguided English-speaking readers would probably call "senryu" - before they looked at the name of the author! In fact, that most classic of all genuine haiku, Basho's "Old Pond" frog-poem, would by this disparaging classification system be labelled "senryu", and perhaps passed over with a satisfied smirk by a modern reader mistakenly trained to think there is some sort of distinction to be made.

As soon as you say something is "senryu" you are disparaging it's significance. And therefore you cut yourself off from the opportunity of encountering the depth in simplicity that the haiku author is striving to capture. 

In fact, even as soon as you see someone else has called something senryu, the beginning reader immediately will approach it in a different frame of mind. By such labelling - or rather, by mislabelling - you are depriving yourself and possibly preventing others from sharing the opportunity to properly encounter a poem on its own merits, and deeply entering the poet's experience of some aspect of life or the world

Please, please stop calling poems senryu, unless the poet specifically asks you to!

Admiring this "Day Moon"


I think Forrester's poem is a genuine and profound haiku, well worth lingering over.

For a start, referencing the "moon" connects the work to an entire cultural tradition in Japan. 


Moon and Red Blossom - two of nature's great beauties in one picture

Moon viewing recurs frequently in the work of Basho, Buson, Issa and even Shiki. To the Japanese, the moon is one of the three "great beauties" of the natural world, which every cultivated individual, and even ordinary Japanese, seek to experience at their aesthetic "greatest display" (the others being blooming cherry blossoms, and stars). 

Admiring the Moon

 "Day moon" is therefore a fascinating juxtaposition, and turns this poem into something less general, much more specific. In fact it draws us directly into the poem with a clear sensory experience. All of us have seen the moon in the daytime. It often catches us by surprise, since we normally think of the moon as a night object. We also know it has none of the glory of a full moon at night. Therefore this "day moon" not only provides a precise but surprising sensory image, it also invokes a feeling of something past it's prime, or perhaps an opportunity lost.

The next line, "the poem sounded better," is another sensory, yet interesting verse. It catches a faint echo of the sound of reading a poem (? this poem) aloud. But it also calls up a mix of images of poetry parties, with a group of poets reading out loud their contributions. Specifically I am led to think of the renga parties such as those in which the great haiku poet Basho was so frequently a contributor. 


Basho in his 1682 travel journal "Visit to Kashima Shrine" specifically set out to watch a harvest moon over the shrine, but when he arrived the weather was overcast and rainy. He and the other members of his party wrote several haiku expressing their disappointment, but Basho's is profound and reflective:


the moon swift
the branches still holding
the rain 
(Trans. David Landis Barnhill)
To view the Moon over a shrine - a sight well worth a poetic journey for Basho


Forrester's poem concludes with the brief line: "last night".

Obviously this can be connected to the previous line as a complete phrase: "the poem sounded better last night", and as many reader's comments have indicated, this is an experience well known by haiku poets. We believe we have written a fine poem, until in the "cold light of day" (cold light of a day moon perhaps?) and on further reflection we realize is actually not so great. That reflective, self-critical experience itself is profound, as well as poignantly poetic.

But I think Forrester has another reading intended. By breaking this phrase where the poet has chosen to divide the second and third lines, and read the final "last night" separate from what goes before, then the mood changes subtly. Now the emphasis is focused on "last night". There is a sense of finality, of loss, which resonates with the melancholic sense of the diminished glory captured in the first line.  Here is sabi, that prized Japanese sense of loneliness. And combined with the rustic sense of imperfection, incompleteness that is apparently the poem itself, we have another classic Japanese zen aesthetic - wabi. 

So in this seemingly simple poem, which has been labelled and discounted as "senryu" Forrester has actually combined sophisticated literary and cultural resonances with Japanese aesthetics and a genuine mood of wabi sabi. Truly a haiku poem worthy of Basho himself.

And it serves as an exemplary warning: using the term "senryu" says much more about you, and your own lack of poetic appreciation, but next to nothing about the poem. 

I recommend it should be banned from the vocabulary of all haiku apprentices.



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