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 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

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...


—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

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, 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.

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How to Read and Judge Haiku

Blythely Misjudging Haiku

"The reader… may actually learn more about the nature of haiku by considering the failures and near-hits rather than the successes"
 (R.H. Blyth in Preface to Vol 1, History of Haiku)

R.H. Blyth - No joke! His commentary on haiku is totally biased

This comment contains a piece of good advice for the haiku apprentice, but it also hides what I consider to be a false philosophy in approaching haiku. Because Blyth is analyzing haiku from a mindset and from the position that there have only very few successful haiku poems in the history of the art. And for him, they were all written in the distant past by the four greats - Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki. He completely dismisses "the decadence of all later writers". I find this extraordinarily arrogant and presumptuous. Haiku is an art form, and as such it manifests the emotional experience of individual writers in response to certain situations or stimuli or ideas. For Blyth, it seems, only certain types of emotional experiences were allowed to count as haiku. Because for Blyth, apparently, haiku is a religion. And a fundamentalist one at that! He laments the legacy of Basho:

"His way of Haiku can hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it. As a Way, it was in many respects better than that of Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and so on. Its desuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings."

Basho's "Old Pond" - surely there can be more to haiku than this?

I already dealt at some length in my previous post, on the "zenification" of haiku, and of Basho in particular. So I do not intend to repeat my arguments against this approach to haiku.

The Poet is Simply Sincere

But it is a reminder of why as haiku apprentices we should remain wary of writers and self-appointed experts, and learn to ignore those who would criticize poems on the basis of such a false concept of haiku. Every poet, if sincere, has insights which are valid and deserving of a fair hearing. From any poet, at any time, it is possible to discover poems that are profound, meaningful or affecting, if we are prepared to give them a sympathetic hearing.

The Poet is Not a Saint

Haiku is not a religion. There is no dogma and no canon of sacred scripture. There are no priests with a divine and infallible message concerning how haiku must be! No, not even Basho. For it is an art - and an evolving one at that! Shiki began his revolutionary re-reading and reordering of the place of Basho and Buson in the haiku pantheon at the start of the 20th century. And there have been continuing twists and turns since that time. When we read the life of Basho, we come to know something of the schools of poetry practiced in his own time - Danrin, Teimon, and of course Shofu. But since the time of Shiki, and especially with more frequent and greater contact and exchange of ideas between Japanese and Western writers, there have been further evolutions and branchings of haiku, with new schools and writers taking fresh approaches, or reinterpreting and reinvigorating the traditional form and styles. There are Japanese poets writing and publishing haiku in a conventional style - including 5-7-5 syllable structure, season word and cutting word; and there are Japanese haiku poets who consider such traditional practices completely optional. In the West, we who have embraced the "haiku" as a poetic form have no right to dogmatically assert what is or is not "haiku", let alone to consign all poets since Shiki to the category of "degenerates."

In my opinion Blyth, therefore, is completely wrong, and his analysis leaves poetry he purports to love, both blinded and lamed.   His is a poetry for the dead, not the living.

Learning to Judge Haiku

Having said all this, however, I do agree with Blyth at least on one point: that some haiku are better than others. But the process by which I make these judgments is less dogmatic, more analytical, and more personal - which I think is essential. For as said already, haiku is poetry - a literary art, and so open to literary analysis. It is also, of course, an intrinsically personal encounter, and personal preference is to be embraced, not suppressed.

What is Art?

I would define all art as an attempt by a person (sometimes, though not necessarily, called an "artist") to authentically capture a personal "immanent experience" - that is to say, a moment of re-visioning reality, of unexpected connectedness, a striking awareness of some timeless truth, or perhaps a non-physical, non-sensory "spiritual" perception of some aspect of human life - in isolation, or in relation to society, or even in the cosmos. But rather than try to explain the experience, to describe the insight, an artist is someone who tries to re-create the experience, in the mind and emotions of the reader/viewer/listener, through an artistic arrangement of words, of sounds, of shapes and movements.

Steps to Analyzing Haiku

From this, we can see that my criteria for judging a haiku, or indeed any art, will be based on whether the poem is successful in meeting any or all of these artistic ends: is it authentic? does it present an immanent encounter? does it re-create or re-present the experience for the reader?  

After considering these essential points, further judgment on the quality of a haiku can be made considering the literary and aesthetic features of the work: does it conform to an expected haiku structure? does the writer use a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and if not, why not? is there a division of thought in the poem? a tension and resolution? does the writer use sounds or rhythms in a way that enhances or detracts from the images created? does the poem refer outside itself, to other works of literature or art? 

Finally, personal reactions to the poem, and how the poem compares to other works touching similar experiences. For haiku, being deliberately brief, requires the reader to "fill in the details" with their own sensory experience, memories, and imagination. In some haiku as readers we are literally co-creators of the poetry, which gives the poem a much greater personal impact. And a poem by a "famous" poet may not affect us as much as a work by lesser known poets, or indeed, by amateurs.

It is a process of approaching and questioning a poem in this way that can allow a haiku apprentice to make an assessment and a judgment regarding the quality of a haiku poem, and even to grade it compared to other works. Of course not everyone will agree with our judgment, but that is of no concern. Our response, like the original poem itself, should be authentic.

When I first encounter a new haiku, here are some questions I try to ask myself when reading the poem, to begin this process of engaging and appreciating the work:

  • When is it happening? What season?  What time?
  • Where is it taking place?
  • Who is present?
  • Is there any precedent implied?
  • What mood is captured?
  • How is this achieved?

To illustrate, I would like to quote some poems by a non-professional writer which I consider outstanding. All are by Mark E. Brager, and published in haiku journal, Simply Haiku (AutumnWinter 2011), and so-called "senryu" journal, Prune Juice (Issue 9 : Summer 2012).

Stop Talking About...

Before I begin, though, let me make an important point: I consider all these poems "haiku". I do not believe the Japanese distinction between haiku and senryu carries into English, but believe that any English poem written with a form approximating haiku, and the intent of being a "haiku", is haiku. When I went researching to find support for my position on this matter, I found an article by Basho expert and translator Jane Reichhold, in which she gives an excellent discussion of the Japanese context of haiku compared to senryu; and I agree with her conclusion, that we should stop using that term, and refer to all haiku-like poems in English as "haiku". According to Reichhold:

Jane Reichhold - "stop talking about senryu; it's all haiku!"

"R.H. Blyth is responsible for this false splitting of haiku into two divisions. For haiku, accepted by Japanese literary history as haiku, which Blyth did not like or understand, he constantly exploits the term senryu to degrade them. Adopting Blyth's attitude, certain experts and editors have set themselves up as judges to determine what is "real haiku" and referring, as he did, to all else as senryu. I strongly believe if a writer calls his/her work haiku, it IS haiku. If someone else does not like it, or it does not fit their standards, this does not give anyone the right to call it by the deprecatory name of erotic doggerel.
In any case, the term senryu should be discontinued because that is not what we are writing. Personally I have never read anything yet in English as degrading as a real Japanese senryu are. None of us would accept or publish such work. Why should we remind ourselves of this questionable practice by the Japanese by using the term?"

Analyzing Real Poems

Part I - A Walk in the Sand

So let’s begin with a poem by Brager:

sand dollar
the curve of the shore
behind me

A Sand Dollar on a beach
Brager, like many English-haiku writers, does not restrict himself to a particular syllable count, but clearly has structured the poem in a brief 3-line form recognizable as an English haiku.

The poem is immediately sensory, taking the reader onto a beach, calling up our own visions and memories of walking and playing on the sand. The sand dollar is not a creature to be found where I live, but I know from books and TV documentaries what they are, and in my mind I can replace it by encounters with starfish or other crustaceans I have personally met at the water's edge. But the identification of such an animal places us precisely at the water's edge. Waves play around our feet, and the sand dollar is revealed perhaps by the retreating wave. Such is the immediacy of the picture, and for me the experience conjured by the first reading. Although there is no season word or phrase, the season seems implied to be summer, since that is when people mostly play at the beach, and by mentioning the "curve of the shore", one senses he is recreating a walk along the shore, rather than a time when he was actively playing in the surf. Again, for me this connects to either an afternoon or a morning activity perhaps - walking in the cool of the day.

A Sand Dollar revealed by retreating waves

Next I am struck by the juxtaposition of the two elements in these first two lines: the creature with such an unusual name: "sand dollar", and "the curve of the shore". What comes to my mind is the curving shape of a dollar sign $. A clever connection, perfected by his concluding remark: "behind me". Of course, the curving shore is behind him as he walks along the beach, but does he also mean to imply that the pursuit of dollars is behind him? Is this a holiday? Is this a retirement? Has he been reappraising his personal priorities and deciding that money is less important than health?  I consider this an excellent haiku in form and execution. When considering it in terms of literary aesthetics, it also meets my criteria of conveying an authentic experience through the re-creating of the sensations and cognitive processes of the poet; yet it also leaves me with enough mystery, enough that is left unstated to allow my own interpretation, to question, to wonder, and of course to apply to my own life. It is the sort of poem that will spring back to mind next time I walk along a beach and encounter a sea-creature.

Analyzing Real Poems Part II - Fear and Trembling

This next poem by Brager is of a religious nature, and it is also powerfully effective for me. Partly this is because I have my own experiences of the same religious practices earlier in my life, and he captures the scene, the mood, and the spiritual emotions perfectly.

deep breath –
the pressure inside
the confessional

"Confession" is a Catholic practice where believers must confess their sins - specifically - and indicate their repentance before a priest, who in the name of Jesus forgives and absolves them. Traditionally it is done in a "confessional", a small dark chamber in an alcove of a church with at least two "booths". The priest sits in one "booth" beside a small window - often curtained - and on the other side, in the privacy (but also solitude) of the second booth, the penitent kneels awaiting their turn to confess. It is intensely challenging - personally and emotionally - to speak one's sins to the priest. Preparing for confession is like preparing to own up to a mistake to a parent, or a spouse. One feels a mix of guilt and sorrow and dread - like a child feels saying sorry to its parent, admitting that fault with deep breaths bordering on sobs. In confession there is a ritual set of words to help you go through with it, indeed even just to get going, and as they tumble out of your mouth, it is with a tight sense of pressure in the chest - around the heart.

A Catholic Confessional

Brager's poem captures all this, and invokes with it a lifetime of belief and rituals - all in 3 brief lines. He does not describe it, as I have just attempted to do - he re-lives it, and in doing so, speaks straight to the heart of those of us who have also experienced the dread, the fear, but also the catharsis of the confessional.

Is there a season in this poem? Again, not specifically, but it can be inferred. Confession is required at least annually by Catholics, and before Easter is the traditional time of reconciliation. But more than a season of changing weather, it evokes for Catholics the "holy season" of solemn rituals: the dim light of a church, and the scent of generations of candles, of incense, of wooden pews and polish.

Again, this poem captures and recalls a totally authentic experience, and Brager invites the reader to share the authenticity: to examine their own conscience, and challenges them to reconcile with their god. I suspect, even though it is clearly a Catholic religious encounter, that even Blyth would have approved of this poem, because of this highly spiritual impulse. But the wonder of it is that it is spirituality manifest in physical sensations: the deep breath - the "in-spiration" - and the "pressure inside", which is physically a tightness in the chest, around the pounding heart, also manifests the pressure inside the soul, yearning for release from the burden of sin. One reads the poem, and answers it: Amen.

Analyzing Real Poems Part III - Wabi Sabi

playing catch at dusk,
I dimly remember
being the son

This poem speaks to the father in me, but at the same time, has a sweet melancholy of nostalgia from my own childhood. A suburban backyard perhaps, or a park - these are the images drawn from my own memories of playing "catch". Brager is an American writer and believe baseball is the usual type of "catch" fathers play with sons there. So this would imply baseball season - summer. In Australia, cricket is our summer ball game, but often we play catch with tennis balls, which are also used for backyard cricket matches. In summer, of course, dusk comes very late - late enough for dads to spent time with sons after work and after dinner, throwing balls to each other, rehearsing for a weekend game perhaps, but also rehearsing lines: about life, about growing up.

All this can come just from the first line. Then we read on, and a wonderful play on words follows in line 2: the fading light and the fading memory. The inference of "dim" memory is a distant past - suggesting this is not Brager himself playing ball with his own son, but perhaps observing a game of catch in a local park, watching some other man and his child. Now the conclusion, and Brager finishes with a powerful evocation - of when he was the child, playing with his own father, in that distant past. Ah! There is so much powerful and beautiful imagery tied up in this concluding line. The son that he was, and the fading sun of dusk. Twilight of a life.

Again, complete authenticity of experience is coupled with complete success in re-creating a scene and provoking a shared experience of complex emotions, while at the same time raising unanswered, unresolved questions of the reader.

Of these three excellent poems by Brager, this last one in particular evokes what Basho is praised for in Japanese - sabi. There is loneliness, a twinge of regretfulness in the scene, that catches this reader at least with sweet melancholy, and makes me reappraise my own priorities, and want to spend more time with my own fast-growing children. For me, this poem has the power to change a life.

Poetry is What Speaks to the Heart

In fact, even though as a haiku apprentice I feel a need to avow my loyalty to Basho and the other acknowledged greats of haiku, these 3 poems by Brager speak to me more powerfully than anything I have yet read from any of the Japanese poets. Brager lives in "my" world, a world of capitalism, confessionals, and suburban childhood rituals; and he captures and re-presents masterfully some of those experiences and his own immanent interpretation of them.

Shiki at the end of the 19th century scandalized the Japanese literary establishment by preferring the mostly forgotten Buson to the "saint of haiku" Basho. And he justified his preference with the language of literature, through his analyses of the poetry.

Shiki - Haiku Poet and theorist - refused to worship Basho

The Pleasure of Poetic Analysis

So too, if we are serious in acknowledging haiku as a literary art, rather than as a spiritual "Way", then of course it is natural that if we read haiku poems as emotional re-creations, as attempts to capture authentic experiences of significance for the writer, we will prefer the work of writers whose artistic experiences and explorations resonate with our own cultural and sensory imagery. When we approach haiku poems with a system like the one I outlined above - a set of questions or a poetic reading process - we will find that, far from reducing our enjoyment of the work, the process of slowing down and looking closely and deliberately at the construction of the poem, the choice of words, the subtle connotations of season and time, place and person, will result in the discovery of even richer pleasures as we uncover layers of emotional resonance.

I believe this last point accounts for the difference for Japanese readers reading Basho, and English readers reading translations. There is a lifetime of cultural resonance and subtle nuance impossible to convey in translation.

A Less Successful Poem (at least that's my opinion)

I opened this post with a quote from Blyth, in which he states we "may actually learn more about the nature of haiku by considering the failures and near-hits rather than the successes." I would therefore like to examine a poem which for me is less successful, and identifying the reason why might help me improve my own writing.

Opening their hearts
ice and water become
friends again

(Addiss, Stephen; Yamamoto, Fumiko; Yamamoto, Akira (2011-07-05). Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems (Shambhala Library) (Kindle Locations 195-198). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.)

Teishitsu is a name not familiar to most beginning haiku readers. But the internet is very much the friend of haiku apprentices, and allows us to research and broaden our experience of any poem and any poet we encounter. So from the World KigoDatabase website (a very interesting site), I found a page devoted to  Yasuhara Teishitsu (1610-73) who evidently is a near contemporary of Basho, and was one of the "Teimon Students Group" or Teimon School. In my earlier post on Basho's poetic apprenticeship, I discussed the Teimon School, which according to translator Davis Landis Branhill was established by Matsunana Teitoku (1571-1653) and "drew on the imagery, diction, and elegant beauty of the court tradition while relying on verbal wit to amuse the reader"

There is certainly an elegant beauty in this verse, and in fact I very much like the poem. The sentiment is striking and naturally appealing - friendship, separation then reconciliation; or even the union of the dissimilar. It tells a tale - indeed it tells every tale of human interest - in just 5-7-5 syllables. A wonderful achievement and a fine poem. But nevertheless I consider it less good than the poems by Brager. And the reason is I find it lacking in certain elements that I think make a great haiku. Indeed, the comparison with the three poems by Brager can help highlight these differences, as well as heighten my own awareness and appreciation of what true haiku masters achieve and how differently they construct their poetry.

For one thing, unlike the poems discussed above, there is an absence of clear setting in this poem. One might assume the blending of ice and water is most readily encountered in a river, perhaps high in the mountains at the end of winter. Is the poet perhaps a hermit or monk, in a mountain temple? That would make sense of the religious moral sentiment of the poem, which indeed seems lofty. But then we also know that the Teimon School wrote deliberately elegant poems from classical tradition, not from experience. It is an authentic sentiment, but inauthentic in content. For it seems almost certain Teishitsu did not write the poem from life. And this would explain why there is an absence of sensory experience, sensory connectedness - a fact which is strikingly different from the haiku of Brager. The mention of the "hearts" of ice and water is a "poetic sounding" abstraction, but it lacks any natural visual reference. Indeed it lacks any sensory power to bring the poem vividly to life in our minds, as a sharing with the poet of an actual physical encounter with Nature.

Instead therefore it forces me to ponder it as a philosophical metaphor, which is not a bad thing for haiku, except in this case the interpretation of the poem is further weakened because water and ice do not become "friends" in the sense of separate individuals who share something in common. Ice and water are in fact identical - they share the same nature - but their forms are incompatible. Ice will melt in the water as it warms, and no ice will remain; alternatively, as winter deepens, the water is pressed into ice and is gone until the next spring.

Perhaps an alternative final line that would convey the sentiment, but more sensually and thus more like the haiku examined earlier, would be something like: "dance together again", so capturing the swirling movement, the playful friendliness, into a sensory image that resonates with experiences familiar to most readers.

Here then is my own attempt at a haiku with a similar theme, inspired by Teishitsu, but drawn from my own memories of a spring visit to the mountains:

High mountain sunshine
Ice and water touch hands, dance
again together
                - Strider

Thank You, and Congratulations Lisette

This entire post today was actually inspired by Lisette, a visitor to my blog, who identifies herself as a haiku beginner, and shared with me this poem:

fair Andromeda
destined to dance with
heaven's river

She self-deprecates that it may be a "poor" poem, but I actually think this is a lovely haiku. As was the case with Mark Brager, Lisette shares certain cultural experiences and visual images, which mean I can relate to her poem very readily. In this case it is a shared love of astronomy and theoretical physics, and a familiarity with Hubble telescope-images of galaxies.

Heavens River - The Milky Way

As a good haiku apprentice herself, Lisette knows that "heaven's river" is none other than our own Milky Way. Her haiku invokes the mythological princess, Andromeda, while referring to the magnificent neighbouring galaxy of the same name, and she cleverly links the image of a dancing princess with the future cosmic event predicted by astronomers (not for some 4 billion years): that these galaxies will be pulled together by their gravitational attraction in a stunning ballroom display - literally a swirling river of stars. Andromeda was a princess of destiny in Greek myth, who was tied to a rock as a sacrifice to appease a sea monster. But the wonder, the excitement even, that Lisette conveys in her haiku, suggests the collision of these galaxies will not be tragic - to be swallowed by a dragon - but a beautiful and wonderful cosmic dance of destiny - almost a bridal waltz of Andromeda and her Perseus
A galactic collision - looks more like a dance to me! This one is rather prosaically known as UGC 1810 and UGC 1813

When I first read this haiku, I immediately recalled the poem by Teishitsu we discussed above. Re-reading them both and analyzing them, I think hers is definitely a better poem. It is an authentic expression of an immanent experience. It also has the sensory authenticity and note of personal conviction that can only come from someone who has actually "seen" this awesome event. Hubble images of colliding galaxies and computer simulations have taken Lisette into the far distant future, and like the prophetess Cassandra, she has indeed "seen" a vision of the unfolding of the heavens.

Andromeda and Perseus, by Edward Burne-Jones. Interestingly, the dragon has a spiral shape - like a galaxy!
When I read it, I share her spiritual exultation at this grand, truly awesome cosmic event. It also triggers a sense of humility, at our smallness, though mixed with a different kind of awe: that this can actually be known by humans through their powers of science and reason.

Lisette's Andromeda is also a more "sensory" poem. Visually, of course, there are photos and computer images of Andromeda, galaxies, from which to form a clear picture of such future collisions. But the River of Heaven - the Milky Way - is a sensory experience known not only visually from our own eyes, (at least by those of us lucky enough to have dark skies, and in the Southern Hemisphere we are particularly blessed). It also evokes the physical sensations of chilly nights, lying on grass, looking up in wonder at the stars.

Teishitsu belonged to Teimon School, and strove to incorporate cultural references in his poetry, but in his poem the metaphor was strained and imperfect. Lisette by contrast has incorporated Western cultural and mythological antecedents in this work, and much more effectively. I find they convey deeply satisfying cultural resonances as well as the raising of questions and mysteries. Wonderful poetry. Congratulations Lisette.


I still do not think it is quite as perfect as the Brager works. Why?

In each of Brager's haiku, the poet, and hence the reader, is personally engaged in the scene, which makes the poem more emotionally engaging. I think what could have made Lisette's poem even better would be a similar personal and human connection to the drama unfolding. Something that would speak of the poet (and the reader) as more than mere bystanders in the actions of gods, (or of galaxies). Perhaps the second line might have been crafted something like: "we are destined to dance" to convey such a personal connection.

Thank you, again, Lisette, for sharing your poem. Definitely not "poor", and I think you really do not need to worry whether or not your poetry group finds your works "acceptable."

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