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