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


  1. Excellent discussion, and I'm delighted to be included. Thank you very much.

    (One note: I'm not bucking the trend and titling my haiku, though I do list the first line on my site in the title box, which helps me keep track of them).

    Best wishes to you on your journey,


  2. Thank you for your kind comment, and thanks again, Scott, for allowing me to reproduce your excellent haiku. I have heeded your comment and deleted the "title" that came when I copied and pasted from your website. I look forward to reading more of your work, and I know I will find more inspiration for my own posts.

  3. Strider, you know I always love your writing and your thoughts - but your latest post I found especially resonant. Your interpretation of S.M. Abeles' poem was beautiful and moving. I often muse on such things that connect us with past and future, as well as with our fellow-humans - ancient history, music, writing, art... But the thought of breath - that is the most primal and essential of them all.

  4. Laura Athena thank you for your kind words. Your perceptive commentary and insightful reflections are always engaging and enriching, because you have such a deep cultural knowledge and write yourself in such a beautiful and lyrical style. I greatly treasure your appreciation of my own writing.

    Breath - in-spiration - spirit. Yes, I think the Ancient Greeks had a deep intuitive understanding of the interconnectedness of the all things and the cosmos, and they preserved that insight in the very words they invented. And artifacts of those insights remain in the language we still use today. Perhaps that is why I love words and poetry so much.

    I think it must be another of those " right brain" things - the perception of life, connectedness, unity, wholeness, and the effort to make these truths known and heard by the consciousness and the left brain, through the creation of poetry (and philosophy) and art.

    I hope you will continue to occasionally visit my blog. I know I look forward to your further reflections.

  5. Hi, Strider - I was wondering what had happened to you quite recently and when I was searching for one of my haiku earlier, I happened upon these lovely comments you made about my riptide haiku. Made my day, they did! ��


    1. Hi Marion, and thanks so much for reaching out and making contact.

      One of the joys of maintaining this blog is occasionally - out of the blue - someone will drop by and bring me back to haiku!

      Sadly my personal and professional life has become so full in the past 12 months that I have neglected haiku reading and commenting. Obviously, I am well aware that it is precisely such times that one ought to cling more determinedly to poetry as an antidote to stress and maintain balance. But as many people find, it is always harder to apply such wisdom in your own case than give it to another person!

      Thanks for keeping me "in mind" - it means a lot and has made this day for me.
      You have convinced me I need to get back to Tinywords!



  6. Dear Strider - I was overjoyed when I checked into Tinywords and found you had returned! I look forward to your continued words of wisdom :)

    misty morning
    my delight at hearing
    a familiar bird



Thank you for your interest in my blog. You are clearly a thoughtful and poetic soul!

Constructive comments are always welcome. However, as I am frequently out and about living and being inspired by the Cosmos, I may not immediately be able to moderate comments for 24 hours.

Remember, patience is a poetic virtue!