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


  1. Oh, such flattery! Thank you once more.

    Though the reader's takeaway dwarfs the importance of the writer's intent in haiku (which by its nature is open-ended and requires the reader to "complete" the poem), I thought you might like to know how the two match up here.

    "The name I carve" I think you have basically nailed, though the frosted glass I had in mind was a beer mug, with the carver sitting at a bar.

    "Casually reapplying," I'm afraid, was intended to paint more of a picture of romantic activity than deep love -- the "blizzard" of the poem was a particular act, sometimes followed (I'm told) by the need to reapply one's lipstick. I prefer your interpretation though, believe me.

    That the two were posted together was more serendipity than anything else. I have such a backlog of poems that I program them in well in advance to publish one or two a day, which explains why these winter poems are popping up now in Spring. Unless I did so subconsciously, I don't believe I deliberately pared them.

    Anyway, thank you again. As you look around more, through links on my site or what-have-you, you'll find many poets much further along than me. But I am glad to be a part of your early exposure to contemporary short-form poetry.


  2. Someone once said:
    "A wise teacher, teaches to that point where the students begin to teach themselves; learning, then, becomes the teacher."
    __We are all infants in this (English) haiku/senryu nursery.

    three lines
    counting all the points
    snow flakes



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!