Saturday, April 6, 2013

Taking Enough Time to Appreciate a Haiku

The Importance of Learning to Look Closely at a Haiku

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Learning Humility Before a Haiku

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

The Importance of Taking More Time Before Responding to a Haiku

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

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

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

Mea Culpa  - Catching Myself Out

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Absolutely beautiful poetry!

Beware the Power of the Bard

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



Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Leaving the Basho Hut

Haiku Apprentice and Haiku Hermit

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

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

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

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

Sho-Fu (sort of)

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

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

Discerning the Poetry from Among the Dribbles of Prose

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

Horizontal Haiku

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

The first is again taken from Tinywords:

unable to help myself rip tide



Issue 13.1 | 21 March 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcending the Horizon

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a wonderful time to be reading poetry!

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice