Essays

New Haiku (8/20/15):

Cetologists identify whales by the scars and general wear of their flukes, their calling cards slipping into the deep again, marking years by disappearance and reappearance. When we moved in May, I thought I’d do the same with pigeons. They must be as distinctive, I figured, and meant to know my new neighborhood by its non-human citizens. For a time, on every walk exploring the new streets around us, I scrutinized each bird that lingered on the sidewalk. I meant to memorize a few, sure I’d feel some familiarity eventually.

Of course, I failed. The proliferation of pigeon colors and patterns can’t be captured by one mind, at least not one as small as mine. Even if I thought I remembered odd asymmetrical variations of gray and white and brown, who could be sure? Was this pigeon a friend?

Over the last eight months, since abandoning my blog, I’ve written little, only haiku, and part of me discounts those seventeen (or so) syllables as frivolity, too easy to matter for much. They’re pigeons, perhaps beautiful if you’re prone to scrutinize but likely just another square of a sea’s surface or a patch of sky, more of the same.

Ezra Pound, a great lover of haiku, said, “The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.” If so, I wonder what those images add up to and how a person might turn so many disparate moments into anything comprehensive or consoling.

In May of 2015, I wrote a haiku,

eventually

enough raindrops will

wet this field

Maybe. If nothing else, belief intends sense. Each haiku promises content, however fleeting. My pigeon friends gather en masse in a parking lot near where I live. A step in their direction sends them wheeling into the air, and every distinction between them vanishes in shuttering wings and new perspectives of their flight. They’re no longer verifiably separate.

If haiku accomplish so much, perhaps that’s enough. When I was four, I remember scooting along the curb after a storm, my feet driving a wave of rainwater ahead of me. That instant persists because I seldom feel such power now. I’d like to write something substantial—a novel, a poem worthy of public attention, a collection of essays or short stories—and instead settle for the fitful awareness in haiku—they might add up, or, at the other extreme, one will be the apparition of faces in the crowd, petals plastered against a background making them visible at last.

One of Basho’s loveliest haiku reads,

winter solitude-
in a world of one color
the sound of the wind

Aren’t we always hoping for that, connectedness and singularity, belonging and the strange joy of feeling so?

I saw a pigeon recently I was sure I’d recall. It was brown rather than gray, and one wing feather was a white vee, the other not. Turning to me as if it knew me, its strut moved my direction. I thought it spoke, issuing a challenge to be known and understood.

No haiku occurred to me but believed I knew what haiku is, if only momentarily.

My Life as Mr. Haiku (3/4/14):

You may not believe me, but sometimes my daily haiku seem the only important writing I do. They are short enough I can’t screw up or, if I screw up, their singular utterance seems only cryptic, perhaps ironic, maybe (possibly) deliberate. They are at very least fun and arrive like honeysuckle or dark chocolate, a hint of scent elsewhere, even in winter.

Truthfully, I rarely worry about how good they may be. Issa wrote, “What a strange thing! To be alive beneath cherry blossoms” and thus said what every haiku does. If we’re attuned to fresh perception, it visits us continually.

Every early spring a day arrives when I hear birds. I’ve missed their song without knowing, and they seem entirely novel, an alien echo, another dimension intruding. When my life is right, the sudden appearance of sun any time of year elicits automatic exaltation.

Occasionally, trying to write haiku, I sense my mind laboring for profundity, as if this time I’ll dive deeper and hold my breath longer and experience denser reality. What appears instead is the absurdity of wishing and a bemused relief at escaping seriousness.

Most people regard writing haiku as a special sort of serenity. In Haiku Mind, Patricia Donegan describes her encounter with this state as she looked at a sun-bathed orange and felt, “All was perfect as it was, and I felt suddenly at peace as I saw ‘the thing itself’ as if it was in its nakedness without my overlay of thoughts or opinions, and tears rolled down my face.”

Crying isn’t a regular part of my own experience, not just because such high contentedness is hard to come by but also because haiku don’t seem so limited to gratification. I understand “the thing itself” revelation but sometimes experience resignation instead, knowing whatever I feel—serenity, longing, grief, desire, frustration, self-pity, or the unnamable—is okay. The angry haiku, the sad haiku, the elated haiku, the confused haiku all possess similar acquiescence.

I haven’t much patience for people who want to distinguish between hokku and haiku, between haiku and senryu or between strict haiku and free. Those distinctions and requirements seem—I apologize to purists—silly. Haiku are finally clearer in spirit than definition.

My affection for the dark before commercials and silence after a song’s coda comes from every human’s desire to pause. For just a moment, nothing is moving on to better or worse. I’m not serene so much as still.

And, to me, haiku often resemble jokes, springing as they do from simultaneously startling and familiar observations, hinging in changing directions. The flame in wood grain resolves itself as a graph of the day’s troubles, the fire hydrant seems momentarily stubborn, planted sumo-like in defiance, or a dog with a leash but no owner becomes a murder suspect.

Haiku writers place shifts in kireji, cutting words, but revelation isn’t structural. Pay exclusive attention to words or syllables and haiku become too material to flicker and eddy. They sound translated even in home languages. I’m never sure if only the oblique can be conveyed in haiku or if the form of haiku renders everything oblique. In either case, the syllabled joints and angles see life as through a series of mirrors and thus, for once, afresh.

Someone asked me recently if I thought haiku were important to my “practice.” I felt a flood of goodwill—I wanted to embrace him. How wonderful to endow my fixation with such gravity! Yet, truth told, that moment offered validation, the uttered truth of faith. These daily haiku may seem amusement and rehearsal, but they’re central to all I see, sense, and feel as a writer and human being.

Finding Form (3/1/09):

Looking over this site, I recognize that the haiku poet I’ve never addressed is Masaoka Shiki (1873-1902), which is ironic, given that that I love Shiki… and that Shiki invented the term “haiku.”

Let me begin the remedy by offering three Shiki haiku:

Sunrise
through my mosquito net
I see a white sail passing.

Again waiting for you at night.
And the cold wind
Turns to rain.

A flash of lightning
Between trees in the forest.
I caught a glimpse of water.

Scholars credit Shiki with including shasei—or “life sketches”—in haiku, citing the way he focuses on evocative imagery and neglects exactly what it evoked.  We have the sail and mosquito net, the waiting, the cold wind and the rain, the flash and what it illuminates.  What we don’t have are the layers of awareness, the pain of recognizing no one is coming, the sudden sight of a different world outside.  These ideas are in my brain, my guesses at what Shiki meant to evoke.  He believed observed detail ought to speak for itself, and, when I write haiku, I believe he’s right.

But I have trouble with Shiki’s haiku politics.  In his writing about haiku—and he wrote about it more than anyone before him—he championed the poet Buson over Basho because he admired Buson’s painterly values and objected to Basho’s comprehensive and sometime loose perspective.  Basho, he felt, was overly grand and, in being so, perhaps overly overt.

The greatest master, Shiki suggested, is the most particular.

In reading about Shiki, I’ve been cautioned many times not to make too much of this argument against Basho who is, to many, the greatest master of the form.  I wouldn’t do so—I could just examine what’s wonderful in Shiki—except that his criticism accounts for some of my discomfort with him and with talking about the origins of form generally.

Some months ago, someone far more expert on haiku than I am, commented on one of my posts and said my calling Basho, Buson, or Issa “haiku poets” was anachronistic because Masaoka Shiki invented the term in the late 19th century.  These earlier poets, he said, ought to be called “hokku poets,” because they composed 17 syllable openings (called hokku) to tankas, followed by 14 more syllables.  Hokku, if I understand him correctly, weren’t freestanding until later, until Shiki.

You can find all these distinctions (and more) discussed more thoroughly and precisely elsewhere, BUT—never mind the inclusion of Basho, Buson, and Issa (and the exclusion of Shiki) in books like Robert Hass’ The Essential Haiku—my commenter is right. The term “haiku” didn’t exist when they or countless other “haiku poets” were writing.  The greatest haijin may be Shiki because his work is pure haiku and, more importantly, because he was first.  He invented it.

Which gives his view greater weight and tells me I ought to value his perspective. The trouble is, I want to give him a different sort of credit.

Discussing the invention of any poetic form seems risky territory.  No disrespect, but I wonder if anyone can define a form.  We may take form too seriously.  No composition can proceed without it, and isn’t every and any poem—the loosest and the tightest, the rawest and most fully cooked—following a form by fulfilling the poet’s perception of what a poem, or what a particular kind of poem, is? How big a deal can it be, inventing a new form, if even the least formal poem compels a poet to create rules?  Does it matter so much what we call it?

In other words, I don’t want to dishonor Shiki, his work, or his contributions to a poetic form I love, but…

Critics sometimes use the term “received form,” to address times poets work within strictures some other poet…or poets…or circumstances…have created. Yet creativity arises from fulfilling form indirectly too. Bending and transmuting received guidelines elicits praise and admiration—the sonnet is a troubadour song made a poem made Petrarchan, Spenserian, Shakespearian, and (maybe?) Berrymanian.  Thus, any intrepid scholar who ventures which difference makes all the difference—and when—cruises for dispute.

Shiki named haiku, but, formal particulars aside, he saw himself as part of a tradition that preceded him.  And his greatest achievement may have been changing it.  It’s true we scholars have a bad habit of applying form retrospectively, but sometimes earlier poets don’t know they’re working in forms that will be codified later.  Perhaps we—stupidly, carelessly, ignorantly—mislabel earlier poets’ work “haiku,” but we do so because we recognize something they, in their context, couldn’t.

And that retrospective definition suggests form isn’t invented at all.  It evolves.  I’ve invented a form—the haiku sonnets included on this blog—or at least I could say so. They are four haiku followed by two additional lines (like the 14 syllables following a hokku).  However, I have a hard time believing no one came up with the idea before me.  The discovery is mathematical—four haiku leaves only two lines (a couplet) to make up a sonnet.  And it is a simple perversion—sonnets are so rational and haiku so arational.  If I hadn’t found it, someone else might have.  I did it in 2000, is that important?

Shiki might take credit for naming haiku, but does separating the hokku from the rest of the poem constitute inventing haiku?

I can answer “yes” if I focus on ownership, if I value form according to who found it or labeled it first, instead of according to who uses it best.  But that seems egotism.  Better practitioners of the haiku sonnet may arrive to erase my invention.  If anyone writes in the form at all, I think it likely.

My point is that perhaps we should honor Shiki for contributions to an existing tradition.  His work is moving, beautiful, resourceful, and no one writing haiku since can ignore his contributions or influence.  Isn’t that enough?    

The Haiku Life (9/19/08):

Writing my daily haiku, I sometimes ponder the discontinuity between my life and those of the masters I revere. They were monastic and, for much of their lives, itinerate. Basho writes of his journeys, Buson had little care about making money as a painter, writer, or human, and Issa frequently composes haiku about flies, mosquitoes, fleas, and bedbugs.

I’m materialistic, worried I can’t make enough money to send my kids to college, and am deeply insulated in the comfort of my vermin-free existence. I just don’t measure up.

For those few minutes I am writing, however, I imagine our having similar motives. Their desire for mushin—often translated as “no heart”—meant fighting attachments to desire. They sought to be in the world and not to assume their paltry words could ever truly describe it. The bemused humor of Issa’s hokku particularly speaks to his uneasy effort to achieve transcendence:

I’m going to roll over,
so please move,
cricket.

These sea slugs,
they just don’t seem
Japanese.

A good world—
the dewdrops fall
by ones, by twos.

Octavio Paz wrote on haiku and argued that Japanese haiku does not represent “a school of doctrines, systems, or philosophies, but a sensibility.” He focuses on kokoro, meaning “heart” but perhaps closer to “spirit,” a blend of emotions and the mind. He’s careful not to say “fusion” because these two different tools never really fuse; we shift between knowing the world as we describe it and knowing it as it affects us, without words, often so rapidly we can’t say whether the brain or heart is in control.

That seems a perfect description of what I sometimes feel writing a haiku. Of course, I think about technical issues—how to compress a picture or idea into finite syllables, what word order will make the picture “legible,” where I might break lines and what image should end the poem—but at the core is something momentarily precious. My subject may be a minor thing to anyone else, but, for a few seconds, it’s an emblem of everything to me.

I don’t consider myself a good haiku writer—only learning—and that’s probably good enough. Caring too much injects desperation into haiku, which might be interesting but is not what my haiku heroes achieved. Their effectiveness rests with perspective more than words.

For me, writing a bad haiku is like failing to jump a fence. At my age, if you are going to jump a fence, it’s best not to think about it. What little grace you attain comes from barely doing it, according to no clear form (other than making it), and thoughtlessly. A bad haiku makes a show of your leap or, worse, results in a barked shin, a face plant, and a sore ego. There’s no ego in haiku. An ambitious haiku writer seems a contradiction in terms.

As I’ve written in another post, the chief values of haiku are sabi and wabi. These terms aren’t easy to translate, especially as the understanding of them evolved over time. Wabi comes from wabu, “to languish” and has come to include solitude and insignificance. The word’s connotation reversed as Zen practitioners embraced poverty as proof of liberation from materialism. Sabi was a literary word used by Fujiwara No Toshinari to communicate life’s brevity. It too, may seem negative, but together with wabi, it suggests resignation and a momentary aesthetic appreciation in midst of our lonely and transient lives.

The expression “Oh well” doesn’t quite cover wabi sabi, but perhaps it approaches the idea. Even humorous haiku convey a note of melancholy. As Woody Allen once suggested, life isn’t perfect, but who wants less of it?

Two more from Issa:

All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
killing mosquitoes.

If the times were good,
I’d ask one more of you to join me,
flies.

Some days, I can’t manage the proper aloofness. I’m worried about a class I haven’t prepared fully or I’m fixed on a task to be completed three days before. The ceiling might be leaking or the coffee tastes funny or I suspect one of my children is harboring some anxiety he or she won’t divulge. In the midst of my funk, I can’t focus on insignificance, my own or my troubles’.

Yet, when I can really write a haiku, it can be soothing. I find some small solace in my patch of mental monasticism and mendicancy. In the western world we sometimes associate escape with being carried away from this world into another one—usually one with nifty special effects and beautiful explosions. However, we might have escape exactly wrong. Maybe escape is leaving our intellectualized versions (or perversions) of the world and reattaching to its mundane essentials.

I learned haiku in Mrs. Wilkenson’s second grade class the day it rained and workmen occupied the gymnatorium. Mrs. Wilkenson generally avoided poetry. She thought we seven year-olds needed to grow up, and we were to be mirrors of her no-nonsense ways. The pragmatic need to keep us from talking probably justified her expedition into self-expression.

Mrs. Wilkenson reassured us that “Anything would be okay, as long as it has five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third.” Syllables and numbers presented no difficulty for me. I had my fingers to count, and most words broke neatly in my ear. I fooled around with the words I could spell, but nothing magical happened…until she let me get up from my desk and go to the window.

Water poured off the eaves of the building and turned our flat Texas playground into a pond. The concentric circles seemed out of sync with sound coming from outside but, if I close my eyes, I can still feel the echo.

Even then, something in me knew it wasn’t really about syllables.

The Registered Daily Allowance of Haiku (March 21, 2007):

For a while I kept a list of titles on a scrap of paper in my satchel—“The Invisible Landscape,” “Famous on Radio,” “My Secret Affection for Hats,” and “On Not Writing.” Few become anything more than ghostly plans, imaginary gray pages. Without a personal agent—I picture Burgess Meredith—to follow me around writing down every thought, I have no hopes of developing them any further than their original glimmer.

My world conspires against rumination. Most of my days are quilts of tiny patches, more stitches than fabric, stretched to their absolute limit to cover What Must Be Done. I am much better at answering emails than answering day dreams and ride time into the distance as if it were a monorail insensitive to other dimensions. Sleep wipes the landscape clean.

But I’m grateful for a haiku a day.

Shoku, the traditional style of hokku favored by Basho, blends two qualities: sabi, or satisfied solitude, and wabi, an appreciation for the beauty of simplicity. Together, they create a zen perspective in which a writer finds contentedness in a single observation. Often that moment is a surprise, turned on a kireji, or reversal word, that allows the writer some means to laugh…or smile…or grin…or to feel some momentary relief from the world’s heaviness.

A desperate or angry haiku may be a contradiction in terms. Were I an actual Buddhist monk living in a broken hut on an icy mountainside, I would feel perfectly fine about having published nearly nothing in the last three years.

However, I am, as I’ve said, no Buddhist. Do they blog?

Still, even the momentary expression of desperation—think of it as wincing—is some relief. In western poetry, we reason problems through. Instead of deftly turning on a few words, we have a volta, a tectonic shift in thinking between the eighth and ninth line of the sonnet, the most essay-like of all poetic forms. We want an answer or, if not that, some means of living with discontent.

Sometimes we only need observation.

When I started this project of writing a haiku a day, I viewed it as poetic calisthenics. It has become a perspective. People sometimes treat poetry as if its purpose were to blur what should be clear, but there’s no need to make writing or reading poetry any harder than it is. Life IS blurry. Look for the invisible bruise that represents the whole of a day, and you find it’s bigger than you think. Pick out one echoing image a day, and, most of the time, you’ve written enough to inhabit the landscape.

No answers. No complete sentences. One keyhole into life.

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2 thoughts on “Essays

  1. Pingback: 3/1/09: Watching « haiku streak

  2. Pingback: 3/2/09: Restless « haiku streak

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