Tomorrow is a little bit incongruous: a memorial for Nicholas is in the early afternoon in Philadelphia, so I’ll be going there. And then, in the evening, is a concert by Dead Can Dance (the irony* of the name is not lost on me), who I’ve waited to see for 16 years. Some of you may know one-half of the band as Lisa Gerrard, whose voice has graced many a movie soundtrack; if not, please go YouTube them now! I grew up listening to their brand of meditative world fusion, and they remain one of my favorite bands… they toured in 1996, briefly for a reunion in 2005 ( which I missed out on! argh), and now have finally reunited with a new album and world tour. With every blessing comes a little rain, and vice versa, I suppose.
* I know this isn’t actually irony, but I’m not sure which term is appropriate here.
This week: “a sensation of space”
I have said repeatedly before that if I ever talk about haiku, it’s going to be a one-time, comprehensive monograph, and then I will never touch the topic again. That remains to be seen, but it’s the white elephant on the blog for these world poetry prompts, so I supposed, since we’re due for one, that I will toss in my two (or three, or ten) cents on the topic. Please take this all with the following caveats: I am not by any means a prolific haijin (haiku writer), though I minored in Japanese and studied Japanese poetry forms; this is all mostly my own opinion, which I consider reasonably well-informed; and Natalie Goldberg (whose title I’ve borrowed here) had more to do with my concept of haiku than any one person probably should.
Everyone “knows” the rules of haiku: three lines, syllables in the pattern 5-7-5, preferably with some kind of nature image and Deep Thought. Let me say right off the bat: I get annoyed when people talk about “modern haiku” as though it’s not still a living, breathing form in Japan, as though it’s something archaic that needs updating. (Really, it’s code for not wanting to follow all the parameters.) You can play around with the form, but have the grace to call it something else, or at least to acknowledge that it’s your take on the form; you are not fixing it.
But I will start with the Important Translation Note that is everyone’s excuse. Haiku are not counted in Japanese with syllables as we understand them, but rather in morae. This is a rather nebulous linguistic term. Essentially, a syllable has a mora for its vowel (two if it’s a long vowel/diphthong) and one for its final consonant or consonants, for a total of one to three. Some debate exists about whether unstressed syllables should count the final consonant, so that the second syllable in a word like pieces would only have one. Here are some examples:
say: one mora
wow or get or any: two morae
browsed or coiled or pieces: three morae
It’s kind of a counter-intuitive way to parse words, so I’m willing to accept syllables instead for English. But try to keep the 5-7-5, at least for this exercise; you can do it in syllables or morae as you see fit. It helps preserve the feel of the piece, while what I’m about to discuss helps preserve the “point” of the form.
Now for the nature part. The term is kigo for the signifying word that represents a season in a haiku. Including it helps place the haiku in time (and the planet), and clues the reader in to the direction of the poem. I could use robin, Aries, or buds, and it’s clear I’m talking about spring, but the choice will suggest particular associations (maybe freedom for the bird, pensive thoughts for the zodiac, and new life for the buds). There are whole books called saijiki which outline kigo for all the seasons in seven categories: seasons, heavens, earth, animals, plants, humanity, and holidays/observances. You do not particularly need a kigo that is polysemous and deep with significance, but the reader should be able to intuit the seasonal placement from it. (A cool fact from Wikipedia: the moon seems like it should be beyond seasons, but in haiku, it is treated as an autumn word. Why? In autumn, it gets dark earlier, but it’s still nice enough to stay outside and see the moon; also, the harvest moon, perhaps the most important, occurs in autumn. Cool!)
And then there’s the cutting word, or kireji. This is what you usually see represented as a dash in translations, like this one by Basho:
The voice of the pheasant –
how I longed
for my dead parents!
(Note: which season do you think “pheasant” might represent? Hmmm…!)
Japanese has it easy: there are dozens of final sentence particles (like ne, to mark a tag question, “…isn’t it?”; zo, to show insistent declaration in a brutish, threatening, masculine way; and kara, to indicate responsibility, “because of…”) that can break the haiku in half. This is harder to do in English, but punctuation (especially the question mark and semicolon) can perform the task. I think the best way to use it in the poem is to place an image on either side of the break. It is similar to the caesura in other forms, a division of the themes rather than the lines or feet, though it can be both. In a sense, you are creating two poems, which are nothing more than images. The beauty of the haiku comes from their juxtaposition, and the various ways the reader can fall in between them.
This is where Goldberg’s conception of the sensation of space appeals the most to me. I think of it also like two magnets, held so they oppose. You have these two objects that you can describe and outline, but when you try to press them together, they defy you: they demand a field of energy. It’s the same with a haiku, in that you can’t just have two images, one after the other. You don’t outline the connection between them or lead the reader by the hand to some kind of meaning, but it’s still visible. Consider the difference between something like this:
from a bleached skull in the yard
turn its eyes purple.
In the yard, a skull
sits sun-bleached with purpled eyes:
scent of peonies.
Very little difference, but the second one has more mystery and power, since the entire scene is not spelled out for the reader. Rather than just become a little macabre nugget, it summons up dichotomies (since we’re orbiting two images around each other), notions of death/life, rebirth, etc. I should add another important note, while on the topic of avoiding the poetic garden path: try not to use similes, metaphors, alliteration, rhyme, personification, or any of the other poetic tricks you’re used to. Keep any personal judgments out of it, though you don’t have to erase your voice completely. Let the images be reduced to their absolute basics, to descriptive monomials of x and y, without any kind of operation between them; let the positioning itself do the talking. That is the challenge of writing a haiku, NOT “to cram a Deep Thought into seventeen syllables”. There should be enough room between your two images to build a house; and whether it’s a cabin, a mansion, or a grave is for your reader to decide.
A quote from Goldberg to drive the point home: “…what makes it haiku and not just a short poem? If you read a lot of haiku, you see there is a leap that happens, a moment where the poet makes a large jump and the reader’s mind must catch up. This creates a little sensation of space in the reader’s mind, which is nothing less than a moment’s experience of God.” And remember that Basho himself said that he might have written a dozen haiku in his life that were truly haiku, out of the hundreds (thousands?) he had penned. So don’t worry if it feels like you’re not completely capturing what you want to; in a sense, it will be impossible. But it’s the practice, and approaching that point, that counts.
If you need some extra guidance, try this: pick a kigo that you’re fond of first. (In Japanese conceptions, we’re moving into autumn right now.) Then, pick a mundane object in your nearby vicinity, and use those two things as your images. You might do blackberries (if you’re tenaciously clinging to the finest produce summer has to offer like I am) and shoes. Then think about ways to play with those two things, and what kind of relationship (or lack) they have; balance them on either side of a kireji and then worry about the syllables.
I’ve stained my fingers
with blackberries; and my shoes
were lost in a stream.
I don’t think this one turned out particularly well, though I suppose it says something about the carefree headiness, coupled with minor disasters, of summer. But with this guideline, you can crank out several haiku and see what sticks, like throwing poetic spaghetti on a resonant wall. Try to come up with at least five with whatever season is ringing in your head right now, the current one or otherwise. And then share them, because if nothing else, poets love a good poemshare, yeah? Happy writings!