oulipost 17: food cart veterans

Good thing, given my state, that the Oulipost prompt today was a relatively simple one: to haiku-ize three sentences from an article. I plucked a write-up of some of the Easter fare options in NYC, found my sentences, trimmed them to the (ugh) 5-7-5 format what’s standard for such things in English, and ended up with an amusing little pun in the title reflecting the two kinds of fare on offer at this phantom market:

Food Cart Veterans Explore Deconstruction

Vendors at market:
sour cherry, millefeuille with cream;
an alphabet brunch.

But then, because I never miss the opportunity to flex my Japanese a bit, I bastardized it into this, where some of the words have changed and some of the compounds (especially the last) would probably raise an eyebrow for the native speakers. But I think “ume” can be a seasonal word (though not sure which one: summer?), the images are pretty stand-alone, and I like the contrast between the second and third lines. So I’d consider it at least an honest attempt, and I believe I conserved the syllable structure in Japanese. Anyway, here you go:

市台に
梅とどら焼き
欧字食

ichi-dai ni
ume to dorayaki
ooji-shoku

(at the fair-tables
sour plums and custard pastries
an alphabet meal)

Three Lunes in a Hanging Garden

I’ve been playing a lot of this board game 7 Wonders lately, with the premise being inspired by the wonders of the ancient world. Babylon has always been my favorite, even though it might be mythical: it was the only one that required constant intervention to still be wondrous, with living pieces of its mechanism, it was built not because of religion or a show of power or utilitarian uses, but because of love, and it just has the greatest name. The Hanging Gardens: how cool is that? I would love to write a series of poems, or at least a long-ish one, on the mythology behind it.

They stand at an interesting nexus, too. I think of water, gardens, Babylon, and a noble woman when I think of them, and all the combinations: water and Babylon (which makes me think of the Flood), water and a noble woman (which makes me think of Ophelia), gardens and Babylon (which makes me think of the dawn of agriculture), gardens and a noble woman (which is a mythic trope you find again and again in literature), etc. I thought about trying to work a lot of that into this piece, but it is intended to be short form, so… not so much.

DVerse is asking for short form pieces. I’ve also been into the Imagists lately (by which I mean this weekend), so Ezra Pound (for all his faults) and WCW have been on the mind. I haven’t really done much with the lune, the 5/3/5 “American haiku” that has been bandied about from time to time, so here’s three of them on the vine. Kept very passive and Imagist, I think. There’s some little sound device treats mixed in as well, but I think the deeper narrative stuff will have to wait for another, longer poem.

Three Lunes in a Hanging Garden

Tea roses hung from
the terrace
drip a slow, red braid.
Screws turn the rainfall
whenever
darkness is named shade.
Fire on the roof and
a flood dream
make a decent trade.

The Refinery: yousei hime

Another day, another Refinery. The last couple of days were chaotic first with… well, chaos, but then with joy. I was supposed to head home for an Important Family Event, which was rescheduled due to this blizzard we had. (Note: “blizzard” conditions require a certain amount of snow, a certain amount of windspeed, and a consequent certain reduction of visibility. By the view from my office window, I can attest that it certainly met the criteria.) I own almost no weather-appropriate clothing, but I still traipsed out Friday night with sneakers and umbrella to explore the city. It was too beautiful for words, but dammit if I’m not going to try. And then we’ve had the New Year and everything this weekend, and all is well.

Once again, please send poems for the Refinery! The email to send them to is eduerfsknil at liamg dot moc. (You’ll want to reverse those words, and change the at to @, dot to . and what not.) Today we have…

More Charming Jewelry” by Yousei Hime

(Cripes, a case of where I don’t know whether to use real name or pen name. I’ll stick with Yousei for now.)

Yousei is a prolific writer of haiku, tanka, and free verse inspired by Japanese/Zen sensibilities and nature. I give her mad props for being one of the few poets to take the time and truly learn about the culture, religion, legends, and history that intimately informs those kinds of poem. (Besides that, she writes love poetry that both floats and pumps blood at the same time.) This set of short pieces was written for a Reverie last year, combining specific images with specific form tricks and combining them into a necklace of poems. I won’t get into whether it fulfilled the conditions of the Reverie, since that’s not the important thing here; let’s read the poem series as its own entity.

Rampal trills moonlit
cherry petal notes
into exile drifting
I wonder
will you send my flute
over a ruined castle wall

past the cracked rock,
new fern coiled path,
each step . . . pure . . . heart . . . trust
small stones I cede
up to the dusk vined gate

where Taiheiyou bent low, waters
were spilled . . . suffering across hand, impermanence from mouth
you emptiness – trickle over stones to earth, rise to air
when at least, beside Tsushima Basin,
I am content with what I am

gray hair remembers
its maple leaf red
finger twined tilted
to how your breath tastes
but cannot recall you now

morning fire, this cotton gown caught,
a coy pool between my breasts
mid-day earthen words shore
cascades against silk waistband
until night winds ripple that deepest pond

what an odd structure, that half-moon bridge,
a path echoed in a passing river,
crimson by day, starless at night
I saw my fate
and never took either

simple cup of tea
heat the water — no dawn without her
scoop the matcha — her resolve pierces stone
pour the water — she is water
stir to foam — she is content with what she is

Let’s get into it:
– I think there could be more connective tissue in this piece, thematically. I know that it was written as seven separate pieces to seven different mini-prompts, but if we’re going to treat it as one longer piece, that would be the first thing I’d like to see developed. Each of the poems is pretty self-contained, and carries hints of a Japanese aesthetic by not saying too much; the challenge is to get them to work together. Probably the best way to handle this kind of situation is to see which ones stand out the best: in my opinion, the fourth and seventh are the winners. Then, look at these two and ask, what do they have in common, and what are their individual themes? Both seem to have a love element to them, but it’s understated and wistful. They are both very physical, with the hair, the colors, the tea, the water; but one is trapping memory in objects, while one is extending the woman to an almost divine aspect. There are echoes of this (the third poemlet’s ending) elsewhere, but where could these themes be better-developed?
– The syntax jars me a little bit. One of the things about Japanese forms and the grammar structure they use is that (to me, at least) it falls a little bit flat in English. Lines like “into exile drifting”, I want to change to become: “drifting into exile”. And “you emptiness” could use a comma, if I’m reading it correctly: “you, emptiness”. Ordinarily, I would defer to the poet’s prerogative, but because this piece has so many instances that are popping out at me, it’s distracting from digging out the theme and the images. The aesthetic is very “less is more”, but while you may be keenly aware of little “a”s and “the”s and punctuation while typing them/reading the poem aloud, the reader will gloss over them quickly. This is a better effect than trying to cut everything which can conceivably be cut, unless you’re trying to do some really concrete avant-garde stuff (which I don’t think Yousei is attempting here).
– Be careful of losing your audience with your symbolism, as well as references and allusions. I knew Taiheiyou and Tsushima (assuming they are the places in Japan I’m thinking of), but I had no idea who Rampal was, and had to look him up (which a lot of people wouldn’t have to). I’m sure the reverse is true for others. When the references are carefully placed — especially when they are the subjects/objects of descriptive verbs — we can generally get by. (Rampal, whoever/whatever that is to the ignorant reader, produces beautiful flute-like music, we can see.) Symbols can be harder, though: with the castle, and the half-moon bridge, I’m not sure if I should be reading them literally, allusively (is there some legend about throwing a flute over the wall I don’t know?), or figuratively (the bridge = fate?). My knowledge of haiku as whole images* suggests that they should be read literally, but I suspect there’s more going on here, which might need a bit of elucidation.

* I mean this in the sense of un-processed, like whole foods. If there was a market called Whole Images, I would be blowing my take-home pay there every month.

And now for the rest of the stuff!:
– That last stanza is fantastic. The fourth was good too, but that seventh one: damn. It could stand alone by itself easily (called “Simple Cup of Tea”, maybe?), but works as a good capstone to the entire piece. Sometimes I uncertain of the paths of the threads that lead to the end, but I have a certainty that this final stanza sums them all up, echoing almost all the other parts of the poem. Moreover, it has a peaceful, meditative, self-accepting quality, that I enjoy. I will go so far as to say this part should remain completely unchanged; the fourth stanza, meanwhile, could use a comma between “twisting” and “tilted”, and otherwise can probably stay as is. Anything else that changes in the poem should follow from those two.
– This is a surprisingly dense poem, which I mean in a good way. The “less is more” aesthetic helps because it gives you more room to include more elements that serve your theme, rather than having to do exposition for only a few images. When I see “cherry petals”, I have instant associations: I don’t need a line telling me about how quickly they vanish, and a third line about how they look and move. That would certainly be a beautiful poem too, but economy gives this piece a lot of its feel, and I think it’s done well here. As I mentioned, there could be some expansion with the skeleton filling in the gaps between images and thoughts, but there is no need to contract anything in the poem, I feel. The only thing that stands out is the second poemlet, which could just benefit from an extra line break to shorten that outstretched line. (I know the original prompt put limits on the lengths of the poemlets; but cast the prompt aside!)
– I’m a sucker for animism, which I can see poking through at a few points here. Japanese poems resist outright personification totally: a pheasant never cries plaintively, the cherry never dies wistfully, and all of the mourning comes from the observer. A haiku says “(natural thing) does X; poet shows his presence with Y,” very little more, and very little less. So this departs from that concept with the remembering hair and the Taiheiyou bending (or perhaps bowing?) into that bay, plus metaphors like that deepest pond and the cherry petal notes; but it’s applied very gently, and gives a nice feel to the poem.

Those are my takes on various aspects of the poem overall. A few smaller points to consider:
– My gripe with ellipses in poems is well known at this point. :P
– There are some great word choices like “dusk vined gate” and “coy pool”, which I suspect as a pun…
– …but there are also some that I’m not so keen on, like “cede up to” and “impermanence”. They sound too cerebral for the very calm, easy tone of the rest of the poem.
– The poem is mimetic at times, echoing itself, as sound does across water, with lines like “pour the water – she is water“, which is a great effect.
– Why not include some imagery of sound across water to drive the point home?
– Again, I know these are seven stand-alone poemlets, but I still want to see some smoother transition between stanzas. The abruptness separating periods of extremely nice flow is either an effect you want, or one you don’t.

Yousei: thank you for sharing this poem with us! Hopefully there are some ideas in here that you can use for revising. And for everyone else, we’re going to try another complicated-ish prompt inspired by the piece so you can jump in:

Write a poem of seven stanzas where each stanza could stand alone as its own short poem. Focus on three connected themes that braid together well, and keep bringing them back with refrains and repeated images or sounds until the last stanza, where they all come together. Include at least three nature images, at least three domestic images, and a balance of images with deeper meaning against ones that are exactly as deep as they seem.

To the poems!

meta-blogging: a thousand posts! and other things

If each of my posts were a paper crane, I would get a wish!

So, after three and a half years (well, a little more), we are at merry number 1000 for this blog. It’s been quite a ride, yeah? It works out to something like one post every thirty-one hours or something, which I don’t think I’ve done, as it seems rather more excessive than my sporadic nature of late. But numbers don’t lie, at least, not in the way we want them to. I’m a big fan of milestones like this, and trying to set goals and such when they’re reached; I’m also a fan of looking back and finding some small measure of pride and accomplishment.

Last night (since Barbara demanded details), I began a poetry workshop with Douglas Goetsch. My immediate impressions are: everyone in that workshop knows what they’re doing and has serious chops (which is good: I don’t feel out of my league, but I definitely feel challenged), there is a nice people-balance of lives and experiences as well as humor and seriousness, and it really sucks to go first in a workshop. (For three reasons. First, you always get overtime, but the discussion is skewed towards what you need to fix; second, because the moderator wants to impress the importance of finding snags, everyone feels obligated to find something wrong and has time to do it; and third, once a snag is reported, if anyone else does the same thing later, it just has to be referenced, not laid out in detail for them.) But I didn’t cry! Not once! It helps to have a moderator who’s not afraid to drag opinions out of people, and who can pull examples from his encyclopedic knowledge to help you. And since I hate posting a piece without a poem at all, here’s a gem from last night, what he calls an “American haiku”:

The dogwood blossoms
won’t be here this time next week:
fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em all.

(Doug, if you stumble across this, I will happily append a (c) 2013 by you.)

There will be weekly assignments to do for the workshop, which I will probably keep off-blog, which means I may be posting a bit less for eight weeks, maybe longer. Generally speaking, I’m trying to expand my real-life creative endeavors, including the monthly writer-artist salon and this new writing confab I’m doing with friends. But I shan’t abandon you, blog! At the very least, I will keep up Refineries (which again, I know I’m late on), my usual weekly contribution to dVerse and We Write Poems, respond to Donna‘s prompts when she has them, and the occasional bit about goings-on or particularly inspired things. One of these days, I’ll also get around to a massive comment-responding thing.

I also want to extend my thanks for everyone who’s stuck with me thus far, and I hope you’ll continue to stick with me a bit further. (Like, another 1000 posts or so.) The people are what make the blogosphere a charming place, not the journal opportunities or the ease of getting work out there, not the textual tricks you can do with HTML or the crossing over between writing and reading that happens so easily in a blog environment. I appreciate you guys way lots, and if it ever seems like I don’t, just yell at me and remind me to show it more. That’s what I have to say, more or less. Please carry on with your usually-scheduled Tuesday, which I hope involves lots of writing and mugs of hot tea. Cheers!

Reverie Forty-Two: the shoulders of giants

I’ve been spending my whole day at the Academy of American Poets’ Chancellors Talks; three Saturdays in a row of poetry events! Panels included Gary Snyder(!), Mark Doty(!), Jane Hirshfield(!), Naomi Shihab Nye(!), and others including Sharon Olds and Carl Phillips; Marie Ponsot was supposed to be there (she was the other poet I really wanted to see), but I think that because of health reasons, she was not in attendance. (She’s 91, so we’ll cut her a break.) Anyway, it was really great to hear so many disparate voices give their opinions on so many different aspects of poetry, some of which I wanted to try to distill into a prompt. We’re due for a world-poetry-prompt, but I hope you’ll forgive me if that is pushed until next week… must exorcise some of these thoughts while they’re still fresh!

This week: “the shoulders of giants

This is very much a catch-all prompt, without any unifying theme except that the Chancellors were talking about these things. So, what I recommend is that you write from one to four poems, folding from one to four of these suggestions. You could do one poem with all four, four poems with just one, two poems with two each, or whatever. Think of them as a little chocolate box that you can eat at your leisure.

One of the panels was on writing rituals. Naomi Shihab Nye made the suggestion that when you find your niche in terms of a place, time, mode of dress, whatever, you do it. But Juan Felipe Herrera (who was fantastic) spoke of writing workshops he conducted, and little rituals he had, which were totally outside the expected norm. (This included everything from writing on paper bags with leaky pens, to leaving one-word poems out in a field to see what would happen to them.) Sometimes the comfort zone is a good thing to have for when a poem arrives unbidden: we have to trap it with notes and scraps until we can get to our particular space for crafting. But for this exercise, I want you to try moving outside the comfort zone. Think of the time of day you’ve written your last several poems (or hell, the time of day you always write them), the place you wrote them, what you were wearing, and what kind of implements you were using. Then invert them. If you wrote on a Saturday morning in your pajamas at the kitchen table on the laptop, try lying in a field on a Sunday afternoon in your Sunday best (watch out for grass stains!) with charcoal. Surprise yourself, and see how it affects what themes, tones, and ideas arrive in you.

Related to this, there was a panel talking about the poet as hermit and/or social being. Gary Snyder is perhaps the quintessential poet-hermit; he talked about getting a telephone for the first time at this farm 12 or 13 years ago. Mark Doty, on the other hand, spoke about going to a cafe in the West Village where everyone is doing their own work, not interacting, but constantly surrounded by each other’s noise and presence. (Sidebar: this is exactly what I do, so I’m going to have to re-double my Mark Doty celebrity-watch efforts. If only he’d named the cafe!) So, how do you normally involve, or not involve, other people in your writing process? Do you keep everything to yourself; do you consult a friend or loved one; do you do workshops and open-mics? Let me offer you two options: first, you could (as with the inversion process above) do the opposite of what you normally would. If you’re a very private writer, try a workshop or open mic, if you can find one; at the very least, try to share your work with someone or do collaboration. (It can be a bit frightening, I know.) If you’re a very sociable one, try to remove yourself from all human interaction. The other option is, keep doing what you normally do, but draw it into the open. Make the other people an element in the process (snippets of conversation can be wonderful in a piece), or characters/scenery in the text. Alternatively, if you’re the introspective type who reacts to a non-humanized world to display your thoughts, try to keep those thoughts to a minimum. Let your surroundings do the talking for you.

Now for content. The first panel of the day was on the origins of the “New York School” and the Beats. (So having Snyder there, along with Ron Padgett and Ann Waldman, was pretty cool.) My favorite comment during the panel was Gary Snyder talking about his left-wing upbringing, with a grandfather who told him at age 7, “Boy! Read Marx!” This is the one content motif I want to incorporate into this: think about literature that touched you in your youth, perhaps which got you started on poetry to begin with. (There was another panel where Sharon Olds and Marilyn Hacker reminisced at length about Adrienne Rich and her impact, both on them and on other poets.) It could be an individual book, one author, or one genre of work. But then, you need to decide how that work will appear in your piece. Will it be symbolic of something greater, or a MacGuffin that just gives verisimilitude to the larger point/setting of your poem? Maybe what matters isn’t the literature at all, but the person who passed it along; or maybe you have something you want to pass along. In light of all these poetry things I’ve been attending, I keep thinking about the idea of text moving and being passed along from person to person, like a favorite sweater. If the process set-up pieces of the prompt don’t do it for you, try that.

Finally, for those of you craving some experimentation with form, there were some wonderful thoughts about short poetry at the mid-day panel. Each of the three poets had wonderful metaphors. Toi Derricotte talked about deciding whether short poems were “bowling balls or pastries”: that is, is it a short poem that is far heavier than it looks, or is it one that slowly evaporates on the tongue? Carl Phillips spoke about “camerawork” and collecting a series of snapshots to create the same layered effect, while Jane Hirshfield’s was probably my favorite. I’m paraphrasing: short poems are the pebbles, and we are the lakes they are thrown in; they can only create ripples as large as we are, but those ripples can be as large as the rings of Saturn. (She said it better.) She also spoke about a short poem’s “detonative power”. How you want to go about doing that is your own affair, but if you have the courage to try a short form, remember the lessons from haiku and similar traditions that have made an art out of brevity: try to hold two things in your mind together that seem to repel each other, and from that tension, create space. You may wish to do the traditional poetic exercise of trimming the fat: Jane said she once had a 36-line poem she was proud of, that when she went back to revise it, she ended up cutting out 35. Tighten up your piece(s) as much as you can without losing the particular feeling.

So there are the four pieces. You are welcome to use as many of them as you wish in as many poems as you wish, but I say try to go four for four in the coming days, weeks, etc. And as always, do come back and drop your offerings in the bucket!

Reverie Thirty-Seven: more charm bracelets

I forgot to share some pretty sweet news: the very talented Swoon Bildos, as you may recall, did a video for my poem “Odds and Ends” some time ago. This was submitted to the Visible Verse festival, and I asked people to vote for his work a while back; well, the video (along with two others of his) have made it to the finals, and will be screened on October 13th! It’s also the last one of the evening, which I find unaccountably cool: I hope that the words and images will stick with the audience as the final moment. In honor of that poem’s subject matter…

This week: “more charm bracelets

I’m recycling an old prompt because it was one of my favorites out of the ones I’ve been tossing up here all year. If you’d like, you can check out the original from May to see what the original conception was. Again, there are two foci here: the idea of loading short phrases with meaning (to avoid the unnecessary encumbrance of prepositions, articles, adverbs, interjections, whatever), and the notion of stringing these gaudy poemlets together into something fancy. We discussed haiku vs. short poems a few weeks ago, and this is the latter. We’ll begin in the same way as last time, with a tray of charms to pick from; and again, I suggest that you try to get seven of them that tickle your fancy, with the “freebie” to invent your own an option as well. I’ve tried to leave them open-ended and interpretable, so that people can go in different directions with the concepts, but the idea is that there will be some elements shared between different people’s works if they pick the same charms. We’ll see how that goes:

consolation prize borrowing one hour ago misplaced things where were you when…?
whispers creating music overcoming difficulties the next steps the elements of a day
a place you haven’t been thoughts at the wrong time the sense of smell refusal many voices at once
marriage of convenience awestruck small sacrifices for the one with everything (invent your own)

Go nuts!

So again, like last time, we are going to jazz these up a bit. Because although each theme can become pretty potent in itself and spin out entire epics, we are keeping the poemlets small, maybe five lines maximum. That means we need to constrain them a bit; the advantage of a small motif is that in addition to circumscribing the theme, it adds a bit of filigree to the charm. And, as I mentioned in the earlier prompt, keeping the same order will add another layer of connection with other poets doing the same exercise. You can arrange the themes in any order you choose, but try to use these specific elements in this order:

first poemlet: associate, in some way, a flower with a musical instrument
second poemlet: do not use any words with more than one syllable
third poemlet: mention two places (countries, cities, etc.) that start with the same letter; perhaps you want to compare/contrast?
fourth poemlet: pair a body part with a verb that is not the one usually associated with it (so have a heart that discusses rather than beats, a hand that thinks rather than holds)
fifth poemlet: describe at least two articles of clothing that you’re wearing*
sixth poemletinclude the words “never”, “fate”, and “structure”
seventh poemlet: do something spectacular!

* I’m sure there are at least a few underwear/nude poets out there in the blogosphere. If it’s from the comfort of your own home, then it’s no one’s business; but for the purposes of this exercise, maybe just fake it?

Now you can pair the themes from the table above with the guidelines of what to include. Between those parts of the exercise and the required brevity, you have a pretty good shape for each of the poemlets at this point. I want to emphasize that the point is not to constrain yourself; or it is, but only for the end of finding the richest individual words, the most necessary bits of grammar, and the economy of metaphor. Also, I think the guidelines for each poemlet are a bit more strict this time around; I have confidence that you’ll be able to take it! I’ll toss an example on here. Let’s say that for my first poemlet I chose “a place I haven’t been” for my theme. With the requirement to have a flower + a musical instrument, I might do something like this:

The violin’s tremolo shapes
a rose garden out of thin air.
I hope it reverberates over the sea,
to Italy, catches some lover’s ear
and echoes his melody back here to me.

Play around with sounds, rhymes, and alliteration a little bit, until you have something that sounds right. I used rather more “filler words” than I intended to originally, for a specific reason: after writing the first line, I had a very strong notion of the meter/rhyme that I wanted to do for this. The first line goes something like short-LONG-short-short-LONG-short-short-LONG. It’s kind of dactylic or anapest, I suppose, and I tried to carry the same kind of rhythm through the poemlet, adding another foot in lines three and five. On top of that, there are rhymes in the longer lines, and near-rhymes in lines two and four. Rather more formal than I intended, but sometimes you surprise yourself and have to roll with it.

So what about stringing it all together? Well, you can use that meter or those rhymes in the other poemlets, though you don’t have to go all out: I might just do an opening line with the exact same rhythm in each of the seven, and let the lines do what they will for the rest. You could also pick one of the words and keep recycling it, like “thin” or “ear”. (Note that you’ll have to pick a monosyllabic one to satisfy poemlet two’s requirement.) Or you could see what you haven’t included — in this one, I notice I didn’t use the vowel “u” a single time — and hold with that omission throughout the chain of poems. (Although, I couldn’t keep mine up, because poemlet six asks you to use the word “strucutre”.) Look for different things that work. The twofold benefit is that you will form connections between your own mini pieces, while the shared themes and motifs will form connections with other poets doing the same exercise. Pretty cool, n’est-ce pas?

These can be seven stanzas of the same poem, or seven different, unique bits, that happen to share some characteristics: it’s really up to you how you want to treat them. But I encourage you to try it out, and come back to share your results so we can all see how everyone’s work reflects with each other. Swoon’s video has got me in the spirit of collaboration as well as the spirit of exploring the value of minutiae, and I hope that this stirs up some food for thought (or, uh, whatever you do to food for thought; cook? microwave?) that will get you in the same zone. Looking forward to seeing what you have to offer…!

Reverie Thirty-Four: a sensation of space

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 robinAries, 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:

Peonies blooming
from a bleached skull in the yard
turn its eyes purple
.

…and this:

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!