Category Archives: Haiku

Thursday Haibun (Episode One)

basho-loc-01518vI learned this week that I missed NaHaiWriMo (Haiku a Day Writing Month), which was March. But, no matter, I write a haiku a day anyway, and I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) with extra vigor, writing haiku and prose in haibun. I also cheated by starting early—I’m on spring break right now and won’t be next week—and so I’m writing more than one haibun a day.

As promised, I’m posting them on Thursdays during April. These are today’s output. I’ve kept the numbers assigned to them.

xx.

Some rains keep the world dark all day, and some people appreciate steady half-light, steady pelting, steady captivity. I enjoy rain too if life waits. On days I’m happy to rest, I stand at my window, watch the lake form at a nearby intersection, and study people leaping it as if in a steeplechase or, like ants blocked by a finger, weave left and right seeking the proper place to ford the more-than-puddle before them. It’s just a puddle to me… or will be until the clock demands departure, need calls, or some summons insists. Then I learn all this time my study has been practical, teaching me how to enter the unwanted, to bear it instead of looking from afar.

sitting in a bath

I listen to the faucet’s

persistent tears

 xxi.

In fourth grade, when I returned from Christmas vacation, Molly’s desk sat empty. I wasn’t surprised because she missed so much school, and, when she was there, she skipped music and art and recess to fill worksheets she hadn’t seen yet. Molly’s skin was as near translucent as I could imagine, blue networks visible just beneath the surface—every visible surface—and her blonde hair grew thin like grass in poisoned soil. She didn’t look at me much, and we hardly ever spoke, but I knew her eyes even when I closed mine. They said surrender. Their pale and weary blue slid from the sky, too tired to stay aloft.

chalk dust

on the blackboard’s edges,

ghosts on the border

I was sitting in my desk as Mrs. Mitchell gathered Molly’s things—a few books, some supplies, but nothing that said Molly really, nothing like the eccentric mess under everyone else’s desktop. When Mrs. Mitchell told the class Molly died before New Year’s Eve, some people already knew and a few cried or fought tears. I must not have believed it. The whole day seemed temporary to me, every worksheet another Molly would have to do.

beyond curtains,

outside the window, you see

air stirring

 xxii.

 last night, a cheer rose

from many neighbors’ houses—

I don’t know why

In any alphabetical list I’m almost always the middle. I like to count how many precede and follow me, happy when it’s even.

xxiii.

On the first day of a Shakespeare class I asked the students why they were there. One of them answered, “Because he’s famous.” I’d heard that response before, of course, but never so baldly put.

My daughter was in kindergarten that year, and, on the drive home, I asked her, “Honey, do you know who Shakespeare is?”

“He wears pumpkin pants,” she said.

unbound,

the newspaper still holds

its curl

xxxiv.

When I can’t sleep, I look for morning’s signs—the first defined shadows, a car sweeping by, a word uttered on the sidewalk in front of our house. The alarm often comes first.

in skyscrapers

half a mile away, checkered lights

of company

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On Being An Aesthete

72-1I’ve never really liked aesthetic theory. I studied quite a bit as an MFA student years ago but haven’t continued. As interesting as it is to learn what writers and artists think “good” is, thinking about “good” can be distracting, an invisible, meddling hand.

Impatience also prevents me from learning. Theorists push me toward affirmation or argument whereas I’m improvisational, hoping for discovery and skeptical of restrictions. Artistic goals re-form like horizons as I walk, work. Sometimes, just the next word or mark appears. Sometimes rhythm lays down tracks to follow.

I fail often and hope to see failure rising up the next time so I can skirt it.

Orson Welles despised the necessity of being “with it,” for, he said, “an artist always has to be out of step with his time.” Mostly, I think he’s wrong—who would an artist be talking to if not to his or her contemporaries?—but I get his thinking about being out of step, that required estrangement. I wonder if anyone would read or listen or watch or look if all art verified the perceiver’s own limited experience. In that sense, maybe aesthetic theory could be helpful. It could shake your frame, throw perspective out of angle. Some artists seem to benefit from knowing what others do so they can do their own thing.

But I prefer finding out for myself, trying, trying, trying until some anchor holds.

For the last month or so, I’ve been writing haibun (I posted a sample recently) and have been thinking much more deliberately about what I’m doing. Composing in an established form means, on the most fundamental level, making your work recognizably fit. With haibun, that’s easy enough. The convention requires prose and haiku. If you look at the page and see a paragraph and a three-line poem—or any variation on that order and number of paragraphs and haiku—you’re looking at a haibun.

Form, however, is paradoxical. As limiting as any rule might appear, rules invariably require a higher order of resourcefulness. Dancing on one square meter of floor space would quickly become tiresome, but if you moved brilliantly, inventively, startlingly… your dance might be more impressive than one granted the whole stage.

Restrictions lead into subtle territory. With haibun, you ask how the prose and haiku interact, whether the haiku echoes, complements, or disturbs the prose. You ask which comes first, whether one supersedes the other in flash or substance, which might stand out of the way for the other, or what balance or imbalance creates the greatest dissonance or harmony. Looking at each element independently, you might experiment with purely evocative prose or purely metaphoric haiku. Or reverse that. Or even it out.

Most importantly, you do whatever you didn’t last time and see what happens. Robert Frost’s famous description of free verse—“tennis without a net”—disrespects barriers artists make, form created themselves, rules forged… and then pointedly violated. “Art,” Alfred North Whitehead said, “is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is the recognition of the pattern.” The pattern’s source, convention or invention, matters little. Something tells us we’re in familiar and unfamiliar territory, which is where we want to be.

I’m aware of the hypocrisy of beginning by rejecting aesthetic theory and then writing like an aesthete, but I’ll offer this defense—ultimately, you make any theory your own, never absorbing what you might test instead. Only then do you make making your own.

 

Note: My celebration of NaPoWriMo is to write a haibun for each day of April. I’ve cheated—I’m 16 ahead. But I intend to reach 30 no matter what, and, for April, I’ll be posting a haibun each Thursday in addition to my regular posts on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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Another Attempt

One of the nicest reviews of my book was in Haibun Today. I sent it there thinking it was a haibun, but the reviewer, who I trust entirely, said no. Since then, I’ve been reading more haibun both in Haibun Today and elsewhere.

I’ve learned haibun present minutely descriptive moments, scenes, or statements. According to Wikipedia, they may “occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space.” All haibun, however, need haiku that communicate, overtly or covertly, an essence of the account.

The four haibun below are new tries. I’m hoping to solicit my reviewer’s opinion on what I have and haven’t accomplished. I’ve included some of my art.

Clippingsedi.

Sometimes memories of crabbing return. The morning sun raised the scent of creosote from the ties of the railroad bridge, and I squatted, tugging—as slowly as I could—the package string. Either the loose skin of the chicken neck wavered like a ghost into view, or the broad green back of my prey materialized from dark. Everyone said they felt crabs chewing, but I guessed. Often, circular rainbows of fat surfaced when just meat arrived. Any hope, and I’d call my sister over with the net. She was swifter, decisive at the right instant. In the wide-bottom bucket nearby, the already captured edged along the walls, claws half-raised against their fellows.

from deep night,

lapping waves, echoes

of passing barges

glasspideredii.

A recent dream happened in many rooms, each weighted with complicated Persian rugs, ornate burgundy upholstery, blocky tables, and mahogany paneled walls. The lamps offered barely enough light to dislodge shadows. Each room, roughly the same, still seemed different, as if only this stage were suitable for this conversation. We moved from place to place, recalling what we never quite said.

sandalwood and smoke

she whispered another name

to call dawn

orchidsediii.

My anger comes out in hints, never visible enough to define. I like thinking it’s veiled by smiles.

a twist of wind

spinning and dropped, flattened,

wheels of dust

When people are mad, it feels like the moment just after someone shoves me. Their faces say distance, the stretch of a landscape moving away, but nothing happened. No one budged, though the room seems changed.

Once my mother spoke to me through a door she wouldn’t open for an apology. I heard half her words but understood I’d gone too far, said too much. Time would never settle our struggle entirely.

a blackbird chooses

now to cry—his brown notes

a song for dusk

lockworksediv.

shattered beer bottle,

afternoon sun, sparks of blindness

salting sight

When sleep eludes me, I think of it as madness I want to charm and trap. Odd but welcome associations of amber and shoes, or rust and old horses, or a gardenia blossom in a bowl and waning tides—any irrationality creeping closer—and I say, “Stay.” If I’m unlucky, sanity reasserts itself, another list unreeling or a new bulb of worry blinking to life. Around the room, points of reflection map depth and dimension. The heater breathes. On a good night, I may hear a voice as if it’s outside my mind and believe it. Then I know sleep summons. I let it. I close my eyes to join.

past midnight

buildings blend into sky,

piles of lost objects

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AKA Mr. Haiku

haiku-busonYou may not believe me, but sometimes my daily haiku seem the only important writing I do. They are short enough that 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 cinnamon or dark chocolate or wood smoke, 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 on 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.

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Standing in the Way

water-pipeBetween emails, marginal scrawl in books and on compositions, writing here and elsewhere, plus college recommendations demanding attention this fall, I’m producing a torrent of words. Sometimes I’m unsure if I’m the pipe or standing in front of it, meeting its relentless affront.

There’s no valve.

I like words and find I can understand and say little without them. Still I long sometimes for wordlessness, a vacation when I uncover an essay I’d meant to post and forgotten, when a poem surfaces pristine from the swamp of past work, or a letter appears from my sleep whole and otherworldly. Of course that never happens. Sentences demand assembly. They don’t present themselves. They’re summoned. They insist on being new.

People occasionally ask me if I’d like to make a living as a writer, and I think I would. But prose is so insistent, such a bossy presence, I worry I’d wallow in obligation and necessity. The life of a real writer is strange—what if words were everything, not just an urge or visitation but obsession, compulsion as deep as breathing? Perhaps it’s better to slum with words, better to vamp, better to blog.

The writing I like best is haiku. My attention to my subject is minute or distant or abstract and I can shape an aloof impression that’s not quite the thing but mimics its effect. The rest of writing means to clad its subject like polystyrene, hugging close, intending never to let go… though I want only to cast.

I like to let go. My best moments arrive when the narrowest light illuminates a subject. The rest of the time, I’m adjusting, adjusting, adjusting to stand something in the sun. Each movement suggests more manipulation, exploitation, intention. It’s work when it ought to be natural, as natural as speaking or being.

At its best, writing is revelation, the proper thing presenting itself at the proper time. I feel that state when I write haiku, as if I only uncovered what’d been buried. I might write “blank” to fill a syllable and the space instantly fills, as if the solution waited for worrying to pause. Some fate delays… and then is here.

Wanting to do well is hardly a help. When I’m writing something I know important, I stand at the doorway of a sentence or phrase or word for ten minutes. When the task is going right, only being receptive matters. If  the words shoot as from a fire hose, I accept them. They may know what I don’t. They intend to expose what I wouldn’t see without words.

I don’t know if I’ll ever understand “my process,” if “my process” exists at all. But understanding I’m part of what emerges helps me accept what appears.  The torrent has its own direction, its own compulsion, its own being. I’m in it but also watching, wondering at what I see.

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Rebuilding the House

SweptCircle.croptWorkers have been renovating a house across the alley from my classroom, and students sometimes stand at the window and lament the slow progress of the project. They say reconstruction has been going on for years, forever almost. If so, forever isn’t long, since the workers started six months ago, at the end of the last school year.

I’m not so good at placing events in time myself, but I jotted a haiku in my moleskin, dated 6/4/12:

workers like ants

study brick as if no one

had let them in

Haiku make odd labels for time, recording more about the sensations of particular days than events. As above, you can reconstitute the occurrences, but you return to what you made of them, not what they were. And big things—births and deaths and special days—appear as through a keyhole, the rest imagined from finite observations and feelings.

Yet haiku don’t seem false to me but somehow essential, closer to exact moments than anything I write. In a college philosophy text, I read Immanuel Kant led a severely constrained life. He didn’t travel except to take daily walks neighbors set their clocks to. Most of the time, he watched the world from a single window and must have mused over scenes branded onto his cortex. I picture him pausing pen in hand, thoughts adhering to a bird passing or a gust tugging the last leaf from a tree. I picture him forging universal sense from just that.

Haiku are made. Constructed from words, they aren’t the scenes they describe and aren’t the impulse behind their creation. At the same time, they carry odd truth, if only in how they’re made and how their making reflects the maker. Kant said, “The hand is the window to the mind,” suggesting our reconstruction of the world communicates our peculiar perspective and vision. There must be habits, patterns, and models behind our inventions. That we can’t see them clearly ourselves means they may be more true than anything we say about ourselves.

One of my colleagues looked at one of my doodles after a faculty meeting and said, “It’s like seeing your brain turned inside out.” Nothing on the page represented anything visible in the room, but she was right, everything I felt appeared in the organization of its marks. Haiku sometimes seem like that, less about a dance than about movement itself.

Three weeks ago, when I returned to Haiku Streak, a daily haiku blog I’d abandoned in January 2011, I felt as though I were walking into a house of still air. Everything collected was familiar. Some bore tags attaching them to specific days and realizations, but mostly they spoke of a collector who would gather these word objects. I decided to begin building haiku again and now I’m back at it, looking for keyholes, cutting the world into rectangles of single windows.

Across the alley, workers continue hammering wooden frames and draping them in insulating film. The bricks will come soon and the project will be finished. But it won’t really be finished, it will smolder in what they’ve built, their minds made visible.

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The Haiku Life

Octavio Paz, 1914 – 1998

Two years ago, after writing a haiku a day for nearly five years, I stopped. A funny thing happens when you fulfill the same form day after day after day. It becomes abstract and alien, artificial, nearly ceremonial. I couldn’t find room for innovation in haiku and feared I’d seen today’s syllables before, that I was circling the same shadowy woods as last month, last week, yesterday.

Originally I wrote haiku to practice. The economy was good for me, and my haiku never quite spoke aloud. Their whispered observations, I hoped, might teach me to let meaning be and allow echoes to speak for the original voice. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “The practice of haiku was and is an education in concentration.” But soon I discovered it was not the sort of education I expected.

Writing a haiku is ultimately not exercise, not about using words sparingly and still “getting everything down.” In haiku, the writer discovers how much a reader needs to know and how much should be said, how often incompletion is whole enough. Writing necessarily involves omission. Octavio Paz says that, to Japanese artists, “Imperfection is the acme of achievement” and then adds quickly that “it is not really imperfect: it is the voluntary act of leaving unfinished.” In ellipsis, the haiku writer finds an instant balance between the comfort of knowing and the vitality of doubt. Paz says haiku rely on the equilibrium between death and life, “vivacity and mortality.” I’m sure I never thought so grandly when I composed my daily haiku at four a.m. before gym and work. Writing a haiku was a morning constitutional, and any tranquility I found arose from resignation, acceptance of imperfection, being willing to tell a story that couldn’t be told whole.

Sometimes I tried to prime the pump by reading the work of writers I admired, especially Matsuo Basho, whose hokku evoke a universe in the most minute reflections. Octavio Paz describes Basho’s work as having “An alert serenity that unburdens us.” It reproduces a rare and profound clarity. Readers are “unburdened” because Basho releases feelings and thoughts never quite said. In itself, haiku is simple. What we hear are its reverberations.

One of the most prominent values of haiku is “kokoro,” which is translated as “heart” but may be closer to what we mean by “spirit,” a blending of emotional and intellectual. It’s not a fusion, because the two different responses to the world are never really fused; but you shift between what the heart feels and the mind knows… sometimes so rapidly you couldn’t say which is in control now.

Writing haiku, I often thought of technical issues—how to compress a picture or idea into finite syllables, what word order would make the picture “legible,” where I might break lines or what image should end the poem. Yet the technical never overcame the image at the center, something precious, a compelling sense of an image seen but never known definitively.

All of these meditations on haiku might lead you to believe I miss writing them. I suppose I do, but not at all the production of haiku—I’m sure I don’t need to compose another—so much as the state of mind. I liked my haiku self. I could present subjective reality objectively and believe the commonplace extraordinary. I could depend on overtone and resonance.

Nature and how we perceive nature are bound. In describing his response to Basho, Paz said, “Our smile is one of understanding and—let us not shrink from the word—pity. Not Christian pity but that feeling of universal sympathy with everything that exists.”

I still use my fingers to count syllables as I compose the haiku sonnets I post on my other blog, derelict satellite, but that is not quite the same as living in a haiku world, one that demands assurance more than scrutiny and compassion more than attention.

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