The reading Friday at Blind Willow Bookshop, a lovely used bookstore specializing in literature and unusual or rare books, combined the voices and perspectives of three poets who are exploring Japanese poetic forms.
Here’s a summation of my own remarks, though Marilyn Hazelton and Ann Burke had much to share. I’m not including the poems we read, either–Ann Burke’s haiga-like tanka poems coupled with art work or photos were lovely, though, and I wish I had files to post. Marilyn included work from the tanka journal she edits, red lights.
I learned about the haiku form long ago, but I can’t remember exactly when. I think it may have been during my junior high school years, though I certainly didn’t learn it in school—there was no poetry taught at my schools. I was exposed to poetry through other means: church, nursery rhymes, my own reading, relatives, song lyrics.
Initially I learned the syllabic approach, 5-7-5 syllables in English. That is the way the form was taught in the USA the 1970s. And it was clear to me early on that haiku is visual or physically-based; the imagery is sensual and real—in other words, what is in the world is in haiku, and vice versa. So it is not imaginative in the sense of fiction or dream. It engages the imagination in other ways, which means the poet has to corral quite a bit of compressed and specific imagination into a few words. The intense compression of these brief forms requires the poet to work hard at expression through the tightest possible means in language without employing what we in the Western traditions term symbolism. Classic Chinese poems often used symbolism, but Japanese poems relied more on allusions of several types (historical, poetic, seasonal). We tend to term these “symbols” (ie, cherry blossom equals spring romance) but that is not actually an accurate way to define the way concrete imagery is used in Japanese poems.
Later, after more study, I learned some details and contexts for the seasonal allusion, the references to previous poets or poems, the cutting word, the reasons haiku in English may need to be briefer than 17 syllables for maximum effect; and I found out about related forms of Japanese poetry such as haibun, renga, tanka. I met Marilyn Hazelton and learned through her, as she studied and taught the forms, in English, to other aspiring writers. Japanese poetry forms may seem to follow arbitrary rules, but that is no more true than asserting that western sonnet forms follow arbitrary rules.
My study of this poetry brought me a better understanding of the Imagist poets of the early 20th century in the sense of how they were influenced by, and how they misinterpreted, the haiku poem, crafting in the process some critically important poems for western readers. Poetry is a marvelously flexible art, elastic and willing to morph as its authors are willing to experiment. I think of much of my work as based in a ‘haiku moment’ for inspiration or image.
I will be the first to assert that haiku is not my métier, nor is tanka form. My poetry—and I’ve written a great deal of it—is generally more Western in style and tone, no surprise given my cultural and educational background. Yet haiku appealed to me immediately because, I think, of my interest in visual art and in the natural world.
My attraction to haiku is therefore image-based. My interest in Japanese poetry also increased after I studied Zen. The two are inter-related, also no surprise. In my notebooks, and on random pieces of paper I use to jot down ideas for poems, nine times out of ten the phrases I want to capture are physical images. Later, I may try to craft these jottings into a haiku. More often, they get employed as lines in other types of poems.
Sometimes, a poem I attempt to write as haiku becomes a tanka…or a longer poem in some other form (free verse, blank verse, etc.); in any case, the sensual first impression is usually what I first observe and note. My own interest in nature and my physical environment make haiku-type poetry sort of an inclination. So the inspirations and influences for me include Zen, visual art, physical or concrete imagery, nature and season, brief observation, compressed or concise language use, and a quality of universality in the poem.
For writers who have done Westerners the service of exploring, interpreting, and explicating haiku and the Zen practice that leads to the haiku moment, I suggest Jane Hirshfield, Robert Aitken, William Higginson, Penny Harter, Hasegawa Kai, Earl Miner, Richard Wright, Gary Snyder.