years ago when the moon was full I thought of much to wish for tonight the moon fulfills me
years ago when the moon was full I thought of much to wish for tonight the moon fulfills me
A friend has been sending me the occasional haiku she’s written; she says that the haiku form has kept her busy and creative during a time when her attention feels divided. I am reminded that, in the past, composing haiku has been a useful practice for me, as well–a method of retaining images and moments that might later prove useful in other types of poems..
My colleagues Dave Bonta, Michael Czarnecki, and Marilyn Hazelton, among others, find in haiku and tanka a wide range of possibilities for expression–and compression. Though I suppose that is true for any poetic form or strategy.
I just want to get writing again.
This morning I made some attempts at writing again. Writing poetry, I mean–different from my other acts of writing. Writing against frustration, grief, and absence and pain…obstacles, for me, to composition.
If I were a fiercer poet, a fiercer person, I might manage to write in media res, the midst of the goings-on; I might accomplish poems through my anger or sorrow. Instead, I have to wait it out, mull, observe, speculate. It’s just my natural modus operandi.
Maybe I’m lazy, or afraid.
No luck with haiku. I wrote a couple of mediocre tanka that might be salvageable once I work on them a bit.
I wrote this–no form, just words. Putting it out there for now, with an illustration. Not exactly haiga, not nearly luminous or complete.
Hey, Muse. This is all I got.
~ Introvert Long-necked gourd tangled in its own vine twists and curls. There is something fantastic in its nature, imprinted in seed, patterned and tendriled-- an urge to turn and flourish hidden though it is beneath broad leaves.
These berry-laden vines are called oriental bittersweet–aptly named for this aggressive plant. Sweet because indeed, they are beautiful; but their introduction to the Americas has nearly wiped out American bittersweet and threatens trees because the vines are adept girdlers. They squeeze trunks as trees grow, sometimes killing the tree.
I should remove them from my hedgerows, but I haven’t the energy. Look at this link for the challenges involved. My lack of intervention probably falls under the category of deferred maintenance, and has led to a sense of plaintiveness, perhaps, and to these drafts of tanka poems on this late November day.
the leafless hedgerow
studded with red berries
each wintry morning
my walk’s accompanied
how dull gold husks
open to red fruit
how such slender vines
grow to strangle trees
an old cliché
take the bitter with the sweet
older now myself
I try balancing
The second day of my daily poem challenge won’t give me much time to compose. A tanka poem may be in order.
These 5-line poems pose considerable constraints on the writer and, in my experience trying to write them, require frequent revision to get the moment vivid enough. So this one will be a rough draft. An experienced tanka poet may be able to compose tanka rapidly; my attempts usually need eight or ten revisions…well, here goes.
Past midnight, silence
4 am, flying squirrels chirp–
maple buds redden at dawn
how sleep eludes
those who mourn
Taking a breather. Pausing along the path.
This poem is thanks to Michael McClintock.
Contemporary poetry favors compression–perhaps all poetry employs that approach, condensing out of prose whatever has most vitality in terms of imagery, metaphor, emotion. Symbols, metaphors, actions, neologisms, wordplay, rhythm, whatever gets us to the kernel of the poem. My cultural inspiration began among biblical and metaphysical poems, however, and popular song lyrics (the lyrical narrative). Only later did I stumble upon the influences of Eastern poetic strategies, haiku and tanka, the Imagists, and the vividly imposing demand that writers of all kind, but especially poets, should avoid the “to be” verbs.
How would philosophy–or Hamlet–manage without to be? How shall a writer whose work often deals with the quandaries and paradoxes of being (namely: life, death) compose avoiding those verbs, verbs of existence? Existence has active components to it, to my way of thinking; and some of us need the to-be verbs, with all their various conjugations, to express the more inexpressible activity of being-ness.
During my long years of writing and of having my writing critiqued, I’ve been advised more than once to watch my verbs. I recognize the stylistic impulse and agree that too much to be, too much is, was, or has been, can slow or decompress a poem.
Sometimes, exactly what the poet intends to do.
Other times, exactly what the colloquially convincing narrator or character would say.
A time and a place for every verb.
“There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Watson, trans.)
I wrote this post not as an encomium for the to-be verbs but as a suggestion that they exist for good reason and possess action in their compressed sayability, that to be does not sidestep to mean. I defend “is” and its siblings. The important thing? Use them well.
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.
To anyone living in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, a reminder about my two upcoming readings–one this Friday (April 20, free, at Blind Willow Bookshop) and one on Sunday the 29th. The event on the 29th is a fundraiser for the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, so there is a $10 fee.
Details are on my Events page.
This weekend, after the bookshop event, I plan to post a recap here. Meanwhile, enjoy the blossoms of springtime.