Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Review of Poems One -- by Johnny D

Poems One:
A Collection of poems, Haiku, Senryu and Tanka written between 1996 and 2007
By Johnny D
Codex Terra Publishing, 2008
Printed by
ISBN: 9781847996732 -- $14.95

Johnny D is a British poet. This is his first published collection. For the purposes of this review I will focus only on the Haiku which, as it turns out, constitute the majority of poems in this collection. Johnny D writes, “The Haiku form originates in Japan, and on the simplest level is a poem in three parts, arranged in five, seven and five syllables – a seventeen syllable poem… I am told that Japanese lends itself to these very well, because of the way syllables can be re-used in a way which they cannot in English. I don’t know for certain, as I do not speak Japanese. What I write is a seventeen syllable English poem, arranged following Haiku structural rules where appropriate. I also chain them together sometimes to make a longer poem.

“Why do I do this? Mainly because I love the way this limitation forces me to think more about each and every word in the poem.” (from the ‘Introduction’, pages unnumbered)

That’s the best reason to write in the syllabic form of Haiku; because the limitation is understood as a means of focusing one’s thought. That is one of the great advantages of syllabic form; by accepting the limitations of the form the mind becomes focused. It resembles what happens to the mind in meditation when one focuses on the breath or another object of concentration. When one does this a certain kind of clarity emerges that poetry that does not have formal parameters often lacks.

Elsewhere in the Introduction, Johnny D talks about the other aspects of traditional Haiku. At times D applies them:

Moonlight on the grass
Cat walking in the shadows
Everything is grey

This is an enticing nightscape. The seasonal element is not explicit, but in other ways it is a traditional Haiku. Here is one that does have the seasonal element:

A pallid petal
Broken loose from a long stem
Stranded on cold gravel

This is a Fall Haiku, I think. The cold gravel combined with the pallid petal combines to narrow the seasonal possibilities in a classic Haiku manner.

Most of Johnny D’s Haiku are not seasonal. Most of the Haiku are introspective, thoughtful reflections on his life. Here’s an example:

Darkness and silence
Seep through my empty house
Missing my children

This is from a series D titles “Entropic Haiku”; the “pallid petal” Haiku was from the same series. Here is a more matter-of-fact Haiku:

The final brush stroke
Completes my work for the day
Sitting, drinking tea

An ordinary moment, yet a moment worthy of observation. This Haiku is from a long series consisting of 105 Haiku and Senryu, with a few rare Tanka also included, which he numbers with Roman Numerals. The Haiku, Senryu, and Tanka in this series are on the left-hand page while other poetry is on the right-hand page. Thus the Haiku series and his other poems are interwoven. I like this effect. It feels contrapuntal to me. The syllabically structured series offers a steady pulse, then one pauses to read a poem in another form with a different pulse, then one resumes the steady pulse of the 5-7-5 (since the few Tanka are also syllabic they also continue the basic pulse). I think it works well. It feels to me like going down a river and stopping now and then to look at something, getting back in the boat and continuing the journey.

The series is a diary. Most of the Haiku in this long series are observations from life and they resemble, I think, Shiki’s idea of ‘sketch from life’. These are also combined with reflective thoughts. There is a steady sense of impermanence in the series:

Grass grows and grass dies.
Under a grey sky I stand
Watching the grass die.

There was sun today
The garden warm and golden
For a few minutes

Johnny D has the ability to spotlight common moments that we have all had:

Sitting at my desk
Staring at some paperwork.
What nonsense it is.

A Haiku like this returns us to the much discussed question of when does a Haiku slip into an aphorism or a mere diary entry. But this series is explicitly a Diary in poetic form. Johnny D’s work, I think, broadens the field of Haiku, opening up Haiku to the possibility of an aphoristic Haiku, or Haiku as aphorism. One of the ways he accomplishes this is by placing his introspective and thoughtful observations in groups which contain other, more traditional, Haiku. When reading a Haiku like the one above in isolation, it might not seem to have a Haiku quality to it, or it might seem forced into a Haiku mold. But when placed in the series it seems to have a completely natural presence as part of a larger landscape of observations, introspections, and aphorisms. I think this is a well thought out solution to the seasonal Haiku verses non-seasonal Haiku discussions. I’ll demonstrate this by quoting the two Haiku that precede the one just quoted:

Water bestows life
On this small black rock. Once dust,
Now it shines brightly.

Tiny small snail
Stuck to the window. Why did
It go there anyway?

Sitting at my desk
Staring at some paperwork,
What nonsense it is.

The first Haiku is a philosophical observation. The second is a proper, seasonal, Haiku, reminiscent of Issa. The third is introspective, expressive of feelings. These three are part of the long, 105 Haiku sequence I mentioned earlier and I can’t fully convey the ebb and flow that Johnny D offers in this series. But I enjoyed the way he smoothly moves from objective observation of nature, to introspection, to philosophical comment. I find it remarkable that he is able to do this without any sense of awkwardness.

This tendency to gather Haiku into larger groupings dominates the collection. I found only a few stand-alone Haiku. Here is one of them:

Boxing Day Haiku

A rock in my bag,
Reminds me of many things.
It’s not just a rock

Boxing Day, December 2005

At times Johnny D displays a certain grittiness. His Haiku and poems are not refined in the way that the Haiku of Carruth and Salter are. I mean that he does not seem to consciously use poetic devices such as rhyme, pivot, or metaphor and his lineation is, for the most part, consistent with grammatical divisions. That’s not where his focus is. Johnny D’s poetic world is more plain, more focused on the rhythms of ordinary speech. He seems to like to focus on a small human act and draw meaning out of it:

Sleep is a blessing
Which helps to ease the pain
Of being alive.

My boy is angry.
He beats his fists on my knee,
Without knowing why.

Again, notice how the lineation is congruent with natural speech patterns. I think this is an important aspect of Johnny D’s Haiku. It is often uncritically stated that 5-7-5 is ‘natural’ for Japanese, but ‘unnatural’ for English. This is one of those views that has no basis in actual English, but gets repeated as a kind of urban legend among English language Haiku poets. The truth is that there are nursery rhymes, lyrics, and poems which are written in five syllable and seven syllable lines in English. In addition, ordinary speech in English often consists of five and seven syllable statements. There is nothing at all unnatural, or even awkward, about using five and seven syllable lines in English poetry. What is true is that traditional English poetry has not focused on exploiting these patterns of five and seven syllables. Johnny D’s Haiku demonstrate how natural such usage is and how rewarding such usage can be.

This is primarily, though not exclusively, a collection of urban Haiku, but Johnny D has an eye for the intersection of the urban and the natural so that the world of nature never completely disappears:

Ice bound roots and soil
Amid the broken pieces
Of an old green pot

I read this collection twice, then put it aside, then read it a third time. It is unusually reflective and revealing and what it reveals is the mind and heart of someone going through the ups and downs of life, but also having the capacity to reflect upon the meaning of those ups and downs. In the end, though, Johnny D makes observations that will help to carry us through our own days:

A fall of angels.
White blossom floats on the breeze,
And drops to the earth.

In closing here are two Haiku that are sequential, numbers XIX and XX, in the long, 105 Haiku sequence. I think they demonstrate well the scope of Johnny D’s understanding and the scope of his Haiku:


Fear is a killer.
Every time you are afraid,
You die a little.


In the smallest bud,
Life demonstrates its great strength.
It seems eternal.

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