Monday, July 5, 2010

Some Haiku by Mary Jo Salter

Some Haiku by Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter is a well-known, living American Poet. She was born in 1954, studied under the famous poet Elizabeth Bishop, and has been an editor for The Atlantic and The New Republic. From 1995 to 2007 she was Vice President of the Poetry Society of America.

Salter is well known for her interest in formal poetry and has, at times, written in the Japanese forms of Haiku and Tanka. I’m going to focus on the Haiku that appear in her collection “Open Shutters” published in 2003, paperback edition 2005, Alfred Knopf Publisher.

Because of Salter’s strong interest in formalism, her Haiku are syllabic. Salter was influenced in her approach to syllabics by Marianne Moore, a poet of critical importance in exploring the possibilities of syllabic verse in English. Moore’s approach to syllabics was not to take pre-existing syllabic structures, such as foreign imports like Tanka and Haiku, nor to use native syllabic forms such as Cinquain. Moore also avoided the approach of Elizabeth Daryush who developed a syllabic approach to the Sonnet; in the hands of Daryush the focus on poetic feet was dropped; instead Daryush focused solely on syllable count.

Moore’s approach was to create complex syllabic counts that usually repeated themselves through the poem several times. They are unusual in that the line counts often vary from very short counts to long counts in rapid succession. Here is what Salter has to say about Moore in an interview:

NL: You often write in form, and Marianne Moore is known for her formal syllabics, if I am right.
SALTER: That's right. Syllabics being a form where you are only counting syllables and not counting beats. Her stanza forms were unusual in their shape because they would often vary from very short to very long lines. Interestingly, near the end of her life, she claimed she wasn't really writing in syllabics, or wasn't thinking that way. She was about 80 when she said that. There's no doubt in the world that she was writing in syllabics, but I think she objected to being pigeonholed as a person who was preoccupied with counting syllables. What it really was about for her was making shapes on the page that were suitable for the subject matter. Finally, despite the fact that she was making beautiful shapes on the page, she really wanted us to hear poetry.
NL: If one reads books on poetic form, when you get to the little section on syllabics, the authors always mention Marianne Moore, so her attempt to suppress that part of her style didn't work; she's pigeonholed, anyway, I suppose.
SALTER: Well, you know, poets often are. In a way, it's one of the more legitimate pigeonholes. Before her, there was no one who so systematically used syllabics in English. Many poets had used them occasionally, especially those who were influenced, for example, by Japanese poetry that has, as you know, haiku, tanka, all of that. It was a way, I think, for her of acquiring or holding onto a more deliberately prosaic voice, a voice that sounded like a person talking to another person. If you are concerned enough with shaping a stanza, but you're not preoccupied with the stresses, you're going to sound a little more like people talking.

(The complete interview can be found here: )

In spite of this interest in Moore’s approach, Salter herself seems to have found pre-set forms congenial for her own poetic expression. In the collection “Open Shutters” Salter offers examples of both Haiku and Tanka. Her approach, like Hayden Carruth, is syllabic. That is to say Salter’s Haiku use the 5-7-5 syllable count as the starting point for Haiku composition.

Beyond that, though, Salter does not seem to have adopted other markers of traditional Haiku. The seasonal element, for example, is not strong in the Haiku found in “Open Shutters.” Sometimes the seasonal element appears:

A page of haiku:
among the caught fireflies, one
lights the whole bottle

“Fireflies” is a classic seasonal word and since fireflies only appear at certain times of the year, we can readily enter into the seasonal feeling of the Haiku. I think that this Haiku uses an implied metaphor, or an analogy, to link the opening line with the closing two lines. Hayden Carruth’s use of metaphor was explicit, but Salter’s approach is more indirect. What I sense here is the feeling one has when reading Haiku, particularly if it is a long collection, that one Haiku on the page “lights up”. The Haiku are “caught” on a page the way fireflies are caught in a bottle. The two parts of the Haiku mutually illuminate and reinforce each other. This is a technique I call “resonance”; in some respects resonance isn’t really a metaphor because each image can stand by itself. Some Haiku and Tanka poets refer to this kind of approach as ‘juxtaposition’. Each image, when placed together, have certain common features, which is like a metaphor, but the point isn’t stated explicitly. I normally don’t like Haiku about Haiku, but I think this one speaks to why Haiku continue to be attractive to so many people, an experience Salter clearly has had.

Most of Salter’s Haiku do not have a seasonal element. Often they are emotionally strong but understated:

She’s alone in bed.
In an earlier time zone
he dines a lover.

As I read this I had the sense of seeing this as both summing up a relationship that either is, or soon will be, falling apart, and a feeling that this is a snapshot from the past which explains what went wrong. This is an excellent example of what some writers of Japanese forms refer to as “dreaming room”. By “dreaming room” is meant that the offered image leaves the reader room to expand the meaning in multiple directions. The feeling of these kinds of poems resembles catching just a fragment of a conversation that one finds intriguing, but one never learns the lead-in or how it concluded.

Notice also Salter’s subtle use of the sense of time. In line 1 we read that she is in bed. In line 2 Salter refers to ‘an earlier time zone’. Does that mean that the ‘she’ of line 1 has retired early? If so why? This adds to the dreaming room sense of the Haiku.

Like Carruth, Salter isn’t shy about using poetic technique to enhance a Haiku and she sometimes uses rhyme to good effect:

Ice cubes in a glass:
outside, the chilling shake of
rattlesnake through grass.

The Haiku is seasonal; clearly summer. Lines 1 and 2 are united by the reader thinking that the “chilling shake” refers to the ice cubes. It is a nice turn, and surprise, when Salter reveals that the “chilling shake” actually refers to a rattlesnake. This is from a three-Haiku sequence titled “Florida Fauna”, the title giving us location information.

Lines 1 and 3 are pulled together by the rhyme, making the Haiku tighter and more unified. Line 2 is a kind of pivot; at first we think it applies to ice cubes, but then it pivots and is applied to the rattlesnake. This kind of pivot for Line 2 in a Haiku (and at various places in a Tanka) is a well-known technique in Japanese poetry and adds complexity to the texture of a Haiku.

This pivot technique is also used in the first Haiku I quoted. Notice how the Haiku cold be broken down into two parts:

She’s alone in bed.
In an earlier time zone


In an earlier time zone
he dines a lover.

Line two could be attached to either line 1 or line 3.

This sense of pivot, though, is muted by Salter’s use of punctuation. The full stop period at the end of line 1 isolates that line and reduces the tendency for the reader to think that line 2 might be a part of the thought of line 1. The same is true of “Ice cubes in a glass:” which ends with a colon, again this mutes the sense of line 2 as a pivot. My sense is that Salter is consciously using the pivot technique, but also wants to communicate to the reader her own sense of how to take in the Haiku.

Like Carruth, Salter is not shy about using punctuation. Though her punctuation is not as dense as Carruth’s, all her Haiku are punctuated; for example all her Haiku end with a period. As I mentioned in my post about Carruth, there is a tendency today among American Haiku poets to eschew punctuation altogether. Some Haiku poets I’ve talked to about this argue that lineation by itself is sufficiently expressive to communicate to the reader. Though I understand what they mean, I think the Haiku of Salter and Carruth are good examples of how to use punctuation expressively and how punctuation can be a resource for the English language Haiku poets. Again, as in Carruth, I sense the influence of Emily Dickinson on Salter’s use of punctuation. In Salter’s case I suspect conscious emulation because she has often commented on her great admiration for Dickinson.

In the Haiku I’ve quoted Salter’s lineation tends to break some lines at unusual, non-grammatical points. But here is an example of a Haiku where the lineation and the grammatical structure are congruent:

Pebbles on the beach:
the waves, without swallowing,
deliver a speech.

Again there is the use of metaphor and the use of end-rhyme to satisfying effect. Salter’s use of a variety of approaches to lineation show a poet who has a really sure command of how to end a line effectively.

In closing I’d like to highlight how Salter will often turn the reader’s expectations around:

Dark in the cabin.
No lamp but the blue moon of
the computer screen.

The reader is setup for a standard nature Haiku with the moon as the central image. It is night, the lights are off, and line 2 introduces the idea of a blue moon. “Blue Moon”, of course, is the name given for a month with two full moons; the “blue moon” is the second full moon in a month, hence the common expression “once in a blue moon”. Line 3 all of a sudden takes us in a different direction by pointing to the light of the computer screen as the source of the light. All of a sudden the reader discovers that “blue moon” is a metaphor, as is “lamp”. This is skillfully done and I admire the way this Haiku builds on the reader’s expectation of a scene from nature, and then undermines that in the concluding line. I think it is very effective.

I look forward to reading more Haiku from Salter.


Dan Gurney said...

These are masterful haiku poems. I love especially the rattlesnake haiku. Thank you for sharing this about Salter.

Jim714 said...

You're welcome, Dan. I like Salter's poetry in general. I find it crisp and articulate. Unlike Carruth she's not a prolific poet; there seems to be a stretch between each of her books. My hope is that she will continue with some Haiku and Tanka.