Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some Haiku by Mary Kinzie

Some Haiku by Mary Kinzie

In the early 20th century free verse made its declarations and strove to change the direction of poetry. To a significant extent free verse poets succeeded. But there were always the hold-outs, poets like Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others.

In the late 80’s, and into the 90’s, there was a counter-movement, young poets who referred to themselves as the “New Formalists”. It was always an amorphous movement; that is to say there was no official organization or association which spoke for the group. Rather, the New Formalists were young poets who shared an interest in formal poetry and sought to distance themselves from free verse. The New Formalists have, to some degree, largely succeeded in opening enough space in academia so that one is not now automatically stigmatized for taking a formal approach to poetry today; though there are exceptions.

One of the results of the New Formalists was an anthology called “A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women.” All of the poets are women writing in formal verse styles such as the Sonnet, Villanelle, Quatrains, etc. Two of the poets in the collection offer some of their Haiku. I’m going to focus in this post on the Haiku of Mary Kinzie (the other poet is Sonia Sanchez).

Mary Kinzie has published five books of poetry as well as a number of critical works on poetry including “The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose” and more recently “A Poet’s Guide to Poetry”. She has taught at Northwestern University since 1975. I first became acquainted with her views upon reading her “Guide”. It is the only general guide to poetry that I have found that has a section on syllabic verse that is more than just a passing paragraph or two, so I was intrigued.

Kinzie writes of her approach to Haiku, “I am conscious of trying to make certain forms do what they may not have been designed to. In each of the two suites of haiku, for example, I attempt to make eight closed haiku tell a story in metaphor (see ‘Canicula’) . . .” (A Formal Feeling Comes, page 123). This grouping of Haiku into sequences seems to be a common approach to Haiku among contemporary poets attracted to syllabic Haiku. As examples, see my review of Johnny D’s “Poems One” and Yeshaya Rotbard’s “The Calligraphy of Clouds” for two recent examples of poets who consciously group their Haiku to enhance their meaning.

At first this may seem to be trying to make Haiku “do what they may not have been designed to do.” But I’m not so sure. Many of the classic Haiku of Basho, for example, are embedded in his Journals. When they are presented to us as isolated poems they sometimes take on different meanings and emphases; that is one reason why I appreciate the effort Jane Reichhold went to in often translating the lede, the few lines before the actual Haiku appears. In other translations of Basho’s Haiku the lede is not presented and the larger context is, therefore, left out. It seems to me that the interest in Haiku sequences, in linking Haiku together, can be understood as closer to the original way that Haiku were used in Basho’s Journals.

If one thinks about it, Haiku are usually presented in groups. The traditional way of presenting Haiku in seasonal groupings is a standard example; though here we would usually have a succession of different poets grouped together by an editor. Still, it is actually rare that someone reads a single Haiku and leaves it at that.

One of the advantages of grouping Haiku together in a series is that the author can adhere to the traditional seasonal requirement in one of the Haiku in the series without feeling the pressure to have a seasonal reference in every Haiku in the sequence. I first noticed this in Johnny D’s long sequence; that there will be a Haiku with a seasonal reference and then this is followed by non-seasonal Haiku. In a sequence of Haiku the author can integrate the seasonal and non-seasonal and still feel an adherence to the traditional focus of Haiku. Kinzie appears to use this same approach in her sequence.

Kinzie’s sequence, ‘Canicula’, which means ‘Dog Star’, another name for Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, is presented in “A Formal Feeling Comes”. The opening Haiku is:

Fireflies float noiseless
In the high, perturbing din
Of the late locust.

This is a classically constructed Haiku. It contains a classic seasonal element (fireflies), it is syllabic, but flexibly so with its opening line of six syllables, well within the variation found in the classic Haiku poets of Japan. The use of sound is noteworthy; line 1 points to a silence while in line 2 that silence is overcome and then in line 3 the reason for the ‘din’ is finally shown us with the last word. The visual element of the fireflies is strongly present as well. Notice also the use of slant rhyme with “noiseless” and “locust”; it’s not a strong rhyme, but the sonic effect is felt. All in all, I think it is a beautiful, classic, Haiku.

The second in the series is:

The orchard dying –
Trunks badged with disease lean down,
Tranquil in their thirst.

The link with the previous Haiku is clear; locusts will do that to trees. But the night scene has a certain visual tranquility. There is a counterpoint between the causal basis of what is being observed and the visual impression which makes this Haiku complex.

The sequence quickly moves on to more abstract, more epigram like Haiku:

Want, predation, sleep.
Often all of these at once
In nature; in dream.

If I were to read this in isolation I would probably think of it as too much of an epigram, an observation, to be a Haiku. On second reading I might notice the way Kinzie dissolves the barrier between the objective and the interior worlds with the last line “In nature; in dream”. When placed in the series, though, I had no problem accepting this as a Haiku, so context does make a difference.

I sense that many modern poets using syllabic Haiku have hit on this solution to the seasonal versus non-seasonal Haiku question. If non-seasonal Haiku are placed in a sequence with a strong seasonal component, or a recurring seasonal component in long sequences (as in Johnny D’s long sequence), that undermines the distinction between the two categories for the non-seasonal Haiku are read against the backdrop of the seasonal Haiku and vice versa.

There is a movement in Kinzie’s sequence from the concrete in the opening Haiku to the more abstract, thoughtful, epigram like Haiku towards the end. This is also a movement from the objective world of nature into our interior world of thought and feeling. Kinzie does this so smoothly that one hardly notices it.

I enjoyed reading this sequence and hope to find more Haiku by Kinzie as I explore her work.

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